Thursday, July 22, 2010

Trivia You Don't Need To Know About Television (but you will want to know anyway)

Trivia You Don't Need To Know About Television (but you will want to know anyway)

Don't blame Scottish engineer and inventor John Logie Baird for the lack of decent programs to watch on the main networks of television today. John only invented the hardware, black and white TV, back in 1926.

While our televisions can transmit digital signals with up to 1080 lines of data, John's little outfit only managed 30 lines. It looked like a peep show moving picture viewer, which made sense because these were popular in his day. It was cobbled together with scraps of wood, darning needles, string and sealing wax. No chewing gum and binder twine--materials commonly attributed to devices assembled in emergencies in agricultural country in those days--because he wasn't a farmer.

While we think of TVs as being electrical and electronic today, John's was also somewhat mechanical. He used a spinning metal disk with spirals of holes to take images apart for transmission. Kind of a fancy old fashioned box camera.

John showed off his colour television a mere two years later. But commercializing cameras and making affordable receivers delayed the popularity of colour for another two decades.

For many people, watching television in the mid 20th century meant viewing moving things in black and white. So what? People who grew up watching black and white television are more likely to dream in black and white than people who grow up today watching only colour TV. As media guru Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message." And it sticks, even in our dreams.

The U.K.'s BBC was the first network to broadcast regularly using Baird's system. By 1936--well into the Great Depression, remember--about 2000 household had Baird televisions. They cost about £26 each, equivalent to today's US$7700. Not the kind of data we have been led to think of when we think of the Great Depression.

Television extravagance has not abated. Today you can buy Panasonic's giant (103 inch, nearly 230 cm--greater in diameter than most basketball players are tall) plasma monster for $70,000, should you happen to not have suffered much from the current economic slowdown. While Panasonic has the biggest set, that doesn't include projection TVs.

Philo T. Farnsworth, who invented the first all-electronic TV, was passionate about his invention. Lest anyone accuse his television of being a product of the devil, he stated firmly that it was a gift from the Lord. "God will hold accountable those who utilize this divine instrument." Where is Farnsworth when we need him today as a TV critic?

Here's a fact you will wish you never knew. By the age of 14, the average child in the United States has seen 11,000 murders on television. Let that sink in. The debate never ends about whether life eventually takes on less importance to a child as he sees death so often it becomes commonplace.

TV commercial time has gone up a bit in cost over the years. Bulova Watch paid nine dollars for a 20 second spot for the first ever commercial, in a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies on July 1, 1941. Today a 30 second spot in a Superbowl broadcast--traditionally the most expensive advertising time on TV--will cost around three million bucks.

With all the ways we have of storing video data these days it came as a shock when NASA announced it had lost all the videotapes of the TV broadcast from the Apollo 11 mission ("That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.")

The longest running talk show is either Ireland's Late Late Show, which started in 1962, or The Tonight Show, which began in 1954. The reason for debate is that the latter show didn't settled into a regular format until Johnny Carson took over, a few months after the Irish show launched.

To demonstrate that copyright for television was an issue long before today's battles, when Sony launched the first VCRs in the 1970s the film studios took it to court for promoting piracy. The U.S. Supreme Court favoured Sony in the litigation, but the public was not so fond of Sony's Betamax format. While JVC's VHS failed in Japan as Sony dominated the market there, VHS (more accurately advertising for VHS recorders) won the hearts of people in North America. VHS eventually had four formats in different countries and they couldn't play on machines with a VHS format other than their own.

Are TV's days numbered? While networks switch to digital format for large TVs and about half the cell phones sold today have the ability to receive television signals, billions of streams of TV signals are received on computers each month.

Queen Elizabeth II has her own channel on YouTube. No, she doesn't sing, dance or take her clothes off. I checked.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to know what lessons their children need to learn about social skills and emotional coping, stuff kids desperately need but usually don't get at home or in school.
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[Primary source: Discover, February 2009]

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Parental Wisdom: Lacking Respect or Missing in Action?

Parental Wisdom: Lacking Respect or Missing in Action?

Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.
- Marianne Williamson, American peace activist, author, lecturer, minister (b. 1952)

Where is wisdom in the inevitable transformation that is taking place on our planet? Is it stronger than ever, though apparently disguised. Has it vanished? Do we even recognize wisdom today as we did in the past?

Most people would agree that Albert Schweitzer was wise. Here's an example:

Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives.
- Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, musician, Nobel laureate (1875-1965)

We could explain so much about our world today using this thought. Where is that kind of wisdom? While Schweitzer's observation has always been true of our species, the fact that today the leaders of industry knowingly poison the air they breathe and the water they use in their own bodies for the sake of profit should raise alarm. They have put profit ahead of survival, which is clearly in opposition to the instinct of every living thing.

Leaders of industry hold out the promise of jobs as bait so that politicians and bureaucrats will allow them to commit acts that no other civilization in history has done to itself. They argue that, in effect, "my way must be right because I thought of it." They argue that making their industry eco-friendly will be economically unfeasible, though the evidence on the ground shows that this argument is patently false.

We believe them because we somehow attribute to them wisdom. Or we want the money that derives from the jobs they will create. Today, as in the past, wealth trumps reason. Does that mean that wisdom no longer exists?

These lessons we teach to our children, whether intentionally or not.

Historically, wisdom was the purview of the elderly. Elders traditionally had experience doing much the same activities as the younger generations were doing. Experience derives from making mistakes then learning from them. That learning could be taught, which made the teachers--the elderly, experienced ones in society--considered wise.

A century ago 85 percent of the population of North America lived in rural areas and derived their income directly or indirectly from agriculture. Today 85 percent of the populations of Canada and the United States live in cities. The continuity of experience has been broken. Today's young adults don't want to learn skills of farming. Many city dwelling adults today have not accustomed themselves to social and emotional survival methods required in city life, so cannot teach them to their children.

Within the memory span of older people living today women entered the workforce (during the Second World War when men were away fighting), it became acceptable for women to wear pants rather than dresses or skirts to work, women have learned the trades of welding, plumbing, auto mechanics and others, women have become bosses and employers rather than entry level employees and women have even become heads of states in large countries. The continuity was broken. We accept these changes but have little idea how they impact our personal and family lives.

Office "pencil pushers" of the past now press buttons on keyboards. The more skilled among them program software to operate to the specific needs of companies. Today's older people have stories to pass along to younger generations, but those stories are considered by young people to lack usable information, thus don't count as wisdom. Old folks just don't "get it."

Young people in North America now text their friends 300 times a day, on average, while their grandparents may still be reluctant to pick up a phone to call someone because they "may be busy." While many of today's parents of teenagers grapple with the thought of teaching "sex" to kids younger than 16 years, close to half our kids have sex before their thirteenth birthday and the number who have sex before their ninth birthday is closing in on double digit percentages.

Somehow our adult generations have come to believe that ignorance is important in children. They call it "innocence" as if they can stop kids from behaving in certain ways as they can stop certain behaviours of family pets.

The disconnect here is that childhood is the time people are supposed to learn about adulthood, not be protected from learning about it. The whole purpose of childhood is as a training period for adulthood. Conventional "wisdom" says that the world is too ugly for children to be exposed to, yet evidence shows it is actually more peaceful, organized and orderly than ever before in history. What parents believe becomes what children accept as fact.

Children know that they should know the facts about certain things, even if they are not certain of exactly what they should know. It's a gut feeling. A child of 12 who has sex understands that he or she should know more about what they are doing than they do, but has no idea where to learn the needed information, from whom or even what they should know. What they do know is how to put tab A into slot B, as every child knows, and nature provides them with the hormones to make the convergence more compelling.

An interviewer on a U.S. national radio network asked me not long ago, on air, when I lost my virginity. When I told him he all but called me a liar because he expected me to say age 12 or 13. He said so and his on-air colleagues agreed. This is the world of today.

Parents and grandparents who are not fully connected to that world or who are in denial of the facts will not connect with children who are constantly growing and experiencing outside of home. In turn, the children will not see their parents or grandparents as wise, maybe not even credible. Not only will many adults not tell the kids the facts they want to know, they refuse to tell them and they deny what the kids are living every day. And what they are learning, often inaccurately, every day.

How can we expect young people to consider their parents or grandparents wise when they aren't? "Innocence" equals ignorance. Denial equals stupidity. Stupidity is prolific. When kids can't get answers from their parents they turn to others who will answer. Just as with making friends, the people who are easiest to get answers from are the most dangerous and undependable. For example, drug dealers hang around outside many elementary schools today, ready to give free advice as well as "samples."

Wisdom exists today, but those who want access to it must search for it. The internet has answers to all questions. Some of the answers are wrong, even dangerous. But some are dead-on right. Rather than teach children how to evaluate what they may find on the internet, many parents deny their kids will look at such things and others put kid-control programs on their computers.

Today kids can find computers all over the place and the average six-year-old can figure out the passwords their parents put on. Denying kids access to information they want makes them believe their parents are stupid or oppressive, not wise. Indeed, parents who do not avail themselves of the opportunities to teach their children what they want to know and what they need to know--the primary objective of parenthood after having sex and giving birth--do not deserve to be considered wise.

Wisdom exists today, but not in conventional places or sources. For example, you learned something by reading this article that your parents could not have imagined a generation ago.

Pass it on.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to know what to teach their children, and when, to help them develop socially and emotionally as well as they expect schools to help them develop intellectually. It's not what most parents think.
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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Stuff You Should Know About Fat

Stuff You Should Know About Fat

With two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese and obesity in alarming numbers finding its way into every nation, even poor families in poor nations, let's have a serious look at what the fuss is about.

To begin, let's establish a couple of things. First, if we take everything we eat and drink, then subtract from that nutrition what we use up in energy or function of our organs, convert to muscle or expel as body wastes, what gets left over is stored as fat. Fat is stored potential energy.

Second, no young child aspires to be fat as an adult. None aspire to be insurance salesmen, call centre employees or cubicle workers in offices either, but those are conscious choices a person makes later.

To return to the first point, obese people can't say they didn't notice they were putting on weight. That's the criticism many slim people have of the heavyweights: "they ate too much." While that point can't be debated, the more important point is what they could have done about it. The answer is: they didn't know what to do. In fact, nobody does. Lots of people make fortunes selling to people who want to lose weight, but none are guaranteed, some created yo-yo dieting, some could even be harmful.

I am reminded of an old joke about the owner of a donkey who was determined that he could train his animal to adapt to life without food if he used methods similar to what nature uses to train animals to adapt to other adverse conditions and environmental changes. A year after the man began his program of gradually lowering the amount of food he gave his donkey, a friend asked him how he had made out with the experiment. He replied, "Just my luck, I got him to the point where he could live completely without food and the stupid animal died."

What to do to overcome obesity or being overweight is precisely the same thing as what slim people do to avoid gaining too much weight. Trouble is, no one, including medical science, knows exactly what that is. As ironic as it sounds, obese people usually have more efficient absorption of nutrients in their guts than slim folks. Some could eat like birds and still gain weight. Many slim people could eat boatloads of food and still remain thin because their digestive systems don't work as efficiently.

Diet? Sure but look at the abundance of diet advice we get in newspapers, magazines and on television--especially look at how each suggestion conflicts with other suggestions by "experts"--and you can quickly see that no one really knows. Studies have proven that so-called yo-yo dieting (diet, gain weight, diet, gain weight, repeatedly) has a more negative impact on body organs than simply carrying around too much weight. Even maintaining extra weight is healthier than losing weight rapidly.

Exercise off what you eat? Sure, but who is prepared to exercise for that much time in a day, setting aside all other commitments in the process? Society mitigates against it anyway. What would you think of a person who exercised--who even walked--for three hours each day? Could you spare that much time out of your day, every day? If you did, what would you have to sacrifice from your present life?

Why not just eat less? Have you ever tried to do that over a long period of time? Most people who have tried it learn to despise dieting because they always feel hungry.

How about eating different foods? Some kinds of food--such as high fibre--flushes stuff through your gut so fast that it doesn't have time to absorb some of the nutrition in the food. That might be okay if you knew how to balance what you lost by taking supplements a few hours before you ate the fibre and afterwards emptied your bowel. But, despite the advertising that gives you the impression that it knows what a balanced diet is, no one knows for certain. Study evidence conflicts. If you plan to diet, choose your vitamin and mineral supplements carefully, then commit to the bet of your life.

Californians seem to have something going for them. In a study of obesity rates in the U.S. from 1976 to 1999, obesity and overweight numbers increased across the board. However, as of 2007, California was the only state where the obesity rate did not increase. The study did not say exactly what had changed in California that could account for the change. No one is guessing that having a former Mr. Universe as governor has made the difference.

If you are overweight and you lose some of that excess, you will live longer, studies show. But likely only a few months longer. Excess weight reduces a woman's chance of getting pregnant. The U.S. National Institutes for Health believes that obesity accounts for why women under 25 are the fastest growing group experiencing infertility. Losing ten percent of body weight results in an improvement in your sex life.

People who often eat dinner or breakfast at restaurants or fast food outlets double their risk of becoming obese.

Leptin, our body's built-in way to convince us to stop eating when we are full doesn't work in supplement form on most overweight people. Their bodies have become insensitive to it.

Why do people eat more than their bodies need? My personal belief is that eating is a pleasure that never fails over the short term. Food never demands a divorce, gives you a hangover, threatens you or nags you. Only over the long term might it betray you with unwanted fat. But then, that applies to all kinds of activities we do when we are young that we survive, get thrills from, but pay for 20, 40 or more years later when our bodies age faster than those who played it safer.

About ten percent of our fat cells die every year. New ones grow again. Our total number of fat cells remains the same throughout our life. Dieting, even having the stomach stapled, has no effect on the body's number of fat cells. However, new fat cells do not begin their lives bloated with fat. They only grow as the body needs to store more fat. New fat cells begin as skinny fat cells.

The only permanent way to reduce the total number of fat cells in the body is by liposuction. Even liposuction does not remove fat from around body organs, so whatever risk fat presents to them remains unless it is reduced in some other way. Liposuction may make you look good, but not necessarily any healthier.

Obesity occurs commonly within families, but science is not certain if that has to do with DNA (nature) or family eating, exercising and related environmental problems (nurture).

Your brain is comprised about 70 percent of fat. Losing that fat is not recommended. Bottlenose dolphins use a fat sack in their heads to amplify sound as part of their sonar hearing ability. Human fatheads have not advanced to that stage so far as I know.

Whale bodies are surrounded by fat, in some cases up to 45 cm (20 inches) thick. They use it as insulation against the cold of the oceans. In our body fat tends to hold heat in as well, often making us sweaty when slim people feel cool. Camels in the desert don't want to conserve heat, which is why they concentrate their fat in one or two humps on their backs. People who lose lots of weight often complain they feel cold because they have lost subcutaneous fat that previously kept them warm (sometimes sweaty).

Still confused about fat? At least you have more knowledge about it now, and you have lots of company. One factor all serious health professionals agree about is that losing weight safely should be a long term project involving serious lifestyle changes.

In conclusion, it's worth noting that fat is essential to life. When stored body fat reaches zero percent, you die. That's why anorexia nervosa sufferers die even when they are being force fed in hospitals. Like everything else in life, the key is moderation. Even when dieting. Let the first three letters of that word be your guide to caution.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to grow children who are healthy and well balanced in mind as well as in body.
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Friday, July 02, 2010

Homo Stupidus: Our Present, Former Or Future Selves?

Homo Stupidus: Our Present, Former Or Future Selves?

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.
- Charles Mackay, Scottish author, poet, songwriter (1814-1889)

Isn't it interesting that the same people who laugh at science fiction listen to weather forecasts and economists?
- Kelvin Throop III, fictional science fiction character

One of my greatest pleasures in writing has come from the thought that perhaps my work might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position. Then comes the saddening realization that such people rarely read.
- John Kenneth Galbraith, Canadian economist (1908-2006)

Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.
- Albert Einstein, physicist and genius (1879-1955)

Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark.
- Ancient Zen saying

Quite different quotations. Quite different authors from quite different parts of the world and very different periods of time. Yet in the final analysis their messages bear great similarities.

The scientific name for our species, homo sapiens ("thinking man": the 's' at the end is for both the singular and the plural of this term), was devised by men who think. A large majority of us have no idea of the term's meaning. Most could care less what it means. Why? Because they do not burden themselves with such inconveniences as thinking.

Any thinking required to be done in their lives is done for them and provided by television, advertising, their employers, their parents or spouses, sometimes their children.

Those who define our species think. Even they can't be trusted however. With rare exceptions they all consider humans the most intelligent species on the planet. None have considered who devised the rules for the evaluation, whether the "winners" might be biased in their own favour, or whether the definition applied to every one of their species or just to a limited few. None consulted any other species for their opinions on the matter. They couldn't because we can't communicate with any of them.

We consider any other species of living thing that cannot speak our kind of language to be inferior, despite the fact that we cannot communicate with more than a couple other species ourselves and only with them in a very basic and inadequate manner. For 50 years we have been searching for extra-terrestrial intelligent beings, yet even SETI scientists believe that most beings more intelligent than ourselves would avoid us once they learned a bit about us.

We consider ourselves the epitome of development of living beings, despite that fact that most humans are capable of doing virtually nothing that any other animal on earth can do. Other than eat, poop and reproduce. Or that any plant can do, as every green plant creates oxygen we use to survive. Until very recently, with genetic engineering and nanotechnology, we created nothing, we only transformed what already existed.

In North America, barely six percent of us read more than three books per year. And that's generous because most people who don't read won't admit it to researchers. Many of the people who do read several books a year read on topics related to their occupations or about vocations they aspire to enter one day. Check the records of any public library to see how few people actually check out books they can read free, how many books the "readers" check out and what kinds of books they read. With the exception of students and others doing research papers, most nonfiction books collect dust on library shelves. Nonfiction means learning something new, whereas fiction allows readers to escape into other lives and places. For many of us, studying something new is verboten once we leave school.

In most countries that hold democratic elections, barely half of eligible voters cast ballots, often less. Exceptions include votes on hot button issues, elections where voters want to get rid of the old guard and constituencies where voting is compulsory. Why so few votes cast when everyone enjoys this right? In many cases people who do not vote claim that "They're all the same" or "It won't make any difference anyway." Ask those people what names they would expect to see on the ballots and what the candidates stand for and you rarely get an answer that makes sense.

Those of us who vote elect governments based on promises, usually promises of prosperity and more jobs. Both of these are extremely difficult for government to do and impossible to do without raising taxes, which voters don't like. Even though we know our government will never keep their promises, we continue to hope and vote accordingly.

The more "progressive" the democracy, the more debt load individual free citizens carry. In many cases, people pay twice the price of a big ticket item they buy due to interest rates on money they borrowed to buy it. A shocking number of people owe debts to credit card companies they cannot possibly ever repay because they can barely afford the minimum monthly payment.

But they look good. They drive the right cars. They live in the right neighbourhoods and belong to the right organizations.

Unless you work in your own home, look around you on the way to work and think about what is going on in the heads of the people making the same daily trek you are. Spend a bit of time watching people in the supermarket where you shop to see if what they are doing makes sense to you. Seriously, but take your time because stupid behaviour doesn't happen quickly. Watch people drive around the parking lot in a mall looking for the closest entrance, then walk for hours when they get inside. Compare what you see to what you would observe when watching an ant colony or a bee hive before you decide which species is the smartest.

Listen to conversations of people around you, no matter where they may take place. See how many of them involve any subject other than the weather or something they saw or could see on television. The most popular television stations in North America are the weather channels. Yet it's rare to see someone with an umbrella on a rainy day and common to see people with light shoes and no hats walking on snowy sidewalks in blowing weather.

Think about the people you have met over the past month. Have any of them asked you even one question that was not work related that would help them to learn something new? Intelligent thinking people ask questions.

That's the way it is today. What was it like in the past? Many people tend to believe that the world they live in is getting worse as they get older. It's not. They simply have not studied history enough to know that people were just as stupid, as violent, as careless and as ignorant of what they should know about life in the past as they are today. In fact, likely mores so than today. At least today we have more education worldwide to give us a basis on which to think.

Do conditions today predict anything for the future? In the past diseases and wars kept population levels down. Both of these factors are more limited today than at any time in the past. China, with the largest population in the world, limiting its population indicates that it will change its own future. If other countries take their future survival and health seriously--few do at present--the world may reach sustainable and manageable levels of population, pollution and resource management. Odds are that a massive die-off of people, perhaps related somehow to a failure of electronic technology on a global scale causing stock market crashes, less likely due to disease, will cause us to come together as nation members of one world community to take it's future seriously.

A massive shock of some sort is necessary to bring people around to thinking of the future in global terms rather than of their own present desires and pleasures. As uncontrolled as our world is at present, the shock is a certainty though its nature is in doubt.

Until that shock happens, we don't have enough "thinking men" among us to effect real and lasting change. The shock might come from our atmosphere and our water. As we debate global warming and climate change--who cares if the global temperature rises by half a degree in 50 years?--our industries continue to pour thousands of poisons into our air and our water. While we call them "greenhouse gases." That's the air we breathe and the water that keeps us alive. Darwin's claim that the most adaptable will survive crises will be tested. Check out the kinds of poisons industries are subjecting us and our children to.

Can we teach more of our people to think? Ask the teachers. They are the ones saddled with the impossible task of teaching children to think while working under such hobbling conditions most teachers could never make it happen. Our education systems are designed to produce consumers and employees, and they do it well. Ask any child why he or she should stay in school and get a good education and the answer will almost always be "to get a good job." Never "to have a better life." Jobs mean income to buy stuff our industries produce.

Real change can only happen in schools and homes. Real change in homes will be tough because we do not teach young people what they need to know to be good parents.

Education is the answer. Now, do you remember the question?

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to effect real change in homes and schools so their children will be able to adapt to what life will throw at them in the future.
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