Sunday, March 31, 2013

FAITH, Denim Grooming, and TV Ads

FAITH has taken a huge, absurd “makeover” lately... Fascinating. According to a recent Pew Research report, the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30. In recent years—what actually is the difference between getting high in a rock fest, Super Bowl, applauding in a political party convention, and attending a church convergence? Not much. Both rent stadium seating in thousands, Jumbotrons and smoke machines. Like a Tea Party soiree or Lady Gaga CD launch, “religious” congregations these days—such as the faithful in Deep Ellum in Dallas—perk up their church with come-ons: an art gallery, a yoga studio and a business incubator, sharing the building with a coffee shop and a performance space. Yes, that is a Church... BTW, don't forget your credit card.

DENIM GROOMING. Just for my (and probably your) trivia amusement... I was just browsing an issue of Men's Health and came across a fashion/style page titled, “Denim Democracy,” or how to groom in style on denim ensemble. Okay, here goes: Brunello Cuccinelli tie, $140; DKNY jeans, $156; G-Star vest, $220; Mark McNairy/New Amsterdam shoes, $425; Diesel under denim brief, $25; Stetson hat, $110; Will Leather Goods bag, $275. That is a whopping $1,351 (excluding tax)! With that money, I can organize 4 or 5 “Bonfires for Peace” free concert events, 5 hours each event. But I'd love a Stetson hat and Will Leather bag sometime... I'll wait for them at Goodwill, for maybe $3 and $7, respectively.

FASCINATING. An ad on TV offers service to humans how to use their brain properly... I went online and, I quote: “In addition to arranging Right Brain Express and Right Brain Aerobics training for your organization or department, you can also arrange a Right Brain-storming or Right Brain Sales session to...” etc etc. I wonder what'd the Neanderthals say. The direct grannies and granpas of these stone age homeys learned how to control fire 125,000 years ago without paying some smart brain consultant a pound of dino meat. Or what would Elle Cyd, the koolcat, say if I offer her a brain-training service? Probably she'd scowl at me: “Dude, I am not that dumb! I can roam wherever—yet here I am, not losing my way home each time. But you, humans, need a Smartphone to remind you you got a brain. Hello?!?”

ABOUT a month ago, the Chinese government issued rules requiring Internet users to provide their real names to service providers, while assigning Internet companies greater responsibility for deleting forbidden postings and reporting them to the authorities. We could easily judge such drastic measure—or outright censorship—as brought about by the Chinese Communist Party's hyper-sensitivity in regards anything political or internal. But I am ambivalent about the issue—in the context of our own internet lives. Free Speech is a basic human right but rights come with utmost responsibility. The internet has been used and abused—destructive “jokes” (ie false news about an individual's death or the Manti Te'o “virtual” girlfriend sham), outright ridicule of other people's religious beliefs, distortion of photos for pornographic purposes, vicious identity thefts etc. Who's going to “police” us? Us.

AS librarians across the nation struggle with the task of redefining their roles in a digital age, many public libraries are seeing an opportunity to fill the void created by the loss of traditional bookstores. They are increasingly adapting their collections and services based on the demands of library patrons, whom they now call customers... Today’s libraries are now showcasing the latest best sellers, lending Kindles loaded with e-books, and offering grass-roots technology training centers. “I think public libraries used to seem intimidating to many people, but today, they are becoming much more user-friendly, and are no longer these big, impersonal mausoleums,” said Jeannette Woodward, author of “Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model.” On closer look, however, it's just a matter of time till e-book companies control libraries. And yes, you hear it right—the patrons are now called customers.

AS though outsourcing factory work in China isn't enough, here comes Russia with more hands to offer America... When China entered WTO in the 1990s, it ushered the demise of American industrial might and the disenfranchisement of its once-vaunted workforce. Recently, Russia was accepted as a WTO member... Hence, the eventuality: General Motors ramps up production in Russia, a country that is becoming a bright spot for G.M. and much of the rest of the automotive industry. Trickle-down oil wealth and the spread of easily accessible auto financing are lifting sales, which rose by 40 percent in the first half of this year compared with the same period a year ago. G.M., Ford, Volkswagen, Nissan and Renault are all opening new plants, or intend to do so soon.

HOW'D you feel when, on your first date, just when you're about to nibble on your strawberry shortcake dessert, she (or he) asks you this question: “What’s your credit score?” The credit score, once a little-known metric derived from a complex formula that incorporates outstanding debt and payment histories, has become an increasingly important number used to bestow credit, determine housing etc. It’s so widely used that it has also become a bigger factor in dating decisions, sometimes eclipsing more traditional priorities like a good job, shared interests and physical chemistry. “Credit scores are like the dating equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease test,” said Manisha Thakor, the founder and chief executive of MoneyZen Wealth Management, a financial advisory firm. “It’s a shorthand way to get a sense of someone’s financial past the same way an S.T.D. test gives some information about a person’s sexual past.”

IT is sad, of course—when we see high school seniors opt out of college and decide to tread the surest path to a job, for the meantime. Many degree holders are toiling as wait staff or hotel crew as jobs continue to be shipped abroad—yet many youths become millionaires as sports stars, recording artists or computer wizards. For most though, they just have to be practical... Teenagers in a small oil county of Sidney in Montana are examples. Youths choose the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education. It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here said they were ready to take their chances.

WHAT is “gamification”? This is a marketing trick that aims to infuse otherwise mundane activities with the excitement and instant feedback of video games. Many businesses are using these game strategies to try to get people hooked on their products and services — and it is working, thanks to smartphones and the Internet. Buying a cup of coffee? Foursquare, the social networking app that helped popularize the gamification idea, gives people virtual badges for checking in at a local cafe or restaurant. Conserving energy? More than 75 utilities have begun using a service from a company called Opower that awards badges to customers when they reduce their energy consumption. You get the drift, right? Now, keep on playing...

MEDIA blackout. This happens when news organizations decide to shut up in the face of certain events. There are many reasons why media may declare a blackout—most out of caution. In 2008, when David Rohde, then a reporter for The New York Times, was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, more than 40 major news outlets refrained from reporting the story for seven months, until he and a local reporter escaped... There are also many instances when persistent reporters outsmart actual police investigation, for example. Media is concerned with info dissemination, police focuses on solving crimes. Most often than not, these intents collide. But we know for a fact that that line has narrowed due to a fluid stream of “info” flow in the internet. Gossip websites such as Gawker can easily post a video or blog entry and things go haywire... Or a 13-year old nerd could cook up a photoshopped image and then, voila!

AN article in Shareable concludes: “... Private banks are finding ways to swindle the American people.” It is hard to argue him. For one, collateralized debt obligations and asset-backed securities helped create the housing bubble. Now, bankers are using interest-rate swap bonds to obtain greater profits from loans that finance national infrastructure. In this complex process, when a city needs cash for a new school or subway line, Wall Street entices it into a “swap bond” with a promise to pay more (in regular installments) as interest rates rise, while the city pays a fixed monthly rate. But if interest rates fall, so do the bank’s payments, leaving the city scrambling to pay the monthly bills with less cash on hand. Problem is, virtually all interest rate swaps between local and state governments and the largest banks have turned into perverse contracts whereby cities and counties pay millions yearly to the few elite banks that run the global financial system...

DUE to many acquired sociocultural sensitivities these days, it seems easier to assume that differences in job opportunities and racial trends in academic “success” has also narrowed. Not true, according to recent studies... New evidences suggest that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe. Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points. This means, both groups improved their odds of finishing college—but the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead. It seems a no-brainer but a lot of factors play around such a trend...

YOU and me aren't the only ones multitasking—and I am not just talking about cooking, editing and making family-related phone calls. It most prevalent in global economy. It’s called microtasking, and it works by outsourcing small, virtual tasks to an army of online workers, who then perform them for pennies. These tasks vary widely in scope and substance, but what links them all is that they’re essentially too difficult or too dependent on human analysis for a computer to do, but too simple for skilled labor. And they’re the bedrock of the internet. Crowdsourced microtasking—conducted largely via’s Mechanical Turk site—is now a multimillion-dollar industry. And I am not even talking about why my job as journalist-editor has been microtasked so widely, universally...

WE are getting older alive, yes—physically... A sharp decline in deaths from malnutrition and infectious diseases like measles and tuberculosis has caused a shift in global mortality patterns over the past 20 years, according to the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. The shift reflects improvements in sanitation, medical services and access to food throughout the developing world, as well as the success of broad public health efforts like vaccine programs. The results are striking: infant mortality declined by more than half from 1990 to 2010, and malnutrition, the No. 1 risk factor for death and years of life lost in 1990, has fallen to No. 8. The study, however, didn't provide data on mental health...

HUNDREDS of thousands of people across the world have switched on their computers to find distressing messages alerting them that they no longer have access to their PCs or any of the files on them. The messages claim to be from the FBI, some 20 other law enforcement agencies across the globe or, most recently, Anonymous, a shadowy group of hackers. The computer users are told that the only way to get their machines back is to pay a steep fine. And it’s working. The scheme is making more than $5 million a year, according to computer security experts who are tracking them. The scourge dates to 2009 in Eastern Europe. There are now more than 16 gangs of sophisticated criminals extorting millions from victims across Europe. It's no surprise that it's also widespread in the US.

PEOPLE of all ages, especially those between 18 and 34, have become so comfortable with online commerce, instant correspondence, and daily confession that personal privacy is being redefined and, some argue, blithely forfeited. “Young people have already embraced the frenzied commercial environment of the digital marketplace,” says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. So fast. Cell phones track physical movement; computer cookies transmit buying habits, political affiliations, and sexual proclivities. And now, because computer users have characteristic patterns of how they time their keystrokes [and] browse websites, researchers are learning how to use typeprints, clickprints, and writeprints, respectively, as digital forms of fingerprints. The future is scary.

WE are a landlocked people, fenced away from our own beautiful shores, unable to exercise the ancient right to enjoy our precious beaches. These days, beachfront property owners, wealthy municipalities and private homeowners’ associations threw up a variety of physical and legal barriers designed to ensure the exclusivity — and marketability — of the beach. These measures were not only antisocial but also environmentally destructive. By increasing the value of shoreline property and encouraging rampant development, the trend toward privatizing formerly public space has contributed in no small measure to the damage storms inflict. Tidal lands that soaked up floodwaters were drained and developed. Jetties, bulkheads and sea walls were erected, hastening erosion. And sand dunes — which block rising waters but also profitable ocean views — were bulldozed. So what is safer: Let the people freely enjoy the beaches or let business own them?

IN the 1970s, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a software to diagnose complex problems in general internal medicine—which resulted in a commercial program called Quick Medical Reference. IBM is now working on Watson for Healthcare (Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer). Before that, in 1996--the Deep Blue chess program trounced Garry Kasparov, the world’s best player at the time--to claim an unambiguous victory in the computer’s relentless march into the human domain. What does this portend? Now it is easier to solve problems with the help of machines that are made by human minds? Or does it say—since we've already stocked up data and stuff on these electronic gadgets that humans should think less this time? So we become the machines...

THIS year, more than 40 brand-name drugs — valued at $35 billion in annual sales — lost their patent protection, meaning that generic companies were permitted to make their own lower-priced versions of well-known drugs like Plavix, Lexapro and Seroquel — and share in the profits that had exclusively belonged to the brands. Next year, the value of drugs scheduled to lose their patents and be sold as generics is expected to decline by more than half, to about $17 billion, according to an analysis by Crédit Agricole Securities... Big freakin' deal! During the first nine months of 2012, sales of generic drugs increased by 19 percent over the same period in 2011, to $39.1 billion from $32.8 billion, according to Credit Suisse. I'd like to translate those money to food production, instead.

PRESIDENT Obama previously said that the 30,000 American troops deployed to Afghanistan would be home by September, and he made good on that promise. He also said troop reductions would continue at a “steady pace” until the remaining 66,000 were out by the end of 2014. A “steady pace” should mean withdrawing all combat forces on a schedule... However, it was recently reported that military commanders are pressing to keep most of the remaining troops until the end of the 2013. The cost of maintaining troops there is on the upward of $500 billion. The real story: Aside from Afghanistan's steady supply of natural gas and crude oil, the country has has been the greatest opium producer in the entire world. Opium can be manufactured into codeine and morphine, both legal pain-killers, among other drugs (legal and illegal). There are more than a dozen giant, mostly American and European, pharmaceutical companies maintaining base in Afghanistan.

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