Friday, June 30, 2006

Spying on Spies

James Bond is probably one of the most prominent 'spies' in the world. Say his name and practically everyone around the world knows who you are talking about. There have been various actors who have played the part and there will probably be countless others who will do the same. Roger Moore was the third actor to portray the super spy and his characterization was slightly.... different. The reason? Well, his rationale was that here is the world's most famous undercover spy and yet he can walk into practically any bar in the world and everyone knows his name and his favorite drink. That being the case, how can one possibly be a good spy?

What does this have to do with today's blog? Well, recently the media has come under fire from congress for reporting on the domestic surveillance case whereby the U.S. government is keeping tabs on the financial records of people who could have possible ties to terrorists or terrorist organizations. Now I am not here to discuss the legality or the need for such a program. But I do want to talk about how much freedom our media is given. Freedom of the press is something that is heavily touted and bandied about. It's a good thing and it ensures that the truth (or some semblence of it) is released to the general public. But when is it time to draw the line?

I remember during the first Gulf War back in 1991. Everyone joked about how Hussein knew what we were going to be doing before our ground commanders did simply because he would use his satellite feed to watch the briefings carried live on CNN. This is of course a bit of an exaggeration but is it really that much of an exaggeration? We, the public do have a right to know things and it is the duty of the press to report them, but we can't forget that by telling the public, we are also telling the very people these programs are meant to find as well. For example, if we tell robbers that we are placing undercover police in banks and that they will be wearing red hats, who will the first targets be in future robberies?

By the same token, if there are programs in place to root out and find possible terrorist related people, it is for a reason. I am not here to laud nor praise the programs or techniques which seem to be prevalent these days in terms of conducting these searches. I can say that I don't agree with all of them but I can understand the reason. And I can take comfort in the fact that our government will function to judge those who misuse powers under false pretenses. Is that what's happening now? That's for you to decide. All I can say is that we must allow those who work in the shadows for our security to continue their work. There is a reason for it. So hopefully, the next time James Bond shows up at a bar, the press won't be there waiting for him to ask him about his latest plans.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why I Like Superman

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, Tuesday night, I went to see "Superman Returns" at the theatre. Growing up, I always enjoyed watching the old movies or shows. I remember watching the episode with George Reeves on "I Love Lucy" and I remember watching the various cartoon incarnations on TV. In the beginning the fascination was with the fact that there was nothing that Superman couldn't do. He couldn't be hurt by anything save for kryptonite (and not everyone had a piece lying around). He could fly, he was strong. He was a lot of things many of us couldn't be. It was a fantasy of many kids to be someone like him. As I got older, I continued to read the comics (why beat around the bush and call them 'graphic novels'... they'll always be comics to me) and a lot of the stories dealt with the character in a very mature and realistic light. And as I read these things I came to respect the character so much more.

Superman's origins are known to most everyone out there. His biological parents sent him to Earth after their home planet of Krypton showed signs of exploding. On Earth he was raised by the Kent's on a farm in Kansas. From there, after his powers developed, Superman came to Metropolis and began living his dual life spending time as a reporter and as Superman. That's the basic stuff that appeals to the kid in all of us. It's the deeper part of it that appeals to me. With all these powers and abilities, Superman could easily use them for corrupt purposes. Why stop a bank robbery when you can pull one?

To borrow a line from rival super-hero Spider-Man, 'with great power comes great responsibility'; and as person growing up in the world today, it is important to understand exactly what that means. Each of us has the power, the power to help, the power to heal the power to hurt. But the way in which we choose to used these 'powers' is what defines us as a person. Superman always stepped in to help those in need. He never asked why or whether there was some reward for him. He never sought compensation for what he did, nor did he ever seek accolades. He did it because it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. Even then, there are times where even all those great powers are not enough to save a world. If you ever have the opportunity, there is a wonderful book written by Paul Dini and illustrated by Alex Ross on Superman entitled "Superman: Peace on Earth"; it touches on exactly this point.

I may not be a Superman who can fly or bend steal bars or turn back the world. But in my own small way, I can help make a difference to those around me and those I come in contact with. I can choose to help without seeking reward. It doesn't have to be something as largely noble as world peace, but it can be something as simple as helping a child learn to read. In that way, we can all be superheroes who can give the world to someone. Make someone smile, make them laugh. When times are tough, nothing makes as much of an impact as brightening someone's day with a bit of humor and appreciation. We all have shoulders, and we all have our own burdens heaped upon them, but use those shoulders to help someone in need take some of their load off. It can be more help than you can realize. It's the little things that change the world in time. Hmmm... I guess I can be a Superman after all.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Geeks and Nerds

Last night I went to see the new Superman movie, "Superman Returns". Ask my parents and they'll tell you that the two things I loved growing up were "Star Wars" and Superman. My fascination with one or the other would fluctuate but they both remain there to this day. As such I had been anticipating this movie for a long time. I had bought my ticket online and was fully prepared to undergo the usual bombardment of geekiness and nerdiness that typically accompanies a movie of this sort. Mind you, I have experienced it on several occasions and each time it has been different. I have been to the first showing of several major movies in the last decade or so and each experience has varied from quite sane to quite insane at times. I saw "Star Wars: Episode I" on the first day and had the usual number of fans with me. I saw "Titanic" on the first day and I had a bunch of normal people with me. But this leads to the interesting observation and conclusion that was reached last night at the theatre. There is a true difference between a geek and a nerd.

Now some people will find either term to be insulting, but for those of us who have had it applied to us can take heart in the fact that we aren't alone and that it's a much better title than 'loser'. So then, on to the discussion. Geeks in my mind are fans of a particular thing who don't take things to the extreme. What do I mean by that? Well, a number of geeks I encountered at the movie yesterday were rather quiet and subdued. They were dressed normally or at the most, were wearing a t-shirt or top that had the Superman logo on it. They quietly sat with friends or on their own. Those sitting with their friends talked about many things including the original movies, what they were up to at work, what their plans were for the weekend. A geek is what I would term as a casual fan who wants to enjoy the movie and move on with life.

Nerds on the other hand are a bit... well.... more. These are the guys (and girls) that you see dressed in the same t-shirts or even full costumes. They will be loud and boisterous to the point of obviously making attempts at drawing attention to themselves. The group who happened to be in our theatre were likely in their late teens to early 20's. There were several who were dressed up in costume (either just the shirt or the shirt and cape) though only one was dressed in a full Superman suit. Prior to the movie they all sat in back 'bum-bum-bum-bah-bah-ing' the original score. I love music and I love humming like that, but one thing. If you're going to hum and you're humming loud enough for others to 'enjoy' it; please make sure that at least you're in tune!

This bevy of nerdiness continued to draw attention to itself by loudly quizzing it's members on various bits of Superman lore. That in itself is nothing to complain about but when you hear statements such as, "Superman can defeat Mighty Mouse because Superman's powers are based on the sun and Mighty Mouse's are based on cheese! What if the cheese goes bad?" Coming from a five year old, I would peg it as being a logical and valid arguement. Coming from a 45-year-old to his 27-year-old friend? Now that's just plain scary. I have no problem with nerds, geeks, or fans; in fact they are often the most loyal and faithful friends you can ever have. My wariness comes from flaunting that level of affection to the point of making those around you a bit....ill.


Monday, June 26, 2006

In Road Racing You Turn Both Ways

Yesterday was a day of contrast in terms of racing on television. You had two of the most popular racing series in the world going head to head at nearly the same time of day on opposite ends of the North American continent. You had the pinnacle of motor racing, Formula One, running the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal; and you had the best drivers in the world racing in Sonoma, California in the Dodge/Save-Mart 350 at the Infineon Raceway. Some of you out there must be wondering what the big deal is with having two races running on the same day. After all, it happens nearly every other week.

What set this weekend apart was the fact that this week, NASCAR drivers would be racing on a road course that was a big departure from their typical ovals and superspeedways. Talk to any fan of motor racing and they will have at least a dozen NASCAR jokes ready to be sprung at the drop of a flag... er... hat. For example, if you're being chased by a crazed NASCAR fan how do you escape? Turn right. NASCAR touts itself as having the best drivers in the world. Now I will grant you that the drivers who drive in the various series' in NASCAR are indeed among the best drivers in the world. It takes skill, conditioning and endurance to drive several tons of speeding metal around a track for several hours.

But let's look at the drivers who were on the opposite coast for a moment. Formula One racing is considered the absolute edge of your seat in terms of racing technology. The cars themselves are such precisely constructed works of art that even the slightest miscalculation can lead to a loss in speed and power. Some might argue that with all this technology, the driver is not even a requirement. Not so. Were a driver not needed in Formula One, it's quite likely that even the perennial backmarkers would be actual contenders. Here also drivers are tested for their skills.

So how can you compare the two? Simple, look at them both when they are racing under similar conditions. This weekend was unique for that very reason. Formula One always races on a road course with twists and turns ane elevation changes. NASCAR had their go on a road course with mixed results. The race wasn't even one lap old when the first red flag of the day was flown due to a pretty messy shunt (i.e. crash) at the start of the race. Now again, I grant you that driving a Formula One car and driving a stock car are like trying to compare a Boxster to a Cayenne. Sure in essence they are the same, but there are differences that mean you can't drive one like the other.

However, given the limitations of both, the basic principle and guiding force (literally) should still apply equally and that is the driver! My dad has an SUV which isn't like my Boxster. I have to adapt my driving style when I drive the SUV. If I try to take a corner the same way I would in my Boxster then you're definitely asking to end up flipped over in a ditch. Similarly, an all-round driver, or the 'best drivers in the world' should have no problem adapting to turning a car in another direction; yet when the time came to do just that we had accidents all over the place. Is this what we can expect from the best drivers in the world? Again, there are so many things that can be brought up to justify the difficulty for NASCAR drivers, the number of cars on the grid, the weight differences, the skills needed, all that; they are valid points too, but still, if you can't turn your car to the right without getting into the marbles and dirt, are you truly among the best drivers in the world?


Friday, June 23, 2006

Hungry? Man! It's all Psychological

So apparently the portion control concept being touted by nutrionists isn't so much an exercise in control as it is a psychological factor. Studies being done at the University of Pennsylvania have now declared that portion control is difficult for most of us to handle because deep down in the psychological soups of our brains, we are pre-disposed to certain amounts of food to be taken in. So regardless of whether we know how much saturated fat, sodium or other bad-iums are in a food, if we want it, we are going to eat it. I can understand that, I mean there are some days where you just can't go without some food, but to say that no matter what, that 'attitude' can't change because it is part of our psychological make up is a bit of a stretch.

I agree that there is truth behind the statements that some people have slow metabolisms, others have higher calorie requirements and still others may have some ailment (such as hypoglycemia) which would require them to intake certain amounts of food but that still doesn't mean that it's a psychological condition that can't be changed. When I began working out several years ago, I was overweight and what you could term as near obese (semantics!). It wasn't for any other reason than that I loved to eat and things that were definitely not healthy for me. I remember going to the hospital once and the nurse being surprised at how high my blood pressure was. At the time I was under 25 so to hear that did worry me a bit. Sure I was nervous but I wasn't that nervous. I took that as my first sign.

Taking inspiration, I began working out religiously; I also began watching what I ate. I paid more attention to what foods contained in terms of fat and sugars and such and I began reducing those foods with higher contents from my diet. I didn't give up the things I loved, but I made sure to keep it within reason. I would serve myself only the suggested serving sizes. If the back of a bag of chips states that it has only 5% saturated fat, check the serving size, that may be for 10 chips, not the entire bag. The labels tell you the truth but sometimes not the truth we want to see. So I began exercising control of my intake and made sure to increase my workout routine. Within eight months I had dropped nearly 70 pounds; my blood pressure came down to normal levels (even when nervous) and overall, my condition improved.

I still love food and I still love to eat, but if I were to believe that how much I wish to take in is encoded in my brain at a psychological level, your writer here would still be near-obese with a high blood pressure and I would probably be on my way from bad to worse. There's no real trick to dieting and exercise. Everyone is different. What worked for me may not work for everyone, but the important thing is to find that inspiration that will drive you to want to discover what your means of control is.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Congressional Case of 'Fluff'

There are times when I wonder how exactly my tax dollars are being spent. Usually these feelings come to the forefront whenever April 15th rolls around. Now I have been paying taxes since around the age of 14 since I have been working full time jobs since then. So I've had a great deal of time to ponder. At first it seemed like a ridiculous thing my having to pay for the running of the country; after all, I was only a kid right? But as time passed I learned more and more on the running of our country and I came to appreciate how it was that our tax dollars are used and I felt so much better. My tax dollars were being used to pave new roads, open new schools, keep the Smithsonian Institutions free and so many other wonderful things that helped define our country. Still, there are times when I feel a bit frustrated at how our congressional representatives choose to use their positions. Take for example the current stink going on in Massachusetts over the 'fluffernutter' sandwich.

What is a fluffernutter sandwich and why is there a congressional case on it? Well, put simply, back in the early 20th century in Massachusetts, H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower came up with the idea of Fluff which was basically a marshmellow-esque substance which when paired with peanut butter on white bread with a glass of milk, became the staple food of New England kids for generations. Even today, nearly 80 years on this tradition continues. In schools around New England, this sandwich is served as one of the choices on the menu. Enter the stink!

Senator Jarrett Barrios is apparently peeved that his third-grader son was given a fluffernutter sandwich at school. He is in fact so incensed that he plans to now file legislation that would ban schools from offering the sandwich more than once a week. Why you ask? Well, the reason being touted is that school nutrition is 'serious business' and that a fluffernutter sandwich is a detriment to the efforts being taken to maintain school nutrition. Now I went to public school for 12 years and had the opportunity to have school lunches on a fairly regular basis. Despite the best efforts of many nutritionists and chefs, the taste and variety of foods has not improved. And in any case, can you honestly tell me how many kids would choose a tofu or veggie burger versus a slice of pizza?

It's bad enough that some kids are picky when it comes to eating and apparently in New England, the fluffernutter sandwich is one of the only things that some kids eat. The main thing is that they eat! Okay, I will agree that it is probably not the healthiest food choice to make, but have any of these congressional leaders actually eaten school lunches? Eat a slice of 'pizza' and then you tell me if that's healthier. Are they worried that this is only going to add to the obesity problem in America? If so, push legislation that will push for more physical fitness programs in schools. Provide just as much funding to these programs as you would to any of the other educational programs out there. Make it interesting enough that kids will want to get physically active. This is the kind of legislation I would get behind and I would gladly support by my tax dollars. To see it being spent to debate whether a fluffernutter sandwich should be served more than once a week in schools..... well... to me that's a true load of fluff.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Good Hamburgers

I enjoy a good burger as much as the next guy. Over the years, my taste in burgers has improved, or so I like to think. To hear my parents tell it, the basic hamburger at McDonald's was the first ever food that I ate in its entirety (I was a picky eater). From there it was all apparently downhill. Ever since then I have gone from the McDonald's burger to bigger and better burgers from a variety of places. No please don't assume that I'm a walking coronary waiting for a place to occur. On the contrary, I don't ingest a burger every chance I get, but if the opportunity presents itself and there looks to be an interesting opportunity to try a good burger, I don't hesitate.

I've been to places that serve it to you like a delicacy to places that give it to you bare bones to places that heap on the toppings to the point that even an anaconda would have a hard time opening its jaws wide enough to take a bite. I've been to Cheeburger Cheeburger in Rockville where, if you eat their one pound burger, they will snap your picture and post it on the wall. I am proud to say that I have two such photographs on the wall and in their books. I remember dressing up for the first time my family and I went to Hamburger Hamlet. My dad kept teasing my brother and I about the sign by the door which read 'Proper Attire Required'. My brother and I kept fidgeting wondering if we'd be asked to leave based on the fact we wore sneakers.

I recently discovered two new burger delights in the area. The first being the burgers at Five Guys. Five Guys have various locations around the Washington Metro area and are a relatively new chain. I don't believe they've franchised out to the point of leaving the immediate area as yet but it wouldn't surprise me if that day comes sooner rather than later. They have a relatively straightforward menu with about four burger choices and then a variety of toppings (almost all of which are free). The burgers are cooked to their temperature standards and served to you almost as soon as they are off the grill. Not a bad bit o' beef if I do say so myself.

The other burger delight I found was in an unlikely of spots. Ordinarily one would assume that a steakhouse or other such place would have a decent burger, but the one I found at McCormick & Schmicks was just fabulous. As I had mentioned in an older blog, once I tried that burger, I was sold! It was cooked as requested and was free of almost any accompaniments save lettuce, tomatoes and onions. A steak purist will have nothing on the meat other than some salt; similarly, a burger purist will not add anything but those three things (and maybe a touch of ketchup). The patty was properly formed and very juicy and the spices and preparation of the meat was just outstanding. Our waiter let us in on another 'secret'; apparently these same burgers are available at happy hour for two bucks! Nothing wrong with that deal!

Two bucks for an excellent burger? How can you not partake? Perhaps because you feel you're getting what you pay for? Well then if that's the case, get yourself down to the New York City to the Boca Raton Resort and Club. There, for a paltry $100 you can enjoy a burger (that they are offering for the first time ever on their menu)! Now what makes this burger so special? Apparently it is a blend of beef from the U.S., Japan and Argentina. It's like the World Cup of Beef. The total cost (after tax and an 18% tip for the waiter who is lucky enough to serve the burger to you) is about $124.50. For that much you would expect something but you get the pleasure of a few tater tot fries, and the happiness in knowing you're eating something that many others will never have a chance to savor. I don't know about you, but for a burger costing that much, I would hope for a salad, or a drink, or even my picture on the wall. But what can I say, I'm a simple man, I'll be happy with a happy hour burger at McCormick & Schmick's anytime!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Weekday Racers

Anyone who is familiar with the roads in Northern Virginia knows all to well how rare it is to find I-66 relatively clear of traffic. Typically Mondays and Fridays are days when the traffic in general is lighter than the rest of the week. The main reason behind this is the fact that many government workers have their compressed day off on either Monday or Friday and are working from home on those days. In any case, for those of us who contend with traffic on those roads on a daily basis it is a wonderful respite. However, one must be careful while driving under these conditions.

Last evening was one of those days where the road was relatively clear and as I was making my way down towards Tysons I was able to cruise along at a steady clip. Although the posted speed limit is about 55 MPH, most cars, even those in the 'slow' right lane were doing at least 65. I continued on at a clip in the lane second from the left. I generally avoid the left most lane because these are the lanes closest to the spots where police lie in wait for an unsuspecting speeder. Driving a Boxster makes me an obvious target for such attention so I generally avoid drawing any to myself.

As I was moving down the road in a pack I could see about four or five cars coming down the left lane from behind me going at least 80. Seeing as how I was in the second from left lane I wasn't too worried. As the blew by me and went on ahead, I noticed a natural phenomena that tends to occur when you have long stretches of road with seemingly nothing stopping you. That phenomena would be the "Oops! Cops! Slow Down! Merge Right!" Phenomena. Almost like a muscle reaction, these cars all seemed to see a cop hiding on the left shoulder at almost the same spot at the same time. From way behind them their brake lights seemed to come on intensely and without warning they dove over to the right lane as if to feign that they were following the speed limit.

Now the cops are not stupid. I mean after all, they probably do the same things when they're dressed in their civvies and are driving along the highway. I just find it amusing that these drivers all have the same reaction and tend to believe that the cops won't realize that they've just been speeding. Typically the cops are sitting in spots where they are not readily seen but they've got clear line of site with their radar guns. They rarely advertise these little hidey-holes. Chances are that if you were speeding, he's probably got your number anyways. What to do? Diving to the right in desperation could possibly lead to an accident. My advice? If you're going to get pulled over, get pulled over for something worthwhile. Keep on that gas pedal and let the speeds go where they may!

Monday, June 19, 2006

High Speed Airport Security

As we approach the busy summer travel season it seems that the lines at airports are growing by the minute. I guess the only good part is that most of us don't have heavy winter coats to remove for scanning in addition to removing our laptops, our shoes, our belts, and anything else that needs to be seperately scanned for security personnel. Am I complaining about all this? Not in the least. I know that the folks in the TSA and such are doing this for our security as well as those who are flying along with us. But it seems that we all need something to complain or comment on and security lines seem to be the thing.

My parents and I dropped my brother off at Dulles Airport on Saturday for his return trip to San Francisco. Having travelled between to coasts so many times, he's an old hand now at the routine of unloading his gear and then reloading it when going through security. He's flown back to San Francisco at various times and on different days of the week and generally his waits have not been that bad. Of course it could just be his luck that he ends up at the airport at times when there is less rush. Business fliers tend to populate the airports very early in the day or very late in the day so the crowd they generate is sporadic. And despite the rush, the security personnel work as efficiently as possible to get people scanned and through the lines as quickly as possible.

However, this gets harder and harder to do when security personnel and funding to these agencies is cut on a regular basis. Sure every airport has 30 security checkpoints, but what good are they if you have the personnel needed to work at only 3 of them? People in line habitually hem and haw over the fact that there are people standing around but they fail to understand that there are certain standards which they are following in terms of processing passengers. If they could go faster then I'm sure they would. But remember one thing, they are taking these efforts for your safety and mine, so if it takes a bit longer because they only have a handful of screeners, suck it up and wait!

These same guys who complain about wait times and 'unnecessary scans' will be the first to jump up and complain the next time someone manages to slip a knife or other weapon on board a plane. At that time they will complain that there isn't enough security or that it isn't good enough. At that time the knee-jerk reaction will be that 'we need more security'. The airports will do what they can, they'll add more security lines. And the TSA will do what it can and attempt to cover all those new lines with a handful of personnel and a rapidly shrinking budget.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Being Controversial

Unless you've been completely away from a television set, radio, or newspaper (both online and print) it's hard not to know about the stink raised by Ann Coulter in her comments regarding the widows of September 11th. In a nutshell, she accused the widows, who lost their husbands in the attack of 9/11, of revelling in the celebrity that followed. She accuses them of using their status of being on TV or in the paper as a reason to make millions by drawing out sympathy from the public. Now whether you believe her claims or not, it seems to be quite a bold statement to make. And whether you are a liberal or a conservative or a moderate, I don't know how you cannot be shocked when you hear such a statement. In a thousand such cases, there may have been one or two who would have fallen into that category, but to accuse them all of being that way is just ridiculous and wrong.

So why would she have done such a thing? Does she really think that this is the case? Honestly I don't think so. I'm not defending what Coulter did or didn't say, nor am I saying that I agree with her viewpoints. What I am saying is that she has taken the route that so many others have taken in order to raise awareness of their product. It worked wonders for Howard Stern when he first came on the radio. People who loved him tuned in to hear how outlandish he could get and just as many people who hated him tuned in to hear just how outlandish he would get. The end result? Howard Stern often had among the highest listenership ever.

How about the recent controversy over "The DaVinci Code"? The controversial topic of the lineage of Christ and its ramifications on the church were heard around the world. Was the book truthful? Was the movie truthful? Who knows, but at least it did what it was supposed to. You couldn't open a single booklist for months without seeing "The DaVinci Code" planted at the top of it. It was virtually a fixture on the hardback list; and when it finally came out in paperback format, it was a fixture there as well. Apparently the controversial topic of the book did little to detract from its sales. In fact, it probably boosted it to even higher heights. Why? Because people wanted to know exactly what the controversy was about.

And when the movie came out? Well, that furor was the talk of all the town a couple of weeks ago. Now that the initial hubbub has passed, it's almost another summer movie that failed to live up to the hype. The movie in itself was quite like the book but now that everyone has had a chance to see what the movie is and how the book is, the controversy has died down. But it managed to serve its purpose. The movie made back its money and is already showing signs of profiting. And despite not being a major hit over here in the States, the movie is raking in money overseas and is continuing to do well. So once again, the controversy is helping boost the sales.

That's not to say that all controversial decisions are solely based on profit. What about "Star Wars: Episode I" and the controversial move to cast Darth Vader as a child! The controversy abounded and.... well wait.... it is "Star Wars". Controversy or not, it would have done well anyways. This was after all two years after "Titanic" and sixteen years after the last "Star Wars" movie; all the Star Wars fans out there wanted the movie to make tons of money so that it would supplant "Titanic" at the top of the box office standings. It could have been two hours of starfields set to the music of John Williams and it still would have made money. We're quite fickle that way.

Controversy isn't always a bad thing, but when there are cases where someone says something totally outlandish; these days you best believe that it's probably being said with the intention of boosting sales. On that note.... Darth Maul would kick Yoda's butt any day of the week and twice on Sunday!


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Music on the Metro?

Ask anyone who is born and brought up in DC and you will find a million and one different reasons about why they love their city. Ask any one from New York the same question and you'll likely get just as many responses. There are many things that set both cities apart; so much so that it is often difficult to pin the differences to specific things. For one thing, the size and scale of New York is so vastly different from that of DC that the relative 'tiny-ness' of the city if readily apparent. The other big difference is that during the week, DC is alive and teeming with businessmen, politicians and a general throng of humanity. But after hours? When the government is closed, when workers have returned to their homes in Maryland or Virginia? There are portions of DC that become like a ghost town. This is one of the main attractions to New York. No matter the time of day or night... there is life!

The effort bring life to the city seems to be part of the motivation behind the latest move by Metro to attract more riders. With gas prices and oil costs on the rise, many look to alternative methods of travel to get to and from work or any other destinations. For workers in and around DC, the Metro is the most obvious choice. New York has their subway too. Although both do have their respective transit systems, there are differences there too. Metro has been operating in the city of over three decades and in that time, the trains have remained relatively clean, so have the stations, the platforms and surrounding areas. New York's? Well, they are pretty clean but there is graffiti and trash and all sorts of nonsense lying about. New York's subway does have one nice feature though and that is that there are always entertainers out and about on the platforms.

The acoustics of a train platform, punctuated by the roar of a train approaching is a unique one and one that just sounds good together. It gives New York yet another bit of life that we are missing here in DC. In DC it can often be rigid and proper; like what Congress is supposed to be like but hardly ever is. Riding the escalator? Stand right walk left! No food on the train! Chewing gum? Prepare to be cuffed! Now I'm not suggesting the Metro go all lax and that we all go out and spray paint the Metro cars but we need something to give back a bit of humanity. The Metro board is considering lifting that ban and allowing entertainers to return to the platforms of Washington's Metro.

The decision is still a ways off from being made but hopefully it will be made soon. I think it would be a marvelous first step in terms of bringing some more character to DC. I was born and raised here and I can give a million reasons as to why I love this city as much as I do. It bugs me when people think of DC as being cold and overly political. That's part of the city's character, but even more so, it's only one angle of a face that has a thousand different expressions. One must take the time to see that. Residents see it all the time. Tourists and visitors are limited to what they experience. Let's add some life to the touristy spots! Let's get some music and jugglers and dancers on the Metro!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sideswiped on Your Telecommute

The FBI will be activating a new phone number today for anyone with information on the stolen laptop from the Veteran's Association. For those who don't know the whole story, in brief, a laptop was stolen from the home of a VA official who was telecommuting. Although there has been no evidence to the contrary, it is believed that the information of nearly 26 million people may have been stolen on that same laptop. Further investigation has found that there may actually be even higher numbers of people whose information has been stolen along with the laptop. So you can figure out why there is such a hubub in terms of getting this laptop recovered.

Unless the thief knew exactly who and what the owner of the laptop did for a living, it is doubtful that the thief (or thieves) took the laptop with the purpose of using the information on so many of our veterans. It's been over a month and so far there have been no major incidents to report. Then again this isn't like the movies. If this had been the plot for "Ocean's Thirteen" or something we would have seen George Clooney-esque people running around with jazzy music in the background dressed in military uniforms looking to get billions away from the government. Again, this doesn't seem to be the case but this is reality we're talking about. Any possible incidents of identity theft would likely be on a smaller scale. A fake credit card here, a phony bank account transfer there. Over time it may add up but we seem to be waiting for Brad Pitt, Matt Damon (and an uncredited Don Cheadle) and crew to show up saying, "Hey we got the laptop!"

But what does this really boil down to? The key issue here is that no matter what security procedures are implemented in our offices and workplaces, once we begin telecommuting all that security is effectively thrown out the window. Now I don't know about you, but the vast majority of people out there don't have badged security guards who check your ID before you enter your home. We generally don't have security monitors and alarm systems either. Okay some people do have Brinks or ADT but it's not the same as having armed Marines guarding your site. So when we telecommute from home, this information is more or less 'out there.'

Everyone talks about moving to a paperless environment. I agree that it would make the world a much cleaner place overall. I'm sure the trees would thank us in any case! There are of course some drawbacks. About two months ago one of my jump drives failed and I lost all the information on it. Sure it was only 512 MBs but still, that was a whole lot of information that I lost. However, the more and more we come to rely on having information stored electronically, the more and more likely these cases of stolen identities will become. I mean can you imagine attempting to haul 26 million file folders out of a VA office? I can tell you it would take a whole lot more than Danny Ocean and his gang of eleven to make that robbery.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Einen Cheesesteak Bitte

So the great debate continues now and apparently nothing is safe, not even the Philly Cheesesteak. What's the story? Well, there's a place in Philadelphia called Geno's Steaks which has taken the debate over the English language to another level. They have come under fire for posting a sign in the window that states, "This is America. When ordering 'speak English'" As you can expect this simple sign has stirred up much controversy and further fueled the debate over whether or not it is legal or right to have English as the official language of the country. The owner of the shop, Joey Vento, has stated that he and his staff don't mind helping those with difficulty speaking English learn what they need to say in order to place their order for a cheesesteak. So far no one has been refused service but the fact remains that a lot of people, both English and non-English speakers, are up in arms over even the insinuation that someone's rights are being violated.

Still, is it really too much to ask that someone make it easier to speak in English in order to place their order? Those siding with Vento argue that being in America with an English-speaking majority it is not too much to ask someone to speak English. Those on the other side argue that this country was built by immigrants and as such we should be accomodating. Now I am all for accomodation of new arrivals or those who have not gone to school here and haven't had the chance to learn. But after living in a country for over 20 years, one would expect at least the rudiments of the language to be picked up.

What happens if we don't at least try to enforce this or make the English language the official language of the country? You have situations where we need translators for the translators. In hospitals these days, nurses report using Spanish nearly as often as they use English. Is that a problem? No, but by doing so much accomadation we are perpetuating the delay in helping immigrants learn the language. And it's not just Spanish speaking people either; it goes for all speakers of foreign languages. I mean in an effort to accomodate the speakers of other languages you hire on nurses who speak the language in question. The problem is if the nurse only speaks that foreign language. If you don't speak that language and only speak English, you may never get the medical attention you need.

My parents came here over thirty years ago. Granted the spoke English before they came over here but over time they came to perfect their understanding of the language and they both have no problem in communicating with anyone. You could say they had a leg up due to their already knowing English but they still took the time to practice and to use it and not lapse into looking for a crutch. The arguement for having English as the official language of the country is not one of racism or prejudice, more it is for having a universal language for all citizens. It's not being touted with the expectation that every single person be able to spout Shakespeare at the drop of the hat, but more so that people can communicate with one another in a much easier fashion. Now how about a cheesesteak mate?


Monday, June 12, 2006

I Love Grunting Tennis

With all the hype surrounding the World Cup, the inevitable NASCAR races and the F1 race in Silverstone, it's easy to forget that this past weekend was also when the French Open had it's finals. My mom is a huge tennis fan and as a result I grew up having watched some of the greats (and some of the not-so-greats) play the game. I remember seeing matches with Lendl, McEnroe, Connors, Navratalova, Graf and all the rest. I was there when the rivalries between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi or Steffi Graf and Monica Seles were at their height. They were among the classic rivalries of tennis during the 90's and it was something to look forward to at every major Open event.

One thing I remember from those days was the big stink that was raised over the fact that Monica Seles used to grunt rather loudly during her rallies. Now having played a bit of tennis myself I know that it takes a lot more force than people realize to return the ball as fast and as hard as they do and Monica Seles was one of the best when it came to those types of returns. Being of a smaller size than Steffi Graf, it isn't surprising that she would have to exert more force to get the point. What was surprising was the amount of complaining that came from opposing players regarding the grunting and how distracting they found it. At the time, no player outside the men's tour ever really grunted while playing.

At the time it seemed quite unlady-like and everyone used the 'controversy' to no end with parodies appearing on everything from late night TV to Saturday Night Live. In a way, Monica Seles was a pioneer. Despite all the jokes and jibes at her expense, she continued to play as hard as ever and she became one of the most successful players in recent tennis history. These days, she is but one of the first women players who would grunt when hitting the ball. Watch any women's match today and it's almost impossible to get through it without loud grunting.

I mean now, the women's tour grunts louder than the men's tour! Where are the complaints or jokes now? I guess it's acceptable these days since it is more common place. And women are getting stronger and stronger (I mean some of those women's players have larger biceps than even I do!) and so the need to return even harder is even more. Monica Seles used to be unique for her style of grunting. Now it is so common place it is almost impossible to tell who is playing whom. I do sometimes miss the old days when the men grunted like men and the women didn't, save for good old Monica!


Friday, June 09, 2006

Send in the Clones

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. It was announced earlier this week that researchers at Harvard are looking to attempt cloning human cells in order to harvest embryonic stem cells. This is the latest attempt by scientists to circumvent the 'stickiness' that surrounds stem cell research. It just amazes me that at a place like Harvard, they would even consider this type of move. I'm not here to argue the moral or ethical implications of the research, nor am I here to argue about whether cloning is right or wrong. However, these recent moves by Harvard bring up and interesting concept; we are living in the Earth equivalent of the Star Wars universe. What do I mean? Well, we're talking about human cloning. Can you imagine the possibilities?

Reapplications and initial applications to the military are on the decline. What was the Star Wars solution? Simple, clone Jango Fett and then multiply him by a bazillion. Instant occupation army for you. But why stop there? Besides helping us boost our numbers in the military, having a bunch of clones around would help in other ways as well. How many times have you woken up and just regretted the fact that you had to go to work? Exactly! Solution? Send in a clone. You could have a series of clones for you for just such incidents. Have too many social obligations and don't want to disappoint the masses? Send in a clone! Have a bunch of boring meetings to attend in the office? Send in a clone! You notice the trend here and are you sensing some of the hidden benefit to this type of research?

Of course, now that the suggestion is out there, there will be the flip side to consider as well. I mean how long do you think it will be before some group comes up with clone rights? I mean we probably are a little late to be bringing that up. From the time news started leaking out of Korea that scientists over there were preparing to clone humans, I'm sure there are clone rights groups popping up all over the place. I mean after all, why should they fulfill our obligations, serve in our armies, attend our meetings and parties? They have the same rights as we do don't they? Of course they do. I mean the only difference between us and them is.... we all don't have numbers and batch ID's as part of our names.

I do believe that clone rights should be considered. I mean after all, we saw what happens when clones are not given proper rights. They are drafted into the Galactic Empire's Army and are made to be fodder for the Clone Wars. How fair is that!?


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Catty Comments While Lifting

Women, fairly or unfairly, are often accused of being catty and vicious when it comes to commenting on other women. Face to face they'll be as sweet as the iced tea in Georgia, but as soon as the other woman is out of ear-shot, they turn as bitter as the finest beers in all of Germany. Now I am not one to perpetuate rumors or such, but I will add that women are not the only ones to be this way. How so? Please continue to read of faithful reader!

So I was at the gym yesterday doing my usual cardio routine. I have been bumping it up recently to help stem the tide of my muscle growth. I still lift on odd days at the gym but I try not to lift too much as I was getting to the point of starting to look like a cartoon. I was hopping onto the second elliptical machine of the day when one of the guys next to me (on a Stairmaster) continued his conversation with one other guy who was standing on the floor. I see both of these guys almost daily. Their usual routine was to do 30 minutes of cardio followed by hours of lifting. They were quite muscular so I was fairly certain that their efforts were paying off.

I had my headphones on and was preparing to zone out to continue my routine when I caught snippets of their conversation (it's hard not to as they were speaking quite loudly). They talked about various things, their family, their jobs and of course, their workout routines. They compared notes on how many reps of what weight and how it helped get them ripped, how they followed it up with protein and whey and how they could see the results. After a few minutes they broke up and continued on their merry ways. Shortly thereafter one of the other regulars at the gym came over to chat with the fellow on the Stairmaster.

Despite having my headphones on, with the volume raised, I could still catch their conversation. Although they workout together often, these two suddenly began tearing into the other guy commenting on his lifting routine and how it's not effective. How "I can bench more than him," or "He doesn't lift efficiently." I've heard women tear into other women on their style of dress and what not and this was just as harsh, if not worse. I was trying so hard not to laugh at their commentary. They went on and on and on about how they can lift more even if they don't have endurance in terms of running and all. I guess that's why a lot of heavy lifters generally don't go running.

Whatever else it was, it was entertaining. I raised my headphones volume to the max and zoned out to the tunes that inspire me. I tried not to laugh again when I saw those guys working out together again. They took turns rolling their eyes or commenting silently while spotting for the third guy. Catty comments abounded and will continue I guess until the end of time. So the next time you hear some backhanded comment at the gym, take note, it may be the beefy guy benching 300 pounds next to you.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mad Max Before Thunderdome

Mel Gibson first rocketed to fame for his role as "Mad" Max Rockatansky in the Australian film "Mad Max". Set in the near future, this showed a world on the brink of nuclear war and how the roads had become the new battlegrounds as roving gangs of motorcyclists and such fought with ordinary, decent folks for the roads. In the subsequent sequels, the war continued after mankind was reduced to tatters following another world war. It was bleak to be sure but sometimes it seems we are heading in that direction. With gas prices on the rise, many people are starting to take their anger out on the gas station attendants or similar folks who have little control over these things.

The latest evidence that we're slowly headed for a Mad Max scenario? Psychologists have now declared that road rage is a medical condition that exists in many people and that it should be treated as a medical disorder. Now I don't know about you, but I don't have a degree in psychology; I haven't spent years doing research; but I can tell you this with the utmost confidence. I didn't need a doctor to tell me that road rage is a disease because then that would suggest it's treatable with medicine and therapy.

Why am I against this 'discovery' and declaration? Because it's nothing new. People have been suffering from rage all through history and road rage is the newest trend. It's not due to some chemical imbalance in the brain or any other physical ailment. It's due to the fact that we as a species don't like being cut off, we don't like being slowed down and we absolutely hate being pestered by anyone who remotely resembles an idiot. These in and of themselves are abstract concepts and given time, I'm sure psychiatrists could come up with so many reasons behind why this is but I still wouldn't give it stock.

Sure you get ticked when you're stuck behind someone cruising below the speed limit in the fast lane but you don't need drugs to deal with it do you? Some of us have bad teachers, bad bosses, bad whatevers; we would eventually start to feel some sort of emotion that could be termed as an imbalance. Does that mean we have to take drugs to deal with the frustration or rage brought on by the dynamics of a relationship? My girlfriend called my comic book collection childish, I feel.... rage... like the Incredible Hulk in issue #344. I think I'll take some mood mellowing drugs. That's the ticket. Don't feel happy? Take some mood mellowers.

What's next? Revelations that Monday Morning Blues are also a psychological condition?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

To Shift or Not To Shift

So the word is that Britney Spears, the modern day marvel of driving has recently purchased a classic Porsche 356 Speedster. This is an older style of Porsche (as you can see from the picture) so as such, there is no automatic transmission. Purists would argue that having a manual transmission on a car such as this is the fun (and I'm inclined to agree) however, as many of today's youth so ably demonstrate, they are unable to drive a manual transmission. Now I can't rant and rave on this completely because when I first got behind the wheel, I was not manually inclined either. I denied myself several years of fun. But through patient guidance from my dad and a couple of jerky jaunts here and there, I finally got the hang of it.

Britney Spears is seen here in her new Speedster with a driving instructor (no Kevin Federline did not shave, get dressed up and get a personality) who appears to be instructing her in the ways of a manual transmission. I can think of worse cars on which to learn to drive a manual but my question is why would you want to learn on a Speedster? The car is at least $70,000 when it is in pristine condition (as this one appears to be) but they are also finely tuned instruments. If you go and grind the gears of break something, it's going to be really really expensive to fix. Now being a multi-millionaire, one would think that Britney would have enough sense to buy something simple like a Geo or even a Civic which she could grind and stall to her heart's content. Why ruin a classic?

Of course I'm applying logic to the situation. This is after all Britney Spears, the girl who drove around town with her baby sitting in her lap. After that outcry she decided to do the right thing and put her baby in a child seat. Of course then the nitpickers out there cried out that she had the kid facing the wrong way. Outcry again! I suppose she has learned her lesson from two bad car related experiences and has decided against further outcry from manual transmission drivers and Porsche fanatics by avoiding unnecessary grinding and stalls by learning from an expert. And will she ever need to master the fine art of letting out the clutch in that car! Especially in California traffic! Oops... I did it again... I stalled out hard.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Adventures at the Aerodrome

This past weekend my cousin flew into town and arrived at National Aiport. Having lived here for over 28 years, I will always and forever more refer to National Airport as National, never Reagan. It has nothing to do with the man himself, it's just a Washingtonian thing. So anyways, my cousin's flight was due to arrive at 10:15 Saturday night. He had called during his layover in Chicago to tell me that he was leaving Chicago late due to fog and to delay my departure accordingly. I checked the flight times online and the boards constantly said that the flight was to arrive as scheduled . So, my brother and I hopped in the car and headed off for DC, timing ourselves to arrive at about the time my cousin would have been exiting the gate and arriving at the baggage claim.

He was arriving at Terminal A so I decided to hit the Terminal A hourly parking, only to find that there is no hourly parking across from Terminal A. So we parked over in Terminal B. It's not a long walk but it is a bit away from where we needed to be. We entered the airport which was understandably quiet at that time of the night and found that besides passengers, folks there to pick up people, the cleaning staff and security, there was virtually no one else there. No one official looking anyways. So we checked the arrivals board again and found that the flight was still listed as being on time. Checking the watches and clocks we found that the arrival time had come and gone and that passengers were nowhere to be seen. So we waited and waited.

After a bit we realized we weren't directly outside where his gate would be so we made the hike, and I do mean hike, from Terminal B to Terminal A. It was like being caught in a time warp as we made that journey. We started out in the modern, canopied Terminal B which has every modern convenience. As we moved farther along, we entered what my brother called the 80's era replete with neon lighting and stainless steel moldings. Then we jumped back to the 50's with the waiting area that was probably built at the time the airport was originally built. It was like those scenes in the movie "Airport". We continued on, going through the 60's and 70's before arriving at the 80's era Terminal A. As we arrived we checked the boards again. Still no sign of the flight. And now, the flight was not listed at all.

Looking down the hall to the gates, with only a sleepy guard keeping watch, we could find no one to tell us what the deal was with the flight. Finally, an hour after his scheduled arrival time, my cousin came out to find a closed security gate. The sleepy guard had gotten up a few minutes before and had to go to the restroom so he went ahead and closed the gate and then opened it upon his return. A bit strange perhaps but at least the gates were safe. We went over to the baggage claim belt only to stare at it laying dormant for about 10 minutes. Finally my cousin said that it would at least be reassuring to see the belt move even if it is empty. In response to his joke, the belt did start to move and for a few minutes, nothing came out. We joked that perhaps there were grandmothers off-loading the bags. Suddenly, as if someone had cut the femoral artery of baggage, bags spewed out onto the belt. We collected my cousin's bag in due time and then made the long journey back to the future of Terminal B.

We paid about $6 for the time we spent in the airport. A bit steep perhaps but then again, I guess they have to count for inflation from all the eras we covered in our journey from one Terminal to the other. We left the sleepy guard to his gate and the other waiting passengers and family to their waiting in purgatory and came home none the worse for wear but enlightened for having made the journey from Ronald Reagan National Airport to National Aerodrome and back again.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Stagecraft: From Script to Stage - Volume 2

This will be a continuing series of blogs that will cover the development of the play I am working on. Inspired by the Production Diaries and Behind-the-Scenes videos on newer DVDs, I have decided to showcase some of the drama behind the dramas that are put up on stage.

Nearly two months after posting the first in this series I have the opportunity to post the second in the series. This weekend I will be holding auditions for the play. I have been working on this project on and off for the last two years so the vision in my head has been growing more and more. I have certain ideas of what I hope to accomplish and having worked with the group before I know to temper my visions with realistic expectations. I've found it better to go in with realistic expectations so that when you are faced with decisions, it isn't as painful to go a different road.

I have selected music and have started noting down where I believe the action will be taking place during certain dialogues. I have written in notes about where I would want music to be heard and where I will need sound effects. I know I have a tremendous responsibility on my shoulders with this project and I want to confirm everyone's faith in me. I have been looking forward to audition day for some time now. I have gotten good responses from a lot of people and I'm hoping for a decent turnout. Once casting is done I hope to begin actual rehearsals in the next month or so. October is right around the corner and it will be here sooner than I expect I'm sure.

The reality of that set in during the last play when one of the door prizes for the audience was a pair of tickets to the fall performance of the play. It was a bit surreal to hear the play being announced like that in a public forum and seeing as how the audience for the group has been on the rise again; I want to make sure that we keep that trend going.

I wondered about how to do the auditions. Whether to send copies of the script out so that interested parties could read them and come prepared or whether not to. In the end I decided not to since it would be unfair to those who received word late and were unable to prepare ahead of time. I decided to do cold readings of scenes from the play so that I could give everyone an equal chance to put their best efforts forward. They may not be as polished as a prepared piece but at least it will give me some insight into how certain people may fit in certain roles.

It's quite exciting for me and I'm looking forward to this new venture. My family has been involved in the local theatre for a number of years and this is the next step for us. I look forward to the fun!


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Rising and Falling

Growing up I always had a set of movies which you could consider my 'comfort movies'. These were the films which I would watch on occasion if ever I was feeling the need to be cheered up or inspired. Obviously "Star Wars" and the subsequent movies were on that list but so was the "Rocky" series. There was just something about that punchy boxer from Philadelphia that I found intriguing. Even at a young age I was able to relate to the story of a down on his luck boxer who is given the chance to prove his worth by taking on the heavyweight champion of the world. Over the course of five (soon to be six) movies, we could watch as this character went from being a contender to champion to former champion to champion again to fighter of communism and finally back to a guy from the streets of Philadelphia.

In watching the third part a few days ago on TV, I came to the realization that Sylvester Stallone's portrayal of the character also had its ups and downs. What do I mean by that? Well let's take a look at the development of the character. In the first one he's shown to be an average Joe from Philly who is not the brightest bulb in the bunch. In the second one he continues the trend of being the average Joe but we see some flaws in his character including the fact that he can't read. This, among his other qualities is what I think made the character appealing to many people. He wasn't an above average guy, just an average guy with real problems. By the time of the third one he suddenly became.... eloquent. I don't know what happened there. I know he's supposed to be refined and all but in this one it appears that all the punches to the head have suddenly shaken some intelligence loose.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy part III as much as the next guy. There's nothing quite like watching Mr. T in his prime going at it with Rocky. And throw in a cameo by a then relatively unknown Hulk Hogan... well... you've got an excellent movie. Then we get to the fourth film and Rocky begins his mental downward spiral. One could chalk it up to brain damage from all the punches but still. His fight with Ivan Drago, an allegorical jab (pardon the pun) at communism leaves him with severe brain damage. So much so that by the time of the fifth one he's even less intelligent than he was in the first one.

I have no idea of what his mental capacity will be in Rocky VI but one can only hope he'll be a bit more than a punching bag with arms. I just find it funny that as his wealth increases in the films, so does his level of sophistication. It's an interesting social commentary but one that does not hold much truth. I mean look at Mike Tyson. Similar story to Rocky, he rose to the heights of boxing though his mental capacity remained about the same throughout. Were we to believe Rocky then Tyson should have been quoting Shakespeare at the height of his career. Still and all, Rocky is first and foremost a movie and we should take it as that. Enjoy it for what it is and leave it at that.