Archive for April, 2007

The Thinker

The virtues (and drawbacks) of flavored water

For us weight conscious people, drinking something with zero calories is preferred to drinking something loaded with calories. Dietitians will often suggest consuming plenty of water. Drinking water can help us feel full and thus may make us less inclined to eat. Staying fully hydrated is considered a healthy practice and good for the body. Therefore, I have been trying to drink more water, even if it has the side effect of having me run to the bathroom more often.

Is there a link between liberally drinking water and weight loss? I wondered about this. A shrink I used to see was a big proponent of drinking water. He told me he used to be overweight. Part of his strategy was to keep drinking water. He would constantly sip from bottled water during our therapy sessions.

There is one problem about drinking water: whether it comes from the tap or a bottle, it does not taste that interesting. A cold and refreshing glass of water can be invigorating, but it does not have much in the way of taste. Since we often feel fully hydrated even when we are not, it is easy to forget to drink water. That is what I noticed after a couple weeks of trying the full hydration strategy. There was too much going on to constantly remind myself to imbibe.

There are all sorts of zero or low calories drinks on the market. Each has some drawbacks. At home, I drink Crystal Light. While it is certainly less caloric than soda, it is hardly calorie free. While it has only 5 calories per serving, the manufacturer considers two ounces of water (a quarter of a cup) to be a serving, which is ridiculous. This means that one container of Crystal Light concentrate (which makes two quarts) actually contains 320 calories. On an active day, I can drink half a gallon of water without a problem, which means if I am drinking Crystal Light, I have also consumed 320 extra calories. There are plenty of zero calorie beverages out there, but even the zero calorie sodas are not necessarily good for you, considering that they are also acidic.

At a party a few years ago, I was introduced to flavored water. I found it to be a happy medium. Unlike ordinary water, it had some taste, but it did not have any calories nor the amount of acid that you find in sodas. It does have a number of sugar substitutes and depending on the brand, natural and/or artificial flavors. When our local superstore started offering flavored water in bulk, I picked up a case. Now I buy a case of flavored water every week or two. In addition to drinking flavored water at home, I usually take a bottle or two to work with me.

Flavored water is not for everyone. Sometimes the taste is a bit off or a bit too artificial. My wife handed them out to her friends at a party she hosted, and no one wanted a second. I have been drinking Fruit2O, which like Crystal Light, is yet another brand from Kraft Foods. While I would probably not prefer these flavored waters to their calorie-laden equivalents, I do like that they do not have any calories.

I have also found that flavored water does a decent job of suppressing my appetite. I eat a light breakfast in the morning. A bottle of flavored water consumed over the morning can carry me over to lunch quite well. In fact, often I am not particularly hungry by lunchtime. Having the taste of something in my mouth all morning provides the illusion that I am consuming something of substance, even if it is only just water.

Mind you, aside from the water there is nothing healthful or nutritious in flavored water. They are not loaded with vitamins and minerals, which most of us do not need anyhow. Moreover, depending on how safe you think artificial sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda) are, there might be some small risk consuming a lot of flavored water. Nonetheless, I am finding that flavored water is part of an effective weight management strategy. I consider it one reason I have lost a few pounds over the last few weeks.

Water from your tap is probably the safest form of potable water since it is treated. Most forms of bottled water are just filtered. Some might consider any kind of bottled water to be anti-environmental. Tap water has one big environmental advantage: it does not have to be transported on carbon producing trucks. Instead, plain old water pressure moves it from the water treatment plant to your house. Nor does tap water come in clear plastic bottles that may or may not end up recycled. While I am mindful of these environmental consequences from any form of bottled water, nonetheless they are not enough to dissuade me from keeping up the flavored water habit. My plastic bottles always end up in the recycling bin anyhow, even if they are transported by trucks.

You might want to consider drinking lots of water as part of an overall weight management strategy. In addition, if you find that ordinary tap and bottled water a bit too boring, you might want to try flavored water.

The Thinker

New Hampshire’s civil unions decision is good for business

New Hampshire’s decision yesterday to allow its gay and lesbian residents to have legal rights equivalent to marriage is not only a just and equitable thing to do. It is also a smart way for the state to keep its economic edge.

Mind you, I think it is terrific that New Hampshire is giving equal rights and privileges to gays and lesbians through progressive acts like legally recognizing civil unions. The religious community will doubtless argue to death the morality of the issue, but it is not arguable from the standpoint of American values. While it took the United States a while to extend equal rights to women and minorities, we eventually did the right thing. It was hard to get past our own Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal in the eyes of the law. Those who dismiss the declaration as a historical but not a legal document need only look at the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the federal government or any state from giving preference to one individual or group over another. Slowly states and courts are wakening up to the fact that it may be unconstitutional if gays and lesbians are not given equivalent rights of heterosexuals, because otherwise they do not really have equal protection under the law.

It can be taken for granted that New Hampshire’s decision is going to ruffle feathers. It takes a generation or two for both minds and hearts to change. Yet change they will. Much of our latest generation is growing up in a multicultural America. In my generation (the Baby Boomers), homosexuality was rarely acknowledged openly. In fact, I was a teen before I had much of an inkling of just how prevalent homosexuality actually was. Certainly, no one I knew admitted to being gay.

While unfortunately many Americans still treat homosexual behavior as immoral, even the most homophobic of us realize that homosexuals are still human beings. Being homosexual has no bearing on intelligence or your capability to perform any kind of work, except possibly in the narrow career of heterosexual sex surrogate. The homosexuals that I know are among the most gifted and creative members of society. If I ran a business, I would not want to limit my talent pool. States that discriminate against homosexuals are essentially giving homosexuals a reason to move to more gay friendly states. If I were a gay person, I would seek to live in states where the laws respected my human dignity. I would avoid states like Virginia, where I live. In Virginia, homosexuals can be legally discriminated against in employment and can be kept away from their spouses at hospitals. Unfortunately, these are not the only Virginia state laws that discriminate against homosexuals.

When I moved to Virginia in 1984, I gave no thought to such laws. I was simply interested in living in Reston, a planned community that I fell in love with. I am settled here and gainfully employed in a job that I will probably stay in until retirement. When my wife and I do retire though, we will feel freer to live anywhere we choose wish. Certainly how comfortable we feel in our community will have a bearing on our choice. Although we are years from retirement, we have already discussed states where we might retire. Off the list is Florida, not just because it is gay unfriendly, but because we hate its climate. However, since we are both tolerant people states like Oregon, which is becoming more and more progressive, is on our list, in spite of its rainy seasons.

The effect of New Hampshire’s decision is not only that gay people have incentive to move to the state. It also means that people like me who, if they have a choice of where to move to, can choose a state based on our values. Through its laws, Virginia is telling gays they do not want them as citizens. Yet even in Virginia, things are changing. Northern Virginia, perhaps because of its proximity to the nation’s capital, is trending toward being both more tolerant and Democratic. For example, in the 2004 elections the county where I live, Fairfax County, was one of a handful of counties whose presidential vote moved from the Republican to the Democratic Party.

Businesses everywhere are discovering that being gay friendly is good for their bottom line. Not only does it give them a richer talent pool to choose from, but catering to the needs of the gay community can be profitable too. You have to wonder, for example, what Walt Disney would think of its gay friendly policies. While he might be upset by the morality of Disney’s 1995 decision to allow health coverage for live in partners of gay and lesbian employees, the other part of him would be glad. The Disney management chain demonstrated that it was serious about ensuring that Disney was attracting the best talent. Disney has also figured out that making homosexuals feel included in the Disney experience was good for its profits too. While laws in Florida and California prohibit gay marriage, both theme parks allow gay couples to schedule commitment ceremonies at their parks. In addition, both parks schedule special days during the year for gays, their friends and their families. Doubtless Disney stockholders have benefited from their progressive approach.

What is true for Disney is doubtless true for most companies. Companies that have a choice of where they will relocate will give New Hampshire a special look. Not only is the state known for a business friendly attitude and low taxes, now it is also offering equal rights for gays and lesbians. Most companies already have gays or lesbians working for them. Having them live in a progressive state like New Hampshire will be seen as a bonus.

As for backwards states like Virginia, give it a decade or two. It may decide that to stay competitive it too needs to loosen its discriminatory laws against gays and lesbians. Otherwise, its economy may be left behind while gay friendly states like New Hampshire’s are likelier to soar.

The Thinker

The hazards of freedom

While I was washing out my plastic yogurt cup the other day, intending to recycle it, I asked myself why I was doing it. What was the point? I am guessing that only one in ten of us yogurt consumers are anal enough bother to recycle the darn things. Most, like my daughter, just throw them into the trash and forget about them. (I feel compelled to fish them out of the trash when she does this, clean them and recycle them.) If the vast majority of us will simply toss them out, what effect does my tiny effort having on saving the planet? My effort seems so wholly pointless.

After all, they will be likely around in some form long after I am fertilizer. I recently turned 50. The odds are decent that I will live to see 80, but I will probably not live to see 90. I am unlikely to witness the fruits of this peculiar obsession of mine. Nor, unless I can get my fellow neighbors to develop a similar passion for recycling, will it fundamentally change anything. It will not stop global warming. It will not keep humanity from breeding like bunnies. Nor will it stop us from tearing down more forests to support our burgeoning population and insistence on first world lifestyles. For sure, it will not make my family carbon neutral.

Why should I care about the Earth, as it will be a hundred, a thousand or a billion years from now? When I die my association with the Earth is gone. Why should I not treat the Earth the same way I treat a rental car? When I rent a car, my job is to avoid getting scratches on the car and to return it with a full tank of gas. I let someone else wash and vacuum the car. Since my life is finite, am I not simply renting space on this planet? Why not embrace the philosophy, endorsed by so many drivers and smokers, that the Earth is my trashcan? Yet I cannot. During my eighty or so years here on Earth I hope to do things to make this world a better place. Yet being just one among billions I also am sanguine enough to realize my efforts at best they will be marginal. Despite my first world lifestyle, I hope that the fruits of my labors will justify my effect on the environment. This blog is part of how I hope I try to add value to the world. In addition to being an excellent form of therapy, the occasional positive comments I receive indicate that I can touch lives and hearts for the better. In short, unless I develop a chronic case of Catholic guilt as I age, I expect I will have paid my dues as world citizen.

Which gets back to the question of why I cannot throw that used yogurt cup into the trash. Why am I compelled to recycle it? Why do I have the energy saver setting enabled on my dishwasher? Why have compact fluorescent lights all over my house? Why do I drive a hybrid and pay more for it when I could drive a bigger and more muscular car? Nothing I can do by myself will have anything more than the tiniest and most marginal effects on the environment. Why not just let it go? Why not be like Hugh Hefner and will my life full of opulence and beautiful women?

I expect by now you are waiting for my thoughtful answer. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer, at least not one that will satisfy. Nonetheless, I am confident that I will continue to buy cars that are less harmful to the environment. Moreover, I will continue obsessively recycling my yogurt cups, along with all the other recyclables in my house. Maybe it is a compulsion; or maybe it is some sort of neurosis.

On the other hand, maybe something truly spiritual is at work. Maybe something beyond me (my soul perhaps) is speaking powerfully to me. Maybe some part of me realizes that although I will die someday, I will not really be gone. Maybe I innately know that I will reincarnate someday, and I will have to deal with the toxic legacy to the environment that I am leaving behind. Maybe I sense a mission and a purpose to existence with a grander vision than my feeble mind can comprehend. Wherever it comes from, this presence inside me is powerful and I am compelled to honor it. It speaks to something permanent and authentic about me. Although I am far from being a model environmentalist, the actions I do take for the environment are really wholly selfless acts. They are expressions of love to not just my planet, but to the universe.

Perhaps you have heard of the Gaia Theory. Simply stated, this theory says that our world is one gigantic living organism. Just as it is hard for an ant riding on the back of a turtle to detect the turtle, so it is difficult for us to see that the Earth is not just a planet, it is a single organism. This reality is easier to grasp, perhaps, from a distance. One of the most captivating images of all time occurred in 1968 when Apollo 8 relayed pictures of the Earth surrounded by the blackness of space. For the first time we had an outsider’s perspective of the Earth. Until Apollo 8, we could ignore our interconnectedness. After Apollo 8, it was hard to ignore. We could see the Earth as a planet was alive.

Perhaps this is one reason that Unitarian Universalism resonates with me. Among its principles and purposes is this one that is so obvious, but which few religions explicitly address, since they are more concerned about salvation.

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

I think some part of me realizes that the notion of self is an illusion. While it frames our existence, it is still an illusion, and carried to extremes it can be a delusion. When we fail to acknowledge and respect our interdependence, our behaviors become destructive to ourselves and also to our community. This principle should be self-evident. Any physicist will assert that we really are connected. They will say we are unique expressions of organized energy, matter simply being an instance of energy. In addition to inhaling and exhaling, we radiate to the universe, from infrared rays from our body heat to our brain waves. From the viruses we share to the carbon dioxide we recklessly release from our cars and power plants that is warming our world, our actions affect the world. Everything affects everything else, but mankind’s actions affect it disproportionately.

The sooner we acknowledge this fundamental reality the better. While the United States is premised on the notion of individual freedom as a right and a virtue, in one sense, freedom is bad. It is bad when we freely make choices that degrade our natural ecosystem or deny our human interconnectedness. Having more than two children, in my opinion, is a selfish and unethical choice. For myself I see no way to become carbon neutral, but I recognize it as a goal toward which I and the rest of society needs to strive. I am ethically compelled to do what I can, even when it seems pointless and of marginal utility, as in recycling yogurt cups.

I do not know how as a species we can truly honor the interdependent web, but we must begin in earnest and we must do far more than we are doing. At least I understand this: I am tied to this planet, physically and spiritually. What we are doing to our planet we are also doing to ourselves. We are like teenagers cutting themselves. Our actions are both globally destructive and spiritually toxic. Our relentless focus on unbridled freedom is in some way unhealthy and counterproductive. Like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead or Number 6’s in The Prisoner, by aggressively asserting our right to free choice without bound we are denying our interconnectedness. Freedom offers the illusion of happiness, but I believe that genuine happiness comes from working with others. Perhaps that is why a recent study says that the most satisfying professions were the most people focused. Being a minister usually does not pay very well, but it is the most rewarding.

I believe that the more we embrace our interconnectedness the happier we will be. For my part, I will keep recycling those yogurt containers. I hope that small actions like these will contribute toward a mindfulness of the preciousness of this organism we call The Earth.

The Thinker

A belated but very welcome spring

Spring arrived late this year. Perhaps this was because winter itself was delayed. Although last autumn was unusually cool, winter did not arrive in earnest until mid January. Instead, in a pattern that is becoming more common, our early winter came replete with periods of spring. There were a few days in January here in the Washington region that found people out in their shorts and basking in the sun. In early January, the warmer weather tricked some trees into flowering.

Global warming is real but that does not mean the basic weather patterns can change overnight. So when winter arrived in earnest in mid January it left us in its icy grip for eight weeks or so. For several weeks, the temperature only rarely rose above freezing. While we had no major snowstorms, we did have something that was arguably worse: sleet storms. We had two in February alone. The first storm was a whopper, leaving three inches of packed sleet on the ground. I was amazed that I could walk on top of it and my shoes would not even leave an impression. I spent four days clearing my walk and driveway. I ended up using a sidewalk edge trimmer supplemented with javelin force stabbings at the sidewalk and pavement. My progress was excruciatingly slow because it would only yield in three-inch wide or less blocks. I cannot recall any storm in the 29 years I have lived in this area that required more effort to clear. Even my bucket of ice breaking chemicals sufficed to melt no more than the top quarter inch of the sleet.

The winter cold and wind had one good effect: it forced us to pay attention to our house’s windows, which in their twenty years of use had become increasingly drafty. The new windows are on order now and will leave us $7500 poorer. We also had our heat pump’s condition assessed. It too was on its last legs. It has now been replaced with a high efficiency model that set us back another $6300.

Winter’s grasp was tenacious. About the time we figured it had left for good, it delivered a surprise early April snowstorm. The storm left little more than a dusting, but it still shocked us Washingtonians. For a day, it was hard to tell if it was snow or tree blossoms that were on our lawn. They blended in seamlessly.

Still, winter at last yielded reluctantly but not without reminding us of its stay. So far, during April average temperatures are about fifteen degrees below normal. Typically, by early April, I am riding my bike to work every day. I did not resume this habit until just last week. There was too much rain, too much in the way of high winds, and too many days where the highs peaked out in the high thirties or low forties to brave the trip.

Winter’s last gasp occurred a week ago when a Nor’easter barreled through. Aside from dropping copious amounts of rain (which we needed) it brought sustained winds of 30-40 miles an hour for a couple days. My house felt like a ship at sea. Its siding groaned and its windows rattled. My wife and I were glad we had replaced the siding a few years earlier. Some of our neighbors were less fortunate and found parts of their siding sheared off by the Nor’easter’s winds. The Nor’easter left, but it took several days for its winds to diminish. Finally on Thursday temperatures rose into the fifties. The clouds parted. The sun reappeared. Spring had finally arrived to stay.

In our area, spring does not tend to last very long. Perhaps this is why when it does arrive it is noteworthy and irrepressible. One of the joys of being a Washingtonian is to live in this area when spring arrives. Spring around here may drive those with allergies insane, but for a few weeks, its arrival overwhelms the senses. It is far more than the blossoms on the cherry tries on the national mall. It is an insanely colorful time of year. It is like watching a gorgeous sunset, except it lasts about a month. We are blessed with flowering trees of all varieties. The grass, which by summer will require regularly watering to retain its color, is now an insanely vibrant green. Flowering bushes in all their glorious Technicolor shades are omnipresent and seem on fire.

Our whole weekend turned out to have just stunningly beautiful weather. The skies were cloudless and a deep nautical blue. The air was crystal clear. The humidity was low. The temperatures were moderate but rose into the low eighties yesterday. It seemed a sin to stay indoors. We found ourselves out on our screen in deck, sitting in a hammock. Our cat basked in the fresh air and purred contentedly on the floor mat. The mild and gentle breeze rustled through our hair. The purity of the air was an elixir. To be outside was to feel peace, joy and a deep sense of connectedness again with our natural world.

Welcome spring. When I think of the mythical Garden of Eden, I have to remind myself that it is not mythical. We have it right here. Unfortunately, at best it only lasts a couple of weeks. This makes it even more important to revel in it now. Soon the heat and humidity will arrive, along with the requisite air pollution. On many summer days we will need to limit our time outside. For now, we must simply marvel at Mother Nature in all her glory. We are wrapped up in the sacred and we are awed at her majesty.

The Thinker

Glycemic Junk Science

Let us add this report to the list of studies that really do not tell us anything, but do sell newspapers.

When it comes to losing weight, the number of calories you eat, rather than the type of carbohydrates, may be what matters most, according to a new study.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that diets low in “glycemic load” are no better at taking the pounds off than more traditional — and more carbohydrate-friendly — approaches to calorie-cutting.

The concept of glycemic load is based on the fact that different carbohydrates have different effects on blood sugar. White bread and potatoes, for example, have a high glycemic index, which means they tend to cause a rapid surge in blood sugar. Other carbs, such as high-fiber cereals or beans, create a more gradual change and are considered to have a low glycemic index.

If you put 8 gallons of gas in your car and it gets 20 miles to the gallon, you can expect the car to go 160 miles, plus or minus a bit. It is the energy in the gasoline, the terrain and traffic your car will traverse, and the efficiency of your car in transferring that energy into work that determines how far your car will go.

Your body is an engine too. It is unimaginably more complex than an automobile, but it is still an engine. When you ingest food, its calorie content is translated into amount of energy that your body will receive. If you take in more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. If you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. At its most pragmatic level, it’s just math:

Future weight = current weight + ( some constant x ( calories in – calories expended ) )

If you choose 400 calories to come from donuts made with refined sugar and bleached flour as opposed to 400 calories from a high fiber, low glycemic cereal, you are still consuming the same amount of energy.

You can get fat by eating all healthy foods; you just have to eat enough of it. If you gorge yourself on enough salads, you will gain weight. Given the low density of calories per serving with salad, it is much harder to gain weight this way, but it is still possible. That is in part why dieticians recommend consuming whole foods.

Why does a study like this make the news? I think it is because so many of us who are overweight or obese are still hoping, in vain, for a painless method to weight loss. Right now diets emphasizing low glycemic foods, like the South Beach Diet, are in.

Now there are some upsides to eating foods with a lower glycemic index. Most likely these food are healthier for your body. A donut does not have much in the way of nutritional value because most of the good parts, like the fiber, have been removed. Whole foods in general are likelier to have more fiber as well as more vitamins and minerals than junk food. (Many junk foods though are needlessly fortified.) Eating many of these foods may technically be better for your body. It may provide more of what the body needs to carry out vital things like replacing blood cells. Nevertheless, by itself they cannot be a solution to weight loss.

If you want to lose weight, you already know what to do: take in fewer calories than you will burn and exercise more. Exercise burns more calories, but if you eat more calories to make up for the increased exercise you are not going to lose weight.

The real root of our obesity epidemic is that American capitalism has succeeded in creating foods that we crave, and making them readily available at inexpensive prices. Our behavior is not that different from my cat’s behavior. He has his high fiber, nutritionally optimized cat food, which does not taste good. (This is probably just as well, or he would eat more of it and get fat.) On the other hand, he can grub for handouts at mealtime, which is one of his favorite hobbies. He eats the cat food if he has to, but he does not prefer it. Unlike my housecat though, you do not have these restrictions. You can satisfy your cravings with out much difficulty.

As part of my own healthy eating strategy, I do my best not to bring the foods that I crave into my house in the first place. Having them readily available simply adds to my temptation to succumb and consume them. This strategy is not easy. When I hit the grocery store, the shelves are replete with things I want to eat. It takes discipline to avoid purchasing the sorts of foods I want but should not eat. (It helps to go after a meal.)

If you truly want to lose weight then you had better count those calories and understand portion sizes. You need to join Weight Watchers or some group like it; peer pressure can be a terrific motivator. You have to incorporate healthy practices into your life and be consistent about it. Nonetheless, your human nature and society will conspire to trip you up. Life may seem a lot less joyful by disciplining yourself this way, but it is the only way to be healthy. Nothing comes free. If you want a thin and healthy body, you have to consume a lot less and exercise a whole lot more. If you cannot make this choice then be prepared for host of preventable maladies as you age.

Now, I am off to the gym.

The Thinker

It doesn’t have to happen here

The senseless and tragic massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech yesterday underscores what the comic Eddie Izzard has said about guns and violence:

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and monkeys do too (if they have a gun).

Or as I put it myself in this entry:

Firearms make it much, much easier to kill people.

This largely preventable massacre underscores what should be obvious, if so many of us were not blinded by our obsession with firearms: guns have their place in the field of combat, and perhaps on the hunting range, but they have no place in the rest of society.

Our acceptance of the gun culture and our willingness to nods our heads like morons to NRA pablum trivializes the fundamental thing that is unique about guns: they allow for large numbers of people to be killed easily. This alleged mass murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, would have doubtless killed many fewer people had he been armed with a butcher knife instead of a Glock 9mm pistol and a .22 caliber handgun, both of which he could easily procure in my gun crazy state of Virginia.

According to The Washington Post, Seung-Hui was apparently a neighbor of mine from nearby Centreville, Virginia. Police say he killed himself as they surrounded him. Regardless of who committed this crime, by making it so easy for him to acquire lethal weapons society is indirectly complicit. As construed by the courts, gun ownership is a right, not a privilege. This incident, the largest single mass murder of its kind in United States history, is the latest outrageous example of why Americans need to stop worshiping their firearms.

Perhaps this incident will spur us to action. A similar 1996 incident in Dunblane, Scotland made the British realize that most such atrocities could be prevented. In that incident, Thomas Hamilton killed 17 people and himself with a gun. He injured 12 others as well. As a direct result the British passed stringent gun control laws. At least in Great Britain, similar incidents have not recurred. The British learned from the incident. Will we?

I would like to think so, but history is against me. Somehow I expect that after all the crying, funerals and compulsory speeches expressing outrage are over that we will choose gun rights over gun violence once again. Congress doesn’t care. In fact, we have Congress trying to overturn the District of Columbia’s gun ban. In addition a federal appeals court recently overturned the District’s 21 year gun ban. (The District is appealing the ruling to a higher court.) Perhaps gun advocates think that when we are all carrying loaded pistols like during those Wild West days we will all be safer. I do not buy this argument. Westerners carried firearms everywhere they went in the West because they were not safe. Is this the sort of society we aspire to live in? Do we want to send our kids to school with a loaded pistol so they can defend themselves if they get in a firefight? Or do we want to feel safer from gun violence in our community by restricting the possession and use of firearms?

This incident could not teach a clearer lesson: easy accessibility to guns contributes to the deaths of tens of thousands of us every year. Sadly, it is only when massacres happen that it draws our attention. We need a culture that considers gun ownership socially unacceptable. Clearly, death by firearms is not an abstraction and kills many of us every day. Just like smoking, this kind of death is largely preventable. Unlike smoking though, which is an activity you choose to do to yourself, you will not choose to have someone kill you with a firearm.

This incident should have one small silver lining: it should facilitate the end of our gun culture. I am not shy to speak up with my friends and neighbors about the need for society to tightly regulate firearms. I realize my quest is a bit quixotic, but perhaps this incident will finally change the dynamics. I encourage you to do your part and speak up loudly. Tell your neighbors and friends that you think it should be illegal to store firearms in our communities. Tell them that while you agree that the vast majority of gun owners are honorable that nonetheless the possession of these weapons in our communities sends the wrong messages. It makes the use of guns in commission of a crime far more likely. (Here is another egregious local example that turns my stomach. The assailant in this case was a former student of the high school my daughter attends and his wacky father was obsessed with firearms.) Guns should be as difficult to acquire as dynamite. We need a zero tolerance policy for guns in our communities. Hunters should be licensed to use guns only in designated areas. Guns should be required to be transported in locked containers. Guns should be stored in community armories when not needed. We should encourage neighborhoods to become gun free communities.

As with addressing global warming, no campaign like this will succeed overnight. It must build up a head of steam before real progress can be made. It succeeds when pressure builds from the grass roots. It is time to start talking with our neighbors. I encourage you to tell them in quite emotional and emphatic terms that we must to much more to prevent gun violence. Possession of guns in the community should be a shameful thing. We need to carry this message emphatically to our representatives and tell them that enough is enough.

The Thinker

Same old soap

When you are doing dishes, you might as well keep your mind engaged. I live in the Washington metropolitan area and C-SPAN radio is available. So on Saturday evenings I get dishpan hands listening to C-SPAN radio’s Road to the White House. Last night C-SPAN was broadcasting live from Des Moines where Iowa Republicans were having their annual Lincoln Day Dinner. The convention center was full of Iowa GOP and Republican presidential hopefuls, the latter of whom were selling that same conservative soap to a GOP-friendly crowd. Naturally, this being the GOP, you had to spend $75 to get in to hear them in the first place.

I found the time I spent listening to the event quite helpful in my understanding the current groupthink of the Republican Party. All the major presidential contenders were there: Rudy, John and Mitt as well as a number of lesser GOP presidential wannabees like Rep. Tom Tancredo, Senator Sam Brownback and Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Their themes were remarkably consistent.

First, according to the speakers the Democrats, although they have only been back in power a few months, have returned to their roots. As a Democrat, this was news to me. Apparently, my party has apparently reverted to form. We are all a bunch of McGovernites: awful, ultra-left, tax and spend, free abortions for all welfare mothers type of party with no religious or moral values. There was only one cure: more of that same GOP soap: low taxes, no abortions, a bloated military and very big and very manly fences on our borders. Winning the War on Terrorism over there so they will not come over here was also a recurring theme. Each candidate was in favor of winning the War on Terror in a general sense. However, not one of them had the courage to step up to the plate and advocate what would be required to actually win the war in the way they envision it: institute a draft and raise taxes to pay for it. In the event of a fire in the kitchen, simply shouting the word “draft” would have cleared the Polk County Convention Complex in thirty seconds.

Granted, at these sorts of events politicians have a tendency to preach to the choir. However, if these are the themes the GOP is expecting to carry into the 2008 election, the GOP is in deeper trouble than even I expected. This is no way to win an election. It is a great way to catastrophically lose an election, put a Democrat in the White House and pile on Democratic majorities. Perhaps that is why only 40% of Republicans surveyed are satisfied with their announced presidential candidates. It might also explain the inexplicable: why Republicans nationwide are so enthusiastic about Rudy Giuliani. Perhaps it is because of all the candidates out there, only Rudy has a real chance of winning. If the GOP wants to maintain any political power, they would be wise to hold their noses and vote for Rudy, even though he is a gay rights and abortion friendly Republican. These may be egregious Republican sins, but the American people have consistently supported abortion rights and the homophobes among us are now a distinct minority.

Instead, the Republican Party has candidates like John McCain with a whopper of a losing message: let us stay in Iraq as long as it takes, no matter how hopeless, in order to defeat the terrorists. No wonder his fundraising is so anemic. One could even argue that McCain’s position on some level is logical. Unfortunately, it is not politically possible. I know I would like to own a fleet of Lamborghinis. However, I am not obscenely wealthy. I had better set my sites lower. Maybe I should consider a Lexus. Winning the War in Iraq is now simply out of the question because we cannot afford to stay there indefinitely and even if we could, the cultural bridge between Western and Islamic thinking is too wide. Americans have sobered up. John has not.

For all their whining, at least Democrats understand the War in Iraq is a lost cause. They are grounded in some political reality. Doing what is right and just is fine, if you can actually pull it off. Not a Republican I listened to yesterday had a realistic plan for how to win in Iraq, or to win the War on Terror. However, they did have lots of platitudes. Nor have they quite discerned cause and effect. To me the War in Iraq looks like a sectarian war, and our presence there is construed as an occupation, not a fight for democracy. Unlike John McCain, I do not believe that if we leave Iraq they will follow us home. If you want to know what will happen there after we leave, look at what is going on there now. The various factions will continue to duke it out with insurgencies and terrorist incidents.

What is going on in Iraq today has far more to do with Muhammad’s death in 682 A.D. than it has to do with decadent American values. Iraq just happens to be a part of the world where Sunnis and Shiites live in close proximity. Al Qaeda is far more concerned about wiping out the apostasy of the Shiite version of Islam (although that is impossible) than in waging a holy war on the West. Most likely, by the time this sectarian war (it is more accurate to call it a sectarian war than a civil war) ends, neither side will arise victorious. Shiites will continue to practice their version of Islam as they always have. Unfortunately, there is little doubt that the body count will be very high.

Republicans though seem to want to stay in Fantasyland. Americans overall though are a lot more sober. They realize the War on Terror needs rethinking and rescoping, because what we are doing is pointless and counterproductive. Both Republicans and Democrats share the same long-term goal, but each side has radically different ideas on how to get there. Republicans would like to label Democrats as “cut and run” but that label does not work anymore. Americans want a workable strategy to actually win the War on Terror. More of the same is just folly.

On virtually every point that I heard Republican presidential candidates address yesterday, the nation has moved on. The one issue that Americans might actually care about is stemming illegal immigration. It would be hard to build a successful campaign on this one issue, though. Otherwise, the public has moved strongly away from Republican positions. We support abortion rights as we have for more than thirty years. We want more stem cell research and do not believe that an inert fertilized blastocyst consisting of a few cells is the equivalent of human being. We favor equal privileges for gays and lesbians. We realize the folly of solving our health care crisis through “solutions” like medical savings accounts when most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. We want a health care system that does not disappear if we are unemployed. We acknowledge that global warming is real and must be addressed. We want Social Security and Medicare to be solvent. We want more social spending on things that matter, like early childhood education, not less.

The nation’s demographics are changing. America is now a broadly pluralistic and multiethnic society where whites will soon no longer be in the majority. Today’s children are growing up in this reality. They give no more thought to the color of someone’s skin that they do the color of their eyes. Racism is out; tolerance is in. Country club Republicans are out; is in. Deficit spending is out; fiscal discipline is in. Ideology is out; pragmatism is in. These forces are sweeping across the country. George W. Bush is the last gasp of a dying era. His counterproductive strategies and his rubber stamp Congress actually accelerated these fundamental changes. Americans applaud initiatives like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meeting with Syrian government officials. They realize that obstinate behaviors and intransigence are counterproductive. We realize that the world is changed through making friends and through dialog, and rarely with armed force.

Perhaps Republicans can repackage their old soap to look like new soap. Voters though are now very leery of Republicans, and for good reason. We have been doubly burned now, first by Reagan and now by George W. Bush. It turns out that what matters are not presidents lying about oral sex, but presidents lying us into a war. Republicans would be much smarter to address issues that Americans care about rather than sell us solutions to our problems that are more of the same old soap.

The Thinker

Obituary for InfoWorld (1978-2007)

While the publication InfoWorld was certainly not responsible for my success in the information technology (IT) business, it was arguably the jet fuel that pushed my career into the IT stratosphere. I needed InfoWorld, or something similar, to bridge the gap between IT neophyte and IT guru. I still do not consider myself an IT guru but assuming it could be objectively measured, I am confident that I am in the top 10% of IT talent. InfoWorld was instrumental in helping me get there. That is why I always looked forward to my weekly copy. I never equated reading InfoWorld with a chore. I viewed it as fun. From the irreverent Notes from the Field column by Robert X. Cringely (who is not an actual person, just a trademark) to top notch columnists like Brian Livingston, for much of the last couple decades InfoWorld was my essential publication for staying ahead of the IT curve.

I say “was” about InfoWorld but its staff would say, “is”. InfoWorld is still around. What has changed is that it is now available only online. Its last issue, with “Final Print Issue” all over it, arrived in my mailbox early last week. Dated April 2, 2007, I at first assumed it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. After all, InfoWorld has been around since 1978, when it was known as Intelligent Machines Journal. When it was sold to the IDG Group (which offers a plethora of IT publications with the “world” in it) a year later, it became InfoWorld.

I stumbled upon my first copy of InfoWorld around 1987. Someone had one lying around the office. Whenever I found upon a copy, I would read it cover to cover. It was not long before I decided I needed to get a subscription, which was free. There was only one problem: it was free only if you qualified. I was a poor computer programmer making $25,000 a year, an IT nobody. Consequently, InfoWorld was not interested in giving me a subscription. They wanted people who made decisions and exercised budget authority. For years, I tried without success to get a subscription. One year I suddenly qualified. I do not know if it was because of the progression in my career or, like many subscribers, I stretched the truth a bit in order to qualify. InfoWorld became a precious gift that kept on giving. It was the best bargain out there for a knowledge craving IT person like me.

Aside from its fabulous columnists, what was special about InfoWorld was that it was always just ahead of the curve. It was a gloriously nerdy magazine, full of detailed product test reviews, IT news, and writers firmly grounded in toughest IT trenches. While it would occasionally flirt with the fanciful, it almost always it kept its focus right where it belonged: on the business enterprise. That is where people like me made our living. We had to succeed in the business sphere to advance our IT career. It was a nuts and bolts sort of publication that told me what I needed to know right now to stay on the pragmatic leading edge of IT. While it could occasionally wax poetic on the virtues of the Mac or the Amiga, most of the time, it was focused on wherever the market was at. That was typically the Microsoft Windows universe. Consequently, reading columns like Brian Livingston’s on InfoWorld was a rush. Brian is the author of many of the Windows Secrets books. I never needed to buy his book though. I learned all sorts of secrets about Windows from his weekly column in InfoWorld. However, Brian was just one of a cadre of top tier IT columnists that InfoWorld hosted. These included luminaries like Bob Metcalfe, the founder of the Ethernet frame-based network. If you are reading this, the data arrived through an Ethernet card attached to your PC. You can thank Bob for his invention. I can thank him for sharing his wisdom in InfoWorld for many years.

In the 1990s, InfoWorld was in its prime. It was a frantic head rush of a publication, stuffed to the gills with incredibly relevant IT material. It overflowed with IT information from a boots on the ground perspective. I held on to my subscription as a lamprey holds onto a ship. When I was required to renew, I never dallied. I could not afford to miss an issue. I needed it to stay on the technology edge. There were many computer magazines out there, but InfoWorld was special. I felt it was in a class by itself. I occasionally flipped through other IT journals, but all of them left me feeling they were missing something. However, InfoWorld was always focused on precisely what I needed to know right now to thrive in my IT career.

When necessary I could read InfoWorld and feel like I was keeping up with IT. There were only so many hours in a day. I simply did not have the time to read everything. The virtue of InfoWorld was that I did not have to. InfoWorld was easy and fun to read. I have to don my academic hat to work my way through the dense verbiage and illustrations in publications like IEEE Computer. You did not have to be a rocket scientist to understand InfoWorld, just an IT enthusiast. All you had to do was keep reading it regularly. Eventually you picked up all the acronyms and buzzwords and could put them into an applied context. That was when you felt you had arrived.

Unfortunately, the real world hit InfoWorld. Two events coincided: the Internet and the end of the technology boom. The Internet pushed more content online. The collapse of the tech boom and the consequential dip in ad revenue pulled out its financial pillars. I was shocked when they let go Brian Livingston. Yet he was one of many columnists like Nicholas Petreley who were unceremoniously shown the door. Some of the new columnists were very good, but most could not replace the shoes they tried to fill. Readers expressed their disgruntlement by letting their subscriptions lapse. Still, I held on, hoping that the InfoWorld I used to know would return. Yet the size of the magazine kept shrinking along with the advertising revenue. I should have suspected something was amiss because InfoWorld was becoming more of a brochure than a magazine.

Now its print version is gone for good. The same content is online, but I am not sure I will make it a habit. The virtue of the print publication, as one of its columnists pointed out some months ago, is that it is finite. The problem with the Internet is also its virtue: it is infinite, as well as constantly changing. It was not that InfoWorld has a bad web site; it is that (a) like most human beings I have trouble absorbing lengthy articles online (b) a laptop computer is too big to retire to bed with (this is where I do most of my technical reading) and (c) I need IT distilled down for me. That is why magazines and newspapers exist. That is how they add value. However, by being required to read it online InfoWorld’s hassle factor increased substantially. Yes, I can search the site easily enough, but I cannot efficiently browse it. I still need to have a surface understanding of IT issues, but the way it is formatted online leaves me with zero interest to dig to get the details.

I should at least be glad that forests are no longer being cleared to make sure I get my print copy of InfoWorld. However, InfoWorld would have ended up in my recycling bin anyhow. The best InfoWorld columnists moved on long ago, not of choice, but because InfoWorld sent them packing. I still track some of them. For example, I subscribe to Brian Livingston’s Windows Secret’s email newsletter. Brian recovered nicely from his firing. Indeed, he got the last laugh. He now has more subscribers to his email newsletter than InfoWorld had subscribers when he was writing for their magazine.

I hope that some other company will pick up where InfoWorld left off. I am sure advertisers still want to target me. Give me its equivalent in print form and I will subscribe, as will many others. I suspect that the reason InfoWorld’s subscriber base shrunk in half was because during the last recession they got pennywise and pound-foolish. In effect, they chopped the legs off their own publication. It would have made much more sense to spend money to get back the fabulous staff and columnists they used to have and rebuild their base. Instead, they looked at their balance sheet, instead of their long-term profitability. As a result InfoWorld, for many years arguably the premier computer magazine is a sad shriveled imitation of itself.

Thanks in part to all those years of reading InfoWorld, I am now precisely the kind of reader that they should crave the most. In effect, they abandoned people like me by discounting my need for a quality printed publication in favor of the cheap production costs of publishing only online. Getting rid of their print publication was a foolish decision. If the InfoWorld website is still around in a year, its content is likely to be of marginal value. Unfortunately, it appears the money managers at IDG are still missing the big picture. I thank InfoWorld for all those years of insight and detail. However, they have lost me as a customer.

The Thinker

The Minuses of Don Imus

I am not a Don Imus fan. Come to think of it, I am not a fan of any syndicated radio talk show host, except possibly Diane Rehm. At best, I only get around to listening to her show sporadically and on my days off. Like most of us hard working Americans, I do not have the time to tune in to regularly syndicated talk shows. If I did a lot of driving alone then perhaps I would be regularly listening to the Don Imuses and Howard Sterns out there. I can see where listening to shock jocks would be entertaining if I spent a lot of time in a car. If nothing else, listening would help me not fall asleep at the wheel. I suspect that shock jocks primarily depend on commuters and truckers for their audiences.

Shock jock Don Imus, of course, is very much in the news now. Last Wednesday, he said about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which is predominantly African American, “That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that.” Apparently, not all of his estimated 361,000 listeners are Republicans or bigots. It did not take long for the non-bigots among us, and African American leaders in particular, to state the obvious: his remark was racist and offensive to most of us.

If there were any of us who had any illusions about Imus’ true character, this remark clarified it. Imus has since apologized and sought absolution by groveling for two hours during Al Sharpton’s radio show. Many now want Don Imus kicked off the airwaves permanently. Some are petitioning CBS and MSNBC (which syndicate his show) to make it happens. CBS and MSNBC have responded by giving Don Imus a two-week suspension in the hope that the controversy will cool off. Clearly, they do not want to get rid of Don Imus, unless he becomes toxic to their balance sheet. Even if they fire him, there is an apparently a sizeable market for Imus’ snide, sarcastic and frequently derogatory remarks. Some other syndicate would pick him up. If worst came to worst, he could avoid FCC fines by joining Howard Stern on Sirius Satellite Radio. There he could probably make more money and he would never have to worry about censorship again. Imus could be Imus.

Unfortunately, I have been exposed to Don Imus on a regular basis. This is because for a couple years in the late 1990s I carpooled to an office in DC with two staunch Republicans. This was in the middle of the Monica Lewinski affair. Imus, as well as Rush Limbaugh and many others, were practically catatonic over the so-called scandal. I guess expecting Imus not to talk about Bill Clinton and semen stained blue dresses for months at a time was to expect the impossible. In retrospect, that whole matter was ridiculous and vastly overblown. Not only was Don Imus no paragon of moral virtue (he is both a recovering alcoholic and former cocaine addict) but he reveled and regurgitated each salacious detail endlessly. He was like someone from the Moral Majority informing us about the sin taking place at a topless dancing establishment by providing detailed descriptions of just how puffy each dancer’s nipples were. He shamelessly pimped the affair. Doubtless it was great for his bottom line. The sad truth about Don Imus and his listeners at that time were that they secretly identified with Bill Clinton. Don Imus allowed them to talk about these details and have fun with it. By projecting all that scorn on Clinton, they drew attention away from their own fascination with loose women, lying and infidelity. Among these men was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who, as we learned recently, was busy having an affair himself in the middle of the Lewinski scandal. Anyhow, by the time I arrived at work I often wanted to take a shower.

Imus of course is in the entertainment business, not the news business. His specialty though is developing rapport with many political insiders. I do not know whom he has been talking to lately. However, I remember listening to him regularly talking with Washington insiders like John McCain, James Carville and Andrea Mitchell. What developed was a disgusting symbiotic relationship between politicians and this good ol’ boy shock jock. It was all “good fun” of course. It allowed prominent politicians to let their hair down a bit. They could pretend that Don Imus was not a jerk and that underneath all that bravado was a civilized, principled and egalitarian man.

If he is this way in real life, it really does not matter. What does matter is how he behaves on the public airwaves in front of 300,000 plus listeners. To put it mildly, the character he is on the air would be one of the last people that I would invite to a party. I am hardly a paragon of virtue and I confess to being a regular sinner, sometime even an egregious sinner. Yet even I would not want to be associated with him. Therefore, it is even more surprising that so many politicians would engage their reckless side by chatting with him regularly on the air. By doing so, it says far more about them than it does about Don Imus.

Imus though wants to project a kinder side. When he was not talking about Lewinski’s stained blue dress, I remember him yammering about his Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer in Ribera, New Mexico. It is nice that he cares about kids with cancer, although one has to wonder why it costs his charity close to $3000 a night for one child to stay at the ranch. It was enough to raise the eyebrows of then New York State Attorney General (and now governor) Elliott Spitzer and investigate the charity in 2005.

I am confident that as long there are human beings on the planet we will still crave the Don Imuses and Howard Sterns of the world. They fill the void in many of our lives for outrageous and salacious. It is unwise for us to go around acting like Bluto Blutarsky, so they get to do it for us. They seem to be part of the price we pay to live in a free society. If the FCC though is going to insist on being nannies of the public airwaves, it might as well go after egregious examples on the right too, like Don Imus. While I certainly do not approve of Don Imus’ behavior, I actually would prefer less micromanagement by the FCC on the content of our public airwaves. The shock jocks in the broadcast world, by being increasingly outrageous, tend to dig their own graves in time. Don Imus got a long overdue case of karmic kick in the ass last week. Now most of the public, which was only dimly aware of him before or did not even know who he was, has a convenient and rather accurate set of labels they can associate with him: pompous racist hypocritical prick.

As for the prominent politicians who openly associate with people like Imus, if they are going to play in the mud, they should expect to be slimed too. They need to exercise sounder judgment. Granted, spending an hour or two on the air with Don Imus is probably a lot more fun than your day job of going to boring committee hearings and running for president. A certain amount of decorum and political correctness comes with being a politician. The many political friends of Don Imus, tenaciously cultivated over the years, should realize that fair or not, the public will judge their character by those with whom they associate. When it comes to associating with rapscallions like Imus, they should take the advice of Nancy Reagan and “Just say no.”

The Thinker

The universal translator arrives

One of the fun things about watching classic Star Trek TV shows back in the 1960s was marveling over the fantastic devices that were waiting for us in the 23rd century. The only problem is that just forty years later many, if not most of these devices have already arrived.

The communicator was a neat idea. It was wireless and able to be used over thousands of miles. However, we mastered the cell phone many years ago. In addition, where cell towers are not present you can use a satellite phone. The transporter may never dematerialize us and move us instantly to another place, but scientists have teleported photons and atoms without traveling through space. The phaser? We are not quite there, but we do have commercial laser pointers. Moreover, our Department of Homeland Security is worrying about whether these cheap devices, by shining them into pilots’ eyes from many miles away, could be used by terrorists to bring down airplanes. There is also the Taser, whose name I am sure was not coincidental. One version can deliver a shock remotely (using a wireless signal). Shuttlecraft? We got them already. While they cost hundreds of millions of dollars per flight, and require a rocket booster to get them into orbit, they are (mostly) reusable. Medical injections without puncturing the skin? Nicotine patches prove they can be done. Of course, there are all sorts of medicines you can take via inhalation or ingestion. Those fancy body-imaging machines Dr. McCoy used to use to diagnose patients? Got ’em. They are called MRIs. Scalpel-less surgery? We are already doing some of that. Had any colon polyps snipped recently? The Warp Drive engine still eludes us, as well as the whole Star Trek thing about faster than light travel that somehow eludes Einstein’s Theories of Relativity. Maybe someday we will get there.

The latest gee whiz “right out of Star Trek” gizmo is called MASTOR. MASTOR stands for Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator, and it is a product of IBM Research. When I heard about it yesterday on the BBC’s World Update broadcast, my interest was immediately piqued. You can think of it as a Star Trek universal translator.

Translation software is nothing new. Even if we seem to doggedly prefer our keyboards, Microsoft believes we will evolve. It built speech to text translation into its Windows Vista operating system. (It may need a bit more work.) We also have programs that translate text from one language to another automatically. While such software usually does a faithful job translating words, it can also kick out intensely strange and occasionally hilarious mistranslations when it attempts to translate expressions and colloquialisms. I used a few years ago when I sold a car to a Spanish couple. It seemed to be good enough and allowed us to sign an agreement of understanding even though my Spanish was rudimentary at best and their English was nonexistent. MASTOR is the next logical step. Make no mistake: MASTOR is a quantum leap in functionality because it can allow two people who speak two different languages to talk in real time with neither directly interacting with a computer. It is being field tested in Iraq right now as a means to allow our English-speaking soldiers to communicate with Iraqis, and visa versa. Reputedly, it is doing a decent job.

The software is installed on ruggedized laptop computers that soldiers can carry around with them. It is sensitive enough not just to translate spoken English into spoken Arabic, but into the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. IBM has been working to make the software work on small portable computers. In Star Trek, the universal translator was able to accurately translate any kind of speech, or in some cases thoughts in the form of energy. It was a neat gizmo to have and helped move the plot along at a brisk pace. While MASTOR is not as sophisticated as what was envisioned in Star Trek, it is easy to see MASTOR as version 0.1 of the universal translator. Presumably in time IBM will work out the kinks, and add translations for many more languages and dialects.

What is more exciting to me is where this should eventually lead. Computer storage continues to get cheaper. Memory continues to get denser and less expensive. Processors become more powerful and more energy efficient. The MP3 players that many of us carry around demonstrate just how much functionality can be squeezed into such a small space and yet have such modest power requirements. My MP3 player has 1GB of flash memory, plays, records, has an FM-radio and works on one AAA battery.

I can see the day, likely in my lifetime, when every international traveler will journey with a universal translator. Maybe it would just be a feature on our MP3 player. Instead of FM radio, we would engage its translation feature. On the other hand, perhaps it would be smart enough to detect foreign words and phrases and automatically speak them to us. Such a device would need a microphone that most players already have as well as a small speaker. Even if the translation were not perfect, it would be sufficient for your average tourist. When we travel this would make it unnecessary for many of us to have to learn the local language or purchase foreign phrase books.

I know that last year when my family visited France even though I had my daughter with me (a fourth year French student) I was a bit intimidated by the language, Fortunately, we stayed in tourist areas, so language barriers were rarely a problem. Admittedly, reading signs in foreign languages would be a problem. However, GPSes can get us from point to point in our favorite language, as well as always tell us where we are. Spoken word translation though is better. It predated the written word for good reason: it was universal. As long as there are people, a universal translator would be a convenient and natural way to navigate in foreign countries.

As a Washingtonian, I often feel that I need a universal translator right here where I live. The cultural diversity is such that you are about as likely to hear someone speaking a language other than English as English itself. Newt Gingrich wants to require that all Americans read and speak English. There may come a time when our universal translators become so fast and proficient that knowing more than one language will be unnecessary.

I hope the MASTOR succeeds in Iraq. Improved communications with Iraqi locals certainly could not hurt, and might reduce casualties. We sure could have used it when we invaded back in 2003, for we invaded with grossly insufficient translators for our needs. When MASTOR is finally available commercially at an affordable price, you will be seeing me using my passport a whole lot more often.


Switch to our mobile site