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November 30, 2003

Shopping Bag Poetry Update

Yesterday I wrote about REI's poetry on shopping bags. After having posted my entry, I wrote to REI customer service to ask them about it. Here was the reply:

Hello Frank,

Thank you for your inquiry about the poetry written on our shopping bags.

The author is actually an REI employee that submitted his work as part of a fun company contest.

Best wishes for great outdoor adventures.

Kelly Z
REI Online Customer Service

I've written back, asked that my message be forwarded to the employee in question, and hope that he'll come here to receive credit and -- with luck -- share other poetry he has written.

By the way, REI's customer service department responded to my message in less than three hours. Ask yourself whether that would be true of the large businesses that you patronize, and then you'll know part of the reason that REI is such a wonderful success story.

November 29, 2003

REI's Shopping Bag Poetry

REI has been placing outdoor-related poetry on its shopping bags. Here's an example (line breaks guessed at):

The mountains and glaciers are a soft red,
while the moon rises over the south shoulder
like a long slow look back at someone you love.

As the sun sets, the red rises, revealing
the greens, grays, blacks and whites
that are reality.

The top is surrounded by one last brilliant blaze of light;
I am transported to the summit, and I see the sun,
going down over a series of hills far into the distance.

Going, going, gone, the red melts into dusk's purple hues.

Tonight I sleep outside, next to mountain blueberry,
with the Milky Way and this oh so full moon.

Paradise.

What I wouldn't give to be able to toss off lines like, "the moon rises over the south shoulder like a long slow look back at someone you love."

Strangely, there is no attribution on the packaging, nor is there mention of the poetry on REI's Website. A couple of tries with Google turned up nothing. Is this copy written by an advertising agency?

Whoever wrote this, I'd like to read more of your work.

November 28, 2003

Does President Bush Count Like a Dog?

Last month, President Bush held a press conference. Afterwards, I had the following exchange with my friend and colleague David Easter:

David: The President counts like a dog.

Me: What do you mean?

David: He was holding a press conference, and was talking about UN resolutions, and said, not one, not two, not three, but a lot. Isn't that how dogs count?

Me: I think so.

Here's the actual quote:

Q: Thank you, sir. Perhaps the clearest, strongest message you have ever sent from any podium has been what you like to call the Bush doctrine -- that is to say, if you feed a terrorist, if you clothe a terrorist, if you harbor a terrorist, you are a terrorist. And I'd like to follow up on the Middle East. You have noted that Yasser Arafat is compromised by terror; Condi Rice has said he cavorts with terror. You've both noted that he is an obstacle to peace. He has, in political terms, choked off your last two Palestinian interlocutors. What is it that prevents you from concluding that he is, in fact, under your own definition of what a terrorist is, a terrorist, and should be dealt with in the same way that you've dealt with Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, not every action requires military action, Jim. As you noticed, for example in North Korea, we've chosen to put together a multinational strategy to deal with Mr. Kim Jong-Il. Not every action requires military action. As a matter of fact, military action is the very last resort for us. And a reminder: When you mentioned Saddam Hussein, I just wanted to remind you that the Saddam Hussein military action took place after innumerable United Nations Security Council resolutions were passed -- not one, two or three, but a lot. And so this nation is very reluctant to use military force. We try to enforce doctrine peacefully, or through alliances or multinational forums. And we will continue to do so.

So does the President count like a dog? Do dogs count, 'one, two, three, a lot,' or 'one, two, a lot'? I found the following reference from New Scientist:

Dogs can count, new work on mongrels reveals. Dogs are descended from wolves, which not only have a large neocortex -- the brain's centre of reasoning -- but live in large social groups. So their mathematical ability could, in evolutionary terms, have been useful for working out how many allies and enemies they had in a pack, the researchers think.

Animals such as birds and rodents can tell when one pile of objects is bigger than another. But to count, an animal has to recognise that each object in a set corresponds to a single number and that the last number in a sequence represents the total number of objects.

Many primates have this basic mathematical ability. But Robert Young, an animal behaviour expert at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, suspected that dogs do too.

To test the idea, Young and his colleague Rebecca West of De Montfort University in Lincoln, UK, borrowed a technique that has been used to show that five-month-old babies can count.

There's more on the subject, this from the September 2002 issue of Animal Cognition:

Do domestic dogs show any evidence of being able to count?

Abstract. Numerical competence has been demonstrated in a wide range of animal species. The level of numerical abilities shown ranges from simple relative numerousness judgements to true counting. In this study we used the preferential looking technique to test whether 11 pet dogs could count. The dogs were presented with three simple calculations: "1+1=2"; "1+1=1"; and "1+1=3". These calculations were performed by presenting the dogs with treats that were placed behind a screen that allowed manipulation of the outcome of the calculation. When the dogs expected the outcome they spent the same amount of time looking at the result of the calculation as they did on the initial presentation. However, when the result was unexpected dogs spent significantly longer looking at the outcome of the calculation. The results suggest that the dogs were anticipating the outcome of the calculations they observed, thus suggesting that dogs may have a rudimentary ability to count.

The work published in Animal Cognition suggests merely that dogs can count to three. But the work published in New Scientist suggests that dogs can count to higher numbers -- up to the approximate size of a pack, if the researchers' hunch is to be believed.

In other words, if the Animal Cognition study represents the limits of dogs' mathematical skills, then yes, the President counts like a dog. But if the New Scientist authors are correct, then the President has a ways to go before he can count like a dog. A dog wouldn't say "...not x, but a lot," until x equaled 10 or 11.

November 26, 2003

Heard This Morning

Delta flight 1159, Raleigh-Durham to Atlanta:

Flight attendant (on speaker): Delta Air Lines is pleased to offer you our Fast Break beverage service this morning. You have a choice of coffee, orange juice, or water.
This brings up two questions:
  1. Are consumers so stupid that they buy it when companies slap marketing terms like "Fast Break" on reduced service and try to portray it as a good thing? Clearly the marketers at Delta think they are.
  2. Why not take this phenomenon to its logical conclusion? Just have the flight attendants walk down the aisle and shoot beverages into passengers' mouths with a power water gun. Think of the time that would save!
Flying is indeed not what it used to be.

November 15, 2003

"Do You Know What I Do for a Living?"

From a New York Times story this week on how kids' competitive sports leagues are becoming more and more demanding:

Nancy Lazenby Blaser was a newcomer in the town of Morgan Hill, Calif., just south of San Jose, when she took her 5-year-old daughter, Alexandra, to the local playground. By happenstance, Alexandra became involved in an informal game of softball with a group of other kindergartners.

"One of the other mothers was watching Alexandra and said: 'Hey, she's pretty good. What team does she play on?' " Lazenby Blaser said. "And I said: 'She doesn't play on any team. She's 5 years old.' And the other mother looked at me with this serious expression and said, 'If she doesn't start to play organized ball now, she won't be able to play in high school.'

"And I laughed and said, 'Do you know what I do for a living?' "

Lazenby Blaser is the commissioner of athletics for the central-coast section of the California Interscholastic Federation.

If this anecdote doesn't tell us that something is seriously out of whack, I don't know what will. When we're concerned that a five-year-old isn't playing competitively, I think at least some part of society has gone off the deep end.

My kids have all played in recreational sports leagues while growing up, so both they and I have skipped the intense demands of elite leagues. But I know parents who spend most weekends traveling with their kids's teams -- soccer, volleyball, you name it -- to tournaments in distant places. And as the Times article points out, many sports, especially soccer, are now year-round. When do parents get a break? When do kids get to be kids?

November 12, 2003

The Value of Friendship

I was on the phone yesterday with one of my dearest friends -- someone I've known for 15 years. We're good about telling one another what each means to the other. "What we have is beyond friendship," I said. "I know... it's like we're family," she said.

On reflection, I think of our friendship as more than family -- after all, one doesn't choose one's family, but we chose each other. But like family, we've stuck together through thick and thin, and I know we always will. She knows that she could call me in the middle of the night, from the middle of nowhere (which isn't out of the question, given her travels), needing help, and I'd find a way to get there. And I know the same is true in reverse.

This was brought into focus for me by a very different interaction I had later in the day... a friendship that turned out to be more ephemeral than I had thought it to be. It reminded me of how precious true friendship is and how lucky people are when they find it.

November 11, 2003

Gore on Civil Liberties

Two days ago, Al Gore gave an excellent speech on civil liberties and the war on terror. The speech was sponsored by MoveOn.org. There were so many wonderful passages that I hesitate to quote from it -- it should be read in its entirety. Nevertheless, I'll give it a shot:

Rather than defending our freedoms, this Administration has sought to abandon them. Rather than accepting our traditions of openness and accountability, this Administration has opted to rule by secrecy and unquestioned authority. Instead, its assaults on our core democratic principles have only left us less free and less secure.

Throughout American history, what we now call civil liberties have often been abused and limited during times of war and perceived threats to security. The best known instances include the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798-1800, the brief suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the extreme abuses during World War I and the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids immediately after the war, the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the excesses of the FBI and CIA during the Vietnam War and social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But in each of these cases, the nation has recovered its equilibrium when the war ended and absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.

There are reasons for concern this time around that what we are experiencing may no longer be the first half of a recurring cycle but rather, the beginning of something new. For one thing, this war is predicted by the administration to "last for the rest of our lives." Others have expressed the view that over time it will begin to resemble the "war" against drugs -- that is, that it will become a more or less permanent struggle that occupies a significant part of our law enforcement and security agenda from now on. If that is the case, then when -- if ever -- does this encroachment on our freedoms die a natural death?

It is important to remember that throughout history, the loss of civil liberties by individuals and the aggregation of too much unchecked power in the executive go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin.

The last paragraph above is amazing. A leader of the Democratic Party is arguing strenously against the accumulation of power by the executive branch of the US government. Meanwhile, the current US President, a Republican, is doing as much as he can through laws, executive orders, and practices to accumulate power as quickly as possible. In other words, the Democrats and Republicans have exchanged positions on this issue, all in the span of the two years since 9/11.

I've never been a big fan of Al Gore, but I must admit to being incredibly impressed with this speech. As for MoveOn.org, I haven't agreed with some of what they've done. For example, entering the California recall election with last-minute allegations of sexual impropriety against a candidate (Schwarzenegger) seemed to violate the principle upon which the organization was founded in 1998, that "a continuing obsession with this [Lewinsky sex] scandal will do great damage to our institutions, our economy, and our power and prestige in the world." Neither did I agree with their absolute anti-war position over the course of the last year. But MoveOn.org's leadership on civil liberties violations and on the Bush Administration's accumulation of power is needed and welcome.

Kudos to Gore for his speech and to MoveOn.org for sponsoring it.

November 10, 2003

The Witch Is Back?

Via Dark Horizons (far superior, in my opinion, to its more popular competitor, Ain't It Cool News), comes word of an extremely cool screenplay concept by Nora Ephron for the Bewitched movie in development:

I've received a tip from a reliable source that this film's premise may in fact *not* be as direct an adaptation of the original series as previously thought, and yet... it will be even more so in a way! Why? My tipster says the current script portrays Samantha as a witch from another magical world who comes to Earth to escape the bother of her family. Once here, she gets a job as an actress and lands a job on, of all things, a TV sitcom about a witch who falls in love with a mortal man, Darrin Stephens (who, of course, is also played by an actor). If this is indeed the direction Sony goes, this is going to be a TV-show-within-a-movie-based-on-nearly-that-very-same-TV-show! Wow, what a concept!
And here I thought classic-TV-show-as-feature-film trend was officially done and waiting for its fork. This is a brilliant concept and would get me into the theater in a heartbeat.

The same page claims Nicole Kidman is set as Samantha (practically a perfect choice, but I'll always have a soft spot for Elizabeth Montgomery) and Jim Carrey thinking of playing Darrin (good choice, as long as he plays Darrin and not Jim Carrey). One has to admit, not only was Montgomery classically funny in the role, she was beautiful as well. Those are some big shoes for Kidman to fill.

November 09, 2003

Tagline Creation 101

If you don't know much about American football, the NFL is made up of two conferences: the NFC and the AFC. Fox covers NFC games and CBS covers those in the AFC. (ESPN's Sunday night games and ABC's Monday night games are irrespective of conference.)

So far, so good. However, the ad wizards at Fox decided that their slogan for the season would be, "The biggest stories are in the NFC, and the NFC is on Fox." Fine, but what happens if that isn't true?

As of today, the league's leader in quarterback rating and early MVP pick of most writers (Steve McNair, Tennessee), leader in rushing yardage (Jamal Lewis, Baltimore), leader in team offense (Kansas City), leader in team defense (Miami), and only undefeated team (Kansas City) are all in the AFC.

As it happens, I have a soft spot in my heart for the NFC. My home team (Carolina) and once-and-future home team (Seattle) are both in the NFC. But the "biggest stories"? I don't think so.

When marketing slogans are patently untrue, they become silly and counterproductive. Marketers, you have been warned.

November 08, 2003

Back to Blogging

My last new entry was on 1 October; now it's 7 November and I'm finally getting back to blogging. Why the long break? Are blogs ephemeral constructs, "little seen, quickly abandoned," in the words of research firm Perseus? Is it that blogging "isn't habit forming," in the words of troll-with-a-paycheck Andrew Orlowski?

In my case, it's neither. I have no intention of abandoning my blog, and in my case, at least, I think 16 months and nearly 1,000 entries shows that it is indeed habit-forming. For me, the issue has been that I've taken up walking early almost every morning -- when I used to do most of my blogging work. I've been struggling with finding the time to resume working on my blog, and a rainy Saturday morning has finally given me the opportunity I've needed. Now the challenge will be to continue to carve out the time I need to keep it up -- but hopefully simple inertia will help there.