Posts Tagged ‘2009’

(What could’ve been) the Decade in Review

December 30, 2009

We never did come up with a definitive name for the decade we’re just now completing, though “the aughts” or the “oh-oh’s” seem appropriate. We ought to have done a better job managing our lives and our finances, we ought to have avoided a poorly conceived war in Iraq, we ought to have foreseen that a city built 12 feet below sea level would flood during a hurricane. Oh-oh, we accidentally elected George W. Bush president.

It was a mistake-filled decade, one I keep hoping some great replay official in the sky will declare as a “do-over.” What if that could happen? What if I tossed a red flag onto the field of life, the referees huddled around a monitor that displayed the passage of the years 2000 through 2009, and emerged to throw their arms in the air and wave off the last ten years?

“Upon further review, the last decade will not stand,” comes the announcement. “Let’s try that again.”

I’d like to imagine an alternate history that wasn’t as devastating as the reality turned out to be. How could that have transpired? Let’s check the timeline of what might have been.

January 1, 2000 — The Y2K bug turns out to exist after all, but its effect on computers and the Internet worldwide is that they can only be used for good. Productivity increases dramatically, education is available to everyone, and healthcare information is at our fingertips. Time-wasters like Facebook, YouTube, the blogosphere and Twitter are technically impossible to invent. Just to be on the safe side, a young computer geek from Massachusetts, would-be founder of Twitter “Biz” Stone, is accidentally electrocuted while trying to program a workaround.

Would-be Twitter founder "Biz" Stone

November 7, 2000 — Al Gore is elected forty-third president of the United States. Thousands of confused retirees in Arizona who thought they were voting for Wile E. Coyote accidentally selected Gore instead, putting him over the top in the Electoral College.

September 10, 2001 — Within a one-week period, three airline pilots are discovered to be drunk, another crew accidentally overshoots a destination by 150 miles while discussing their schedules, and a third squad falls asleep at the controls. The FAA orders the entire American fleet of passenger jets grounded for two days, demanding that airline personnel “shape up or go back to your jobs at the convenience store.” Flights resume on Sept. 12, including one that carries a frustrated contingent of Saudi travelers back to the Mideast.

September 4, 2002 — Kelly Clarkson narrowly defeats Justin Guarini for the title of first “American Idol.” However, results are overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court five weeks later, which declared in a 5-4 decision that the singing competition was “stupid” and installed Dick Cheney as the winner.

April 9, 2003 — President Al Gore, having completed his landmark negotiation of a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, thereby permanently settling the once-troubled region, travels to Baghdad for a well-deserved vacation. Long-time friends from his college fraternity days join the president for what they term a “shockingly awesome blast of massive proportions,” and paint the Iraqi capital red.

January 11, 2004 — The first legal marriage of a same-sex couple occurs in the U.S. It is totally gay.

May 1, 2004 — The largest expansion to date of the European Union takes place, extending the federation by ten member-states, including Slovakia, Slovenia, Slomotion, Sloeginia and Wal-mart.

April 2, 2005 — Pope John Paul II dies. The entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church goes into deep mourning for its loss, but then the Guy at the top remembers, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s him right over there.”

August 29, 2005 — The Katrina and the Waves Summer of Fun Tour stops in New Orleans, where concert-goers greet performance of the group’s hit “Walking on Sunshine (Tryin’ to Feel Good)” by staging a massive riot that guts the Louisiana Superdome. Survivors gather in the streets outside, spelling out “HELP US” with discarded souvenir tour t-shirts, but aren’t rescued by the National Guard until six days later.

Katrina and the Waves

October 9, 2006 — North Korea performs its first successful nuclear test, scoring an 86 and getting a “good point but remember that punct. counts” comment on the essay portion of the exam.

March 2, 2007 — Shiloh Jolie Pitt, daughter of actress Angelina Jolie and actor Brad Pitt, is introduced to the world. The world pretends to get an urgent cell phone call and has to step outside for just a minute, then sprints off across the parking lot.

May 2, 2008 — Cyclone Nargis makes landfall in Myanmar, causing massive flooding and widespread destruction. A butterfly displaced by the storm sneezes, causing a tiny atmospheric disruption that slightly raises the humidity half a world away. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain detects the change, and somehow interprets it as a sign that he should pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

September 14, 2008 — A collapse of Wall Street is narrowly averted when city engineers detect a faulty beam in the subway platform beneath the New York Stock Exchange and repair it just in time. Grateful investment banks thank the American taxpayers by subsidizing a nationwide “Merrill Lunch” on Sept. 30, during which anyone who buys a small order of fries from a fast-food outlet gets a free upgrade to a medium.

French fries, or perhaps President Joe Lieberman

November 4, 2008 — Following two successful terms working closely with President Gore, Vice President Joe Lieberman is elected forty-fourth president of the United States. That butterfly in Myanmar commits insecticide.

June 24, 2009 — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is the latest in a continuing parade of politicians who call a press conference to acknowledge loving their wife and family, and being unable to imagine life without them. Women nationwide ask their husbands why they can’t be more like that, while the men pretend to get an urgent cell phone call.

June 25, 2009 — Texas State Senator Mike Jackson (R-District 11), delivering a five-minute routine of jokes and other humorous stories to fellow legislators gathered with him at the Galveston Olive Garden, dies when nobody laughs.

Texas State Senator Mike Jackson

November 23, 2009 — Golfer Tiger Woods crashes his Buick into a Nike shoe outlet, apparently distracted by his AT&T phone and a bottle of Gatorade he had spilled in his lap. He checks his Tag Hauer watch to note the time of the accident for the police report, then calls Accenture to ask what the hell they do, so he can screw that up too. Fortunately, no endorsement deals are jeopardized.

December 30, 2009 — About 100 readers of an obscure, excessively wordy blog find something way better to do with their time.

Revisited: More new ideas from 2008

December 20, 2009

This is the second installment looking at innovations of the past year that have both the potential to make all our lives more comfortable and, at the same time, illustrate why researchers and inventors typically live such lonely, pathetic existences.

The Dog-Poop DNA Bank – The mayor of a small city near Tel Aviv wanted a more effective way to enforce regulations requiring pet owners to clean up after their dogs have done their business. So he turned to the city’s director of veterinary services to come up with a system that could use DNA fingerprinting technology to attach (so to speak) unclaimed feces to specific dog owners. An army of 13-year-old volunteers recruited by the mayor’s office fanned out across the city, going door to door to collect samples of poop with which to create a DNA bank. Surprisingly, about 90 percent of city residents who had kids showing up on their doorstep asking for some shit complied with the request. Once the problem of random canine defecation is solved, scientists will then turn to less pressing issues like genetic research on dog diseases and returning strays to their owners.

Eat Kangaroos to Fight Global Warming – An official with Australia’s wildlife services, which you’d imagine is supposed to be protecting indigenous species, proposes that raising and eating kangaroos instead of sheep and beef could cut methane emissions by as much as three percent. Unlike the ruminants we’re used to slaughtering and devouring, kangaroos have a different stomach structure with different organisms to digest their food — probably something to do with the pouch. Already considered a specialty meat that’s (not surprisingly) a bit gamy in taste, the hoppers-cum-whoppers sustained native Australians for 40,000 years before Europeans arrived with their stupid cows. Reaction in the land Down Under has not been especially positive: the official can’t find any funding to further his study, plus he’s battling newspaper headlines that read “Skippy on the Menu!”

Scrupulosity Disorder – Researchers from Brigham Young University suggest that as many as a million Americans suffer from this disorder defined as “obsessive doubt about moral behavior often resulting in compulsive religious observance.” Not to be confused with your standard evangelicals, sufferers worry about thinking bad thoughts, whether or not these thoughts are acted on in the physical world. An omniscient God, after all, sees past the bumper stickers on your SUV and into your heart, where you may be doing things like being aware of curse words. Though possibly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, there can be a fine line for chronic hand-washers like certain sects who observe such a ritual as part of ordinary religious observance. Treatment is thus problematic but another researcher says once patients are released from the crippling doubt about their own virtue, they can emerge with a new sense of faith, even if it means slightly more soiled hands.

The Spray-On Condom – The idea with this device is not so much the convenience of application but with the way it can made to fit a variety of sizes. Rather than asking retailers to stock a quantity of as many as 30 or so sizes, the spray-on condom can be customized to each man. The inventor, a German entrepreneur, got the idea in an automated car wash – not in the back seat while canoodling but while observing that the car was being inserted into a tube-like structure and then sprayed with latex from all sides. (Oh, baby). The only drawbacks reported in real-life testing were that the spray was a little cold and that the latex would take up to two minutes to dry. That, and the fact that the European Union’s strict product standards will make it difficult to bring to market, means the condom won’t be commercially available any time soon. I guess if you can wait two minutes, you can wait two years.

Vending Machine for Crows – An NYU graduate student (probably a marketing major) put coins and peanuts into a dish attached to a vending machine he created. The crows arrived and picked out all the peanuts, leaving only the coins. As they pushed the coins out of the way while looking for more peanuts, the coins were dropped into a slot which then dispensed more peanuts. When the crows figured out the equation that coins plus slot equaled more nuts, the more entrepreneurial birds starting looking for loose change on the ground to put into the slot. Realizing that the flock was quickly becoming his intellectual match, the grad student brought in a few more researchers to help him figure what all this might mean. Rather than arriving at the obvious answer (a fleet of trained ravens who could steal cash from the pockets of pedestrians, thereby giving the students the power to ultimately rule the world), they’re trying to do something positive. “Why not see if they can do something useful for us, so we can all live in close proximity?” they asked. They’re now busy trying to apply their techniques to train rats to sort garbage for us, instead of imagining a future in which they could practically bathe in dimes.

Revisited: New ideas from 2008

December 19, 2009

The New York Times recently ran a feature in their Sunday magazine profiling what they called the “Year in Ideas.” They examined several dozen new concepts floated in 2008 that “helped make the previous 12 months, for better or worse, what they were” – an introduction that belied their alleged astonishment at the unlimited nature of the inventive mind.

I’ll admit that all the ideas are extremely imaginative, but that doesn’t mean that some of them can’t also be extremely bizarre. Today and tomorrow, we’ll look at a few examples:

Air Bags for the Elderly – In light of the fact that falls are the leading cause of death among people 65 and older, a Japanese company has begun selling a wearable set of airbags. Describing the device as looking “something like a fishing vest with a fanny pack attached,” it contains motion sensors that will inflate two airbags – one around the hips and the other around the neck – when a fall is detected. “Instant Michelin Man,” notes the Times. This innovation updates an earlier attempt to reduce injuries, the foam hip pads. Both the low-tech hip pads and the high-tech air bags could be a success from a bioengineering and cost standpoint and yet still fall victim to the elderly’s penchant for wanting to be fashionable. “One of the reasons people shy away from these is that they don’t want to make their hips look larger,” said one independent researcher. “These air bags look kind of parachute-y.”

The Biomechanical Energy Harvester – A knee-brace-like contraption has been developed by a Canadian scientist that reportedly can harness the power of your walk and turn it into something your cell phone and other small electronics can run on. Strapped to the back of your leg, the device taps the power of your muscles with each stride without making walking feel any more difficult. At less than three pounds, it’s small enough to fit under your pants (or, less subtly, just below the hemline of your skirt), which is a significant improvement on version 1.0 – a backpack that made its own electricity from the subtle bouncing of your walk but, unfortunately, weighed in at 80 pounds.

Bubble Wrap that Never Ends – Again it’s the Japanese leading the way to a better future. They’ve created a battery-powered keychain with a panel of eight buttons that simulate the tactile joy of bubble-package destruction. Roughly translated as “Infinite Pop Pop,” the company has already sold a million of the gadgets in its first two months of release, and it’s reportedly now available at American outlets such as Target and Wal-Mart. Makers of the real thing, the Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey, acknowledge the tension-relieving properties inherent in ruining their product, yet they won’t admit to feeling the stress of potential competition from the Far East. (Probably the same way GM felt when that first Toyota rolled onto the docks of California.) No word yet on whether the Biomechanical Energy Harvester could be used to power the “Pop Pop” keychain.

Carbon Penance – To assuage the guilt many of us feel about our contributions to climate change, a Swiss-born inventor (again with the foreigners) has built a leg band that monitors how much power you’re consuming. When levels have exceeded a certain threshold, the techno-garter slowly drives six steel thorns into the meat of your leg. The concept came to the inventor, who not surprisingly also refers to herself as an artist, while designing a device that punishes the wearer who doesn’t spend enough time talking to their houseplants. The leg band is apparently not quite ready for full-scale development and distribution because of a slight flaw: when the spikes dig in, they don’t hurt that much.

The Cloth Car – This is a concept car developed in Germany that substitutes fabric for the more conventional (and you’d think safer) hardened plastic and aluminum auto body. The shell, made of polyurethane-coated Lycra, is stretched over a car’s frame in four separate pieces. It creases when the door opens, can be unsealed if work needs to be done on the engine, and contains eye-shaped slits so the headlights can shine through. The interior is similarly flexible, featuring a steering wheel and dashboard that collapse to lie flat and create more interior space. Perhaps the seatbelt and upholstery will be made of steel.

Tomorrow: eatings kangaroos and a vending machine for crows

Happy Worst Day of the Year

January 5, 2009

The first Monday in January should receive some kind of official designation as the worst day of the year. State and federal offices should be closed, black bunting should drape store windows, and flags should be lowered to half-staff. Calendars should note this as a day of commemoration of how miserable our lives are going to be for the next four to five months.

If you haven’t done so already, pause now for a moment in recognition of just how bleak our immediate future is. We’ve been observing one holiday after another for several weeks now, so even happiness and celebration are no fun any more. We’ve gorged on foods we’d never otherwise eat (can you imagine a dinner of goose, champagne and chocolate-covered cherries in August?). The friends and family we only get to see once a year have reminded us all too clearly why we moved halfway across the continent to get so far away from them.

I don’t know about you, but the weather where I am today is cold and wet, the sky a low-hanging grey. I’ve returned to a job that seems unlikely to get any more exciting or any more secure in 2009. There are no significant holidays, no coming of spring, no summer vacation anywhere in the near future. The landscape of life is desolate, barren, foreboding, dreary and miserable. Happy god-damn new year.

I tried yesterday to head off this gathering funk by going to the Y for a nice vigorous run on the treadmill. Exercise has always elevated my mood, even when it has to take place elbow-to-elbow with my fellow fatties in front of a bank of TVs showing the Dolphins losing another playoff game. I’m not one of these exercisers clogging the floor who are motivated only by recent resolutions to get fit. I’m the guy who was complaining to the manager that they were closing the Y early on Christmas Eve. Now here I am, unable to find a vacant treadmill because of all these latter-day athletes.

Out of the ten machines available, two of them have runners while the rest have walkers. Walking is for the hallways of hospitals, not for expensive exercise machines. The guy who just barely beat me to the last available treadmill is wearing a sweater, pleated slacks and penny loafers. He jabs perplexedly at the control buttons until the belt begins the slowest possible movement, which seems to satisfy him until a few minutes later when he feels compelled to poke a few more buttons, bringing the machine to a stop. The same pattern of behavior is repeated several times before the pudgy woman to his right finishes her stroll and lowers her moist bulk to the floor. A machine is finally open.

As the endorphins kick in during my run, I start thinking of a few of the positives that do exist in the first half of the calendar year. There’s the new TV season, one that’s lacking the day-long “Password”-a-thons we’ve endured over the recent holidays. There’s the Obama inauguration in mid-January and the Super Bowl in early February. But all these are enjoyed vicariously at best and don’t even require us to leave our living room.

There are some legitimate holidays on the calendar falling between now and the unofficial start of summer on Memorial Day. There’s Martin Luther King’s birthday in just two weeks, so we’ll get a Monday off to remember the accomplishments of the great civil rights leader. But greeting card companies haven’t told us yet how we’re properly supposed to celebrate this day. Neither parties nor gift-giving nor dressing up in costume seem quite appropriate.

In February, we have Groundhog’s Day, which represents the point at which we might potentially see an end to winter in the distance. Recent efforts to turn February 2 into even more of an occasion have met with limited success. Watching Punxsutawney Phil being groped by that guy in tuxedo and top hat was amusing the first 40 times I saw it on the news, though the novelty has since worn off. I liked the idea of expanding the number of species honored to include other groundlings – moles, voles, badgers, hedgehogs, large rats, etc. – but this added biological diversity did little to spur retail sales and holiday cheer.

Later in the month is Valentine’s Day, when we honor our beloved ones with candy and flowers and the disappointment of knowing a spouse can’t be any more thoughtful than that. Then, just a week or so later is the government-concocted President’s Day, timed to honor the birth of perhaps our greatest commander-in-chief, Abraham Washington. Once every four years, we celebrate the rare Leap Day by trying to find the instructions for changing the date on our digital watches. On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day comes rolling in drunk and smelling of cheap beer. We all wear green so as to better disguise the vomit stains on our shirts. By the time it’s April, we’re starting to sense that warm weather is in the air and we all get a little silly celebrating April Fool’s Day, when radio shock jocks trick us all into thinking an asteroid is about to hit the earth. We laugh when we realize it’s not.

Finally, on some apparently random Sunday between March and May comes Easter, originally scheduled to honor the birth of Christ but now more about the bunnies and candy than the Lord and Savior. When I was a kid, Easter was second only to Christmas in significance. Hunting for eggs, rather than avoiding them like we do as adults, was a big deal, as was the story of Peter Cottontail rolling back the stone from Jesus’ grave. With its Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Sadder Saturday and Maundy Monday (which gave us one of the few Easter carols, performed by the Mamas and Papas), Easter had the potential to give us almost a week off from work, but now most offices barely notice it.

Well, there seems to be a few breaks in the clouds as I look outside, and at least I have a job, a wonderful family and a home that’s not on the auction block. There is something to be said for the satisfaction of getting back to a routine that gives you a feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day instead of the incessant bloating I’ve endured since Thanksgiving. Once I get hungry again, and tired, and overworked, and stressed, and anxious about the economy, maybe then I’ll be happy.