Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Soccer as Birth Control

As an example of how crazy we have become, I will start with communications. When I played soccer as a youth, I am quite certain that my parents probably saw one flyer at the beginning of the year, outlining the practice schedule. There was probably a one page flyer handed out at the first or second practice that outlined the game schedule for the entire season, and that was that. With two pieces of paper, everyone knew where they needed to be and when.

When it was time for soccer practice, I was told to get on my bike and go to soccer practice. Why on Earth would my parents have driven me there, let alone stayed for the entire practice to watch? That was what the coach was for. When practice was over, the coach told us to go home. Simple.

Fast-forward to today. As I write this, I am sitting in a lawn chair watching Son Number Two's soccer practice. The miracle of modern tablet computers makes this possible, but does not answer the question of, "Why am I here?"

When did a child's sports practice become so important to us that we feel the need to have it take up an hour-plus of the parent's time also? I don't have the exact answer for that, but I do know it happened sometime in between when I was a kid and when I had kids of my own.

There has been an obvious shift in how safe we feel the world is, because parents today don't let their kids travel across town by themselves as readily as our parents did. As a result, we are raising a generation of kids who get lost a block from their own houses, but that's a separate subject. The safety issue explains why the parents drive their kids to practice, but not necessarily why they stay to watch. I guess a lot of it has to do with excessive trips. Once I'm here, I might as well just hang around until it's over. The occasional parent runs a quick errand, but for the most part, they just pull up a lawn chair and worry about their child dehydrating, or marvel at why two grown men can’t get nine five-years-olds to stand still in a straight line even if their lives depended on it.

Now, back to the communication issue. In stark contrast to the two paper flyers that handled the logistics for an entire soccer season of my youth, today's soccer leagues run on e-mails. A lot of e-mails. Based on my experiences so far, to run a youth soccer team these days requires approximately three e-mails per day be sent to each parent, starting two months before the first practice and never missing a day throughout the whole season.
There are vital logistical issues to address on an almost hourly basis, such as team banner design and procurement, uniform sizes, proper cleat specifications for the particular league, the heat index, the air quality index, proper child hydration techniques, acceptable soccer ball sizes, fluctuating practice schedules, fluctuating practice locations, raffle ticket distribution and sales, team sponsor procurement, team parent selection, game day halftime snack coordination, team sponsor patronage, game day-post game treat coordination, game day halftime snack and post-game treat food allergy considerations, coach and team parent fingerprinting and FBI background check verification, elementary school extracurricular activity scheduling conflicts, end-of-year party location and party theme, individual end-of-year trophy selection and procurement, game day sideline bench procurement or manufacture, game day sideline bench assembly duty schedule, opening day ceremonies schedule, sideline shade tent ownership queries, game day sideline shade tent assembly duties, coach and team parent end-of-season gift coordination, proper shinguard selection and management, picture and video collection for end-of-season media DVD, game day jersey color, etcetera, etcetera.

I have no good reason for why the amount of perceived soccer team management logistical hurdles has increased exponentially since my youth. Is it because now that we all have e-mail at our fingertips every minute of the day, we can finally take care of EVERYTHING that NEEDS to happen? Would all of these issues have been addressed in earnest if our parents hadn’t been severely hampered by a lack of technology?
Somehow, I doubt it.

Like I said, I don’t know why soccer has become so complex, but I am convinced that its newfound complexity is having a major impact on our society. Specifically regarding how many children we have. I truly believe as new families are growing, and young parents are considering adding a new bundle of joy to the lineup, the logistics of having those kids eventually play soccer has more of a role in the decision making process than almost anything else in the mix today.

"Honey, I realize that we always wanted a girl, but with two boys already in soccer, how can we even think about a third child? We don't even have enough time to keep up with the practices and e-mails with the two kids we already have."
See you soon,
Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen
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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hacker Grammar Bad

When my sisters and I were growing up, my mom constantly hammered home good grammar and spelling. If we said, “Me and my friends went to the park,” we were immediately corrected with, “My friends and I…”

“Ain’t” was forbidden to be uttered within a six-block radius of her home, and any misspelled words were underlined for correction before homework was allowed to be returned.

This continued through our high school years, and beyond, into college, and even continues today if I have a rare grammatical slip-up while talking with my mother on the phone. Anyway… When I was sent off into the world with my impeccable grammar and spelling, it started to become clear to me right away why my mother was so insistent on using English correctly. Good grammar is one of the trademarks of polite, civilized, educated society. There is no quicker way to be dismissed in business, or to be discounted as a miscreant, than to not know how you should talk good.

Yet, as with so many annoying things your parents did to you, only after you become a parent yourself do you truly understand the value, and truly appreciate their efforts. Poor grammar offends my very senses, and misspellings jump off the page at me as if they were highlighted. Today, I am riding grammatical herd on my boys, just like my mom did with us. “You didn’t throwed the ball, son, you threw it.”

And as with all labors of love, many of the fruits of said labors aren’t realized until much, much later. My mom could have never have known it at the time, but she was helping the next generation fight off computer hackers. Way to go, Mom!

Hackers, as a rule, have atrocious grammar. I’m not sure if this is because they are all phishing from North Korea, China, and Nigeria, and just don’t have the lingo down pat, or if they are simply American-born-and-raised ne’er-do-wells, or both. I guess it really doesn’t matter, as long as they keep tipping their hand with missing verbs. Here’s an example of something I received the other day:

An e-mail from an address that was vaguely official, but not quite, like “,” with a subject line reading, “Your Credit Card Overdue.” (Good start, guys!)

Dear Customer,
Your Credit Card is one week overdue.
Below your Card information
Customer 7990682142
Card Limit XXXXXX
Pay Date 29 Jun 2011
The details are attached to this e-mail.
Please read the financial statement properly.
If you pay debt within 2 days, there will be no extra-charges.
In 2 days $25 late fee and a finance charge will be imposed on your account.
Please do not reply to this email, its automatic mail notification.
Thank you.

The attachment was a zip file titled “,” that surely contained a password stealing program or a virus of some flavor.

Now, come on, fellas! How stupid do you think I am? I mean, how hard would it be to find someone who can actually speak and read English to proofread your idiotic fake account alert?

The ridiculousness of it amazes me, but at the same time, it is totally understandable. If they had more smarts, they wouldn’t be criminals in the first place. Like the dynamic duo a few years ago that tried to rip an ATM out of the ground with their pickup truck. They attached a chain from their rear bumper to the ATM, and then hit the gas. The ATM stayed put and their bumper ended up on the ground. They had long since sped away from the scene of the almost-crime when the police arrived. The cops simply ran the license plate, found still attached to the bumper that was still attached to the ATM, and drove to their house to pick them up.

For a minute or two, you shake your head and wonder to yourself, “Why didn’t they at least retrieve the plate, let alone the bumper and the chain?” But then, the more you think about what they tried to do, and how they tried to do it, you say to yourself, “Of course they left it behind.”

Same thing is true, I guess, of communist North Korean hackers. If they had enough smarts to figure out how to do it right, they’d probably already be South Koreans. And if the American computer virtuoso-gone-hacker had an ounce of common sense, he would be writing programs for Microsoft instead of writing worms for the Russian mob.

I have to give the Nigerians a little credit, though. I have been getting scam e-mails from them for over ten years now, and at least they embraced their limitations early on.

“Look, guys, we can’t pretend we’re from their bank. They’ll never buy it. We can’t spell, and between all thirty-seven of us in this room, we can’t put together one decent sentence. Let’s just pretend we’re the son of a deposed king from right here in Nigeria. That way the grammar will be excusable. Hold my machete, Motumbo, I’m gonna start typing.”

As more and more of our every-day personal financial transactions are handled online, there is a cosmic leveling of the playing field when it comes to something as old-fashioned and fundamental as good grammar and spelling. The bad grammar of the hacker world is really quite handy. If the e-mails in your inbox were customers at a 7-Eleven, the bad grammar is the ski mask. See it, and you know something bad is about to go down.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to call my mom and thank her. Its cause a her learnin’ me right them hackers ain’t gonna git me!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Losing Our Remote Control

Our whole world changed this morning. Our oldest son learned how to use the remote control. Now, granted, he is only a few months away from being seven years old, so before you accuse him of being of below-average intelligence, allow me to explain. He already knew how to use the remote control, in the sense that he could turn the TV on and change the channel. We actually taught him that at an early age out of a desire to sleep in. Our boys naturally get up much earlier than my wife and I really want to, so it was either teach him how to turn on the Disney channel in the morning by himself, or we would need to go to bed earlier. We chose the TV option.

I know some of you out there are now thinking, “How much TV do these people let their kids watch?” I can assure you it is way less than nine hours per day. We actually tried other forms of pre-parental-consciousness morning activities, such as Legos, sword fighting, and wrestling, but watching TV was the only thing that didn’t consistently end in a loud argument or an even louder head injury.

Up until this morning, Son Number One was able to turn on the TV in our upstairs game room and change the channel to 303 for Disney. At 6:00 in the morning, the Disney channel is a safe bet to be appropriate for all age groups. Up until this morning, this was a satisfactory morning activity for Sons One, Two and Three. Up until this morning, I didn’t have to worry about what they might see on the TV screen.

That has all changed now.

We have a whole host of children’s shows that we record on the DVR (that stands for Digital Video Recorder, for those of you over 50 years old) for the kids to choose from when we parents are awake and able to operate the menu to get them going. Apparently, Son Number One has been paying close attention to us when we navigate the recorded shows menu, because that’s exactly what he did this morning.

Our soon-to-be-seven-year-old powered on the big downstairs TV that has its own remote, changed the TV’s input to the DVR, switched remotes, navigated his way through the main menu to the recorded shows menu, scrolled through the list until he found Tarzan, selected it, scrolled through the list of eight Tarzan episodes that were recorded, found the sequel to the episode they had watched the night before, selected it, found “play” among the list of options, and fast-forwarded through the commercials to the beginning of the show.

My wife silently witnessed the entire event from the kitchen, and after she picked her jaw up off the counter and regained some amount of composure, she came to find me upstairs and tell me that we had a big problem. “Number One can work the TV.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t understand. He just played Tarzan from the DVR.”

“He did what?!?”

Now, our shock and apprehension about this new skill our son has developed has nothing to do with Tarzan, or any other show we recorded for the boys. Those are fine. Even the commercials on the Disney channel are pretty harmless, although, my boys really want me to buy an ultrasonic noise maker that is supposed to keep pests like deer and raccoons out of our garden. I’m having trouble getting them to come to grips with the fact that we don’t really need that in our suburban backyard. They’re pretty insistent though. I think it’s because on the commercial it shows the imaginary semi-circles of sound emanating from the cheesy-looking green plastic device. I have tried to explain that they will not be able to see - or even hear - the sound in real life, but they’re not convinced I know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, our apprehension about Son Number One’s remote control skills has nothing to do with his shows. It has everything to do with our shows. We record a lot of police and detective dramas, and I don’t have to tell you that today’s shows are over the top. If our kids get curious one morning and end up witnessing an NCIS autopsy scene, or catch some of the dialogue from Law and Order: SVU, I’m not sure even a team of professional child psychologists could reverse that damage.

Now, AT&T U-Verse has already envisioned this problem, and they were kind enough to include Parental Controls software with the DVR. Apparently, we could simply set up a password, and block access to any of the shows we choose, thereby protecting young impressionable minds from adult language, descriptions of violent crimes, and the dissected spleens of unfortunate sailors. Sounds great in theory, but there are a few problems here in reality.

I’m not sure there’s a really delicate way to put this, so I’ll just come out and say it. We’re afraid if we add any more steps, we won’t be able to operate the TV ourselves. We already have three remotes, and at the very least, a nine-step process to actually watch a show. One more level of difficulty might very well put us over the top. And don’t even get me started on the grandparents! It’s like teaching Chinese algebra to a goldfish every time they come over to babysit and need to operate the TV. One more step in that process will not be good.

I guess we could teach Son Number One to help them with the operation of the Parental Controls, but that seems like a flawed system, somehow...

Maybe we should look at this new development not as a challenge, but as an opportunity to change what we watch and record, moving toward a more wholesome Discovery Channel and History Channel-only type environment. Or maybe abandon the idiot box altogether and move to a books-only lifestyle.

Naw… I think I’ll just start hiding the remotes. I’ll put them with his shoes. He can never find those.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Finally Growing Up

There have been many significant events in my life that signaled to me that I was growing up. Getting my driver’s license, voting for the first time, being able to legally buy beer, getting married, and buying a house all come to mind. Those were definitely milestones on the path, but the big one was, of course, having kids. Or so I thought…

Up until recently, having children of my own was the most obvious (and most pungent) signal of my inevitable maturing. There is an in-your-face responsibility that comes with having kids. They tend to get louder and louder if you’re not taking care of them correctly, like an alarm clock that will not let you be late for work, no matter how many buttons you hit in an attempt to shut it off. Whatever you were planning on doing with your life before having children is suddenly a moot point. If it doesn’t fit with the new directive of caring for the child, it is not in the program. I figured that surrendering to that new reality and embracing it was the final step to adulthood. Not so.

The responsibility of providing for a helpless child is a big-time kick in the pants toward becoming a full-fledged responsible adult, but it is not the final step you must take to complete the transition to 100% adultness. I realized recently that there is one more step required.

Having a 401k, you ask? Hosting Thanksgiving? Buying life insurance? Writing a will?

No. The final step on the road to adulthood is not something you do, but rather, something you don’t do. You have arrived at your final destination of maturity and responsibility when you are able to look at your son’s Razor scooter, and not try to ride it.

When you can walk past an unattended skateboard, look at it, and say to yourself, “No thanks. I have to work tomorrow, and that’s going to be more difficult with a broken arm.”

When you can say that, you have arrived.

This last step towards a man’s adulthood has a definite age component to it. It happens around the age of forty, give or take a few years depending on the guy and his IQ-to-pain threshold ratio. In that regard, I am lucky that I had children somewhat later in life. I am almost forty, but my oldest son is only six and a half. They don’t really start owning incredibly dangerous wheeled toys until around age four or five, so I haven’t had too many pre-forty years with access to lots of ulna-snapping contraptions.

I pity the guys that had kids in their twenties, because the years in between thirty and forty are the most dangerous years of a man’s life. A young man in his teens and twenties will do incredibly stupid things, but this is counteracted by the fact that he has reflexes like a cheetah, and his body is made entirely out of rubber and steel. By his early thirties, the bones, ligaments and tendons have already begun to weaken and degrade, but the fear of becoming old, combined with the false ego of “not being old yet” form the perfect storm of stupidity versus degraded coordination and resilience.

Many are the thirty-eight-year-old men who have not been able to get out of bed the next day after doing nothing more than dancing at a wedding.

“I have shooting pain down my leg, my back is killing me, I can’t twist my neck to the right, and don’t even get me started on my rotator cuff.”

“Well, honey, you did dance for over an hour.”

When that man finally heals up from all the dancing and wakes up one day to realize that he likes being able to walk more than he likes trying to prove he can still jump the curb on a pair of rollerblades, he has made it into the club. Some would call that growing old. I call it growing up.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I promised my son I would teach him how to do a wheelie on his bike. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I’m only thirty-nine. I’m not old yet.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Reclaiming Our Sand-ity

An interview with Bob Finnegan, head of the recently formed Federal Coastal, Tidal and Estuarial Sediment and Natural Mineral Resources Reclamation Department:

We actually started as a joint task force between the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and NOAA, but when we really wrapped our arms around the magnitude of the problem, it was obvious that a new federal department would be necessary. That’s how the FCTESNMRRD was born. We saw an obvious need for a solution when we did our initial study visits to coastal towns and confirmed our suspicions. We witnessed first-hand how much of our nation's precious coastal mineral natural resources were ending up on citizens' driveways and front walks near their garden hoses.

The problem stems from lack of education, and carelessness. Citizens will routinely leave the beach or riverbank with ounces and ounces of sand attached to their legs and swimsuits, and then wash it off at home onto the ground, and just leave it there! We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We did some simple math and determined that if this reckless behavior on the part of our citizens was allowed to continue unabated, two-thirds of our nation’s beaches would disappear in less than five years. This was a crisis of epic proportion.

It was obvious that we as the federal government needed to set forth some very stringent guidelines. Our newly-formed department has tackled this issue with a three-pronged approach. Home-use sand reclamation tubs, centralized sand reclamation centers, and educational programs.

We are in the process of outfitting every household within five miles of any one of our great country's coasts or waterways with a federally approved sand reclamation wash and collection tub. The tubs employ an easy sixteen-step process to collect, strain, and dry the sand, which takes less than an hour per beachgoer. The filters are useable only once to prevent cross beach contamination, but they are readily available for purchase at any federal sand reclamation station and all Ace Hardware locations for only $24.95 each. The tub manufacturing and distribution has been a real challenge, but we were able to keep costs low on the hundreds of millions of tubs needed by having them made in China and distributed by a logistics company from Norway. If you live near the water, you should be getting yours any day!

The sand reclamation stations are the most vital link in the chain. We need the stations to be conveniently located, since we can't just have citizens trying to return their reclaimed sand to the beach themselves. That would obviously be a disaster! Ordinary, untrained people cannot be trusted to make sure their reclaimed sand gets back to the same beach it came from. Inter-beach mineral cross-contamination is one of our greatest fears. No one wants to think about the potentially catastrophic ecological ramifications of getting sand from two entirely different beaches mixed up.

That is precisely why we have 40,000+ sand reclamation stations nationwide, with more being brought online every day. Depending on the size of the coastal community, each station employs between 100 and 300 new government employees, so you can see the obvious upside for the economy as a whole.

We employ quite a few scientists and chemists to take care of the typing and cross-matching of the sand as it is reclaimed. We actually got a lot of guys from NASA! We spent five years and 400 billion dollars on the front end of this project collecting and cataloging sand and sediment samples at 500-foot intervals along the coastlines and waterways of the entire country. That way, when we receive sand from a citizen, we can make sure to match it to the exact location that it was stolen – sorry… accidentally removed - from.

The scientific equipment and machinery required for this is amazing. We have to sort and identify each individual grain, since careless citizens will often ignore the guidelines and wash sand from two or more different beach outings into the same tub, instead of bringing the reclaimed sand to a collection station after each beach visit. That brings us to the third prong in our approach; Education.

We have a budget of nearly 700 billion dollars for sand and sediment education for the general public. We need to make every person in the entire country aware of this growing sand removal problem and the steps they can take to help. We are boldly tackling everything from proper use of the collection tubs and filters, to collection station rules and regulations, to proper sunscreen and child management practices to avoid sand removal in the first place.

We have even developed a fun mascot for the kids: Sandy the Gender-Neutral Sand Crab, who gets crabby when sand leaves his or her beach. He or she is the cornerstone of our youth outreach programs. We are also preparing to launch our nationwide elementary school curriculum integration project, to make sure proper sand management is learned at a young age.

For the adults, we have a massive project underway to place signs at 200-yard intervals along all of our nation’s waterways and coastlines, prominently displaying the 137 new federal rules and regulations regarding proper sand and sediment management. In order to have a readable font size, the signs ended up being 10 feet tall, and 30 feet long, so we are using cranes and pile drivers to set them in place. While occasionally blocking some established beach-front home’s views, the signs should end up providing some amount of shade for beachgoers, and some new seagull habitat, so we consider it a net positive. We also printed up a bunch of flyers.

The main focus of all our educational programs is, of course, having fun using our nation’s beaches and waterways, but in a sand-responsible manner.

All told, the FCTESNMRRD is off to a great start. The work at the collection stations is slower than we had originally anticipated, but we are making great improvements every day. So far, we have collected, properly identified, and returned over seventeen ounces of sand to its rightful home on the beach. That is just a great feeling for all of us, knowing that all our hard work and all those tax dollars are doing so much good!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!