Thursday, March 29, 2007

Geeks on Planes

Can you imagine having this view and hearing the constant drone of airplane engines for over fourteen hours, only to stretch your legs for a bit before getting on board and doing it again? For some people out there it may sound like a nightmare scenario come true but for others it may be a small slice of heaven. For the few, the proud, the geeky who are truly into aviation, air travel is still a thing to be savored. Seasoned air travellers and frequent business flyers may scoff at that outlook but it doesn't matter. For some people the thrill of air travel is truly in the journey. So where does the fourteen hour part come in? Well, United began its inaugural flight non-stop to China which is their new route and in order to join in on this historic moment, a small group of flyers took two days out of their schedules to make the journey.

Some people may be there smacking their foreheads and wondering what in the world possessed these people to take such an arduous journey if all they're going to do is get there and then come right back. For these people, it largely stems from the desire to be a part of something historic. These people wanted to be a part of the first flight from Dulles to China and then be the first passengers from China to Dulles. There's no medal and other than these bits of news references to them, there's probably never ever going to be any other mention of them anywhere else. It's a way of getting your fifteen minutes of fame and then slowly fading out of the public eye. But again, these people aren't doing it for the fame, they are doing it for their love of aviation and air travel.

In a way it is quite refreshing to hear about people like this. Though I am not as far gone as some of these folks, I do get a kick out of air travel. Sure the journey can be long, tiresome and boring as hell if you don't have anything to do, but it's definitely something I enjoy undertaking. It's good to hear about people who enjoy air travel because in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of complaints and problems with the airline industry. Costs are up and services are down. I mean when is the last time anyone not flying overseas was given a meal? Before you rush to comment and leave responses to the contrary, I do not count an extra bag of six pretzel sticks as a meal. Air travel these days can sometimes seem like glorified FedEx service with everything except a box for us to sit in though the seats on some airlines are certainly small enough to feel that way.

Our boarding pass is our packing slip; our seat assignment is our place in the transport. If someone is interested in tracking your progress, you can use any number of systems to track where in your journey you are at any given time. Just look at some of the incidents that happened earlier this year. I grant you that the weather and circumstances in most cases were more than what could be expected but to leave passengers stuck on a plane for eight or ten hours is too much. Just to put it in contrast though, don't forget that the pilots were stuck in their seats too, and if you think your seats are cramped, just imagine sitting in the driver's seat of your car for ten hours straight. I'm sure they stayed there either due to FAA and Homeland Security dictums or due to the desire not to be pummelled by irate passengers.

In spite of all these things and more, to read about a group of people who enjoy the journey inspite of the hardships is heartening. It makes me feel that my enjoyment of the journey is shared by a small group of others. We're usually the ones smiling and awake throughout the journey; not because we are nervous flyers but because we don't want to miss a thing. Some of us dedicated airline geeks upgrade to premium seats in the plane and are literally pampered all the way from one side of the world to the other. That being the case, what's not to like? I mean, before you completely dismiss these guys as raving lunatics think for a moment. These guys are taking two days off and basically sitting in luxury recliners which also become beds; they have their pick of movies, they can choose from a variety of meals and are racking up more miles in one journey that many travellers will accumulate in numerous jaunts across the States. Plus the fact that they'll also be able to get some authentic Chinese take-out at the airport, what's not to like in that?


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Just Another Brick in the Wall

My brother and I have spent many a day in our youth happily building whatever was in our imagination using those most simple of toys, the Lego block. I don't recall when it was that our parents bought us our first sets but we ended up with a huge collection over the years. So much so that we often had a little red bag in which to carry the pieces in. It was like a mini suitcase and often, we would walk around the house with it off to sit in some corner and build. We built everything from cable cars, to starships, to tanks, to anything we could imagine. It didn't really matter whether or not the object actually accurately reflected what it was we were building, but as long as we had something that conveyed the idea we had, that was good enough. I think Legos probably ended up saving my parents lots of money in other toys and for me, it was something that fueled my imagination and desire to understand how things worked. So it was with a bit of a shock to me when I read about an after-school facility in Seattle moving to ban Legos from the classroom.

The Hilltop Children's Center in Seattle, Washington had allowed kids time to play with Legos in a cooperative manner but what some of the staff began to notice was that some kids were becoming more authoritative and dictatorial in their statements and behavior. Younger kids were not allowed to share in the process and those with more pieces in the beginning ended up using this as a reason to keep power to themselves while denying it to others. All this going on in the land of Legos. In one incident, a young boy denied another boy use of several 'cool pieces' simply because he needed it for a landing strip that he and other Lego plane owners could use. Of course, the caveat being that while the landing strip is public, not everyone will be able to use it. Little incidents like these were building up and apparently it presaged the start of capitalist tendencies in a school where the oldest kid is nine! Down with the Legos and up with Communism!

The teachers in charge of this Legoland project decided to ban the use of the pieces in order to work with the kids and help them understand that ownership of property and 'wealth' did not translate to power. There are people in society who are adults who have problems understanding concepts like that and these teachers are attempting to instill counter-ideas in kids? There's the reasoning right there... they're kids! There are a handful of kids I know who will go out of their way to share something with another. Sometimes it's at a parent's insistence that a kid share a toy or a piece of candy or something but the kid will always have that little grain of doubt in his or her mind as to whether or not to share. After all, they're kids. The teachers reinstituted the blocks sometime later after they met collectively and decided to lay down some new rules.

The new rules in society stated that all structures in the new Legoland were to be public structures, all properties were to be owned collectively by a team, and all structures would be standardized. That's funny, it sounds awfully similar to communistic doctrine doesn't it? This is all well and good in theory but to me it seems that the problems of having individuals in a Lego society has now been whittled down to a society within a group of 'property owners'. Within any team there is usually one person who tends to stand out and help make the decisions. This is not necessarily a bad thing and it's definitely unavoidable. There's usually the one individual who is ambivalent to any decision and there are those who can go either way.

So now, rather than having the leaders of this society spread out, you're focusing them into groups. The whole point of ownership seems that it would go out the window. If a domineering kid tells his team members that he thinks their public structure should be a town hall but others don't, I think there's a more than likely chance that the most domineering kid in the group will have his way. And who made the decisions about the Legos in the first place? The teachers! Who said that they had the authority to make those decisions? They can argue that they and the kids made the rules of the new society together but I'm sure they didn't do anything to help steer the kids in that direction.

What exactly these teachers are trying to avoid or stop is elluding me. I have read their posting on the school's website regarding the whole Lego issue and it seems to me that this is being blown totally out of proportion. They're just Lego blocks, not the building blocks of society. These teachers seem not to understand that some of these incidents will always occur among kids. Psychologists probably have dozens of terms on the subject and they undoubtedly write thesis projects on these sorts of things but still, there is no clear answer. Sometimes in an effort to protect kids or shield them from something we end up screwing around with their heads even more. Sometimes you get kids so sheltered or so desensitized to something that no matter what you say, it won't affect them. Kids are a reflection of us and if we don't like what we're seeing, then we need to change ourselves first. In the meantime, let Legos be what they are; toys, and not the bricks and mortar of our society.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On The Border... of Idiocy

I have visited Niagara Falls twice in my life and both times I was stunned by the shear power and majesty of the falls. It's a very strange person who can go there and say that they aren't affected by the falls in some way. Whether it is the roar, the mesmerizing flow of water over the edge to the rocks below or the beauty of the rainbow over the falls, there's just something about Niagara that draws you there. There's also apparently a draw to cross the border there as well. Now most everyone knows about the problems the US is having stopping illegal immigration from the south through Mexico, but now apparently some Canadians are trying it as well. I leave it to you to figure out which is more dangerous.

This past winter has been quite hard on the northern portions of the continent with Canada, New England and the surrounding regions getting dumped on in terms of snow. It wouldn't surprise me if portions of New York are still digging out from under the two-story snowfall they experienced early last month. As you can see from the picture included in today's blog, there were times when the cold weather affected the falls enough to create walkable surfaces along the edge of the falls as well. Apparently one ingenious soul decided that this was the best way to illegally enter the US from Canada.

Several nights ago, workers and police at a power station along the Niagara River were alerted to the screams for help of a 42-year old man (who has not been identified to the public). This gentleman was using a inflatable raft (the kind used in "Jaws") and an ice floe to cross the Niagara River. The idea seemed good in the beginning but the gentleman didn't realize that the thaw had begun and his little ice floe broke off and began the journey to the falls. Although there are gates meant to stop such makeshift 'boats' from heading to the falls, an object like an ice flow could very well have made it through. In this case, the man made it to within a mile of the falls and would likely have gone over in the dark pre-dawn hours had the station's intakes not caught him.

Although he is currently under arrest by Canadian Immigration Authorities, it gives you some sense of how desperate he must have been to enter the country from Canada. Having had friends and relatives who have immigrated to this country legally, I know how much of a pain it can be to go through the process the way you're supposed to. Crossing the border illegally seems like it would be much easier than waiting for the process to run its course. What puzzles me however is why this gentleman would choose to make his crossing along the Niagara River so close to the falls even if they were frozen. I am an adventurous person but even I don't think I would have attempted to cross the river that close to the falls, frozen or not.

This is the first such incident I have read about in a while. I don't think Canada is becoming a new haven for illegal immigrants entering this country but then again I could be wrong. Still, I hope this doesn't lead to calls for putting up walls and fences along the rivers and borders of the North. Still, at least it would mean one thing. If someone was again desperately trying to cross the river to get into the US from Canada (or vice versa) at least the gate would act as a barrier for any wayward border jumpers.

Monday, March 26, 2007

One Year Later

It's hard to believe but it is already one year since I began my blog. My family had always been after me to write something and I had been trying to figure out where would be the best place. I used to write reviews of movie soundtracks and although I still collect them on occasion, I haven't written a review in a long time. I used to get visitors from all over the world who would write to me about their views on my reviews and it was an interesting way to hear opinions from around the world. The idea of continuing that global connection appealed to me but it takes time to listen to a CD and then review it. I wanted something where I could write on topics I felt like writing about. Maintaining a blog seemed like the best way to do it.

You may not realize just how many people can happen upon your site and when I take a look at the search results that I have gotten hits off of or places people have come from, I smile because I realize just how small the world really is. I have been writing almost daily for a year now and in that time there has been so much change. The day I wrote my first blog was the day my father went to the hospital for a simple angioplasty. It turned out that the angioplasty ended up becoming bypass surgery. Dad came out of the surgery fine and both he and mom are doing much better now. My brother finished his thesis for his master's program and has now officially graduated from college. He jokes that he attended school for nearly 20 years straight and now is his time to relax and get to work.

So many things have changed in this past year not only for me personally but in the world in general. As it happened, I used my blog to comment upon the things I read or the news I saw happening. Some people choose to use their blogs as personal means of relating their lives to others. I find that to be a bit scary simply because it's like opening your house to the world and letting everybody and anybody come in to visit with you. Unfortunately not everyone who chooses to come in is there for good purposes so it's better to hold your cards a bit closer to the chest rather than showing them.

I chose rather to write my opinions on certain things (most notably Starbucks as my brother will point out) and relate to my readers some of the incidents that have occured in my life. Some of them have been good and others have been sad but it's part of life and in writing things down and stating what I feel at the time let's me and others look back and see how things were at that moment in time. I often go back and look at what I had written before and feel that I could have said something differently or stated something more clearly but I stop and hesitate in revising what I wrote. I usually write whatever it is I am feeling at the moment and let those thoughts come down on paper. They may not always make the most sense and they may not always be the most neutral in terms of my stance, but it's a reflection of what my emotions were at that point.

It's been a very interesting year and while it was filled with it's good moments and its bad moments, they are all moments that I will carry with me for the rest of my life and they will have definitely help to shape my life for the years to come. I'll continue writing and I'll continue hoping for more visitors from around the world. For those of you who come here regularly, I hope you'll continue to come by and read when you have the time. For those of you who are new here, I hope you'll find something of interest in my past blogs and become a regular visitor as well. I encourage everyone to try blogging. You don't have to be a writer, nor do you have to be a verbose writer with long drawn out paragraphs, just write what you want and who knows, maybe soon you'll be celebrating your first year too!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Do You Want a Latte With Your CD?

After the blog I wrote yesterday I wrote on inspirations for what I write, I found it amusing but somewhat appropriate that I follow up with what my brother calls my 'go-to' topic, Starbucks. It seems that the coffee house is now officially launching it's own record label Hear Music. One of the first major stars to sign onto the label is none other than former-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney. The announcement came earlier this week that the coffee giant was getting into the music business full time. This isn't the first time that the company has been involved in music. On a much smaller scale, the company has helped produce some smaller albums that were available at certain times of year, most often during major holidays. The signing of Paul McCartney heralds something new.

Some people would argue that a company like Starbucks is setting itself up for problems based on the fact that they are a coffee company and not a record company. And while that is a true statement, it doesn't necessarily translate into fact. Have any doubts? Then look at Virgin. Virgin began as a record label led by maverick Richard Branson who then went on to found a number of companies under the Virgin label. Not all of these endeavours took off but they certainly helped Branson and the company make an inroads to the rest of the world. Virgin Atlantic airlines was one of the first to finally break the stranglehold on British air service that had been long held by traditional carriers but most notably by British Airways. What they offered was the perception of greater service and higher quality for the same price.

In the case of Starbucks they have already attempted a couple of other products lines besides coffee including financing a movie and publishing, most appropriately, coffee table books. Although both have met with less than stellar success, the likelihood of the record label taking off is much greater. Whenever you walk into a Starbucks almost anywhere in the world, you are greeted by two things, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the sound of music. It's not necessarily always the case but it is quite common enough. The music that is usually played in the stores is often typical of the people working their. In the city you may have jazz, in the suburbs you may have classical or oldies or something of a similar vein. What I foresee happening now is that the individuality in the conformity of the stores will soon disappear.

What do I mean by that? Well, there are certain Starbucks locations I go into in the afternoons where I know the music I will hear will be something I enjoy listening to. The music in the store is also part of the experience for me and being something of a music lover, it can make a difference as to whether I linger in the store or I decide to move on. Of the locations I visit, there are usually jazz CDs playing in the background or the XM radio is tuned to jazz and I am often inspired to pick up some of the recommended CDs that are usually played by the staff at the store. In this way I can see how signing to a Starbucks label would be good, you'd almost be guarenteed to have airtime at some point in the stores. But my worry is that when you start allowing only certain records to be played, you're losing out on allowing the staff to be themselves.

For me, when I'm working, if I have some music in the background, it makes my day seem to go by a lot faster. I enjoy my work and listening to music I like keeps my mood up and my concentration focused. It's also the reason why I enjoy going to the Starbucks that I do. If I'm in the mood for instrumental jazz, I go to one location, if I'm in the mood for Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack then I head to the other. The proximity is all very close but it's the music and the mood that can help steer me where I need to go because each store is different in that sense. If we have one label for the company, it's quite likely that the stores would only play what the company's label has produced making every single store begin to seem the same; hence conformity in what was once at least a small measure of individuality.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Waiting for Inspiration

I was thinking on what to write this morning and I began to think about the process I go through when writing a blog. In thinking I came to the realization that it will be one year since I posted my first blog and although I haven't been writing something every single day, I have written something often enough that I have a couple of hundred posts. Do I really have that much to say? Some of you out there probably don't think I say much of anything each time I write but there are a lot of you out there who come here every so often to see what else I may have written about. I like to think that I have a variety of interests and as such, I didn't want to pigeonhole myself into being able to blog about only one thing, hence the meaning behind the title of my blog. I wanted to be able to blog about whatever I felt I thought I had something to talk about. My opinions are purely my own and for good or for bad, no matter what, I say what I feel on certain subjects.

That leads to the next question that many of my family and friends have asked is how do I decide on what to write. It's not an easy question to answer and although I like to write, it's not like I can put pen to paper... or in this case fingers to keys, and begin typing away. My process is not a scientific one but then again, it isn't completely random either. What I mean is that I have a fairly decent sized commute. I don't think it's overly long but it is long enough for me to hear the radio and find out what's been going on in the world. By time I get to the office, there are a number of things that I have heard that may bring about some inspiration on a subject and inspire me to blog about it. There are some days where there are absolutely no stories and, much to my brother's chagrin, those are usually the days that there happens to be an article relating to Starbucks which leads me to write about it. The way I figure it, if it is good enough for a major newspaper or news service, it's not bad for my blog.

Now comes the hard part for many people and that's the writing. It's not an easy thing to express why you have an opinion on something. Again, many people think that it's a simple matter of committing the words to the chosen medium of paper, or computer screen but it isn't. I have been a bad writer for a long time in the sense that I don't always follow the one thing that helps some of the best writers get their ideas out and that's to do with outlining. I rarely outline the flow of my blogs simply because I want whatever I am thinking or feeling at the time to come to the paper. You can take hours to say something but then it loses the naturalness of what you're trying to say. You can spend time thinking about how you're going to link one concept to another but then all you end up with is a thesis and not a blog expressing your ideas or feelings.

I always thought the best thing about a blog was that you could say whatever you wanted in whatever way you felt was most appropriate. But I also always remember that it's a very public place and people often put out their private ideas and that can be a blessing or a curse. I have tried to steer clear of topics such as politics and religion not because I am ambigous about either but I don't want to get into sparring matches with over whether candidate A is better than cadidate B and why their view on country C is detrimental to the security of our nation. I think there are far more learned people out there whose opinion probably matters much more than mine, but at the very least, I can bring the topic up and put it out there.

But what do you write? That's the question I always get. I look at it like this; if someone asks you whether you liked a movie or a book, you can simply say yes or no. Some people would say you've given your response, so what more is there? But the next question is why did or didn't you like it? There have to be some underlying reasons and if so, what are they? By building upon these arguements, you will slowly build up your blog and your arguement and soon you'll have a much more detailed response to someone's questions. I don't always have a whole lot to say on all topics but then again, what I have to say suffices for me and apparently for a lot of my readers. I keep searching for inspiration and it can often come from the most unlikely of places but it surely comes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Asking for Trouble

There's an old saying about "asking a stupid question will get you a stupid answer." There is also another version which is usually taught in schools or on your first job that says, "the only stupid question is the one you don't ask," but for this blog I am choosing to see how both apply to the article I read earlier today. The curators at the Ohashi Collection Kan museum in Takayama, Japan were quite well known for one of the items that they had on display at the museum. It was a 220 pound (100 kilogram) gold bar that was worth $2 million. Some people may be saying, 'so what? Other museums have stuff that valuable' and that maybe true but how many museums actually allow you to touch the object in question. The museum had kept the gold bar in a display case which was left open so that visitors could touch the gold.

Now thus far in my life I haven't owned or possessed anything quite so valuable. I have a few things in my life which I consider valuable either for monetary but largely for sentimental values and these are the things I keep locked up. If I choose to share these things or showcase them to my friends, I again make sure that after all that is done, I keep it safely. The reason for this being that although I have faith that the larger part of humanity is good, kind, and considerate, there is a smaller part which is evil, coniving and always looking to make a quick buck. So it should come as no surprise to readers that the massive gold block was pilfered the other day.

According to some of the museum officials, they were alerted that 'something was wrong' when they heard a lot of footsteps in and around the area near the god bar. When they happened upon the scene, three masked men were busy carrying the gold bar out of the museum and quickly got into a car in which they made their getaway. Officials sprang into action and have been busily attempting to get their hands on the criminals and the gold bar but they have been unsuccessful. Knowing a little bit about such things, mainly from spy novels or crime novels, it will be difficult to get a handle on the gold now because it is possible it could be melted down and reforged in smaller bars that could then be sold on the market. You wouldn't want to walk into a shop and try to sell it off as is since I'm sure people would report getting a massive gold bar.

I tried to think of a similar situation though. I was trying to recall a time when I had seen an object under similar circumstances and where I wondered how or why it was that a valuable object was kept in such an open area. Living in the DC area, there are a lot of valuable objects to be found so in mentally going through it, I realized that the one object that came to mind was the sliver of moon rock on display at the Air and Space Museum in DC. This piece of moon was brought back on one of the Apollo landings and has been on display in the museum for decades now. It is kept on an open display case and all though it is secured to the case, it is open to the public and you can touch it.

Unlike the Japanese museum, this piece of moon rock is left out in the open but there is a guard usually watching it all the time that the museum is open. The display case is located very close to the exits so a very determined individual could manage to get it and run off but with the guard and the fact that it is attached to the display case you can imagine it wouldn't be a simple snatch and grab. In other museums you have valuable objects like the Hope Diamond and all buried deep inside the museums inside locked cases with guards around. You are allowed to get as close as you can, but even then, security prevails.

I can't imagine what was the big idea with the museum in Japan. Perhaps they had a greater bit of faith in the honesty of their patrons than they should have but they appear to have paid the price for it. Reports indicate that the museum has subsequently been closed down for an 'emergency holiday' while they investigate the theft. It's sad to think that an object of such value and rarity was left out in the open but the actions of the theives brings to light another cliched saying that seems appropriate to this situation, 'one bad apple spoils the bunch.'

Monday, March 19, 2007

Make Way for the Superjumbo

On the afternoon of March 19th, 2007, a historic event will occur at JFK International Airport; the Airbus A380 Superjumbo is set to touchdown on it's first flight here to the United States since being unveiled several years ago. The significance of the event is that the Airbus 380 has been in serious competition with the Boeing Dreamliner. Both are so-called superjumbos in that they have the capacity to carry nearly 500 passengers in their current configurations. As you can see from the illustration, the A380 by Airbus will have a double decker configuration that will allow for not only more passengers but more ammenities as well. Plans include possible inclusion of a mini casino, a bar, a beauty salon and much more. With an anticipated range of nearly 8,000 miles, there will be the need for such ammenities because anyone who has travelled on a flight for eight hours at a stretch will tell you that it's no picnic.

I have been fortunate enough to have taken international flights since before my first birthday and in that time, I have seen the state of air travel improve but there are somethings that just never seem to change. When you're younger, the size of the jet can seem enormous. Everything seems on a larger scale and when you're a fussy eater, even the food servings can seem like a lot. As you grow older you come to realize that the seats seem to be shrinking and the actual room that you get is quite cramped and being stuck in these seats for hours on end can be a clausterphobes worst nightmare. On my most recent trip back from India, I was relegated to one of the center seats during the first leg of my journey. From Bombay to London I was stuck in the center seat with limited leg room and even more limited elbow room.

Trying to eat in that situation with your arms locked at your side (I try to be as courteous to my seat neighbor as I hope they would be to me) is a tricky undertaking in a bumpy plane. It's harder still when the person sitting next to you is overflowing into your seat as well. Or, the person seated in front of you decides that it's time for a nap and will recline his seat into your lap. You attempt to placate yourself by telling yourself that you're already one minute closer to where you want to be and soon enough you'll be out of this situation and into another. With the advent of the superjumbos, I am hopeful that there will be more room to at least move or stretch your feet. It's a good thing I suppose that the plane has a greater range and the capacity for more passengers, but the question is, if you can't see an improvement in comfort, what does it matter whether you can fly non-stop from your home to anywhere in the world?

Already non-stop flights from the States to countries in Europe and Asia are starting up. Utilizing some of the latest generation aircraft, many of the leading airlines are working to close the gap between countries to next to nothing. In a few years it's more than likely that all destinations in the world will become one-flight destinations; meaning you board the flight once, and you reach the city you want to go. The era of transit passengers may soon end but not quite yet. But as I stated earlier, with this greater range comes the greater need for something to do while you're up in the air. Passengers fortunate enough to find themselves in Business or First Class often have a great variety of entertainment, food and beverage to enjoy before going to sleep in their large reclining chair beds. It's like having a comfy recliner all for yourself.

For the rest of us, although there are not often numerous channels on the mini-screens in front of us, you can't remain seated for up to sixteen hours until you get to your destination. Not only can you develop deep vein thrombosis or blood clots, but you could very well go insane too. Airline travel is no longer the glamorous adventure it once was. For those of us in the rear sections of the plane, it can sometimes be equated to being a FedEx package. We're tagged, bagged, and placed on the appropriate carrier bound for our destination. The superjumbo era will mean many things for the industry, but it will also mean that if these new ammenities are meant for only those in the upper class sections of the plane, you're going to have many more disgruntled passengers sitting in back and although they will sit quietly with the guy in front of them reclining into their lap, there's only so much more they can take.

Friday, March 16, 2007

I Can Be a PhD Too!

After six years of singing "No more teachers no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks" I am now once again back in school; more specifically, I am working on my MBA. It's been about a year now and I'm probably a little less than halfway through but so far the experience has been fun. I think I'm able to enjoy the classes a bit more now due in large part to the fact that I've been out in the working world for some time so I can relate to some of the concepts they teach us in class now. It's always a benefit when you have some background to what you're learning and that's never more true than in college classes. I used to be in awe of the students who I went to college with who were taking classes and holding down jobs. I was even more in awe of those few who also added to their burdens by double-majoring. For me it was enough work to handle one major, let alone two. But perhaps the reason for it was that they didn't have the minor I was looking for.

It was recently reported that Claremont Graduate University is now proudly offering the first doctoral psychology program focusing on what makes people happy. Now you may think I'm joking (and in case you're wondering... yes... I am writing this to illicit smiles as part of my admission essay to the program) you can look it up online and see that it is the truth. Now I think it's a noble effort to want to find out what makes people happy. Were the world but a bit happier I think we would be in a much better place. Perhaps it would be like the happy utopia we see in shows like Star Trek where the world is at piece and we are only fighting enemies from space with bad nose jobs and weird accents. Still; doesn't this strike anyone as being a bit.... subjective?

I profess that I'm not a psychologist and although I've taken courses in psychology in high school and college, there is a difference in theory and reality. There are many different schools of thought when it comes to psychology and it's difficult to nail it down to one theory that is superior to the others. Also, how can you say that someone is happy and when someone is not? According to the news item, the course will focus heavily on research methodologies and statistics. Again though, my question still stands; how can you measure something that is so subjective. If you ask me to rate the level of happiness I am on Friday versus the happiness I experience on a Friday that is a payday, the difference will be there but it's so much harder to describe.

Perhaps the course will help narrow down the criteria and we will have choices reduced to yes and no type queries that will either give us very broad results or will make it quite clear as to what really makes us happy. For me, happiness can come from reading a book I enjoy, riding my bike for another few miles, eating chocolate and liverwurst. For others it may be chewing tobacco and singing off-key; for psychopathic killers, happiness is often something much more disturbing. The point is that there is such a broad spectrum that I can't see how someone will make progress in determining what makes us happy. Will the end result be research in development of a happy pill which will make everyone laugh and smile all the time, even in the face of adversity?

Perhaps. Or perhaps the ultimate goal of the course will be to spring up a bevy of 'experts' who will go on talk shows and news programs talking about the psychological reasoning behind why someone did something. I mean you have criminal psychologists on television trying to justify why a killer may have murdered someone, we'll soon have happiness doctors telling us that it isn't his fault due to his seeking happiness. I can see it now, instead of the insanity plea there will now be the happiness plea. Locking up murderers will be wrong because the founding fathers were the ones who said "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." You can't stifle the people! Wow! Looks like I already have my doctoral thesis done. Just call me Doctor Happy.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I'm Offended that You're Offended

The movie '300' opened last week and although it was panned by movie critics it has had mass appeal with the general moviegoing audience. That seems to be the trend in a lot of movies these days. It may be a critical failure but moviegoers are flocking to see movies which transport them to other worlds and at least give them a bit of insight into the past. For those who came in late (to quote the Phantom comics) "300" is a movie based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller which tells a semi-fictionalized account of the Battle of Thermapoyle in which 300 Spartan soldiers defended Greece from an onslaught of millions of troops led by the Persian king Xeres who was attempting to take the Greek lands by force. This battle has been spoken of for ages as a decisive example of how where there's a will there's a way. A handful of dedicated soldiers managed to hold off an army that was of epic proportions. So where is the problem? Well, there are quite a few to be honest.

With any case in history, there is bound to be some controversy over whether or not a particular account of an event is accurate or not. Don't believe me? Just think of the last time someone told you about their exploits playing high school football or the size of the fish they caught on their last fishing trip. You would imagine that the player was an all-state all-star or the best fisherman this side of Captain Ahab... although technically Ahab was hunting a whale which was a mammal and not an actual fish fish like a shark in which case you can maybe compare the teller of this tall tale to Quint from "Jaws". But I digress; the point is that there are many versions of the same story and obviously the people or descendents of these protagonists would be the ones getting most upset by any fallacies in the telling of the tale; hence Iran's ire with the United States over the depiction of the Persians in the films.

Many of the politicians and dignitaries from Iran have spoken out against the movie claiming that its depiction of the Persians makes them appear in a negative light. So add another bit of controversy to an already controversial movie. While the depiction of the Persians in the film can be considered negative in its portrayal (after all, they are the villains to the Spartan protagonists) from the standpoint of the audience and the storyteller (who are intended to side with the Greeks) they certainly were the villains. Any historical or semi-historical film will always have a negative impact on the people being portrayed as villains but it also depends on how we as a people interpret what we see.

Like it or not, movies are a tool that many people use to learn about the world. Had it not been for the movie "300", I doubt that the majority of the people out there would otherwise have known about the Battle of Thermapoyle. There are so many such stories in our recent and distant past that warrrant a tale of their own that we could continue making movies forever, but unless there is some hook that brings people into the theatres, it becomes difficult to justify telling the story. The story of 300 people taking on over a million is the ultimate underdog story. If we didn't secretly root for the underdog, Rocky would have retired after his first match with Apollo and we wouldn't have bothered to see if the Bad News Bears would ever win a game.

What people need to realize though is that it is a movie and so what we see or what we interpret to be seeing, is someone's version of the truth. We'll never see the truth unless we are a part of the action. But what we as a movie-going audience need to do is to take a step back before automatically assuming that what we are seeing is the literal and actual truth. Was Xeres as evil a person as is shown in the movie? I don't know, I never met him. Was Leonidas as brave and determined as he was shown? I don't know, I never met him either. I think Iran's reaction to the film is partly attributable to the current political situation between Iran and the U.S.; but it could also be attributable to the pervading attitude that the movies are truth.

There is something about the Middle East that automatically makes people think of evil and bad men. In some cases it is a fair thing to think but not in all cases. When we see a World War II film, we automatically know that the villains in the film will either be the Germans or Japanese and that we will be rooting against them. Movies such as "Das Boot" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" challenged those beliefs and as a result, people began to see that the other side of our conflict was made up of people just like us as well. The Iranian people taking issue with the film need to relax because like it or not, many people out there probably don't even realize that Iran was once Persia. I don't think the film is a justification for going to war with Iran nor was that ever the intent. The original graphic novel was published several years ago... well before our war on terror and before Iran was entered into the "Axis of Evil". Enjoy it for what it is.... a movie.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Phoning it In

I am proud to say that I am one of those guys who likes to try new technology. This is not to say that I jump on every bandwagon blindly and attempt to immerse myself in brand new or untried technologies; but thanks in large part to my dad and mom, I have been fortunate enough to experience new technologies. The first VCRs, the first home computers, the first cell phones; all products of old technology giving way to newer and better technology. It's through these technologies that we have found new ways of communicating with the world and the world has truly become a much smaller place. There are many out there who use these advances as the springboard to the next technology breakthrough and there are others who.... well... I won't call it exploitation, but I will call it taking advantage of new technology and old beliefs.

I recently read an article in the paper about how many small businesses are springing up in India and the purpose of these businesses is to attend and perform religious ceremonies in the name of the customer. Customers as far away as England and the U.S. are signing up and having pujas done for them on a regular basis, so much so that sometimes they can't keep up with demand. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with this, but for some reason, it just strikes me as being a bit of a cheat. Religion is a very polarizing topic for many people and when you call into question someone's religious beliefs you can either polarize them against you completely or not at all. I tend to tread lightly in this regard simply because I don't wish to polarize anyone; I prefer to let everyone practice they way that makes them the happiest.

It seems that this service has seen a very pronounced increase in clients over the past few years. As word of the service has spread, the number of people requesting services has increased and the list of services has gone up as well. Now while I'm sure there are some sane limits on what is being offered, to me it seems a bit of a cheat. To have someone else perform a puja in your name or offer up prayers in your name simply because you can't make it or can't reach the temple is like asking a lottery winner to split his earnings with you because you meant to buy that ticket. If you were able or felt compelled to pray or perform a puja, you should perform it as opposed to letting someone else do it.

There are those who feel a certain benefit to praying in a particular temple or performing a particular puja. They have their favorite gods and/or goddesses and therefore want to keep them happy. One thing I've come to realize in these past few years is that no matter what the religion, most every practitioner of a religion will agree that God is powerful and that God is omnipotent. If that is the base belief of a religion, then it follows that no matter where you offer up your prayers, God will hear them. Is it necessary to follow a set of pujas or practices to have your prayers answered? Not necessarily, but will it make you feel good for having done it? More than likely it will. So then I would do it as and when I can in whatever manner I feel it's best. Offering prayers in a temple that you grew up attending is one thing, but asking someone else to sit in your name is something else altogether. It's not necessarily bad, but it's just not the same.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Falling Out for PT

Every so often you have to take your car to the shop to get it tuned, tightened and in general, fixed up so that it will continue to churn out those miles. The better care you take of it, the longer it will last you and the better it will run overall. There are those who put off such things and I have been known to do it once or twice in the past, but when you invest in a car the better care you take of it, the less your investment will depreciate. At least that's the theory. I'm hoping that soon, auto engineers will devise a car that doesn't require any maintenance for decades. If something needs to be changed, it will be as simple as popping in a new chip or cylinder that contains all the tools to effect the repairs. Doctors are inventing nano-machines to clean out our arteries automatically, why not our engine block? At least this way we might be spared the prospect of renting a sub-par automobile while we wait for our cars to return.

The shop I take my car to has a deal worked out with Enterprise so they are co-located and generally offer customers a couple of days free rental as an incentive to bring your car in. The prices are always reasonable and there has only been one instance where I have had to pay for an additional day or two of rental for the car, otherwise it has always been in a timely manner. However, the selection of vehicles can sometimes be... well... questionable. I understand that free rentals will rarely be a car of higher quality than the one you currently own. There are those rare instances where you may end up with a car that is so superior to your current car that you're inclined to let them keep your car and you drive off in your rental. It's extremely rare, but it could happen.

In my case, I have been stuck with clunkers once or twice that have made me beg to have my car back, tuned up or not. I have had faux sports models that have the acceleration of a sloth or the refinements of a McDonald's Happy Meal. You get familiar with your car to the point that you can flip the station without having to search for the button, you can adjust the volume and roll down the windows. In a rental you're sort of groping. I remember I was once given a Suburu Impreza as my rental. It was a base model so it didn't have a turbo charger, all wheel drive or anything resembling speed and it was the worst two days of my driving life. I am a believer in the philosophy that the driver is the key element, not the car. I mean ask yourself; how many times have you been on the highway and have seen a sports car cruising below the speed limit in the right lane?

That's not because they are driving a slow car, but simply because they are a slow driver. I am much the same; you can put me in any car and I should be able to drive it much the same. Sure there will be differences in speed and acceleration and cornering, but overall, the driving should be the same. Unfortunately in my time, I've found that there are some cars that will not be tamed and will not allow for a good driver to work out the kinks. This is not to say that I'm a driver on par with someone like Fangio or Schumacher but I think I am one of the better drivers out there.

So having suffered through less than impressive vehicles in the past, I was surprised to find that I had a choice of a Chevy Cobalt or a PT Cruiser from the rental selection this morning. I have struggled with a Cobalt before so i decided to go with the PT Cruiser; the minivan of crossover sport utility vehicles. It's a car that doesn't seem to know what era it wants to be in. It's got some retro styling but modern accessories. If it had wood panelling along the side, I would have been tempted to throw a surfboard in the back and commute to work listening to the Beach Boys. I have only driven it to work but already I'm hoping that the shop will call soon to tell me that they will have the car done by this afternoon. I'm going to give the car a fair shake, but things are looking a bit iffy at the moment. Time will tell.

Monday, March 12, 2007

For the Love of Pi

I love pie. I am a big fan of a warm slice of either pumpkin pie or pecan pie topped with a nice, cold scoop of ice cream. The combination of both piping hot and soothing cold can be a great combination. I guess you can say that I like most any kind of pie. But there is one variety that I have had a mixed relationship with, and that is the mathematical pi. Pi is a concept that has apparently fascinated (and plagued) millions of people since the concept was first discovered. For those people heavily involved in the mathematical world or in the world of theoretical computation and the like, pi is an essential component. For those of us on the periphery of such research it is merely a tool but for others it is apparently a passion.

Every year there is a gathering pi aficionados somewhere in the world. The date is always decided (and that would be March 14 since that can be written as 3.14 or as they would say, the value of pi). People have asked why the fascination with pi and the theory behind it and one of the flippant responses given is "Why climb Mount Everest?" When you have people who start quoting George Mallory's famous Everest quote, you know you're dealing with a very determined person. It is a very interesting concept though the appeal has not quite made sense to me as yet. Computers have calculated out the value of pi out to more than a trillion decimal places. That's one of the novel concepts of numbers in my mind; if you keep digging farther and farther, there's more to it.

For those of us who deal with checkbooks and the like on a daily basis, our common background is to go two decimal places, but if we too, like those pi fans out there, begin going farther and father down the decimal chain, we are likely to take some comfort in the fact that perhaps we are richer when we realize see that we are that much closer to having 9 trillionth of a cent. That's not to say that those who love the concept of pi are dealing with an alternate reality or anything. But there are some who are looking into the possibility that perhaps the answer to the questions of life and this existence lies within the trillions of numbers of pi.

Marc Umile (pictured herein) is not a theorist, or a mathematician or even a certified genius; but twelve years ago as he worked as an usher at an opera house he picked up a book on mathematical oddities and since then he has been fascinated with the concept. During his free time he began looking into the concept which is known for a seemingly infinite string as well as having no discernable pattern. It apparently inspired him and now, Umile is hoping to discover the truth behind life using pi as his guide.

That's one statement that I never thought I would hear. "Pi holds the key to the secret of life." As strange as it seems, it is possible; then again it could be just a random occurence that is nature's way of manipulating the numbers and keeping a fair number of us occupied. For school kids, it is a concept that they have to memorize in order to compute circumferences and areas of circles, and the like and for the rest of us, it is a concept that belongs in our past school days and such. But for others, a small group to be sure, it will always mean that much more. We all have hobbies; yours may be racing, Star Wars or skydiving; their's just happens to be numbers.

Friday, March 09, 2007

What Am I Electing?

Last week there was mud flying between Democratic candidates for President Obama and Clinton. This week the mud is flying between former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani and his son. As odd as it seems yes, father and son are apparently throwing mud at one another now in an effort to bring to light the true person behind Rudy Guiliani. This whole episode has once again given rise in the media to attempts at bringing a candidate's private life into the open. I agree with the statement that by serving the public, your entire life is open to the public, but there are some things which can safely remain private and others that can make or break a candidate. I mean after all, what are we electing? The man or the reputation? I prefer to think that those of us who exercise our right to vote are voting on a candidate based upon their stances and the plan for leadership which they are sharing with us. Though I know there are times that that's not really the case. Need an example? How about the record number of voters who turned out to elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. True he may have done okay as a Governor (or the Governator as he is sometimes called) but do you honestly want to tell me that it was his plan for urban renewal or immigration that got him elected? Perhaps it was the fact that he was the Terminator in the movies that sealed the deal.

Arnold and Rudy both may be charismatic and intelligent leaders but I am of the opinion that we need to examine their political history as opposed to their private standings to decide if they are electable or not. Guiliani has been accused of being a mean and neglectful father; he has been married several times and his previous marriages all ended in divorce. The media is choosing to make a big deal about all this but is it truly worth getting in a dander over? As I have stated before, I have yet to see a candidate who does not have a single blemish on his record. Like it or not, politics is a dirty game and it's a truly shakey leader who will come out on top clean as a whistle. You truly have to call into question why this person has no blemishes at all. Does that mean we should support the candidate who is an alcoholic and abusive towards his family? Absolutely not, but it is not the end all be all criteria in electing him.

This dilemma is a very finely honed sword. You can walk the edge very carefully but a little bit on one side or the other and you end up getting cut. Now before people think that I don't care what Guiliani's son has to say about his father, let me clarify that I do think it's an important means of gaining some insight into the person behind the leader. It would make me feel better if perhaps his family was all standing behind him rather than attempting to bring into question his character. Guiliani definitely led New York City during a very troubling and difficult time and he did do wonders to improve the city in general. No one can take that away from him. But the fact that members of his family are now calling into question his fidelity at home can lead to one of two possible (but by no means the only) conclusions.

The first conclusion is that perhaps his family suffered neglect and less face time with him because of the time and efforts he dedicated to the city. That's definitely one way to put a positive spin on it. The second conclusion is that he didn't care about his family all that much and wasn't interested in keeping things together on the homefront. Whatever the reasoning, it is possible that people will draw conclusions to either side of the question. I think that there is some measure of importance but there is no need to go digging into the far past and bring in neighbors he lived next to; friends he ticked off; or waiters who said he tips badly at restaurants. All these things make up a person but they are not all that we should be basing our decisions on. It's up to us, the electorate, to filter out the nonsence that is being thrown about out there and decide what is truly important and what isn't.

So therefore again the question comes up; do we care what a candidate is like outside of the public eye and in private? In having thought about it, it can be very difficult to decide since it does and doesn't have bearing on the issues at hand. Guiliani could very well become the next candidate for President on the Republican ticket. He could be the one face we see next year all over our televisions. The fundamental question will be this then. Do we elect him based on his record in office or his record at home? You decide.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Spring Forward, Fall Back

This weekend we celebrate one of America's most favored of traditions, Daylight Savings Time. Now some of the astute of you out there may be wondering why we are celebrating it nearly three weeks ahead of time this year. Well, the simple answer is that Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to test us and the country in sort of a grand experiment. What is this experiment? Well, they figure that by moving the actual date of daylight savings to the middle of March from April 1st will mean bigger cost savings in the long run since we don't have to burn up as much power due to the longer duration of day. The theory certainly seems to make sense and if it works out, I certainly hope that it means that I spend less on my electricity this year. At least one added benefit for those of us who work long hours, we'll at least get a moderate amount of sun in our daily routine. At the very least, it should make for some interesting occurrences; in fact we are already starting to see some.

When I first started working after graduating college, I landed a job in Virginia; more precisely in Springfield, Virginia. Now for those of you who live around the DC metro area, that springs up images of horrendous traffic, accidents, overpasses, the works. I happened to be commuting around there at the start of the massive construction project that is only now nearing semi-completion after decades of work. Anyways, due to the fact that I had such a bad commute, I used to get up early so that I could leave early from work and get through the traffic in the afternoon. So I began getting up earlier and earlier until I found that magic moment in time where I would be able to leave and miss most of the traffic. That happy hour for me became 4:30. I would get up every morning at 4:30 and be at work by 6:00 or 6:30. On those days, I would never see the sun in the morning and by the time I got around to leaving, especially in the winter, the sun was already on it's way out.

Although I don't enjoy sunbathing and the like, it was still somewhat depressing to miss out on the sun completely. It's a sad state of affairs when your only source of light is a humming and buzzing florescent bulb. In the interim my job and job location has changed but this new daylight savings time is also helping to ease my sun deficiency. Being able to see the sun is a nice thing and it definitely helps get the day started off on the right foot. That being the case, I don't understand why some people appear to be making this experiment by Congress appear to be the worst technical disaster since the Y2K build-up. I'm sure the Europeans are getting a kick out of all this; but then again, the Europeans tend to chuckle at nearly anything we Americans do.

What is the hubbub about? Well, it seems that in this modern and technosavy society we live in, not all of our techno-devices are prepared for the early implementation of daylight savings time. For example, although newer versions of Windows are ready for the changeover, older versions need to be patched. Now having been in situations where I need to patch an older operating system, I know how aggravating it can be. Plus, as your operating system gets older and older, tech support becomes harder to find. Okay, that's one thing, but what about our cell phones and all. Well, the date and time is all fed to most of them from the service providers, so hopefully your particular service provider will be able to keep things in order for your to be able to keep chatting away on the cell phone. But what about the one invention whose existence has meant so much more to TV watching addicts than anything else? TiVO?

According to TiVO executives, the system should have been automatically updated at the time of the last automatic patch that is sent out through the network. However, they do caveat this by saying that older units may not receive the patch correctly so you may end up watching something else when you TiVO it. This simple fact seems to have caused such great concern that people all over the place can talk about little else. It's strikes me as being a bit backward when we attempt to give people more daylight by artificially changing time and people react by saying I can't record all of the TV shows that I want. It's a conundrum inside an enigma inside a puzzle. It's almost like the chicken and egg dilemma. What comes first? Longer days or more TV. Truly, are we springing forward or falling backward?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Time to Panic?

I have made it a habit of reading the farmer's almanac for the past few years now and I have found that however it is that they make their predictions, they have been fairly accurate. Although they rarely make claims as to the total amounts of snow that will be falling in a particular area, they do give a general sense of whether the snow will be heavy or not. Some would say that vagueness makes it much easier for them to make predictions, but I say predicting in what week we are to get snow, rain or fair weather, almost a year in advance in the true feat. For example, two weeks ago we were supposed to get snow according to the farmer's almanac. According to the weathermen we were supposed to be getting a morning of freezing rain with snow mixed in at times before it all ended by midday.

Several hours and several inches of snow later, it was still falling and still accumulating. Now the weathermen had been predicting up to the minute forecasts and were truly left speechless at that particular moment. Yet, the farmer's almanac had predicted exactly that, snow. So now today, the forecast is calling for light snow here in the DC area. Anyone who has lived here for any amount of time will tell you that there are still far too many in this area who tend to panic at the first hint of snow and stay home. They will raid the grocery store and stock up on necessities guarding against the chance that perhaps this is the big one. They stand at the door with shovel in hand waiting for the snow to begin falling in earnest; and they abandon their cars anywhere they can so that they can run on foot in the true panicky style.

Again they are calling for anywhere from one to three inches for the area. That is the type of prediction that I like because it means that they are giving us the range of snow fall that could happen. The weathermen leave themselves open to cover themselves in the event of heavy snow or light snow so that's fine. What unnerves me is when weathermen tend to get all high and mighty and attempt to assuage the fears of the panicky members of our region. So far this year the track record of the weathermen has been fairly mediocre so it won't be all that good if they get another one wrong. In fact, I have put my faith in them today.

The last two storms in the area have occurred overnight so I have ended up stuck at home as opposed to at work. There was one storm early in the year where it started snowing during the day but by afternoon it had warmed up enough to melt on the roads. Today I woke up to pristine streets and cloudy skies and listened to the forecast; the morning was to be okay but the afternoon could turn dicey. I sit inside my building at such a point that I have to walk a ways to get to a window so on faith, I am counting on the fact that the weathermen are getting this one right. Being stuck at home is far more appealing than being stuck in the office. I have my emergency shovel packed and ready and I have parked in the garage at work so that I don't have to deal with digging my car out at the end of the day.

It never fails though. For all the predictions that the weathermen can make, there are times when you can make or break the forecasts based on your actions. What do I mean? I call it one of Murphy's unwritten laws (or perhaps it is written and I just haven't seen it). In this law, 'purchases made for winter weather activities will negate their need for the rest of the season.' What does that mean? Simply stated, if you purchase a brand now snowblower, more than likely, you won't need it for the rest of the year. I remember one year my parents bought my brother and I a new sled. It was one of the long ones which you could lie down in or ride in tandem. We looked forward to using it all winter only to have dustings of snow. Similarly, have you bought a new snow shovel? You'd be better served using it to take pizzas out of an oven rather than shovel snow simply because snow won't be falling.

I'm sitting here now wondering if it is snowing out there or not. It was starting to pick up in intensity as I came into the office so who knows, by now we could have a veritable blizzard on our hands but for all I know it is bright and sunny out there. I therefore keep my faith in our weathermen (as aggravating as it can be) and in the farmer's almanac (can a caterpiller's movement truly predict a springtime thaw?) and the fact that my recent acquisition of a snow shovel will come to some eventual purpose. I don't want to be stuck on the side of the road in a snow drift but then again, I don't want to be one of the panicky members of Washington's elite either. A happy medium should be just fine.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

We're In The Money

When it comes to things like the lottery, I have rarely if ever had a great deal of luck. I am a believer that we all make our own luck but that there is a small, minute and very miniscule bit of luck that floats around everything and everyone that provides them with that one moment of clarity and that can be translated as a moment of good luck. Perhaps it's a byproduct of having watched "Star Wars" so many times since childhood that the philosophy of the Force can be applied to my understanding of luck, but still, I like to have a little faith that it is quite possible that everyone can have a bit of good luck sometimes. At least we're all hoping that our luck makes us one in 176 million. Those are the odds of winning the latest round of the Mega Millions Lottery's prize of $355 million.

Now unless you are Bill Gates, there is hardly a person who would balk at that type of money. I am fortunate to be doing reasonably well financially, but still, there is no way I would turn down the chance at winning $355 million (even if I do have to give Uncle Sam his fair share). It's at times like that that I begin to wonder, would money really change me? Far too often I have read about people who have won the lottery or come into insane amounts of money suddenly going wild and spending up a storm. When the money is first awarded there are new crews and cameras everywhere. On the other side, there are rarely many people covering the fact that you have spent every last penny and are now in debt.

Most of us work hard to earn what we have. Many of us work even harder to get just a bit more and the prospect of winning something like the lottery makes you wish for a bit more wealth. I wonder if I would be different if I won the lottery. Everyone always says that they will take care of their family first and that's the truth with me too. Does that mean that I would go out and buy my parents a new multi-story manor in the middle of Beverly Hills? No. I like their house and I think they like it too. Perhaps I would get them new cars and send them on holidays and give them back the wonderful things they have visited on me these past so many years.

I would want to give some of the money to charitable organizations and research groups. I wouldn't do this because I think it's a way to save on taxes or even because it's the cliched thing to do, rather I think it's the right thing to do. You can stand on a corner and give money away to every needy person you see but it's a temporary fix. In my mind, if you can work with those groups trying to solve the problems then you can make an even bigger difference. I have lost many family members and friends to various diseases and it would be a way of helping prevent it from happening to someone else.

What about for myself? I truly don't know. If I suddenly came into money I would definitely pay off the house and car and all. I would spend a bit of it on some fun trips and gathering of friends. But the important thing would be to keep working. Some may think that it's a crazy thing to want to keep working after coming into millions of dollars, but the truth of it is, I would feel quite ridiculous having worked and gone to school for so many years just to spend the remainder of the days sitting at home watching daytime television. I can think of little else that is less constructive or wasteful. I have been fortunate to have been able to go to good schools and get good jobs. The money would be an overall good addition to my wealth; but as the punchline to the old joke says, "You've got to buy a ticket first." Hmmm... perhaps there isn't much going on at lunch....

Monday, March 05, 2007

Careful What You Say

We tend to forget how small the world is becoming these days. With communication systems and global media bringing even the most remote parts of the world closer together, it's difficult not to say something, post something or record something without someone somewhere in the world eventually finding out about it if they were so inclined. I often check out the locations of the hits on my pages, just to find out where people are coming from and how they may happen upon my humble blog. It's interesting to sometimes see the chain of words that have no clear connection to my page come up at random and then get someone directed here. It just goes to show that if you look hard enough, you can find anything you want out there. That includes video footage of you criticizing the Russian government.

Pictured with this blog is Paul Joyal; an expert on Russian Intelligence and outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Joyal was also one of the vocal experts on television who spoke out against the KGB and their assumed involvement in the poisoning death of former KGB agent and spy Alexander Litvineko. Now police are investigating it as a local matter seeing as how it was an apparent robbery. Police investigators are claiming that robbery could be the only motive because Joyal's wallet and cash are missing after the shooting. They don't seem to suspect any involvement of any intelligence agency since it was just coincidental that several weeks before, Joyal had been on television openly criticizing President Putin and restating the belief that the Russian government and KGB was involved in the death of Agent Litvineko. Connection? For the conspiracy theorists out there, this case is ripe with fodder; for others it may only be coincidental.

Part of the rub in this case comes from the fact that Litvineko was poisoned under similar circumstances. After appearing on television and criticizing President Putin, he was soon after admitted to a hospital with symptoms of poisoning. It turned out he was infected with a radioactive isotope that couldn't have come from anywhere other than an injection into food or drink that led to his having such high doses that death occured within a short time. Again, one can say that it was a grudge held by someone else but the circumstances are enough to draw any number of conclusions, the most popular at present being that he was poisoned by the Russians and now they have come after Joyal.

This is not to say that I do or don't believe it; but I do believe that there are lots of people out there (all over the world) who labor and live under the belief that whatever they say or think or feel is right, and anything against that belief is a threat to their very existance. Some tend to take criticism and other opinions for what they are and strive to improve themselves or their policies by listening to the people. The hope that most every citizen of a democracy has is the hope that as a democracy they have a voice in their government and can speak out to effect change. To say that 'because I'm not running for election' it doesn't matter what the opinion of your country's citizens are means that you don't care for what the people are saying or feeling.

As I have said in previous blogs; we elect people to be our leaders but even more to the point, in a democracy, we elect them to be our leaders. If they don't want to represent us or don't care about our opinions or input, then it is our right as a democracy to speak out and say what we feel. When leaders start to stifle the voice of the people, especially when it is a voice in peaceful protest, those leaders begin to show their true colors and soon people tend to realize that perhaps they're not wanting a democracy but a monarchy. That's a bad thing. Speak out about what you feel. There are so many ways to make your voice heard; just know that whatever you say, no matter how private, may eventually get back to those you are speaking about.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Beware Flying Mud

Despite the Presidential elections, let alone the primaries being a long way away, it seems it's not too early for candidates to begin throwing their hats into the ring. Across the country, from all parties, candidates are lining up to announce their candidacy or intention to run or at least give hints that they will. A few have even dropped out already due to the fact that they don't have the clout or prominence to attract big campaign contributors. And if these first few weeks are any indication, there's going to be a need for a lot of money in the coming campaign. But if it isn't too early for candidates to join in the race or drop out, then there's no way it can be too early to begin flinging mud right?

Mudslinging and politics have been inextricably linked probably from the beginning of time. Although it isn't likely, I like to imagine that the term came up back in the caveman days when two cavemen were in competition to be the tribal leader. They probably resorted to violence and in the end, began throwing mud at one another, hence the political process was formed and along with it, the peripheral mudslinging began as well. Since that time, or whenever it might actually be that political campaigns began to take a nasty turn in terms of personal attacks and such, it has now been elevated almost to an art form.

On the Democratic side you have two very dynamic yet outspoken personalities in Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. Being in Washington we are exposed to much more of their point-counterpoint discussions that probably any other region in the country and already the competition between the two to attempt to win the nomination for President is heating up. Many consider these two to be the front runners for the nomination and that's all well and good, but it seems that the media at least, is more intent on highlighting their snipes at one another rather than their political messages. Here begineth the mudslinging.

Clinton has been a fixture in Washington since her days as a very politically active First Lady. Since that time she has taken on politics on her own and continues to be an active member of Congress. Every so often you'll have someone come out of the woodwork and comment upon how 'mean' she is, or how 'difficult' she can be to work with. Whatever the cases, they seem intent on defaming the character of Clinton rather than focussing their energy on what her political shortcomings are. Given that the opposition is already throwing attacks in her direction, it's no wonder that Obama is maintaining relative silence in this whole thing. But that's not to say he's immune to being attacked.

Obama is a relative newcomer to the Congressional world and as such, he hasn't been around long enough to have 'done wrong' in Washington political terms. Still, when you're dealing with a relatively unknown quantity, the best thing to do is attack the things you do know. Apparently he is unfit because people claim he has used drugs in the distant past, he had an abusive father who drank a lot and in general terms is too inexperienced to lead the country. Now is it just me or is it that this is not the first time such a candidate has run for office? We've had candidates (and Presidents) who have done drugs, had illicit affairs, been in accessory to deaths, abandoned their jobs, had little or no political experience, and were overall, ill-suited to do the job, so why then are we to be interested in these things?

I have yet to see a candidate who is perfect and I think that the sun will go supernova before that day occurs. If Obama's father was abusive then he was abusive, that has a minor effect on how the country is run. He used drugs in college? So what? So have the last two presidents of the country. By trying to defame the character of a candidate, any candidate, I feel that we are 'dumbing' down the process to more of a popularity contest. The person who is more dynamic and interesting will always come out on top because they will respond to the charges and continue moving forward. In the end, whether it is Obama, Clinton, or whoever else who comes forward for the election, I hope that the American people will look to the person rather than what their cousin's sister's brother's aunt's nephew did during their days in pre-school. We need leaders, not experts in a mud ball fight.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Wrong Rite of Passage

I remember back when I was in high school and some of the new found freedoms that came with it. I had friends with cars and transportation and so it was nice to be able to go out without having to bum a ride from my parents. I looked at it as a responsibility and privilege to be able to go out like this on my own. My parents always had trust that I would do the right thing and hopefully all these years later they still feel that their trust was not misplaced. I think inherently all parents hope that their kids will have that same sense of repsonsibility when it comes to growing up. Unfortunately in the case of the two pictured teens in this picture, there appears to be a severe lack of responsibility.

In case you didn't know, this was a surveillance photo taken of two girls in Georgia who walked into a supermarket and casually went over to the Bank of America located inside the supermarket. They proceeded to hand the teller a note demanding money during which time they behaved normally and even joked and smiled with the teller as they calmly collected the money and walked out of the supermarket with what authorities claim to be 'significant' amounts of money. This is just the latest in a string of robberies in the past year perpetrated by young women in such a brazen manner. Last year, a similar string of robberies occured here in Virginia where a young woman armed with a cell phone (and often nothing else) would go up to the teller and demand money with a note claiming she was armed. In most cases it was not true and eventually she was caught, but it seems to have inspired others to make a go at it.

These two girls don't look to be out of high school yet and for them to deliver a note demanding money should have been met with laughter rather than fear. The two robbers appear to be cheaper versions of Paris Hilton and the like and appear to be doing it for kicks rather than out of need. I don't know what exactly the policy of the Bank is when it comes to robbers, but I'm pretty sure that it is that they should comply with an armed robber rather than try to be a hero. In this case, the two girls don't look threatening in the least and the fact that they apparently laughed while perpetrating the crime only adds to speculation that they were likely unarmed.

Teens at that age are still trying to figure things out. They have this attitude that they know anything and everything about the world and that the rest of us, as we age, are getting more and more clueless about things. I remember those days and i realize that I really didn't know that much at all. Would that have led me to believe that I could perpetrate a robbery in broad daylight and get away with it? Probably not. This is because I know that with surveillance systems and modern police work, it won't be very long before I would be caught. If these two aren't caught within a short time, I will be very surprised. Seeing as how these two are probably riding high on the fact that they robbed a bank, they will not likely be smart and stash the cash. All anyone will have to do is see how quickly someone suddenly starts acquiring new possessions. New wealth leads to a propensity to spend it; that will likely lead to their downfall.

There are many rites of passage that you go through when growing up. It can be a trying journey at times but it all ends up shaping you for the future. I like to think that all experiences happen for a reason and that it's these experiences that stay with you for the rest of your life and temper your future actions. For most of us it is common things we will always share with our peers, the gawkiness growing up, finding out where we fit in with everyone else. For these two girls, it looks like their future will be tempered by prison time. If not prison, at least a very restricted lifestyle. Such things cause you to grow up even faster than you may want to; but it's definitely a rite of passage you should avoid before it leads you down the wrong road. Too late in this case it seems.