Staying on the road is tough when sending text

In case you haven’t figured it out, sending text messages while driving is dangerous. It’s highly inadvisable, though it’s still legal in all states except in Washington. For now.

It took a study by Clemson University’s psychology department to put something tangible on just how risky the practice is. Like, how well a driver can stay in his own lane while sending messages.

To the uninitiated, this thing called “texting” (besides being an indicator of where our language is headed while seated in the handbasket) is the practice of using a cell phone to send short text messages. Since most cell phones have 12 keys to represent the 26 letters, all the numerals, punctuation, and upper/lower case, that’s a lot of tap-tapping to get a message out. Unless you take your chances with predictive text, it takes four strokes of the 7 key to get a lowercase “s,” and much head-scratching (using the other, non-texting hand) to figure all this crap out. While sending text notes can be handy, I can’t think of a more inefficient, less intuitive way to send a message.

It’s a little easier using predictive text, but you’re letting the phone do the thinking for you and often you have to cycle through several word choices — which means watching the screen.

There’s an art to proper texting (besides the knowledge that you have just changed a noun into a verb, pushing our civilization deeper into some abyss), and it’s a skill that few over the age of 35 seem to have. I’m 50, and I certainly don’t have that skill. I also never learned to type with my thumbs; I’m a 10-fingers kind of guy. A young (27-year-old) friend taught me the basics of sending instant messages by computer, and while I’m good enough at it to add it to my resume, I’d rather send an email any old day. Even the email took some training; I’m not that far4 removed from using a quill and foolscap.

This “texting” (did I mention how much I despise that non-word?) has also done a number on how we spell and write words. That great quote from Hamlet becomes “2B or not 2B.” Ugh. Even in my infrequent forays into instant messaging, I prefer plain English and try not to waste my time with folks who don’t have that simple request figured out. None of this LOL, or ROFL (which sounds like someone at the porcelain altar on New Year’s Day) for me. I don’t give a damn whether YMMV, OTOH, I’m too old and set in my ways to RTFM for a translation.

This text messaging doesn’t do much for driving, either, which is really something we already knew. But according to the Clemson study, which was done in a driving simulator, a person sending or receiving text messages has at least some of his car drift out of his lane 10 percent of the time.

Now that’s something a person can visualize. It puts some meat on what would ordinarily be a bunch of dry statistics. Already you can see the ramifications. A little lane drift, anywhere, what happens? Usually a lot of blaring horns behind (and sometimes in front of) you, more than a few extended middle (non-texting) fingers, maybe a view of a gun muzzle if you’re on an L.A. freeway, and the chance of some panicky overcorrecting — which does nothing but make the public highway even more of an insane asylum than it already is.

By comparison, running an mp3 music player pulled test drivers out of their lanes five percent of the time, while yakking on a cell phone apeared to make no difference in how well a driver stays on the road — according to the study. In real life, cell phone talking may turn an otherwise intelligent driver into a moron, so Clemson’s findings were a surprise there.

I did try sending text messages while driving. Once. This was on my way to North Carolina for my brother’s wedding. I drove up from Charleston and wanted to let all hands know my progress on the trip up. Too early in the morning to call, so I sent the text. A frightening experience, especially having to remove my glasses so I could see the screen. Fortunately there was no traffic, so no one saw me use every lane on the road and a few that weren’t there.

OK, most cell phones have preset text messages, called templates. Boilerplate messages such as “yes,” “no,” “call me,” “need directions,” “thank you,” and “I love you.” (Boy, texting depersonalizes a lot, doesn’t it?) Allegedly it’s easier and a whole lot safer to use a preset message than punch out a text note from scratch. To use a preset on my LG phone, I:

– Go to message menu.
– Hit “new message.”
– Put in the phone number of whoever I’m sending the message to, or grabbing it from the directory.
– Hit “select,” then “done.”
– Then hit “OK.”
– Go to the “options” menu.
– Hit “add,” then “templates.”
– Scroll through the preset messages. They came programmed into the phone, and you can also add your own. Select the preset message you want, and hit “OK.”
– Then hit “send.”

See? Nothing to it. You should be able to do this from behind the wheel, at 65 mph, without looking at the phone.

On second thought, it’ll just be a lot easier to have the nice highway patrolman send the text message for you — after he’s done fishing you and your vehicle from the shrubbery.

I’m not betting on CO2-free coal plant

What with our never-ending quest for energy, it seems coal is making a huge comeback.

Yeah, coal. You know, that black stuff that was once king, subject to Upton Sinclair novels and Appalachian songs. Mined out of the earth and burned for energy. That coal.

A big problem with coal – besides the highly-questionable means of extracting it – is that it’s one dirty fuel. And with newfound concerns about how much carbon dioxide is blown into the atmosphere, I’m amazed coal is being considered at all. Here in South Carolina, as recently noted in an earlier blog entry, four of the top five producers of CO2 in the state are coal-burning power plants.

But man is nothing if not an experimenter, and Mattoon, Illinois, will be the site of the next experiment. Plans are set to build the first “FutureGen,” a coal-burning power plant that allegedly does not emit carbon dioxide. That’s what the press releases say, anyway. This plant is going to be a big one, at least as far as real estate and price tag. It will be built on several hundred acres at a cost of $1.8 billion – in Charlestonese, that’s two Arthur Ravenel Bridges. When completed, the plant is expected to create “hundreds of jobs” to that central Illinois town.

OK. So what’s the secret here? Ahh, the carbon dioxide is to be stored underground – out of sight, out of mind.

I am somewhat familiar with the workings of coal-based energy. Overlooking the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nevada, stands one such plant. Some locals call it the “steam plant.” Steam, my butt. The plant burned coal slurry piped in from the Four Corners region of Arizona, where it was dug out from Navajo land. And like with most agreements with Native Americans through our history, white man got to keep the coal that was mined while the tribe got the shaft. But that’s another story.

The Mohave Generating Station was something of a local joke. For some reason it seemed production was at its highest at night. At a time you couldn’t see that smoke plume rising up from the smokestack. A colleague of mine, in print, referred to that plume as the generating station’s “nocturnal emission,” a phrase I wish I’d turned. And, when then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan visited the site, there was no plume to be found – gee, talk about putting your best foot forward.

During that time I got a tour of the generating station, where I got to climb a 60-foot cooling tower to shoot some photos. And the big boss of the generating station told us media buzzards, with a perfectly straight face, that the most noxious emission from that plant was fly ash.

Yeah, fly ash. The stuff that sticks to your car. Run it through a car wash and your problem is solved. Not a word about sulfur dioxide. And not much about carbon dioxide, which wasn’t exactly something that worried even the most hard-shell environmentalists back then.

With this background info, I’m real curious to see how this story plays itself out. If this is an actual solution, that would be wonderful. But I don’t really see storing the carbon dioxide underground as a way to solve anything.

In truth, this sounds more like our standard way of handling environmental issues: Throw a bunch of money at the problem, then hide the effects. Really, it’s like burning coal when you can’t see the plume in the night sky.

Dog-gone town can be unfriendly

Charleston is a place like no other. It’s a beautiful city, the folks are as polite as the media says, and the town is romantic enough to make Miles Davis cry.

So what’s not to love about the Lowcountry?

If you own a dog, there’s plenty. Of all the places I’ve lived – more than a few – Charleston has to be the most dog-unfriendly of ‘em all.

Do I have research to back this up? No. There’s a website that gives some of the lowdown on dogs in Charleston, but that’s more for the visitor, the person taking a vacation in Charleston and hopefully spending lots of money.

Sure, the area does make concessions to dog owners. Some. South of Calhoun Street near all the hospitals is a park, where an old library once stood. Nothing left there now except a few columns, a bunch of trees, and grass. I don’t even know if the park has a name, but it doesn’t matter. The locals call it Dog Park, and that’s where many take their pooches to run off a little energy. Leashes? We don’t use no stinkin’ leashes here.

Dog Park is especially popular with the younger set, in particular college-age girls with their dogs, so that’s another of the park’s charms. Hey, I may be getting older, but I ain’t dead.

Outside of that, life can be a little rough if you’re a dog owner. I can sure understand the need for a pet deposit when you move into a place, but in Charleston expect to pay in the neighborhood of $300 or $400 to keep your dog in an apartment or house.

I can understand some of this, maybe. When my dog was a puppy, she had her destructive side. Chomping through the power cord of my computer, while I was using it. Eating a pair of my boots. Nibbling on the Christmas tree lights. To be honest, back then she couldn’t have caused any more hell and destruction if she peed fire.

But then, human children can also have their destructive moments, as any battle-hardened parent will tell you. But I’ve never heard of a landlord imposing a child deposit. Are you kidding? There are civil liberty-type organizations who would gladly serve that landlord’s head on a platter if he ever even thought of such a notion.

I’ve had Hoodoo since she was six weeks old. She’s 13 now, and has the grey to prove it. Not near as hyper as she once was, and it’s been at least a decade since she’s destroyed anything. She’s mellowed with age. Her only real objectionable quality – besides being horrendously spoiled and jealous – is that she gets excited when I come home from work. My neighbors say they never hear her until that moment; that’s when all of Charleston County knows of my arrival.

A few days ago, I experienced another example of how dog-unfriendly Charleston County can be. I’m currently without an Internet connection, so I walk to the library to maintain this blog and keep up with the tons of email I seem to get. No problem there. And when I walk anywhere, Hoodoo goes with me. That’s a house rule that she set years ago. I’ll tie her out near the library entrance with a bowl of water while I do my business inside. She’ll usually curl up and go to sleep before long, and wait for me to finish – like a good dog.

Anyway, I was reading some newspapers and taking notes at the Cooper River Library, waiting for my turn at the computer, when the librarian wanted to know who owned that dog outside. That would be me, I said, and is there a problem?

Yes, problem. Unless she’s a service animal, she can’t be there. Well, the librarian already saw me read the paper, so I knew I wasn’t going to weasel out of this very easily. I offered to tie Hoodoo out around the side of the building where no one ever goes, and that wouldn’t work either. Can’t be on the premises.

With that, I put away the newspapers, gathered up my notes, collected Hoodoo, and left.

Besides the obvious – like what am I going to do for an “office,” this just plain ticks me off.

Charleston, I’m afraid, is trying to go big-city. Maybe not New York (there is a god) or Los Angeles (and a just god he is), but maybe another Atlanta. I see that in some of the growth and some of the new laws in town, and how it’s losing just a smidgen of the charm that makes it Charleston. Whatever it is, big cities and dogs just don’t see eye to eye.

Meanwhile, the search is on for a provisional office. Right now, the interim answer is an easy one – go find another library.

Go Google yourself! Lots of people do.

Disclaimer: Yes, I do have a real problem with taking a noun such as “Google” and making a verb out of it. It’s a practice that is indicative of the direction our language – and by inference, our civilization – is headed. But since we’re already in the handbasket ready to go, I’ll use Google as a verb, like everyone else. May the language gods forgive me …

Google yourself lately?

That does sound like something unspeakable, bordering on something Homeland Security would like to know about, but yes I have.

If you’re like 47 percent of the adults who use the Internet, you also have done this thing. However, I’m not real sure about the other 53 percent of Internet users – either they’re just not admitting to anything, or they lie like hell.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported this week that, yes, nearly half of adults did check themselves out on a search engine – and 53 percent admitted to looking up someone else, without counting searches of celebrity names.

Since you’re asking – yes, I Google myself every so often. Yes, I’ve said it. Being a blogger, it’s almost a requirement. I do this mostly to see if the search engines are “crawling” my work, which means more page hits and subscriptions. Also, I admit searching myself to find out if anyone with the same name as I is getting into trouble, thereby sullying the name. Or something.

Also, like many of the other admitted self-Googlers, I’m not all that worried about what I’d find on myself online. But it sure doesn’t hurt to check anyway. Of course, I’m more than a little circumspect about what information I’m gonna publish about myself.

Yes, I have Googled old friends of mine over the years. Through search engines I have been able to re-establish contact with two of my old mentors in the newspaper business.

According to the Pew findings, Americans are more likely to self-Google if they’re more highly educated and better paid – and if they’re younger than 50.

Gee, I just passed my 50th not long ago. Does this mean I have to stop? Fat chance.

In the meantime, I feel no shame and neither should you. Lots of people are admitting to it, so it must be OK.

Go Google yourself!

Illegal immigration an issue in unlikely places

So you think it’s only the border areas that have to worry about illegal aliens, right? Guess again.

While places like California, Texas, and Florida have been watching (or not) who goes in for years, some of the interior states are now getting a little nervous. Including North and South Carolina.

Not long ago I saw an article on the influx of Latinos in Iowa, of all places. Iowa? Good ol’ white-bread Iowa, breadbasket to the nation?

And in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Residents are wondering where all those Latinos are coming from.

Mind you, Latinos and illegal aliens are two different things. Certainly a vast majority of the Latin Americans in the United States are here legally. And not all illegal aliens hail from places where they speak Spanish. Some years ago, I met an ex-girlfriend’s uncle who had quite a story. When he was a young man he fell for a woman from the United States and followed here from his native Canada – without bothering to go through all the immigration hoops of the day. Technically, he was an illegal alien – that is, until he married her, legitimizing his residence in the States and winning a good woman in the bargain. A great story, and a good thing. What do Canadians call La Migra anyway?

But let’s get to Hendersonville. A town of slightly more than 10,000 souls, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a duck snort down the road from Asheville. God’s country. Also, apple country. Comes time to pick these apples, who do you call? Someone who will do it for low wages, and he may or may not have his papers on him.

I lived in Hendersonville a few years ago, and was stunned at the number of Latinos in town. And the good folks there are mostly hill people, where even someone from California is considered highly suspect, probably dangerous, and slightly exotic. And Hendersonville’s Latino population had jumped about tenfold over the preceding decade. You couldn’t go into WalMart without running into a group of imported apple pickers on a shopping trip. Definitely a little too much for the folks there; you could hear them mumbling something about there goes the neighborhood.

Here in Charleston County, I’ve seen previously all-black neighborhoods going Latino during the past five years. Get right down to it, illegal aliens built the Arthur Ravenel Bridge linking Charleston to Mount Pleasant. The bridge was completed a year ahead of schedule and under budget. Hiring a bunch of guys who will work their asses off for little bit of nothing will do that. So what if the foreman had to be bilingual?

South Carolina State Senator Glenn Mcconnell, a good and true Southerner, is calling for provisions allowing each state to set its own rules in dealing with illegal immigration, effectively nullifying federal laws in the process.

Which, by the way, is a good idea. The situation is not the same in South Carolina as it is in, say, California. The situation is different, so the rules should also be different. Plus, in a group of 50 states, it is mathematically possible that there may be an enlightened government among them. Not too likely, but it is possible. However, any traces of such enlightenment will totally disappear when you’re talking about a group of 50 entities under one-size-fits-all laws. Just naturally, these laws will be designed to fit the worst case, the lowest common denominator.

But as I read about McConnell’s pitch, I kept hearing spinning noises from John C. Calhoun’s grave. Calhoun, if you remember your history, pitched a similar nullification idea in the 1820s and was vilified for it – that’s where the seeds were sown for the War Between The States.

(But then, Calhoun wasn’t exactly being original here. Another early proponent of nullification in some form or other was Thomas Jefferson. But while Jefferson’s profile adorns our five-cent piece, all Calhoun gets is a statue in Charleston’s Marion Square, with a million pigeons bombarding his head.)

As far as illegal immigration, there are no easy answers. The same folks who bitch the loudest about all these illegals coming in, taking jobs, and draining tax coffers are the ones who like their cheap Hendersonville apples, the inexpensive California lettuce, and cheap tomatoes from John’s Island. And cheap bridge construction costs. Face it. As long as there’s someone around to outbid the native-born workers, we will continue to see this accelerate, law or no law.
Suppose we magically deported all of the illegal aliens and made our borders lock-tight. This would put a lot of builders and growers in the lurch because no self-respecting American would pour concrete or pick apples at those same wages. And to make up the difference on paying the help, you’ll see some brand-new prices in the produce bin of your neighborhood grocery store.

America’s policy toward illegal immigration is a classic example of talking out of both sides of one’s mouth. Fix the problem as long as their financial self-interest is not compromised.

It’s not going to happen. Not anytime soon, anyway.

Study: Late night work brings cancer risk

I just can’t win. If smoking doesn’t kill me, then my occasional forays into fast food will. Or my coffee consumption. Or fumes from the road.

Or even my working hours.

This last part sounds like a joke, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) will list late-night work as a probable carcinogen, putting it in the same league as Diesel exhaust fumes, anabolic steroids, and ultraviolet rays.

This came to my attention via a USA Today article, which cites higher rates of breast and prostate cancer among night workers — which account for close to 20 percent of the work force in developed nations.

According to the article, epidemiologist Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, noticed in the 1970s how breast cancer rates increased suddenly and dramatically as societies industrialized and running three shifts became a sign of progress Stevens suggested aritficial lights and backwards circardian rhythms tweaked hormone levels — particularly melatonin — to the point where cancer was more of a risk. He published his findings in 1987, and he’d taken some heat in since then. The cancer research agency, though, puts new credence to Stevens’ hypothesis.

On Thursday, Stevens told the Hartford Courant that research is still a little iffy, that there’s not just enough data to warn night shift workers to quit their jobs. “I would be a jerk to quantify that right now,” he said.

To me, the whole thing sounds like one of those you-never-know scenarios. It’s a pretty good bet that working late night isn’t the healthiest thing in the world. I can consider myself knowledgeable on this because, in the 32 years I’ve worked full time, most of it has been during the witching hour. This includes most of my time in newspaper work — I had free rein to work whatever hours I wanted and I gravitated toward those goofy hours. I’m just “naturally” a night person, meaning I’m not spending my workshift just trying to stay awake. I can see night workers being more at risk of heart problems, of stress-related issues, or just plain “issues” issues, but cancer? Hell, I still think you can test any substance known to man — including water — and some lab rat somewhere will get cancer.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to function on those hours, and and the late-shift worker’s options are definitely limited. Rather than running out to a favorite restaurant during lunch hour, one ends up going to some 24-hour joint with questionable chow. I guess you could say night workers eat a lot of grease. And coffee. And eggs. And hash browns. At a casino where I once worked, the employee dining room’s fare was limited to breakfast food during the wee hours. I’d eaten so many eggs I developed this urge to go outside and peck corn.

In a lot of public businesses and factories, even those that run three shifts, late night is when much of the operation is shut down for cleaning and maintenance. So a night worker may be exposed to more chemicals than his co-workers who pull daytime hours. But strangely enough, that may not be a real factor in the numbers being used here, as most of the workers studied were nurses and airline crew members. And Stevens allowed that many of these worked on rotating shifts, which is enough to fry even the hardiest people.

Stevens’ best advice for the night worker is to darken the bedroom as much as possible before going to sleep, as that appears to be a factor in producing melatonin.

“The balance between light and dark is very important for your body,” Stevens says. “Just get a dark night’s sleep.”

I have my own quick-and-dirty “hack” for this; at least it (hopefully) fools my body into thinking it’s dark. I hate those sleep masks, but I’ll sometimes fold a bandanna over my eyes. Of course it’ll fall off when I roll over, but by then I’m already asleep and don’t really care anyway.

My own advice, as a longtime night worker? Find a schedule, and stick with it. Putting a worker on a revolving schedule — nights one week, days the next — should be classified as cruel and unusual punishment. And, I find it easier to function if I keep those same hours on my day off. Simple logic here — why adjust twice?

“The problem is re-setting your body’s clock,” said Aaron Blair, of the United States’ National Cancer Institute, who chaired IARC’s recent meeting on shift work. “If you worked at night and stayed on it, that would be less disruptive than constantly changing shifts.”

Worth a look: Global terrorism map

It doesn’t take much to crank up a person’s anxieties these days. Just read the newspaper, talk to people, or go on the Internet, and you’ll see what I mean.

Even mentioning the phrase “homeland security” is enough to make a lot of folks go paranoid.

With this in mind, I checked out this website showing incidents that may or may not be terrorist-related. To be sure, this site also includes warnings, sightings of things that may be bombs, or even random people going postal. Also you’ll find the usual run of false alarms.

Here’s the incident map. Special thanks go out to blogger Chrissy Jo for bringing this to my attention through her blog.

As I looked at it, there were a few items in the States: A potentially explosive device found in Savanna, Georgia (about 100 miles from where I live). A suspicious package found at a convenience store in Florida (the neighborhood evacuated; later a false alarm). A mall shooting in Texas, which was probably a little he-ing and she-ing gone bad. A suspicious device found in Nevada, detonated by police. A radioactive scare near an Indiana airport. And as far as the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and the world’s other trouble spots? Don’t ask.

Anyway, it’s a really interesting read, and it might give you nightmares faster than that loaded pizza you ate just before bedtime. Enjoy!