Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Would You Like More Happy Time?

"One of the gladdest moments of human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of routine, the cloak of many cares and the slavery of home, man feels once more happy."—Sir Richard Burton

Americans love their vacations. I can say this with some authority as I am, in fact, an American and I love my vacations. Naturally, I would not expect you to rely on a sample of one to support such an audacious claim. I have asked several dozen other Americans as well. And, yep, they also place a high value on their vacation time. That may be because there is so little of it.

 Sunset off the deck of a cruise ship. Ahhhhh.

Did you know that the United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time? This is according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. They found that 1 in 4 private-sector workers in the U.S. does not receive any paid vacation or paid holidays. My husband is one of them. Time off equals no pay. Since I am self-employed, the same applies to me.

We are not whining, though. We are grateful to have work in these difficult times. Still, a lousy job market does not justify giving less benefits to employees, especially since these conditions also existed in the best of job markets. It is, however, a handy excuse for doing so.

Let’s go back to the report, entitled No-Vacation Nation.* This report, which came out in 2007, prior to the big economic worldwide meltdown, found that European workers are guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with 25 and even 30 or more days common in some countries. The gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is even larger when holidays are included. The U.S. does not guarantee any paid holidays, but most rich countries provide between 5 and 13 per year, in addition to paid vacation days. Current economic conditions have not changed this.

“Too much work, too much vacation, too much of any one thing is unsound.”—Walter Annenberg

This may be shocking news to some of you, but according to one of the report’s authors, John Schmitt, “Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked. It’s a national embarrassment that 28 million Americans don’t get any paid vacation or paid holidays.”

Are you embarrassed or is it just me?

To give you an idea of who has the most time to enjoy life—and who has the least—here is a handy chart of government-mandated paid time off, which was reported in the study. Notice the U.S. at the bottom.


Based on the above chart, if you want to “work to live rather than live to work,” the best places to set up shop are France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Italy or Belgium. They all have an average of 30 or more days off a year that are government-mandated.

“Socialism!” you may cry, worried sick about Big Business and how CEOs will ever survive. Hey, hate to tell you, Pal, but Big Business loses no sleep over you. Here’s something to think about: despite our lame economy, the 25 highest paid CEOs in this country made between 15 and 87 million dollars last year, according to the AFL/CIO website. They also have vacation packages that are guaranteed through employment contracts. Not so for the rest of us poor rabble.

In fact, for the average worker, the U.S. lags far behind the rest of the world's rich countries. The lack of paid vacation and paid holidays in the U.S. is particularly acute for lower-wage and part-time workers, and for employees of small businesses. So the people who make the least amount of money also have the least amount of time off.

Why can our European counterparts supply guaranteed minimum vacations for their citizens and we can’t? I have no idea. You may find it interesting to know that government-mandated time off is not limited to the world’s wealthiest countries, either. Here are other countries, not nearly as well off as the U.S., that provide guaranteed vacation benefits, according to CNBC (notice that the U.S. proudly maintains its position at the bottom of the chart):


So from an R&R standpoint, Brazil, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, South Korea and even India look better than the United States. Holy cow!

Again, why can European countries as well as poorer countries like Brazil, South Korea, and India provide more guaranteed time off than the U.S.? Don’t know. Maybe they just all like to goof off more than we do.

Or maybe not. A recent article in The New York Times put it this way: In Europe, people work from the time they get to work in the morning until they leave. They do not talk at the water cooler or otherwise socialize. They put in a solid 8 hours of work. Yet, when 6 p.m. rolls around, everyone leaves. In the U.S., more time is spent at work, but our productivity is much lower, since people socialize and often surf the web during their workday. Despite the different approaches, overall productivity, according to the article, is fairly similar with both approaches. Given that our work output is supposedly equivalent, it is curious that Europeans receive government-mandated vacation and holiday time and we don't.

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.”—Bertrand Russell

In Europe, people pay considerably higher taxes than we do, but in return, they have socialized medicine, subsidized university costs (varies with country), and government councils that safeguard guaranteed vacation times and employee benefits. They also have broad safety nets for extended unemployment, maternity leave and illness. Yes, this is called socialism. I am sure it is not perfect and has lots of problems, but I do not think this way of life deserves the vehement vilification that our wealthy politicians and their well-heeled lobbyists rant about. Why would our well-to-do legislators and corporate-owned media want us to hate socialism so much? Well, socialism tends to be bad for the rich and not so bad for the average person.

Neither the U.S. nor European systems is flawless. I am certainly no expert on either. I must confess, however, that whenever I consider the 30 days of vacation my European, Brazilian, Russian and Lithuanian counterparts enjoy, I suffer from an incredible case of leisure envy.

*No Vacation Nation is available for your reading pleasure at: http://www.cepr.net/index.php/publications/reports/no-vacation-nation/

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hell's Bus Stop

THE GOAL: Reach Union Square in NYC. 


Last week, I decided to go into New York City to have lunch with my daughter. She recently got a job with Blue Fountain Media off Union Square and that presented a gratuitous opportunity to celebrate. I love New York and I love eating—so combining the two is a happy event for me.

Normally, the most unusual experiences I have happen when I get into the Big Apple. Not this time.

As I was waiting at the bus stop in suburban White Bread, New Jersey, a tall, muscular man, dressed in leather like a biker dude—and sporting a scraggly beard and bad teeth—stood beside me in the frigid cold. I politely remarked on the weather and he responded by launching into a tirade about how his wife cleaned out his bank account while he was in the hospital having brain surgery. Apparently, she chose that occasion to leave him. He informed me that he had a brain tumor caused by Agent Orange, a toxic chemical used during the Vietnam Conflict to clear brush in the jungle. While it was somewhat unusual for someone to blurt something like that out to a stranger, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy.

His confessions, however, didn’t stop there. Next, he shared his experience of being a Vietnam vet and proceeded to explain how his job in Nam was to kill people who were traitors. He unfortunately went into gory details about it. The ewwww expressions on my face did not deter him. Okay, he was a sick, divorced guy who had killed people and liked to talk about it. How much more disturbing could it get? Wait.

He now recalled the day he returned from Vietnam. A protestor spit on him and he beat the man bloody. Okay, fair enough. Vietnam vets were not treated very well when they returned home. Still, his smiling description of the blood running down from the man’s face, perhaps, fell into the realm of too much information. He still took great pride and delight in reminiscing about it, despite the fact that it must have occurred at least 38 years ago. Could it get worse? Yes.

He followed that with tales of how, before getting sick, he had worked for the mafia trafficking illegal substances but was always respected by underworld bosses because he was a man of his word. He was Russian and Russians killed people who did not keep their word. (Good to know. I filed that someplace mentally as important to remember should I befriend someone Russian in the future.)

Like any good speech, he concluded his by summarizing his main points. He hated banks, his former wife, people who lie and the health care system. Well, okay, he had a point with the health care system. Nothing crazy about that.

During his long, rambling talk, a feeling of personal peril crept into my consciousness and slowly grew. I felt sorry for this man who was truly troubled, but I just wanted to go into New York and have a nice lunch with my daughter—without violence, death or brain tumors. I had been looking forward to seeing my daughter and talking about girlie things—relationships, fashion, chocolate. Instead, I felt as if I had been thrust into a Fellini film.

Naturally, this was the day that the bus driver chose to be 15 minutes late, prolonging this stranger’s disturbing monologue. A few times I chimed in with, “That’s too bad. Wow, is it cold today or what?” This did not slow him down.

Finally, the bus appeared in the distance and I took the opportunity to point and exclaim with heartfelt gratitude, “Look, the bus is here!” When the bus door finally creaked open, I stepped aside and told him, “You first!” He entered the bus without protest and I made sure he was seated before I gave my ticket to the driver and proceeded well past him to a seat in the back of the bus.

That was the last eventful thing that happened that day, except that on my bus ride back, the driver uncharacteristically passed my bus stop, leaving me with a long walk in the cold to get back to my car. Still, the frigid trek in the dark felt relatively benign, knowing that the mysterious biker dude was now safely roaming the streets of New York.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Gawking at the Universe

If I were a skilled photographer living in El Salvador, this is what the eclipse would have looked like on Tuesday. Unfortunately, I am an unskilled photographer living in New Jersey and my photos looked more like a white smudge on an inky surface. This photo is courtesy of: www.huffingtonpost.com. The photographer was Jose Cabezas.


Early Tuesday morning the winds were howling outside in the darkness and the thermometer plunged to below freezing. Winter had us surrounded. What better time to go outside and watch a total lunar eclipse? After all, this momentous event was coinciding with the December solstice, something that hasn't occurred in 372 years, and won't come around again until 2094.

I donned two layers of pants and shirts as well as a warm winter coat, scarf and hat. Standing in the driveway and leaning on the roof of my car to brace my hands, I took several inadequate pictures of this seldom-seen celestial event. My husband did the same.

Why this fascination with the machinations of the sky? I think many of my generation first became enamored with astronomy back in the 1960s when the adventures of Star Trek captured our imaginations. Down on Earth, there was the Vietnam Conflict, the Civil Rights struggle, protests, rioting and the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. It seemed like the world was falling apart. Looking up into the night sky, anything was possible—even world peace, and a guy sporting pointy ears and triangular sideburns.

The moon has always held a special fascination for me. While finding specific planets and stars in the night sky can be challenging, the moon is always easy to spot. It offers a variety of shapes with its waxing and waning cycles, so it is never boring. And when it’s full, given that you are with the right person, it can be incredibly romantic and beautiful. It also has spawned the lore of werewolves and crazy people. It is, after all, the namesake of the time-honored lunatic asylums. Oh, yeah, and there's that thing with the moon and the tides.

Watching the eclipse in the early morning, whether alone or with others, was a group experience. People from countries across the half of the world draped in night were witnessing this event simultaneously. It was a terrestrial experience that connected us all. Beyond this one event, it was mind-boggling to consider that every sighted person who has ever walked the Earth has gazed up at the same moon—from prehistoric cave dwellers to Aristotle to the people who built the pyramids and the Great Wall of China. It is a nocturnal bond we share.

Observing the shadow of the Earth crawl across the moon and finally turn it a dull red was captivating enough that I stayed outside until my camera-clutching hands went numb with frostbite. An eclipse is not just an astronomical phenomenon. It represents an event that is bigger than all of us. It offers a reminder that the universe is unfathomably large—and we’re not. That’s actually a comforting notion, considering how dependable celestial bodies have been throughout the ages, and how capricious human beings can be.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Joy of Genre

Say "Hello" to the Gutenberg Bible. It is the first book ever printed, dating back to 1455. From there, it was a small step to publishing Great Expectations and the Story of O


What could be cozier, during the cold winter months, than snuggling up with a good book beneath the warmth of a thick bed cover? Each fragile page of print is a passport to another place and time without the indignities of body scans or pat downs.

Call me old-fashioned—or obsolete, if you prefer—but when it comes to reading, I prefer a bound, paper book versus the new-fangled electronic book tablets. I understand that electronic books are quite functional, but I stare at a computer screen all day at work. So when it comes time for pleasure reading, I want the organic feel of a printed tome against my eager hands. Call it a security fixation, but the tactile experience of a book resting on my palms just seems substantial and right.

Sure, electronic books spare trees, but they also add older generations of tablets to landfills. Whereas no self-respecting citizen would ever discard a book. Rather, they would resell or donate their precious volumes to another generation of readers. Indeed, such hallowed institutions as public libraries and used book stores offer an ideal way to conserve how many trees must lay down their lives for literature.

Recently, I have taken an interest in reading antiquarian books. One reason might be because I am becoming antiquarian myself. Another is that I love to see how the English language was used in the1800s or early 1900s. These dusty volumes also allow one to be a voyeur into how people thought at a particular time in history. Sometimes their thinking was quaint and touching, sometimes small-minded and intolerant. The point is that older books offer a unique glimpse through the keyhole of past human experience. Unfortunately, antiquarian books are rarely available on electronic tablets. Only in used book stores.

Speaking of which, it is difficult to imagine how the musty splendor of a used book store could ever be replaced by a downloadable library. Wandering blissfully among stacks of unpredictable literary finds is a pleasure. It is a sensual, intellectual event.

Furthermore, sharing the joy of genres with other bibliophiles, while turning one’s head sideways to read book spines, requires a physical book store. That brand of camaraderie, that literary bonding, will never be duplicated online.

Still, I do not begrudge the electronic book. I simply do not want it to replace my beloved Gutenberg descendants. The car replaced the horse. Electricity replaced candles. Computers replaced typewriters. It would be sad to see paper-bound books go the way of eight-track tapes.

I believe there is room for both paper and electronic doorways into popular reading. In fact, while a traditional book is my preference, I gladly accept another person’s love of the Kindle and its brethren as long as they all can continue to peacefully co-exist. When you think about it, both avenues nobly preserve a love of literature and reading.

We live in a world where reality television shows, virtual activities and a materialistic mall culture are circling our leisure time like hungry wolves. With literacy rates plunging and attention spans shrinking, any form of reading, any small demonstration of critical thinking, is a cause for euphoric celebration.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Good, the Vlad and the Ugly

(Dedicated to E Muraskin, Purveyor of PR)

Back in the days of the Cold War, he would have been the man dangling James Bond over a pool of hungry sharks. Today, he drives Formula One race cars, rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle, fights forest fires, saves tigers, plays the piano and croons to audiences at children’s benefits. Is this the same Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin who worked as a ruthless KGB agent, was associated with many shady business dealings and is thought—but not proven—to secretly hold more wealth than any other man in Russia? Is it possible that this Bond villain has turned a new leaf?

Putin lives dangerously, riding his Harley without a helmet.

Who knew, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) back in 1952 that little Vlad would grow up to rule Russia. Not bad for the son of a naval man who worked for the forerunner of the KGB and a mother who worked in a factory. Before Vlad grew up and made good, the only claim to fame his family had was that his grandfather was the cook for Lenin, and later, for Stalin. While Vlad is no longer President of the Russian Federation, due to term limits, he is still considered by many to be the most powerful man in Russia. These days, I guess you could call him the man behind the scenes.

At some point, ambition gives way to wanting to develop a legacy. So if you’ve directly or indirectly been associated with kidnapping, murder, corruption and other not-so-great stuff for many years, how do you clean up your image? Why through the miracle of public relations, of course!

If anyone can create revisionist history, then someone at the head of a communist propaganda machine should be able to make it happen. And the general public's lack of attention span is there to help him out. His “gotta-love-me” photo opts have included driving a Formula One race car to speeds of 240 kph (dare-devil Vlad), fighting for the endangered species of the world (environmentally conscious Vlad) and performing for charities (humanitarian Vlad). Perhaps in recognition of this media-darling coup, in 2007, Time magazine named Putin Person of the Year.

Despite that honor, I think that I, and many other women, first noticed a more human and accessible Putin during his fishing trip in 2009. That is when news outlets worldwide pictured our man stripped down to his waist, fishing pole in hand. There he stood, as nature intended, revealing previously undivulged biceps and washboard abs that would have easily qualified for the cover of any romance novel. Hubba, hubba.

Russians thought so, too. So they released a plastic model of the half-naked Putin tugging on his fishing line. This was a sexier, outdoorsman Vlad, but was he more accessible? President George Bush thought so, years earlier in 2001, when he said that looking into Vlad’s deep blue eyes left him with “a sense of Putin’s soul.” How many women would have liked to have shared that experience?


Vlad-gone-fishing plastic model.

More recently, a kinder and gentler Vlad came to the rescue with endangered felines. He won the heart of many environmentalists including celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio when he attended the International Tiger Conservation Forum which met in his hometown of St. Petersburg. There, he professed his love of the natural world and sense of immediacy for preserving it, making many climate-change believers and Sierra Club advocates weak in the knees. Ah, Vlad.

Just the other day, I saw a video of Putin playing the piano and singing at a children’s cancer charity benefit in Russia. It was attended by many U.S. celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Paul Anka, Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner and Mickey Rourke, as well as European actors Alain Delon, Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. As he sang a questionable rendition of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill in thickly accented English, they all smiled adoringly at him. What better international press endorsement?

In real life, Vlad is married to Lyudmila, a former flight attendant and language teacher. They have two daughters who are in their twenties and a black Labrador Retriever named Koni. The family accommodatingly stays out of the limelight, so we can get a better view of Vlad. And speaking for the female half of the world, I am looking forward to seeing what more Prime Minister Putin will reveal in the future. Maybe he could don a towel, step into a shower and do a follow-up campaign for Old Spice aftershave. “Hay-lo, leddies, eem Vlad, hur tuday to tock to yew abot Old Speece….”

Ahhhhhh, sweet d├ętente….

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Paranoia Is My Bedfellow

The thundering waves off Spring Lake, New Jersey in early November.

Every few years, I spend a weekend with two of my high school friends at the Jersey shore. This brief reunion offers us the chance to act like immature 14-year-olds again. Our momentous weekend this time began with an ill omen. One of us had to cancel at the last moment due to a case of irony—she came down with the flu following a flu shot.

This reduced our number to two, but we carried on. Shortly after checking in, we did the customary girl thing of visiting local shops, followed by a brisk walk along the steel blue ocean. The sea was restless, thundering onto the beach so loudly that we could hear it a few blocks away. After a wonderful dinner, we reverted to age and read until we were sleepy. Debi indulged herself in some trendy fiction while I, being less imaginative, read an antiquarian book about life in the Netherlands during the 1860s.

The next morning, we recharged with breakfast and resumed our itinerary of consumerism and nature. Little did we know that at midday, we would encounter something that would entirely alter our weekend. During a quick pit stop at our room, I managed, in the space of two minutes, to misplace our room key. This lapse in mental functioning made me feel disgusted and old. What happened next, could only be described as worse. In my search for the keys, I upended the sheets on my bed and exposed something I might otherwise have missed.

I called Debi back into the room and pointed out a lethargic bed bug clinging to my sheets. Debi placed it in a plastic sandwich bag and we went downstairs to present it to the desk clerk. We were immediately offered a new room, which we tentatively accepted. But inner hysteria slowly began to build, propelling us to a quick departure. Fortunately, we were given a full refund, but even if it had not been offered, they would have heard our tires screeching.

Due to the miracle of smart phones, we spent the drive home reading articles on how to avoid taking bed bugs home. We phoned our respective husbands with instructions and they stood at the ready. I unloaded my suitcase in the driveway and all clothes, as well as my coat, shoes and purse, were immediately dumped into a scalding hot clothes washer to be followed by more than 30 minutes in a hot dryer. Hair brushes, car keys or anything that could be boiled went into a large bubbling pot. Everything else was placed into sealed plastic bags. I walked directly into a hot shower, followed by a hot bath. Was this overkill? I don't know. It felt necessary.

The worst part of this experience was the paranoia it induced. I wondered how long it would be before we knew if we succeeded in avoiding an infestation. Should we invite friends and relatives to our home...ever again? Would we be shunned by everyone we knew?

My husband, a die-hard conspiracy theorist, was more than glad to ride on the coattails of my paranoia. He was convinced that a pesticide company developed this newest crop of bugs and released them on the world. Why? So they could introduce a proprietary insecticide and make tons of money. Or are bed bugs an insidious form of terrorism? Is Bin Laden laughing maniacally over these blood-sucking jihadists?

Fortunately, I work from home and do not have to travel for business. I have always enjoyed visiting new places, but I now think in terms of day trips only. Does this change in behavior amount to giving in to fear and relinquishing my personal liberty? Am I cowering in the tiny shadow of Cimex lectularius? For the time being, yes. But as Scarlett once said, "Tomorrow is another day."


Epilogue: More than a month has passed and there does not seem to be a sign of the little buggers. We're safe, for now....

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sweating the Small Stuff

Are you playing footsies with nanosilver? 
Photo is courtesy of Nanotechnology Citizen Engagement Organization which is located at 
http://www.nanoceo.net/nanoproducts_antibacterial.


I just read about a strange, new science. It’s called nanotechnology. Maybe it isn't so new to you, but I tend to lag behind the curve when it comes to new technologies.

Just what is nanotechnology? Well, it involves altering or building new materials from atoms. Researchers are working mostly with carbon and metals. These particles are smaller than a human hair and not visible to the eye. They can only be seen with powerful microscopes. Because these particles are so small, they often have unique properties that differ from the properties of the larger-scaled versions of, say, carbon or silver. So nanocarbon and nanosilver do not behave the same way as regular carbon or silver.

Why should we care? Like most things in science, nanomaterials have the potential to do great things or to do not-so-great things. They are currently being used in electronics, medicine, personal care products (like sunscreen and cosmetics) and clothing. Every day, new uses are being found for them. What is not fully understood is how well the particles stay in these products or whether exposure to nanoparticles is safe for the environment which, by the way, includes people.

Over the past 11 years, clothing manufacturers, mostly from China, South Korea and other Asian countries, have marketed a long list of clothing containing antimicrobial nanosilver, according to AOL News. What type of clothing? Bras, panties, men's underwear, jogging outfits and camping clothing have them. These products are sold as "odor-free" or "germ-proof" because of the properties of nanosilver.

Fullerenes, also known as bucky balls, are a type of nanoscale carbon. They have been used in cosmetics sold in Australia, Europe and the United States. Cosmetics with fullerenes have been removed from shelves in the European Union and Australia over safety concerns. Are they still sold in the U.S.? According to the Friends of the Earth, they are. Unfortunately, manufacturers may not list them as ingredients, so it is difficult to know to what extent they are used.

Who cares? Apparently, some pesky public health activists do. These party-poopers have concerns about the safety and health effects of exposure to these antimicrobial nanoparticles. Why? Because nanoparticles have not yet been thoroughly tested. Hmmmm. I guess that makes us all nano test pilots. Pretty cool, eh? And not just people, but plants and animals, too!

Silver is known to be toxic to aquatic life and plants. A recent study found that when socks impregnated with nanosilver are washed, silver particles end up in the drain water. Another found that nanosilver inhibits the growth of beneficial bacteria that help break down harmful chemicals in wastewater treatment plants. So why is that important? Let's track this: Nanoparticles wash out of clothing. Then they end up in our wastewater. They pass through water treatment plants. Finally, they end up in our waterways and oceans. Once that happens, nanosilver may affect organisms that live there. Nanoparticles may also affect people who drink and cook with the water. Basically, these little guys are slowly easing their way into our natural environments.

First, let’s talk aquatic life.

Nanosilver can affect the stuff we like to eat, and the stuff that our food likes to eat. Silver is more toxic than most other metals to many fresh- and salt-water organisms, ranging from phytoplankton and marine invertebrates (such as oysters and snails) to different types of fish. Apparently, it can affect these creatures in their immature stages.

Nanosilver can also affect plant life. At Duke University, biologist Ben Colman and his team of researchers exposed pond weeds to the same level of nanosilver that EPA studies had found in various water treatment facilities. What happened? Some of the species of plants were 22 percent smaller than identical plants that weren't subjected to the antibacterial agents. I guess you could call nanosilver anti-fertilizer.

Now let’s talk about people.

A Japanese study in 2009 found that nanoparticles of titanium oxide could be transferred from pregnant mice to their offspring, resulting in brain and nervous system damage as well as reduced sperm in male offspring. This is of concern because titanium dioxide is one of the most widely used nanoparticles, found in cosmetics, sunscreens, food packaging, paints, wall coatings, dirt repellant coatings for windows and car coatings.

Factories that use this technology expose people to a greater amount of nanoparticles than one would typically encounter in the use of a product. It stands to reason, however, that if these particles are safe then that should not pose a problem, right?

Well, word of advice, if you plan to work in a manufacturing facility that uses nanoparticles, consider holding your breath. Nanoparticles in a paint factory in China were linked to the deaths of two women, and another five were left with permanent lung damage according to a Reuters report. The women had worked in the factory for 5 to 13 months. English biophysicist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho wrote in an Institute of Science in Society report that these first cases of "suspected nanotoxicity" reinforced concerns that nanotechnology is racing ahead in an unregulated market despite mounting evidence that many nanoingredients are toxic. What! Corporate profits ahead of public safety? Nooooooooooo! 

So in a world filled with all sorts of things that make it hard to relax, we now have a new army of tiny invaders that could do great things for society—or not. This should make any responsible citizen want to spring into action.

But popular literature tells us not to sweat the small stuff, so I think I’ll just go take a nap.

Postscript: To see a small sample of products made with nanosilver, go to: http://howardhughes.trinity.duke.edu/blogs/2009/06/21/nanosilver-research-baby-products.  For a more complete list, go to http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/consumer/search/?keywords=silver&company=0&country_origin=0&categories=0&subcategories=0&search=1. Not all products listed are available in the U.S.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The End Is Near...Kinda

This cheerful painting of Armageddon was painted in 1852 by Joseph Paul Pettit.


I recently was invited to a Year 2013 Party on Facebook. I accepted. Apparently, this event is meant to bravely defy the prediction that the world is coming to a fiery end on December 21, 2012.  

New Age writers cite the Mayan and Aztec calendars, which predict the end of the world on that date. Not to be outdone by the ancients, Michael Drosnin wrote The Bible Code in 1997 in which he divined a hidden message in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible also known as the Torah). The secret messages he found predicted that a comet will crash into the earth in 2012 and wipe out all life.

So… should I skip holiday shopping in 2012 and stop saving for retirement?

Human beings seem to have an unhealthy preoccupation with the End Time. We celebrate it with movies like The Day the Earth Caught Fire, When Worlds Collide and...er...2012. More recently, the concept of apocalypse has merrily skipped over into a new, more trendy genre—zombies. And, of course, technology has always stood ready to do its part in ending the world as we know it.

Remember the year 2000? Computers up to that point had recorded years in two digits instead of four. So we naturally assumed that our modern world would implode when the atomic clock crossed into the new millennium. We happily awaited our doom—from the destruction of our banking systems and government agencies to our military complex. Poof. New Year's Day 2000 finally arrived and the only cataclysmic event for most people was a hangover from the night before.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Approaching the year 1000, general hysteria ruled in Europe. It was predicted that Christ would return that year on January 1 and Judgment Day would be at hand. During December of 999, people assumed their very best behavior, sold their possessions and gave the money to the poor, made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, neglected crops and opened the doors of jails to release criminals. When the year finally ended and Year 1000 trotted in, big disappointment. Nothing happened. It was, however, a good year for the poor and the paroled.

It is worth noting that only “educated” people knew the date. The average peasant had no idea what year it was. Not to mention that the European calendar was not recognized in most other parts of the world where they were celebrating entirely different-numbered years—and stubbornly continue to do so to this day.

Still, a generalized sense of terror lingered on into the year 1000. Emperor Otto III of Germany decided that the only way to stave off a visitation from the impending anti-Christ was to exhume Charlemagne’s body during Pentecost. Don't laugh. No anti-Christ ever showed up, so apparently, it worked.

Unfortunately, the underlying obsession with annihilation was not extinguished. In 1186, the Letter of Toledo—supposedly written by the astrologers of Toledo, Spain, and sent to Pope Clement III
cautioned everyone to hide out in the caves and mountains. The world was coming to an end and only a select few would be spared. The world, however, had not been informed and continued to go on.

In 1415, a religious group called the Taborites, located somewhere near Prague, divined that if they could defeat their persecutors—you guessed it—the world would end and Christ would reign. Following a gospel that read “Accursed be the man who withholds his sword from shedding the blood of the enemies of Christ,” they attacked the German army. How credible was their prophecy? We will never know. The Germans crushed the Taborites, scattering the survivors.

Neighboring Taborites in Czechoslovakia followed a slightly different timetable. They believed that in 1420 every city would be destroyed by fire. Only five mountain strongholds would be saved. That didn't pan out. Still, due to a less aggressive approach—not picking on the German armythey were slightly better off than the Prague branch.

In 1666, inhabitants of London suspected it might be the End Time, but they had good reason. They were hit with a double calamity: The Great Fire of 1666 burned much of London to the ground and an outbreak of Bubonic Plague killed more than 100,000 people. Throw in that the year ended with 666, and there was a convincing case that the world was a goner.

Fast-forward to more recent times. In the early 1800s, Mary Bateman, also known as the Yorkshire Witch, amazed people with her magic fortune-telling chicken. Whenever the chicken laid eggs, a message was written on them. One message predicted the second coming of Christ. Once again, people found this a bit unsettling. Calm was only restored after an unannounced visitor caught the fortune-teller forcing an egg back into the hen. Poor Mary was later hanged for poisoning a rich client. Sadly, there is no information on whatever became of the chicken.

The list goes on, which brings us to the question at hand: Where will YOU be on December 21, 2012?

Will you be busily burning in a fiery Armageddon? Will you rise up in a giddy state of Rapture? Will you be petitioning our government to exhume the remains of Charlemagne? (Worked before!) Or, will you be busy watching extensive coverage of the 2012 end-of-the-world prophecy on 24-hour cable news? My uneducated guess is the latter. After all, there really isn't anything more important for news networks to cover these days, is there?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Disturbing the Peace

 The sun: more than just a source of Vitamin D.

I’m not asking for anything special. I just want my spouse to make a commitment in the morning. A commitment to get up the first time the alarm clock goes off. Instead, he hits the snooze button five times before he finally drags himself out of bed. Since I do not need to get up until half hour after he does, his waking habits destroy my last 30 minutes of morning drowse time. Imagine wandering about peacefully on fluffy dream clouds, only to be hit by a bolt of lightning every five minutes.

Sadly, my expulsion from paradise doesn’t stop there. Later in the day when I go to the grocery store, a television is nattering away in an endless loop while I check out my purchases. The constant din is annoying. Like some insidious science fiction invasion, televisions have mysteriously crept into doctors’ offices, corporate lobbies, malls and restaurants. Their dark purpose is to stream product propaganda into the unconsenting ears of us all. Their inescapable blare is strangely reminiscent of 1984.

Equally eerie is the compulsive need people have to file cellular reports on their every move to friends. “I’m in the store now, I’m at the cash register, I’m paying the sales clerk….” Really? Do your disaffected friends need to know all that? When these callers are not screaming at their cell phones, they—Bluetooth in ear—are talking to themselves. People used to be institutionalized for that type of behavior. Now it’s mainstream.

Don’t get me started about leaf blowers, chain saws and motorcycles. My neighborhood has all three, and on a Saturday morning it sounds like the soundtrack of an amateur horror movie.

I like silence. I like hearing myself think. A day at the library or a hike in a park seem to be the only refuge for people like me. Is it asking too much to be able to go about my daily business without constantly being assaulted with ear pollution?

Fortunately, there is hope. I understand that sunspots can be very disruptive to electronic signals. According to NASA,  there’s an 11-year cycle of them that will reach its peak around June of 2013. During that time period their number may increase from zero to 100 sunspots. Many people are concerned about how that type of phenomenon may affect television and cell phone transmissions. I'm not one of them.