Monday, October 5, 2015

Various Observations

With cameras on nearly every street corner, both those set up by the government and those by private companies for security and the ones in almost every cell phone, we are seeing both on the news and on line more and more pictures of natural disasters, car crashes, embarrassing moments, and just about everything else.  The only subject that there doesn’t seem to be a rash of pictures is UFOs.  A number of years ago reports were much more common, and several books promoted evidence that we are not alone.  Now there seems to be very little serious reference to ETs.  Maybe everyone knows they would be expected to back up their stories with a few fairly high-resolution pictures.

A recent radio ad told me that I should buy gold, because the price had come down to levels not seen since 2007 and before that 2000.  These may not be the exact dates, but the gist of it was to buy gold while it was again very affordable.  I was expected to react quickly because the last two times the price went up from here.  Another interpretation, though, could be that the last two times after going up, it also came back down to where it is now.  Was this ad telling me that it was a good time to buy gold or just the best time to climb on board “the gold roller coaster” as it continues to go up and down?

Would smearing black stuff under my eyes make me a better driver by cutting down the glare?  This thought struck me as I saw a close-up on TV of a football player coming off the field.  Is this eye black effective or just superstition?  A few sources tell me of limited studies that show “the eye grease made of beeswax, paraffin, and carbon does in fact reduce glare and improve contrast sensitivity,” but “anti-glare stickers and petroleum jelly have no impact.”  Does that minimal improvement in contrast sensitivity improve performance?  No evidence is available.  Tennis players must react to fast-moving balls in sunlight or under bright, artificial lighting, but they don’t paint their faces.  Even so, as superstitious as many professional athletes (and their fans) are, there is little chance of the practice changing soon.

Is everyone a hater?  There is another one of those simple internet posters going around on Facebook and other sites with a long list of all the people the Republicans are accused of hating:  the poor, Muslims, women, blacks, etc.  On the other side the left is accused of hating and trying to destroy America and the Constitution.  The behavioral model as presented here asks, even requires, everyone to rise above this, drop the name-calling and general accusations by dealing exclusively with behavior.  But the name-calling won’t stop until the general public, the voters, you and I, adopt and start living out the behavioral model and demand that it does.  That’s why I present a couple examples every week, to try to teach Americans that there is a better way, a real solution.

Friday, October 2, 2015

More About Symptoms

Last time I pointed out how the seemingly constant need for entertainment and distractions could be symptoms of deeper problems.  At the very least these symptoms indicate a weakness in discipline and perspective.  Another indication of the shortage of discipline and perspective could be a lack of patience.

The other day as I was driving to the studio to teach a yoga class, I was stopped behind a Honda at a red light.  The light changed and the other lanes of traffic began to move, but the Honda was fixed to the spot.  After about a count of four, he accelerated and began to catch up to a large truck in the lane in front of him that was slowing for other traffic.  As he nearly caught up to the truck he abruptly slowed down.  When the truck pulled into the turn lane he maintained his slow speed, as if the truck were still there.  I am always wary of this kind of erratic driving, so pulled over to get past him and out of his way.  As I drove by I could clearly see the driver looking down at his phone as his thumb moved over the keys.  That must have been a very important message to justify putting himself and the rest of us on the road in danger.  Apparently it just couldn’t wait.

I arrived at class safely.  About half way through I noticed one participant who seemed not to be able to wait for my cuing.  We barely finished doing a twist to the right and she was setting up for the twist to the left.  A couple of other times she missed a cue to pause and had to back up to get with the rest of the class.  During final relaxation I could see the fidgeting and sensed her thinking about when it would be over so she could get on with the rest of her day.  Upon leaving she said that she usually went to an evening class but felt she needed yoga today to help her relax.  I silently agreed one hundred percent with her diagnosis.  I hoped the yoga helped a little, but it seemed to have not made a big difference.  Too bad.

These kinds of reactions are not unusual.  We all feel rushed; there’s just not enough time!  So we cut corners, trying to get ahead.  But this cutting corners can put us in dangerous situations or just cause us to throw away a great opportunity to chill out on the yoga mat and get a little control of our lives.  It’s a lack of patience due to a failure in discipline, to tell ourselves “not now,” and in perspective to know how little many of our worries amount to over the long run.

One point is that many common and generalizable behavioral observations come not always from the news but from daily life.  If you dare, take the patience challenge, gaze straight ahead and take 10 deep breaths before moving on to that next urgent piece of business.

There, doesn’t that feel better?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Are You Afraid of Yourself?

Some pieces of information have come together recently to lead me to the conclusion that people are more and more becoming afraid of spending time with their own thoughts.  They seem to dread facing what’s in their heads.

The first sign was a message on a neighborhood e-mail group when construction workers broke ground for a new branch library.  One neighbor complained that it would increase traffic and possibly draw an undesirable element to this part of the city.  Besides, she said that she had no use for a library and found reading boring.  (I guess the Internet to her is just one long series of cute puppies and kittens.)

That was a little hard to believe, but not too unusual.  Next the post office delivered a card from my cable company telling me in large red letters to AVOID BOREDOM, by signing up to take my entertainment with me everywhere.  Now I like entertainment, but everywhere?  Don’t I want to have a little quiet time to think?

Apparently I am a minority for considering that based on the number of people I see in public who can’t put their phones down, much less turn them off.  This phenomenon is most visible among teenagers, which is why I was very surprised to hear on a television health segment that 60% of high schoolers reported binge drinking.

That was shocking, but also wrong.  Actually, the CDC reported last year that although alcohol is “the most commonly used and abused drug among youth,” and that “people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States,” a reputable survey showed that 35% of these youth reported drinking some amount of alcohol in the last 30 days and 21% binge drank – binge drinking being defined as men consuming five or more drinks and women drinking four or more drinks in 2 hours.  “Around 90% of alcohol consumed among under-21s is in the form of binge drinking.”

Well, 21% is better than 60%, but the National Institute of Health (NIH) published a study (done on rats - no teenagers were intoxicated) with findings showing a strong link between binge drinking during adolescence and impaired cognitive functions later in life including effects on learning, memory, impulse control and making decisions.  With more than 1 in 5 teens setting themselves up for long-term cognitive problems, what that means to our future healthcare needs, not to mention our nation’s future in general, I’ll leave for you to think about.

All that reminded me of an NBC story from a number of months ago about accidental deaths.  The number of overdose deaths “have doubled in the past 14 years and now more people die from accidental overdoses than in road accidents in most U.S. states.”  Overall, more people die accidentally from drugs than from car accidents and more than half of those deaths are related to prescription drugs.

When I lump these seemingly unrelated events together I begin to wonder if Americans are afraid of being alone with their thoughts.  Reading is not as enticing as zoning out in front of the TV.  It takes more concentration and effort.  That can seem boring.  If I am encouraged to take my entertainment with me, the advertisers must assume that I am incapable (or afraid) of amusing myself for even short periods of time.  Their assumption is borne out by the millions of teens who, even with easy access to this 24/7/everywhere music, movies and other entertainment, feel the need to drink themselves into oblivion.  And much of the rest of the population finds solace in prescription pills.  Are these all attempts to numb ourselves against the terrible prospect of some unexpected thought popping up?

It seems like what is called for is a little discipline, choosing to occasionally deny the instant gratification, and perspective, appreciating what we have and rediscovering all the wonderful things about our lives.  This self-induced isolation, drawing away from the outside world without seeming to acknowledge the inner world, is a scary symptom.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Much Ado About Nothing

The latest fast food controversy involves Chipotle’s new advertising campaign announcing that virtually all its items would be free of genetically modified ingredients and antibiotics.  CBS reports that the non-profit Center for Consumer Freedom “launched a campaign last month asserting Chipotle's ‘G-M-Over It,’ campaign is misleading,” because their fast food can lead to obesity.  The counter argument shows pictures of morbidly obese people as examples of what can happen.

The company responds that they are sincere about their commitment, but sincerity is not the same as telling the truth.  You can sincerely believe the world is flat, but that doesn’t make it so.  Reporters side with the company, pointing out that the critic has been sponsored by tobacco and food companies in previous campaigns, that some of those campaign “targets have included unions, the Humane Society and Mothers Against Drunk Driving;” but questionable associations, possible conflicts of interest or just having an ax to grind might imply, but does not necessarily prove, falsehood.

First, despite trying to dress it up with catchy advertising as a healthy alternative, no fast food is really the healthiest choice.  On the other hand, it may lead to, but is not responsible for obesity – behavior is responsible for obesity in almost every case.

Second, what they are fighting about is beliefs and not facts.  GMOs have never been shown to be dangerous or even unhealthy.  Genetic modification has happened in nature for thousands of years, sometimes randomly and sometimes directed by humans and today it also happens in the laboratory.  I have provided details with sound references to back this up several times in the past (Genetic Engineering and More on the GMO Panic and Food Paranoia).

Experts agree.  Last spring, ten doctors from various institutions sent a letter to Columbia's dean of medicine calling for the dismissal of Dr. Oz from the staff.  The letter read in part:  “Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops."

So Chipotle tries to lure in customers based on unfounded beliefs that avoiding GMOs will somehow make what is essentially fast food healthier.  The company is counting on the fact that unlike beliefs in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, people will not grow out of this one.  They are, after all, sincere.

This reminds me of a story I heard in the Seventies from some college students who would mix chocolate milk in the dorm cafeteria with skim milk rationalizing that the low calories of one would offset the less healthy effects of the other, but still deliver the chocolate taste.  At least this had some logical backing.  Trying to rationalize indulging in fast food with the promise of some mythical non-GMO benefit does not even live up to that questionable standard.  So what are they fighting about?

Monday, September 21, 2015

More Economic Reality

Last time I told of how some fast food workers were demonstrating for a $15 wage, while in parts of North Dakota where the economy was strong and unemployment very low, one Wal-Mart was offering over $17 per hour starting pay to attract workers.  It’s purely a matter of the supply of willing and able workers falling short of the demand.  Many of the able-bodied in that part of the state can work in jobs related to oil production for far more money.  Accordingly, the best way to get a good-paying job is to have skills or talents either superior to many others or rare in society.  Examples include top salespeople making the best commissions and star athletes winning tournaments or big contracts, but the principle generally extends to the rest of us who expect to get rewarded for a good education and hard work.  (Of course some get rewarded for being favored by the boss or being related to the owner, but much of that is out of our control.)

That supply and demand dynamic works well if the jobs exist, but where do jobs come from?  Politicians would like us to believe that if elected, they will create jobs.  Later, if the job situation improves, they take credit; if jobs disappear, they blame evil corporations, the general economy or other politicians – or sometimes they make up numbers and take credit anyway!  The truth is that government does not create jobs (except more government jobs).  Politicians can only make it easier, less burdensome, for businesses, especially small businesses to operate and grow.

Do businesses create jobs?  I’ve often heard people, especially during the recession, complain that if Apple or another big company has so much cash on hand, why don’t they use some of it to hire more people.  These complainers don’t take it to the next step by asking what the new employees would do.  Would they help to make more products, products that would just accumulate in a warehouse somewhere?  That might work in the short term, but then those people, plus others, would be laid off until the products sold.  With no one to buy the products or no one interested in the extra service the companies have no reason to hire anyone.  They will continue to accumulate cash while they advertise in an attempt to grow; but they need more sales to hire more workers.

The ultimate conclusion then is that customers create jobs!  Companies must have someone interested in buying a product or service to justify hiring someone to produce that product or provide that service.  The lemonade stand at the bottom of a dead end street is pretty much doomed to failure.  Apple without people lining up to buy the latest phone has no reason to maintain their level of stores, distribution, research and advertising staff.  A large majority of new start-up businesses fail in the first 2-3 years not primarily because they are poorly run, but because they are unable to attract enough customers to cover their costs.  Many entrepreneurs will live on a minimal salary or no pay at all in an attempt to get their business off the ground, and that means building a customer base.

No matter what we hear from politicians over the next 14 months and beyond, government does not create jobs.  Customers are responsible for private sector jobs and our jobs depend on those customers being happy and coming back.  Unfortunately too few executives grasp this concept well enough to value the workers who make their products or otherwise have face-to-face contact with their customers and to treat those workers with the respect and honesty necessary to motivate continuous caring and high performance.