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Archive for Life

Jan. 5, 2019 — A thought experiment inspired by a celebrity’s passing

I grew up watching Penny Marshall’s tour-de-force take on working-class life in 1950s-era Milwaukee in the situation comedy Laverne & Shirley.

And like many of my peers, I noticed that the sitcom has not aged well. Some of the subject matter involving working women, race, and the portrayal of Italian-Americans is a bit grating when you recognize it.

But when Penny Marshall died last month, I found myself drawn to perhaps the single most memorable feature of the show: the prominent cursive “L” that was on just about every item of clothing the character of Laverne DeFazio wore.

Having been around a lot of vintage clothing enthusiasts in my life, I’ve been interested to see how much this kind of oversized monogramming was prominent in the 1950s, when the show started.

Apparently, it wasn’t.

I also came to the conclusion that even the average unionized female worker of the time (she and best friend Shirley Feeney were bottlers at a Milwaukee brewery) likely could not have afforded identical monograms on every blouse, dress, and sweater in her closet.

I know, I know, this is me, overthinking a fictional television show.

But I do wonder if the appliques had a basis in fact — aside from the kitschy poodle skirts of the era.

Jan. 3, 2019 — The rabbit hole

A few months ago, I was in the market for what is called in the industry a “pico projector,” or a small box with a bright light inside of it that could be connected to a tablet or smartphone in order to do visual presentations.

As part of my professional development as a public speaker, I was an early adopter of PowerPoint, having done a slide deck two decades ago in order to sell potential advertisers and sponsors on the benefits of a women’s sports website.

Nowadays, with video and presentation apps, I was in the market for an inexpensive projector that I could carry with me to meetings so that I could simply point and start if there was a blank wall somewhere in the room.

The projector came, and I immediately noticed a problem. The projector had ports which would have worked well with computers from about five or 10 years ago, but did not have a digital input capability that I could discern.

I looked at a couple of solutions involving a lightning cable and a UV cable, as well as a cable which looked like it had the requisite ports. I asked an expert about it.

“That won’t work,” he said. “You need a digital adapter because there’s no way for the phone to talk to the projector with these inputs.”

Hmmf, I thought. Would have been nice to know before buying the projector.

Technology, these days, is an enormous rabbit hole, one which gives particular problems to people who have bought a number of older devices.

It took three days for my brother to figure out how to get full use out of a smart speaker because it required him to not only connect via the Wi-Fi connection in his home, but through Bluetooth on a phone which is older than the one I have.

Eventually, having that speaker is going to require him to subscribe to a music streaming service different from the one to which he is accustomed.

Me? I don’t need a smart speaker. I have enough trouble trying to get Siri to understand me …

Dec. 31, 2018 — 228 right, 88 wrong

Today, I finished my Trivial Pursuit Master’s Edition Year-In-A-Box calendar, a calendar full of questions about everything from Google to grapes to Aretha Franklin’s hat.

My percentage of correct answers this year was 72.1 percent, about the same as a year ago

Yep, I keep score.

Dec. 23, 2018 — The wrong time to get sick

The Christmas season is a time of being social, gift-giving, and, for Christianity around the world, a reminder of renewal through the nativity of the Son of God.

Only, for the first time since 1972, I’m lying in bed ill.

The circumstances of the last time I was ill during Christmas were most unforgettable. It was our first-grade Christmas pageant, and I played Santa Claus, and I was in charge of pressing a button on a very large box to release characters representing toys and other gifts.

My first-grade music teacher, Mrs. Vandiver, was panicking when she saw me in costume when I arrived. She looked at my face and knew what was wrong with me.

Chicken pox.

But I, and the show, had to go on. I was the only Santa who knew the lines. Heck, I was the only Santa. The teachers got out their pancake makeup and covered up some of the scarring that was becoming evident on my face.

I’m pretty sure this would never happen today because I would be a kid with a communicable disease acting in a play along with my peers. Plus, the teachers were all putting makeup on me to try to cover over the impending crisis.

Somehow we got through the play, and I guess the silver lining for getting sick was the fact that we had a couple of weeks off before returning to school after the New Year.

I still hope I didn’t give anyone the shingles in later life because of my misfortune.



Dec. 16, 2018 — Even more work to do

As some of you may know, one of my off-hours vocations is coordinating volunteers at public dance events at a national park. As such, I have a certain responsibility to ensure that the volunteers help create a safe and harassment-free environment for the patrons.

I assist two out of seven presenters for one specific dance form. There are seven different dance forms run out of this particular venue, and there are up to three dozen dance forms are enjoyed by tens of thousands of people in a metropolitan area of 6.2 million people.

As such, I’m beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem of what USA Today laid bare late last week, where Olympic governing bodies of sport have seemingly been unable to prevent banned coaches from having a role in the sport from which they were banned.

It’s similar to a situation which I witnessed a few weeks ago. After attending a dance held by another presenter, I went to a different dance on the same premises where a banned dancer from my dance form was engaged in his same predatory behavior towards young women.

I went to a seminar last weekend, trying to learn more about the magnitude of the problem and whether any kinds of “safe space” or other policy could ameliorate the situation. What I found was a legal thicket, involving an entire wing of the law called “premises liability” and the question of whether dance volunteer duty should involve mandatory-reporter duty.

The overall North American partner dance world has been roiled by scandals involving instructors who have been accused of sexual misconduct by victims emboldened by the MeToo movement. The ramifications have been immediate: disinvitation from teaching gigs, the discontinuation of a clothing line, and even the removal of footage of these instructors from YouTube.

Yet, there are also stories about many of these same instructors being able to find work, even though there is a common ban-list with the names printed out in black and white, But, unlike USA Safe Sport, there is actual documentation showing why the particular figure is banned.

Dance, and sport, are involved in a long game in order to mitigate sexual misconduct, and it appears that not even a higher level of transparency is helping.

Nov. 30, 2018 — The Findlay Prep of academic subjects?

Over the last 20 years or so, shoe companies, would-be sports agents, and AAU basketball coaches have stood accused of academic fraud by setting up sham schools in places from North Carolina to Nevada where the only students in the school happen to be the school’s basketball team.

We figured it was only a matter of time before this kind of conspiracy would occur in a non-academic setting, and this story dropped this morning in The New York Times (possible paywall).

While the focus by many will be on the physical abuse charges, or criticism over the use of stereotypes to gain favor in the acceptance process for minority and poor children in the deep South, I’d look a little closer at the bigger picture when it comes to the academic fraud.

You see, I’ve always asked one question when it comes to some of the draconian steps that schools and school districts have taken when it comes to determining eligibility for student-athletes. The question is, would the same kind of scrutiny (and thereby taxpayer dollars) be spent investigating star chemistry students, trombone players, or singers in the glee club?

The problem is, sadly, there are investigations going on into some of those, too. The District of Columbia quietly released a progress report on an investigation into the families of some 219 children at Duke Ellington School, a magnet school for the performing arts. However, the body running the investigation had to admit that more than 65 percent of them were actually eligible after spending spent untold amounts of money.

And so it goes.

Nov. 28, 2018 — The mistakes brought on by misunderstanding

One year ago, a parent of two Division I field hockey players started a treatment at a major American teaching hospital involving stem cells, the cells in our bodies from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated.

Today, the parent reports being in good health.

It was not so long ago that stem cells were the source of immense controversy in the medical and scientific communities, to the point where President George W. Bush banned federal funding for new lines of stem cell research in 2001, putting the U.S. behind many Asian countries, notably Japan, China, and Korea, in terms of research and development of stem cell treatment.

The ban was lifted by the Obama administration nine years ago.

This week, there has been a firestorm over a presentation made at a three-day conference on genome editing by Jiankui He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology. He claims to have edited the genetic code of two baby girls born to an HIV-positive father and an HIV-negative mother, so that the children would be immune to HIV.

The firestorm in the news media has been one-sided, and somewhat predictable. Science journalism is a lost art in the United States, with almost no newspapers in the United States maintaining a science desk or a science bureau. The number of registered science writers has dropped by about 10 percent from 2007 to 2018, many of whom have hung out their own shingle in order to promote the free flow of science information.

Indeed, the firestorm is being promulgated by the same talking heads who breathlessly talk about plane crashes and email servers without expertise, context, and perspective.

The negative publicity about He’s research, I posit, needs to be viewed from the perspective of the nationalism of scientific research. Two-thirds of Chinese, according to one on-line poll, support the need for gene-editing in order to treat or prevent diseases. And the Chinese government has been listening: state-sponsored genomic research totaled more than a quarter of a trillion dollars last year.

China has been trying to catch up to the United States in the field of genetic editing, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this same kind of outrage would have been sparked in American media if this kind of research on actual embryos was being done at Stanford or Harvard.

It would appear, despite the head-shaking over in-vitro fertilization 40 years ago, or stem cells 15 years ago, or gene-editing today, that the technology is here, and it’s time to get used to it.

It might save lives.