Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Owning Guns?

America has a big problem with guns. It is an obsession. It is also unnatural and unholy. Yes unholy. It is the only country that I know of that has the right to bear arms in its constitution. Actually, I am wrong about that. Three other countries allow their citizens to pack heat: Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala. But only one of them, Guatemala goes as far as the second amendment of the United States constitution. It is a fact that the good old US of A, enjoys the highest per capita gun ownership in the world. That is not a cause for celebration, in my view. More commiseration. I just happen to strongly believe that nothing good can come from owning a firearm. Guns don’t solve problems. They create them. In 2011, the most recent year for available statistics, there were 12 thousand 664 murders in the United States. Of those, 8 thousand 853 were caused by firearms. It is symptomatic of a society in trouble. A society that is afraid of its own shadow. Americans need to ask themselves some tough questions. Is it a society that seems to live in fear? Incapable of truly trusting each other and is that the kind of world, Americans want for themselves? The pro gun lobby is fond of saying guns don’t kill people. People kill people. But if they don’t have such an easy way to do it they might be doing it a lot less often.

Anyway, the purpose of this is not to talk about the right to bear arms. Well, kind of. Actually, what I want to do, is talk about a young woman called Rebekah Rorick, a high school senior in New York. Rebekah has just won a legal stoush with the school’s Yearbook committee. They had refused to publish a photo of Rebekah, wearing camourflage gear and holding a hunting rifle along with her hunting dog. This is the photo that Rebekah wanted to include in her High School Yearbook. But I will allow Rebekah, an amazingly articulate young woman, to take up the story after the Yearbook Committee said no:

“And I was like, ‘Why?’ And they are like, ‘Because there’s a gun in it.’ And I’m like, ‘But it’s a hunting rifle. I’m wearing camo. I have my dog with me,’” Rorick said. “I was ready to cry. I didn’t know what I was going to do. The only thing I thought to do was address it.”

And address it she did. She got her Dad on the case, who made a submission on Rebekah’s behalf to the Board of Education, arguing that the portrait was no different to any of the others because all it was doing was showing student interests. Hmm. Now don’t get me started on another of my pet hates. Hunting animals for fun? Sorry but I don’t see the fun in killing living creatures who’ve committed no crime. Anyway, back to the story. So what did the Board of Education do? They caved in of course. That’s the other big no-no in the land of the free. Thou shalt not take on the gun lobby because it is an argument you are never going to win. The School Board had a very different view from the Yearbook Committee.

School Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson said Rebekah’s photo did, after all, comply with the board’s policy against promoting firearms.

“We do have a policy against weapons, but at first glance, and even now, I do not believe that this is,” he said. “She is not holding the gun in a malicious manner. She is not pointing it anywhere. It’s to me, in my opinion, a nice photograph of a young lady in the Adirondack region that enjoys hunting.”

These are weasel words that fool no one. The Board clearly understood the implications of upholding the decision of the Yearbook committee. The gun lobby would have been on their case faster than a speeding bullet.

But let’s just stand back and examine why the Yearbook committee might have a problem with a photo showing a young woman wearing camourflage clothing, holding a hunting rife. It just might have something to do with the massacre that occurred at Sandy Hook elementary school, where 28 people, where slaughtered by a young, deranged gunmen, or Columbine High School where 16 people were murdered. The Yearbook Committee thought it wholly inappropriate to show a photo of a student holding a gun. I think they were right and I applaud them for having the courage to make that decision, even though they probably knew it was never going to fly.

The photo will now appear in the yearbook. I am sure there will be those who say this is a victory for freedom. But I would simply ask, are you truly free if you live in a world where everyone is so paranoid about being attacked they only feel safe by owning a gun?

“I was so happy. I could not stop smiling,” Rebekah said. “I felt the board had a lot of courage. It’s something I’ll hold forever.”

The War That’s Going On That Few Of Us Know About. Welcome To The World Of Hostile Take-overs

There is a war being fought every day that most of us know nothing about. It’s tough, ruthless, bloody, vindictive and merciless. It takes no prisoners and thrives on tactics and adrenalin. Vast industrial estates can be built up and torn down just as quickly. Allow me, to introduce you, to the world of corporate takeovers.

In polite company they’re called hostile takeovers. But make no mistake, this is war and only the strongest, or the smartest, or both, will survive. Think of backroom deals worth billions, Orcs in business suits without a conscience, engaged in scandalous conduct, firing loyal employees and making Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko, look like Mother Teresa.

By way of explanation, hostile takeovers are when a company, or investor, seeks to take over a business that doesn’t want to be taken over. If a company is listed on the stock market, it can be vulnerable to a hostile takeover. It’s especially vulnerable, if the company is undervalued or seen to be struggling.

Hostile takeovers happen in a number of ways. The first, is through tender offers where the bidder, offers shareholders a premium on the stock price. Even if the company bosses and the Board of Directors oppose the offer, it can still be accepted if the majority of shareholders agree. The company board of directors is required by law to act in the best interests of shareholders so if an offer is good enough then they are supposed to agree to the sale.

The other way is through a proxy fight, where the bidding company tries to convince shareholders, to replace the takeover target’s, board of directors, with their supporters who will approve a buyout. Under Corporate rules in Australia, a bidding company can cause a spill of the board of directors, if it acquires five percent of the voting stock or convinces 100 shareholders to call for a spill. If a bidder manages to buy 20 percent of company stock then a full takeover bid is triggered.

Hostile takeovers, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It can often result in a great improvement in company profit, and size, with the introduction of better management. But the opposite can also happen, where company assets are stripped and sold and employees lose their jobs.

There have been plenty of examples of this type of hostile takeover.

In the United States, in the 1980s, a group of investors, that were more like corporate raiders, made a bid for airline company, TWA. The corporate raider tag came from their past reputation for stripping and selling off the company assets for massive profits. One of the most prominent of these corporate raiders, was Carl Icahn, who is said to be the financier who provided inspiration for the character, Gordon Gekko. Just like in the movie Wall Street, Icahn continues to launch attacks on companies he sees as vulnerable. His latest move was against online giant eBay. But it was his involvement with the now defunct, TWA, that was the most controversial.

At one time, TWA was mentioned in the same breath as American Airlines, United and Pan Am. TWA always had a checkered financial past and by 1985, its parent company decided to cut its losses when Carl Icahn came knocking. According to a profile written about Icahn in St Louis Magazine, he wasn’t the only corporate raider to make an offer. Another came from union buster Frank Lorenzo, who gave TWA employees even more reason to be fearful. In some ways he made Carl Icahn looked like an angel in comparison. According to St Louis Magazine, once Icahn got his hands on TWA, he made it clear, when he said he wanted TWA to be profitable, he was talking about profits for himself. The magazine quoted a former TWA pilot, who said: “It became more and more apparent that Carl was not interested in growing the airline but in using TWA as a financial vehicle to acquire wealth for himself.”

Three years after the buyout, Icahn turned TWA into a private company, banking $US469 million in the process. In return, TWA was burdened with $US540 million of debt. This debt eventually became an albatross for TWA. In order for the airline to remain competitive it needed new planes. Icahn ordered 12 new planes for the fleet when employees were expecting more than 100. As far as TWA was concerned worse was to follow. In 1991, Icahn sold TWA’s London routes to American Airlines for $US445 million, which immediately ended a lucrative revenue source for the airline.

But Icahn didn’t just sell off TWA’s assets to make a quick buck. He also needed to pay back the money he borrowed to make his raid on the airline in the first place. That’s the other point you need to remember about hostile takeovers. It is almost always using borrowed money, which of course has to be paid back once the deal is done.

By 1992, TWA was bankrupt, owing hundreds of millions of dollars to creditors. In what must surely be a sad irony, these creditors included Icahn, who was owed $US190 million. TWA management negotiated a repayment deal with Icahn that ended up costing the airline $US100 million a year. It crippled TWA, which was eventually sold to American Airlines. Nothing remains of the company apart from this story.

And this will give you some idea of how ruthless this kind of corporate trench warfare can get. In 2009, US based food conglomerate, Kraft, launched a hostile takeover bid for Cadbury, the iconic British confectionary manufacturer. Cadbury had been on the Kraft radar for a number of years. But a takeover was not possible until Cadbury sold its drinks business, Schweppes, in 2008.

Following that sale, Kraft made one bid for Cadbury and then another a week later. Both bids were firmly rejected by Cadbury’s bosses. Cadbury’s chairman Roger Carr said it was an “unappealing prospect” to be absorbed into Kraft’s “low growth conglomerate business.” The Cadbury CEO called the offer “derisory.” Cadbury was also upset that Kraft’s second offer of about $US 25 billion, was actually lower, than the figure they offered in their first takeover bid. Kraft amended its takeover offer after billionaire, Warren Buffett, who held a 9.4 percent stake in Kraft, warned the company not to pay over the odds for Cadbury. The British confectionary operation, had its collective backs against the wall and was being threatened by a foreign multinational. So Cadbury decided to try and buy some time. It asked the UK Government’s Takeover Panel to force Kraft to submit a formal offer for Cadbury. This would give Cadbury time to formulate a defensive strategy, as well as gather more information about Kraft’s intentions. It looked like Cadbury might survive the threat when the company posted an encouraging third quarter financial report while Kraft recorded a disappointing result. Cadbury’s share price rose above the takeover offer. But interested parties, who know the smell of money almost as much as blood in the water, knew Cadbury was still very vulnerable. A group of Cadbury’s biggest shareholders, comprising US weighted hedge funds and short-term investors, decided to force the majority of Cadbury shareholders into accepting the Kraft offer. Of course the people who really do have the most to lose, like Cadbury’s employees and the family descendants of Cadbury’s founders,were devastated when the company was sold to overseas interests for what they perceived to be a bargain basement price. The fact that these overseas interests were clearly driven solely by the need to make greater profit, was a bitter pill.

The takeover deal had a catastrophic result for the 400 people working at one of the Cadbury factories in the UK,  that Kraft had dutifully promised to keep open, should it win the takeover battle. A month after the takeover deal was signed, Kraft reneged on its pledge and said the factory would close. No room for sentiment when there is money to be made and costs to be cut. Company loyalty counts for nothing. I have always wondered how people, who have no respect or regard for their fellow human beings, are able to sleep at night. But even if I was to ask them, they would stare at me blankly and be puzzled that I even asked the question. So be it. But for me money, quite frankly, is over rated unless it can be used to do some collective good.

You Can’t Negotiate With Religious Extremists

Terrorism left its calling card in Sydney today. I think we all kind of knew it was coming. We just didn’t know the where?, or the when? Both of those questions were answered when a middle-aged fanatical Jihadist, walked into a busy café, in the heart of the city, around 9 in the morning. He was armed with a sawn off shotgun and proceeded to take more than 20 people hostage. What followed was a siege lasting 17 hours. It ended around 2 am, when heavily armed police stormed the café, after hearing the sound of gunshots coming from inside. Minutes later, three people were dead. The fanatical jihadist hostage taker, and two of his hostages, a man aged 34 and a woman aged 38. Australia is fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We knew there would be consequences. The Islamic State publicly vowed revenge against innocent people to be chosen at random. But you can’t stop living your life, just because a group of religious crazies threaten you, or want to attack you for the way you choose to live. Nor should we.

Authorities know quite a bit about the Jihadist hostage taker but I don’t want to waste oxygen talking about him to any significant degree. He was Iranian and a Muslim convert. A self styled cleric who was convicted of sending poison pen letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed during the war in Afghanistan. He was also on bail for being an accessory to the murder of his wife, who was stabbed and set on fire. He persuaded his girlfriend to kill her.   The self-styled Jihadist also faced 40 sexual assault charges after complaints from seven women who attended one of his ‘spiritual healing sessions.’ The Jihadist likened himself, on his own webpage, to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, claiming the police charges against him were laid for “political reasons.” His website also carries a quote, posted earlier this month, stating: “I used to be a Rafidi, but not any more. Now I am a Muslim, Alhamdulillah.” ( Praise be to Allah)

During the siege, this religious fanatic forced his hostages to hold up a black flag, with Arabic writing, against the window of the cafe and record video messages on their mobile phones, listing his demands. The videos were initially posted on YouTube but were immediately removed on the advice of police. Deep down we all knew, right from the very start of this, it was going to end badly. Of course, there will be the inevitable questions: Should this man have been released on bail? Had he been identified as a religious extremist and placed on a watch list? If not? why not? His lawyer described him as a ‘damaged goods individual.’ There will also be scrutiny of how the police handled the siege. We received many public assurances from the New South Wales Police Commissioner, the Premier of New South Wales and the Prime Minister that the police were professionally trained to deal with this type of crisis and we should all have faith that they can bring about a peaceful resolution.

Bring about a peaceful resolution? Are you kidding me? When they said that I began to get very worried. For a start this was not a normal siege by any stretch. Most sieges are an attempt by the hostage taker to achieve some personal advantage. The Jihadist who walked into that café only had two purposes, to die killing innocent people and secondly to create maximum publicity so that when he did, everyone would remember who was responsible and, hopefully, from that time on, live in fear of it happening again. He didn’t care that he would be killed. In fact he was counting on it. You can’t negotiate with people like that. You are wasting your time to even try. But the New South Wales police did try. They didn’t comply with his demands but they tried to negotiate with him. And they waited.

Now I don’t want to sound like some armchair quarterback replaying the calls that were made with the benefit of hindsight. I understand the police had a nightmare on their hands. But I will be honest and say I think it was a serious mistake to wait for the shooting to start before they did any shooting themselves. It might sound harsh but being reactive is too late. The horse has bolted. The hostage taker is already doing what he came to do from the moment he walked into that café. We live in a different world. There are people in it who have no regard for their own life as long as they can take the lives of innocent people. The hostage taker in Sydney made it pretty clear who he represented, and what this was about, right from the start. You don’t negotiate. You wait for an opportunity or, you create an opportunity, to use lethal force against him. You certainly don’t wait until he starts killing people. It’s a harsh lesson that maybe the New South Wales police are about to learn.

Is Artificial Intelligence A Threat To Mankind? Stephen Hawking Thinks It Is.

The brave new world is no longer some Aldous Huxley flight of fancy or even fantasy. It’s here. And it’s with us now. It’s called Artificial Intelligence and it’s spawning a flourishing new, and what its advocates hope, will be a massively, profitable industry. Those involved in its development say Ai is nothing more than a benign computer program that does human quality analysis. In other words, it is designed to replace the human element in many tiring, dangerous or time-consuming jobs. Companies like IBM, Google and Apple are spending huge sums of money developing Ai. They say it will be used to manufacture very specific programs designed to improve our society.

Nevertheless, there is widespread fear and distrust of Ai. Who can forget the talking red light called HAL 9000 in 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL, short for Heuristically programed Algorithmic computer. HAL became a living, not quite breathing personification of evil. A computer, who could talk and was capable of independent, rational thought and ultimately a threat to the human race. So is that what Ai really is? Its supporters say Ai is not alive and never will be. And while it might be capable of performing tasks that a human being would do, it has no genuine creativity, emotions, ambitions or desires other than what is programed into it or what it detects from the environment. Unlike science fiction, or what’s made into movies, Ai has no desire to mate, reproduce or have a large family of little Ai’s running around causing havoc. But in a limited context, Ai can think like us and set tasks for itself. But just like any other computer program or technology, its creators decide its role in society. And we are told those creators have no intention of using it to enslave humanity. They point to the fact that Artificially intelligent computer programs, operate as specialists. There is a network of Ai sub programs each of them individually handling tasks like computer vision, language, machine learning and robotic movement. So Ai is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ or even an ‘it’ but a ‘they.’

Supporters of Ai do acknowledge and concede that, like all other computer programs, Artificial Intelligence is ultimately controlled by human beings. It can be designed as a war machine, creating weapons that carry a nuclear or biological payload capable of wiping out the human race. But, they say, that is nothing new. We’ve been able to do that in the past without the need of Ai. In any case it’s not the fault of science. We human beings are to blame. We shouldn’t fear Ai but we should fear the people who might want to misuse it.

I don’t know about you but I don’t find the words and thoughts of Ai supporters particularly comforting or reassuring. And, as it turns out I’m not alone. Two eminent thinkers, Stephen Hawking, a world renowned Astrophysicist and Elon Musk, the guy behind electric car manufacturer, Tesla Motors, PayPal and rocket manufacturer, Space X. Both of these prominent individuals believe Ai is a doomsday prophecy. And while they are not talking about robotic armies rising up to take over the world, they talk of a cataclysmic event called Singularity. Hawking and Musk say ‘singularity’ could only be decades away and what will happen is that the network of world computers and Ai will have a kind of explosion of machine intelligence. By then, most of the world’s food distribution, banking and other vital systems will all be conducted through that network. So the explosion will cause all of the systems to malfunction and that will bring the world to its knees. Now you might be ready to dismiss this as something fanciful. Just as a reminder, this is not a couple of crackpot scientists talking. These two guys are highly intelligent men who the world takes very seriously. In fact, in an interview with the BBC, Hawking went further. He said the development of full Artificial Intelligence would spell the end of the human race. He called for all research into Ai to be aborted immediately, which is kind of ironic coming from someone who relies on Artificial Intelligence to communicate.

Hawking suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). For decades he has been scrolling a cursor through the alphabet, laboriously building words so that he can communicate through twitching his cheek. He was asked to express his thoughts on a recent revamp of his computer-assisted speech system by the computer company, Intel, and machine-learning software company, Swiftkey. Hawking is working with Intel to integrate new features such as predictive text with his existing suite of sensors to help him “speak” through a voice synthesiser. The astrophysicist has embraced a wide range of technologies in his quest to communicate and research.

But it was the ability of the software to “learn” and “predict” his preference in words that completely spooked him. He says while such primitive forms of artificial intelligence have proven to be very useful, he fears the consequences of creating something smarter than a human being. It could take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, would be superseded because they couldn’t compete.

Elon Musk thinks exactly the same way and his language is even more colourful than Hawking. Musk says ‘summoning the demon’ of self-learning, which is what he calls artificial intelligence, would ‘potentially be more dangerous’ than nuclear weapons.

“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence, Musk said. “If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that … with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. (but it) didn’t work out.”

Ai definitely has a lot of people talking. It has caused the formation of ethics panels and UN investigations, university reviews and consumer protection reports. They are saying it is a potential threat but not a clear and present danger.

Supporters of Artificial Intelligence are adamant it will benefit mankind but thinking machines are already rapidly displacing humans in the workforce: Sleepless, never tiring, performing repetitive but complex tasks in an indefatigable manner. If you are in business and don’t think beyond the size of your wallet, you’d have to be asking yourself where is the downside?

Want To Get A Good Night’s Sleep? Then Turn Off The Computer, The iPhone And The iPad

Bedrooms used to be places of rest and recreation. In fact whatever you did in them, was going to do you some good. But that is no longer the case. More and more of us are falling victim to temptation of a different kind. We’re taking laptops, phones and other electronic devices to bed with us. And there can only be one outcome: a bad night’s sleep.

A survey of fifteen hundred people, conducted by an organization called The Sleep Health Foundation, found that almost half of them regularly looked at electronic devices in the bedroom. It means that people are not switching off figuratively and literally before going to bed particularly if they are using the device for work. The problem with these devices is they emit a blue light that, when held closely to your face, prevents your body clock from operating as it should because it stops the release of the hormone, melatonin, which signals oncoming sleep.

And falling asleep in front of the TV, even if its on the other side of the room, is just as bad because it prevents the body from self soothing so you can wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep.

Worldwide research suggests people are getting less sleep than they used to. One survey found that people were having, on average, an hour less sleep a night than they needed – about 7.3 hours when they should be getting 8.25.

There are serious health consequences to be had from not getting enough sleep. If people are poor sleepers, or they regularly have fragmented sleep, then they run a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Having less than 7 hours sleep a night, has even been linked, in some studies, with a greater chance of being overweight or obese. But while the health effects of poor sleep are serious, sleep experts say they don’t want to worry people, especially if it scares them out of a good night’s sleep. Going to bed, worrying that you are not getting enough sleep is both ridiculous and completely the wrong thing to do.

Instead, sleep experts recommend making sure that we implement a one or two-hour buffer before going to bed to allow our bodies to wind down. According to The Sleep Health Foundation survey this is something only two-thirds of the respondents did. Which is not good.

Other tips included having a warm shower before going to bed, which allows the body to cool down more rapidly, and is yet another signal that it’s time to go to sleep.

And for the party animals who like to stay up late at night ( and I live with one) there’s bad news: playing games in front of the computer or binging on booze can actually change the way your body produces melatonin, which can catastrophically disrupt sleep patterns. Just staying in bed for longer in the morning is not the answer. According to the sleep experts, that sleep-in after a late night is actually counterproductive.  A body clock’s cycle does not quite line up with a 24-hour day. Instead, it, stretches closer to 25. This has the effect of giving us a natural incentive to want to stay up later, which is something a sleep-in only exacerbates.

On the weekends we should all try not to sleep in for more than one hour later than when we usually get up in the morning. Otherwise, by the time you get to Sunday night, your body clock might be suffering from the equivalent of jet lag. Your body is behaving as if it is physically on some other time zone, which just perpetuates the cycle of poor sleep patterns.

So, if you happen to be a family with two laptops, two smartphones, a PC, an iPad, an iPod and an assortment of old phones that your younger children use to play games on, then, according to the sleep experts, you need to establish strict rules such as a ban on using technology in their bedrooms at bedtime. 

Here are the four best tips for getting a good night’s sleep according to the experts:

1.Go to bed at a regular time, and allow wind-down time before you do.

2. Limit alcohol consumption and coffee after 2pm

3. Keep clocks out of view

4. Get up early and go out into the sun, ( a big ask in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, I know, because you don’t get much) which will help set your melatonin cycle.

Sweet dreams.

The Marriage Proposal That Fell Through……The Roof Of The Neighbour’s House

I don’t have many pet hates in life.

I like to think of myself as pretty laid back. Tolerant. Understanding, But there is one thing that really gets on my goat. And that is people who orchestrate some extreme public stunt to propose marriage to their partner. It’s not that I am unromantic. Nor am I particularly cynical. Maybe a little. It’s just that I can’t see beyond some pathetic attempt at attention seeking. You know the marriage proposals I’m talking about. Take your pick. They’re all on You Tube. The new Dad who popped the question to his girlfriend by dressing their newborn baby in a onesie that read: Will you marry me Daddy? Then there’s the guy who asked his favourite ice cream shop to create a new flavour called Rachel will you marry me? Let’s not forget the entire Norwegian town that helped a man propose to his fiancé. The town residents built a Hollywood style set that looked like the outdoor patio of an Italian restaurant and then set it up on a cliff with candles lining the route. The villagers even held choir practice to learn how to sing the Italian song O Sole Mio. That would have been interesting sung with a Norwegian accent. The man led his fiancé up to the fake patio where he popped the question and the evening ended with fireworks and champagne. Of course she said yes. They always do. Of course it would make life interesting, not to mention hugely embarrassing if the other party did actually turn down the proposal. Would I feel sorry for him? The cynic inside says not on your nelly.

So you can imagine my dismay when I read about the wedding proposal that came crashing down, literally, in the Netherlands. Here was yet another attention seeker wanting to profess his love before the widest possible viewing audience on You Tube. Except it all went horribly, horribly wrong. Instead of being a marriage proposer he turned into a home wrecker. The man lived in the town of Ijsselstein, a name that is pretty unpronounceable unless you speak Dutch. No surprise he wanted to do something spectacular, that was really all about him, in proposing to his girlfriend .So he hired a mobile crane. It was meant to be a surprise early one Saturday morning. In that he succeeded. The crane was going to carry him over his girlfriend’s house and deposit him in the backyard where he would step down and ask her to marry him. Unfortunately for him his marriage proposal fell through…….the neighbor’s roof. And when the crane operator tried to right the crane, it slipped and fell on the house roof for a second time.

Fortunately no one was injured, apart from wounded pride and bruised egos. But the house that the crane collapsed on, was in a row of terraces. Emergency workers had to evacuate almost the entire street while they tried to figure out how to get the crane out of the roof of the house. Their biggest problem was getting the crane upright without it falling on the house for a third time. The would be marriage proposer, jumped to safety and the people who lived in the house that the crane fell on, were said to be in deep shock. Stands to reason that you would be after a crane fell on your house with you inside. The authorities must now decide if the house or houses are so structurally damaged  they will all need to be demolished. But they can’t make that decision until they find a way to extricate the crane from the house roof.

Of course the next obvious question, did the man’s fiancé accept his marriage proposal after his actions caused such a typhoon of damage in her street? I mean would you want to marry him? I wouldn’t be surprised if people living in that street wanted to kill him. What was her answer I hear you asking? I won’t keep you in suspense. She said yes. Can you believe it? She still wants to marry that sad sack. Maybe she felt sorry for him. Personally I don’t.

The second part of his marriage proposal involved a trip to Paris. Dutch police told the couple they had no reason to cancel their trip, so that is where they are as we speak.

Quite frankly, if I were he, I would go to Paris and stay there. Permanently. I would also like to be a fly on the wall when they try to explain the whole story to the insurance company.

Hey Baby Boomers. You Are NOT Team Players

I have just learned that I belong to a generation that seems to be causing no end of trouble for everyone else in the world. Certainly for Generation X and Y. Put simply, they think we have too much of everything. Too much money, so we buy property that freezes out potential first homebuyers condemning them to live in the eternal rent cycle. We have too many assets, we get way with too many superannuation lurks and perks. I can say all of this, because absolutely none of it applies to me. I wouldn’t have two beans to rub together. Living off the old age pension, will be the life for me. I changed jobs a lot. Didn’t have a proper superannuation fund etc etc. Anyway, that is another story.

What I find remarkable is the assertion, that yet another black mark should be added to Generation Baby Boomer. When it comes to the workplace, and let’s face it there are still a large number of my generation who abandoned thoughts of retirement, long ago, they are lone wolves and not team players.

The 21st Century workplace, is a different beast these days, according to market research that has just been published. It’s all about being touchy-feely, hot-desking (sounds obscene) and butcher’s paper brainstorming. Older workers are apparently not into any of this. Not only are they not into it, their non- participation could actually be causing a problem in terms of lowering worker productivity.

A recent study by the accountancy behemoth, Deloitte, found that unlocking what it described as the ‘power of collaboration’ added $46 billion to the Australian economy with the potential to add another $10 billion if companies embrace and encourage the trend. Now, I recognise that this applies in an Australian context but you can take it as read, the same is happening all over the world.

Deloitte claims it’s being driven by big advances in technology making it easier than ever for employees to communicate and work together on projects, either in the office or from home.

The trend was reinforced by global Human Resources firm, Randstad, in its latest, quarterly Workmonitor survey, which found that two thirds of workers say they spend more time collaborating with colleagues than they did five years ago.

But things got a bit messy and pear shaped when they tried to compare the responses of Generation Y workers, with their Baby Boomer counterparts. Almost two thirds, or 59 percent of Gen Y, who were surveyed say they perform better in teams compared to only 33 percent of Baby Boomers. Collaboration and teamwork are far more important to Generation Y than it is for the grey nomads they share the workplace with.

There’s no doubt it’s a generation thing, according to a Randstad company representative who was commenting on their survey. He said workplaces have changed radically over the past 20 years. Technology exists now, where we can share information in real time and Generation Y is clearly the strongest in this area. They have grown up in an education system that focused on collaboration, so group assignments are second nature to them.

Interestingly, Generation X, recorded similar figures. Fifty percent of those surveyed say they perform better in teams. The vast majority, eight five percent of respondents, said they believed that collaboration was now more important than ever with the advances in technology.

The evidence appears to suggest that Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom are lagging behind Asian countries when it comes recognising the importance of working collaboratively in the workplace. In the boom economies of China, India, Hong Kong and Singapore, eighty two percent of workers surveyed said collaboration is not only recognised, it is also rewarded. The general feeling is that there is a lot of catching up to do if we want to be competitive with these countries.

The Randstad company representative offered some advice along with his survey results. He said the best way for businesses to change the way they operate, to encourage collaboration, is to establish the right platforms and lead by example. They need to abandon the idea of measuring performance based on individual effort. To take the sporting analogy, if your team focus is on scoring goals, then you’ll have most of the team obsessed with scoring instead of working together to win the match.

You can have the best salesperson in the world, who sells a lot but if they can’t work with others their value is limited. He or she might achieve their personal goals, but that does precious little in helping their company to grow. But if your sales team is collaborative, shares leads and supports each other, then everyone is working towards achieving a better outcome.

So there endeth the lesson.

Here’s my gratuitous advice to my fellow baby boomers. Chill baby. You know what they say. You are never to old to learn.

Older Women Wanting To Have Healthy Babies, The Trick Is Eat More Ice Cream

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, something comes along that makes you realize you haven’t. Actually, there are a lot of things that I haven’t heard of but this is so bizarre it’s worth talking about.

Here’s a question: What do you think might help older women have babies? Fertility treatment? No. Having a relationship with a man who has a high sperm count? Well yes, but in the context of what I am talking about here, Nah. Give up? Ok. The answer is ice cream.

This revelation, has greater relevance at this time of year if you happen to live in the southern hemisphere, as I do, where the daily summer forecast varies between hot and hotter.

The bottom line is, according to researchers, if you eat ice cream regularly, and you’re an older woman, then it’s going to significantly improve your chances of conceiving a healthy child.

Personally, I don’t need a reason to eat ice cream. Summer or winter. It happens to be one of my favorite pastimes and I have a waistline to prove it.

The research comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center in the United States. They asked women, over the age of 35, to keep a record of what they ate during their IVF treatment.

And when researchers began collating the figures, they discovered something unusual. Those who ate the most ice cream, cream, yogurt and milk, were 21 per cent more likely to give birth than those who rarely ate dairy products. And the quantities don’t need to be big or eaten frequently, every day, to make a difference.

Just three portions of dairy each day is enough to have a significant impact – the daily equivalent of one scoop of ice cream, one glass of milk and a slice of cheese.

So, is there a scientific explanation for why this is happening? Well, apparently there is. According to lead researcher, Dr Jorge Chavarro, of Massachusetts General Hospital, cow’s milk contains hormones that will improve the chances of an embryo being successfully implanted inside the womb.

“We found that women who had the highest intake of dairy were more likely to have live births,” Chavarro said. “ For women under 35 there doesn’t seem to be an association but for women over 35 the association is much stronger. That is the exact opposite of what we expected to find.”

But, I am beginning to think there is an element of the pre-ordained about this research. It turns out the situation is the exact opposite for men. According to this same researcher, if a man eats lots of ice cream, milk, cheese and yoghurt, their fertility will in fact decrease and they’ll end up firing blanks. It is even worse news for obese or overweight men, who eat lots of soy products. This type of food has a catastrophic effect on sperm production. And there’s a scientific reason for this as well. Sperm production is affected by something called phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that behave exactly like the hormone, oestrogen, which doesn’t like male sperm.

And because obese men, produce more oestrogen than their slimmer counterparts, the adverse effect on sperm production is compounded if you’ll pardon the pun. So the lesson is if you’re male and want to have children it’s best if you are not a vegetarian and you do it at a young age.

But then again if you are male and eat a lot of bacon and processed meat then your sperm count is likely to be 30 percent less than men who avoid these kinds of food.

In fact, Doctor Chavarro is deeply concerned about how beef is produced in the United States because of its possible, harmful effect on male infertility. He says many beef producers give their cattle, natural or synthetic hormones, to stimulate growth, a few days and weeks before they are slaughtered at the abattoir.

These hormones may well be one of the culprits in lowering the male sperm count. In fact if men want to eat food that is going to boost their fertility rather than reduce it, they are better off eating walnuts. They not only improve the quality of sperm production, they can also turn weak swimmers into sperm strong enough to swim across the English Channel.

But getting back to the story of how ice cream is helping to improve the fertility of older women, dairy products contain the hormone, progesterone and that is very good news.. This hormone, makes the female womb become sticky which can have a glue like effect when an embryo is implanted using IVF.

Progesterone production, is known to decrease in women as they get older so this is giving them a new lease of life..

Personally, I’m not quite sure what to make of this research. On the one hand, it offers a glimmer of hope for women who might have left the decision to have a family very late in life. But on the other, it is basically saying that overweight, middle aged men, who are either vegetarian or eat too much processed meat, are almost good for nothing.

And while I am not a vegetarian, nor do I eat a lot of processed meat, I do pretty much fulfil the other requirements which makes me feel a little besieged by all of this news.

I guess if nothing else it gives true meaning to the phrase, you are what you eat.

Can The World’s Worst Criminals Ever Be Rehabilitated?

One of the features of a modern democratic society, seems to be a reluctance to accept failure, particularly when it comes to crime and punishment. Instead we cling steadfastly to the belief that goodness exists in all of us, somewhere.

No crime is too heinous for the perpetrator to be rehabilitated and given parole, so the theory goes. I’m sure many consider it to be more than just a theory. Some even describing it as one of the guiding principles of our justice system. But sometimes a crime is so inhuman and barbaric there can only be the one punishment, that shows neither mercy nor forgiveness. For countries like Australia where the death penalty is not an option, it’s life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Fortunately, these terrible cases are rare but they inevitably polarize the community and cause angst, bitter debate not to mention a great deal of hand wringing.

There is one such case in Australia at the moment, doing all of that (I’m sure there are cases like this all over the world) in the headlines again, 26 years after it happened. Five homeless teenagers, one of them aged 14, convicted in 1988 of the thrill killing of a 20-year-old woman they abducted at random from a railway station car park. The judge, in sentencing the five teenagers, said the circumstances were so horrific that all them, even the 14-year-old, deserved to be jailed for life without the possibility of parole. In fact the judge made the point, that the accused should never be released from prison, unless they were dying from a terminal illness or so incapacitated they were physically incapable of committing a crime.

Now, all these years later, the case found its way to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee. The committee, was tasked with examining the case specifically in relation to the youngest of the five accused, two teenagers aged 14 and 16 who were minors at the time of the offences but were sentenced as adults. The UN committee found the sentencing of life imprisonment without parole, breached a number of articles in the covenant on civil and political rights principally that “no one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Of course the committee made no mention of the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment the five accused inflicted on the woman they abducted, raped multiple times before tying her up and throwing her in a dam where she drowned.

The committee said the sentence,where it applied to the teenagers, contravened another article in the covenant – that juveniles be punished as minors and that penitentiary systems have rehabilitation as an “essential aim.” It noted that the sentence also breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Clearly the UN takes the view that no crime is so abhorrent, that the guilty lose their right to parole or rehabilitation.

Lawyers for the two, argued that regardless of the terrible nature of the crimes, they should have been treated as juveniles. An effective and lawful response to children committing these types of crimes requires more than simply locking them up and throwing away the key.

Children are different and the justice system normally recognizes that they have less responsibility for crime and greater prospects for rehabilitation.

And as a society, we accept that children are different from adults. They can’t vote, can’t smoke or drink, or go to war.

The two teenagers, are now men aged in their forties, having served 26 years behind bars. Their lawyers argue they should be entitled to seek parole and have their case determined by a properly constituted parole board.

But let’s just step back for a minute and examine this case in my specially convened court of public opinion.

As I have already said, these two teenagers were part of a homeless gang. On the day of the crime they had spent their day riding around on suburban trains, reading pornographic magazines and showing the pictures to fellow passengers. At one point, one of the accused said, “ How about we get a Sheila and rape her?” Soon after they got off the train at a suburban station and noticed Janine Balding, a bank teller and soon to be married 20-year-old woman walking to her car. They approached her and asked for a cigarette, before producing a knife and forcing her into the back seat of her car, which they then drove away. According to testimony given at the trial, one of the teenagers in the back kept up a low, sing song chant: “Nice night for a murder. Nice night for a murder.” Janine begged them: “Just don’t stab me.” She also kept asking to be dropped at the next corner. She said: “Let me out and I won’t tell.”

Instead, they drove into a park. They pulled Janine out of the back seat, threw her on the grass, all of them taking turns to rape and sodomise her. Then the 16-year-old said we have to kill her. They took rope from the boot of Janine’s car. They tied her feet together with five turns of the cord before passing it up around her neck and down again, so she was effectively trussed up like a ball.

They heaved her over a barbed wire fence and then pushed, dragged and rolled the terrified woman more than 100 meters, across the paddock, and threw her in the dam where she drowned.

At the trial, the judge heard horrific stories about the background of the two youngest of the five accused. Sexually abused at a young age, coming from broken homes, with serious psychological and substance abuse problems. But he determined that while these might have been mitigating factors they were not enough to outweigh the horrific nature of this crime. But his sentence of life imprisonment without parole did not have the necessary legislative backing until the Government passed a special retrospective law, allowing courts to impose that sentence in special heinous cases. The two teenagers became the youngest convicted murderers in Australian criminal history to receive such a sentence.

But now the United Nations’ Human Rights committee wants the Australian Government to review the case and remedy what it describes as a breach of their human rights.

The decision has been met with horror and outrage from Janine Balding’s family, who believe none of the accused should ever be free from prison.

“They knew what they were doing,” Janine’s brother David Balding, said. “They should stay where they are. They have nothing to offer society.

“There has been a ridiculous amount of appeals already. Each one has been rejected and each one has caused this family a huge amount of pain.

“Just when you think it’s over, it’s on again.”

So having heard all of the evidence, the court of public opinion can now retire to consider its verdict on whether the United Nations has a case on behalf of the accused. No problem for me. I know which way I’d cast my vote.

Airlines Find New Ways To Torture Passengers With Economy Minus Seating

Everything is shrinking. Have you noticed? We can go from one side of the world to the other in an instant. Skype or email, you can reach anyone, anywhere with the click of a mouse or the tap of a keyboard. And it’s not limited to the virtual world. You can stick a pin in a map of any country and be there within hours. That is unprecedented in human history. But if you think this is a plug for the world’s major, or even minor, airlines think again.

It ain’t.

Airline travel has never been more affordable, more frequent, more readily available and more undesirable. Everything the world’s airlines do these days has, what I call, a perverse inversibility. The more they offer in travel destinations, the less you receive in customer service and creature comfort. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free ride wasn’t kidding. Here are some examples. You think you’ve locked in the final price for your airfare, only to be told it’s going to cost extra should you want to choose your seat. From baggage fees to credit card surcharges, it’s just one more extra fee, airlines are slugging customers, to bring in an extra dollar.

Choosing your seat on a Qantas domestic flight is free, but you’ll get stung big time on their international routes. Selecting a general seat will cost you $25. And for extra legroom make that $60. Qantas does  allow you to avoid paying the fee by offering free seat selection within 24 hours of flying, that is, of course, if you don’t mind taking pot luck on where you’ll end up sitting. How generous? A Qantas spokesperson had the temerity to suggest that seat selection fees were designed to avoid passenger disappointment.

Yeah right.

But Qantas isn’t the only Australian carrier loading on the fees. Jetstar automatically charges for seat selection unless you choose not to pay. Its booking system starts off by adding $5 to your fare for allowing you to choose your seat. And if you want a seat closer to the front it will cost you $11 and then it jumps to $24 for an exit row seat.

Virgin’s fee structure offers extra legroom seating from $20 to $70 for domestic and short haul international flights and a whopping $150 for long haul international flights. And it’s happening all over the world. In the United States, Delta, American Airlines, and low-cost carriers US Airways, Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant have introduced charges for “preferred seating”. In Europe, British Airways charges a seat selection fee and budget carrier Ryanair offers specific seats for an extra cost, as does its low-cost rival EasyJet.

So you can imagine my shock, horror and dismay, did I mention shock? When I read that airlines are planning to introduce a whole new level of flight hell called ‘economy minus.’ If you thought there couldn’t be anything worse than cattle class think again. Plans are afoot to sky test a new, even more cramped section in economy class, according to leaks published on an aviation website.

The “enhanced economy” section would have a seat pitch, which is the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you, of approximately 35 to 38 inches (88.9 — 96.5 centimetres). Regular economy would have a pitch of 76 to 78.7cm and the new “economy minus” at under 76cm — but the exact size, meaning how small, is yet to be confirmed.

But many airlines have already reconfigured their economy sections into similar models, they’re just not letting the travelling public know about it. Numerous airline seats already fall under the 76cm mark. And, you might be surprised to know, that all these teensy seats go against recommendations from plane manufacturer Boeing, which released its “magic formula” for leg room in economy class in 2001. The formula, was hailed at the time as the ultimate guide for leg room. It was based on calculations of how many cubic centimetres of leg, rear, end and shoulder space it takes to create a “tolerable” experience for passengers. Boeing calculated it at 81 cm.

Essentially, what we’ve come to know as the premium offering of “economy plus,”which isn’t quite business class, but less of a squeeze, is really just the equivalent of the economy class section from years ago and we thought that was bad enough at the time. The airlines refuse to advertise the fact that seats are continuing to shrink, and the standard economy section we used to know will soon be just a memory. In fact, these days airlines are stealing space from economy passengers to make their premium flyers more comfortable. For example, last year, one airline reduced economy passenger space by an inch (2.5cm) per row in order to give their “economy plus” flyers extra room.

The airlines are being very quiet about it all, but passengers are noticing the difference. One airline passenger in the United States wrote about what she described as the space-stealing problem in a review of her United Airlines experience. This airline has already garnered a reputation for having an unofficial “economy minus” section with leg room of just 78cm on some of its planes — 16cm less than its premium passengers.

“We just ended a miserable flight, “ she wrote. “United’s ‘economy plus’ option, means that for a family not able to afford to upgrade, you are now put in the ‘economy minus’ seats — meaning the least leg room on any flight in living memory. It seems United gives the plus legroom to the economy plus, but then subtracts the legroom from the poor folks back in cattle class.”

Prepare yourself for the brave new world in airline travel.

Major airlines like Air New Zealand, Emirates, KLM and Air France managed to squeeze in a fourth seat in the middle of their Boeing 777 planes. And to add insult to injury they charge the same price as regular economy for a seat that’s narrower than most other airlines.

This is not good news in a world where people are getting bigger not smaller. Airline travel is fast becoming something to be endured rather than enjoyed.