Saturday, July 30, 2011


Like many of you, I was shocked to hear of the vicious attacks in Norway that left seventy-six people dead. I was even more disturbed that the suspected terrorist, thirty-two year old Anders Behring Breivik considered himself a conservative Christian called to fight the Muslim takeover and rampant multiculturalism that was ruining his beloved country.

According to his purported manifesto, Internet ravings, and court appearances, Breivik felt that Norway was being taken over by Muslims, a group that comprises about 3% of the country’s entire population. To place that statistic in perspective, that is the equivalence of someone committing mass murder in the Unites States to prevent Methodists (2.5% of our population) and Norwegian-Americans (.5%) from forming an alliance and overthrowing our government.

Oddly enough, none of his violence targeting Muslims, instead he exacted his vengeance on members of the country’s Labour Party who he held responsible for allowing the Muslim assimilation. After detonating his bomb in Oslo, he took ninety minutes to change into a police officer’s uniform and arrive at a political youth camp located on Utoya Island. Believing he was sent there to update them on the attack in the capital, the teenagers were gathered together in a meeting room where Breivik opened fire. He was later taken into custody and expressed surprise that he was able to kill so many people in one day and that his plan had “succeeded.” 

One of Breivik's self-portraits.
The writings indicate that although Breivik admits he had a “privileged” childhood and claimed several Muslim friends, he was later victimized by violent “Muslim gangs” and assaulted several times by an “older Pakistani” man. This apparently led to a falling-out with his Islamic friends and a loss of protection from violent Muslim gangs. This protection was so important that Breivik and his friends felt it necessary to arm themselves when they emerged in public. (Norway allows licensed civilians to own guns as long as they are not fully automatic.) 

I have a hard time believing that a wealthy young Norwegian was terrorized by violent Muslim street gangs so much that he felt it necessary to carry a firearm.  In fact, before this incident I had never heard the words “Muslim street gang” placed adjacent to one another in the same sentence. It also seems unlikely that the Norwegian Jihad Crips wielded that much power in a country that is 80% Lutheran and has a higher GDP per-capita than the United States.

One characteristic of the attack that is sadly familiar is the manifesto. When I was young, I remember being told that the best way to deal with powerful emotions was to write them down so that you can safely unburden yourself. It would appear that is no longer an effective course of action since everyone from the Unabomber to Breivik created a manifesto as a precursor to senseless violence. A good rule of thumb: If it takes 2,000 typed pages to explain your forthcoming actions to the rest of humanity, perhaps it is because you should not subject the rest of humanity to your forthcoming actions. People who save puppies or feed orphans don’t need lengthy essays because those actions require much less explanation than say, firebombing a Kindergarten dance-recital.

I would also like to know why no one in Breivik’s life saw this coming. If an acquaintance of mine began penning encyclopedic manifestos and taking self-portraits while brandishing automatic weapons, “mentally- stable” would not be the first description that would come to my mind. This man went out and purchased tracts of farmland just to acquire fertilizer without coming under suspicion. Didn’t someone wonder why a thirty-two year-old man suddenly decided it was time to give agriculture a shot? Weren’t there a few raised eyebrows when a guy who purchased a metric ton of fertilizer each year never had any produce to display at the Olso Farmer’s Market?

In all seriousness, it saddens me to see such horrendous and inexcusable violence attributed to a man who claims adherence to the same religion as me. Here is a guy who read the same Bible, prayed to the same God, and publicly claimed the same Savior and somehow the conclusion he came to is that he must slaughter innocent people to convey some ill-conceived grievance concerning a political ideology. Perhaps this indignation is what a typical Muslim feels each time a suicide bomber evokes Allah just before killing scores of civilians. I don’t believe that Allah condones such actions any more than he calls Westboro Baptist Church to protest a deceased soldier’s funeral.   

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Power Balance Bracelet

I doubt there is a single person reading this whose lives haven’t been touched by what I consider the single most brilliant marketing strategy of the past decade: The Power Balance Bracelet. For the uninitiated, this fashion accessory consists of a rubber (Chinese manufactured) wrist-band adorned with a holographic pendant. According to the company, it is this pendant that provides their accoutrement with the ability to increase agility, balance, and overall athletic performance. Its effect is apparently so powerful that just having it within three inches of your body will provide the same enhancement as wearing it.

So what gives this miraculous pendant its powers?  Siamese Magnets?  Chipotle Ostrich testicles? Gary Busey? To find out, I visited the FAQ section of the website where all was made clear:

 “The thin polyester film hologram is programmed through a proprietary process, which is designed to mimic Eastern philosophies that have been around for hundreds of years. The founders of Power Balance™ have always believed in the benefits of various holistic practices and Eastern philosophies and set out to develop a product to more easily and affordably embody these beliefs.”

The company compensates several professional athletes (Drew Brees, Shaquille O’ Neal) who claim that the product deserves credit for at least some of their success. Professional Volleyball Player Casey Patterson takes it a step further insisting, “It was not until I started wearing a Power Balance wristband that I won my first AVP Championship!” Tennis star Mardy Fish admitted that "in March of 2010, I was ranked outside of the top 100 on the ATP Tour. I began wearing Power Balance around that same time, and I don't see a coincidence that my ranking has now improved to Top 20.”

Power Balance LTD has also invested in a sizable number of infomercials consisting of “scientific tests” that clearly demonstrate that they are not selling a rubber bracelet with a holographic sticker for a gigantic markup. The most prevalent involves the subject assuming the “crane position” from Karate Kid while the host attempts to knock them over by placing pressure on one of their arms. Miraculously, once they are wearing the bracelet, the subject that just moments before had exhibited the equilibrium of Gerald Ford was impossible to push off balance.

The company faced a setback in 2010 when the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) required the company provide a scientific basis for their claims before continuing their marketing in Australia. Instead the company issued a statement admitting that “there is no credible scientific basis for the claims and therefore no reasonable grounds for making representations about the benefits of the product” and offered full refunds to customers who had purchased the products. The Australian distributor of the Power Balance gear has since filed for bankruptcy.

In October of last year, professional gymnast and Olympic Gold-Medalist Dominique Dawes commissioned a double-blind study to test the Power Balance bracelet. The format consisted of sixteen athletes running through various obstacle courses and completing various strength tests. Each of the participants completed the identical courses and tests four separate times while wearing four different bracelets. Once contained the real Power Balance pendant, two contained a fake, and one contained Pez candy but neither the participants nor the scoring judges knew which bracelets were real. Sadly, neither the “power hologram” nor the Pez produced different results than the plain Chinese-manufactured rubber bracelets.

Despite the findings, the company continues to expand and interested athletes can purchase silicone wristbands for $29.95, silicone necklaces for $34.95, or for a night out on the town they offer a sterling silver pendant necklace for $99. Those wishing to harness the pendant’s power without the prefabricated jewelry can purchase just the hologram stickers for $10 each ($100 for a pack of ten).
Personally, I am envious of what I believe to be the single least-informative FAQ section on the Internet. Look at their explanation one more time:

“The thin polyester film hologram is programmed through a proprietary process, which is designed to mimic Eastern philosophies”

What does that even mean? How does one go about “programming” a sticker and are there really so many competing methodologies for doing so that yours must be proprietary? Exactly which Eastern philosophies are they “mimicking?” Inexpensive manufacturing? The explanation is sheer brilliance but the athlete testimonials are the icing on the cake.  Here are guys like Mardy Fish and Casey Patterson who have spent their entire lives training and conditioning in order to compete at the highest levels of physical competition; and yet they are willing to admit that all of their hard work would be in vain had someone not thought to place a hologram on a bracelet and sell it to them because God himself was unable to infuse them with the capabilities of operating at their peak.

The other key is the cause and effect inference contained in the testimonials. Two incidents occur within a certain time table and the reader is free to draw the logical conclusion.
  • I started wearing the Power Bracelet in January / In June I was NOT stabbed by a Canadian stripper.
  • Last year I started wearing my Power Balance pendant every day / This year I lost 20lbs and won a Buik LeSabre at a Denny’s in Cool Springs.
  •  I got my Power Balance bracelet last year for my 14th birthday. / I am now 36.
  • My brother gave me a Power Balance in February / In March I received a tattoo from my dentist.
  • I put the holograms stickers on my car bumper on St. Patrick’s Day. / On Christmas Eve I committed a hate-crime.
  • I just bought a Power Balance silver pendant for my girlfriend. / I need a date for a wedding.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Ugly 80

The website is a somewhat unique take on the model of online dating/social networking. Founded in Denmark in 2001, the idea is that to become a member you must submit a photo of yourself to be approved by existing site members of the opposite sex. For forty-eight hours, your photo will be rated according to attractiveness and if you amass enough positive feedback you will be accepted as one of the beautiful people. 

The site has made headlines several times with its “press releases” (or thinly-veiled publicity stunts depending on your level of skepticism) like the announcement in June of this year that an ex-employee had planted a virus that allowed a large number of applicants to bypass the screening process.  This “breach” allowed several ugly people to invade the site and the company reportedly issued refunds to about 30,000 users that had been mistakenly labeled “beautiful.”

In addition to the “fuglygate” breach, they implemented a similar tactic in January of 2010 when they announced that 25,000 existing members had been axed from the site after gaining too much weight over the holiday season. Founder Robert Hintze explained the move rather concisely: "Letting fatties roam the site is a direct threat to our business model and the very concept for which was founded."

Curious, I completed the application process under an assumed name but using real photos and statistics. There was a space to leave a description and although I penned the following paragraph:

I am a nomadic venture capitalist who specializes in mid-level synergy consulting firms. My passion for luxury is only surpassed by my passion for being passionate. Hobbies include aquatic falconry, clairvoyant Scrabble, elk racing, planking, and Slavic poetry. Although financially potent, I prefer life’s pedestrian delights over the superficial contrivances and trappings of wealth. If you wish to navigate the waterways of existence with someone who yearns to drink deeply of life’s nectar than look no further!

I opted to leave that part of the form blank. I was informed that I would receive the results in forty-eight hours, but once my time was up I received an email informing me that I had been granted another twenty-four hour reprieve in order to make my vote more “democratic.” Finally the time had come and I received a message informing me that I did not receive a high enough score. They suggested I resubmit using a “different photo” and a “more interesting profile and description” which loosely translated means “the only factor that prevented your acceptance was your personality and physical appearance.” I knew I should have used the paragraph…..  

The site claims to have five million active users but I find it hard to believe that such a high number of overwhelmingly-attractive adults with disposable income can’t find a date. The site also claims that the process is so rigorous that only 20% of applicants are granted access. Fortunately for the other 80% there is still, a dating site that allows the “ugly 80” to finance the romantic attention we are unable to acquire on the strength of our attractiveness.

The site divides users into two distinct categories: the generous and the attractive. The generous users bid a monetary value (say $150) available to anyone willing to spend an evening fending off their sexual advances. The “attractive” are permitted to join the site for free and they decide which suitors to entertain based on their offerings. Unlike, it appears the designation of “generous” or “attractive” is completely up to the user which means those in the former category probably ended up there after having no luck in the later.

The attractive are asked to categorize what style of dating they are interested in (examples include Married Dating, Intimate Adult Encounters, and Sugar Daddy/Momma) to better assess their demographic. Since the site launched three months ago, they claim to have amassed 50,000 members already and generate revenue by charging for “communication credits.” Critics liken the site to escort services or online prostitution, but the site’s founder argues that the money is simply an incentive to get the opposite sex to spend time getting to know the real you.  This, of course, is nothing at all like prostitution where patrons pay handsomely to ensure they do not have to waste valuable time getting to know members of the opposite sex.

Unwilling to immediately dismiss the website as a clearinghouse for prostitution simply because of its unorthodox approach, I decided to browse the sample members. After all, who’s to say that the founder is not a hopeless romantic desperately seeking to bring soul-mates together in a meaningful, monogamous relationship filled with emotional stability?

As one would suspect, the “generous” members are mostly male but it was refreshing to locate the profile of a man calling himself the “Captivator of Soul.” Here was obviously a man who was searching for a long-term emotional courtship. Then I read his “about me” paragraph. An excerpt:
"you deny the darkness, yet you are curious. you want to experience it, yet you are scared. your every awakened moment, it lingers in the back of your mind. you deny it, yet you can not hide it"
That paragraph combined with a photo that is destined to reappear on a future episode of 48 Hours Investigates convinces me to move on. The next profile I come across is a thirty-two year old former “adult bookstore” clerk whose handle is “TheBeastInMe.” Worried that is a clearinghouse for future death-row inmates, I locate a balding, Turkish Muslim with a Ph.D. Here is obviously a man who is well educated and well-traveled. Unfortunately, he prefers to be called “AssManiac.”

After spending about ten minutes looking through these profiles, I find myself hoping that none of them are actual members and that instead they were created by the site to lure people inside. But then again, if I were trying to attract people to my site I am not sure a listing of overzealous academics and brooding pornography retailers is exactly a home run.

Moving on to a sampling of the “attractive” members, it was comprised entirely of women and had the overall atmosphere of an Elliot Spitzer training program. I am assuming that any potential suitors would be required to identify their dates by cleavage alone since most profile do not features faces. Perhaps I should start a dating site called “People who have never patronized beautifulpeople or”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fear of Flying

I have several irrational fears (raw broccoli, a Kenny G biopic) but my most debilitating would have to be my fear of flying. Statistically speaking, I realize that I am more likely to incur bodily harm on my way to the airport than during the actual flight. This knowledge, however, seems powerless against the onslaught of anxiety that renders me unable to eat or even make passably-clever observations to my wife about our fellow passengers.

I am not really sure how it began. I first flew to Florida with a good friend of mine when I was a teenager and I do not remember being anxious about it but perhaps that was an as-yet-undiscovered side-effect of the Accutane I was ingesting. My wife enjoys traveling, and over the past several years we have flown to New York, Chicago, London, and San Francisco while I white-knuckle the arm rest between us and try to concentrate on something calming like the ocean or the music the Weather Channel plays during the local forecast.

Our most recent journey took us to California and I enlisted some chemical assistance in the form of clonazepam, an anticonvulsant drug used to treat epilepsy and panic-attacks. I only took one, but it had a noticeably-positive impact on my anxiety level and made the flight bearable instead of gut-wrenching. I imagine that someone taking three or four of these tiny pills could remain calm even if the pilot were to emerge from the cockpit naked asking if anyone happened to see which direction his magic kangaroo went.

I did commit one grievous error on our return flight from San Francisco when I decided to take the pill after we passed through the security checkpoint instead of before. In hindsight, it occurs to me that a nervous flier and a domestic terrorist share many of the same mannerisms: shifty eyes, restlessness, profuse sweating, and an absence of nonchalance. I suppose it was for this reason I was subjected to increased scrutiny while my wife breezed through.

It began with the body scanner (popularly known as the nude-o-tron) where I was asked to hold my hands above my head in a pose that is universally associated with being taken at gunpoint. I then emerged from the scanner to face a compact young woman who quickly closed the gate in front of me and gravely asked me if I had “something I would like to declare.”  

Many declarations ran through my mind (I am Methodist, I find the majority of Sean Penn’s work morose, it had been close to twenty-four hours since my last bowel movement) but all I managed was an unconvincing “I don’t think so.” I knew I had answered incorrectly when she motioned to a large TSA agent stationed near the terminal who asked me what I had in my back pocket.

Instinctively, I reached for my wallet which I had forgotten to remove before passing through the metal detector and opened it to demonstrate I was not in possession of any weapons or unapproved fruits. Taking the wallet from my hand, he inspected it taking careful note that our vacation had left me in possession of only $27 in cash. Perhaps surmising that I had nothing to lose (at least financially), he handed my wallet to his female associate and proceeded to manually frisk me for additional contraband.

Finding none, I was then marched to the side of the security area and asked to hold out my hands while he swabbed them with a circular napkin eerily similar to a medicated hemorrhoid pad. He then placed the pad in a rather impressive looking machine that analyzed it for traces of explosive residue. We stood there silently for what seemed to be three or four minutes waiting for what I assumed would be a green-light or a printout that simply said "Abu Ghraib."

By the time the machine came to a conclusion, I was certain that I would be spirited away under extraordinary rendition and held until my wife re-married someone with a more symmetrical hairline. Fortunately, the device’s conclusion satisfied the agent who returned my wallet and allowed me to retrieve my shoes from the grey security Tupperware.

The rest of the flight was uneventful with the exception of a fellow traveler who constantly made simultaneous and unnecessarily loud calls on two separate cell phones while we waited on the tarmac. He then spent the remainder of the flight talking with his seatmate about how busy an entrepreneur he was. Had I not been so nervous I might have turned to my wife and pointed out the irony of a such a successful businessman being forced to fly standby coach, but instead I simply focused on the seat in front of me and prayed that the pilot had left his magic kangaroo at home.