Monday, November 28, 2011

Chickens Roost For Europe's PIGS

I like to believe I've had a full and productive work life, thus far. Excluding paper routes, I took my first real job in the summer of grade nine. While in high school and college, I always worked weekends, and/or evenings, and summers.  Since then, I've worked continually for 20+ years.

I'm not expecting anyone's praise for this, as it's a fairly standard work ethic among my peers and I.  Imagine my bemusement then when I started my career to learn that many on the other side of the pond seeking a similar socioeconomic status do not share this ethic.   How could workers doing less, having shorter work weeks, enjoying midday "naps", taking longer vacations expect the same outcome (if not more) than the average North American Joe and Jane?

The answer, of course, is they cannot.  Well, more correctly, they could expect it, but it's folly to think they'll achieve it over the long term.  There's no free lunch.  Lay in the bed you've made.  Reap what you sow. Insert your favorite idiom or adage here, for in Europe, entire economies have been founded upon the fallacy that wealth and prosperity can be multiplied by dividing it.

The countries that stand to lose the most from decades of unreasonably generous worker rights and welfare-state-like giant social safety nets are the so called PIIGS; namely Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain and if the acronym is offensive, might I suggest GIPSI?

Telling the average European over the last generation that we, on this side of the Atlantic, have worked forty-hour weeks with a meager two-week annual vacation would be akin to telling him that you thought the Earth was flat; that is, you'd be looked at as if you were crazy. Debt burden with yawning fiscal deficits, the economies of the PIIGS (and the club is by no means exclusively to these 5 countries) are broken with no painless fixes in sight.

It may have taken the US sub-prime mortgage fiasco to foster Europe's unraveling, but the clock had been ticking for a generation or more and the chickens would have come home to roost eventually.  A continent cannot take the month of August off on vacation and expect to keep up with the rest of the planet in terms of productivity.  High costs, weak competitiveness, and a distorted labor market all led to Europe's undoing.  Sure, beleaguered politicians and those who bow to them shuffling decimal points and zeroes around on paper may have kept all the balls in the air, but those days are now over.

I, like you, have heard all of the pundits' solutions trumpeted to fix Europe: austerity measures, defaults, dissolving the Eurozone, Chinese intervention. None of the remedies will be palatable for Europeans and whichever reforms are implemented will need to be comprehensive, pervasive, protracted, and reach deep into the pockets of all those affected. But it's time for Europeans to swallow whatever bitter pills will cure them. Now is not the time for arrogant pride.  Hubris sank the titanic, not an iceberg.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Smokers' Last Drag?

I recall reading in the early 90's that twenty years on, smoking in public would be viewed with as much indignation as urinating in public.   That day couldn't come soon enough for me.  While we are today further along the path to a smoke-free utopia, we still have a long way to go in educating the ignoramuses who are arrogant about their habit in public.

I've tried cigarettes twice in my life.  Once when I was 4, I stole a puff from a smoldering cigarette in a shoe store while my mother's back was turned.   And again in my 20's at a party.  But I've probably sucked in more than my fair share of second hand smoke.  It amazes me to see old college photos from a mere twenty years ago taken at a restaurant, bar or at some house party.  Yes, the scattered beer bottles are omnipresent, but so are the cigarettes and smokers.  In many of these images a visible haze hangs over the people in the photo like a fog.  That was our world a short quarter-century ago.  I suspect that the same photo taken today would still feature the ubiquitous beer bottles, but the smokers would be gone, banished to the great outdoors, which always amuses me on a frigid February morning.  And therein lies the problem.

I'm not going to lecture smokers on the health implications, impotence, rotten breath, and yellow teeth and fingers; they've heard/read it all before, so blaze on. Most of the smokers that I know are aware that the non-smoking majority are not particularly keen on absorbing a lung full of carcinogens and are therefore respectful about smoking in public in close proximity to us. But to the others, must you crowd around the entrances of every shopping mall, hotel, arena, and restaurant forcing the nasty residue of your addiction upon children?

This weekend, our family and friends will make the annual pilgrimage to our Santa Claus parade. I'm sure this year will be no different with a disturbing number of chain smokers scattered throughout the dense crowd seemingly oblivious to the throngs of children that line the route or, more likely, too arrogant to care.

Yes, that day will come when puffing away in public will be viewed with the same scorn as smoking on an airplane or in a hospital is today.  Until then, however, municipal governments need to enact and enforce bylaws to protect our majority in outdoor public places.  Unfortunately dirty looks just aren't enough.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Jehovah's Witness Protection Program

Despite a discreet, but clear sign stating, "No Soliciting, Please" at our doorway, we still entertain a regular flow of kooks, charlatans and know-nothings who come a knockin' trying to offload their crap.

I will preface this piece by stating that I have nothing against anyone's religious preference, political affiliations, or desire to sell their "must have" goodies and services.  I do, however, take exception to the door-to-door manner they've chosen to promote their causes.

The typical nuisances and how to avoid and dissuade, in no particular order:

-Kids selling chocolates.  I have a soft spot for kids and another for yummy chocolate, but parents...really?  Letting Junior go door-to-door is no longer appropriate or advised.  I'll never buy poisons from kids at the door simply because it encourages the practice.  And if the parent is in tow, they can expect an earful. Tsk-tsk!

-Politicians.  In the social media driven internet age, neighborhood-canvassing politicians are irksome. We don't trust them handling and kissing our babies anymore and their time would be better spent on Facebook or Twitter.  Telling them that you are housesitting and don't live in the riding is the simplest way to have them quickly shove off.  If, however, you've got time to kill and want to ruin their day, invite them in, show them everything that's wrong with your house, your yard, your neighbors, your world.  You'll be doing mankind a favor by encouraging these politicos to stay home or to visit a soup kitchen for their shameless photo ops.

-Religious Zealots.  I've assumed that the Jehovah's Witnesses ignore our "No Soliciting" sign because they really don't think they are selling anything.  Nothing could be further from the truth, in my opinion.  Again, I respect others' religious preferences, but the promotion of religious dogma under the guise of altruism should always raise suspicion.  Unlike the politicians above, inviting JWs into your home to debate ideologies is always a sure way to get them to return, so don't unless you're old and lonely and craving propaganda heavily cloaked as companionship. Assuming you don't want to go as far as the cunning stunt pictured below, a polite sigh followed by "We're not interested" will almost always do the trick.  Remember that they have hundreds of doors to knock upon and if they quickly conclude that they can't get their foot into yours, they won't waste their time.

-Charities.  The old "I gave at the office" excuse is getting a little tired.  I prefer to simply explain that with so many fraudulent charity scams out there, I don't make donations at my doorstep.  This is 100% accurate. True, it may sound like the banter of a parsimonious tightwad, but I'm affirmed by the knowledge that my family does give appropriately to legitimate charities where no cash changes hands and genuine, legible receipts are issued.

-Home Renovations.  They're perhaps the easiest to avoid.  Before the salesperson can launch into their spiel, I explain that I'm just a renter and they'd have to speak to the landlord.  While most likely know this is nonsense, they're always too befuddled to counter with anything persuasive.  After all, a tenant has no power to approve renovations, water heater contracts, or lawn maintenance for his rented domicile.  Charming.

My wife insists that the remedy for all of the above is to simply not answer the door.  I think that's a tad rude and besides, I relish matching wits with those who have been trained to not take "No" for an answer.

One of the greatest anti-irritant innovations of our time was the No Call Registry.  Way to go, government! After registering online, home renovation calls, telephone solicitations for magazines, invitations to time-share seminars, and all the other dinnertime bandit blather stopped virtually overnight in our home.  What's needed is the same protocol to vanquish the door-to-door dufi.  A simple certified sign or sticker issued by some government agency that would legally dissuade any would-be knocker from even thinking about it would suffice.

Our homes are our castles.  We could use the protection.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Florida Causes Arthritis

Many old folks live in Florida.  Many old folks have Arthritis.  Therefore, living in Florida causes Arthritis.

While I'm certain that anyone reading this claim could easily poke holes in the logic, I'm not convinced that we apply the same rigor to all the other assertions we are bombarded with on a daily basis. 

Today's claim indicated that women drinking 3 - 6 alcoholic beverages/week raise their risk of breast cancer by a statistically significant amount.  And just yesterday I read that sending toddlers to daycare could retard development of their brains.

In our Twitter-fed world, where everyone expects the universe to be explained in 140 characters or less, this kind of "science" is rapidly becoming a replacement for the real thing.

What's missing, of course, from these types of assertions is the rest of the story.  No person with even a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method would accept as fact that Florida could cause arthritis. So then, why are we so quick to jump on the bandwagons of other dubious claims?   Does moderate consumption of alcohol really increase a woman's risk of breast cancer?  Maybe, but other factors would need to be considered and without that scrutiny the claim belongs to the realm of junk science.  Someone who regularly consumes alcohol may be more likely to lead a lifestyle rife with other cancer causing factors; smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet, etc..  Without due consideration given to these other factors in the same study, the conclusion becomes suspect and flawed.

An inevitable corollory to the ease of access to information in our age is the ease of access to poor conclusions based on pseudo-science conveniently bundled up into a palatable tweet.  A proper study needs to include randomized trials, blinding, and cohort comparison all subject to review and repitition by peers.  We'd do well to remember this rather than gulping down the latest fad claim on the internet.

"Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive but what they conceal is vital."~Aaron Levenstein