Thursday, December 20, 2012

Liquefy Yourself!

I’m making good progress with my lifestyle changes.  So far my weight is down two percent in the last couple of weeks, and I’ve noticed some increased energy.  My legs are a little sore from all of the walking, but no pain no gain, right?

One thing I did not mention from my weight-loss post two weeks or so ago was the importance of staying hydrated.  This really seems like an elementary school concept, one that most people would smack their heads and loudly proclaim “Duh!” over, but it has always been a huge problem for me.  I guess I just figured I was getting enough fluids in my body through the things that I drank, and that the 8 cups of water thing was vastly overrated.  I also always thought that 8 cups of water meant 8 cups of liquid, and I was surely getting that.

Again, I’m no expert in this, but I think that if you are drinking soda and juice and other beverages in lieu of your 8 cups of water, you might be hijacking your weight-loss goals.  Aside from all the calories and sugar you are consuming, beverages containing caffeine may just be flushing all the fluids straight back out of you (too many trips to the bathroom, maybe?)  While some diuretics are good, especially for ailments like high blood pressure, flushing the fluids back out of your body at an elevated rate seems, at least to me, to be the same as not even drinking them in the first place.  Yes, you may be flushing sodium and things that aren’t healthy for you, but your body is roughly 60% water, so flushing out excessively by drinking beverages that are diuretics doesn’t sound like the healthiest thing to me.  I could be wrong on that one, but it makes sense, right?

Even just looking at it from a layman's perspective, drinking other fluids in place of water doesn’t make much sense.  You don’t wash your clothes or dishes with soda or juice, do you?  You wash it with water, because water is (hopefully) clean.  You clean your floors with water.  You wash your car with water.  Water is pure and has zero calories.  And if you try to argue that diet sodas have zero calories, try mopping your floor with a can of diet soda and see how clean it feels afterwards.  Eww.

Water is great at deception, because when you drink it, it tricks your tummy into thinking you’ve eaten something.  Drink two cups of water a half hour before a meal, and you’re probably going to want to eat a little less than normal.  Do it for all of your meals, and you’re probably going to end up quite a few calories shy of your normal dietary intake.

Water has other benefits too, like keeping your skin looking good and healthy, keeping you regular, etc.  Seems like a no-brainer to drink it.  But here’s where I and lots of others get stuck.  I remember my dad once saying, “I’m not going to drink water.  That’s all I had to drink when I was younger, and so now I’ll drink whatever I want.”  It’s a very common perspective.  Water is so ho-hum.  It doesn’t taste like anything.  You’d naturally rather drink something with flavor.  Well, you could always get the flavored waters or packets to add to your water, but I always found them to taste like weak Kool Aid--no doubt because all of the sugary soft drinks and fruit drinks I've had my entire life have messed up my palate.  And adding those flavor packets to your water 8 times a day can be expensive and a hassle, and it’s not something that someone who is struggling with their weight may be able to do consistently.

Here’s what I’ve trained myself to do.  In the morning, I’ll get up, and the first thing I do is get a 16 ounce glass of it and gulp it down.  By doing that, I’m already a quarter of the way to my 8 cup goal.  Oh yeah!  *said like the Kool Aid man*  It also helps when your water is cold, so if you don’t have a water cooler, put some tap water in a pitcher and keep it in the refrigerator.  Ice cold water, at least for me, goes down so much more easily than cool or luke-warm water does.

I have a 24-ounce plastic cup with a plastic straw that I keep in the office with me.  As soon as I get to work, I fill that up and try to have it empty by lunch.  I don’t really sip at it, though.  I’ve tried that, and it always seems like I have way too much left with 10 minutes to go before noon.  Instead I’ll chug about a third of it every hour or so.  That’s a cup an hour, and so typically by the time I’m done with work, I’ll have had my 8 cups.  Easy peasy.

If you are following along with me in trying to make some lifestyle changes, here’s a good assignment for you.  Get a measuring cup and some clear glasses, and measure yourself out 8 cups of water.  Then look at what you have.  That’s what is recommended that you drink each day.  Most of us will probably be surprised by that amount.  But when you start to develop a routine of drinking it more often, you won’t even think about it.  It will just become a natural part of your life.

And if you’re a heavy soda drinker like I am (was), perhaps it will even curb your appetite for those types of beverages.  After all, it’s hard to drink a can of soda when your belly is so full of water!


P.S.  This will most likely be my last post until the New Year.  Like everyone else, the next two weeks are going to be busy busy busy with the typical end-of-the-year merriment.  So happy holidays, and enjoy the time you have with your loved ones!

Monday, December 17, 2012

America's Tragedy - A Commentary on Mass Shootings


I’ve been thinking long and hard over the weekend regarding my words over the tragedy of Newtown, CT.  I think any parent would say that those children are our children, the nation's children, and while very few of us can know what it feels like to be their parents, our hearts ache for them.  This tragedy rips open a wound in our country so large that the scar will be there forever and may never heal.

Last night President Obama spoke at the memorial service in Newtown.  His words were strong, and his message was clear.  With this being his fourth memorial service for mass shooting victims, it is time that this country take a stand.  This cannot continue.

And yet I read of five other similar incidents that occurred over the weekend.  In Indiana, a man with 47 guns threatened to go to a nearby elementary school and kill more children.  In Oklahoma, a student was arrested, luckily, after planning to bomb and shoot kids in his school on the very same day as the Newtown massacre.  In Kansas, two police officers were shot and killed outside of a grocery store.  In Chicago, a city long known for horrible gun violence, two people died and 15 more were wounded in separate incidents across the city.  In California, 50 shots were fired outside of a mall.  I’m sure there were probably more incidents like these.  All of these reports came after we lost 20 beautiful angels.

What is wrong with us???

America has a real problem.  It’s not taxes on the wealthy.  It’s not unemployment.  Despite those problems currently being addressed by our nation’s government, raising tax rates on the rich folks is not going to prevent innocent people—CHILDREN—from losing their precious lives.  Action must be taken to stop this.

So what needs to be done?  Well first, I look at all of these suspects and assailants, and I notice a common theme in them.  James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Jared Loughner, Seung-Hui Cho.  All males in their late teens to early twenties.  Mostly white.  The correlations between the mass-killing violence and sex and age of the perpetrators, at the very least, can’t be denied.

Today I watched as some guy in his early twenties cut me and three others off on my eight-minute drive to work.  He then had stopped in a left turning lane, and as I drove past him and looked over, he had this blank stare on his face.  He didn’t care about anyone or anything else—just getting where he had to go.  And the other day as I was walking into a convenience store, a twenty-something guy opened the door right in front of me just enough so that he could enter, making me lunge for it instead of holding it open for me.  He was in his own little world, unobservant and/or completely apathetic to the people around him.  Desensitized and uncaring.  Two minor annoyances in the grand scheme of things, but a common theme nonetheless.

This morning I saw something that completely horrified me.  I must warn you, the language here is  incredibly graphic: http://deadspin.com/5968935/take-that-nigger-off-the-tv-we-wanna-watch-football-idiots-respond-to-nbc-pre+empting-sunday-night-football.  As I sat, tears welling up at the corners of my eyes as President Obama spoke at the memorial last evening, these insolent people not only were upset about NBC’s choice of programming (something I can’t even fathom) but actually had the wherewithal to go online and rant about it with such vulgar words.

What is wrong with us??

In examining the demographics of the perpetrators of these mass killings, we’re looking at somewhere between 5-10% of our population by age and race.  Most of these perpetrators have had mental or psychological issues.    Add in the warning signs and red flags, and we can probably narrow it down to fractions of a percent.  So if we say 0.5%, we’re talking about 1.5 million people.  That’s an average of 30,000 per state, or a little less than 500 per county.  I’m speaking in averages here, so some may be many more and others may be many less, but 500 per county doesn’t seem like an awful lot of people to keep track of.  It would at least provide us with a good starting point.

I think the first step has to be identification and intervention.  These people are deeply troubled individuals, and we need to figure out what’s going on inside their heads.  I was reading this article today, http://www.today.com/moms/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother-another-moms-cry-help-1C7625059, and my heart goes out to this woman.  Obviously her son is one of the ones I’d include.  But we can’t just round them all up and lock them up.  We need to get them the professional mental health treatment they need.  And unfortunately that may be a lot easier said than done.  But it’s a first step, and even if it stopped one massacre, wouldn’t it be worth it?

I’ve read that a couple of celebrities (one apparently now a hoax) came out and commented that God has been taken out of our schools, and that if we had more religion, we’d see less of these situations.  That’s another point that is hard to argue.  I’m not a very religious person myself, but I did have parents who taught me strong morals and ethics.  I was permitted to watch R-rated movies when I was young, but I was not desensitized to the violence.  My mother explained to me that these movies were fiction and that the motives of the villains were unethical and evil.  I learned the difference between right and wrong, and that’s what is important.  I think far too many of us today, especially the younger generations, are not being taught or are not comprehending such a basic idea.  It is morally and spiritually and reprehensibly wrong to hurt or take the life of another individual.

We need to have better security in the places where people gather.  That would primarily include schools and churches, but places like malls, movie theaters, and workplaces where hundreds or thousands of people come together need to be better protected.  Buildings that have more than, say, 100 occupants should be required to have at least one trained security person—someone who is fit enough mentally, physically, and emotionally to handle and hopefully prevent a situation like Aurora or Newtown or Tucson from ever occurring.  I also think everyone over the age of 16 should be heavily encouraged to take a self-defense and emergency response class.  This should be taught in our schools by trained professionals—teachers—who would work full-time in the schools as well and that would lead a crisis team in the event of an armed assailant.  It could even be worked directly into the physical fitness courses.

And finally, our country must have a serious discussion regarding its love of guns.  I'm rather neutral with respect for guns.  I'm not overly fond of them, but I understand the need for them (like hunting deer so that I don't have to hit them with my car).  I have a close friend, a gun enthusiast, that has offered repeatedly to take me to a local gun range, and I’m interested now more than ever to go with him and learn everything he has to teach me.  I’ve fired a few guns in my lifetime—a few times with my father and uncle—but I understand that guns are made for one thing—wounding or killing another animal or a human being.

The Second Amendment states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  And I agree whole-heartedly with this concept.  But we need to more closely examine the words of our founding fathers.  Even a cursory glance at Wikipedia’s article on the Second Amendment, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Second_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution, will tell you that the right to bear arms seems to have been interpreted many different ways by many different men.  Some mention a “well-regulated” or “properly formed” militia.  One would think that would imply gun owners to be registered and trained.  Others discuss the need to use them “against the red man and the beast of the forest.”  Some of the context seems vague or ambiguous at times, and very much outdated considering some of the language.  Perhaps an amendment to an amendment needs to occur.  And before anyone starts objecting to changes in law, such a thing is not unheard of, as the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed the sale and manufacturing of alcohol and then was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment.  It’s happened, and I think it may need to happen again.

I’ve seen a lot of talk over the weekend with the usual adage that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  That’s very true.  The only difference is that guns are specifically designed for the purpose of wounding or killing.  Knives are used to cut many things such as fabric, meat, etc.  A club is used for tenderizing meat or, say, pounding in a post.  Even bombs can be used by destruction companies and for transportation crews in building roads.  But guns serve no other person than to shoot something, and often times the wounds inflicted by them are deadly.

I read someone saying that cars kill more people than guns.  That’s true as well, but cars are primarily used to transport people.  They aren’t primarily used for wounding or death.  And, car owners have rigorous demands, including a title and tag at each sale, driver training, written test, driving test, health requirements, insurance on each vehicle, renewals and inspections, and penalties if these things aren’t met.  By contrast, my friend was able to buy an AK assault rifle through someone on Craiglist a few weeks ago—no questions asked--as if buying a gun is akin to buying used furniture or car parts.  The rate at which these mass shootings are happening, I wouldn’t be surprised if gun violence overtakes car crash deaths in the next few years.  After all, there are four times more guns than there are cars.  And when gun violence starts killing 2 or 4 or 8 times more people than it already does now, what then?

I firmly believe that you must be trained to own a gun.  That should be an absolute requirement--at least a 4-week training course with a permit given afterwards.  I also believe that guns must be registered in a national database.  It would also make a lot of sense that gun owners be required to have insurance on each gun owned, and if you argue that point, imagine your 16-year-old son with mental health issues taking your gun from your house and shooting up a school with it.  You don’t think civil action will be taken against you if you were even the tiniest amount negligent in the handling or storage of your firearms?  And as for other requirements, well, I would fully support health (particularly mental) exams as well.  You would not be permitted to purchase or own a gun until you passed that exam, and just like with the driving tests, after failing so many you'd be done.

But would these measures stop all gun violence?  No, of course not, but making it more difficult for people to legally own guns (and increasing the criminal penalties for violating those rules) would certainly have an impact on mass-shootings.  I can think of at least two—Jared Loughner and James Holmes—who would not have been able to own weapons had they been forced to take mental competency exams, and that may very well have prevented them from murdering dozens of people.

And even further, I don’t understand the need for amassing weapons.  To some, gun ownership is a hobby.  Like my good friend, people have several guns that they collect and shoot at a range.  I don’t see any problem with that.  But owning more than five guns seems a bit excessive.  I don’t think we should necessarily limit the number of guns people can own, but at least if we have them registered in a national database, the government will know which people around town own large number of guns so that they can keep an eye on them (or more importantly their teenage sons with mental health issues).  And if insurance is required on guns, that would prevent people from amassing large quantities of firearms.  Nobody would be willing to pay $50/year on 50 separate guns ($2500) in addition to permits, inspections, etc.

But the bottom line is, if someone has the motive and drive to hurt someone else, and nothing is done to prevent that person from doing so, he is going to do it.  In China’s Henan province, a man slashed 23 elementary school children the same day as the Newtown massacre.  All of those children survived though.  Had the man had an assault rifle, I doubt they’d have been so lucky.  But people will still make pipe bombs, and a pipe bomb tossed into a crowded area could cause just as many fatalities.

If everyone carried a gun, perhaps these massacres could be avoided (a highly reiterated theme of NRA members), but you simply can’t put a gun in everyone’s hand—especially children or hospital patients or the elderly, and most people won’t want them anyway.  That’s not the solution.  And even encouraging more people to carry will only end up putting them in the wrong hands.  Can you imagine how many road rage incidents or skirmishes in shopping lines during Black Friday would end in tragedy if more people walked around with hand guns?

In order to prevent massacres, we can’t just sit here and do nothing.  If we don't take action, this is going to keep happening.  We need to come up with a solution—a combination of actions—to stop the violence.  I am frustrated by the number of pro-gun people who say limiting guns is not the solution and the number of anti-gun people who say prohibiting guns is.  Most solutions are never as black and white as that.  The solution to this problem will happen only if numerous steps and actions are taken.

If a person needs mental help, especially a male in his teens or twenties with violent outbursts, we need to make sure he’s getting therapy and love and medicine.  We need to make sure that these people are cared for, and the duty falls not only on their parents (who are often times overwhelmed and solely blamed) but also on society.  Whether it be through discounts or subsidies to mental health services or outreach programs or whatever, the assistance needs to be apparent, cheap, and readily available for these individuals.  And we need to make sure these people have NO ACCESS TO GUNS.

We need to crack down harder on bullying.  I know it may sound like an unrelated issue, but it is not.  In twelve of fifteen cases of school shooting in the 90s, the perpetrators were bullied.  Kids who are bullied develop deep, long-lasting resentments toward their tormentors (and often school officials who allowed it to happen), and sometimes those resentments will result in retaliation.  Bullying needs to be a crime, and punishments for these crimes should be heavy, including steep fines, school suspensions and expulsions, and even prison in extreme cases.

We need to increase security everywhere—having trained professionals, likely armed, available everywhere to deal with this threat.  I recall my high school, 18 years ago or so, that had numerous doors unlocked during the day and no security whatsoever.  I think it might have acquired a security guard at one point, but from what I heard and understand, the man would not have been prepared at all to handle a situation like Columbine.  That needs to change, and if laws were enacted that would require trained security in high-occupancy buildings—we’d see a huge difference.  And you know, this would be a great job for all of those veterans returning from deployments.  And we need to seriously redefine our civilians’ rights to bear arms.  Not take guns away, but at least make it substantially harder for these troubled individuals to obtain their weapons.  Even the tiniest of steps on this front could make a huge difference.

Please, feel free to debate this with me by posting a comment below.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sad Day for America


There is a problem in this country when eighteen of our little ones are gunned down in cold blood.

Our hearts go out to the families of Newtown, Connecticut and Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Social Networks are Great…but for Catching Criminals??

So our local police department has started a Facebook page, and they have thousands of followers in only a few weeks.  Quite impressive for a smaller city in central Pennsylvania, but then again, one of the best forms of entertainment in this area is reading crime reports and watching the news to see if you know anyone who was busted.  Very sad, but true.

At first I thought this was a great idea, but now I’m not quite so sure.  Their first few posts seemed as if they were meant to help solve crimes, posting pictures of wanted individuals, stolen vehicles, etc.  And I think that’s great.  I’ve always thought that the public and especially social media could be an invaluable tool for helping to rid our streets of crime.  And sure enough, when a minivan was stolen and security camera pictures of the suspects were posted to Facebook, arrests were made shortly thereafter.  Great job to all!

But then yesterday they posted around 40 pictures of individuals rounded up in a drug bust.  Some of them were captured, but a few of them were still out on the streets, and the police department was asking the public for help in finding them.  Many of them had previous arrests for drugs, violence, etc., including a few well-known (notorious) individuals.

This morning as I was checking my Facebook news feed, I noticed numerous people had commented on some of the drug bust pictures.  As I began scrolling down through the comments, I instantly recognized a problem.  Many people were enthusiastic about these people being off the streets, but some were lashing out at the police department for posting the pictures.  The PD actually responded to the comments by saying that posting them on Facebook is no different than being featured on the television news or in newspapers, and I can understand their point.  However, one of my Facebook friends questioned what they’d do if one or some of these people were acquitted of the charges.  Would they post THAT on their Facebook page?  Probably not.

It seems they are walking a fine line here with regards to their posts.  I support them 100% in putting up requests for leads on crimes and missing persons cases, but posting pictures of arrested individuals blurs the picture.  Some of these people complained that the kids of the arrested individuals would see the pictures and the comments posted below, and that the negative comments under the pictures would cause harm to a children’s psyche.  In response to that, I want to say that it was their parent who broke the law and ended up with his/her picture there, and that it’s not the PD’s fault for bad parenting, but what happens in the event that someone is wrongly accused?

I personally know quite a few people that have had run-ins with the law.  Hearing their side of their crimes gives a person a completely different perspective of the judicial system.  A crime story always has two sides, and most often the police and courts are in the right, but I’ve had to seriously question some of the charges and decisions made by the authorities.  In one instance, a person out on work-release was being followed by a vengeful cop, and something so harmless as stopping at a fast food drive-thru for lunch on his/her way to pick up supplies for his/her job was reported to prosecutors who demanded his/her work-release be revoked.  The warden was fine with the lunch—even said others did it all the time—but the cop and his buddy prosecutors pushed hard on the judge, and he/she ended up having to serve the final few weeks of his/her sentence behind bars.  All because a cop didn’t like him/her.

And the very same local police department with the Facebook page has had numerous issues with its own officers.  Just a few years ago, two off-duty officers attacked a man in a restaurant bathroom.  A patron was also in the bathroom at the time, and upon trying to break up the fight, the two officers attacked him as well.  Both men received substantial injuries as a result.  Both officers were visibly intoxicated and have since been dismissed from the force.  I don’t know the full story, but I don’t think either officer was arrested at the time (signs of a cover-up were identified later), and the PD spent an inordinate amount of time investigating before ultimately dismissing the officers.

I’m not surprised by the protect-your-own mentality.  I think that’s common anywhere people work.  Coworkers become family, and even police officers aren’t immune.  We’ve all seen movies and television shows where one bad cop has a bunch of other bad cops covering for him.  Most of these are grossly exaggerated, but to say that sort of thing doesn’t happen on some level is a bit na├»ve.

But would the PD post the pictures of these two off-duty officers on its Facebook page?  I highly doubt it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the effort being made by the PD to catch criminals, and I fully support the efforts of the police in eradicating crime.  And if I have information with regards to anything they post, I'll certainly be sharing it with them.  But my concern is that these postings need to be done in a fair and consistent manner.  If someone is acquitted or released of the charges pending against him/her, post that as well.  If it’s another cop or a judge or someone in a position of authority, post that too.  Don’t discriminate.

And speaking of discrimination, I’ve also noticed another issue that may pop up over the next few months regarding the races of the people in the pictures and racism in general.  I was going to include those thoughts here, but my post would have been entirely too long, so I’ll save it for my next one.  Anyway, what are your thoughts about your local PD posting pictures of those arrested on Facebook?  Good idea or bad?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Routines or Ruts?

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times, and I’m an idiot.  Especially if I'm fooling myself.  Well, maybe I'm not an idiot, but sometimes we allow ourselves to get so caught up in our routines that we fail to see how they may possibly adversely affect our lives.  We just keep doing the same things over and over and over, perhaps even never realizing that a different option may exist.  We fool ourselves into thinking our solution is the best.  If at first you don’t succeed, try try again?  Well, what happens if you’ve tried, succeeded, and have stuck with that same method forever—never realizing that a different approach may lead to better success and more substantial rewards?

Take, for instance, my love of iced coffee.  I know this sounds like I'm going off on a tangent, but I'm really not.  I’ve been drinking iced coffee stuff for as long as it’s been popular.  I love Starbucks, although I more frequently (daily) would go to McDonalds and pick up a sugar-free vanilla iced coffee on my way to work.  Occasionally I’d stop at Sheetz and get the Sheetz brand canned stuff, but McDonalds was always my restaurant of choice.

And wouldn't you know it, but every month I’d blow up my personal meal budget.  I allot myself a certain amount of money to spend on breakfast and lunch every month, and every month I’d go over by $20 or $30 or $40.  Not a lot, but enough to make a dent in my overall finances.  And I’d been doing this for YEARS.  I know I probably should have increased my personal budget, but I never did—instead trying time and again to stay below it.

Of course, each and every time I got my iced coffee, I’d get a breakfast sandwich with it.  Sometimes a hash brown.  Occasionally I’d get two breakfast sandwiches if they had a 2 for $3 deal.  Those times were always great for my budget, but they weren’t very good for my waistline.

Again, I must stress that I’d been doing this for YEARS.  Long before my son was born.  Even before I bought my house—back when I rented a townhouse a decade ago on the other side of town.  When you are doing something that long, it just becomes part of your normal, everyday life.  Like putting on pants or shampooing your hair, you do it daily and forget about it.

For the past week, I’ve not visited McDonalds.  The drive thru employees who practically know me by name must be wondering if something happened to me.  No, instead I’ve been making my own coffee.  And, my lovely wife, who daily has made breakfast and lunch for herself and lunch and snacks for our son for years, began making breakfast and lunch for me as well.  What takes her three extra minutes in the morning now is eliminating an 8-minute detour on my way to work.  And $10-$15/day spent on food.

That’s 225 work days out of the year when you subtract holidays and paid time off in 2013.  Taking the $10/day low estimate, that’s $2250 in a year.  Yes, our grocery bill may be a little higher, but we were buying the food anyway for my wife and son, so it’s not going to go up by much.  Maybe $250 over the course of the year?  That’s still a savings of over $2000!

My wife’s prepared breakfast, which is typically a large scrambled egg and some turkey sausage on an English muffin, with the addition of my coffee, comes to about 390 calories.  A medium sugar-free vanilla iced coffee, Egg McMuffin, and hashbrown from McDonalds is 540 calories.  That’s a 150 calorie deficit for breakfast.  My wife’s prepared lunch, typically a turkey sandwich on a multigrain bagel thin with yellow mustard and a slice of provolone cheese and, my indulgent need, a can of Red Bull comes to 450 calories  And sometimes I'll even swap the Red Bull for a Diet Coke.  But even opting for healthier options at fast food restaurants, I’d been consuming somewhere between 500 and 700 calories at lunch.  So on average, I’m saving 150 calories at breakfast and 150 calories at lunch, or 300 calories on the day.

So this seems like a no-brainer.  Pack my breakfast and lunch, save 5 minutes each morning, $2000 per year, and 300 calories a day (or 19 lbs in a year if you add up the calories for all of those work days and divide it by 3500—with 3500 being the total amount of calories burned to equal 1 lb lost).  Pretty amazing, right?

Sometimes our routines can be detrimental to us, and often times we don’t even know it.  It seems to be a repeat theme for me over the past week and a half—since I got my Fitbit activity tracker—because my past routines had me sitting on my butt way more than I should.  Now I’m up and walking around as often as I can—even using a timer to help me remember to get up.  I’m consciously making an effort to get in 10,000 steps a day, which is not easy for a desk jockey, but I’m doing it.  And hey, wouldn’t you know that I’m already down 4 lbs since I started last week.  Really amazing, huh?

Maybe we all need to take a step back and examine our lives.  If you drive all day for work, maybe you should plug in your route on Google or Bing Maps—you never know how much time or gas you could save.  If you are constantly having problems sleeping, maybe you need to make adjustments to your schedule.  Or maybe you just need to talk to someone about what is keeping you up at night—rather than letting those thoughts bother you (and you alone).  If you have financial problems, maybe you need to go over your monthly bills with a fine-toothed comb rather than just paying them month after month.  Because you never know—that cable or cell phone bill may be hiding unused costs like unnecessary HD cable boxes or a too-large data plan.  One example: for about two years I was getting billed every three months on a credit card for Xbox Live—and I’m not a gamer.  We used the service maybe a handful of times when we first bought our Xbox 360.  I finally cancelled the service (which was a bit of a pain), but now I’m saving $100/year.  All because I made some changes to my routine.

I’d guess 99% of us have some routine in our lives that needs to be examined for alternate and healthier/better solutions.  Even something as simply innocent as our parking places could be part of our problems.  Park close to the door, and it takes you twenty-five steps to get inside.  Park on the other side of the parking lot, and it takes you a hundred and twenty-five.  Walking that extra hundred steps four times a day (once in the morning, once out for lunch, once back in after lunch, and once out at the end of the day) will really add up over time.  Because 2000 steps is roughly a mile, so in a single day you are adding 1/5 of a mile to your daily activity level.  And in a 5-day work week, there you go, you just walked a mile.  Congratulations!

The point is, we need to switch up some things in our lives a little to take full advantage of them.  Why?  Because our innocent daily routines could really be ruts, and getting stuck in a rut is never a good thing.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

You Can't Do Your Job Properly

I had to grit my teeth this morning over a package of Cool Mint Oreo cookies on my kitchen counter.  Not because of my post yesterday (although I probably should be gritting my teeth for that reason) but because of how they ended up there.

Tuesday night, after a trip to the hospital for routine testing on our soon-to-be born second child, we made a trip to the grocery store.  The time was around 8ish, and we had to get home and get our little guy bathed and to bed, so we rushed through the store, grabbing what we needed.  The place was relatively empty, and only two checkout lines were open, so we proceeded into one of them, unloaded our groceries onto the belt, and then waited for the cashier to scan them and the bagger to put them in bags and into our cart.

Except, perhaps because the store was empty, the bagger was chit-chatting with another cashier—probably the office cashier—who had come up and was also bagging our groceries.  You’d think with two of them bagging we’d have been out of there fast, but these two were chatting it up so much that neither of them was paying much attention to actually doing their jobs.  They were talking about hunting and eating deer meat and blah blah blah, and as my wife finished paying the cashier at the register, a good third of our items were still waiting to be bagged.  I then watched, a little annoyed, as the cashier began scanning the groceries of the person after us, sending them down the belt right into our pile of things.  And wouldn’t you know but the bagger—not paying any attention—picked up THEIR oranges and began to put them in our cart.

The cashier stopped him, luckily, and I thought a mistake had been averted and that all the groceries ended up in the proper places.  But apparently not.  This morning, as I was standing in the kitchen making my coffee, I looked over and saw those Oreos.  I asked my wife where they came from (knowing SHE wouldn’t put them in the cart), and she blamed them on me.  She was so insistent about it that, for a brief moment, I actually thought I had blacked out during our shopping trip and actually DID put them in the cart in some sort of drunken Oreo-craving stupor.  Then I thought maybe my 3-year-old might have snagged them off a shelf and tossed them in, but he hasn’t done anything like that (yet), and I knew that it had to be that inattentive bagger.

Ordinarily I probably would have shook my head or laughed this off, but what ticks me off about this is that the manager of this grocery store, a guy named Dave R., was my former boss.  You see, during my sophomore year of college, after having transferred from Pitt to PSU, I was living back home and looking for part-time work.  My girlfriend at the time had applied to the BiLo grocery store (a different store and chain than the one we go to now), and they called her about the job.  She didn’t have consistent transportation to work the hours they wanted, but she mentioned that I was looking for work, and so they called me and I went in and interviewed for a “carry-out clerk” position.

The store manager, Dave R., was in his late 30s at the time, and he conducted the interview, which was rather juvenile if I recall.  I sat in a room with another girl (who I discovered several years later was the then girlfriend of one of my best friends now), and he proceeded to ask us a bunch of silly questions loosely pertaining to morals and ethics.  One of them that I recall: if you found a $5 bill on the ground in the parking lot, what would you do with it?  I’m sure that lots of people would fail this interview, and I tried not to let it insult my intelligence as I responded that I’d turn it into the office.  He then actually had me take a math test where I had to solve about 10 addition and subtraction problems.  Mind you, I was taking a partial differentiation calculus course in college, which I explained to Mr. Dave R., but he told me this was standard procedure.  So a week later he calls and asks when I could start.  I remember we had planned a trip to the beach that week, so I started a week later than that girl who was also hired (and whose grandmother worked in the office there), so I ended up on the very bottom of the carry-out clerk totem pole.  I recall being annoyed about that, because we were both technically hired at the same time, and I thought she had been given preferential treatment because of her grandmother.

Anyhow, on my first day I was trained by this woman in her 30s who was incredibly shy and socially awkward.  She showed me the obvious ways to pack bags: meats stay together, doubled-bagged if they are bloody, refrigerated and frozen items stay together, cleaning products always separate, bags no heavier than 5 lbs., etc.  Common sense stuff, really, but with some of the jokers I ended up working with, I realized how important those trainings were.  But aside from bagging groceries, the carry-out clerk was also responsible for, you guessed it, carrying out the customer’s groceries to his/her car.  This, in my opinion, was one of the dumbest ideas ever thought up from a corporate mind.  With the exception of little old ladies, nobody wanted someone to push their cart out and pack it into their car for them.  Yet this was a requirement of the job, and for each customer’s groceries we bagged, we had to ask if they’d like us to carry them out to their car for them.

I think maybe 1 out of 10 people actually wanted (or didn’t object to) this service.  We were told by Dave R. himself that we had to be stern with them, that we should start pushing the cart out for them as soon as they had finished paying.  Most people would say, “No thanks, I’ve got it,” and they’d take the cart themselves and go.  Some would wait until we got outside and then say they could handle it from there, knowing we were required to take it outside and not wanting to get us in trouble.  For the one in ten that actually let us take their groceries out, we’d pack them into their cars, and then we were required to round up any carts in the vicinity of the person’s car—thereby making sure that all of the carts were back inside on a consistent basis.  That, of course, never worked well because most of the carry-out clerks were lazy and would ignore the other carts, and there were so few people that actually wanted this service that we’d still have to send out a cart person every hour or so.

Anyway, after working there for a few months, we were told by Dave R. that one of the regional supervisors had been sitting out in the parking lot for the past few weeks monitoring the frequency of carry-out clerks carrying out groceries, and he was “extremely disappointed” in how few of us he saw outside.  Dave then called several of us into his office one by one, me included, to chastise us for our ineffective work.

I remember him coming off as angry and upset, and I told him that I was doing exactly what the customer wanted each and every time.  I told him that many of the customers would decline the service and take the cart from me, and he stated that I shouldn’t be letting that happen.  In other words, go against the customers’ wishes and take them out anyway.  He even told me that I should tell the customers that this was my job, and that if I didn’t do it, I could get fired.  And then he said, “I’m not kidding.  If you can’t do your job properly, you won’t be here much longer.”  Seriously.

So I took his advice and was a bit more aggressive.  I probably started taking out groceries for 2 out of every 10 customers.  By the way, we were not permitted to accept tips for this service, and if we were caught doing so, we would be fired on the spot.  I actually had an old lady once go so far as to chase me down and stuff cash in my front pocket—seriously, what was I going to do?  Knock her to the ground?  Luckily I wasn’t caught.  But anyway, I worked there for about 8 months before another BiLo in Bedford, PA closed, and because we were all part of a union, those employees with seniority wishing to retain their jobs were offered the chance to work at my store.  One by one the carry out clerks on the bottom of the totem pole were laid off.  They had hired two or three after me, so they all lost their jobs, and then finally they called me on a Sunday morning and told me not to report that day as I had been laid off as well.

I don’t think I’d ever been so happy.

A month later I got a part-time job doing some computer work at a mail processing plant.    The management at that place wasn’t all that much better, but at least I was doing something I enjoyed.  About four months in, I got a call from BiLo asking me to come back to work, and I declined.  No way was I going to do that crap again—making minimum wage and being yelled at by my boss for “not being aggressive enough toward the customers.”  And a few years later, BiLo closed all of its stores in the Blair County, Pennsylvania area, probably because of all the dumb ideas and misplaced priorities of the regional management.

So you can see why this pack of Oreos on my counter had me gritting my teeth this morning.  Apparently Dave R. has become extremely lax in what he demands of his employees, as they can’t apparently do their job properly either.  And I see him at the store all the time, and he either has no clue who I am or just chooses not to acknowledge me.  And I’ve literally stood right next to him once or twice as he’s stocked shelves or talked to employees of the store.  Sure, I look a lot different than I did back then, but I’ve had people that barely know me recognize me after having not seen me for 15 or 20 years.  And I’m not easy to miss being the big guy that I am.  Perhaps he’s ashamed of how he treated me, but I doubt it.  I think he’s just completely oblivious.

At times I’d like to tell him to do his job “properly”.  You know, simple thinks like making sure the baggers don’t give the wrong bags to the wrong people.  Or telling the stockers not to put their stock carts in the MIDDLE OF THE AISLE where nobody can get their carts past.  Or properly training his cashiers on how to ring up 5 gallon water jugs (I swear I know how to do this better than 80% of them).  Or even ordering enough groceries that the shelves are consistently stocked.  Seriously, if this wasn’t the closest and most convenient and cost-saving store near us, we’d go somewhere else, because running out of things like orange juice and iced tea and diapers shows a serious lack of properly managing a grocery store.

I’m sure everyone has had a horrible boss at one time or another, and this one is probably pretty minor on the “horrible boss scale”, but man did those Oreos bother me.  I know, I know, I should learn to let things go.  And hey, at least they were free, right?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Post on Weight Loss and Being Overweight/Obese


Before I begin, I just want to say that I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor or a personal trainer.  Aside from some high school and college health courses, I have no formal education in this topic.  Rather, I’m just a smart guy with life experiences who has done plenty of research on losing weight.

Also, this post is a long one, so be prepared to invest a little time in reading it.  It has some good stuff in it, especially if you are battling weight issues, but the warning is necessary.

These past four years haven’t always been wine and roses for me.  Yes, my son was born, which was one of the happiest days of my life, but I’ve had some trying times with the passing of my father (my best friend) and moving my disabled mother into my house, adding on to our house to make room, dealing with my father’s estate and the sale of my mother’s property and possessions, assisting my mother after several major surgeries, etc.  On top of all of that, I’ve found time to raise my son (who is now in preschool), write and publish three novels, maintain this blog, work a 40 hour work week, operate a side technology business, visit my in-laws every few weeks, watch my favorite television shows, watch and root for my favorite sports teams, and the list goes on and on.

One thing I have NOT managed to do, however, is take the best care of myself.  I’ve gained a lot of weight over the past few years.  Well, actually, I gained a lot of weight several years ago, and I’ve steadily added to it ever since.  Despite how busy I am, I do put some effort into trying to lose weight.  I jog/walk at a park 3-4 times per week during my lunch hour, typically getting in 1-2 miles each time.  For about a year I had a gym membership, and my company reimbursed the cost if I went 12 times per month, and I exceeded that amount each and every time.  I own countless pieces of fitness equipment including several cardio machines and a weight bench system with high and low pulleys and 300 lbs of Olympic-style weights.  If you took a snap-shot of my life, you’d think I’d be a svelte 200 lbs.  But I’m not.

I like to eat.  I have a horrible sweet tooth, and love all the food that I shouldn’t.  I love soda.  I eat way too much fast food.  My calorie intake is often way higher than it should be.  And that’s just part of my problem.

I know what I’m doing wrong from a diet perspective.  In my twenties, for the most part, I was incredibly fit.  Aside from being very active with martial arts, running, and lifting weights, I had done my research with regards to food intake.  And here's what I've learned:

In order to lose 1 pound, you must have a 3500 calorie deficit.  You can achieve this over a few days, over a week, or however long it takes, but if you want to lose 1 lb, 3500 calories is the number you are aiming for.  You can accomplish this task by either eating less or exercising more.

So now we need to figure out how many calories your body burns in a day.  The easiest way is to use an online tool.  You can Google it, or if you would rather really like to know what your body is doing, you could use your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) added to your daily activity level.  Again you can find your BMR by Googling for on online tool, and there are a number of different methods and calculators to use, or you could use the Harris-Benedict formula of:

Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x inches) - (6.8 x age) 
Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x inches) - (4.7 x age)

Your BMR is basically the number of calories your body burns without any activity.  In other words, if you were to lie in bed all day, your body would burn that number.  So after you know that, you should determine your daily activity levels.  Most obese people are sedentary, and I’ll discuss this more a little bit further down, but if you have a sedentary lifestyle, just multiply your BMR by an activity factor of 1.2.  So if your BMR is 1750 calories, and you are sedentary, your total daily calories burned is 2100 calories.

Now that we know that, we just need to determine how best to create a deficit.  Most nutritionists and experts advise to lose 1 lb per week.  That’s 52 lbs per year if you stick with it—not too shabby at all.  To lose 1 lb per week, we need to come up with a 3500 calorie deficit per week, or a 500 calorie deficit per day (3500 calories / 7 days).  It’s tough to cut 500 calories out of a 2100 calorie diet, so the best approach would be to eat 250 calories less—going from 2100 calories to 1850 calories—and burning off the other 250 calories by exercising.

Before I get into exercising and activity levels, I want to tell you a little about nutrition.  Cutting calories is not easy.  After all, most overweight and obese people got that way by eating the foods they like as often as the like.  You want that cookie?  You eat it.  You want that can of Coke?  You drink it.  But when you suddenly have to watch what you eat, it becomes a chore, and people HATE doing chores.  But the easiest way to watch what you eat is by keeping a journal.  And there are some great online tools to help you do that.  I use www.myfitnesspal.com, which has just about everything edible on the planet in its food database.  Just enter your food and the serving size (such as 1 cup or 1 sandwich), and voila you know how many calories you have eaten.  It will automatically add them up for you each day.  And it has apps for Apple and Android, so you can enter your food on the go as well!

More about the food you eat, though.  There’s a good reason why you shouldn’t eat junk—soda, chips, candy, fast food.  Each piece of food you eat has a certain makeup to it.  It’s comprised of so many grams of fat, carbohydrates, protein, alcohol and a bunch of other stuff like fiber, vitamins, etc.  The main four things that make up a food’s calories though are fat, carbs, protein, and alcohol.  One gram of fat is the equivalent of 9 calories.  One gram of carbs is 4 calories, one gram of protein is 4 calories, and one gram of alcohol is 7 calories.  As you can see, the reason nutritionists and doctors advise to stay away from fat is because of how many calories are in it.  That’s partially why cakes and cookies and candy—things made with butter--have such high calorie counts.  A McDonalds Big Mac has 29 grams of fat.  That’s 261 calories JUST FROM FAT.

As for carbs, the reason we are advised to stay away from them is that they seem to be in everything.  Carbs include sugars and starches (simple and complex).  Over 50-60% of our diet can come from carbs, and that’s why we should limit them.  Guess what the other major ingredient in cakes and cookies and candy is?  That's right, it's sugar, which is a carb.  And there’s typically a lot more carbs in things than there is fat.  That Big Mac I mentioned: 46 grams of carbs, which equals 184 calories.  Ouch!  A fun-size pack of M&M’s, which are 95% comprised of carbs (sugar) and fat: 100 calories for like 10 pieces.  Double ouch, and no nutritionally filling payout whatsoever!

Next we have protein, which is the best nutrient in our food.  It’s found mostly in meats and dairy, and it’s used to repair muscle, grow hair, that sort of thing.  More muscle generally means a higher metabolism (and the ability to burn more calories), so if you can swap anything you eat with some added protein, go for it.  That Big Mac, by the way, has 25 grams of fat, which equals 100 calories.  Add them all up, and you get 545 calories.  In other words, if you eat that Big Mac, and you are trying to maintain an 1850 calorie diet, you’re almost a third of the way there.

Just to be clear, if you go to McDonalds and order a Big Mac Extra Value Meal with a medium fries and 21 oz. Coke—something way too many of us do way too often—you are eating 1140 calories.  That’s right, your lunch was just 62% of your total calories for the day.  Yuck!  And don’t you dare “supersize” it.  Do that, and you’re at 1360 calories.  Add in an apple pie, and you are at 1710 calories.  Wow, you now only have enough calories left to drink a small glass of milk or orange juice.  Congrats.  Eat this “meal” twice a day, and you can expect to weigh well over 300 lbs in no time.

The final caloric nutrient puzzle piece is alcohol.  And yes, there is a valid reason for the term "beer belly."  Alcohol, with 7 calories per gram, will make you fat as well.  It will also do a lot of other nasty stuff, but if you are a regular drinker, you may want to start limiting your intake--especially if you find yourself gaining weight.

There’s a bunch of other stuff I could tell you, like how your body metabolizes different types of foods, your Body Mass Index (BMI) and your body fat percentage and how they play into your weight-loss goals, but I’ll save them for a different post.  The most important thing to remember is to eat low carbs, low fat, low alcohol, and high protein, get some exercise, journal everything, and maintain that 500/day calorie deficit, and you will absolutely lose weight.  It's really all just a matter of math and science.

OK, so I’m sure you’re wondering why, if I know all this stuff, I’m not rockin’ a six pack or, at the very least, in a lot better shape.  Well, for starters, I don’t heed my own advice.  I think with my stomach instead of my brain when it comes to food.  I probably have a mental disorder of some sort, because I subconsciously can never let food go to waste.  I’ll clean my plate 90% of the time, and if you do that in a restaurant where portions are way over-sized, you’re probably getting well over half of your daily caloric intake in one sitting.  And despite using a food journal throughout the day, I get sloppy in the evenings.  I’ll munch and snack and forget to record my readings.  I’m just not very disciplined, and I use my busy life as an excuse.  Sad, but true.

But beyond that, the biggest reason for my weight issues is my activity (or should I say inactivity) level.  Overweight and obese people are commonly judged as being lazy.  And that fires me up, because when you look at my life and all I’ve been through and done over the past few years, I’m one of the most productive people I know.  But from an actual calorie-burning activity standpoint, I really am deficient.  And I’ll bet most obese people are just like me: too busy to be actively busy.

Let’s look at my life.  I sleep 8 hours per night.  I then get up at around 6:30 every morning.  I get a shower and get dressed, wake my son up and get him dressed and get him breakfast, pack up the car, drive to his school and drop him off, then drive to work.  So for that first two hours, I’m probably active (doing something other than sitting) maybe 30 minutes.  At work, I sit at a desk 95% of the time, with that other 5% involving walking to someone else’s desk to assist them, moving equipment, bathroom breaks, getting water from the cooler, etc.  So in 8 hours, I’m active for perhaps a half hour.  During my lunch hour, I do go to the park and walk a mile or two, but I have to drive there, so I only get in roughly 30 minutes of activity.  Then after work I’m driving to pick up my son, going home, eating dinner, and then typically sitting in front of my computer writing or sitting/laying watching TV.  In the final 5.5 hours between work and bed, I’m active maybe a half hour.  Add it all up, and I’m active for about 2 hours out of a 24 hour span.  Wow!  And ugh!!

I’d imagine most office workers are like this.  THAT’S a sedentary lifestyle.  The human body is a machine, and machines need to run to stay in good shape.  Leave an old lawnmower sit five or six years out in the back yard, and chances are it’s not going to run very well (if at all).  The human body is no different.

So what can we do to fix these issues?  Well, for starters, let’s get up off of our butts more.  My wife got me a Fitbit for an early Christmas present.  It’s a smart pedometer that syncs with an online program via an iPhone or a USB dongle on a PC (Android syncing should be available in 2013).  It will tell you how many steps you walk, how many calories you burn, etc.  And, you can use it in conjunction with www.myfitnesspal.com to tell you exactly how much food you should eat based on your activity level.  Most health experts recommend walking 10,000 steps a day, and if you don’t achieve that, the number of calories you should eat decreases closer to your BMR.  In other words, walk more, eat more.  Walk less, eat less.  Very cool device.  And since I got it about a week ago, I’ve realized just how sedentary my life is.  I haven’t hit 10,000 steps yet, and that’s despite going to the park and jogging/walking.  I can’t even imagine how sedentary I’d be if I didn’t do that!

So I’m trying a couple of new things.  I found a nifty stop-watch app online, http://www.online-stopwatch.com/, that I’ve set for 15 minute intervals.  Every 15 minutes, the alarm goes off and I get up and stretch and walk around—trying to squeeze in 100 steps each time.  It’s not much, but if I can manage to do it 25 times per day, I’ll at least be a quarter of the way to my goal.  Add in 4000 steps walking at lunch, which is the equivalent of about 2 miles, and I’m 65% of the way there.  I then just have to pick up my activity level during the morning and evening hours.

That’s my plan, anyway.  Of course, I’ve been setting little goals like this forever, and none of them have worked out all that well.  For a while I was doing this thing with rubber bands on my wrist—taking them off each time I ate to train myself, sort of like Ivan Pavlov’s dogs, to consciously be aware of my food intake.  That lasted a few weeks before I just started eating and ignoring my “food bracelets”.  But I’ve also tried certain fad diets, fasted, etc., but I’m still obese.  It’s been one heck of a battle.

You know, as I mentioned, one misconception about obese people is that they are lazy.  Obese people are often seen as less attractive, less motivated, less capable of performing job duties (and are often passed over for job promotions or new positions), etc.  Add that to the health issues with being obese, and it’s really quite a nightmare.  And certain things that many moderate-weight people take for granted cause stress to obese people—things like sitting in chairs, buckling seat belts, riding amusement park rides, and even in some cases hygiene.  Imagine being so heavy that you break a toilet seat.  Yeah, how embarrassing would that be?  Or you can’t take your son or daughter on a roller coaster.  If you are overweight or obese, these things aren’t news to you.

Hopefully these changes I’m making in my life will make a difference for me.  And hopefully the facts and wisdom I’ve shared will make a difference for you.  And feel free to share them with others or add your own thoughts or wisdom.  I’ll probably be adding more to this topic as I continue on my quest as well.

And if you're actively trying to lose weight, GOOD LUCK!!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I Won the Powerball!!!!


I won the Powerball!!!  Not the $550 million jackpot, but I am $4 richer this morning.  Yay!

Seriously though, I know why I bought Powerball tickets.  It was probably 20% peer pressure, 30% dreaming, 30% for thrills, and the remaining 20% because I can’t add.  Did I have my hopes up?  No.  I’ve played the lottery and gambled enough times to know better.  But despite all the websites and articles talking about better chances of other things occurring, like being drafted in the NBA or becoming the President of the USA, I always figure that someone has to win it.  And two lucky people, one in Arizona and the other in Missouri, did.

Lucky?  Yeah, I guess.  As much talk as there was about the infinitesimal odds of winning, equally the idea of winning the lottery being a curse was discussed.  Apparently all of these past lottery winners were interviewed, and none of them were any happier now than they were prior to winning.  Most were substantially less happy.  Because, as the adage reminds us, money doesn’t buy happiness.

As I've stated in previous posts, I’m not a material possessions kind of guy.  I never go out and buy something because it’s new or fancy or cool.  OK, maybe cool, especially if they are toys for my kid, but that’s about it.  Both of my vehicles were pre-owned upon purchase.  We don’t have fancy furniture or tons of valuable jewelry.  My house is on the smaller side of most residential dwellings.  And I’m fine with that.  Someday I’ll need newer stuff.  I’ll almost definitely need a bigger house.  And when those times come, I’ll shop around and make some purchases.  But until then, I’m happy with what I have.

In my office at work I have a Zen calendar with a thoughtful proverb for each day of the year, and I’ve taped some of the more meaningful ones to my monitors.  These are just two of them:



The one on the left is rather obvious.  And my home is a prime example.  If someone broke in while I was away on vacation, they’d be very disappointed.  Even if they brought a U-Haul, I doubt they’d have much more than a few thousand dollars worth of stuff.    Definitely not worth the time and effort and risk of setting off my deadly booby traps.

As for the proverb on the right, I think of the Sphero toy I bought for myself a year or so ago.  I was so excited to get this thing—basically a ball that you can remotely control from your phone or tablet.  The video demos of it seemed so neat, and I pictured myself having days or weeks or months of fun with this thing.  And then, after spending the $130 for it, I played with it for maybe an hour.  Then a few days later I turned it on and played with it for fifteen minutes.  I chased my son around the house with it a couple of times.  It was neat, but not as thrilling as I expected.  And then, well, I think it has sat on my dresser for the past eight months.  It may be fun to play with if you had cats.  A dog would probably eat it though.  Other than that, eh.  Nothing special.

Sometimes expensive things are worth the money.  For a year or so, we had a very crappy Dodge Caliber.  The transmission in it was like a wind-up toy, and it was cramped and cheap inside.  We purchased it because we wanted a four-door AWD vehicle for when my son was born, and we regretted it soon after.  Yes, it got us around in the snow, but the gas mileage was horrible.  So after putting up with it for about a year, we bought a GMC Acadia.  Substantially more expensive, yes, but we immediately knew we had made a smart decision.  Aside from the superfluous XM radio (albeit great for listening to Penguins, Penn State, and Steelers games while travelling back and forth from Harrisburg), we loved some of the other features of this car.  Heating and A/C controls in the back to keep the little guy warm (and Daddy cool).  A rearview backup camera and alert system—which let me tell you is totally worth it, because backing my truck up is a P-IN-THE-A now that I’ve been spoiled by this thing in the Acadia.  And the automatic rear lift gate is great when carrying a wheelchair with both hands.  So yeah, spending a little money is sometimes worth it.

But most times, I think it’s probably not.  At the park where I go running during my lunch hour, I often see this lady there walking her toy poodle.  She drives a white BMW 740Li, and she walks around with her nose in the air wearing these gaudy track suits.  Her ankle-biter also wears a track suit and holds its nose in the air as well.  She has this attitude about her—like she expects park traffic and other walkers/joggers to move out of HER way when she walks, and she doesn’t even clean up after her animal (and I’ve almost stepped in it several times).  But her silly $70,000 car is what causes me to shake my head, especially as she bounces it over the speed bumps and pot holes in the park.  I’ve ridden in a few BMWs, Mercedes, a Dodge Viper, and even a Bentley once.  Nice cars, but so impractical and not worth it.  I suppose if you are into cars, owning one of them would be fine—I’m thinking people who are into racing and restoring classic cars and that sort of thing.  I’m personally not high on collecting or working on cars, but everyone has to have a hobby.  But I doubt this lady at the park collects cars, and that BMW she drives is probably nothing more than a status symbol.  Look at me, I’m rich.  Hey lady, you’re not impressing me one bit with your vehicle.

So if I’m so against material possessions, why on earth did I play the lottery?  Well, if I won, I probably would go on a mini spending spree.  I mean, what else would I do with all that money?  I’d probably upgrade my housing situation to accommodate our new little bundle of joy arriving in a few weeks.  Something slightly larger with a rec room (man cave), another bedroom or two over what we have now, and definitely two or three more bathrooms--a house can never have enough bathrooms.  I repeat, a house can never have enough bathrooms.  But I’d also want a big yard with some woods and a cleared area well away from the road that we could blacktop for basketball, hockey, skateboarding, or whatever.  And after our housing upgrade, I’d pay off all of our debts (crazy that I’m 35 and still haven’t quite fully paid off my college loans--guess that's what I get for transferring schools and switching majors).  Other than that, I may buy a new wardrobe, and I’d definitely buy my wife twenty or so pairs of new shoes and some purses/handbags/clutches to match because she likes that kid of stuff.  Some people collect cars.  My wife collects shoes and purses.  To each their own!  And lastly I’d probably get myself on the season ticket list for the Steelers and Penguins (if the NHL ever comes back).  Seeing my favorite teams play live substantially more often than a blue moon would bring a smile to my scruffy face.

But then I’d go back to school.  I’d delve into law and/or medicine.  I’d definitely…finally…get my MBA.  I could easily see myself spending a million bucks on college courses.  I’m curious like that, I guess—always wanting to know how things work or what this or that means.  You know, like the difference between an affiant and a deponent?  Or how muon-catalyzed fusion is different from beam-target fusion?  Most of the people in the world are probably fine not knowing the answers to those types of questions, but I’m not one of them.  So I’d spend some money to educate myself more.

And then I may start or own a business.  I live in a county in Pennsylvania that is notoriously lacking in entertainment, particularly for younger people.  I’d maybe open a Dave & Busters or something of the sort.  I’d consider putting in a new movie theater, because watching a movie at the Carmike Park Hills Plaza 7 is almost as bad as setting up my TV on my front lawn.  In fact, we do almost all of our big-screen movie watching in State College or Harrisburg with their stadium-style seating (and where you can't hear the movie playing in the room next door).  I’d additionally put some money down for some walking/bike paths throughout the county—maybe encourage people to get out and about.  And I might invest in a local tech company to try to retain some of the young talent that leaves the area in droves after graduating from high school.

And of course I’d donate a lot of money to charities.  I’d probably focus on bullying prevention, breast and pancreatic cancer, MS, cystic fibrosis, and kids with physical and cognitive disabilities.  Those are ones that are closer to my heart.  After that I’d give some money away to friends and family, and of course that’s always the tricky part because “friends” and “family” would probably be coming out of the woodwork asking for handouts.  I’d probably give more to the people who didn’t ask for it over those who came begging, but each and every case would be different and evaluated appropriately.  No matter what, anyone I know or have known (more than just as a passing acquaintance) could probably expect something.

Above all else though, I wouldn’t let the money change me.  I know that’s easy to say now, having never won more than like a hundred bucks at a casino, but I think that kind of attitude runs deep within me.  I look at some of the closer people in my life—a former coworker who is a prominent philanthropist, some immediate family and cousins and friends.  Some of these people are very well off, yet you’d never know it by talking to them.  They don’t flaunt their money or their achievements or anything else, for that matter.  They are down-to-earth people, and these are the people who have helped to mold and shape and guide the person I am today.  And so whether I had $10 or $100,000,000 in the bank, I think I’d still be the same happy, go-lucky guy I’ve always been.

Could you say the same?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Escaping the Black Friday Hole


It's Tuesday evening and I'm still trying to escape the black hole that I found myself stuck in over the holiday weekend.  I always end up in this veritable prison of ignorance during extended periods of time off.  My routines are thrown askew.  I start adding fifteen minutes or even a half hour to the amount of time I spend sleeping.  I don’t pay much attention to the news.  I feel like days go by and I’ve missed so much—but perhaps that’s the point of time off and holidays and vacations.  Tune out and enjoy quality time with my family.  Right?

But as I was in the midst of my 5-day stupor, I did have one realization that was irritating on a number of levels.  And it involves Black Friday.  It seems that every year businesses are moving up their hours, hoping to prolong the spending sprees that occur on this day.  I caught a brief snippet of the local news on Friday, and a lady was commenting on how she and her daughter began their shopping extravaganza at 4 PM on Thanksgiving.  Really?  Really?!?  Four PM???

Black Friday began as the first day of shopping season for Christmas and Hanukah and Kwanzaa gifts.  The name began in Philadelphia in the 50s or 60s, but it became more popular nationally in the late 70s.  For DECADES stores did not open until 6 AM on this day.  It wasn’t until just a few years ago that stores started moving up their times to earlier hours of the morning.  Last year, for the first time EVER, stores opened at midnight.  And of course this year we had a number of them opening on Thanksgiving Day.  

Yuck!

But even before that, many stores had holiday stuff up weeks or months prior.  Wal-mart, the classy business that it is, had Christmas decorations on its shelves even before Halloween.  If the case is to be made that Black Friday is the first day of holiday shopping, well that’s just silly.  Retailers want your money, and they’ll take it any time of the year.  Why wait until this day to do your shopping?  The sales?  Free shipping?  I can guarantee you that you can find most of the stuff you just bought somewhere else for cheaper any time of the year.  All you have to do is use your noggin and search a little.  And all that other stuff you bought--the HDMI cables for your flat-screen TV, the 10 boxes of Keurig coffee to go with your new coffee maker--all that stuff probably WASN'T on sale, but you had to buy it or else your initial purchase was worthless.  Right?

And as for that lady and her daughter who were out at 4 PM on Thanksgiving, I guess spending time with the rest of the family wasn’t as important to them as trying to find the best deals.  Has our society really fallen to the point where buying gifts (and not-gifts) is more important than spending quality time with loved ones?  I’m not very big on material possessions, and so perhaps that’s where my disdain comes from.  But seriously, I’d rather spend eternity playing board games or tag or watching Kung Fu Panda with my son than spending even a minute in a throng of greedy people fighting over merchandise.

And what’s worse is that we just had a presidential election where one side tried to convince us that our economy is in the toilet.  It’s no wonder that side lost.  If people are willing to sacrifice their time with the family to go out and spend, SPEND, SPEND on pointless baubles and trinkets, I think it’s safe to say that our economy is doing just fine.  I was told of instances where people who (and I have to quote this because it’s from their own mouths) “are living paycheck to paycheck” went out and spent over $1000 on Black Friday on things like flat-screen TVs, tablets, phones, etc.  These same people tried to say that Obama has been running our country into the ground.  They said that he was responsible for gas prices and high unemployment and everything else that is wrong with this country, including their personal financial situations.  And yet they spent over a grand on crap that they don’t need just because some store advertised it as being on sale?  That just makes me want to scream!

Next year I wouldn’t be surprised to find stores opening at noon on Thanksgiving for Black Friday sales.    And before too long, it will be called Black Weekend, considering we already have a Cyber-Monday.  And it’s never going to change.  Unless we have a screen plastered to our faces or a phone or gaming controller glued to our hands, we are bored.  Whatever happened to going for walks?  Reading books?  Engaging the mind in arts and crafts or playing games or just TALKING to others?  No, until we can get off of our butts and enjoy the beauty of the world outside of our little shells that we live in, we will always crave the crap that is on sale on Thanksgiving weekend.

Will it ever change?  No.  But maybe if you are reading this, you might.  Next year, spend your time with your family and loved ones.  No, don’t just spend it.  Cherish it.  Because all that crap you bought this year will be easily replaceable next year if lost or broken.  But your friends and family?  They can never be replaced.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to Destroy…a Billion Dollar Business

Yes, I’m playing off of the name of Trent Reznor’s new band, How to Destroy Angels.  I love Trent Reznor, and Nine Inch Nails is at the top of my list of favorite bands, but I’m not quite sure what to say about HTDA.  “Strange” probably best describes it.  I need a beat to my music, and so perhaps that’s why I have mixed feelings for his new band.  Trent, please work on some beat-driven hard music.  Your wife’s vocals are cool, and I could listen to Lucia Cifarelli (Kapt’n K’s aka Sascha Konietzko’s wife) sing all day long with KMFDM, so I’m totally into female vocalists.  But please give us a tempo that we can bang our heads to!

Anyway, I need to comment on a major issue of today—something that is affecting my happiness levels.  Before I get there, let me tell you a little story.  It takes place in Harrisburg, PA, where my in-laws loved to frequent a Vietnamese restaurant.  They knew the owners, the food was good and similar in taste to how they prepared it themselves, and eating there cut some stress on busy weekends when my mother-in-law could not spend the time cooking a huge meal for all of her children and their families.

One day we went to this restaurant, and things had changed.  The pho tasted bland.  We noticed the owner scrambling around the place as if he was doing all of the work—waiting on customers, working the register, cooking, cleaning, etc.  My mother-in-law asked him what was going on, and he stated rather bluntly that his cooks all quit.  Apparently they weren’t getting paid enough and were being asked to work long hours.  I think some of the wait staff had quit as well, so this guy was running the place all by himself.

As you can imagine, shortly thereafter the place closed down.  And we moved on.  There were plenty of other restaurants out there.  We missed his place, sure, but what could we do?

Then the place opened again a year or so later with new cooks and wait staff.  The owner promised it would be so much better.  And of course we began eating there again.  And the owner was right.  The pho was great.  The goi cuon was fantastic.  The guy had done a phenomenal job with hiring new cooks that were quite talented.  And we were very pleased each and every time we ate there.

But alas, it did not last.  After about a year, we noticed another downturn.  The food didn’t taste so great.  The pho seemed watered down.  The veggies weren’t very fresh.  We waited forever for service.  Something was wrong—again.

And again my mother-in-law asked the owner if he was having problems, and again his cooks had left him.  And again, he decided to shut the place down.  We heard that the cooks that had left struggled to find jobs.  They were in the States on work visas, and many returned to Vietnam.  The owner lost a ton of money.  We were, once again, disappointed.

I can’t say one way or the other who was to blame.  Perhaps the owner should have paid his workers better.  Perhaps he shouldn’t have required them to work ten hour shifts.  For those workers that ended up back in Vietnam, sure they were back home with their families, but the reason many of them came to the U.S. was to earn money for their dependents.  The exchange rate between Vietnamese dong and the US dollar is crazy.  For 5000 dong in Vietnam, you can buy a bowl of pho.  In US dollars, that’s the equivalent of 24 cents.  So imagine if a guy working in the US sends over $500 to his family.  That’s over 2000 bowls of soup—enough to practically feed a family of 4 for over half a year.  And these guys were making that much in about a week.  Yet they wanted more money.

And so now all of them are out of work.  The owner isn’t making any money.  Neither are his workers.  I heard that the guy was trying to reopen again, but seriously, who is going to go back?  Nobody will want to start eating there regularly again.  And even if some seats are filled with patrons, it won’t be like it was before or the time before that.  Maybe if the owner had at least kept the place open, things might be different.  Yeah, many Vietnamese people may notice that the food is sub-par, but at least they could keep making a profit.  At least other patrons would be able to enjoy the food.

Business owners are in it to make money, but you can’t make money when you alienate your customers.  When you keep closing up your business, you lose your loyal patrons, and then you have to rely on spotty income—which never works out well.  For this restaurant owner, the business-sense was severely lacking.

Does this story sound familiar to any hockey fans out there?

I can’t even begin to explain how disappointed I am with the NHL and the NHLPA.  I’ve been a hockey fan my entire life, but more so in the past few years since the resurgence of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Prior to the birth of my son, my wife and I would attend 3-4 games per year.  We love Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, and company.  We love teasing relatives and friends who root for different teams.  Since the 2005-2006 season, I’ve tried to watch every single game—missed a few due to travels or important errands, but Penguins games were absolutely a mainstay on my TV whenever I was home.

This year, with my son being old enough to actually watch and enjoy the games, I was hoping to take him to see the action live.  My wife is 7 months pregnant, and so we were really looking forward to squeezing a game in between October and December of this year, because who knows when we’ll get to go back with our new baby.  I’d been planning this all year.

And then the NHL and NHLPA became a bunch of greedy jerks.  Seriously, hockey is a joke of a sport in the US because of these labor issues.  In 1992, a strike postponed 30 games.  In the 94-95 season, teams only played 48 games because of a lockout.  In 04-05, the entire season was cancelled.  And now we’re looking at no hockey at least until probably January, and even then we might have nothing.

NBC put down some money for Sunday hockey games.  The Islanders will be calling the new Barlclays Center home.  The Penguins have Consol Energy Center that is only two years old.  Millions are made off of the sale of jerseys and gear.  And billions are made from ticket sales.  And yet the NHL owners would rather lock out the players and rob themselves of all that revenue than give in a little and keep the season alive.  And the players don’t care because they’ll just go to Europe and play there.  And with 75% of the players coming from other countries, who can blame them?  They aren’t making the money they would have made in the NHL, but they are still playing hockey.

But who is hurting the most?  Not the owners.  Not the players.  It’s the fans.  And seriously guys, if you expect to have the same fan-base when you come back—after your 4th work stoppage in the past twenty years, you are the dumbest businessmen on the face of the planet.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Acronyms!!




Being a tech guy, I run into acronyms like Pennsylvanians run into deer.  They are everywhere.  And I understand the need for them.  Rather than saying, “I used the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol Microsoft Management Console to change the leased Internet Protocol  addresses to reservations” –wow that’s a mouthful!—you can simply say “I used the DHCP MMC to change the leased IP addresses to reservations.”  OK, that still probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to non-networking people, but you can see why acronyms are important.  Otherwise all of those “Computers for Dummies” books would be two thousand pages long rather than their average thousand!

But acronyms can fool people.  I remember back in the days of WBS (WebChat Broadcasting System—think Twitter of the 90’s) when I began reading many of the acronyms that are still used today.  Like ROFL.  I always thought it had something to do with a dog barking.  Like raaafffalll.  I finally asked someone (I think that was pre-Google) and discovered it meant Roll On Floor Laughing.  Now that I think about it, maybe it does have something to do with a dog.  Nobody I know rolls on the floor when they laugh.  Except maybe a dog.  Or a baby.

And just like it, we had LMAO or LMFAO.  Not the band, although that’s a clever name for a band with clever songs.  But when I first saw that one, I pictured some elderly French-Asian woman (perhaps I was looking into the future at my Vietnamese mother-in-law) screaming something.  Like Le Mao!  I guess I never realized how much people laugh while using the Internet.  They roll on the floor laughing.  They laugh their a**es off.  The F stands for a certain four-letter word that I will not mention, by the way, in case you are reading, Mom.

Speaking of my mom, she’s been an Internet user for quite a while, but she’s just started texting on her cell phone in the past year or so.  She uses it, at least when she texts to me, the way she should.  She doesn’t forward dumb pictures or bother me incessantly.  Basically she sends me important info like grocery lists, doctor’s appts, breaking news, etc.  I don’t really care much for texting, and I’ve made that clear, so that’s probably why.  But she does text my younger sister more frequently.  The other day my mom was telling my wife that she kept getting LOL in the replies from my sister.  She was a bit disappointed when she discovered that it meant Laugh Out Loud.  She was under the impression it meant Lots Of Love.  Even when she figured out that she was initially wrong, she still thought it meant Lots of Laughs.  *Picture me looking down, my forehead resting on my hand as I shake my head thinking WTF?!?*

The best one was my wife though.  She’s a bit more tech-savvy than most—probably why I was drawn to her, because after all, we did meet through an Internet site (a post for another time, perhaps).  But my wife kept seeing the acronym NSFW.  Not Suitable for Work.  Meaning don’t open this attachment or picture or whatever, because your boss might see and you might get fired.  But no, my wife thought it meant something else.  Because every NSFW attachment or link or whatever typically was alarming, she actually thought it meant No Such F****ing Way!  Hilarious, right?  No Such F***ing Way doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Then again, neither does ROFL or LMAO when you think about it.  LOL!!

My advice: if you don’t know what it means, just ask someone.  Because it’d be far easier to just ask a question, get that What-Are-You?-An-Idiot? look out of the way, and then get the facts and know rather than if you were to start using it in the wrong vernacular, or even worse, using it to try to sound intelligent.  I know a guy that does this, and wow does it drive me nuts.  He was on a call one time with some colleagues, and these people were referencing a piece of software they had developed.  Mid-way through the call, he asks, “Is it a GUI interface?”  The people paused for a second—I could just picture them looking at each other with puzzled expressions—and then slowly replied, “Yes, it’s all GUI.”  GUI, by the way, stands for Graphical User Interface.  Windows is a GUI platform with it's pretty graphics as opposed to DOS or UNIX where you have to type in text commands at a prompt.  Pretty much everything that has been sold to consumers in the past decade is GUI, and so the question was downright odd.  So that was strike one against this guy.  Then when the callers began to demo the software, a cloud solution we accessed through our web browser (definitely GUI), the guy asked if it was done using HTML.  As in HyperText Markup Language.  There are all sorts of programming languages out there like Java, PERL, PHP, ASP.NET, but one of the things they all have in common is that they work in conjunction with HTML.  HTML is to a website like words are to writing.  You can make simple sentences (a website) using words (HTML) like "the boy chased the dog."  But all of those programming languages I just mentioned allow you to do some pretty amazing things--think compound and complex sentences, alliteration, metaphors, etc. in my example).  So in other words, asking if the website was HTML was like asking if this blog is comprised of words.  Maybe if you weren’t all that tech-savvy you wouldn’t know, but this guy was acquired because he was supposedly a tech-genius.  Strike two.  Ultimately the guy struck out in my little acronym baseball game, but I can't entirely remember what the last one was.  Something about hiring a DBA (Database Administrator) to do work that my 3-year-old could do or something.

Anyway, bottom line, if you are afraid to ask, just Google it.  And if you still don’t know what it means, don’t pretend that you do, because you don't want to look like that guy above.  And if you are really stumped, you could always send me a tweet or a message.  Because I probably know, and if I don’t, I’ll find out for you in a few seconds with my magic handheld Internet brain--aka, my phone.

TTYL!