Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Child's Play


CHILDREN have to be tough these days to survive the often ham-fisted efforts of their parents to raise them.

I offer as proof the following evidence.

Down in Orange County, home to Goofy, among others, fears of childhood obesity have led schools to discourage and sometimes even ban birthday cupcakes, according to published reports.

"They can bring carrots," said Laura Ott, assistant to the superintendent of Orange County's Saddleback Valley Unified School District. "A birthday doesn't have to be associated with food."

Meanwhile, officials at schools across the county have banned kids from playing tag, touch football and any other unsupervised chase game during recess for fear they'll get hurt and hold the school liable.

Recess is "a time when accidents can happen," said one principal, who approved the ban.

Many school administrators have also taken aim at dodgeball, saying it is exclusionary and dangerous.

So if I read this right, at a time when teachers and parents have declared a holy war against junk food in the name of combating childhood obesity, we are our telling our kids to take a seat because they might scrape a knee.

Talk about a mixed message.

In a world gone mad, banning birthday cupcakes is low on my list of things to do. Mankind has celebrated life's little milestones with special food since the dawn of time. And while I believe we should steer kids away from a diet of Krispy Kremes, I also favor teaching moderation over culinary fascism.

My hat's off to the Texas Legislature which passed the so-called Safe Cupcake amendment, according to the Los Angeles Times, which guarantees parents' right to deliver unhealthful treats to the classroom - such as sweetheart candies on Valentine's Day and candy corn on Halloween.

Rep. Jim Dunnam sponsored the legislation after a school in his district booted out a father bringing birthday pizzas to his child's class.

"There's a lot of reasons our kids are getting fat," said Dunnam, a Democrat from Waco. "Cupcakes aren't one of them."

Besides, wouldn't a kid burn off the calories in a cupcake during a typical recess? Sure, if he or she was allowed to play.

Right here in Santa Monica, Franklin Elementary school banned tag because, as principal Pat Samarge says, "Little kids were coming in and saying, `I don't like it.' Children weren't feeling good about it."

Well, when I was a kid, I wasn't always "feeling good" about tests, cafeteria food and dancing with girls (a stigma I learned to overcome). I don't recall anyone suggesting we ban those activities to soothe my self-esteem. Dealing with it was part of growing up.

Of course, somebody could get hurt. But how badly hurt can you get by being "it"?

And dodgeball? Apparently, we're told it promotes bullying, victimizing and isolation for those who drop out of the game. Which sounds like a pretty good primer for adulthood to me.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which represents more than 18,000 teachers and professors, has consigned dodge ball to its "physical education hall of shame" where it joins musical chairs, red rover, and duck, duck, goose because they require children to chase each other.

Soon, we will be dressing our kids in haz-mat suits and they will spend their recesses playing video games. Oh, yeah, carpel tunnel syndrome. Bad idea.

For me, learning about winning and losing as a kid was a lot easier than experiencing it for the first time as an adult.

Even worse, as Jay Leno said of the tag ban, the last kid who was tagged at a school would be "it" for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Herd Instinct


THEY gather at dusk, when the last traces of sunlight paint the horizon in hues of pink and blue, just before night extinguishes all color.

They can be found under a nearby oak, usually in groups of five or six. They seemingly exchange furtive glances, lest they be disturbed.

Before they are done, they will wreak havoc on the particular piece of land they have chosen to occupy.

Yet, their presence usually draws expressions of affection and awe.

"They" are deer. And "they" are overrunning my neighborhood.

I consider myself an animal lover. Not a vegan, mind you, but a person who enjoys animals in all their infinite varieties. I mean, I can't bring myself to pick a live lobster out of a tank for dinner. And I saw "March of the Penguins" three times.

But let me tell you something, folks, Bambi is getting brazen.

I've lived in the foothills for three decades and never have I seen anything like the herds that nonchalantly parade through our streets and yards. While some folks have neighborhood cats, we have neighborhood bucks.

Some display an air of detached entitlement. A family group in my driveway one evening wouldn't move even after I blinked my lights and honked.

I've gone eyeball-to-eyeball with a deer while retrieving my morning paper more than once. Over at the local golf course, they graze or lay about oblivious to flying golf balls and the anguished cries of the wounded duffer.

Most of my neighbors have long ago given up on growing roses in front of their houses. Roses, it seems, are a favorite hors d'oeuvre.

My wife has bravely fought back by spraying deer repellent on a row of roses in front of our house, but it works only sporadically and seems to repel humans as well as animals.

None of this should come as a great surprise. Deer populations are exploding and our neighborhoods have become vast urban salad bars for an increasingly hungry herd.

As far as I can tell, there have been no measures taken to mitigate the deer population binge, at least in our neck of the woods. Deer reproduce quickly. A doe matures at 2 or 3 years, and then typically gives birth to twins each year for 10 or more years.

According to scientists, deer birth control is a bit of a problem. First, every female deer must be captured for the first dose then given booster shots after that. Any volunteers?

Hunting seems out of the question. The prospect of orange-jacketed, rifle-toting hunters moving through our neighborhoods like Germans through France seems like a really bad idea.

Yet scientists also point out that the deer population expands exponentially, that is the herd does not increase the same amount each year but grows in ever-greater amounts as babies have babies.

And we thought immigration was an issue.

So do we learn to live with it? That presents its own set of problems.

One family member has already hit a deer while driving her car. A spooked doe kicked in a window in front of our house one day.

That's not the worst of it. As recounted in USA Today:

Ron Dudek, 73, of Rancho Santa Fe died of complications from antler wounds inflicted to his face by a male deer that Dudek encountered when he went to pick tomatoes in his backyard garden.

Karen Morris, 56, of Clearlake was hospitalized for 12 days with head injuries after an attack by a buck outside her home. The horns bruised Clifford Morris, 68, when he came to his wife's aid.

In Covelo, Arnold and Jeannine Bloom returned to their pickup after watering a friend's vegetable garden. A small buck ran up to the truck and knocked the man on his back. When Jeannine Bloom swung at the animal with a piece of firewood, it turned to her and ripped a hole in her arm.

Game wardens shot five bucks on the streets of Helena, Mont., after the deer threatened staffers at a day care center and a teenager delivering newspapers.

Welcome to Bambi and the Beast.

A biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center blames most of the trouble on the edginess of male deer during the fall mating season. Great, another thing to think about just before I drift off to sleep.

Bottom line: I'll do a little deer proofing around the house. Because given the choice of living with nature or living without it, I'll take the former.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Cable Guys


I had to call my cable television company the other day, an exercise that strikes fear in the hearts of all who attempt it.

That's because a call to the cable guy requires you to negotiate an automated call-in system so complicated it could serve as the entrance exam for Caltech.

I don't want to mention which system it is but it starts with a C, ends with an R and has the letters HARTE in between. And I suspect they are typical.

First, you get a sales pitch. Want high speed Internet access? A telephone system? Super whiz bang digital hi def DVR jumbotron with a picture so sharp you can see Jerry Springer's nose hairs? No waiting. Immediate service is available.

If not, it's on to tier two. There, you are greeted by an apologetic voice that suggests they are very busy and this call might take more time that you thought. Since I had blocked half a day to wade through this bleak and humanless landscape, it was indeed daunting news. But onward.

Next, indicate your native tongue. It was odd that they had delivered five minutes worth of information to someone who may not have understood a word of it before they asked for a language preference. And they asked for it in English.

But I digress. Next, enter your phone number. Then, press 2 for options. That directs you to a menu with five more options. If you're lucky, you go to yet another option menu, this requiring you to verbally describe your problem in two words or less into the phone. Yelling "the damn thing doesn't work" isn't an option.

If you're unlucky, you get a message saying they're too busy and call back later.

At this point, if you haven't hurled the phone across the room in disgust, a live person finally comes on the line. And guess what? Before you can discuss your problem, they try to sell you a movie channel that offers a nonstop diet of bad airline-grade films, interspersed with specials like "The Making of 'Deuce Bigalow, European Giggilo.'" Beyond that, you receive assurances that a repair person will be at your residence sometime on a day that ends in Y between the hours of midnight and 11 p.m.

And these guys want me to buy a phone system from them?

At a time with the big telecom boys such as AT&T and Verizon are getting involved in the cable TV game and satellite dishes are becoming more popular, you would think that companies like Charter would be on their best behavior. Indeed, a recent survey they apparently never saw showed that 85 percent of respondents said that even a single bad experience with a customer service representative would provoke them to consider taking their business elsewhere.

On the other hand, do I want my TV delivered by the folks who bring me a cell phone system that sometime works like two tin cans and a string?

In the meantime, I think all Charter executives should be tied to chairs for an entire day and forced to listen to all their phone options until they beg for mercy. In two words or less.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Future Is Now


Since childhood, I've spent a great deal of time in outer space. I read every science fiction book I could get my hands on at a young age and watched every movie from "Destination Moon" to "Star Wars" in hopes that someday the world they portrayed would be a reality in my lifetime.

And now, here it is. Sort of.

It seems Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines fame plans to offer suborbital spaceflights and later orbital spaceflights to the paying public starting as early as 2008 through his Virgin Galactic enterprise.

The craft, with six passengers and two pilots, will make suborbital flights lasting three hours overall, with about seven minutes of weightlessness. If all goes according to plan, passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats and float around the cabin to truly experience weightlessness.

The future is arriving right on schedule.

Of course, there are a few galactic potholes to consider before we buckle up.

For one thing, the tickets will cost a cool $200,000 a pop. While I've been busy filling my change jars and hoarding aluminum cans, at that rate it may take me 100 years to save up enough cash. I could mortgage the house and let the cash ride on a hedge fund, but that has some serious downside such as divorce. Stowing away may be an option.

Then there is the passenger list. Paris Hilton has reportedly signed up, giving new meaning to the term space cadet.

There seems to be some debate over whether William Shatner, who has long pretended to boldly go where no man has gone before, will be along for the ride. One report said he has. Another quotes him saying that he has turned down a free trip into space because "I'm interested in man's march into the unknown but to vomit in space is not my idea of a good time." Why do I get the feeling that Shatner has spent most of his adult life trying to live down "Star Trek"?

The spaceport concept appears to need some fine tuning. Last year, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic would undertake a joint venture with the New Mexico state government to construct Spaceport America, a $225 million facility.

The first rocket launched from the New Mexico site recently wobbled off course at an elevation of 40,000 feet and crashed. The wreckage wasn't found for nearly a week.

Perhaps anticipating this, Virgin Galactic is in negotiations with Lloyd's of London for flight insurance. This will cover risks to people and structures on the ground near the launch site. However, passengers on suborbital flights are expected to travel at their own risk, at least initially.

None of this deters Sir Richard. Even before the first launch, Branson has plans for orbital space tourism and proposes putting a hotel in space.

Not to be outdone, Space Adventures Ltd. an Arlington, Va., based space tourism company best known for sending paying tourists to the International Space Station, has announced a project named Deep Space Expeditions Alpha to send people around the moon. A five-and-a-half day lunar flight could happen in 2008 or 2009 and cost about $100 million per person.

The company also announced that they would begin offering a 90 minute space walk for about $15 million, in addition to the $20 million required for the visit to the ISS. The space walk would be completed in the Russian designed Orlan space suit. The training for the space walk would require an extra month of training on top of the six months already required.

All of this points to one thing about space travel that never seemed to be an issue in early science fiction. Until the Greyhound Bus people launch, travel to space will be the purview of the same folks who watch their sports from luxury boxes, take their vacations on yachts and live behind gates.

At that rate, the first colony on the moon may be a country club.

Delete, Delete


ANY journalist worth his notebook relishes feedback from his readers.

It is the ultimate litmus test, a gauge of how those who exist outside the walls of the newsroom judge his work, be he reporter or editor.

There is nothing like what diplomats call a "frank and open" discussion to stir the pot a bit.

Then there is junk mail.

It's bad enough that my mailbox at home is crammed with this stuff. The Internet now brings you an unprecedented avalanche of trash.

Want to feel popular? Just count the number of spam messages you get every day. After all, there are an estimated 84 billion messages sent worldwide each day, according to research, and a lot of them are bound to hit your inbox.

You are not alone. One report says that Microsoft founder Bill Gates receives 4million e-mails per year, most of it being spam.

My first act when signing on to the computer each day is to blast most of my newly arrived e-mail back into cyberspace.

And that's just the solicitations for sexual aids and potions.

Of course, in this business, you get press invitations to the very finest of events, such as the one soliciting my attendance at an appearance by Marie -Osmond who was to be at a special "meet and greet" opportunity to celebrate the release of Disneyland Rose, the resort's exclusive doll. Delete.

Then there is "phishing," sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft.

One from Pay Pal tells me, "We are currently performing regular maintenance of our security measures. Your account has been randomly selected for this maintenance, and you will now be taken through a series of identity verification pages."

Another, from the Alaska USA Federal Credit Union says, "Our new security system will help you to avoid frequently fraud transactions and to keep your investments in safety. Due to technical update we recommend you to reactivate your account."

Mid America Bank notifies me that my account will be immediately deactivated if I don't provide information such as my user name and password.

I have never had a relationship with any of these businesses.

Delete. Delete. Delete.

A personal favorite is the lottery scam. In one month, I was notified by three different e-mails that I had won a $1million lottery in the Netherlands when my e-mail address matched up with the winning numbers in some sort of worldwide draw. Long odds? You bet your sweet powerball.

Of course, there is no lottery and no prize. Those who initiate a dialogue with the scammers by replying to the lottery scam e-mails will eventually be asked for advanced fees to cover expenses associated with delivery of the supposed "winnings."

Delete. Delete. Delete.

I also receive a lot of stock picks. One touts a stock called Everglory International which this solicitation said was trading at "about" $1.15 a share. The authors suggested $3.50 a share was on the horizon. I checked this week. Everglory was trading at 42 cents.

Another stock recommended to me via spam was soaring along at 6 cents a share last I checked.

Some of these are what are called "pump and dumb" issues. According to Newsweek magazine, a large shareholder hires a promoter to help publicize, or pump, the stock. The promoter hires spammers who blitz the Internet with millions of messages about "the home run stock of the year." If only a small percentage of the recipients bite, the effort may jack up the price whereupon the shareholder dumps his investment and pockets a profit.

Delete. Delete. Delete.

Once you get all that out of the way, you may find a message from a business associate or friend.

At least one executive hit upon a solution to the problem. Jeremy Burton, then a vice president of marketing at Veritas Software, was so tired of wading through e-mails that he enacted a Friday ban on e-mail in his department. Violators would be fined $1, and the first was also forced to wear a scarlet "E" emblazoned on his chest. Months later, the company merged with Symantec, and the ban "didn't survive," says a spokeswoman.