Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Infamous Black Friday Shopping Day

What in the world has happened to our sacred Black Friday shopping day?  To the tradition that signaled the beginning of the Christmas shopping season?

Thanksgiving has come and gone and so has the infamous Black Friday shopping day—the day THEY say marks the moment retailers have covered their expenses for the balance of the year and are operating totally in the black with everything being profit.  Or at least that's what it originally meant…in days gone by.

Since U.S. Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday in November, for the majority of people that equates to a Thursday through Sunday four day holiday weekend.  In the past, the long holiday weekend has marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season…commencing Friday morning.  It also signaled the time to put away the Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations and drag out the Christmas decorations and gift wrapping paper while turning our thinking to the jolly ho-ho-ho mode.

Originally (many years ago in the dark ages), the Friday after Thanksgiving had several stores opening a few hours early (like 7 or 8AM) with some items on sale to draw in the shoppers in order to take advantage of the situation where so many people had that Friday off work as part of a four day holiday weekend.  The big sales were the after Christmas sales commencing first thing the morning of December 26th where retailers wanted to get rid of any and all leftover inventory from Christmas and start out the new year with fresh merchandise.

But it seems that everything is different now.  Somewhere along the line Black Friday has become an almost bizarre ritual with all the trappings of an event type of happening.

Rather than stores opening a couple of hours earlier on Friday morning than normal as it used to be, each year for the last few years they are opening earlier and earlier.  People waiting in line outside for hours in the cold so they could be the first ones to rush inside the moment the doors were unlocked at 3:00AM.  Television news crews would do live reports on Thursday night from some of the larger stores showing hundreds of people with their lawn chairs, sleeping bags, and some even had tents.  Earlier in the evening it's a party type of atmosphere.  By the time the store unlocks the doors, it's a lot of very cold and tired people all trying to crowd through the door at the same time.  I suspect they want inside from the cold as much as to make that race to their desired bargain.

Then that earlier and earlier Friday morning unlock the doors time became midnight Thursday and finally any pretense of being closed on Thursday for the holiday officially disappeared.  Some stores opened at 5PM Thanksgiving (giving employees a few hours to have dinner with family) while others opened Thursday morning and stayed open continuously through Friday night.

Stores being open on Thanksgiving day and evening this year has produced an unexpected result.  The local 6AM television news Friday morning did a live report from a couple of the large stores, in the past very crowded at that hour with the early morning Black Friday shoppers.  This year's early Friday morning shoppers were greatly reduced in numbers although the shoppers crowded the stores Thursday evening.  Some stores advertised additional bargain prices starting at 7AM on Friday morning to make sure shoppers from Thursday would have a reason to come back on Friday.

Black Friday starting on Thursday morning—once it happens, it becomes tradition.

In recent years, the biggest competition to Black Friday bargains has been the internet and it's growing every year.  Shopping via computer rather than actually getting in the car and driving to the mall has been growing by leaps and bounds.  In fact, the Monday following Thanksgiving is now referred to as Cyber Monday and Green Monday.  And so many internet shopping sites offer the same Black Friday bargains as their brick and mortar stores, including additional incentives such as free shipping or being able to pick up your order at the local store instead of waiting for it to be delivered.

No standing in line for hours in the cold in the middle of the night.  Those same bargains are now only a mouse click away.  You get a good night's sleep and Black Friday is available for pursuits other than elbowing your way through throngs of holiday shoppers.

So, who braved the weather, lost sleep, and jostled your way through crowds to snag those bargain prices this year for no reason other than being able to take your purchase with you when you left the store?  And how many of you have now completed your holiday shopping?

And speaking of holiday shopping…how many of you noticed how early all things Christmas were out and on display this year?  I encountered Christmas items prominently displayed and Christmas promotions before Halloween.  Some as early as in September.  And I'm already hearing Christmas music on the radio.  Not to mention that the Hallmark cable movie channel started showing only Christmas movies early in November.  :)

How many of you preferred to stay home on Black Friday and enjoy all those Thanksgiving dinner leftovers while watching football?

And now I have a confession.  I did venture out to a store on Black Friday about 8:30AM, but not for holiday shopping.  I had to go to the office supply store because I was out of printer ink.  Only a few people at Office Max.  However, four doors north of the office supply store, Kohl's had a very full parking lot.

So…onward toward the Christmas and New Year holidays, followed by the retraining period to get back into a normal routine after three major holidays in less than six weeks.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Those Naughty Pilgrims

With Thanksgiving comes thoughts of the pilgrims taking up residence in the new world, landing at Plymouth Rock in what is now the state of Massachusetts.  The pious pilgrims certainly have a reputation for being a rigid and humorless group.  But there are a few surprises to be found.  Even though drunkenness was discouraged, beer was accepted as a drink by men, women, and children.  The daily ration on the Mayflower was a gallon a day for each individual.  Even sex was not taboo under the right circumstances.  They had a matter-of-fact attitude about sex as long as it was between a married couple.  It's when sex strayed from being the exclusive right between a married couple that the stories get interesting.

Studies by a group of anthropologists at the University of Virginia found that the pilgrims spent a great deal of time thinking about how to punish those with impure thoughts and actions.  Studies also discovered that in 11% of the marriages at Plymouth Colony the bride was already pregnant.  The same study estimates that as many as 50% of the pilgrims engaged in premarital sex.  Definitely not an image that fits the staid pilgrims.

But what about the actions and activities of those naughty pilgrims?  As with so much in life, there's the fa├žade and then there's the underlying reality.

Although not liberal in their thinking or lifestyle, the pilgrims were not as uptight as history would have us believe.  They tried to create a strict religious society, but had an understanding and mercy unusual for their time in history.  As time passed, intolerance grew and was reflected in their laws and clearly demonstrated by the notorious Salem witch trials.

According to the Mayflower Compact, the colony was to establish laws based on Biblical teachings "for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith."  The Old Testament book of Leviticus was the basis for most of their laws (a biblical source that definitely predated Christianity rather than reflecting it).  Adultery?  Death.  A man has sex with his daughter-in-law?  Death.  Sodomy?  Death.  Bestiality?  Death.  Are you beginning to see a pattern?  :)

But interestingly, the pilgrims did not typically enforce the death penalty for sex offenses.  There was only one case in which the convicted offender was actually put to death for sex crimes.  It was the case of Thomas Graunger, a teenage boy apparently at the peak of his raging hormones who sought satisfaction from any and all sources available to him…the farm animals.

According to Plymouth Governor William Bradford, "He was this year detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey."

Even though Thomas was the only one executed for a sex crime, punishments were routinely severe even with far lesser sex crimes and usually meant whippings, being put into the stocks, and fines.

Men were not the only offenders in Plymouth colony.  The prim women weren't always so pious either.  Women were often caught since the evidence of their dalliances were babies.  The records of the times are filled with one out-of-wedlock child after another.  Babies showing up just a few months after marriage were also evidence of wrong doing.  Pre-marital sex was severely punished.  Fines were levied even for making passes, for appearing to have a lascivious carriage in public, or partying in mixed company at an unseemly time of night.

Sex outside marriage, even between two unmarried consenting adults, usually meant a whipping and fines.  If the woman became pregnant, the man had to either marry her or pay for the child's upbringing.  The man was usually placed in the stocks and whipped while the woman was made to watch.  Sometimes mercy was granted as in the case of a servant, Jane Powell.  Following years of hard servitude, she was destitute and had agreed to having sex in the hopes of marrying the man.  Apparently the court found her plea convincing and she went unpunished.

Even though the pilgrims imposed strict punishment for crimes, they also understood human temptations.  In 1656, Katheren Aines and William Paule were sentenced for committing adultery.  William was whipped and forced to pay the costs of his imprisonment.  Katheren was whipped, imprisoned and forced to wear a letter on her shoulder designating her as an adulteress.  (Calling Nathaniel Hawthorne!)  However, Katheren's husband, Alexander, was also punished.  Alexander had left his family for some time and treated her badly during their marriage.  The pilgrims viewed him as guilty of "exposing his wife to such temptations."  Alexander was required to pay for his wife's imprisonment, and sit in the stocks while William and Katheren were whipped.

This Thanksgiving as you sit down to your turkey dinner, it might be a good idea to take a moment to be thankful that you aren't a pilgrim.  :)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thanksgiving Myths and Facts


We all know the often told story of how the pilgrims left England seeking religious freedom and finally settled in the New World at Plymouth in what is now the state of Massachusetts.  And how in 1621 they invited the local natives to share a dinner with them in order to give thanks for a successful harvest and surviving their first year.

From those humble beginnings have come many facts and just as many myths about the pilgrims and our Thanksgiving holiday.

I have some Mayflower myths to share with you, followed by some Thanksgiving facts.  And next week…those naughty pilgrims.

Myth:  The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 and the pilgrims celebrated it every year after that.
Fact:  The first feast wasn't repeated, so it wasn't the beginning of a tradition.  In fact, it wouldn't have been called Thanksgiving because to the pilgrims a thanksgiving was a religious holiday.  That feast in 1621 was a secular celebration and would not have been considered a thanksgiving in their minds.

Myth:  The original Thanksgiving feast took place on the fourth Thursday of November.
Fact:  The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11 and was a three day celebration based on the English harvest festivals.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, a decision fraught with controversy.  The date was approved by Congress in 1941.

Myth:  The pilgrims wore only black and white clothing with buckles on their hats, garments, and shoes.
Fact:  Buckles did not come into fashion until later in the 17th century.  Black and white were commonly worn only on Sunday and formal occasions.

Here's a list of facts that could be called Thanksgiving-by-the-numbers.

3,000—the number of calories eaten during an average Thanksgiving meal.

12,000,000—the number of whole turkeys Butterball sells for Thanksgiving.

2,000 - 3,000—the number of people used to guide the balloons during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

214—the average number of miles driven for the family get together at Thanksgiving.

1939—the date the Great Thanksgiving Day calendar controversy began (when FDR declared the fourth Thursday of November to be the official date of Thanksgiving).

23.3—the percentage of Black Friday shoppers who arrive at stores before five o'clock in the morning.

40,000,000—the number of green bean casseroles made for Thanksgiving dinner.

72,000,000—the number of cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce sold for Thanksgiving dinner.

Next week I'll contradict the belief that the pilgrims embodied the very soul of purity and piety.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

9 DANGEROUS SCIENTIFIC WORK LOCATIONS

researcher working in tree canopy
I read an article a couple of months ago about scientists who work on location rather than in a lab…the ones whose labs are out there, in dangerous places and situations where most of us would never go.

So, in no particular order, here are 9 of these dangerous scientific work locations.

1)  Inside Volcanoes
When you think of geologists your first thought is usually the study of rocks and various landforms, something safe and basically stable. But for the branch of this particular science known as volcanology, things are definitely less stable and a certainly a little hotter. Having been to Mt. St. Helens, Washington, a few years after the explosive eruption and viewing the devastation first hand, I'm very familiar with the story of David Johnston, the 30 year old volcanologist who was on duty at the time and was 1 of the 57 people who died in the eruption. Volcanologists study the intense heat and chaos inside active volcanoes. Recently a team of three researchers descended inside the Marum Volcano on Ambrym Island off the coast of Australia to study lava flows inside. Wearing a heat-resistant suit, one of them descended 1200 feet into the volcano’s crater to capture video footage of the lava’s movement. Normally, scientists use robotic cameras mounted to small helicopters to do this extremely dangerous work.

2) Tornado Country
The movie Twister gave us a good look at what storm chasers do, and those who live in the part of the U.S. referred to as Tornado Alley see the results of their work on the news when the storm conditions are present that produce tornadoes. Collecting data on storms is a tough process. Getting close to a tornado is risky on a good day, and self-proclaimed storm chasers run that risk all the time. Even with such advanced technology as Doppler radar giving us the overall picture of a severe storm, some scientists claim there is some data that can only be gathered at ground level. One of the most noted tornado researchers, Tim Samaras, routinely drove in front of tornadoes to place cameras and pressure sensors to record the velocities of objects swept up by the storm. Unfortunately, in 2013 Samaras, his son and another storm chaser died in an Oklahoma tornado.

3) Biosafety Level 4 Labs
Laboratories that deal with germs and diseases that can be dangerous or fatal to humans are given a biosafety rating from 1 to 4. Facilities that deal with Level 4 are where the really bad stuff happens. One of the most notable is the integrated research facility located at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The laboratory is housed in a nondescript three-story office building—an airtight, pressurized environment restricted to only 30 researchers. The germs they work include epidemic diseases like Ebola. The facility has airlocks that separate it from the outside world and anything that leads outside the building, such as light fixtures or electrical outlets, is sealed in epoxy to prevent even a single germ from escaping. Scientists are given a seven-minute showering with virus-killing chemicals before they leave.

4)  Underwater Caves
The ocean is a massive mystery to humanity, covering the majority of the Earth’s surface. Even though it's part of our planet, we seem to know more about outer space than we do the depths of our oceans. One of the most interesting areas under the ocean's surface are what are known as blue holes, underwater caves that can reach as deep as 600 feet below sea level. These caves have difficult topography. They vary in size from massive, sprawling caverns to holes barely big enough to admit a human. Diving there can be very dangerous with unpredictable currents. Despite the dangers, scientific rewards are huge with both biological and archaeological finds waiting to be discovered.

5)  Tree Canopies
Forest ecosystems are made up of distinct layers, each with its own climate and variety of plants and animals. It’s a simple task to study the layers nearest the ground, but botanists have lots of questions about what’s happening up above. And that’s where canopy research comes in. Scientists at Humboldt State University climb to the top of trees that can exceed 350 feet in height, anchoring their bodies to the trunk. From that risky perch they can observe the canopy ecosystem…as long as they don't lose their balance. At the top of the trees, researchers have discovered a whole ecosystem of moss, lichens, and even whole new trees and bushes growing from dead stumps.

6)  Amundsen-Scott Station
Originally built by the United States government in 1956, the Amundsen-Scott Station sits squarely on the south pole. With temperatures ranging from minus 13.6 degrees Celsius (minus 56.48 Fahrenheit) on a nice day to minus 82.8 degrees Celsius (minus 181.04 Fahrenheit) when winter is in high gear, it’s one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. Even though blizzards and intense winds are common, astronomers spend months at the station because the six months of total darkness during winter makes Amundsen-Scott a perfect place to observe the night sky. Other researchers study the movements of the Antarctic ice sheet—the station itself moves about 33 feet a year as the ice drifts.

7)  Aquarius Lab
Operated by the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration, this deep-sea science station comes with a little twist. The human body is only capable of staying underwater for a short period at a time because decompression sickness (commonly referred to as the bends) can cause incredible damage when gas bubbles form and disrupt tissue. Some scientists have long-term research projects that need to happen in deep water, so they do it at the Aquarius Lab. This facility rests on the sea floor outside of Key Largo, Florida at a depth of 50 feet. Researchers spend up to 10 days underwater at a time, studying the nearby coral reefs.

8)  Inside Hurricanes
Here’s another meteorological condition where some scientists like to get a little too close. The National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration employs a number of flight meteorologists who take airplanes into the eyes of hurricanes to gather data on the storm’s strength and direction. They use two planes—one is a Gulfstream G-4 that has the easy job of circling the storm’s funnel, the second is a smaller propeller plane that actually penetrates the fast-moving wind to fly right to the eye of the storm. In addition to using Doppler radar on the plane’s tail, they also release a device that transmits pressure and humidity data.

9)  Outer Space
And finally…there is literally no environment as hostile to the human body as the vacuum of space. Long-term weightlessness has negative effects on muscle tone, bone density and the immune system. Exposure to radiation in low-earth orbit comes at levels 10 times higher than the normal dose on the Earth’s surface. And there’s also the fact that outer space doesn’t have any of that oxygen stuff our bodies need to function. Experimentation in outer space has led to a number of fascinating discoveries in fields as diverse as astronomy and cancer medicine.

And there you have a sampling of dangerous locations some scientists refer to as their lab (minus those white lab coats, of course).

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fifty-four Years After Emily Post


Four years ago, I did a blog commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of etiquette expert Emily Post.  On that anniversary, Vanity Fair polled 18 – 44 year-olds and found that forty percent of those queried had no idea who Emily Post was or why she was famous.

Emily Post would have turned 142 years old last week, so I'd like to do a bit of an update on that blog.  She was born on October 27, 1872, in Baltimore, Maryland.  At the time she was growing up, well-bred women were discouraged from working. By becoming the nation’s expert on manners as well as a self-made career woman with books, a syndicated newspaper column, and a network radio program, she defied the dictates of that time.

Society has changed quite a bit in the fifty-four years since her death.  So, how relevant are Emily Post's etiquette rules to modern life in today's fast paced society of five second sound bites, social media, and instant global communication?

Some of the topics she covered in her 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, seem totally irrelevant today.  Subjects such as one of my favorites—how to keep your fan, gloves, and napkin on your lap at fancy dinner parties.  That skill has always been a stumbling block for me at the many fancy dinner parties I routinely attend, especially those fancy/formal occasions held in those many appropriate venues that are NOT air conditioned thus requiring that I carry my folding fan.  :)  Some of her other advice, however, is still relevant today.

Fashion:  While her advice for men is no longer relevant—she recommended suits for everywhere and all occasions except what she referred to as "the country."  When on a country outing, breeches and polished leather riding boots were acceptable.  Her thoughts on female style are, thankfully, a little more relevant.  She said most women were fashion sheep, that they should take trends and personalize them.

Conversational Skills:  This is something that seems to be eroding in today's society of instant communication consisting of 140 characters on Twitter.  After you dismiss all the complicated stuff about when to doff a hat or curtsy, a lot of her advice is still common sense today.  Things such as—will what you have to say be interesting to those around you, don't repeat yourself, let other people talk, and don't pretend to know more than you do.

At a Live Performance:  Her book has lots of advice about things like how to dress and whether it's acceptable for a woman to attend with a man who is not her husband.  Keep in mind that by "live performance" she was referring to the theater, opera, or the symphony.  Rock concerts in massive arenas were still a long way off.  Her two biggest rules are one hundred percent relevant today—shut up and be on time!  And I'm sure in today's society she would have added turning off your cell phone.

Introductions:  She apparently loved all the formalities of meeting new people, presenting calling cards, and how to properly address each other.  In today's society it's very common for people to know each other even without having been properly introduced face-to-face.  We're friends on Facebook, I saw your video on YouTube, I read your tweet.  I imagine that would have thrown Emily into quite a tizzy.  :)

Mustn't:  Emily Post had lots of mustn'ts.  Here are a couple of examples.  "A lady mustn't carry a bundle of anything on the streets, but if she has to, a man must carry it for her."  She apparently didn't have a rule covering what to do if it was imperative to move that bundle from one place to another and you didn't have a man available to carry it.  "If a man doesn't enjoy the conversation a lady has offered, a woman mustn't be offended, but rather keep fishing for topics he might find agreeable."  This sort of reminds me of that magazine article from the mid 1950s about how to be a good wife.  Definitely advice to make today's woman cringe.  What if she doesn't enjoy the conversation a man offered?  :)

Houses:  Her advice in this area seems the most outdated and indicates that her advice was apparently a luxury for the wealthy.  She advised that a house must have servants on hand to collect a visitor's things when they visit.

It's easy to make fun of etiquette rules published ninety-two years ago, but Emily Post's most basic rule is as necessary today as it was back then.  "Never do anything that is unpleasant to others."

Here are four more of Emily's thoughts on etiquette (and I'm sure she would cringe at my informal use of her first name when we had never even met let alone been friends):

1. "Never interlard your conversation with foreign words or phrases when you can possibly translate them into English; and the occasions when our mother tongue will not serve are extremely rare."

We all know someone who casually throws around the foreign phrases as an affectation we find very annoying.

2. "Who does not dislike a 'boneless' hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere. What woman does not wince at the vise-like grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily paralyzes every finger?”

A limp, dead fish handshake is definitely bad news.  Also beware of the handshake ball (a gathering where everyone is constantly shaking hands with everyone else).  That gets real old real soon.

3. "Lack of consideration for those who in any capacity serve you, is always an evidence of ill-breeding, as well as of inexcusable selfishness."

This includes such things as the man who yells at the taxi driver or the woman who brusquely dismisses a waiter or waitress as a nobody.  In Emily Post’s eyes, that type of action labels the person as definite low life and still applies 100% today.  Don’t be that person.

4. "Life, whether social or business, is a bank in which you deposit certain funds of character, intellect and heart; or other funds of egotism, hard-heartedness and unconcern; or deposit—nothing! And the bank honors your deposit, and no more. In other words, you can draw nothing out but what you have put in."

Many of the world’s most successful people are simply committed to service.  Figure out what you want from the world.  If you expect to get it, be prepared to first give it.

And that, for Emily Post's 142nd birthday, is Emily updated.