Wednesday, January 31, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 3

Travelling to and from India is a weird thing simply because of the distance and time differences. This trip we left on Friday night and arrived on Sunday afternoon. It was kind of difficult to figure out what time it was and what day it was as we made our journey east. We took off from DC and landed in London and then after a short jaunt around the city, we made our way to Bombay. We arrived on Sunday afternoon in Bombay time. This was one of the first times I had ever arrived from the US into India during the day and it was a welcome sight. Normally touching down in the middle of the night, it's hard to get adjusted to the time. In this case we arrived during the day which helped keep us awake until we could get to bed and more or less synch up with the local time.

The journey is only part of the experience. One of the big worries these days is lost luggage and after a journey around the world it is a big worry whether or not your bags have made the trip with you. The state of air travel these days is much improved over the early years and bags usually make it to their destination provided the connecting flights have some time in between. If not, it ends up being a near thing. With nearly ten hours between flights, I was pretty sure that all our five bags would have made the journey in fine fashion but there is always a bit of trepidation in the wait. This feeling is only exacerbated by the fact that you're tired, a bit cranky and ready to just get home. So it doesn't help that you have to swim through a sea of humanity to get to the baggage claim.

The international arrivals hall in Bombay is much improved from the state it was in nearly ten years ago when one had to literally fight to get through customs. At that time there was never any formalized line established. People lined up where they felt appropriate and practiced what I refer to as lining by osmosis. It's an interesting phenomena that occurs worldwide but most especially in India. It's the time when people sort of stand next to someone midway through the line and then sort of pretend that they've been there the whole time. There are people who will call out these line crashers but very often they get through okay. Now with an single line and a single person guiding people to the appropriate line, the process is much smoother. Now if they could only do something about the baggage claim.

Bombay baggage claims are likely the longest meandering claims that I have seen in years. Since there are so many passengers expected to be on an international airline, the baggage claim is huge. Typically, the belt will move along at a stately pace to allow passengers time to lift their baggage off; and with Indians, that baggage is often extremely heavy. Extremely. So it doesn't help when the belt is moving at speeds that would make the drivers of Formula One bow their heads in shame. People of Indian origin often tie their bags with strings to identify it or set it apart from the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that all other Indians do it as well so when all 300 black bags come out, we have to figure out exactly which red string was ours.

In places like Dubai or Washington, the staff on hand were there to help you figure out where your bag was if it was late in turning up (as mine usually was) but in the case of Bombay, you have over a dozen officials standing around seemingly watching you enjoy the fun and if you ask them a question, they point you to one or the other. No one seems to have any idea nor do they direct you to where you're supposed to go. No signs point to your baggage claim, nor do any announcements. You go with group think and go where the crowd goes. So, as we stand by the speedway that is the baggage belt you see dozens of people trying in vain to chase down their bags and lift the heavyweights off of the belt. Unfortunately upper body strength is not often coupled with speed lifting so it tends to be difficult to get bags off. As a result, people across the aisle from me would start calling out and pointing to bags to be lifted off the belt as they couldn't do it themselves. Being the generally good natured person that I am, I lifted as many as I could but I got to the point where I was getting worried about my own bag.

Finally it arrived, everyone else's had arrived nearly fifteen minutes before. We headed out through customs; always an experience. One time we went through customs standing in the green channel with nothing to declare when an official approached us and said we could go through the red channel (with goods to declare) and get through faster. We told him we had nothing to declare and he replied that that was fine. So we went along and much to our dismay, the police began to badger us with regards to our bags. They were certain that we had goods to import into the country. Despite pointing out the official who sent us over to the red channel we were harassed to the point that we realized they were looking for a bribe (all too common). We told them to search our bags and then tell us what we owed.

As usual, the selected mine; always mine. The only thing of suspicion in their eyes was my bottles of contact lens solution. Now in case you didn't know, such items are relatively cheaper in India than in the US when one does the monetary conversion, so why in my right mind I would seek to import a more expensive product which is already available in India at a much cheaper fare was beyond my comprehension. They held out hope that their singling out this item in my bag would persuade us to 'come clean' and pay duty. We didn't, because we had nothing to declare. It's a never ending battle of wits but in subsequent years we have stuck it out in the green channel, no matter how long the line is. The journey done, it's finally time to relax.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 2

With the state of the world today, I am never wary of a little added security and scanning, if nothing else than peace of mind. It can get aggravating and for those of us who don't travel day in and day out it is a change from routine; but for those who travel often for business, it can be a trying experience. I have flown quite often in recent years to various locations and I must say that the checks we go through here are thorough and handled rather quickly. There are those occasional times when for reasons unknown to us, the general travelling public, that security measures are increased and thus lines grow much longer but at those times it pays to have a bit more patience to avoid delaying yourself even more. This trip I had the opportunity to undergo screening at several locations and each one was a completely new experience.

Obviously I was going to have to first get screened even before leaving the United States. At Dulles, they are constantly working to improve the process so that it goes as quickly yet as thoroughly as possible. After checking in my bags locked with TSA approved locks it was on to the security screening area. Prior to even entering the line I removed all metal and put it into my bag and then kept my boarding pass and passport ready for inspection. So many people put these items into the deep recesses of their bags and then forget about it until they are standing in front of the screeners. This despite the fact that there are signs and notices and announcements and hundreds of passengers around them doing this very thing. To top it off, some of these folks even get upset at the fact that they have to dig through their bags again. Oh well; what can you do? Complain or fly? I'd rather fly.

I have a patented system whereby I notice all the screeners and then take note of who I am supposed to go to and who I am supposed to provide what pieces of information. It's always good to keep a smile on your face because for one thing, these folks are working hard and secondly, they are doing it for your protection. Screening here is pretty cut and dry unless you have something suspicious tucked away in your carry on. These days cosmetics and gels and liquids are the taboo. So in addition to removing shoes, jackets, belts, hats and all else, we must also remove these things too. Now we are allowed to carry a bit of these things provided they are in a sealed bag of regulation size, but it seems that not everyone is on the same page or does things the same way.

For example, I flew into London en route to India and got out of the airport to sitesee for a few hours. Upon returning, I was put through security screening English style. A new regulation over there is that only one bag per person can be put through for scanning. Now this is contrary to all the signs and boards currently seen around the US and most of Heathrow which says one carry on and one personal item. At Heathrow, after a fairly tiresome eight hour flight and then getting ready for another it was a bit frustrating to see folks trying to cram one bag into another. This was a particular problem for ladies who usually had a large carry on and purse. For many, both were usually filled to the brim. Somehow they all managed to cram these things together and get through okay. For the gentleman traveller it was a bit more complicated. I saw many a businessmen asked to put bottles of scotch (purchased in Duty Free) into laptop bags; no easy feat let me tell you.

The Bobbies (or police in London) do a good job of frisking and scanning and re-scanning and re-scanning your items until they're sure they are safe for transport. They also do personalized screening where they'll take you to a booth and do a thorough inspection. I lucked out this time but according to my mom, dad and brother, they were photographed and posed like the Heisman Trophy while being screened. I don't pretend the understand the reasons but grin and bear it as best I can.

In Dubai it was much the same though it was a lot more rigorous. They take security very seriously over there and when you're confronted with large beefy guys in security robes, you tend not to make jokes. The procedures there were much the same and clearly explained. Of all the places I visited this trip, Dubai was probably the closest to the US in terms of their screening procedures and scanning. They made you feel safe without subjecting you to amateur art class poses or severe pat downs. That is to say, I didn't feel like James Bond being searched on the way to see the chief villain for this particular adventure.

And then we come to India. There are so many people in India that there is no shortage of people willing to work and take on jobs like screening and security. Although it would help if they bothered to read regulations. In India, despite having the appropriate size bags for my eye drops to be carried in my hand baggage, we were directed to put them all in checked luggage. This despite protestations by many that the boards and rules of all airlines said the contrary. It seemed that to make life easier for hand baggage screeners, the rules were changed. So no cosmetics or any liquids allowed. After checking in we went through security, there again the rules were posted. Only this time, the police were freely allowing passengers to carry water and liquids and cosmetics through the checkpoint. Apparently the folks upstairs had no clue what the folks downstairs were doing. It all leads you to wonder who is really in charge of it all.

Still, despite the occasional frustration, it was good to know that all over the world, security forces are doing their best to keep the skies safe. Sure, given the paltry state of the food service in the air these days it would be nice to carry your personal supply of food and beverage onto a plane, but there will come a time when we will return to those heady days of air travel. Until then remember one thing, always approach screeners in a friendly smiling, non-threatening manner, they appreciate it.


Monday, January 29, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 1

I have been missing for very nearly two weeks due to the fact that I was out of the country. In that time I had spotty connections to the internet and so I couldn't continue updating my blogs. I was pleasantly surprised to note that there were a number of visitors during my absence and that people continued to check in despite the fact that i was not updating the page at all. I decided not to update during my time away simply because I would then be able to share all my adventures (and some mis-adventures) after I returned home to the wonderful city of DC. I left on January 12th, the date of my last posting. I had come to the office to try and finish up as much as I could before leaving. Since we were still in that post-Christmas/New Year's phase, I was still not overly swamped with work, which was a good thing.

I had been looking foward to this trip to India since it would be the first time in a couple of years that I would be going there. I am what one can consider an excited traveller; that is to say that the prospect of travel (and in this case extended) air travel is exciting to me and I was looking foward to it. Packing the bags and then getting ready has usually been a fairly simple affair since I previously only had to look after my bags and that was it. Now that I have my own home, there are so many other things to worry about and take care of that there is more work in preparing for the trip than one realizes. The days leading up to any trip are fraught with taking care of the house, paying up the bills, ensuring that the plants are taken care of, making sure nothing is leaking and in general, ensuring that nothing major can or will go wrong in the time that you're not in the house.

Usually I have left on a weekend so among the last things I do is do a last walk-around inspection and then leave the house content in the knowledge that things are safe and sound but this time I went to work and then left from there. Had anyone seen my car that day they would have likely have been amused at the fact that my passenger on that day was my suitcase and carry-on bag. Still and all, the excitement of actually heading out was more than enough to allay my fears that anything had been left undone.

As I've always said, the journey via air no longer begins at the airport but from the moment you pack your bags and fill your pockets. I made sure to remove all banned items from my bags and then make sure that my carry on did not have anything unallowable either. I had dressed sans belt and shoelaces simply because I didn't want to worry about removing my belt while going through the metal detector and then fumble with my shoelaces. I kept my money clip in my carry on along with my cell phone. I wore a windcheater which I folded up and kept inside my carry on so that I wouldn't have to worry about removing that either. It's getting to the point now that if we remove anymore articles, you could think of this as a visit to a Hindu temple, albeit a highly secure one.

Passing through security in DC is easy once you have taken the time to learn what can set off the TSA and what won't. Keeping the guards happy is one way to ensure that you don't get caught up unnecessarily. Read the directions and have things ready for the inspectors. One of the great things about DC is the fact that so many guards and inspectors are there that if you pay even a bit of attention, you'll get through with very little trouble. There are the occasional folks who prefer to get haughty and end up drawing down the ire of many a TSA inspector but if you follow the rules and regulations, you'll avoid being the person everyone points at and thinks of being a difficult jerk. Of course not all security examinations are the same; indeed, some are downright ludicrous. In the next blog we shall examine the world of security screening.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Getting There is Half the Fun

I like to think that I am a well accustomed traveller. I made my first long trip to India when I was less than a year old. Those days (don't I sound nostalgic?) the journey was rarely ever direct. The journey typically began in DC for us and then we would fly to London or Frankfurt before taking off again for stops in Pakistan before hitting Bombay. When you're a kid, the first few hours on the plane are the best because you are still getting used to all the sights and sounds. You enjoy everything going on because it's a rare experience. As you get older it becomes more and more routine until, as it is now, it can become a hassle. Perhaps that's why I'm becoming more and more nostalgic about the old days. The journey these days no longer begins when the plane takes off; rather it begins the moment you begin packing the bags. What you end up taking with you, especially on long haul trips can either make or break the journey.

I learned early on that I was a person who required a moderate amount of distraction to keep me occupied. Don't get me wrong, I love to fly, but it's also part of the reason I am such a bad traveller, I can rarely fall asleep on a plane, simply because I'm just too excited to be there. But on long haul flights there tend to be down times as well. You usually begin your journey late in the day so that after you take off it's near bed time but for someone like me, I keep looking around. If I end up near the window, then even in the dark of night in the middle of the ocean I'll keep looking to see if I see anything. I used to pack toys to play with during the trip which was okay since I was such a skinny little kid that the seat I sat in would be huge in comparison to me. It made for plenty of playing space. As time went on, and the industry got more competitive, the seats seemed to shrink. For those suffering from clausterphobia it's definitely not the place to be for too long.

So, when packing my bag these days I always ensure that I have an ample supply of books to read. I am often teased about the fact that I carry so many books but for me it is a necessity. I remember my trip to San Francisco last month, I ended up carrying four books on my journey of one week. As always, I was told I wouldn't have time to read even half of them. Lo and behold, by the time the trip out there was done I had already polished off two books. So, one of the best things you can carry with you to pass the time are books. But supposing you aren't a reading buff, let's continue to explore then.

I am also a big believer in carrying music along for a journey. I am a bit old fashioned in that I still prefer to carry my CD player as opposed to my MP3 player. An iPod or any such similar device certainly makes the journey go that much faster since you're listening to music you enjoy. I have definitely made attempts to listen to the radio stations in the planes but it's not as good as listening to your prefered hits. Indeed, when I listen to the radio in the plane, if I'm on an airline lucky enough to broadcast the cockpit transmissions I listen to those intently since I'm an aviation buff.

Supposing you aren't a music or reading fan, what then? Another device which has made time pass by faster is the hand held gaming systems out there like Game Boy. With the cartridges shrinking to the size of postage stamps these days it is possible to journey to faraway lands and live a life of high adventure even if you're stuck in a seat for sixteen hours. Some would say to carry your laptop, and that works too, but for some folks, it is just too enticing to begin working on actual office work as opposed to anything else. I prefer to do something a bit more fun. If none of those are an option there is always the stand by of walking around the plane. Of course this is also a bit deadly these days since the undercover Federal Air Marshal may assume you to be plotting something devious. Perhaps laps of the plane isn't the best idea.

When packing these things remember to do it carefully and pay attention to the rules of security. These days I tailor my travel attire to (hopefully) avoid any strange delays at the machines. I rarely, if ever carry any liquids anymore; I don't wear a belt since I usually end up having to take it off as I pass through the metal detector anyways. I keep my money clip, watch and cell phone in my carry on bag so that it doesn't set anything off. I know to keep my shoes in a seperate bin and to remove my jacket. I wear slip on shoes that make for easy removal and putting on. I do all these things because despite the hassle that can sometimes come from air travel these days, it is still an experience.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sullivan and the Scorpion

David Sullivan couldn't be mistaken for Samuel L. Jackson on even his worst day. That being said, he was a bit surprised to find he was experiencing what could be called a 'sequel' of sorts to Jackson's summer 2006 movie, "Snakes on a Plane." Only this time, instead of snakes the villian is a scorpion. Apparently Sullivan was on a United flight from Houston to Chicago was dozing in his seat when he was suddenly awoken by a jabbing sensation on his shin. Soon after he began experiencing a numbness isolated to that one particular area on his leg and nowhere else. After getting off the plane (ensuring to wait until the plane had come to a complete stop and the captain had turned off the seatbelt sign) Sullivan proceeded with his family to the baggage claim when he felt it again. Rolling up his pant leg he was amazed to find a scorpion which had apparently been crawling around his legs and was occasionally 'prodding' him. Sullivan grabbed the little arachnid and went to the hospital where he was treated but it stirred the debate among travellers as to how it was possible, in this day and age of airline security that a little critter such as this could bypass security, screening and most importantly, the boarding procedures to stow itself aboard an aircraft.

United personnel believe that the scorpion probably ended up on board the plane in Texas prior to departure and it just randomly chose to visit with Sullivan. The airline immediately apologized, refunded his airfare and gave him two $250 travel vouchers but the sting still remains. While watching the movie "Snakes on a Plane" the other day I suspended my logic for a bit and just accept the story as it was. I figured it was easy for anyone with mob connections to smuggle a crate full of the deadliest snakes onto an airline and let the ensuing mayhem take care of their problems. Still, I didn't think it was all that difficult for at least one of them to have been aboard. Similarly, it isn't all that difficult for an arachnid such as a scorpion to sneak aboard either.

Let us chart if we shall the journey of the scorpion and his eventual encounter with Mr. Sullivan. It was a typical Texas day in January when the scorpion decided it was much to dull to remain in Houston anymore. The weather in the region had been unusually cold and in places like Denver there were reports of massive snowfall and more on the way. It seemed it was time to get away before he was buried. Doing what seemed to be the most logical thing, the scorpion decided to catch a flight to the east coast before the next winter storm hit the midwest. Logging on to the United website, the scorpion bought tickets for his trip to Vermont with a stop over in Chicago. The scorpion had also heard reports of snow socking in planes in Chicago as well and was a bit wary but decided to go anyways.

Boarding these days was a hassle and although he didn't have any luggage or major baggage to board, he was not looking forward to the pat downs and scanning that the TSA puts passengers through. So, deciding to forgo the aggravation, he decided to board the plane through the cargo hatch and get to his seat from there. Now getting from the cargo compartment to the seating area is easier said than done and by the time the scorpion managed to get up to the passenger compartment he was rather dismayed to see Sullivan sitting in his seat. Although it's true the scorpion had not checked in and had not been present for most of the flight, it didn't mean he could be deprived of his seat. Tired and aggravated, he proceeded to sting Sullivan. After going through all that, can you really blame him?


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

For Your Health

It seems the good (and healthy) City Council in Bangor, Maine made the decision this week to ban smoking in cars with the intention of making it safer for those of us not looking to get lung cancer; more specifically, the children of Bangor. Now I'm not a smoker nor do I think I will end up being one, but it strikes me that we are going a little far in some of our decisions to make the world a healthier (though not necessarily happier) place. Part of the rationale behind the decision is that smoking is harmful, particularly for young children and as a result, smoking in a confined space such as a car increases the likelihood that they would develop ailments such as lung cancer. Thus the city council decided to make it a crime by banning smoking in cars with young children.

Smokers argue that this bill is passed not so much with children in mind but rather with the hope of increasing the stigma against smokers. Smoking is already banned in offices and restaurants and many cities have now begun banning smoking in bars as well. Walk around to the back of many an office building and you will often be greeted by a cloud of smoke hovering over the group of dedicated smokers who are hanging out in the one place they have left to them. Even in the dead of winter they'll be out there with a cigarette chomped in their mouth while shivering to keep warm. I'm happy smoking has been banned from offices; I can't imagine the days when smoking was permitted in offices. Still, I feel that the measure in Bangor is a bit much.

To give the arguement that smoking can cause cancer thus should not be done in the vicinity of children in a confined space begs the question, 'why stop there?' Recent studies have also shown that prolonged exposure to the sun these days has resulted in higher incidence of skin cancer due to the slow depletion of the ozone layer. Ultraviolet rays are beaming down on us and overexposure means definite cases of cancer. Can't we say that drivers with young kids in the car are putting their kids at risk by driving them around in cars that don't have tinted windows? But wait, there's more! What about the radio, children's ears are still developing at young ages and it is necessary to protect their development. If a driver listens to the radio too loudly then isn't it possible that their hearing could be damaged? I sense another bill before the county council.

Most of what we do to ourselves is rather dangerous. The long term effects of whatever we do, ingest, or experience is bound to have long term results; there's just no way around that. I suppose the theory that everything in moderation would still apply. It just seems that with good intentions we can sometimes take things too far. Most smokers know the effects and consequences of what will happen to them given the amount of time they have been smoking, the frequency of their smokes and such. It can almost become a mathematical equation. However, the vast majority of them are smart enough to know that smoking near children increases the chances that the kid will develop problems. Hence most wouldn't smoke in front oft kids. Give them the benefit of the doubt; and if they don't know these things, then there are many more problems that are bound to crop up.

Lots of things can have ill effects over time. Eating eggs everyday could increase your chances of a heart attack. So can having too much red meat or fried foods. Does that mean that we should ban the sale of these items? Of course not. We should exercise some sound judgement as to when to intercede and when to let families handle things on their own. I can only assume that the majority of smoking parents in Bangor have been smoking with their kids in the car and that led to the decision to pass the new city law. Hopefully though, this is nothing more than an attempt to keep the kids happy and healthy and not the beginning of a trend to dictate how people handle their kids.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Metro for Tysons

I have lived in Tysons Corner, Virginia for almost four years now. At the time that I purchased my condo, the sales associate told me of the planned metro rail extension that was due to be constructed within a short time. Although I don't commute to DC all that often during rush hour it would be a convenience for going to the airport without having to drive or arrange for a taxi every time. This planned construction had been in that stage for years before I got there and it appears that it may remain there for a while longer simply because the left hand doesn't know what the right hand wants or is doing. The hands in this case being the Fairfax County Supervisors and the Virginia State Legislature.

It seems that the Supervisors are backing a plan to build the extension through Tysons underground while the state is ready to approve a plan for an above ground extension. Both plans have their positive and negative sides but it seems that the state is not backing the plan that the 'locals' are pushing for. Tysons Corner is a very busy area what with hundreds of shopping venues plus many of the major corporations that support and work with the government can be found in and around the Tysons area. It's hard to believe that a little more than ten years ago the area was considered the end of the line and nothing more than a shopping area. Since that time it's become a hub of activity whether it is shopping or work. As such the growth has not been without its pains. The largest of these being the commute in and around the area.

One of the major problems in the Tysons area is the fact that many of the roads and arteries feeding cars into the area were designed with the landscape of the time in mind. Take a drive on any of the roads in the area during a week day and you'll see literally hundreds of cars nose to tail trying to get around whereas on the weekends it is much less congested due to the fact that most of the offices are closed. The roads leading off into the surrounding neighborhoods are often not more than a lane or two wide simply because planners at the time had no idea that the suburban sprawl was going to explode out to the west and that people would seek alternate routes to get onto route 66 and the surrounding roads. The two major arteries in the Tysons area, Route 7 and Route 123 are just two examples of bad cholesterol. Traffic is the bad stuff that clogs up passage from one destination to the other. The metro is supposed to be like the angioplasty done to make the commute a bit easier.

Unfortunately this angioplasty could end up making the traffic worse rather than better. The construction of an aboveground route would not be an overnight pop-up book type of construction. There would be a great deal of work along the route where the train is proposed to be passing through. Since the train is assumed to be an elevated train running high above the normal traffic in the area there would be a great deal of work needed to get the bridges running in the Tysons area. It would disrupt traffic to the point that people will leave even earlier to avoid the traffic early on so that they can leave earlier to avoid the traffic later in the day. I've been there and done that before and I know what a pain that can be.

This is not to say that the underground option would be any better. There too there would be construction requirements that would undoubtedly disrupt traffic as well but given an option, I would choose the below ground option simply because it will not add to the 'clutter' that already exists above ground. The state is giving us here in Northern Virginia a reminder of sorts. In Northern Virginia, many residents tend to forget that the majority of the state lies south of Dale City and the like. And while it is a good sign that the state is pushing for the project, it will be difficult to get them to commit the extra revenue needed to cover the cost of an underground option unless they can be convinced of the need for it. If it is a matter of inconvenience for a few months, it would be worth it for them if it means cost savings in the long run.

Perhaps the hands do know what the other is doing. In one sense the decision making by both parties makes sense. The metro authority itself is supporting the above ground option as well simply because the state is backing it and the fact that it would mean the project gets off the ground that much sooner. Fairfax County is holding back simply because the people have spoken and like me, the majority are wary of making traffic even worse through the Tysons area. The debate continues and it seems that we may get that metro by the time I'm ready to sell my place a few decades from now. Maybe I can reuse the sales ploy they used on me that time!

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Read the Instructions Carefully

Sometimes I feel that we as a society underestimate one another on a fairly consistent basis, and then there are one or two incidents that come up during the course of the week that make me realize that perhaps there is a small (yet significant) section of society which isn't necessarily underestimated, but overestimated. What do I mean? Well, if you will note the warning label that is pictured along with this blog, you will see that one of the first instructions is informing the user not to put any person in this washer. Now for the average person that would seem to be a fairly obvious statement. Why put someone in the washer? And consequently, why would anyone even consider putting someone in a washing machine. Simple answer? Because if clothes can be cleaned in there, why not people?

I can hear the collective smacking of foreheads around the globe with this but you must consider that there are people out there who are applying what little logic they have and attempting to use it either to save time or to come up with something ingenious. More often than not, these lame brained schemes amount to nothing more than more trouble. But it also points to a disturbing trend or at least a sign that we as a society are becoming increasingly letigious and using our supposed 'ignorance' as a means of milking money from large corporations. Look in the news and there are often a lot of cases out there that basically boil down to the fact that due to the absence of a warning lable or similar such device, a person ended up injuring themselves and as a result, they were suing the maker of the particular good or service.

Think it's an exaggeration? Next time you're in Starbucks take a look at the cup or sleeve that goes around the cup. There's a little warning informing you that the beverage you are about to consume is extremely hot and that you should use caution. Common sense tells you that that is how a cup of coffee should be but due to the famous case of Stella Liebeck, it has become necessary to inform people of the dangers associated with enjoying a hot beverage. Similar warning adorn foods at McDonalds and almost all other fast food places for the simple reason of CYA (cover your a$$).

It's getting to the point now where companies are 'dumbing down' everything so that there leaves very little room for any type of lawsuit or litigation. I'm still waiting for the vanity mirrors in cars to come with the warning that applying make-up while driving is a dangerous practice. I guess the auto industry figures that until someone sues one of the big automakers for the fact that they wanted a woman to get into an accident by providing a vanity mirror, they are completely to blame for the incident. It makes sense to me. It's a convenient thing to constantly harp that we as a society and a speicies are so superior but the next time you're out in the jungle, see how many warning labels are provided to the gorillas about messing around with crocodiles or something. Then go on a read in the newspaper about the latest idiot who thought it would be funny to go and kiss a crocodile. Perhaps Darwin was right.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Unravel the Mystery

One of the oldest expressions I know is 'beating a dead horse.' However, after looking at this photo, I think the more appropriate phrase would be 'never take a dead horse to a party.' This photo, for those who aren't familiar with it, was taken sometime between 1876 and 1884 in Wisconsin. What is odd about it is that no one has been able to identify the gentleman in the photo nor explain what he is doing dressed as if out for a night on the town seated on a dead horse. It's a curious thing to see and apparently it has sprung up all over the internet thanks to various people blogging about it or attempting to make jokes on the situation. And believe me, the situation in the photo certainly lends itself to some fine jokes.

The photo has been making the rounds for some time now though no one has been able to explain the reason it was taken or whether the horse is actually dead or just laying down for a quick rest. Since happening upon the photo I have been oddly fascinated by it. Now before people begin wondering if I'm a psycho or something, please relax. The idea of sitting on a dead horse is sickening to me. No, the fascination I feel is in trying to figure out what the whole idea is behind the photo. If you look around, the street is almost completely deserted. There is the guy in the background with what appears to be a dog sniffing at his leg. There are a few other people hanging about in the background as well. I guess even in the 1800's there were rubberneckers.

If one were so inclined, it would be possible to come up with a theory as to how and why this photo was taken. It just so happens that I am inclined. Looking at the dress of the gentleman on the horse it appears as if he was on his way to a party. We can assume as much since his clothes do not reflect a night (or day) of heavy partying or any other sort of revelry. As such we can rule out the possibility of this being a drunk driving accident. The horse doesn't appear to have run itself to death seeing as how there is no sign of it having slid to a stop; rather it appears to have just dropped on the spot. Perhaps the 'battery' is dead.

The guy with the dog seem a bit too nonchalant about the whole thing and perhaps it is because he had something to do with the horse being down on the ground. His hands appear to be in the classic, "I'm just standing here minding my own business." pose. Perhaps his hands are hiding the one key piece of evidence that would reveal the mystery behind the horse being on the ground. The dog seems to sense it; perhaps that's why the dog is sniffing around so much. You would think (and this is a big assumption seeing as how I've never owned a dog) that if the dog belongs to the guy, why would he be sniffing around someone he already knows.

The guys way in the background seem to be the usual crop of gawkers that seem to mystically appear whenever there is something to be gawked at. They are keeping their distance and don't appear to be moving closer which seems to imply that something is rather amiss and they are hesitating to get involved. The gentleman is not looking in their direction nor is he looking at the cameraman either. It appears he's just taking a break from doing whatever it was he was doing and decided to have a sit. Nothing else seems to be happening in the photo. The horse shows no indication of having died from anything odd. All seems to be normal other than the fact that the horse is laying down as opposed to standing up. So what is happening then? Here's my theory.

The guy with the dog is the owner of the local tavern though his reputation is a bit shady. The gentleman on the horse was on his way to his girlfriend's house so he decided to take a bottle of wine along to give to his girl's father. Being somewhat new to town he decided to go to dog guy's tavern and buy a bottle. Prior to getting there he stopped in at the other shops and asked around and though the guys in the background warned him, the gentleman decided to go to the tavern anyways. The gentleman ignored all quips about the townsfolk had about the tavern serving up liquor strong enough to put a horse to sleep. So he goes in and buys a bottle which the dog guy warns is pretty strong. Not being one to believe in heresay, the gentleman decides to give his horse a taste. After all, he's on his way to impress his girl's father; it would be best not to give him inferior stuff. Meanwhile, the local reporter for the paper is walking along and hears the whole exchange and decides to keep an eye on the proceedings. The gentleman gives the horse a taste; immediately the horse rears up and collapses to the ground with a loud whinney. Everyone rushes out to see what the commotion is and realizes that the gentleman has put the tavern's liquor to the ultimate test. Seeing the horse on the ground the town decides to pass an ordanance banning drinking at dog guy's tavern. This photo ended up being the key piece of evidence. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Weirdness at the Gym

It's that time of the year when everyone is making their way to the gym. It's usually during those first weeks of the new year that there is a sudden influx of people at the gym. Sadly, many of these people are rarely if ever to be seen again. And while it can be frustrating in the beginning, with a little perseverance, you'll manage to reach your end goal at the gym and get into shape. However, fair warning for those of you making your way there for the first time or after a long time; there are some strange cast of characters that you're likely to encounter during these days at the gym. Here is a list of some of the common ones (and please be aware, these are meant in good fun):

Locker Vultures: are the people who are rarely ever seen outside of the locker room. Either that means that their ritual for getting ready is so involved that you can work out and get back before they have finished getting ready. Conversely it may also mean that their ritual for getting dressed after their workout is so painstaking that open heart surgery seems shorter by comparison. At my gym there is one guy who I have never seen outside of the locker room and from the time he finishes applying after shave to the time he returns to his locker (a scant five feet away) he will have struck up conversations with at least ten random people. I enjoy conversation too but with guys in nothing but towels? That's a little.... odd.

Nature Boys (and Girls): are the people who strut around the locker rooms in the nude with no worries. I understand that we each must be proud of who we are and of our bodies but some people seem to have no problem making it incumbant upon the rest of us to appreciate them as well. Now I don't know about you but it's a bit disconcerting to be in the gym trying to get your shoes laced up while people are walking around in front of you looking as if they just came into the world. The human body is a wonderful thing, but for those who are new to the locker room culture of the gym, take a hint and at least use a towel here and there. Especially in the steam room, we don't want people sitting anywhere they're not supposed to be.

Gaseous Anomalies: are the people (most typically guys) who insist upon eating a full meal prior to working out and enjoy expelling the resulting gas with mixed results. Being a guy, there is that expectation that a burp will illicit laughter and the first time it happens it's funny; by the tenth time I'm ready to use a free weight to shut the guy up. Still and all, these chaps are preferable to the ones who prefer to expend their gas from the opposite end. I was at the gym the other day when the guy next to me apparently started letting them fly. Had it not been for the fact that there were no other machines available, I would have taken off in a heartbeat. My nostrils got a workout that day as well.

30 Odd Foot of Grunt: are not members of Russell Crowe's rock band but the individuals who have never lifted weights before but learn what free weights is all about by watching some of the more experienced members during their lifts. When those guys bench press 200 plus pounds, a little grunting is expected. It's a little anti-climactic hearing louder grunts from someone only benching ten pounds.

Now these aren't meant to scare off anyone looking to join a gym or is a new member at a gym. On the contrary, this makes for some forewarning so that as you navigate the world of the gym, you can see the people who inhabit the lockers and weight rooms. Learning to read the signs will make your visits that much more enjoyable. In cases of the Gaseous Anomalies, a little warning will spare you from feeling sick on the elliptical machine.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Bowl by Any Other Name

I am a big football fan though I'm not the type who would abandon my spouse for the sake of the game. I enjoy watching my favorite team, as frustrating as they are, the Washington Redskins. I probably got into football a great deal more a few years ago, well before their current decline. It was exciting as we entered December because the race for the Super Bowl was coming closer and closer and it capped off January with the ever-exciting playoffs and finally the big game itself. When other teams play I still watch with a passing interest, but there's nothing quite like watching the home team go to the big game and win. Sadly I haven't experienced that in over fifteen years, but I keep on with my Redskins rallying cry which is, "Maybe next year." The best thing about the NFL is that at the end, you know who is on top, and you know who the best team is. For a year at least, that team will remain the champion of the league and no one will be able to deny it.

Contrast that with college football. December and January is also the time during which the college football teams have their bowl games. In years past there were always the usual suspects when it came to the championships, namely the big games like the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl and such. As time went on it appeared that it wasn't enough and in the age of corporate sponsor ship, all of these games now have corporate sponsors at the beginning of their names. This was all still fine since it meant that the best teams still had the chance to come to the top and make a name for themselves and be called true champions of the game.

These days there seems to be a new trend which is to generate new bowl games. I guess the way it goes is that if you'r a corporation willing to spend money to sponsor such a game (and have your name bandied about) then you'll definitely get some teams to qualify and play for the championship of your particular bowl. I guess part of the appeal in this is that you get to see other teams playing a championship game as opposed to the usual group of teams that may be playing in the original bowl game year in and year out. It's refreshing to see other teams out there, the ones you may not ordinarily see. You can't deny the records of the better teams out there and you can't penalize them for being consistent in their winning any more than you could keep them from going to the game.

So I understand the need for newer bowl games in the championship series, but do we really need so many? I can already feel the popcorn and cups of beer being thrown in my direction, but honestly; we now have so many bowl games that ESPN should move their ultimate couch potato competition to coincide with the bowl games. They are nearly all in order and on almost continuously. Every football fan is entitled to one last hurrah before the end of the seasons but honestly, I feel it diminishes from the term champion. 'Didn't make it to the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl? Not to worry, the Raytheon Patriot Bowl or UPS Brown Bowl could always be a possibility.' Pretty soon we'll have a bowl game for every team out there. It will mean that between the two teams, at least one of them is the champion. Oh wait, we already do have that kind of set up. It's called the regular season.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Off On The Right Foot

It's already the second day of the new year. Time seems to fly by quickly these days. Every year people come up with new resolutions and every year, many of them end up breaking their resolutions within a short time. Unfortunately, resolutions are easier to make up than bad habits are to break. One of the all-too-common habits that are formed every year are the resolutions to get in shape and start eating right. You see evidence of it every year when we hit this post-holiday season period. Everyone is fresh off of holiday parties that have seemingly been going on since Thanksgiving. As the last of the leftovers disappear from the fridge you begin to realize just how much you've consumed; and the first time you step onto the scale you shudder as you see just how high the scale can go.

These first few days of the new year are always a crowded too. The gyms are packed with people and the sidewalks are nearly shoulder to shoulder with people too. Individuals who haven't ridden a bike since they delivered newspapers as kids are suddenly decked out like alternates for the Tour de France team. I should know, I have been among them. At one point I had been making similar resolutions and never following through and I came to realize a large part of that was due to the expectation of doing a lot in very little time. If you're looking to gain weight, there are so many delightful options to help you along that it is probably the easiest goal to accomplish. Taking it off isn't so easy, or as much fun.

When I began working my way towards that very goal I initially used to expect it to be something akin to a math equation. If I burn x amount of calories in y days I should then lose z pounds of weight. Unfortunately the body rarely if ever follows such exacting math equations. I began my new diet and exercise regimine in April of 2000 and by November of that same year I had lost 70 pounds. It wasn't a perfect slope by any means. That is to say that I didn't lose a steady stream of weight from the start of the process to the end. On the contrary, it was more like a flat line followed by a gradually increasing slope.

The first two or three months saw me losing minor amounts here and there. I would work out for an entire week and lose a pound by the end of the week only to 'gain' it back after the weekend. Much of this was water weight, but it was the psychological factor that made it frustrating. You would work out so much for so little and see it come back in no time. But I was determined to lose the weight. I continued my workouts and watching what I ate. I didn't become a grass eating machine, but I did eliminate soda and a large amount of sugar from my intake and as a result I began to see results.

In the interim I have seen people at the gym at the start of the year. They come in fully prepared with their workout clothes and equipment and take off running on all the machines, not fully understanding what they're doing. The first few days are always good because the body is exerting itself without realizing that this is pushing the limits of the body. You realize it a few days later when your whole body starts to ache from muscle pain and soreness. This is the point during which you normally see a sudden decline in gym participation. I feel bad for a lot of these people because they're there giving an honest effort but are getting frustrated by their own enthusiasm.

We're into the new year now and this evening when I go to the gym I'm sure I'll be seeing a whole new crop of strangers. In the coming weeks they'll slowly dwindle away until we have a handful of new faces interspresed with the old ones who come in almost daily. One can only hope that they will manage to stick it out and see that difference start to show through.