Ergonomic adventures

Just about anyone employed in a modern workplace has, at one time or another, received one of those ubiquitous ergonomics memos telling them how to use a computer for hours on end without winding up paralyzed or blind.

These helpful missives tell you how to sit, where to sit, where to place your elbows and where to find your elbows if you’ve somehow misplaced them.

Such instructions are quite comprehensible to people who grew up attached to a computer keyboard, but for those of us who are a little older – particularly those of us who grew in up dusty, smoke-filled newspaper offices – they can be thoroughly puzzling.

Not long ago, our newsroom received just such a memo, titled “Computer Workstation Safety: Five Steps to Safer Ergonomics.”

At one time, even the title of this memo would have left me scratching my head. Until 2001 or so, I’d always assumed the term “ergonomics” had something to do with methods of calculating the economic impacts of an orgy.

Live and learn…

Other terms and directions I encountered in my workstation safety memo, however, left me somewhat baffled.

For example, the directions recommended that I “apply neutral positions.”


Does anybody really know what a “neutral” position is, other than when dealing with an automobile transmission?

Well, I thought, when a transmission is in neutral, nothing happens. I tried applying this principle in the newsroom and, I have to admit, doing nothing has its advantages – until the city editor begins bellowing “Are you dead or just resting your eyes?!”

Then there was the recommendation that one should always make sure that “monitor is at screen level.”

I’m no computer whiz (you already figured that out, right?), but my computer screen appears to be an integral part of the computer monitor. Therefore, if the monitor isn’t at screen level, one or both of them is free-floating somewhere else. Weird…

Another part of the safety memo recommends “elbows rest at side.”

Curiouser and curiouser. I checked and determined, within a reasonable doubt, that my elbows are always at my sides. There’s an elbow on my left side and an elbow on my right side. They just, like, hang there.

Perhaps the most distressing of the ergonomic recommendations was the suggestion that I use “light pressure on keys – no pounding.”

Hey, I grew up writing newspaper stories on an 80-pound piece of pig iron otherwise know as a Remington upright manual typewriter. Just like my current computer, it had a keyboard, but there the resemblance ends.

Old newspaper typewriters had to be beaten into submission. Pounding was how we got the keys to print little letters on pieces of paper. Such ham-fisted handling of the keyboard also let everybody around us know that we were probably working on the biggest story of the decade.

Now I’m supposed to dance across the keys like a kitten walking on marshmallows simply to be ergonomically correct?

It ain’t gonna happen, amigos…

Originally published November 12, 2006

Better silent than sorry…

I’ve observed a lot of strange behavior while writing about criminal justice in S’lano County during the past 30 years, but there’s one recurring peccadillo among folks hereabouts that I’ve never been able to fully understand.

This involves otherwise sapient human beings, who readily admit that they have little or no knowledge of firearms, arbitrarily deciding that the gun barrel they’re looking down during a crime in progress isn’t a “real” gun barrel.

Hey, everybody’s entitled to an opinion, but these folks frequently turn a simple criminal encounter into a disaster by sharing their opinion of the gunman’s weapon with the twitchy guy who’s holding it.

Not good.

Here’s a guy threatening to blow your head off if you don’t hand over your wallet or stop broadcasting microwaves into his meth lab and you decide to disrespect the guy’s choice of firearms.

“Har-de-har-har-har, buddy! You can’t fool me – that ain’t a real gun!”

Now we have a guy who’s already nervous, possibly coming down from a weekend of drugs, alcohol and bad country music, and you decide to disparage him and his weapon.

Hell, why not go for the triple crown and poke rude fun at his mother, too?

The logical response from any self-respecting felon whose firearm has been disrespected is painfully obvious – pull the trigger. This action provides positive reinforcement for any gunman whose motives have been questioned and it proves that the firearm in question actually is real.

Unfortunately, the same action can have an immediate and deleterious effect on your well-being if you’re standing in front of the firearm.

This whole scenario wouldn’t really trouble me if I’d only heard about it once or twice, but it happens with alarming frequency and sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Do yourself a favor – if you don’t think some crook’s firearm is real, keep your opinion to yourself. You’ll thereby avoid unnecessarily hurting the gunman’s feelings and possibly escape an unpleasant encounter with a bullet.

Police officers – professionally familiar with a variety of firearms – rarely make this blunder. If someone charges up to a law enforcement officer brandishing what appears to be a firearm, the officer is not going to debate the weapon’s reality. He – or she – will immediately react to disarm, disable or dispatch the gunman. Unless the weapon in question has a bright orange barrel or is made of clear plastic with water sloshing around inside, the lawman is going to behave as if he is facing a deadly weapon.

Many replica firearms look real and many genuine firearms – particularly those offered in designer colors or with goofy-looking stocks – don’t look particularly authentic. But, as unfair as it may seem, a gun doesn’t have to look particularly genuine to kill you.

When facing a felon with a firearm, it’s always best to assume that you’re looking down the barrel of a real gun. Gently surrender your wallet and report the encounter to police at your earliest opportunity.

Better safe than sorry, amigos…

Originally published November 5, 2006

Curiouser and curiouser…

You never really know what’s going to happen when you pay a visit to Fairfield. You may be swept up in the sweet undertow of a downtown candy festival or have to sweep yourself out of the way of a drive-by shooting.

Until a short time ago, however, I’d never imagined being caught in a drive-by manicure.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

This rather unusual experience occurred as I made my way through the bustling Westfield Solano mall at the conclusion of a successful cigar safari.

I was headed toward an exit with my recently purchased stogies when an attractive young woman approached and took me by the hand.

“May I show you something?” she asked.

Hey, I’m a 50-something newspaper bum with quite healthy instincts when it comes to young women.

She could have dragged me to the roof, showed me the edge and booted me over and I would have grinned all the way to the pavement.

Keeping a firm grasp on my left hand, the young woman glanced pointedly at my left thumbnail.

“Do you pay a lot of attention to your nails?” she asked.

“Why, er, yes,” I responded.

“They’re, like, those things on the end of my fingers.”

The mobile manicurist was not to be deterred.

“Uh-huh. And do you see those lines on your nail?” she asked.

Yes, I saw the lines on my thumbnail.

“Those are ridges. You don’t want those.”

“I don’t?”

‘No. No ridges.”

Escorting me to a nearby “Spa to Go” stand, she began industriously polishing my left thumbnail with a rectangular bar of something that apparently came from the Dead Sea, one side of which was kind of soapy and one side of which wasn’t.

Within seconds, I had a sparkling thumbnail.

Although I didn’t immediately purchase any Dead Sea thumb-polishing compounds, I was more than happy with the result and rushed back to the newspaper to tell my co-workers about my experience and newfound dedication to nail care.

It didn’t take long for my colleagues to question my motives, ethics and sincerity.

“You know, that’s how congressmen get into trouble, Mr. Congeniality,” counseled one editor in the newspaper’s feature department.

“Although that is quite the stunning thumbnail you’ve got there.”

Others were more pointed in their assessment of my true reasons for allowing my thumbnail to be polished to a glowing shine.

“Three words – you’re a lecher,” opined one woman from the newspaper’s advertising department.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this – how could you suspect me of having ulterior motives? Do lechers have thumbnails like this? I think not!” I retorted huffily.

My critic was not convinced.

“All that shows is that you’re a lecher with one well-manicured thumb,” she muttered before striding purposefully away.

Hmmph. Some people simply don’t appreciate the eradication of unsightly ridges…

Originally published October 29, 2017

Guys, are we ready for this?

According to unconfirmed research by a non-partisan think tank outside Shin Pond, Maine, the current composition of our much put-upon earth is roughly 7 percent hydrogen, 8 percent oxygen, 11 percent silicon and 74 percent advertising.

I guess that’s no big surprise (except for the, like, hydrogen, oxygen and silicon part …).

Advertising is everywhere – on billboards, buses and ballparks.

And soon it will be even more everywhere.

Healthquest Technologies Inc. is planning on taking high tech advertising to the very heart of the sacrosanct American male rest stop – the urinal.

The Islip, N.Y., company’s latest invention – called “Wizmark” – is described as an “interactive urinal communicator” designed to catch the eye of anyone using one of the ubiquitous male restroom appliances.”

As a one-of-a-kind, fully functional interactive device, Wizmark can talk, sing or flash a string of lights around a promotional message while greeting a visitor. The large, anti-glare, waterproof (well, duh…) viewing screen is strategically located just above the drain to ensure guaranteed viewing without interruptions,” the company’s website enthuses.


The effectiveness of Wizmark is based upon rigidly prescribed urinal behavior passed down from father to son, generation after generation:

  • Face forward (this is really important)
  • Eyes down&
  • No small talk
  • No singing of Broadway show tunes.

Since 95 percent of American males follow these rules religiously, Wizmark promises a practically captive audience every time an unsuspecting fellow strolls into a men’s room to take care of business.

“Realizing this unwritten code, the appeal of this marketing concept to you as an advertiser is that it effectively assures your ad will attract the attention of, and be read by, the ever-elusive targeted male audience you are constantly aiming for,” the company promises in describing its “perfect guerilla marketing medium.”


On the surface, this does sound like an effective new advertising technique.

On the other hand, one has to remember that we’re talking about a restroom fixture that has been around for decades with few, if any, radical changes. Ditto for the rules of using said fixture.

Most guys simply do not expect their urinal-of-choice to start talking to them, burst into song or put on an impromptu electronic light show. Therefore, such behavior can be rather unsettling. If not forewarned, startled visitors could wind up fleeing men’s rooms in a state of unzipped dishabille, bellowing about space aliens, terrorists and the Son of Sam (not necessarily in that order).

These surprises also might backfire for cocktail lounges and taverns. Think about it – you stroll into the men’s room after your usual four martinis and the urinal begins talking to you. Chances are you’re going to start seriously reconsidering your future alcohol consumption…

Originally published October 22, 2006

Experience counts for something…

It seems as if a month doesn’t go by in these United States that one of our elected – and formerly respected – political leaders somehow manages to get caught up in a scandal of epic proportions.

Most recently, six-term Florida Representative Mark Foley was caught sending sexually explicit e-mails to teenage Congressional pages. Constituents were shocked. Colleagues were stunned. And Republicans – most of them – were devastated.

How could this have happened?

Unfortunately, political scandals are as much a part of the traditional American political landscape as bumper stickers and funny hats.

Remember President Richard Nixon’s vehement denial of wrongdoing shortly before he was inducted into the Benevolent Brotherhood of Fractious Felons? Or President Bill Clinton’s whirlwind affair with a White House intern? Or perhaps you remember Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry’s zany crack-smoking adventures (and his subsequent re-election)?

And these are just the Hall of Fame guys…

I think what American voters need to realize – now more than ever – is that politicians with a little beer spilled on their vests are not necessarily a total loss in public office. In fact, a little skullduggery, a pinch of lechery and perhaps a taste of larceny only mean that your elected representative has been around the block more than once and knows which way the wind blows.

Sure, it would be nice if we could trust them but, failing that, why not credit them for their special brand of experience in office and their unique ability to get things done under pressure?

Here’s a quick questionnaire for would-be politicos. Score 10 points for each “yes” answer. Have you ever:

  • Accepted kickbacks for supporting pork subsidies in Santa Monica?• Sent suggestive e-mails to a teenage congressional page, White House intern or Safeway checker?
  • Smoked crack on national television?
  • Gone sidewalk surfing through the nation’s capital with your sports car after inadvertently ingesting sleeping pills before inadvertently ingesting alcohol?
  • Written a bad check to the Salvation Army – and then claimed it as a tax write-off?
  • Been witnessed actually attending a vote of the governing body to which you were elected?
  • Listed your political affiliation as “undecided”?
  • Been the mayor of Miami?
  • Thrown a lavish thank-you dinner for a dozen of your favorite lobbyists and then made them pay for it?
  • Thrown a lavish thank-you dinner for all your campaign volunteers and then made them pay for it – plus tip?

OK, here’s where we separate the real politicos from the wannabes. For each of your “yes” answers, give yourself 10 points. If you scored 70 to 100 on the questionnaire, you’re more than qualified for public office. If, on the other hand, you scored 0, you’re an unmitigated liar. Better start planning your 2008 campaign right away…

Originally published October 15, 2006






Give me a brake…

I’ve never really trusted new technology – or old technology, for that matter.

I’m still weighing the overall risks of purchasing a DVD player. And a microwave oven. And an iPod…

New automotive technology always makes me nervous.

Take the latest safety breakthrough from German automaker Mercedes-Benz. According to a recent report in Car and Driver magazine, Mercedes will be offering self-braking brakes in its new luxury (read $100,000-plus) CL model line.

The new braking system, Car and Driver reports, is designed to help avoid collisions by braking for you when you motor obliviously up on objects that could bend your hood ornament.

The “Pre-Safe” brake system, automotive writers explain, “has the ability to detect or anticipate if a collision is imminent.” The system then initiates both audible and visual warnings to alert the driver to potential problems. If the happy-go-lucky motorist continues to ignore the disaster drawing ever nearer, the car begins braking on its own.


Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought that people should drive cars, not the other way around.

God gave us feet so we could apply our own brakes when we come upon an immovable object or an unexpected herd of Nubian goats. It’s an established scientific fact that people with genetically short attention spans invariably have larger feet to cope with just such emergencies.

At first glance, the concept of self-braking autos seems like a great idea. But how many cars have you had that functioned perfectly all the time, regardless of how much money you paid for them?

My guess would be zero.

Sooner or later, every car develops some quirks – the more complicated the car, the more exasperating the quirk. Now think of quirky self-braking brake systems.

A speck of dust, an unexpected electrical surge, perhaps a bit of moisture, and your car is going to be stopping whenever it pleases for whatever it pleases – or nothing at all.

One minute you’re motoring down life’s highway without a care in the world and the next you’re coming to a very unexpected halt because your state-of-the-art auto has locked onto a menacing electronic hallucination dead ahead.

“…Heffalump, 750 yards and closing. Heffalump, 500 yards and closing. Heffalump, 250 yards and closing. Initiate emergency braking protocol…”

This is, of course, an extremely hypothetical situation. Expensive German motorcars hardly ever hallucinate Heffalumps.

Then, again, it only takes one afternoon of unanticipated braking to ruin your whole day.

For everyone out there who simply burns to spend $100,000 on a luxury automobile, I’d recommend purchasing a 1998 Cadillac and using the rest of your money to hire a chauffeur to drive it for you. That way, if your driver insists on braking every time a leaf blows across the roadway or a tufted titmouse hops into your path, you can at least have the satisfaction of reaching forward and slapping him one upside the head…

Originally published October 8, 2006

It’s time to rate rats…

A gibbous moon hangs low over the horizon as a fitful wind whips through the cornfields, rattling the stalks like so many forgotten bones.

A nagging uneasiness has crept into your life as the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder.

And you should be uneasy, pal – Halloween is just four weeks away and you haven’t yet purchased a single rubber rat to make your home a little cozier, your life a little squeakier.

Don’t panic. As in years past, The Reporter has dispatched teams of trained rat-wranglers to help you find the best and brightest of the season’s rubber rodents.

For those of you who may not be familiar with our annual retail rat rating system, we grade rubber rodents on:

  • Price
  • Pointyness of tail
  • Beadiness of eye
  • Snaggliness of teeth
  • Shrillness of squeak
  • Foulness of coat

Although discount retail outlets have proven fertile ground for Halloween rat bargains in the past, we found the best, most reasonably priced selection of rubber rats at a seasonal Halloween outlet in Fairfield.

The Spirit Halloween Store there offers a squeaky, life-sized rubber rat for $1.99 in your choice of designer colors – as long as they’re black, white or gray. Spirit also offers a half-dozen other seasonal rodents with prices up to $29.99 for a menacing rat that’s bigger than a cocker spaniel and 10 times as scary.

Like last year, we discovered some of the best rubber rat prices at Vacaville’s Big Lots store. The variety, however, is limited and the size of the basic rats leaves something to be desired. They’ve got rubber rats for a buck apiece, but they’re half the size of last year’s rubber rodents. They’re almost mouselike and, in the words of newspaper’s former criminal justice reporter, Inspector Jon Lewis, “I never met a mouse that wasn’t a punk.”

Nuff said.

Their large rats are a better overall bargain. More than a foot tall (or long), these rats come in two models – standing or crouching, both drooling. They’re $8 bucks each, which pretty much beats most other rodent retailers in the large-rat category. Big Lots also has extra-hairy, radio-controlled rats for $12. We’ve seen these elsewhere for as much as $16.99.

Sad as it seems, we discovered few other regional rubber-rat bargains. There were rubber cats, rubber spiders, rubber snakes and something that looked like a rubber manatee from hell, but reasonably priced rubber rats were scarce.

Our favorite rat-related item was an electronic rat-in-a-mug. These wonderfully annoying, motion-activated devices consist of a rat’s hindquarters sticking out of a coffee mug. The hind legs kick, the tail swirls and the coffee mug erupts in squeaks, gulps, gasps and gurgles. The performance concludes with a satisfied belch.

The rat-in-a-mug comes in a variety of styles, and prices range from $6.95 to $12.95. We found ours at a Long’s Drug in Vacaville for $7.99.

A wiggling, belching rat-in-a-mug for less than eight bucks? You can’t beat that with a stick, amigos…

Originally published October 1, 2006