Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Frazzing

Frazzing, short for frantic multitasking, refers to a form of mental channel switching caused by all the distractions we face today: cell phones, Blackberry coms, e-mails, pages, I-Ms, and good old, in-person interruptions. The Stickler never wants to say "I told you so," but it is what it is.

A study by a Massachusetts psychiatrist--Edward Hallowell, the person who coined the term "frazzing:--found that office workers were interrupted, on average, once every 10 and a half minutes. That's a lot of distractions in a work day, but the truly staggering finding was this: It took the distracted workers and average of 23 minutes to get back to productive work on the original task.

That study covered so-called "knowledge workers" (who use computers and related technology as an integral part of their work) and uncovered some disturbing trends. The average knowledge worker loses 2.1 hours of productivity a day to interruptions. It concluded that distractions and short attention spans are costing companies a lot of money. At $21 per hour, 2.1 hours of lost time adds up to $588 billion a year!

Instead of recognizing the real problem--the finite amount of time we have--business productivity experts suggest that technology can help. I'd say there is too much damn technology and it is the root of this evil, but who listens to The Stickler anyway? The techdoctors say your software should "recognize" what you are working on an filter out any unrelated e-mails. Another smartytech says you should have a "message compiler" that accumulates all your various interruption messages and priorities them according to a pre-set "value list." Yea, right. So how long will it take us to create our "value list?" And, how the hell are we supposed to know our idea of value matches that of our employer?

Sounds like these experts are frazzed out themselves, if you ask me. As for Dr. Hallowell, the namer of frazzing, he avoids the problem by writing a "to-do" list on paper, just so he can concentrate.

Here's my solution to frazzing: Shut off the cell phone, Blackberry, e-mail and I-M devices and software when you are concentrating. Look at them only in between project work periods. After work, shut them all down until you are "back on the clock." Don't give the many any more of your time than you get paid for. Time is more valuable than money.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Much needed invention

I just read that ultra top-secret spy satellites have cost the U.S. some $300 billion over the past decade. All this to keep an eye on the nefarious activities of our fellow Earthlings. This is a staggering sum for something that may alert one to dangerous squabbles, but does nothing to keep the peace. However, there is a mythic device that could keep obstructions cultures from waging genocide on each other. It's called a FORCE FIELD and I bet $300 billion would have been more than enough to create a workable device.

Just think! Instead of a huge wall between Palestine and Israel, there should be nothing--visible, that is. But, approach the Force Field and warning signals are seen and heard. Keep moving toward the Force Field and you will feel an intense palpatation of your body. It's the spurious electrons given off by the Force Field. Touch the Force Field and a number of things could happen: (1) you might be thrown back as you receive a jolt of static electricity; (2) you might be electrocuted if you happen to be grounded creating an inviting path for zillions of excited electrons looking for mommy; or (3) you might simply vaporize if the Force Field is an amplified light device, related to a laser, that has the impact power of a particle accelerator. None of these results is pleasant, but they do create an impression. Word gets around as the Force Field gains an invincible reputation. Within a short period of time, the Force Field gains complete credibility and the factions quit trying to breach it.

Once the large scale Force Field is proven and development proceeds along is inevitable path, a PERSONAL FORCE FIELD becomes available. Worn first by soldiers, the Personal Force Field (PFF) prevents incursion beyond, say, 30 inches surrounding an individual. It isn't a lethal force, but an impenetrable, but not impervious shield. For example, a sophisticated network is constantly monitoring the PFF grid. Sensors are tuned to recognize rapid and abrupt movements and foreign substances. When one is detected, the grid focuses an appropriate neutralizing energy on the spot of impact. Result? Energy is diffused and objects decelerated to zero. Normal movements (such as hand shakes) and acceptable substances (such as the air we breathe) are not affected by the PFF. Imagine the effect of a peace-keeping force of PFF-equipped troops! The simple realization that weapons are ineffective against such a force would cause terror and panic among the combatants, eventually convincing them that resistance is futile.

The Force Field is the most needed invention. It would be a life-saver and probably save the world from its inevitable violent end. Why have we invested so much filthy lucre in weapons of mass destruction and spying? Why haven't we invented a Force Field?

The Stickler

P.S. While working on a prototype force field in my basement, I inadvertently created the FARCE FIELD. It has proven to be completely misunderstood, but surprisingly effective in my quest to pull the pants down on pomposity in the workplace. It has also caused me to be fired. Alas, that is the price one must sometimes pay for creativity.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Devil's Horn

All Reedy, Then...

How can one not be interested in a musical instrument banned by Nazis, Communists and the Catholic church? It's also just about the newest of the major musical instruments, dating from 1843 when Adolphe Sax built the first one. Not only that, but the saxophone family of instruments has become a ubiquitous element of jazz and popular music. W.C. Fields once said, "A gentleman is one who knows how to play the saxophone, but refrains from doing so." Today, it seems everyone wants to play the saxophone. It's cool and hot and like a woman with a past, the sax is controversial to this day.

To fully appreciate the colorful history of the saxophone, one should pick up a copy of "The Devil's Horn," by Michael Segell. It gives a highly entertaining account of the birth of the saxophone through its invention in 1843 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian craftsman who was every bit as colorful as the events surrounding his namesake instrument. His early prototypes impressed the musical elite of the day, composers Berlioz and Lizst, for example. But they tended to horrify certain types of non-musicians. Perhaps it was because the saxophone had a particularly human sound, one that was described as "carnal," and "voluptuous." It became known as the "Devil's Horn."

Opponents of the saxophone and rival instrument makers decried the unnatural union of reed and brass. They physically assaulted Sax on numerous occasions. They attacked his instruments rendering them unplayable in attempts to discredit the inventor and his mysterious horn. The Vatican declared the instrument "profane" and forbade believers to listen to it for fear of falling into sin. The Nazis heard something else--revolution. So they described it as "unpure" and "devisive." Ultimately, their condemnation of the sax in particular led to the banishment of jazz in general. Clearly, saxophones were revolutionary since they provoked such abandonment of inhibitions and encouraged creativity and frivolity.

Despite the prohibitionist pressure, saxophones prevailed and proliferated in all their amazing forms from giant contra-bass saxes to bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano and tiny sopranino variations. The range and color available from saxophones has led to the formation of saxophone orchestras, The London Saxophonic, The Nuclear Whales and Saxemble to name a few modern organizations.

Of course, it was the playing of jazz greats Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond that established the saxophone's virtuosity as an instrument of improvisation. Then there is the big band factor and the undeniable impact of the pliable, customizeable saxophone ensemble sound on the bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman, to name but a few.

Most people would assume the popular tenor or alto saxophones were the first born of the Sax family. Not true. Good old Adolphe started off with a bass clef instrument. He had already come up with his family of saxhorns (from which are born todays brass band instruments) and redesigned the bass clarinet to a greatly improved standard, but he also wanted to produce an instrument that played in octaves rather than twelfths. His first goal was to replace the squaking and squally tone of the well-named hecklephone and the obstreperous bass oboe. So, the first sax out of the womb was the bass saxophone, an instrument of formidable proportions. It stands around six feet tall and must be played at an angle (with a sturdy harness) or on a stand with the player sitting on a stool.

Although originally available in either B-flat or C (the latter for orchestral use), the modern bass saxophone is pitched in B-flat. Music for bass sax is written in treble clef, just as music for the other saxophones is written, but for the bass instrument, it sounds two octaves and a major second lower than written. Like the other members of the saxophone family, the lowest written note is B-flat below the staff; for bass saxophone, this note is a concert-pitch A-flat. The low notes have a rich roundness that make your ankles wobble ( as does holding the thing up after a while ).

The bass saxophone is not heard much today and that is a shame. Perhaps it is a matter of size and weight. The thing is a monster! Or, it could be the expense of purchasing one. A vintage horn from Selmer (successor to the Adolphe Sax Company) or Conn command $20,000 or so. There have been a few new horns, but they are usually commissioned from instrument makers and you don't want to know what the going price is! So, there aren't that many bass sax players out there compared to the tenor-alto-soprano crowd.

Still, there are good recordings available and I highly recommend you check out the incredible, unforgettable sound of the bass saxophone at full steam. Adrian Rollini is the name associated with the bass sax in its dance band heydey of the 1920's and 1930's. He is heard to best advantage on "The Goofus Five," available at a reasonable price through Amazon. It's a rollicking record that also includes Rollini on novelty instruments such as the Goofus (today's Melodica) and the "Hot Fountain Pen," an oddball that most resembles penny whistle with a sax mouthpiece, but who really knows?, the instrument has been lost to antiquity.

My recommendation for a "modern" bass saxophone recording is "Thinking Big" by Scott Robinson. He plays a mean bass saxophone on the jazz quintet recording as well as all the other members of the sax family, including a rare and raucous relative called the Contrabass Sarrousaphone. This is party and dance music with tunes like "Sleepiy Time Gal" (bass sax) and Duke Ellington's "Ko-Ko" (contrabass sax).

Once you get the bass sax in your head, you will lust for more. After all, it IS the Devil's Horn.

The Stickler

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Is Western Civilization Doomed?

According to substantial research, approximately 35% of public high school graduates are functional illiterates; the percentage is even higher among those who attempt to enlist in one of the military services. Second, other research studies indicate that approximately 90% of those now teaching in public schools will continue to do so through the year 2015. College professors regularly report encountering functionally illiterate students, some of whom have never read a book, but managed to enter college. Finally, at least one research study of public schools in California suggests that only 35% of each hour in a classroom is devoted to completing an academic task of some kind.

Is there any wonder why the "Dummies" series of self-help books has prospered? Can a civilization built upon literature, music, art and science support millions of illiterate people who couldn't care less about culture and learning?

Still, I understand the situation when I plop down in front of the tube after work too tired to read, unmotivated to paint or play the piano and essentially tapped of energy. Television is the perfect dumbed down slave for wage slaves worrying more about paying the rent than the impending fall of western civilization. Understandably so.

So what happened to the "leisure class" and the 37-1/2 hour work week? One word answer: Productivity. American business and industry has been pushing to squeeze more work out of each of us for the past two decades. The "titans of industry" recognized a survival situation and devised the ultimate survival plan: When you can no longer preserve margins through price increases and the cost of production keeps rising, the only course is to extract higher performance from labor.

You know what? It's working! The American economy has weathered the storms of the Intenet crash, the 9/11 terrorism attacks and increasingly fierce global competition. This has been done at the expense of vacation time, relaxation time and private time. Cell phones link us not only to the social demands of friends and family, but to the after-hours demands of employers as well. E-mail has substituted for hand-written paper letters at the expense of contemplative thought. The Internet, electronic games and television have substituted an altered reality for the one that oppresses us and steals our time.

Think about it...that is, if you have time.

The Stickler

Monday, January 23, 2006

Dream Thinking

I'm in the business of creativity--coming up with a new concept, catch phrase, tag line, headline, cool advertising copy and so on. Over the years, I've found the most consistently effective way to produce new ideas and solve problems is by dreaming. When I go to sleep, I assign myself a problem. I try not to solve it before I go to sleep and simply think about the characteristics a great solution would have. For example, I might mull over some analogies or comparisons. I might set my brain up for "no-holds-barred" thinking by envisioning the outcome of the ad or marketing materials--happy clients, ecstatic sales people, enthusiastic consumers and so on. This relaxes me and removes the natural fear that I might not come up with anything.

Sigmund Freud felt a lot of important things got done during dreams. In part, he believed that our inhibitions are less likely to intrude on our dreaming. The censors "relax" and we don't hear that voice in our brains saying "You can't think that thought!" So we dream about weird things that we wouldn't allow ourselves to think about during the day. This elimination of the negatives--the mental blocks--during the dream state make it far easier to be freely creative.

Another thing that stays in the background during dreams is the rational "editors" who take the night off. That's why such fantastic things happen in dreams. And, the most amazing thing about it is that you don't think these fantastic things are amazing. They seem quite plausible. The surreal is accepted as real. This is very conducive to creative thinking.

But, the actual dream state is only part of the process. Early in the morning, when you have just started to wake up you are capable of lucid dreaming. You still have access to the dream thoughts. This is when you must remember things or have them evaporate. During this period, I can still evaluate ideas that came to me in the night and see which ones make sense. After only 20 minutes or so in this lucid dreaming state, I will have new insights into whatever my assignment was. Many times, I find I have the solution, or creative idea fully formed and ready to go!

I bring this creativity technique to the attention of Action Geek readers because you are creative people. You have a talent for juxtaposition of ideas that create new ideas, new visuals, and new sounds. Because you have this talent, it is your DUTY to use it efficiently and productively. So, I have an assignment. Tonight: Give yourself an assignment. Make it rather easy. Something along the lines of I need to think of something that will produce surprise when I tell someone. See what happens. I think you will be surprised.

The Stickler

Friday, January 20, 2006

Your Genes Are Patented

No, not those designer disasters you have on there, but the stuff you are made of. Yep. Of the 24,000 genes that control the 100 million cells in our bodies, about 20 percent are patented, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This brings up a logical question: How can genes be subject to patent when they were invented by nature, not corporations, universities, government agencies and nonprofit groups? The answer, according to patent lawyers, is that living things are patentable, as long as they involve the effects of human intervention. That, says the U.S. Supreme Court means they are "made" by humans (1980). The Justices noted that Einstein could not have patented E=mc2, but a bacterium coaxed into metabolizing oil (creating a way to clean up oil spills) was a "product of human ingenuity."

The rapid progress of genetics and biotechnology present some interesting new problems for ethicists and justices. The debate about what man should make started with cloning. Where does patenting life stop? For example, there is the Harvard University OncoMouse, a rodent with an extra gene that predisposes it to contract cancer, a very useful trait in medical research. Should the OncoMouse receive a patent? The U.S. Patent Office issued a patent for it. The Supreme Court of Canada rejected the OncoMouse patent. The European Patent authorities narrowed the scope of the patent to cover the specific strain of mouse, invoking a new proviso that bars patents that threaten morality. Still, our U.S. Patent evaluators do have boundaries. For example, they rejected a patent application for a hypothetical "chimera," a part-human, part animal hybrid." The patent seekers were not actually seeking to create such a creature, but wanted a patent rejection to establish precidence in order to block future patents for hybrid animals.

One thing is clear, biology is quagmire of ethical dilemmas. Oh, don't get your hopes up about any royalities on those patented genes in your body. It seems they are commercial entities only in isolation and that means EXTRACTION. Sounds painful to me.

The Stickler

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What's Up BOT?

Readers of Action Geek are familiar with Angry Bot, Doug's alter ego (clone?) who enables him to speak, gesture and act in ways he might not get away with as Action Geek. While Angry Bot is a fascinating personality, he is, alas, not real. Still, to us non-scientists, he looks like a robot should. Until recently, robots that looked "right" couldn't do very much because human movement is very difficult to replicate. Sony has proven it can be done with Asimo, but even this ambitious effort fails to accomplish much except entertain.

This is why I got very excited while reading Mass High Tech in the can at work. Two guys from Connecticut have invented an anthropomorphic (human-like)CAR WASHING robot designed to replace the human car wash attendee who sprays down a car just before it enters an automated car wash. This car wash robot can even be dressed in a variety of costumes, such as Santa Claus. The article didn't address the task of collecting the payment, a funtion I associate with the "spray-down" guy. Still, here is a robot entering the workforce just where we would expect, at the entry level.

On the other end of the robot complexity scale, there is the "Virtual Encounters" robot invented by Ray Kurzweil, of synth keyboard fame and member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. This robot is intended to take on the virtual persona of a someone you are talking and interacting with, this someone being at a remote location. In other words, Ray's robot "channels" your friend. At the same time, presumably, your friend has the same robot and it is "channeling" you for him. Got that? These robots will supposedly be programmable with physical characteristics of your chat-buddies so they will morph into the correct friend whenever you start a conversation with them. No word on when Ray will be able to breathe life into his patents, but I wouldn't hold MY breath.

While working robots are doing a bit of everything these days, they don't really look like we think robots should. But that is changing because humans have this powerful drive to create machines in their own image. So keep saving up those batteries, Angry Bot fans. Pretty soon you too will be able to pal around with an Angry Bot of your own.

Posted by The Stickler, not Action Geek

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Master and Margarita

The world is in a fine fix. It's a crisis of belief, believe it or not. Belief in what, you ask? The Devil, I say. Evil incarnate. Satan. There's plenty of evil around. Terror, for example. Demons at work, if you ask me. Evidence. Evil exists. Oh? You have no problem with that statement? Well, consider this: What good is good if evil did not exist, and what would earth be like if shadows disappeared? Hey, I'm talking causality here. This stuff does not just happen. An entire religion--Islam--does not highjack itself. Zealots burning with hatred and bent on blowing up themselves and as many "infidels" as possible don't become a global threat without facilitation. I say it's the work of the Devil. You can say whatever you want.

But, no matter what you say, I have a recommendation. Pick up a copy of "The Master and Margarita," by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is a highly entertaining account of Professor Woland's visit to Moscow and the supernatural events that follow. The setting is Stalinist Russia, a period of oppression during which people informed on each other and disappeared without explanation. The State ran everything and a cynical protocol governed just about every action one might take. Life was tense and uncertain. Suspicion was the operant attitude. Unbelievable things happened all the time. Enter Professor Woland and his motley retinue: Korovyov, the resourceful secretary, Azazella, a utility demon and Behemoth, the anthropomorphic giant black cat. Read and imagine the chaos following a series of dirty tricks perpetrated by this trio of evil. Follow along as pompous bureaucrats find their pants around their ankles and refined and learned literary figures become babbling fools and lunatics when confronted with a certain Trickster. Throw in a writer who has unwisely selected Pontius Pilate as the main character in his resurrection story and get him hooked up with Margarita, a lovely upper class woman with the audacity and courage to use Woland's powers to her advantage. It's quite a tale. And, after you read this remarkable book, tell me again why you don't believe in the Devil.

Later, The Stickler

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Welcome to ActionGeekBlog

Hi there. This is my first foray into actual blogging. But in all honesty, I've been publishing Action Geek comic'zine for almost 5 years now and THAT, in a sense, is pretty much an on-paper, on-line KIND of blog sort of. Action Geek covers all things I consider to be "geeky", interesting, whatever... could be scooters, travel, shopping, fashion, cinema, toys, board games, ancient video games, anything...

...and THIS blog will serve as a kind of ADENDUM to the regular 'zine as well as a venting for overflow, so to speak. And then it could also be a place where people can comment on stuff seen in the comic'zine or just read occasional entries by me that really have no bearing on the 'zine itself, but are still relevent...

Action Geek comic'zine
http://www.dsquared.org/actiongeek.html

my main site:
dsquared graphic design
http://www.dsquared.org

Enjoy!