Wednesday, August 30, 2006

No Such Thing as a Free Iced Coffee

Did you get the e-mail? You know the one I mean. The one that a friend of a friend of a cousin who you rarely see but often get forwards from forwarded to you? It's the one that said you can get a free iced coffee at Starbucks if you brought a printed coupon in. Seems like a swell deal if you can get in on it right? Well apparently a lot more people got in on the deal than even Starbucks anticipated. You see, Starbucks sent out an e-mail to selected employees on August 23rd informing them of the deal for free iced coffee drinks. This was limited to stores in the southeast but the e-mail encouraged the lucky employees to forward and pass on the e-mail to all the friends and family they wanted.

Whoever was the genius behind this idea apparently has more confidence in the discretion of their employees than the employees actually have. If there are two constants in the modern world they are undoubtedly high fuel costs and high coffee costs at Starbucks. In recent days the cost of fuel has been coming down as we approach tail end of summer but the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks remains high! Now don't think this to be a rant against Starbucks. On the contrary, I am a fairly common fixture at a couple of my local Starbucks. But I'm not a frequent enough visitor that the baristas and other folks there know my drink before I even walk in. I go in on occasion and have something or the other. I have tried (and quite successfully I might add) not to let things get to the level that they warn you about in those financial articles on the 'art of saving'. I don't but a cup of coffee daily, that would be stupid and expensive to say nothing of the jitters that would eventually start up.

So then what am I trying to say? Well, this concept of rewarding employees by giving them free coffee is a wonderful idea. It's also wonderful that management over at Starbucks felt kind enough to offer to 'share the wealth' with everyone else was a nice one too. But did they really think that the dispersal of this e-mail would stop with friends and family? This is one of those e-mail forwards that you are very tempted to test out given the fact that it can't cost you anything. You present the e-mail and get a free coffee. Nothing wrong with that. It doesn't require you to send it off to forty friends within five minutes or you will have a string of bad luck. Those types of forwards are aggravating to say the least. Here it was something that you could reap the benefits from with little or no effort.

It's a good idea to help boost interest in the company considering the bad times they've been having. I mean back in July the company reported that they were losing revenue due to the fact the cold drinks on their menu were slowing down the time it takes to serve customers. So what do you do? Offer those same cold drinks to your customers as well as your employees. So now not only do you have ticked off customers going to other places for their morning java fix, you now have employees looking for alternate places to get their drinks on as well. Just who are they trying to win with this whole thing anyways?

On a totally unrelated note, I thought it worth noting that this officially marks my 100th blog posting. In the months since I began this thing I have had no less than 1,500 visitors and nearly twice that number of page views. I know that there are many return readers to these pages and to them I wish to express my thanks for encouraging me with your visits and occasional comments. I hope you continue to visit and I hope you continue to enjoy reading my flights of fancy and rants that occasionally pop up here!


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Back to Hitting the Books

I met my three little cousins over the weekend and all three were telling me about the fact that they would be starting school this week. They were very excited although the realization that they couldn't sleep in late and play all day seemed to hit them when they sat down to talk about it and they became the very definition of melancholy at that time. I then remembered my school days. During my early grade school days I would take full advantage of summer vacation. I didn't do anything other than having fun fun fun (until daddy took the T-Bird away). But by the end of the summer you got to be a bit bored. You could play outside only so much, watch movies and eat only so much before you started to long for the days when you could see all your old friends again. Like it or not, we all wanted a bit of structure in our lives.

As time went on, I continued to look forward to summer vacation but by the end I was happy to go back to school. During my later years in high school I was working nearly every summer. It was great to have such a large paycheck and get experience that helped me later on, but I came to regret (on occasion) the fact that many of my summers were gone. The nice thing with work was I rarely had to worry about homework and the lessons were often hard, but helpful in life. With school you could almost always count on having homework, projects and so many other things. It became a balancing act back then and now, with kids having so many activities both in and out of school, striking that balance is becoming increasingly difficult.

By the time I got to college, that routine had pretty much settled down and I could almost look forward to the shifting in the seasons and the weight being added back to my bags as new books replaced the old ones and I began hiking all over the University of Maryland. By the time I was done, I was happy to have school and college behind me for a while. After graduation I slowly settled into the mindset that I would be working full time and that I wouldn't be stopping in between to return to school. That realization took some time to sink in, but once it did, I was quite the happy camper. I would watch with some amusement as kids and teens would begin to drag themselves along the sidewalk going to school. Traffic increased on the commute as school buses struggled to make room for themselves on already crowded streets.

Now, having taken five years off from school, I have returned to the school front. Currently enrolled and working towards earning my masters I am trying to find that balance again. I had been used to a setup whereby I would go to class during the normal school year. However, the masters program I am enrolled in keeps me on a steady track and since beginning back in the spring of 2006, I have been going almost non-stop. Two more years are ahead of me and although I am enjoying it, I find it nice that I can relate to my three cousins again. I have homework, I have projects and I have various assignments due. I don't have to take an apple to the teacher anymore but boy oh boy do I get homework!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Deadly Burritos

Now for those of you who took a look at the title for today's blog and assumed that this will be dealing with some gastrointestinal adventures that I may have had after enjoying a burrito, please relax, this isn't that type of blog. No, the basis for today's blog stems from the fact that the story I'm about to relate is just another example of how we as a society are starting to react to the point of becoming paranoid. What do I mean? Well let me set the situation. At Marshall Junior High School, a student was seen walking into the school with something long and wrapped into the school. The object was estimated to be approximately 30 inches long (or just over two feet) and wrapped in a T-shirt. Reports got out and the school went into lockdown as police and security scrambled to find the object before something bad happened. Students soon got word about what it was the police were searching for and the student in question realized that he was the culprit. He immediately let his teachers know and the police were told where to find the object. It turned out to be a 30-inch long mega burrito that the student had created for a class project on marketing food for a class he was taking.

Now I grant you, in a post-Columbine world, we need to take precautions and we need to be vigilant against possible problems such as these. And while it is comforting to see the seriousness with which the police and authorities treated this incident, it is alarming at the same time to think that one can't even walk with lunch without arousing suspicion. I have seen this on occasion in my own daily routine. Being the complexion that I am, many people can't figure out what my heritage is. I have an American accent but it switches to Indian when I'm with my parents or other family. I'm usually one of the ones taken aside for a secondary search during business travel and I try never to be belligerent or snotty with security because it's as much for my safety as theirs. Still, I can understand if I'm seen to be carrying a bag close to my chest and if I'm sweating profusely.

I would be curious to know if the student had rushed in or acted suspiciously or done something to arouse curiousity in the person who called the police. I can only further surmise what the parents must have thought when they found out that their children were locked down in their school for some unknown security threat. It can be scary when you are not told exactly what's going on. The mind tends to have so many ideas that even the most un-creative person can come up with worst case scenarios as to what the problem may be.

It's good to know that the incident didn't turn out to be anything more deadly than a possible case of indigestion. It's somewhat sad to see that kids can no longer make projects without having some suspicion or the other get aroused as to whether they are mentally stable or on the verge of lashing out at their peers. We can't go anywhere it seems without this sort of thing happening. Nearly five years on from the tragic events of September 11th, we need to be on our guard, more than ever, but let's make sure it's for the right reason and not because some one decided to have Taco Bell for lunch.

Friday, August 25, 2006

What's in a Name?

S.R. Sidarth is a lot like me. Academics wise he's probably years ahead of where I was at his age (gee that makes me sound old!) but we are similar nonetheless. The both of us, like many other Indians out there were born to parents who came over here thirty years ago. Like many parents from that generation they came over during a time when the IT boom was yet to happen, when Indians were still a relatively unknown quantity and coming here meant that they were separated from the family and friends in India by more than just thousands of miles. You see for many of them time has stood still. The values and ideas that they had in mind at the time the left India are still with them and that's why they continue to teach us the things they learned when they came over here.

That's probably the reason Sidarth, or Sid, ended up being where he was several weeks ago when he was suddently dumped unceremoniously into the political spotlight. Until about a week ago, most people out there probably didn't know what "macaca" meant or whether it was insulting or not. In case you didn't know it. Senator George Allen of Virginia, a Republican, was at a political rally in support of his campaign when he was made aware of the fact that Sidarth was among the crowd, videotaping the rally for his opponent, James Webb. This practice in and of itself is a normal thing. Most every politcal party does it and it is a fact. Allen was apparently introduced to Sidarth before the rally and when asked what he was doing out there, Sidarth simply remarked that he was following Allen.

During the course of the rally, Allen chose to 'recognize' Sidarth when he made the following statement. "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film, and it's great to have you here, and you show it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never come so it's good for him to see what it's like out here in the real world. So welcome, let's give a welcome to Macaca here! Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia!" Now I'm sure that Allen probably thought he was being rather clever with his remark and I'm sure he won a lot of the support of the folks out at that rally (especially if the whoops, hollers and laughter were any measure).

I'm not a politcal expert nor am I all that superior in my knowledge (I may just be smarter than the average bear) but in this day and age of media coverage and Google, how can one even expect that the things we say or do, especially politicians, will not be recorded and scrutinized. It's even more stunning to realize that Allen said all this even as Sidarth recorded it for James Webb and his campaign team. The word hit the news like wildfire and soon everyone was abuzz about the Indian who was called a monkey. The Indian community is up in arms over this fact and rallies are being organized to throw support to James Webb. Allen has of course apologized but this isn't the first, and probably not the last, time that he will insult someone in the public forum.

It's understandable that Indians are upset about the remarks but I would think that everyone, white, black, brown, or whatever should be insulted by that remark. We don't live in a perfect world but we'll never get any closer if we have politicians who believe that they can call someone anything they want and get away with it. It all ends up being a matter of perspective. For the average person, it may not seem so bad to call someone a monkey. My brother and I have probably done that to one another on numerous occasions, but when you are a political leader (and presidential hopeful) you must conduct yourself on a level just a bit higher. It doesn't matter what party you represent or what your ideals are. If you take the respectable approach and conduct yourself in a standard above and beyond the norm, you will win the favor of the people. If you stoop to name-calling and the like, well... you let everyone know what your standards are.

I am a Virginian now, I have voted in all of the last elections and I can tell you, come election day, my voice will be heard. And no matter what your color, creed or religion, make sure you make your voice heard too. The leaders we elect are the ones who represent us to the country and to the world. Do we really want someone like George Allen?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The B.O. of T.O.

It's late August and that can only mean one thing; that football pre-season action is in full swing and the regular season is just around the corner. Seeing as how I have some regular overseas readers, I just want to clarify that I am talking about American football as opposed to soccer (or as I call it... the original football). I have been a fan for a number of years but over the past decade or so, that fanatacism has increased and I can usually be found giving company to my mom on Sunday afternoons. Having been born and raised in Washington during the glory days of the original Gibbs era, I was raised with the belief that the 'Skins would forever dominate the league. How far we have fallen. The last decade or so has been rather dry for us Washington fans but we always keep ourselves going with statements like, "Just wait till next year," or the ever popular, "We need a new quarterback!" Yes, it's just not football season in Washington without such controversies. But don't let that lead you to think we're the only team with problems. Dallas, mortal enemies of Washington, has a fairly large one on its hands.

Terrell Owens is a star receiver who has played with organizations such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles prior to moving to Dallas. His last season in Philadelphia was one marked with extremely bad blood and lots of in-fighting that many believe led to the total meltdown of the team. Owens, or T.O. as his fans call him, had come to believe that he was the second coming and that no matter what he said or did, no one was going to survive without him let alone win. He loved to explain how his skills were of such extraordinary levels that he alone would make the plays that would lead his team to victory. Basically, T.O. forced his teammates to spell team with an "I" or at least with nothing other than a "T.O." He loved to lay the blame on others, and he loved to show off for the cameras. He still does. If there's one thing that T.O. does well is draw a crowd.

His styling and his ever-so-quotable self-adulating remarks almost guarantee that he will get quotes in the paper, even if he's in another city. In recent years, injuries and the advent of much stronger defenses around the league have hindered him in his performance. He's no longer the player he used to be. But it would be ridiculous to lay the blame with him. To hear T.O. tell it, he hasn't changed at all, it's the teams that have gotten lousy. Coaches can't coach, quarterbacks can't throw and offensive linesmen can't throw a block good enough for him. So he constantly spouts off at the mouth about how everyone else has cramped his style and how he isn't going push himself if he can't count on his team. Oh? So the team comes into play at that time.

This attitude of his was so detrimental to the team in Philadelphia last year that they suspended him for several games despite the fact that he was key in their offense and could have made the difference in terms of reaching the playoffs and sitting them out. He had created such bad blood that the coach had no choice but to bench him and eventually the owners agreed that it was time to give him the boot. I find it sad. There is no doubt that T.O. is a talented player and that in his prime he was probably one of the best. Had it not been for his "me me me" attitude, I think his teams probably would have given that extra effort for him. I don't know about you, but when there are guys weighing in excess of 300 lbs. coming at me, I would definitely like someone to help protect me.

In Dallas, T.O. has missed 14 consecutive practices. He has an injured hamstring which he has aggravated again so it's understandable that he may take some time out. But again, to hear him tell it, it isn't because he didn't stay in shape during the off-season or that he was not ready for training camp, but it was because he was made to do too many reps. What I find sad in that is that this is a player that many people look up to. Many kids take their inspiration, good or bad, from these athletes and to hear a talented player like T.O. constantly pass the buck on to others as to why he isn't playing well or why he's hurt. It's disappointing to see him constantly showing off for reporters but rarely showing off in practice for his team. He signed a fairly significant deal with the Cowboys to be one of their star receivers. If he plays, he may, in time, become a threat for most teams out there. But for now, he seems to be content riding a stationary cycle and blaming anyone and everyone under the sun for his injuries and lack of playing time.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I'll Turn This Plane Around Right Now

In this day and age of heightened tension and foiled terrorist plots, every time you get on a plane, there's no telling what may happen. Still, as Superman says, flying is, "statistically speaking, still the safest way to travel." I mean sure we have to arrive at the airport earlier, wait in line longer and endure more and more security screenings, but overall flying is still the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B. I mean if you see how bad Virginia traffic gets sometimes, you would think it would be easier if we all had flying cars a la "The Jetsons".

Even still, after all of these new concerns, the majority of the travelling population prefers to travel by air than any other mode of transportation save for driving. And as the world gets smaller and smaller and our patience grows shorter and shorter, we can't afford to take the slow boat to China anymore. I think movies like "Titanic" and "The Poseidon Adventure" (the original not the remake) did a lot to spook people out of taking a ship to Europe. You never know when you'll run into an errant iceburg or get hit by a rogue wave. Indeed it seems that air travel, for all its extra troubles, is the best means of going anywhere in the world. As such it is getting to be like hopping into the family sedan and heading out of town.

One thing that many people don't realize though is that this isn't exactly like the family sedan. What do I mean? Well think about it; in your car you can pretty much talk about anything under the sun and not be bugged by anyone other than those in the car. One would assume that they share your viewpoints or are close enough in their philosophy that they wouldn't make a big thing of it. You can drive picking your nose or with your clothes on backwards and (almost) no one would say anything to you.

Now if you do these things on a plane.... well... you're just asking for trouble. This is not to say that I advocate walking around the cabin of the plane at cruising altitude while pulling out your hair and murmurring the names of most-unfavored nations. But what about if you're not doing that? What happens if you just happened to be sitting there quietly but sweating because the plane is too hot, or nervous because you're afraid to fly. We are so on the lookout now for anything that seems unusual that we will raise suspicions almost immediately. Is the guy next to you whispering? Call the stewardess and notify the pilot to call in the fighter escort. Is the lady next to you constantly throwing up? It might be an attempt at spreading bio-weapons. Call the stewardess again. Someone getting up constantly and stretching out in weird poses? Hit that call button for the stewardess again.

But is it really necessary? In some cases it is very much necessary but in others, it may just be nervousness or someone following the advice in the seat-pocket guide to the plane that recommends stretching at regular intervals to prevent blood clots. You see? Those little books do have useful information in them but people (except for stretchy) don't seem to read it. People will argue that it's better to be safe that sorry; that we shouldn't lower our guard just because it appears as though things are slowing down.

All I'm saying is that the next time any of you decide to travel by air, remember the following key things. Never be confrontational or abusive with airline or security staff; they can make sure you get to see the inside of an airport jail cell. Be aware or your surroundings and those around you and look for suspicious behavior. No no... a fifty year old reading "The Hobbit" is not suspicious. Be prepared for delays, they are for your safety and if you happen to be on a flight that is diverted or escorted back to someplace, consider yourself lucky that there are vigilant people out there looking out for your safety.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Power of 'Word of Mouth'

So the number one movie at the box office this week is the action thriller, "Snakes on a Plane". For those of you who don't know, don't worry, it's not a political thriller. No, this one is about a group of villains who decide to kill off a witness about to testify against them in court by unleashing endless numbers of snakes in the middle of flight. Hijinks ensues and Samuel L. Jackson comes out to kick butt. Now I haven't so fortunate as those who have gotten to see the movie but for whatever reason, this seems like a movie that should have gone straight to television without even stopping off at the theatres or on DVD. I've seen Hindi movies with better plots and with some of the movies being churned out these days, that's really saying something. So how is it then that this seemingly meritless movie ended up starring a cult movie icon and ended up sitting at the top of the box office for this past weekend? One word.... hype.

To read the story of how this movie got made brings to mind the story of "Rocky" and how Sylvester Stallone fought and fought and fought to get the film made. Although, I am somewhat doubtful (or maybe hopeful) that this movie doesn't get nominated for several Academy Awards. Unless of they have a new category, Most Overhyped Film. So why is this movie like "Rocky"? Well for years the script languished on various desks in Hollywood. No one seemed to be interested in the film and whether good or bad, it was left to be forgotten like so many other movies that never got made (or never should have gotten made). Indeed, it seemed as if this script would never see the light of day. Then it was picked up by MTV/Paramount before being handed off to NewLine, the studio behind the insanely popular "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Production began in earnest but the signing of Samuel L. Jackson made the hype behind the movie leap into heights heretofore unknown. Jackson has become the stuff of legend in Hollywood since his turn as Jules the assassin in "Pulp Fiction". Since that time, there is almost a cult-like status to any film he happens to turn up in. No matter what anyone says about his acting ability (or lack thereof some may say) there is no doubt that he is a box office draw. Once word leaked out that he was involved with the project, the hype began to gain momentum almost on its own.

Almost overnight there seemed to be a following for a movie which had not even been screened yet. Soon there were blogs and websites dedicated to the film. Every little bit of information that could be garnered on the film was soon thrust into the spotlight. Within a short time, the film had seemingly overshadowed every other forthcoming release. The film is coming out at the tail end of the summer when students are heading back to school and vacations are coming to an end. It can be a hit-or-miss time at the box office but the hype surrounding this movie ended up boosting its attendance records.

Whatever its faults and problems may be, the fact remains that a script that was started as a joke at a happy hour for screenwriters, is now in theatres worldwide. It is starring an Oscar nominated actor and is continuing to rake in the big bucks at the box office. I don't think we'll see numbers anywhere close to what some of the other summer blockbusters have pulled in so far but then again we don't need to. The fact that the movie has made it to the top of the charts in its first week is testament enough to the power of word of mouth advertising. It will make back its money in due course and I'm sure... in due course, a spate of sequels and copies will be released. Coming soon, "Hippos in a Helicopter"!


Monday, August 21, 2006

Stagecraft: From Script to Stage - Volume 3

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.

A little over a month to go before the first show and things are moving along nicely. I thought that I would be a little more regular in these things than I have been but that gives you an indication of how busy things can be. Casting was completed in July and by the middle of that month, we had begun reading sessions where the cast and I would sit around the dining table and go through the entire script, working on lines, getting an understanding of the character and determining if the people cast in the roles would be able to bring out the 'person' that the particular role is. I have been fortunate in that I have found a talented group of people with whom I will be working. Although several have not acted in major roles before, their lack of experience is more than made up for by their enthusiasm and despite having begun working on blocking (that is movements) about three rehearsals ago, things are progressing quite well.

One thing I have found is that lines are key. If one has their dialogues memorized then the 'acting' part of acting is made that much easier. Moving around the stage is the fun part that most people associate with acting. It's the opportunity to be someone else for a time. I have never wanted to be an abusive druggie boyfriend but acting allowed me the opportunity (or punishment -- depends on your point of view I guess) of being someone I don't resemble in the least.

With this play I decided to go with some newer actors because I felt that it would be refreshing for the audience to see some new faces up on stage. What many people fail to realize is that acting in this area is not so much a function of talent as it is the time and motivation of the individual. There are many great actors out there but not every one of them has the time or motivation to drive out to someone's house week after week and sacrifice their weekends and evenings to a project such as this. Most of all, you need to enjoy the company of friends (old and new) and have the desire to work to the best of your particular abilities.

While we have been working on movements for only a couple of weeks, the motivation and enthusiasm I see in my team is so wonderful; it makes my job easier. I like to think of myself as a very hands on director. I like to get involved in the scenes and show my team how I'd like things to be done or how I envision them. Sometimes my vision is a bit blurry (after all... I do wear glasses) but working with everyone ensures that eventually we get to where we need to be.

We filmed the commercial this past weekend. Working rather efficiently for about 45 minutes after our regular rehearsal on Sunday, we filmed all the clips we needed and have come up with a fairly decent trailer for the play. It's a bit different than what we're used to seeing for our plays but I think it will be intriguing for potential audience members. I have very high hopes for the play and I am anticipating having a good turn out for the shows. We still have a ways to go before we're finished with the blocking but the journey has been a fun one so far!


Friday, August 18, 2006

Go On and Scream!

You have to hand it to those Londoners, they certainly seem to come up with some nifty little studies which are... interesting to say the least. According to a study conducted in London, one of the most effective ways of alleviating stress is by just screaming. Now I'm sure many of you out there are probably wondering why a study had to be conducted to confirm that fact. I mean it should be pretty obvious that when you're feeling stressed you scream! Apparently over in London, there has been an increasing level of stress due to heatwaves, commuting times, stresses at work, Prince Harry groping women party-goers, and so much more. Stress is something in abundance over there; so after interivewing 1,000 individuals in London, they realized that the majority were less stressed after having a good scream.

Now let's just stop and consider this for a few moments. In the old days, (and despite having worked in offices for over 14 years it's even older than that) stress was often alleviated by smoking. To hear my mom and dad tell it, you could tell when the stress level was up in the office based on the size of the smoke clouds emanating over someone's cubicle. If they were short bursts of smoke as if in normal breathing, then you could be sure that the person was fairly calm and was enjoying their smoke. If you saw clouds, yup, stress! These days, smoking is more or less a no-no in the office and one must go outside to light up if that is what you so desire. Some of us have other stress reducing methods such as guzzling coffee or taking soda to the point that it would be faster just taking it intravenously.

If we were to promote the idea of screaming to alleviate stress in the workplace or anywhere for that matter do you realize just how loud things would get in short order? I mean we'd be experiencing screaming almost all the time! You'd have screaming to relieve the stress of screaming too! I mean it would start out simply enough. One person has read about the study (or this blog! -- shameless plug) and decides to test out the theory. The once silent office is now suddenly punctuated by the occasional scream. Naturally, people will ask what the reason for the scream is. Word spreads and a new phenomena is born. What starts out as an occasional things eventually becomes a regular thing. Every so often you'll just hear a scream.

Soon you'll have screaming breaks in addition to coffee and smoking breaks. There will be rooms set aside at airports for screaming. In this day and age of air travel, you best believe that you need a place to scream and relieve that stress. You never know when you'll be travelling next to someone who will begin murmurring about Pakistan or start peeing in the aisles as you wait to reach Manhattan, Kansas! I think this study provides some good outlets for stress we may all be experiencing but it may be setting a 'dangerous' trend. I don't know about you, but I think I'll stick with coffee and some relaxing music to relieve my stress.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Coffee Can Kill

I sat down to write this blog with my usual cup of coffee beside me. I was waiting for inspiration to strike while scanning the headlines of the morning. Like the majority of Americans out there, I start my day with a nice hot cup of coffee. It's not so much that I need that caffeine as much as it is a morning ritual. Something to look forward to and on those brutally cold mornings that we sometimes get in Washington, it's nice to have something to warm you up. So it was with a bit of surprise that I read the headline in the news today which stated that coffee consumption might lead some to have their first heart attack. Now I like to think that in the past four or five years I have reversed the trend I had going for myself healthwise and that I'm not in reasonable shape, but the headline was enough to pique my curiousity.

Now normally I know that newspapers have sensational headlines because that's exactly what they want. They want to say something that will intrigue you enough to pick up the paper and read it. I can't tell you the number of times I've read headlines like, "Life Found on Mars!" only to read the sub-headline in small print which says, "is only in microbe form." It's one of those rules of nature I guess, not everything is what it appears to be in the headlines. As such, I knew there had to be more to this particular article than was apparent to the eye. I read the article and in a nutshell it found that there was a study done whereby coffee drinkers were broken down into groups; light drinkers (one cup a day), moderate drinkers (two to three cups a day) and heavy drinkers (enough to be jittery... just kidding... four or more cups a day).

The findings from these groups was fascinating. According to the results in this study, light and moderate drinkers were more prone to having heart attacks due to the fact that the chemical boosts that occur in the body after coffee consumption are rare enough that they can trigger high blood pressure and in turn lead to heart attacks. Now I don't know about you but that strikes me as a bit scary. Either that or a study funded by Starbucks or the Association of Coffee Growers. The study found that if you drink heavy coffee amounts then you ran a lower risk. Of course the caveat to this whole discussion was the fact that if you led a sedentary lifestyle where you just laze about and avoid any activity (not because you can't... but because you don't want to) then you run a risk of having a heart attack anyways. Isn't that convenient.

Studies like this seem to come out every so often. And it's by no means limited to coffee or caffeine. A few years ago popcorn was touted as the end all be all snack food. Movie theatres were thrilled to bits and popcorn sale soared. Then the caveat in that case came to light. Pouring massive amounts of butter on the popcorn made them potential heart attack foods! Always some little hitch isn't it? What about those guys who do the bunless burgers or steak and cheese things. It's good for weight loss right? Yes, provided you work out in addition to following that diet. It's never as easy as it seems. Well, I guess in this case coffee will promote a healthy lifestyle. After all if you drink enough to be classified as a heavy drinker, you'll likely be so jittery that you don't have to drive to and from work, you can probably run! And with gas prices where they are right now, that's probably a good thing!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Muppet by Any Other Name

I am proud to admit that I am a child who was raised on the good wholesome fun (and learning) of "Sesame Street". I loved watching it every morning and I loved the good fun of all the little songs and games. I can date myself by saying that I remember the days when no one believed Big Bird when he said that Snuffy was real. The show also holds a special place for me in that it was the show by which I learned to speak English. Although I was born here, as I grew up I first spoke Marathi, and over time (and countless episodes of "Sesame Street") my English improved. From there it has all been down hill.

Although work precludes my being able to catch the show every now and again, I didn't miss the announcement that a new muppet was being introduced after 13 years. The new character, Abby Cadabby, is a fairy who is just coming of age (as far as fairies go) and as such, her power over her magic isn't fully developed so be assured that plenty of comic hijinks will ensue. The introduction of a new character comes at a time when the show is continuing along despite having been around nearly 40 years. The show has helped so many kids that it's standing as an educational program can't be denied. The decision to introduce a fairy with hit or miss powers was meant to have a character who could then be used to talk to kids about diversity and differences and learning to accept them.

I hope the introduction of the character remains free of any controversy. It seems that these days it doesn't take long before viewers with slightly askew opinions suddenly start proclaiming the 'evil' in these shows. I mean Bert and Ernie have been roomies for years. But the protests against their alleged 'relationship' was so extreme that the network had to issue a statement to the effect that they were just 'good friends'. It's a children's show for goodness sakes! Don't you think that if they wanted to come out of the closet that they would have done so years and years ago? It's a sad day when someone (that too a muppet!) puts their arm around someone and immediately the assumption is that there is something more in that touch.

I mean had this sort of attitude been around 20 years ago, there would likely have been accusations that Big Bird is on drugs and is hallucinating a character like Snuffy; Oscar the Grouch is a negative stereotype on the homeless; the Count is a stereotype on crazy Transylvanian mathematicians; and Bert and Ernie? Well, the less said about them the better. Watch these shows for what they are, a chance for kids to learn about their world with fun characters. There is an innocence that children have that goes away as they become more and more aware of their world. Let's give them the time to enjoy their childhood. Let them be innocent. And for goodness sake, leave those darn muppets out of it too!


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Constantly Entertained

Cabco Group, a company based in New Zealand, has created the latest in shopping technology, a shopping cart which has built-in televisions constantly streaming popular shows such as the Wiggles, Barney and other such children's shows. Publix Super Markets down in Florida have taken in some prototypes and are testing them out now. For a rental fee of $1, parents can plop their kids inside these carts (which are shaped like little cars) and shop in the comfort. The carts (when not in use) rest on a charging pad and apparently can get up enough momentum to require the addition of brakes on them. Now is it just me or does anyone else find this new development a little bit disturbing?

Open the health section in almost any newspaper and you will undoubtedly find an article regarding the rising trend in overweight kids or kids who are so out of shape from sitting and watching television all the time. Do we really need this next trend in de-energizing our kids? I am not a parent and nor do I have extended practical experience in handling a rowdy kid in a shopping mall but I can say with relative confidence that this isn't the way we want to go. I fondly remember the days when my brother and I would accompany our mom on her weekly shopping trips. We used to love riding in the cart and asking about the various foods or just helping get the things we wanted to ask for. It is the rite of passage of any child to run up and down the aisles hoping against hope to get that one box of cereal that is the sugariest.

Already we've seen things like TVs in the back of minivans and their macho equivalent, SUVs. I mean how many times have you driven down the highway in the last few years to see virtually every television show going on in someone's car? The VCR was invented to record things and we used it to record television. The majority of society couldn't program it so they moved on. The next step was DVD; high quality picture sound and the whole works. Since we couldn't record television on VCRs (at least not all of us) the next step was to release all shows on DVD. Now virtually every show is available to you on DVD. Missed a show? No problem, hop in the car and catch up.

Now we're taking that a step farther and doing that while shopping. I'm waiting for the day (and I'm sure it's not far off) where we have toilets and shower heads with built in televisions. I mean we already have televisions built into refrigerators why not while showering? It will undoubtedly entice lots of kids to go and take a shower. Of course the water bill may spike as kids and adults duck in their to catch the latest episode of "Lost". We're slowly losing the art of conversation, but even worse, we're slowly losing our ability to read and comprehend. We are spending more and more time focusing our kids on TV and not enough on intellectual pursuits. I hope this new product isn't too successful; although I'm sure the ad wizards are already licking their lips hoping to do product placements based on what aisle the cart may be going through and triggering tantrums if the kid doesn't get that particular product.


Monday, August 14, 2006

From Sea to Shining Sea

Having lived in Virginia for the past three years, I've come to appreciate the history of the area all the more. I will always remain a faithful son of Maryland, but Virginia is the place that I call home; and a happy home it has been these past three years. As such, I have been fascinated to see all this historical areas in just the Northern Virginia area alone. Any Civil War history buff will tell you that virtually every corner of the state is steeped in historical tradition or has been a part of history at some point or another. I've met people from other parts of the world who often marvel at the fact that we here in the US have so many historical sites despite being a country that is only 200 years old. They often argue that we don't have any history that is of significance. I argue against that saying that if you bothered to look, you would see just how much history our country has had.

As a fan of history I often feel it necessary to preserve whatever we have and to ensure that future generations can come and see a part of what made our country what it is and then have an understanding of 'where we came from'. Drive a few miles outside of DC and you'll find Manassas National Battlefield; this was the site of two pivotal battles in the early part of the civil war. Although the war is long since over and we have modernized the world tremendously since then, the battlefield itself has been largely preserved due to its historical significance to the country. If you visit, you'll see much of the same view that the soldiers saw back in 1863.

However, if you drive a few miles in any direction from the battlefield, you run smack dab into suburbia. Indeed, the city of Manassas is a sprawling view of modern suburbia replete with car dealerships, fast food joints and mile upon mile of shopping and gas stations. It's hard to believe that once, this entire area was just like the battlefield, sprawling acres just waiting to be developed. Despite the best efforts of some developers, the state and local counties have managed to preserve lands such as this. But what about lands that aren't historically significant? What if no one important camped there? What if not historic battle was fought there? Does that mean it shouldn't be saved?

If you drive around, doubtless you'll see literally hundreds of new developments popping up. New homes, new condos, new everything. It seems as though we are now determined to fill ever little nook and cranny with new construction. It's getting to the point that even a place as crowded as Tysons Corner is being filled to the gills with every conceivable accoutrement of society. I have seen plans whereby the areas surrounding the mall, the grassy areas (not the grassy knoll! ;-) ) will eventually give way to mini-high-rise apartments / condos or offices making this already crowded area even more so. With a 'booming' economy (why do I hear laughing?) it isn't surprising that we have such a demand for affordable housing?

It's getting to be like the old days again. Can't afford land close to the city? Go west! Commuters are moving farther and farther out in an effort to get the most bang for the buck and the result (as tragic as it is) is that much of the natural wonder and space of this country is being steadily lost. I have been to the battlefields and the parks and have stood in silence admiring the beauty of my home country. I just hope some of those views don't eventually give way to a pair of golden arches beaming down on me.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Changing Faces of Travel

In the wake of the arrests in London of suspected terrorists who were planning on using liquids as the basis for a bomb on international flights, the face of air travel has been changed once again. Now before I delve into the blog very deeply, I want to take a moment to applaud the authorities and intelligence agencies that were involved in stopping this plot and making the public aware of what is going on. Thanks to their continued vigilance, we shall hopefully never again have to experience an event like September 11th, the bombings in Bombay, or the deadly subway attacks in Japan from years past. That being said, what's up with the airlines now?

Well, in case you haven't been keeping up with the news the past few days; shortly after the arrest of a suspected terrorist cell in London word came out that the group was planning to use liquids which, when combined, would become a bomb. They were then set to use this watery bomb to set off a wave of attacks targeting cities in the United States including Washington and New York. In the wake of this revelation, security officials have now elevated the nation's security level to Code Red (meaning a terrorist attack is imminent) and implemented more security restrictions on airline travel.

The one that will affect most folks is the fact that for now at least, passengers will be banned from bringing beverages or liquids onto the aircraft in their carry-on luggage. This means no more sodas, coffees or water for you. From the time you hit the metal detectors to the time you reach cruising altitude you will not be able to carry anything to drink. At least, that's what it seems on the surface; not having traveled via airline in a few months I can't say for certain but I do know this, once you pass security, unless you're in some backwater town with a dinky airport, there is plenty to eat and drink after security. But will passengers like that?

It takes very little for folks to start complaining about "how inconvenient it will be" or how "the airlines are doing this to make more money," or some other such story. It's not an inconvenience or a money making scheme if it means you will be safe on your trip. I mean personally, I would much prefer to arrive home safely rather than save a buck or two bringing my own soda. I understand the dilemma. Airports do sell these things but they are often sold at a higher price. Airlines don't provide much by way of food or drink these days to help save on costs. All these things come into more play if you look at things economically. What is the reason for this? Maybe the fact that we were doing quite well a few years ago?

What do I mean? Well think about it. About ten years ago, the economy was booming and everyone was starting their businesses on the net. The money was flowing and so some industrious folks came up with the novel concept of bargain airline travel. No frills, just low cost. The concept took off and soon the larger airlines also jumped on the bandwagon. As a result you barely get any food on the airlines anymore (unless it's international travel or a long flight). Airlines encouraged passengers to bring their own food and refreshments. As it was, costs for such things were on the rise in the airlines so people were happy to do it. But now, you can't bring things on that you may necessarily want.

Had the economy not done so well and had we not helped bargain airlines thrive, perhaps we'd still have airline food (as bad as it may be)! But I'm not complaining. If I can't bring my extra hot no whip caramel machiatto through security because some stinking terrorist has figured out a way to use it as a weapon, then I will gladly gulp it down or toss it out as long as it makes me safer. For now I'll show up at the airport early, shoes in hand, sans drinks and hair gel, laptop out of case, jacket on other shoulder, carry-on ready for inspection with belt buckle undone (to show that nothing is hidden underneath) with the proper number of matchbooks or lighters, along with my photo ID and boarding pass in hand. Keep it safe out there!


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Back Like Lemmings Into Shiny Metal Boxes

There's a theory in physics that says something along the lines of, "two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time." Now I'm no physicist, but that concept seems to make sense to me. But the next time you or someone you know is having a tough time understanding that concept, just take them out for a ride on the roads during rush hour. I can almost promise that you will have an example of this concept occur at least once, if not twice or more during your voyage. It seems that in this day and age of rising tempers and road rage, there is never a shortage of bad drivers with even worse tempers out there.

This morning, after many days, I was commuting through the Springfield Interchange and beyond towards South Van Dorn Street. Now anyone familiar with the Washington Metro area knows that this area is one of the most confusing and convoluted interchanges on the road. As such there are cars dashing from one side of the highway to the other. Often with little regard or concern. Everyone is off in their own little car, or as Sting so eloquently put it, "Lemmings in shiny metal boxes". And almost every one of these drivers is attempting to shave just another few seconds off their time from home to work or vice versa.

The whole thing begins to resemble qualifying at a race! What gets me though is that it seems that so many drivers are out there with blinders on. I mean we left the days of horse buggies long ago, so then why do so many drivers drive as if they have those horse blinders on? To give you an example I've seen so many times in the past week; there are roads out there which may have three lanes at one point but will later compress down to two lanes. In most cases (though there can be the rare exception) the fact that a lane is ending will be indicated well before the lane ends. Still, people will continue to fly down the road oblivious to the fact that they need to merge or risk running off onto the shoulder.

Since many people treat this like the qualifying heats at a Formula One race, we see folks in both the continuing lane and the ending lane, racing side by side, neither one wanting to give an inch. Usually one will finally give way and let the other in but by then the tension has already built and people start to get ticked off. Case in point in today's picture. Is it really worth the time to try and cut in front of someone or pass them? Those two people probably ended up paying thousands in repair costs; thousands in court costs; thousands in fines; and thousands more for therapy to deal with their rage. It has residual carryover too. A vast majority of folks who got caught in the rubbernecking traffic this incident probably caused will also have had their tension levels rise. It's not good...

Pay attention to the road... don't look five feet in front of you, keep an overall picture. Cutting and weaving like a boxer will save you seconds, nothing more. Respect your fellow drivers and they will respect you. There will be the occasional jerk out there (and there are plenty!) but don't ever let them get the better of you. I wouldn't want you to become an example for some physicists lecture.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Too Slow for a Frappuccino

The dog days of summer are here and as we go through cycles of heat wave to cool temperatures, we all need something to help us unwind or relax during the day. Some would say that you should have a good drink to relax. For some, a good drink would mean alcohol and although statistics show that a growing number of people have alcohol during their lunch hours, it isn't exactly something that will instill confidence in employers. So, other than soda, most of us turn to a staple of years past. Coffee.

Now some would argue against the logic of having a coffee when it's already hot out, but that's not exactly what I'm saying. Unless you've been living in a dark cave somewhere in the Ural Mountains you would know that the chain Starbucks sells a drink known as the Frappuccino. Basically they take the coffee and pour it over ice before blending it into a Slurpee-esque drink. They are immensely popular, especially on hot days and virtually anyone who sells coffee these days will have some version of it or the other. But as the creators of the phenomena, no one sells more of them than Starbucks.

With that fact in mind it was a little surprising to find out that the latest sales report from Starbucks indicated that their sales for the last quarter had slowed. According to the management, sales had likely fallen off due to the Frappuccino. What? Does that make sense? A drink that has become a staple of any coffee chain is to blame for falling sales? Well, the higher-ups at Starbucks claim that since the drink takes longer to make than a regular coffee drink, the result is longer lines which leads most of our ADD-prone society to bug out and head someplace else. Now me personally? I don't think that arguement holds any water whatsoever.

Why would I say that? Well let's take a look. If there was only one or two Starbucks in a ten mile radius, I could understand the rush. But let's look at the major metropolitan centers where Starbucks thrives and that's the cities and upper echelon neighborhoods in suburbia. In the town of Vienna, Virginia (close to where I live) you could literally go for a stretch of five miles hoping across the street from one Starbucks to another. I grant you that it is a franchise, and a fairly popular and successful one, but then it begs the question, how can there be long lines everywhere? Logically there can't be. Perhaps the reason for it may be tied into the fact that overall costs of living are on the rise and the amount of disposable income is decreasing. I mean after all, the choice now is between filling up your tank with a frappuccino or filling up your car with fuel! And I don't think they've come up with a way to run cars on coffee slurpees yet.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. That begs the question as to who is the father? One could say that greed is the father of invention. After all, there are very few inventions these days that are being driven by the desire for the greater good than are being made for the practical purpose of making the creator money. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but is it really doing anything for us as a whole? As a people? Gone are the days when man (and woman) invented things for the purpose of closing the distances between us; to achieve things that once seemed impossible. There are still dreamers out there; they hide in corners waiting for their chance to spring out and make a difference in the world.

Unfortunately for most of us, these inventions and creations are few and far between and rather we are inundated with countless inventions which are more like add-ons than actual creations. Take for example the latest boom in the modern world, the iPod. Everyone seems to be sprouting those ubiquitous white ear buds from their lobes listening to music. The art of conversation has been replaced by personalised music selections. I remember the days when people complained of excessive cell phone use. Now rather than listening to people chat away on cell phones (which still does occur rather frequently) we can also find the sounds of silence. But just having an iPod is not enough. One must spread the joy and share their music with everyone.

Roll out the add-ons! What do I mean? Well go to nearly any store that sells iPod or accessories and you will find an aisle dedicated to the stuff. Apple has managed to create something that has an endless supply of add-ons and accoutrements. Need a protective case? Everybody and their brother has created one. Want an amplifier for your iPod so you don't have to wear your ear buds all the time? There are at least twenty different varieties of plug-and-play devices to plug your iPod into to share the music.

The latest now is iPods in cars! I remember when tape players became standard features. It was a great day in the automotive world. Now you have to pay to get a cassette player installed (not that I need one... my entire collection is on CD). Now it seems that even the CD will soon give way to the MP3 player revolution. Cars are being touted as the new add-on for the iPod. Proudly plug in your player and listen to the tunes of your choice at all hours of the day or night. Nevermind that fuel prices are soaring and that we are spending millions per year just driving to the gas station only ot fill up again... at least we'll be able to listen to the music we want to hear when we want to hear it! I bet Henry Ford never thought of that, or perhaps he is looking for a place to plug his iPod in.

Monday, August 07, 2006

More Work Than Work

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind tour of so many different companies that I've barely had time to catch my breath. I have finally landed a job with a firm located in Alexandria. After commuting there for three years, I figured I'm used to the commute so there's nothing against going back there. Although I am a bit farther from a lot of my usual haunts, I'm happy to be with a great company and to be working with a great group of people. The journey to this happy point was an experience though.

Prior to landing this job I had worked for two companies both of which contacted me initially. I had not searched long when both of them had contacted me and called me in for an interview. At the time I was fresh out of college with a lot of professional summer jobs to my credit so it was difficult to prove to prospective companies just how much or how little I was capable of. This time however, my search for work was quite different. I was laid off and searching for new work. I had enough in my savings to last me a couple of months and I was fairly confident that I would land a job in short order. I just didn't realize how exhausting the whole process would be!

The two weeks began, like any work week, on a Monday. Usually Monday's I would wake up to phone calls requesting more information about me. You give the usual details that any employer asks for and hope like heck to hook the recruiter or HR representative. Generally if things seemed to go well and if they still remained interested they would schedule a time for an interview. Most companies these days are hot on the lookout for employees and turnaround time is quite short. Most companies called me in for an interview within a day or two. Usually by Monday afternoon I was already booked for most of the week in terms of interviews. After so many days I was back to wearing a shirt and tie.

Interviewing is always stressful. You want to make a good impression; you want to answer all the questions that you are asked, and you always hope that what you say will be appealing enough that the company calls you in for a second interview or feels good enough about you to make you an offer. Unless you're an absolutely stellar person, they generally will not let you know right away so you are in that position of waiting on pins and needles, hoping that you will be picked up soon. I was never worried as to whether I'd land a job; worrying wouldn't help and it wouldn't affect how fast or slow a decision was made and it would only give me heartburn so I took it in stride. At least I hope I did; the punching bag in my spare bedroom may say different.

No matter what, nearly every interview is the same. You answer similar questions and ask similar things of each company. It's so hard for either side to make a decision after only a brief time together. And the time together can vary from company to company. Some are quite efficient in that they try not to waste your time by making sure you meet with most, if not all members of the team you'll be working with. Others prefer to take the lackadaisical approach and let things go free reign! Still and all, it was enlightening to see how interviews are handled in smaller firms versus larger firms. In case you're wondering, many times it is the smaller firm that handles you with the most care and respect and as a result they will often win mine in return.

So I have landed a job. I had a lot of friends and loved ones backing me up during those three weeks that I was sans job, but it was never unpleasant. I take the same approach that I try to have in life in general. Be happy... hope for the best... and keep things light! You can't do much more than that!