Sunday, January 27, 2008

Is is Spring Yet? Ask the Groundhog

Groundhog Day is in two days.

That means by this weekend, we’ll know for absolute certain whether we will be blessed with an early spring or have six more weeks of winter. Well, at least that’s according to tradition.

If the groundhog emerges from his burrow on February 2 and sees his shadow, he goes back into his burrow for six more weeks of cold, snowy weather. On the other hand, if it’s cloudy and he doesn’t see his shadow, he stays out and prepares for an early spring.

Since 1887, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania has claimed the only official national groundhog. They call him Punxsutawney Phil whom they also claim has been 100 percent accurate over the past 120 years.

I’ve always been curious as to how a single groundhog in Pennsylvania could predict the weather for the entire nation. After all, it isn’t typical that folks in Indiana share the same weather with those in Pennsylvania. And states like Oregon or Arizona would have a far different forecast. But I’m not going to quibble with alleged success.

Most of the time, Phil predicts a return to winter. But in more recent years an early spring has been a common prediction. If we are experiencing global warming, as most climatologists claim, I believe it is at least partially Phil’s fault.

His keepers, however, claim Phil has nothing to do with climate change. He only predicts the weather; he doesn’t manipulate it. But until the actual causality is proved, I’m skeptical of that claim.

At any rate, I don’t accept the myth that Phil is the only accurate weather predictor. Indiana has its share of groundhogs, too. I believe that the forecast would be more accurate if we took a poll of at least 100 Hoosier groundhogs and averaged their prognostications. We should never rely on the forecasting accuracy of a single specimen.

But that’s just my opinion. I’m no groundhog expert.

I do know, however, that groundhogs must be regarded in high esteem, because they are the only animal to rate a holiday in the United States. Even though it is not an official, no-work holiday, it still is a red-letter day on most calendars. What other animal can claim that?

So whether Phil, or any other groundhog, is perfect when it comes to climate prediction, the furry creatures are quite popular, not to mention lovable. They even made a movie about a groundhog and his special day.

The movie is called, obviously enough, Groundhog Day. It stars Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. It is rated in the top 250 movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database, which reflects well on the popularity of the groundhog, not to mention the two starring actors.

Most people, however, don’t really celebrate Groundhog Day. No presents are exchanged and no decorations are hung on the eaves of houses. No trees are trimmed with groundhog ornaments. I believe all that should change.

My daughter and I do our parts. Every Groundhog Day we make it a point to schedule time in the evening to watch the movie. It is one of our favorites, but we only watch it on February 2. It’s a family tradition.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

My Fish Tale

Almost everyone has a hobby. Some are simple; others are quite elaborate. But unless you have to hold down two or three jobs to make ends meet, you probably have a hobby of some kind.

When I was a teen, I had two hobbies. One was recording weather observations and writing about weather for the Edinburgh Daily Courier. The other was tropical fish.

It is in my personality to go all out with whatever my interest-du-jour is. But meteorology and tropical fish held my interest longer than most of my teenage interests. And, so, I had to put all my effort into whichever one I was interested most in at the time.

At one point, I had about half a dozen separate aquariums set up. I spent hours reading about tropical fish and how they live and breed. I tried my hand at breeding a few species, but was never very successful except for with the guppies. They pretty much did it on their own.

At one point, for a few months, I even sold tropical fish. I set up a fish store right in our home. My parents didn’t seem to mind. They supported most of my efforts. I guess they figured it was better than going out and getting into trouble.

It was my first venture into capitalism. I had to get a permit from the state to collect sales taxes. My first tax revenue check I sent in was for a tad over a dollar. But it got a little better after that.

My inventory was small but varied. I had a large black shark that looked for the world like a Blue River catfish. I also had an array of smaller scavengers, some egg-layers, and the guppies.

At one point I decided I wanted to build my own tank. I got the glass and some aquarium cement and put together a 15-gallon tank whose end glass sides were too long, so they stuck out the back about an inch. But it held water.

One of the things I remember about aquariums is the steady hum of the air pump. If the pump didn’t set flush on the table, it would start vibrating, which was perpetually annoying.

They’ve got it worked out with today’s systems, though, as I found out when I purchased an aquarium set recently. My daughter decided she wanted an aquarium. She’s a little older than I was in my tropical fish heyday, but I thought an aquarium would add to our d├ęcor, so we went over to Wal-Mart and picked out a modest setup.

The pump hangs over the side of the tank and makes no noise at all. It doesn’t pump air, but water. The water pump filters back in my day were bulky and expensive. Today’s models are smaller and reasonably priced.

We haven’t added the fish to the tank yet. The water is still adjusting. It’s unlikely my daughter will make a full-fledged hobby out of it. She already has hobbies. But her desire to keep tropical fish brought back some fond memories of my youth.

I don’t know how she feels about recording the weather, though. I would guess she’s not at all interested.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Should Pharmacists be Allowed to Refuse Service?

Suppose your child has done his homework for the day and has completed his chores, so you allow him to traipse off to the store with some of his allowance to purchase a sweet treat.

Upon arrival at the store, the kid picks out his candy and heads to the counter. There, the clerk tells the youngster that candy is bad for his teeth. So the clerk refuses to sell the candy to the child because of his moral compunction to help kids prevent tooth decay.

This scenario is hypothetical and I don’t know of any instance where it has occurred, but if it did occur the parents and their kid would have every right to complain to the store management about the intransigence and gall of the clerk. It’s not about tooth decay; it’s about a stranger’s right to restrict otherwise legal activity by another because of a distaste for that activity himself.

Take another example. What would you think of a clerk in a bookstore that refused to sell someone a copy of the bible because the clerk is an atheist and is made uneasy by the idea of disseminating religious mythology? Or what about another clerk who refuses to sell a book promoting atheism because he or she is a religious fundamentalist?

Shouldn’t all the clerks in the examples above either lose their jobs or be severely reprimanded? Even if you agree that children shouldn’t be allowed to buy candy or that religion is bad or that the bible should be distributed widely, you probably do not agree with the methods used by the clerks in the scenarios I outlined, right?

After all, they have jobs to do. If part of that job is so repulsive to them that they can’t bring themselves to perform it, they should quit and seek new employment.

Wouldn’t the same hold true for, say, pharmacists? What if a pharmacist refuses to fill a prescription for birth control pills because the pharmacist disagrees with the morality of using contraceptive pills or other birth control measures?

Well, the last scenario has happened, and is still happening, all across the country. It may not happen daily or it may not happen at a large number of pharmacies, but it happens regularly enough.

News stories are easy to find that describe how women bearing emergency prescriptions for contraceptives have been refused service by a pharmacist who doesn’t believe in birth control or the morning after pill.

Now, the Indiana General Assembly is considering a bill that would give pharmacists the legal right to refuse to fill any prescription for emergency morning-after contraception, and for other similar medications that are legally prescribed. If it passes, Indiana would join with only four other states that have such a law on the books.

Seven states explicitly prohibit pharmacists from refusing to fill a prescription. Seven other states have laws that prohibit pharmacists from obstructing patient access to medication. And the other states, including Indiana, have laws that implicitly require pharmacists to fill all prescriptions. Only Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Dakota currently have laws that allow a pharmacist to refuse to fill a prescription that goes against his conscience.

Indiana should not become one of those states. It would be a giant step backward in health care. It would allow a third party to interfere with the relationship between a doctor and his or her patient. And it would be exactly like a bookseller refusing to sell the bible because of the bookseller’s distaste for religion.

Regardless of how anyone personally feels about birth control or the morning after pill, if a person has chosen to be a pharmacist by profession, that person should be compelled to fill all prescriptions. If doing so is repugnant to them on moral grounds, they should find new employment.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Keeping Up with the Techno-Joneses

A goal I set for myself back when I was in my 20s was that I would be resolved not to stagnate in the present as technology moved quickly into the future. I saw around me a world where those over 50 were confused by such new-fangled devices as the video tape recorder or the handheld calculator.

The VCR, in particular, became part of a running joke. It was the device that baby boomers and senior citizens either didn’t own, or if they did, the clock on the front would perpetually blink 12:00.

I not only mastered the operation of my VCR I was among the first to adopt the new digital watch with the LED display. If Kojak was wearing one, it was good enough for me. It only bothered me a little that it took two hands to check the time and I could forget about knowing the time of day in the bright sunlight.

As I enter the middle of my sixth decade of life, I still try to keep up with the times and not become an old fogy. But I’ve noticed it’s getting harder to do. As technology advances faster than my ability, or inclination, to read about it, I find myself being bombarded with terminology I’m not familiar with.

It’s true I haven’t sent a check to pay a bill since 1988. Why write paper checks when it’s faster, cheaper, and easier to send money electronically? And my entire music collection is on my computer. I don’t buy CDs anymore; I download.

But still, some of the terms I read about are foreign to my ears. I find myself having to research these new additions to the technology lexicon almost on a daily basis.

One area of technology that I haven’t kept up with, though, is gaming. I tried. Believe me; I tried really hard back in the 1980s to stay up to date by becoming a gamer. I owned the first Pong game console. It was actually fun, for awhile. I played Space Invaders and Asteroids on my Atari. But I quickly tired of those games.

As games became more complex and I found myself having to use more and more of the little buttons and sticks on the remote control to clear a level of play, I decided it just wasn’t worth the time or effort. When my son was seven, he could beat my butt playing Super Mario Brothers. So I retired from gaming permanently, or so I thought.

My daughter, who is a senior in college, came home a couple of weeks ago saying that she really wanted us to get a Nintendo Wii. I told her I wasn’t into gaming and would not be playing any with her. So if she got one, she would play it solo.

But when I went down to a family gathering for New Years, my nephew had brought one to the party. I played bowling and golf. I have to admit, it was fun and much more intuitive than the games I remember trying to learn a couple of decades ago.

There was no complicated game controller with a zillion buttons to learn. It was like a TV remote and had only a few buttons. The game is played by moving the remote control around. When you roll a bowling ball, you go through the same motion with your hand as you would if you were actually holding a bowling ball in it. The same is true for golf, baseball, or any of the other games.

There were no levels to clear and nobody to shoot. Of course those types of games are available for the Wii, but I won’t be buying any. And, yes, I did purchase the game console for my daughter and me.

It’s a nice diversion from television, even if my television is a flat-panel HDTV home theater system with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, complete with an up-converting DVD player and recorder. And nothing on my system flashes 12:00.

It might be getting harder to keep up, but I’m still hanging in there.