Friday, March 30, 2007

Chit chat fodder by the water cooler

As I get ready to join the respectable workforce on Monday, my former customs broker has sent me another round of handy chit chat fodder. Nothing makes a better first impression than random socio-economic facts (Co-workers nod to reams of chit chat fodder while thinking, "What a nerd. Not a contender to replace me at all. A keeper.") I hope I don't get fired.

HAL will be a cell phone
Mobile phones are becoming an increasingly popular way to make all sorts of payments. In the U.S., fans of the Atlanta Hawks have been testing specially adapted phones linked to their Visa cards to enter the local stadium and to buy refreshments. In Japan, thousands of transactions, from buying railway tickets to picking up groceries, take place every day using mobile phones. It is estimated that worldwide payments using mobile phones will climb from just US$3.2-billion in 2003 to more than $37-billion by 2008.

HAL as a car
The Health Ministry in Japan has found that almost two per cent of the population are alcoholics and drunk driving is a serious problem. Toyota will introduce a new car next year that will shut down the engine if its driver is drunk, using sensors on the steering wheel to measure the alcohol level in the driver's sweat. If the driver is wearing gloves, a camera on the dashboard will check for dilated pupils and the car will detect erratic steering. Nissan is experimenting with a breathalyser-like device into which the driver must blow before starting the car.

Incandescent down under
The Australian government has announced plans to phase out incandescent light bulbs and replace them with more energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs across the country. The legislation to gradually restrict the sale of the old-style bulbs could reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by four million tonnes by 2012 and cut household power bills by up to 66 per cent.

Corn-fed with a silver spoon
Farmland from Iowa to Argentina is rising faster in price than apartments in Manhattan and London for the first time in 30 years. Demand for corn used in ethanol increased the value of cropland 16 per cent in Indiana and 35 per cent in Idaho in 2006. The price of a New York loft appreciated only 12 per cent and an apartment in London, England, by 11 per cent. Farmland prices are expected to take a quantum leap over the next 18 months after corn prices surged to a ten-year high earlier this year.

Men and women are filthy
A University of Arizona team has found that the average office desktop harbours 400 times more bacteria than the average office toilet seat. They also found that on average women have three to four times the amount of germs in, on and around their work area. Women are more likely to keep snacks in their drawers and make-up and lotions help to transfer bacteria. However, men's wallets provide the most fertile bug breeding ground of all. The Arizona team took samples from 100 offices at the university and in offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oregon and Washington.

Shrubbery over sex
U.S. circulation figures continue to decline among many magazines. Reader's Digest sales tumbled 12 per cent in the second half of last year to 10.1 million. Woman's Day was off by 20 per cent to 4 million, Redbook down 28.6 per cent to 2.4 million and Vogue was off six per cent to 1.3 million. Cosmopolitan has fallen below the two million mark in newsstand sales for the first time in years, dropping 5.9 per cent to 1.9 million. Time and Newsweek are also down. Going against the trend, Better Homes and Gardens rose 6.8 per cent, BusinessWeek was up 25 per cent and CondeNast rose 19.9 per cent.

Uter goes to Britain
German families are increasingly looking to Britain's best public schools to provide the well-rounded disciplined education they fear is being eroded in their own country. Census figures reveal significant numbers of German students are enrolled in British boarding schools where fees average $40,000 a year. Last year, 1,097 pupils from Germany obtained places at British schools compared with 868 in 2005, an increase of 20 per cent. Agencies which help German parents find places have reported record numbers of enquiries this year.

Long before there was a border to run for
Inhabitants of the New World had chili peppers and the making of taco chips over 6,000 years ago according to new research that examined the bowl-scrapings of people throughout Central America and the Amazon basin. This makes the chili pepper the oldest spice used in the Americas, and one of the oldest in the world. Within decades of European contact, the New World plant was carried across Europe and into Africa and Asia. In all seven New World sites where chili peppers residue was found, the researchers also detected remnants of corn.

Visual stimulant
A Japanese company has developed glasses that prevent the wearer from falling asleep. If the head drops below certain level, a little motor kicks in to vibrate a earpiece until the head returns to an upright position.

Smells like money
Some electronic manufacturers, airlines and banks are commissioning unique fragrances for use in their stores and on their products. This marketing ploy has emerged from an Oxford University study which shows that it is possible to train people to associate smells with particular experiences or objects. British Airways releases a faint smell of freshly cut grass into its lounges to create a pleasant atmosphere. Sony has run trials of a unique combination of vanilla and orange in some US stores.

American without benefits
A new Harvard study reveals that the U.S. lags behind virtually all wealthy countries with regard to family-oriented workplace policies such as maternity leave, paid sick days and support for breast feeding. The U.S. is one of only five countries out of 173 in the survey that does not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave, the others are Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. At least 145 countries provide paid sick days.

Land of a thousand bids
The British Treasury is to lose over US$50 million in taxes as a result of Ebay moving its tax base from Britain to Luxembourg. The company is taking advantage of a loophole in the EU tax regime that allows online retailers to shop around for the lowest tax rates. British Ebay users will now pay tax on their selling price to the Luxembourg government rather than to the UK Treasury. Other EU countries such as Germany will also lose tax revenue and Luxembourg will benefit from the windfall of $200 million a year, more than $400 for every man, woman and child in its 450,000 population.

Farmer rejigs his good ole Jag
A farmer in England has converted his Jaguar to run on rotting apple fumes. He packs two underground tanks full of apples and collects the methane gas produced as they rot. He claims his XJ6 gains 10 per cent in power by running on compressed methane and still returns about 28 miles per gallon.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Blame the women

A lot has been happening to me lately and almost all of it good. I no longer work for my evil boss and I have been enjoying an unexpected two week vacation when my letter of resignation did not go over well with my former boss. I'll be working for another institution of higher learning next week and, this time, I hope to stay for a while because one of the perks will be a free education. That's right: I can get as many Bachelor Degrees as I want. Maybe even a useless one like English. Frivolousness is a luxury.

What has shaken me out of my happy stupor is an assessment of American Idol's audience by various TV columnists, brought together in one article by Metro News columnist Rick McGinnis.

It has been speculated that American Idol is increasingly being embraced by an older audience - in particular, women of a certain age - while the young flee the TV room in droves. One critic uses as supporting evidence an episode of The New Adventures of Old Christine in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her friends obsess over American Idol. The critic disparagingly calls the sitcom "TV's ultimate mommy show" as if "mommy" could be equated with something unsavory like "retard" or "pedophile".

Following this demographic change prediction, it goes to reason that the enduring popularity of craptacular contestant Sanjaya Malakar can be blamed on the young girls who have always loved American Idol and the recent older women converts because Sanjaya is a cute and non-threatening male.

I find the assumption that women naturally support mediocrity as long as it's cute and neutered insulting. The widespread acceptance of this theory says more about the misogynistic attitudes of TV critics than the American Idol demographics.

In addition to using a fictional character played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as evidence, the TV critic cites recent Idol guests Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits and Lulu as further proof of the aging Idol demographics. The critic is cutting a rather wide swath since Louis-Dreyfus was born in 1961 and Herman's Hermits and Lulu had their heyday with the swinging youth in the 1960s. This would mean that women between the ages of 40 to 60 are all to blame for Sanjaya Malakar. This sort of statistical prediction is more buckshot than scientific analysis.

Rick McGinnis goes on to blame Taylor Hicks's win last year on "older women" then wonders when Idol producers will bow to this increasing demographic. This reasoning goes against the Sanjaya Malakar theory since Taylor Hicks is neither cute nor safe for petting.

If we are to assume that "older women" are indeed to blame for Taylor Hicks, I doubt Idol will cater to them any time soon since they did not actually open their wallets and buy Taylor Hicks's album. Album sales for last year's Idol winner have not met expectations or the sales of runner-ups like Chris Daughtry. Perhaps older women are just little stinkers at heart.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Grab bag of suspense

When I was a kid, the local convenience store offered grab bags for a dollar. Inside small white paper bags, stapled shut so you couldn't peek, would be a random toy and some candy. I don't quite remember the toys beyond the fact that they were colourful and plastic, but I do remember the feeling of repeat disappointment. I expected something amazing and instead, I got something that clearly left a huge profit margin for the storeowner.

It seems that the mystery purchase is making a comeback and I took the bait. On a recent visit to Made in China, an "Asian fusion" restaurant at 371 Yonge Street, we were titillated by the Tasting Menu. It was the meal equivalent of a grab bag for $9.99 and it made no promises. A list of questions and answer in the menu included helpful tidbits like:
Q: What is in there to eat exactly?
A: How the heck do I know? Don't ask me - our cooks are crazy and incontrollable
Despite the threat of insanity, the appetizer, soup and main course turned out to be quite ordinary. No fried bees nor chicken feet for us, which was disappointing. In the very least, it makes for a boring anecdote.
The latest mystery purchase to come to my attention is from Speck, maker of device cases. They are having a Mystery Case of the Week feature where you pay $9.99 plus shipping and Speck sends you a random case. It sounds all wonderfully chaotic but it turns out that you can specify which device you would like the case for, like the iPod, etc. Again, kind of boring, and since I don't have any of the devices they accessorize, I probably will not purchase a mystery case.
I do remember one good payout from a capsule machine. While at the local Dominions, I managed to beg 25 cents off my grandmother to try my luck at a capsule machine offering gaudy gold tone jewellery. The centrepiece prize on display was a jade horn pendant, which most kids never win. Personally, I was aiming for the gold link bracelet. Then, to my astonishment, I actually got the jade horn pendant. The kid standing beside me stared in disbelief and promptly ran over to try his luck at the same machine. Sadly, he got the equivalent of the gold link bracelet. I think I might have laughed at him from a safe distance. My ugly jade horn pendant and the accompanying experience has ensured that anytime anyone waves a mystery bag in my face, I am sorely tempted to reach for my wallet.

Chit chat fodder with lucky charms

The last installment of chit chat fodder was pretty recent but whatever. Random socio-economic facts are about as dependable to bring along to any social gathering as wine.

Sea wind now bracing and useful
A licence to build the world's largest offshore windfarm in the Thames estuary has been granted by the U.K government. Sited 12 miles off Kent and Essex, it should eventually consist of 341 turbines and occupy an area of 90 square miles and generate enough power for a third of London's homes. It is claimed that the windfarm will produce an amount of energy that, if generated by conventional means, would result in 1.9-million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year.

Big pimping in cardboard cars
Rolling off the production lines in India this year will be a budget car for around US$2200 which will be within the reach of tens of millions of Indians who until now could only afford a motor scooter. This is alarming environmentalists who argue that the last thing India's choked roads and notoriously polluted cities need is yet more cars. The vehicle will be available in four or five-seat versions with an engine of just 30 horsepower.

40 billion Jareds
Americans' fondness for sandwiches resulted in a market worth more than US$121-billion last year. It is predicted that the market for prepared sandwiches will keep growing exponentially, attributable in part to the popularity of sandwich chains such as Quizno's and Subway.

Imagination void costs money
It is estimated that over US$80-billion was spent in the U.S. on gift cards last year, an increase of 20 per cent over 2005. However, over $8-billion will go unredeemed, a windfall to retailers, due to expiration, or loss of cards. This is more than twice the amount of loss to credit or debit card loss in the U.S. in 2006.

Around the campfire with money to burn
A three-day "camp" for the offspring of families that have a fortune of over US$50-million or more was held last month. The agenda, for rich kids between 25 and 35 included sessions on the psychology of money, building an investment portfolio and issues surrounding inheritance.

Emoticon free communication
Amateur radio enthusiasts are fighting to save Morse Code. The language of dots and dashes has always been popular with the amateur radio community who have provided a communications lifeline in emergencies and disasters. But now the U.S. government will no longer require Morse Code proficiency as a condition for an amateur licence. There are about 660,000 licensed "ham" radio operators in the U.S.

Breeding like rabbits
Four countries in Europe have more cellphones than people: Luxembourg (120 phones per 100 people), Sweden (108), Italy (107) and the Czech Republic (103).

Industrial revolution for the new millenium
The great coal rush underway in China is on a scale not seen anywhere since the 19th century. The Chinese plan to build no fewer than 500 new coal-fired power stations, adding to some 2,000 of them, most of them unmodernised, that spew smoke, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. The consequences have been detected half a world away in toxic clouds so big they can be seen from space drifting across the Pacific to California laden with microscopic particles of chemicals that cause cancer and lung and heart diseases.

The future is damp
Honda is expecting to sell hydrogen fuel-cell cars to the general public by 2018. Fuel-cell cars produce electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Since the fuel-cells leave only harmless water vapour as a byproduct, they are considered a cleaner alternative to internal combustion than using fossil fuels. Finding an effective method of storing the hydrogen is one of the current challenges in fuel-cell design.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Hot man on man action this Friday!

I have expressed reservations about seeing 300, which is being released this Friday. But now that I've read Nathan Lee's review in The Village Voice, I will definitely go!

Here are some excerpts from Lee's "Man on Man Action":

Tolerate the lobotomized dialogue and some half-assed political intrigues and you'll find a good 10 minutes of 300 worth posting on YouTube. You can never go wrong with rampaging battle elephants. Throw in a war-rhino, some silver-masked ninja magicians, and an 8-foot-tall godking who looks like RuPaul beyond the Thunderdome (Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes) and 300 is not without its treats.

Delicacies of dismemberment aside, 300 is notable for its outrageous sexual confusion. Here stands the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his 299 buddies in nothing but leather man-panties and oiled torsos, clutching a variety of phalluses they seek to thrust in the bodies of their foes by trapping them in a small, rectum-like mountain passage called the "gates of hell(o!)" Yonder rises the Persian menace, led by the slinky, mascara'd Xerxes. When he's not flaring his nostrils at Leonidas and demanding he kneel down before his, uh, majesty, this flamboyantly pierced crypto-transsexual lounges on chinchilla throw pillows amidst a rump-shaking orgy of disfigured lesbians.

On first glance, the terms couldn't be clearer: macho white guys vs. effeminate Orientals. Yet aside from the fact that Spartans come across as pinched, pinheaded gym bunnies, it's their flesh the movie worships. Not since Beau Travail has a phalanx of meatheads received such insistent ogling. As for the threat to peace, freedom, and democracy, that filthy Persian orgy looks way more fun than sitting around watching Spartans mope while their angry children slap each other around. At once homophobic and homoerotic, 300 is finally, and hilariously, just hysterical.
Filthy Persian orgies? Butt plug action? Yesssss!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Up Yours, Dove! Part 2

In a previous blog, "Join the cult, buy Dove", I argued that Dove had failed to fully saturate the 'sharing and caring' market. I now eat my words because Dove cares enough to help poor, dark Indian women become white and successful.

Unilever, the caring corporation behind the Dove brand, also produces a line sold in India called Fair & Lovely. It is a skin whitening cream. The commercial for the line tells the story of an Indian girl who tries to get a job at a "modern beauty company" but is rejected because of her tan. Her father promptly whips up an ancient concoction that turns his daughter into a pale beauty. The girl is a sucker for punishment, returning to the company that rejected her but her moon face dazzles some male executive and soon, she's flying in a plane and getting snapped by paparazzi.

Fair & Lovely is not marketed in Canada because it does not fit easily into Dove's 'real beauty' campaign.

By the way, if Dove wants to promote real beauty, I wish they would stop featuring older women with extraordinary bodies in their Pro-Age advertising campaign. I would be a more realistic though less appealing model for while I am almost half the age of some of the models, my big, cellulite-filled ass could use some of that amazing Dove cream.