Thursday, May 31, 2007

Po-Tay-To Po-Tah-To

When writing my blogs for this page, I try my best to keep a neutral tone or to focus on things in general rather than being extremely specific. There are times when I have a very vehement slant on something, such as the merits of a chocolate chip cookie versus an Oreo, but on the whole I try to be unbiased in what I say. The same goes for jokes and my sense of humor online as well. Lately I've seen cases where someone has said something and the results have been a bit off kilter. It more or less boils down to the difference between what someone finds funny compared to someone else. However, these days I feel that the sensitivity of lots of people has suddenly gone through the roof. It's all quite subjective but I'll give you some examples and you be the judge.

I was once at an office meeting where it was a partnering session and during the session we were going around the room introducing ourselves to our teammates. We each took our turn standing up and giving our name, division, and what we do for the company. To keep it interesting, the team lead had also asked us to give our idea of a dream job. There were many different responses to that last request and it kept the attention on the proceedings rather than resulting in people zoning out of the introductions (which I am also prone to do at times). Some people tried to inject humor into their introduction and it helped but there was one joke that ended up falling flat on the ground though it didn't seem like it at the moment. One gentleman stood up and said "My name is Joe Smith and I'm an alcoholic." The joke was timely and it went so well with the way things were going that most of the room had a good laugh though there were a few nervous titters around the room.

The reason for the nervous titters became obvious several days later. The team lead was absent for several days and we couldn't figure out why. Once he returned he told us that he had been to sensitivity training due to his laughing at the comment that was made regarding being an alcoholic. Someone took offense and let upper management know and the knee jerk reaction was to send the team lead to sensitivity training. Now I agree the joke may have been a bit risque but I didn't think it was all that offensive. Then again I'm also not an alcoholic or even a recovering alcoholic so I can't say whether it would offend me or not. In this case it was merely a joke so I don't understand why someone would get that serious about it. Perhaps the person truly was a recovering alcoholic or somehow was related to one and knew of the deep seated trouble that is associated with the disease. Or perhaps they just wanted to test the system.

The previous case was only one instance and in this case, the joke was mostly harmless though it was enough to tick certain people off. But what about when humor is a bit much? What do I mean? Well there's a case in Michigan where an individual was fired from Wal-Mart due to a joke he posted on his MySpace page. The individual, David Noordeweir, posted a comment on his MySpace page that said that if one were to drop a bomb on Wal-Mart stores, the average IQ would increase. Now this again is a joke and although he contends that he doesn't have a plane from which to drop bombs, Noordeweir is still not completely un-culpable from any guilt. In this day and age where gunman are leaving manifestos to TV stations or recording last statements to be played after their deaths, it wouldn't be surprising to hear people get tense when they see comments like this.

I personally don't believe that Noordeweir has a plane in his garage with bombs under the wing but who's to say that he hasn't mixed up the right quantities of fertilizer and cleaning agents to make an explosive? It may seem harmless to say it but these days with the increase in paranoia regarding such things, it's a joke to steer clear of. Especially if you are intending to post it on a page like MySpace which is open to the public and available for virtually anyone to see. People tend to forget that on sites like this, whatever you say is 'spoken' to practically the entire world. And you can be assured that it is likely to offend someone no matter what it is you said.

I mean I could probably write that I am coming up with a scheme to disrupt all pizza service in Washington Metro area by buying up all the pizzas that can be produced and then not paying for it or some other such inane scheme. There's probably an Anti-Pizza Defamation league out there right now who will stumble on this page after doing a search for 'Pizza Conspiracy' and I will end up being requested by the FCC or the management of blogger to recant my statement and issue an apology to the country. You never know how someone is going to interpret something, even the most humorous of statements. Now you can't very well keep your mouth shut all the time, but I guess the thing is to choose what you say carefully. There's apparently much more sub-text than we originally realized.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Silence is Golden

This past weekend my brother and I went to the movies after a long time. Our usual summer ritual was continued when we went for an afternoon show of "Spider-Man 3" hoping that seeing as how "Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End" had just opened, the rush for "Spider-Man 3" would be less. Much to our delight the theatre was only half full so it was looking like it was going to be a near private showing; that's the t ype of show that we like! Neither my brother nor I ever mind when there are other people in the theatre, in some cases it's a lot more fun that way, but there are times when it can get annoying. In this case, what started out as fun turned a bit annoying after a while.

With a movie like "Spider-Man 3" you can expect there to be kids but I didn't realize just how many kids would be in attendance. There were about 4 kids strategically placed around the theatre and as kids are wont to do, during any scene where character exposition was occuring or there was no sign of Spider-Man, they would begin to talk and whine and stamp their feet and ask for food or ask to go potty. Now there's nothing wrong with that; I mean I would like it if the kid could go to the bathroom too. There's nothing worse than going to a movie and sitting in a wet seat and hoping it's someone's spilled soda and not someone's urine or vomit or something. But regardless, the fact that this was a PG-13 movie and the fact that all of the kids in the theatre had yet to hit the age of 7 had me surprised. What surprised me a bit more was that the parents of these kids didn't try to keep them quiet when they got loud and noisy.

Then again maybe they considered it payback for the person in our theatre who left her phone on despite several annoucements before the movie to please switch off phones. I can understand the need to keep it on if you're a doctor or James Bond but if you're talking with your girlfriend about the movie you're watching in the movie theatre, that's just a bit much. I remember when we went to see the original "Matrix" movie. The same thing; we had waited weeks to see the film and when we finally did, ten minutes into the movie, some idiot answers his cell phone and begins talking to his friend describing the scene over the phone. I guess some people reverse the phrase home theatre and make it theatre home when they're in public.

All these things can be annoying but Regal Cinemas is testing out a new feature which can help work on these issues. How? Well, the theatres will soon implement a pager-type-device which will allow patrons to alert theatre employees about problems and request their assistance. A pager will go off with the manager who will be able to respond to the request for assistance. No longer will moviegoers have to sacrifice part of their moviegoing experience to go and get help when the film is out of focus or some ruffians are causing a ruckus. Plus it will add an air of anonymity to the complaining process. I remember going to see a movie premiere and even before the film started, a group of people were being quite noisy and boisterous. A person seated a few seats away from me immediately got up and went to get the manager.

A few minutes later this fellow triumphantly returned with the manager and security guard. The manager proceeded to inform the people in the theatre that someone (gee... i wonder who?) had complained that some people (again... I wonder who?) were making noise and being rude. The manager stuck around for about ten minutes and the security guard sat facing backwards right in front of the troublemakers. Still, after the guard left the noisy kids began again and this time they also targeted some of their jibes at the guy who went to get the manager. At least now there will be another way to deal with the situation.

Some argue that this is overkill and not necessary; I argue that it is becoming necessary. Not being a parent I can't speak from experience about keeping kids quiet when they're antsy but when you have a kid kicking your seat or generally being a nuisance and the parents sit blissfully ignorant of it, it can be annoying. Same goes for people talking on the phone or making excessive noise during a movie. People argue that it is akin to having 'big brother' watching over your shoulder. Perhaps, but perhaps if people were a bit more considerate of other people then this wouldn't even be a consideration.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Soggy Finish

While going to the beach and having barbeques are part of the traditions associated with Memorial Day weekend, another long-standing tradition is the Indianapolis 500. This annual race held at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the most popular events in motor racing in the United States. I say the United States because there are those motor racing fans around the world who view oval track racing as somewhat of a cheat. The reason behind this feeling is because the cars are endlessly circling the track and all it takes for the winner to be declared is a last minute burst of speed to pass the lead cars and your trip to Victory Lane is assured. As a fan of motor racing I can see how those not fully appreciative of the sport may see that as a reason to scoff at the sport but I'm quite sure it isn't that simple a thing to win a race like that. The race this year was no exception.

Starting off on a sunny afternoon, a hundred laps into the race it began to rain and as a result, the race was halted. Now some European fans may be wondering why the race was halted and the easy answer to that is that the road conditions make it dangerous for the cars to continue racing safely. Now some European road race fans may laugh at that statement but what they often fail to realize is that these cars are almost consistently travelling at over 200 miles per hour and at that speed, any impact on the retaining walls is likely to result in a serious injury if not death. They generally drive in a drizzle but the downpour that erupted on the track late in the second stint was too much to for anyone and it resulted in a last minute accident in which Marco Andretti ended up having his car flip end over end in the air before landing in the soggy infield area. This led to the leader of the last lap before the race was called, to be declared the winner; in this case it was Dario Frachitti.

Frachitti is a great driver and has often won races but this was his first time winning the Indy 500 and although it was a hard earned victory, I can't help but wonder if he isn't feeling that his victory was more a matter of luck over skill. In the month leading up to the Indy 500, the theme of the month is qualifying. The drivers and teams are constantly driving laps in the hopes of improving their times and getting closer to the front. As a result, the better teams, or those with a bit more money are able to improve their cars just enough to get their drivers closer to the head of the pack. Franchitti himself had managed to get to the front row and so was in a good position to contend for the lead. Under normal circumstances (and weather) a driver near the head of the pack has to contend with holding position for the last sprint at the end while fighting off the advances of those behind them. In the rain that becomes even more difficult.

During the last stint it appeared that the rain was to begin again in earnest and teams were readying themselves to change tires and prepare for wet weather and the drivers began the mad dash to try and reach the front before the race was called due to bad weather. Now while that in and of itself can be difficult, it's disappointing to see it comes down to a random event leading to the decision of who will be the winner. Under normal circumstances the race can be decided on strategic terms such as who has more fuel and thus can go out longer versus who has less fuel but can put more distance between them and the cars following. This is particularly true in Formula One but just as true in other forms of racing as well. There's nothing like watching a race and knowing that your driver has only enough fuel to make two more laps and there are three remaining. That's what makes driving so intense and that's what makes watching it even more so. I'm happy that Franchitti finally won the 500 but I wish it had been a little less soggy and a little more exciting.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Memorial Day

The weekend hasn't started yet and already holiday revelers are out on the roads getting ready to enjoy the long weekends. For the majority of us, Memorial Day conjures up a lot of images. I remember as a kid that it meant that the pool was finally open, we were that much closer to summer vacation; barbeque grills began to fire up with wonderful regularity. As I got older and began to work, Memorial Day still held a bit of same nostalgic enjoyment for me but there was also a bit of reflection on my part as well. While we may complain about the roads to the beach being overcrowded or that gas prices being high or that the holiday is only three days long, we must learn to temper our frustrations. If we truly think about the purpose of Memorial Day, these trivial frustrations shouldn't mean anything to us and we should remember those who are giving much more in service of their country.

Right now, in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, men and women serving our nation in the armed forces are also commemorating Memorial Day but for them it is like any other day. What many people fail to realize, myself included at one point, is that while we may complain of getting only three days off, the men and women in uniform don't get very many if any days off while on duty. Serving in the military is a full time commitment and although they do have down times from work, there are no such things as weekends. While work may wind down a bit on the weekends elsewhere in the world where they may be deployed, in a war zone, they are 'at work' all the time. Just because it's a long weekend here doesn't mean that the enemy is taking time off to commemorate the holiday as well.

Whether you agree with the war or not, the day is not meant to build a politcal campaign, or make rhetoric that is utterly false yet proclaims to support the war and the troops, it is meant to honor those who have served this country and given their lives and continue to give their lives. In the war in Iraq, over 3,000 lives have been lost and while these soldiers may or may not believe in the validity of being over in Iraq, they do their duty and their jobs. Some people question the reason behind their fighting a war that no one wants, the simple reason is that they are doing what most of us working folks do during the week, their job. They may not agree with the fight but the can't refuse to do their jobs any more than you can tell your boss to stuff his report because you don't agree with it.

I'm sure most soldiers can think of thousands of other places they would prefer to be deployed; whether it is someplace warm and sunny or some place picturesque is beside the point, they serve when and where it is necessary. Despite the fact that the world is so much smaller these days thanks to the internet and other communications technology, the soldiers in the field seem as far away as ever. With efforts in place to maintain security and censorship for operational security reasons, soldiers aren't able to express all they feel about their experiences. It is a necessary thing but it only serves to frustrate those who are looking for outlets for their feelings.

What disappoints me the most is the way in which our politicians, all of them, are using the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as politcal pawns in their games. I rarely feel a sense of genuine support for the troops and always look for the political angle that these senators and representatives may be trying to push. Perhaps my cynicism comes from having lived in Washington for so long, but it's true. From the President down to the most junior senator, all politicians use the troops as the springboard for their own agendas. "We should spend X amount of money because it's for the troops and Senator so-and-so doesn't want to." Statements like these unnerve me because given all the political speak, it basically amounts to the fact that they only want to push their own cause.

During Vietnam, because the need for troops was so high, the draft was implemented and the people spoke out because it directly affected them. Now that the draft has been shelved, those not directly affected by the war are almost indifferent to what's happening. Those who have volunteered or enlisted in the armed services are now seeing their tours extended above and beyond what they would normally serve and all because there aren't more volunteers lining up for the fight. The second World War was different. We were attacked and it was clear who the enemy was. These days the enemy is so carefully concealed that it's almost a guessing game as to who is and isn't the enemy. That being the case, why would anyone want to risk their life for meager pay with the possibility of being kept in harm's way longer than you would like?

For some it's because the military offers a chance for a better life after service, for others it is a challenge to be the best that they can be and for others still, it is the sense of wanting to give something back to their country. So while we enjoy our time off this weekend, take a moment to remember those who have already given their lives for our country and remember those who are still in harm's way and who put their lives on the line every day. Until the war affects us directly, we are very selfish in our outlook because it seems to be away from us or in another world, but when it does affect us, we realize the sacrifice these men and women are making and then the purpose of this holiday becomes clear. Remember them and honor them. They deserve it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

No Frills, No Shoes, No Service

According to Superman (in the films anyways), 'statistically speaking (flying) is the safest way to travel.' And now thanks to the the latest low-cost, no-frills airline, Skybus, it is also becoming one of the most inexpensive ways as well. Skybus began services earlier this week and is gaining a lot of recognition mainly because they have seats available for as little as $10. That's right; only $10! Now some of you may be wondering what the catch is; well, there is one catch and that is that there are only ten such seats per flight so that means you have to get in on the trip early to get the deal. They offer other levels as well which include $30 and $50 as well as $330 for those who show up at the gate looking for a seat. This new airline's arrival on the scene suddenly brings to light some interesting questions on the airline industry today.

One may wonder why it is then that if Skybus can afford to sell seats (even if it's only ten of them) for $10, why do airlines like Delta, United and such charge so much for similar domestic flights? Well, one of the reasons for it is the fact that Skybus will fly you from state to state but not necessarily to the airport you're expecting. If you fly into New York, the chances of your flight landing at JFK are about as likely as Mike Tyson gaining a ninth grade education. It is possible but not likely at this point. The reason for this is that the more popular the airport, the higher the costs to use the facility. For example, because there are so many popular airlines and destinations accessible from JFK, the charges that are levied upon the airlines at these places are much higher than any place else. These costs are then translated down to the passenger.

That's why anyone flying into DC will often find cheaper fares for flying into Baltimore versus flying into Dulles or National (I'm a local boy so I'll never call it Reagan National). So now okay, you're saving money by flying into small time airports a bit farther away from your eventual destination city but why else can the airline afford to practically give seats away? Well, as a low-cost carrier, they won't offer much by way of service. Don't expect meals or a la carte menus on these flights. After all, you get what you pay for and considering you can end up paying more for a dinner for two at McDonald's than you may to travel on Skybus from east coast to west coast, it's not surprising at all that you don't get much service. But then again, how much service do you really get on most domestic flights these days anyways?

Most domestic flights these days offer you a complimentary drink (and occasional refill) and a bag of either 8 pretzel wheels or 7 garlic stick chips. According to Skybus, these costs are already rolled into the cost of the ticket on other airlines, they are choosing to segment the cost and not force it upon the customer but rather leave the choice up to the passenger. For an extra $2 you can get a soda or coffee (still cheaper than Starbucks) and for $10 you can get a meal (cheaper than most meal options at the airport). You want a pillow? No problem for $8 you can have one but at least you'll get to keep it. Great, an airline pillow, something more to carry with me when I go through security. I'm almost hesitant to even consider it but I'm beginning to wonder if the overhead lockers are also available for $1 per bag or whether at least those services will remain free.

The hub for Skybus is Columbus, Ohio; so what that means is that every flight goes through Columbus, Ohio so if you're looking for a nonstop flight across the country to anyplace other than Columbus, well, you're out of luck. In order to get across the country you'll fly into Columbus and then claim your bags before rechecking them to continue on your next leg. Also, by encouraging check-ins online or at electronic kiosks, you cut costs by minimizing the ground staff required. When you board you won't board from a gate, but rather walking across the tarmac and up the stairs. Not a bad thing in the long run I guess. I'm just waiting to hear the day come when they start asking passengers to load their own bags into the cargo compartment or fuel up the plane before taking their seats. As long as they aren't asking passengers to help be co-pilots on the plane I guess it isn't so bad.

Skybus is quite aptly named because it is literally making travel by air something akin to bus travel. I mean sure, if you're flying into Los Angeles you may not land at LAX but rather at Millersville Municipal Airport but still, you're saving a bundle by doing it. I'm curious to see whether this experiment really takes off. In some respects it's like Southwest but with even less service than before. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. With the state of airlines these days and the deteriorating service that you often find, it is refreshing to note that someone is trying to make it look like you're getting a bargain on the plane. Just remember, those of you seated in the emergency aisle row must be able to help in an emergency; those seated closest to the galley will be required to help provide beverage service. Passengers are encouraged to bring magazines aboard the plane since we don't have our own, plus they can double as a table for your lap seeing as how we don't have tray tables. Then again we don't serve anything unless you pay for it so why have tray tables at all? Maybe there isn't anything so new in this airline after all.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

'Star Wars' is Turning Thirty

It's hard to believe that it's been thirty years since the original "Star Wars" hit movies screens in May of 1977. I don't quite remember it since I wasn't born until December but for whatever reason, 'Star Wars' became a very important part of my life. Growing up with the advent of the VCR, I had copies of the movies which I would watch incessantly. Thanks to my parents I had a large collection of toys with which I re-created the movies in my mind but I also created my own adventures and stories and this helped stimulate my imagination and storytelling. For those of us who had our youth filled with 'Star Wars' inspired adventures, it's particularly nostalgic to think back on how the film series has changed over the years and how the movie has come to mean so much to people despite the fact that there were times when the movies moved away from what we loved so much about them.

Looking back on it, I always realized that 'Star Wars' was actually the fourth film in a series of films (this was not originally the case but that's another point). According to George Lucas, creator of the series, the film was originally part of a larger concept but because he didn't have studio backing for a long film or for a series of films, he decided to begin in the middle of the story and fill in the rest as and when he felt it necessary. In watching the original movie from 1977 you realize that it's quite self-contained. Although the villain escapes in the end, there is a problem and resolution laid out in one film. As time has gone on and Lucas has worked to fill in the gaps in his story, we are now left with one continuous story beginning with Episode I and ending with Episode VI.

I grew up with the final three films in the series simply because from 1983 until 1999 that was the only source of Star Wars entertainment we had. I remember when the first novel came out in the early 90's. I was ecstatic to know that 'Star Wars' was back if only in book form. It didn't matter to me because I was so thrilled to finally have something relating to 'Star Wars' coming out; something, anything! For a generation of young adults moving into adulthood, it was a wonderful time. I was still in high school at the time but I remember getting the book and reading each chapter carefully to absorb the details and get it in my head. Some may wonder why it means so much to someone but it's because it was a big part of my youth. The story of 'Star Wars' has classic underpinnings in what is known as the hero's journey. The story of Anakin Skywalker (who becomes Darth Vader) was fit into the mold later. This was originally the story of Luke Skywalker and his quest to become a Jedi and find his father.

Although I am fortunate enough to have both my parents with me I could still relate to Luke's desire to go beyond the boundaries of his home and seek out adventure. I am still waiting to find Han Solo and hop on board his starship for a trip around the galaxy and a series of adventures but who knows, it could still happen. Read any of the message boards or visit the chat rooms where discussions on 'Star Wars' are taking place and you'll find thousands of people saying the same things. Discussing how 'Star Wars' has changed their lives. I can't say that it necessarily altered the course of my life, but it did give me something to retreat to when I was feeling down or even gave me a world to escape into when the reality of this one was wearing me down. The film remains special to me and in the interim it's changed in the public's eye from what it was into what it's become.

When the original film was released, it was a different film for a different time. The special effects and setting were truly out of this world. We were literally seeing come of the most fantastic effects that had graced the silver screen. Over time the effects improved but in the original series of films, the story was what drove it. Lucas himself once said something along the lines of "having effects doesn't mean you have a story, you need a story and a plot." The original trilogy (released between 1977 and 1983) focused a great deal on the development of the characters and their journey together. In 1999 when the prequel trilogy was started, most of us who grew up on the original films were both excited and wary. We had been waiting for years for these movies to come back and now the time was upon us.

But times had changed, it was no longer good enough to have a story or a good movie but you also had to maximize profits. That being said, it was key to target the audience that would help drive prices. Kids. With the possible exception of Episode III, all of the films in the prequels were largely aimed with an eye on producing scenes of stunning fantasy and subsequently tying them into the latest merchandising ideas. Fast food tie-ins, books, school supplies, toys, stuffed animals, rare figures, coloring books, comic books, stamps, you name it, the merchandising existed. The focus moved away and it began focusing on other things, namely money. I guess in that way it's like any person.

When 'Star Wars' was born, it was part of an industry that had already existed for nearly a century. It was new and cutting edge and was trying to establish an identity in society and cinematic history. When it accomplished that, the story was continued much like someone goes to school and learns about the way the world works. As time went on, the focus shifted away from the things that drove you originally to the things that inspire you later on, making a profit and making money. While I'm happy that 'Star Wars' is still in the collective consciousness of society, it's a bit sad to see that as the series has matured, the drive for money has outpaced the drive to keep it near and dear to those who kept it going for so many years. While we continue to enjoy the films and related paraphenilia, we also long for the days when it wasn't quite so commercial. Oh well, I guess it's part of getting old.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Sky is Green Even if it's Blue

I read an article this morning which stated that an official with the Smithsonian Institution is reporting that a recent exhibit on the ever changing climate of the world was toned down in fear of ticking off the government. Before I get into that though, a little bit of background. Having lived in Washington my whole life, I have been fortunate enough to visit most of the museums at least once if not many more times. With the number of family and friends who have come to town, I have had many opportunities to go and see the wonderful museums and displays that showcase the many wonders of our world. As a government institution, the Smithsonian relies heavily on Congressional funding and private donations in order to survive. One of the proud facts of the museums is that they do not charge admission since the government is footing the bill. As such, whether for good or for bad, the Institute has to walk a fine line between reporting the facts or sequestering them in order to keep the government happy.

So what happened with the climate exhibit? Well, it reportedly originally indicated that the effects on the climate were indicative of a trend whereby we would see massive climatalogical changes within a few hundred years. The report is rather consistent with what many scientists and researchers have been saying. The exhibit did not accuse anyone or the other for having been responsible for these changes; on the contrary, from all accounts, the exhibit merely pointed out that the trends indicated that if nothing else changes then there will be problems in the future. Apparently this set some of the higher ups at the Smithsonian on edge because their fear is that those in the government who may not agree with this research will vote to withold funding for no other reason than to hold a grudge against a stance with which they don't agree. Now if this isn't a classic case of steamrolling then I don't know what is.

The sad part is that this is not the first time that something of this sort has happened. In 2003 when the Air and Space Museum put up a display on the Enola Gay (the plane which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima), there were protests by those who believed it celebrated the loss of so many people in Japan whereas veterans argued that the exhibit focused too much on the losses and damage caused by the dropping of the bomb. This was one exhibit which seemed to draw fire from both sides of the fence and those left standing in the middle had to struggle to find the right balance or risk the loss of funding. See, the reason for this fine balance is because the job is to remain balanced and if you tip the scales in favor of one side versus another, you run the risk of losing support. Unfortunately when the government holds the money it means that they have a significant say as well. If they feel that the exhibit is controversial enough that they may be associated with it (since they foot the bill) then the best way for the government to be diassociated is to not give any funding.

What happens then is that by trying to appease one side you end up painting a different picture. Money talks and that's the truth and will likely remain the truth until we reach that future utopian society where wealth has no meaning. When an Institute such as the Smithsonian is forced into shying away from the truth for the sake of a few more dollars for new exhibits, it is skewing the truth from the people. All politicians, liberal or conservative, all have key phrases which they use to rally support. They use expressions like, "for the sake of our children", or "for the future", or "so our children will live in a better world." All these expressions tend to become meaningless after a while when you begin to hear about how they are influencing the educational process. Because the Smithsonian officials worry that someone in the government may get upset over the fact that global warming is occuring they are forced to report that it's not happening but it's quite possible.

It's a way of smoothing over the wrinkles and passing the buck off for later generations to deal with. This completely flies in the face of what they say. They claim to want to help the future but they are acting to only cloud it further than it already is. Whether you believe that global warming is actually occuring or not, for someone to be fearful enough to change their findings means that you already know what you want the people to know and that's not necessarily the truth. It's like telling a small child that the sky is green even if it's blue. Over time the child will begin to believe it because they won't know any better. So has our telling the child that made it better or worse for the kid? By the same token, organizations like NASA or the Smithsonian should not be working in fear of losing funding because what they find flies in the face of what the government is trying to promote as fact. Institutes of learning and research shouldn't be used as sounding boards for the government; they should be places to find the truth, no matter how much it hurts to hear it or see it.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Build a Better Body

My brother and I both grew up watching movies over and over again. We had our favorites which could be considered something like a 'comfort food'. We would watch those movies whenever we were feeling down or needed a boost of energy or excitement. For us, movies like "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Superman" were all staples, but among them was also "Rocky". Now there is an obvious appeal to films like "Star Wars" and stuff but a film like "Rocky" isn't so obvious given the fact that it is more of a drama than an adventure or action film. The first film in particular is very much a character piece that helps establish the character of Rocky Balboa and help gain him support as the movie goes on. The film, the music and the acting are all very natural and well cast that when watching, you can't help but root for Rocky during his championship fight. One lesson I took away from that movie was that it didn't matter whether or not you won the fight or lost, but ensuring that you had the confidence to know you gave the fight everything you had and left nothing back is what makes a big difference.

My brother and I grew up watching that movie over and over again and when I began working out, I took Rocky as my inspiration. I used to watch the film incessantly when I was on the treadmill at home. Both my brother and I had our films to watch during our workouts on the treadmill and there were very few days where you wouldn't find either one of us running alongside Rocky on the TV screen. He was a good inspiration for us and he helped get us both in shape. Now, almost seven years after beginning our workout routines, both my brother and I are in good shape. I still want to get in better shape but I know I will persevere and keep up the good fight to get in shape.

When we heard that Stallone was making "Rocky Balboa", the sixth movie in the series, there was a bit of hesitation on our part. After all, Stallone is no longer the young man he once was and after his weight gain for the film "Cop Land" he had never been the same. Although he wasn't rotund anymore, he was still, not as cut or strong as he once appeared. Still, when the first few pictures came out from the set, it was impressive to see in what great shape he had managed to get himself. When you watched the DVD you could see him working out and working hard to get that last bit of fat off of his body and turn it into muscle. It gave me a fresh boost of inspiration and made me think that if a guy over fifty can continue to work hard, then so can I.

Then came word that Stallone had run into a bit of trouble while in Australia promoting the movie. It appeared that he had brought bottles of testosterone with him for his personal use. Personal or not, they are considered performance enhancing drugs and so they were not permitted in the country without a permit. It raised a whole controversy over here as to whether it was or wasn't okay for Stallone to use these substances. Athletes had for years come under scrutiny if they used such drugs to boost their power. The question came as to whether or not the star should come under similar scrutiny. I personally didn't think he should be since he's not an actual boxer or athlete. Stallone does it to portray an expected image of himself in the public's eye. If he was actually trading punches with boxers then I agree, he should be punished for his actions but in the case of wanting to stay in shape for movies where he's often required to go sans shirt it makes sense. In the end it appears that all he's going to have to do is pay a fine.

Still, as a person who grew up watching his films and used him as the inspiration to get in shape and stay in shape, it's a bit disappointing to realize that his muscular physique was all likely the result of performance enhancing drugs. For a guy whose run up the stairs in Philadelphia always manages to get me pumped up just a bit more, I felt cheated to think that this very last time he wasn't fueled by desire as much as he may have been fueled by testosterone. I'll always hold "Rocky" and the early movies in the series in high regard. They are the movies that got me to the shape I'm in today. I'll keep the inspiration going, but I'll wonder whether or not everything that's come afterwards is the result of hardwork, or artificial means.


Friday, May 18, 2007

In Bad Taste

As one reader quite accurately commented on one of my blogs, there is no shortage of idiots in this world. And while that is true, I think a corrollary to that statement is that there is no shortage of mean spirited people either. Case in point? Well how about 21-year-old Ryan Lambourn of Sydney, Australia who has burst into the news recently due to a game he developed and put on his website. There's nothing special about that other than the fact that the game is a cartoony depiction of the shootings by Cho Seong-Hui at Virginia Tech last month. Apparently Lambourn claims to have developed the game "because it's funny" and to "make people angry". Well, he has certainly succeeded in raising the ire of a lot of people. With the murders still fresh in everyone's mind, this attempt to make light of a very tragic situation flies in the face of what is in good taste. Apparently this is a good example of what is in terrible taste.

Lambourn claims to have sympathy for the families who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech but he also claims to have sympathy for Cho. According to Lambourn, he realizes that some people are left with no other means of expressing anger and frustration other than lashing out and it is for this very reason that Cho did what he did and because he understands that, Lambourn doesn't have any problem with having developed the game. At the instigation of a friend who thought it was a "hillarious" idea, Lambourn developed the game and posted it on his website. Knowing that it was sure to create quite a stir, Lambourn put the game up with a ransom demand for taking it down. According to statements he's made, he will take the game down after he receives $2,000 in donations and he will take it down and offer an apology if he receives $3,000 or more in donations. I certainly hope that Lambourn isn't a business major because if he is, any company that hires him is going to be at a loss if his bookkeeping skills make that much sense.

The idea that by creating something that is bound to anger a lot of people and then expect them to pay you for it is ridiculous but I guess it doesn't matter to Lambourn since he's so far removed from the incident. And that's the truth around the world actually. Every day around the world, there are incidents and accidents that occur with the tragic loss of life. In Iraq on an almost daily basis, men and women are dying and yet life moves on around the rest of the world. While this may be the unfortunate norm in a war torn country like Iraq, it isn't all that common here in the States and since this occurred in such a prominent place, it's not surprising that it received as much attention as it did.

However, the fundamental difference between what's happening in the world and what happened here in Virginia Tech is that people here in the States identify more closely with the students who were killed rather than people from anywhere else. But even when we know that people are dying around the world, we don't use it as a source of humor. Still, it's not to say that it hasn't been used for financial gain in the past either. At the time the Battle of Mogadishu occurred back in 1993 it was viewed as a tragic event and was chronicled in the book "Black Hawk Down". Later it became a movie and is the basis for a series of games for various gaming platforms. The difference here is that we view this entertainment as a means of honoring the sacrifice of our soldiers who gave their lives for others. We don't see the killing of the opponents as anything other than killing the enemy because they are on the opposite side.

Lambourn argues along similar lines saying that Cho was not necessarily bad but was so repressed by society that his violence was his only means of drawing attention to himself. It's very extreme and no one can argue that Lambourn's theory makes any sense. To kill others to gain attention is not like killing in the line of duty in order to defeat warlords or enemy combatants. The victims in Virginia Tech were not doing anything more than living their lives when they were tragically cut down and killed. To make light of it and use it as a source of attempted income is low and insensitive. Perhaps Lambourn doesn't care because the tragedy didn't directly affect him. Hopefully he doesn't have to experience that kind of loss before he realizes the insensitive nature of his actions. But if he does, I'm sure he won't be laughing then.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Theory Behind Office Lunches

One of the staples of most any office environment is the office lunch. It's that time when the bosses want to: congratulate their workforce for a job well done; celebrate the departure of a co-worker for greener pastures; make an attempt to 'get-to-know' their staff outside of the work setting; or simply to take some time away from work. Whatever the reason various managers have given in the past, I have uncovered the truth behind it in exacting detail given years of research and contemplation on the subject. This is something that is taught to upper management in offices across the country and doesn't always apply to all offices but it could apply to some. As anything on this page, take it with a good sense of humor, it's not the truth, or is it?

Office lunches occur on occasion and when the do occur, depending on the size of the team or office, it can be a big affair or it can be somewhat simple. I have worked in an office where the total office was made up of no more than fifteen people so it was easy to cater lunches for that many people. We had fajita parties and we had Chinese food parties. But most commonly we had pizza parties. The pizza party is an unwritten staple of the office world. When in doubt, feed people pizza. It's funny that how from the time we are kids to the time we're working adults, those in charge will provide us with pizza as a means of satisfying the masses. Don't get me wrong, I am a big pizza fan but I find it humorous that when you go to a birthday party as a five year old, you're already being trained to enjoy pizza for the time you're in a working environment.

You usually choose a food like pizza because it appeals to most people. Got veggie people in the office? No problem, order a veggie pizza. Got people who crave meat? No problem, throw some pepperoni and sausage on that bad boy and have yourself a meal! There was a kink thrown into the works when people suddenly started going nuts about the South Beach Diet or the Zone Diet and what not and began eating only proteins and no carbs and what have you. But like all fads, it was a passing phase and now most people are back on pizza. At least for the most part. So is that the reason office managers choose pizza or other such foods for their luncheons or whatever? For the sake of simplicity? I think not.

In my research I uncovered a study that supposedly took place in Japan where an office was tasked with discovering why productivity was down in their office. After studying the office, researchers realized that part of it was that people were losing time at lunch by going to the microwave and warming up their lunch. Most offices have only one or two microwaves per kitchen area and when you multiply that by a conservative estimated average office area of 15 you see why it can lead to lost productivity. So the recommendation came down to increase productivity by taking action. The most obvious was to purchase new microwaves but that was not conducive to team unity so they chose option two.

Option two was to host office parties but to ensure that rather than providing the office workers a choice, you provide them with food that is both tasty and bad for you. Hence the increase in pizza and other such foods at lunch. The cost per person is relatively cheap and you get a workforce that will fill up (since it's free to the employee) and then gain weight. By gaining weight, they are less apt to want to get up and wander around and so by being lazy, they will stay chained to their desks and continue working. For those who choose not to come to such office lunches, that's okay. More than likely they are workaholics anyways and they enjoy being chained to their desk so no problem there either.

A followup study found that obesity and lethargy had increased in this particular workforce but productivity had gone through the roof. Followups are needed to determine the effects this may have on medical insurance rates but if it is found to be negligible in the long run due to higher productivity rates, you can expect to see more pizza and cake and other such bad goodies coming to your office too. So the next time you attend a luncheon for your office, you'll know why you have little or no choice in the menu. It's all for the greater good of the company!


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rules of the Road

A report was released earlier this week that ranked the cities with the most road rage and not surprisingly, DC was listed as number 5. It's a dubious honor to be listed among the top cities with incidents of road rage but it shouldn't come as much of a shock to anyone who has been out on the roads in this area. The survey was conducted and the rankings based on the number of cases that were reported. While our ranking here in DC isn't surprising, the apparent lack of change these revelations are bringing about are what's surprising. Knowing that there are far too many incidents of road rage in the region, we aren't doing much as a community to defuse the situation; rather we tend to help make it worse. It seems that as we get more and more technologically advanced, our common sense is going out the door. What do I mean by that? Well, think about it. Cell phones have been around for a while and the fact that you can be distracted while talking on the phone means you have a higher chance of getting into an accident.

The result? There were increased calls for banning cell phone use without a headset or something to allow hands-free talking. Okay, that made sense; but what do we do instead? We use our cell phones to send text messages and then when we run into someone, we use the excuse that we weren't using the phone, we were texting. Now I don't know of many people who can text without looking at the phone except for perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Departed" but still, even then, your mind is somewhat fixated on punching the right key to get the right letter rather than focusing on the fact that the light is turning yellow and that you can't make it through before it goes red. People shouldn't have to be told that it's a dangerous practice but then again, if it isn't expressly written, anything goes I suppose.

Part of the problem is likely the fact that we as a society are becoming busier and that's both a good and a bad thing. With added chores and duties outside of the house, we're always on the go and when we hit the roads, it doesn't help that we're running into traffic. I used to leave for my first job at 5:00 in the morning so that I could be at my desk by 6:00 or 6:30 so that I could leave for home by 3:00 in the afternoon. If I didn't do that, then I would end up sitting in traffic until late evening. I found that the earlier I left, the more traffic would be there. It seemed that I wasn't the only one with that bright idea and rather than avoiding traffic I ended up sitting in it anyways but at a much earlier time. It used to be frustrating but I found ample solace in music and other forms of entertainment in the car. It didn't make the trip faster but it was less frustrating.

Still, there are some drivers out there whose attitudes towards the rules of the road or lack thereof that seem to promote frustration rather than diffuse it. For example, I understand that not everyone wants to speed or exceed the speed limit so in that case, stay in the right most lane. Yet there are those who feel it incumbant upon us to drive the speed limit in the left most lane and then act as if we are at fault, not them. Do I mean to say that I promote speeding and dangerous driving? No, but everyone has places to go and things to do but when you end up looking like an island in a stream of cars, it's time to switch lanes. The general rule, which I think has been in place for quite some time, is that when you are being passed on both the right and left, move one lane to the right until you are no longer being passed on the right as well as the left.

Speaking of switching lanes, there's another point where you see so many bouts of road rage come springing forth. When you know you want to switch lanes, the rules I was taught were to give my indicator, check your mirrors, check your blind spot, check the mirrors again and make the switch. These days the rule seems to be give the indicator (if you want) and make an immediate switch of lanes. The other day I was driving into work and a woman gave her indicator and pulled into my lane with no warning and then began to flip me off thinking that I was attempting to deny her entry into the lane. I shrugged it off and attempted to continue my drive into work but when you have people driving like selfish folks, it's difficult to maintain composure at times.

It sometimes seems like the people here in the DC metro area act more territorial than some animals. Another example is when merging into traffic onto the highway. There are certain areas around here where people attempting to merge onto the highway and those attempting to get off must occupy the same lane for a brief moment while they make the switch. What generally tends to happen is that the folks who are attempting to get off see people entering their lanes and rather than allowing them entry into the lane (and allowing the traffic flow to keep flowing) they will cut off the person, closing any gap in traffic. This 'me first' attitude that seems to dominate the personalities of so many drivers out there is what is adding to traffic. If people began showing a little more deference and drove with a little less selfishness then perhaps traffic would continue to move and the incidents of road rage would drop at least a little bit. One can hope.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Not Playing by the Rules

Let's look at a situation. Supposing I am working for a company where my girlfriend happens to be working, one can argue that there may be a potential for a conflict on interest due to the fact that we are in a relationship and that could potentially affect our business relationship. In an effort to remain impartial and removed from the situation, I make a recommendation that my girlfriend take up a position with another company where I have friends. Okay. Problem solved right? Yes. But what if in my nepotistic attempt also keeps my girlfriend on the payroll of her former company as well. Okay, at a reduced salary due to years of service? Sure, that could work; it almost seems like a pension. But what if I ensure that she not only gets her full salary but also gets a raise of nearly 35%, plus a bonus that boosts the total to an increase in salary of nearly 50%? Again, you can say that as the head of the company it's my right to make that decision. But what if this circumvents the leadership of the company who I am also obligated to consult in such cases? After all, I am still privy to the laws of the company aren't I?

Were this the normal corporate world, there would have been firings and investigations galore but in the case of current World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, it's all in the line of duty. Wolfowitz and the Bush Administration are making continuous attempts to downplay the situation and make it appear that the actions taken by Wolfowitz are no big deal; after all, he is the head of the World Bank isn't he? While that in and of itself is quite true, it doesn't help the image that corporate America has gained in the past few years. With scandals regarding the falsification of books and income for many major coporations around the nation, what the country doesn't need is another corporate scandal in which the leadership is called into question.

I am not arguing on whether or not Wolfowitz is qualified to continue leading the World Bank or not but I do believe that given the reactions of other international officers within the company, the Administration should consider actions against Wolfowitz. There is nothing in my mind that can justify not only paying an employee who is no longer at a company but to also bump up her pay by nearly 50%? That's one Hell of a severence package. If that were the case across the country in all corporations, I think you'd see a sudden spike in the number of people changing jobs and leaving their current employment. Just think, a person earning minimum wage would be able to retire after changing jobs about six times with severance packages like these. To think, all that time and energy (and money) that was spent on my college education. I could have just joined a company and quit and made more money in less time if that was the rule.

Obviously that's not the way things work and it's a negative reflection on not only the Administration but of the leadership of our country as well. As it is, there are protests against the World Bank all the time. There are organizations around the world who see the World Bank as the reason so many developing countries are having such a hard time. It's simply because they can't work off the interest payments on the loans made to them by the Bank. When there are already people calling for the end of the World Bank's services, the last thing the organization needs is to have its leadership accused of corruption or misdeeds. And it reflects poorly on the Administration when they leap to defend him. No matter what the circumstances, the actions taken by Wolfowitz are about as kosher as a lion slaughtering a gazelle.

Should Wolfowitz resign? I believe he should. Not because he is incompetent or incapable, but because he knowingly broke the rules and then continues to deny having done anything wrong. Were this anyone else or were it not for the fact that the United States is a majority stakeholder in the Bank, the person would have been dismissed long ago. To say that he misinterpreted the recommendations of the ethics committee makes it appear that he was too stupid to get clarification. This is a man who was deputy at the Pentagon and integral in helping sway the nation to throw support for the war in Iraq. If he was so sure then with evidence that was not all concrete, he managed to get clarification or hear the things he needed to hear to make him choose to go to war then how is it he can't figure out that it's unethical corporately to keep paying his girlfriend for a job that she doesn't even occupy anymore. His and the Administration's continuous denials aren't helping at all, if anything, they are helping turn more allies against us.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Take a Hike... Again

Today, the United States Postal Service is once again instituting a price increase on the cost of a stamp for regular first class mail service. In recent years, the cost of first class service has been bumped up several times and in that time, it's not necessarily true that the service has gone up with it, or even that the service has stayed the same. To give an example, I was once expecting a package and it arrived at a time when I was at work. When I came home there was a delivery attempt note on my door which indicated that if I wanted the postman to leave the package at my door, I should mark the slip and leave it where he could see it. I posted the slip and waited and waited and waited. And every day, I would come home and my mail would be there but no package. Finally I went to the Post Office and complained and picked up my package but still, no reason was given as to why the package wasn't delivered. It doesn't make sense to pay extra for 'priority shipping' if your package is held up in limbo between your local post office and your mailbox.

So why the need for these periodic increases? Well, part of the reason is the fact that just like everyone else, the cost of doing business these days has gone up. When you figure that there are some suburban areas where mail carriers lug their wares in jeeps or mail trucks, you realize that with the rising cost of fuel, it probably costs more per mail carrier to deliver the mail. Okay, part of the equation is solved. But why else would the price rise? What else are we getting for our additional two cent rate increase? Well, perhaps a more modernized system. If you've been to the Post Office these days, there are some very modern offices with state of the art computer systems and mail services but there are others that still look as if Mr. McFeely would be at home there. (And in case you're wondering who Mr. McFeely is, I am truly dating myself by making reference to Mr. Rogers' mailman.

Plus the fact that so many people are now turning to the internet means that the number of people actually posting bills or letters via the post office are decreasing in numbers while the number of packages going and coming out are on the rise. Recent statistics have shown that in the past few years, the amount of e-commerce and purchasing has increased tremendously. The convenience and relative safety (or so it seems) of the internet has made it much easier to shop online. And with shipping by companies like FedEx or UPS there are times when the Post Office must feel like a forgotten relic of the past. That's not to say that it's an essential service. I mean just see how popular a place it is during Christmas and Tax Season. People will stand in line for hours just to ensure that their packages are delivered on time.

In order to stave of further frustrations by postal customers, the postal service is also issuing what is known as the 'forever' stamp. This flat rate stamp can be purchased and regardless of any future postal rate increases, the forever stamp will still count. I'm waiting for the day that stamps hit 59 cents. I have this odd feeling that I may very well see it in my lifetime. My question is this though, why can't we just make the 'forever' stamp the end-all-be-all stamp and not worry about whether or not rates increase. It seems they're trying to show some concession while doing something else. I mean if you think about it, you assume that by purchasing the forever stamp you won't have to worry about future increases, but supposing a future increase doesn't happen. You've just been duped into paying much more for a book of stamps that are costlier than regular stamps. Clever.

There are times when it seems that the postal service doesn't live up to it's motto of delivering the mail despite the snow, sleet and freezing rain. My description of the package was just one such incident. I'm sure other people have other complaints as well but in their defense, postal carriers don't have the easiest of jobs. Try being out there in the dead of winter with the door to your jeep open (or on foot) and deliver the mail from door to door. Deal with the houses or the people who dont' clear a path to their mailbox or leave it buried in snow, expecting that the post man will be able to reach it. Try dealing with the angry customers who think that becoming irate and loud from the start will ensure that their package will be treated with extra care (when the opposite is just as likely to happen). All these things being said, one would hope that the rate increase will make a difference in service but I hesitate to say that it will. When you think of all the things the postal service has to do; two-cents more per letter isn't much in the grand scheme of things.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What's At Issue?

Now that George W. Bush is in his second and final term as President of the United States (barring any sudden provision under the Patriot Act that allows him to continue on the auspicies of being a war time President like Roosevelt), the race to fill the Presidency has begun in earnest. A couple of weeks ago the Democrats held their first debate in which all of the current front runners stood up and gave their first nationwide speeches to the public. A little over a week ago the Republicans did the same thing. Since there is such a drive to get the seat of Presidency, campaigns have started earlier than ever before. Usually by the tail end of the year prior to an election year, you see things really stepping up in terms of debates and speeches but this time we are seeing a rapid run to throw hats into the ring and establish stances on any and all issues. It's also serving to create havoc among the parties as each and every candidate attempts to step on their opponents in an effort to reach the top.

It's rather humorous at times to see the way they will smile and shake hands with one another one minute and then turn around and rip the same person to pieces for having a slightly different viewpoint on an issue. Probably no other issue is as polarizing for candidates than that of religion. I don't think I've seen this type of religious fervor in recent years bar the selection of the new Pope two years ago. Religion is coming to the forefront again already by way of the civil rights leader Reverand Al Sharpton. Known for his sometimes inflammatory comments and criticisms, Sharpton has once again used religion, intentionally or unintentionally, to stir up a storm among the Republicans. His comments regarding Mitt Romney and his Mormon beliefs cuts to the heart of the matter for a lot of candidates and Americans.

According to Sharpton, when questioned about the chances of Mitt Romney, a member of the Mormon religion, as to whether or not Romney stood a chance of being elected, Sharpton made the comment that "those who believe in God will defeat him (Romney) anyways." Now I will not profess to being a master of all religions but I try to gain an understanding of what most of the major religions believe and teach and although I do know a little bit about Mormonism I will never profess to being an expert. However, as a public servant in a nation that claims to have (and does allow) freedom of religion, I don't think it should have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not a person is fit to run for office.

In countries such as India and elsewhere, there are people of various religions serving in public office and although there are times when they are not able to execute their duties due to religious beliefs or restrictions, they make provisions or make exceptions in order to serve the people. I don't think it should be any different for anyone else serving in office over here either. I say this not in support of Romney as a candidate for president but rather for any person in public office whose religion is outside of the majority.

There's something about religion that makes it difficult for us to get along as well as we could. The beliefs that many of our religions teach us have changed and evolved so much over the years that it is difficult to imagine us getting along any time in the near future but it is quite possible. Using religion as an excuse to try and claim someone is not worthy of office is akin to saying that just because someone doesn't like "Star Wars" they are unfit to run the space program. A person should be judged on their merits and what they would bring to a position rather than what we fear they would bring. If people are that concerned about the religious aspects of a person's life and how it would impact their role in office, educate yourself and question the candidate on it.

Our failure to understand or perhaps our unwillingness to understand the other religions of this world are what cause us problems. It's a two-way street in that despite the world getting smaller because of the rise in the internet and international commerce, old assumptions about the world still linger and are what make the world a slightly rougher place to live in. When the war in Iraq began, the assumption of many people was that the Iraqis were one people, of the Muslim religion and that a small minority were being persecuted. In reality, there are so many smaller sects within the Muslim religion that it is staggering to understand and deal with. Rather than fearing the diversity that is there within the world and within our candidates, we should learn to embrace it and understand it. After all, if we're helping in the fight for religious freedom in the world, shouldn't we fight here at home too?


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Simple Life in Jail

Paris Hilton, the reigning queen of the tabloids and gossip columns is making the headlines again and this time it isn't for anything like who she's going out with or what she wore to the latest party, but rather the fact that she's going to prison for 45 days. By June 5th, Hilton is expected to report to the county jail to serve out her sentence. Hilton is being charged with violating the terms of her probation for previous alcohol-related reckless driving charges. However, the astute among us will likely remember that this is certainly not the first time that she's been charged with a crime in terms of vehicular law. She's run her Bentley into parked tractor trailers, she's driven under the influence and she continues to push the limits of the law about as far as I've ever seen anyone do it.

Hilton claims that she's being made an example of due to her celebrity and the fact that so many cops pull her over just to hit on her. Her claim is that this is a false charge and that she's being treated unfairly. According to the reports, Hilton claims that she was unaware that she couldn't drive at all. She assumed that the probation allowed her to drive for work related reasons however in Hilton's case, I guess that meant attending the next party or filming her 'reality show' (which exists in anything but reality). Perhaps Hilton honestly thought that she was not violating the law by driving to work but why take a chance like that. When you've already been to court on reckless driving charges, the last thing you want to do is tempt someone to pull you over and check out your status.

Hilton can't claim innocence in thinking that way either. She claims that there are so many times that she's pulled over by cops simply because of who she is and the fact that they want to hit on her. That being said, that's all the more reason for her not to want to drive. Though it may not be an option for the majority of us out there, I think Hilton is financially stable enough to be able to afford a limo for a few weeks to shuttle her around. Why deal with LA traffic when you can sit in comfort and continue your socializing from the back seat of the car? While her family is standing behind her in this case and all of her fans are petitioning Governor Schwarzenegger to pardon her (boy... that's something I never thought I'd hear), I can't help but think that to pardon her is to set a different standard for celebrity.

As it is, I think celebrities are operating on a different level than the rest of us. For the most part they are fairly normal people but they end up being treated like public property because the rest of us want to know what it's like to live in their world. There's nothing much different about any of them other than the fact they make more headlines than you or I. To say that Hilton was on her way to work and that it was necessary for her livelihood is in no way akin to saying that she's like a single mother who violated a similar probation to go to work to pay her rent. I don't think Hilton has to worry about money, at least not if she even gets a fraction of what I spent staying at one of her family's hotels.

If Hilton was smart, she'd use this opportunity to her advantage and use the opportunity to do something with it. Apparently her fans are so enamoured by Hilton that they are always after any bit of news on her that they can get. The watch her reality shows and read about her in the gossip columns. Why not use that and create a new mini-season of her reality show, "The Simple Life"? It could be called, "The Simple Life: LA County Lock-Up" or something like that. She can give her viewers a view of life in the slammer and 'inspire them' to not do the same thing. She can show viewers how to make the bright orange prison jumpsuits more attractive. She can show us how to barter using cigarettes or how to avoid getting hurt in prison riots. Whatever it is, she should serve out her time quietly and the rest of us should just get on with life. Life is difficult enough without having to worry about "The Simple Life".


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Champagne Supernova in the Sky

Today's blog doesn't really have anything to do with the band Oasis or their song "Champagne Supernova" but it was playing in my head when I read about the headline regarding the discovery of the super-supernova SN 2006gy. What's significant about this discovery is that it is one of the first times that astronomers have observed a supernova of this size and this intensity. So what is a supernova? Simply put, a supernova is when the nuclear reactions within a sun reach a point that it explodes. Most typical supernovae explode and the light of the explosion lasts for several days and then fades back to nothing. In this case, the explosion has been visible for months and the intensity so bright that it is decreasing the intensity of light coming from nearby stars. What has excited astronomers about this particular supernova is not only the fact that it is the biggest and the brightest that they can recall seeing but also it is the one of the first cases where they have observed the explosion of a super star similar to what was present at the time the universe was thought to have formed.

The theory goes that in the beginning of the universe, there were a number of massive stars similar to this one which were on average, about 150 times the size of our sun. When these stars exploded, the resulting effects caused the universe to expand and spread the elements which helped form the planets and plant the seeds for the evolution of life in the universe. Now there are those who would argue that this goes against the theological theory of God creating the universe and while I'm sure some higher power had a hand in what happened, I'm not here to argue the merits of one side versus the other. I'm sure there are enough people out there with viewpoints one way or the other who are better qualified to argue these ideas, I'm simply stating what I know.

What is interesting about this is the fact that scientists used to believe that once a star went nova, there was a sudden drop in the gravity around where the sun once existed and there were greater chances for black holes to develop. Now bear in mind I am not an astronomer so if my 'scientific' rationale and reasoning is a bit flawed, that's probably why. Then again, I will not resort to using 'Star Trek' type techno-babble about Dyson spheres and dilithium crystals in my explanations either. What is surprising scientists and astronomers is the fact that the energy created by this supernova is also apparent in stars closer to the Earth though still far enough away that we don't have to start building rocket ships like Jor-El on Krypton.

It's fascinating to think though, that this single explosion probably also has the elements within it to create and propogate the creation of new planets or stars elsewhere in the universe and if so, there is a very good chance that there is other life out there. It would be a terrible waste of space if after all those types of explosions, there was only life on this one grain of sand in the beach of the universe. I also find it fascinating to think that the light we're seeing from this supernova didn't happen yesterday, but over 240 million years ago. That's how far the star was from Earth in terms of light years. It took that long for the light from the explosion to reach us. You talk about delayed transmissions; this is a case where the star has been missing since the time the dinosaurs roamed our planet and here now we are seeing the results of it so many years later.

If there are other beings out there with similar characteristics or societies as us, perhaps they are also looking to the stars and seeing this explosion. Perhaps civilizations much closer to the explosion have been wiped out long before we even realized it. Perhaps there are others who are now on the move now that the stars in their vicinity have gone nova. Perhaps we are looking at a massive clearing project for a trans-galactic super highway. Whatever it is, I find it amazing that there is still so much of our galaxy that we have yet to understand, and despite all the problems and chaos on our own little planet, there is still so much more to see and do out there. Perhaps someday we'll get to see it from out there.

Monday, May 07, 2007

My Job Made Me Do It

Come Monday morning, there are tons of people out there looking for an excuse, any excuse, to get out of coming in to work. Whether it's due to late night partying on Sunday night, wishing for a few more hours of sleep or those who don't like their job, there is probably a sizeable portion of the public out there not wanting to get up and come in on Monday. Then again, there are those who absolutely can't wait to get into work on Monday morning. They revel in the fact that they are on their way to work and have another five days before the weekend is here again. I have a friend who, when in high school, used to be one of the only one's excited to be in school on Monday morning. I could never exactly figure out why, but I guess perhaps she enjoyed being in school among her friends. Or perhaps like the one employee at Brazilian beer maker AmBev's factory, she was fulfilling an addiction.

The Brazilian beer maker AmBev is the manufacturer of a number of beers in the South American country and recently a judge ordered them to pay the approximate equivalent of $49,000 to a beer taster who worked for the company at various plants. The unnamed employee was apparently underpaid but greatly appreciated because as an alcoholic, he was paid a minimum but provided the company feedback on the numerous beer taste tests he endured on an almost daily basis. The employee reported that on a daily basis during an eight-hour shift, he would consume nearly 16 to 25 small glasses of beer as a means of ensuring that the brewing process was yielding a good product. Now as an economist, I can't argue with the logic behind the decision of the company. When you have a tester who is absolutely in love with his job and will do it solely on the fringe benefits as opposed to the pay, you have a happy employee.

What a Brazilian court decided is that the company was negligent and irresponsible based on the fact that they knowlingly employed the tester knowing that he was an alcoholic. The judge in the case ruled that the fact that the company 'compensated' the employee with free samples and a bottle of beer at the end of each shift didn't do anything to improve the state of living for the employee. The employee in question now reports that his alcohol dependence has increased and that even when on vacation, he feels compelled to drink the same amount of alcohol that he consumes on a normal day at work. That in and of itself is a disturbing thing. There's liking your job and then liking it to the point that it could kill you.

I'm curious to know whether or not AmBev is providing the employee with any medical or health insurance. I seriously doubt it but they should be; after all, they are slowly creating mockery of the man's liver. I am also curious to know that had they paid the employee for his services rather than paying him chump change and evening it out with unlimited beer, whether or not this case would have even seen the inside of a courtroom. It brings up the topic of what exactly a company is responsible for when it comes to their employees. Now I agree, a company is responsible for providing compensation for the work that an employee does. I mean translated into the corporate world, just because you have a programmer who loves programming and does nothing but eat, sleep and drink programming, does that mean that you should pay them less than a guy who likes to have a life outside of work?

Of course not! You would pay the guy more because he is probably good at his job and because he is providing a lot more in depth expertise, he should be duly compensated and in the case of beer taste testing, he was denied payment on his 'expertise'. Even then, I think it's a bit underhanded they way they went about using this guy to constantly taste the beer and not pay him amply. In certain lines of work there is an inherent risk. If you are a soldier, or a mine worker or even someone flying jets, the world is a dangerous place with or without terrorism. To give your life for your job for some is a requirement, but to say that to give your liver for your job. Well, that's something else.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Want to Blog? Hooyah!

I have not had the honor of serving my country in the armed services and I have not been deployed in territory before where I am far from my family and loved ones so I can't begin to imagine they loneliness or frustration that may come to our soldiers as they are serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I have always had a deep respect and appreciation of the men and women in the military and being a history buff I have read up a lot on military history. I think that's one subject that most men agree on and at least makes us seem studious in the eyes of others. Perhaps it's the hidden testosterone kick that we feign receiving when we read about it, but in any case, it's led to my appreciating the sacrifices and commitments they make to the country and themselves.

Being away from home can be hard though the state of technology in the world has improved allowing for communications via wireless methods. The use of the internet for e-mail and webcam transmissions has allowed for better communications between soldiers and their families back home. Gone are the days where a soldier would write out a letter and hope that it reaches their family sometime soon. These days most can access the internet from almost anywhere they are deployed and type off a short note and expect to get one back fairly quickly. This betterment of technology has also led to an increase in the different ways that soldiers can relate their experiences to their families and others. Sites like Blogger and such have allowed soldiers to set up their pages and express their emotions and ideas for the world to see.

A search for military blogs yields numerous results and there are so many sites from soldiers in different areas that you can get a true sense of what is happening in their particular area of deployment. I remember reading the posts of one particular soldier who tried to blog for almost the full year that he was deployed in Iraq. He wrote about his feelings on being in combat for the first time, seeing Iraq for the first time, meeting the people, losing his friends in combat and so many other experiences that it gave a better picture of what they go through over there. No matter how embedded a reporter may be, they'll never be as true to someone's feelings as that person themself is. The soldier mentioned how when he read some of his posts later, he realized that he was using the post as a way of letting out the emotions that were building up inside him.

Most posts, like anything a soldier attempts to send out to someone outside the direct military is privy to review by commanding officers or censors. The reason for this being that in order to maintain good operational security, the letters or posts are screened to ensure that no sensitive data is inadvertently released. It may be safe to tell your mother that you are going on a raid in two days but if the e-mail is intercepted and used, then it could lead to disasterous results, hence the desire to censor the output by all soldiers. In general, there had been a lot of leeway in terms of what was and wasn't allowed for posting but now, the US Army has declared that they are going to be cracking down on military bloggers.

What some people have called 'the most effective PR tool for the war' is now in danger of being closed down. Apparently greater scrutiny will be applied to what soldiers post and if it doesn't meet certain guidelines then it will not be allowed. There is already a bit of backlash against this; and although there had already been a requirement for commanding or senior officers and censors to screen any mails and blog posts, there is less freedom given to the soldiers to blog on their experiences. Whether you believe the war is right or wrong, denying these soldiers the chance to get their feelings off of their chests is a potentially dangerous situation. It's true that these posts are freely available to anyone with internet access but I don't believe that soldiers will blatantly reveal classified mission information on the web. Especially not when it's their lives they are jeopardizing by putting the information out there.

I agree that there should be more security or screening on operational details or information on the specifics of what units are deployed where or even what their mission is. But for soldiers not to be able to post their frustration at losing a friend, of being under equipped, or being hot and sweaty in the streets of Iraq is almost akin to wanting robot soldiers. For me there has always been something theraputic about writing and I'm sure that the case holds for most soldiers who post blogs on the internet. Maintain security but also maintain the freedoms that these men and women in uniform are fighting so hard to protect and provide around the world.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Pricey Pants

In light of all the subpoenas going around in regard the the fired judges scandal here in DC I figured I would present a different picture. I'm not presenting my views on the matter and whether or not our current Attorney General is a few beers short of a six-pack ("You know senator...I...I...I can't seem to recall that"); no, rather I wanted to write about a case I read about earlier this week. In the case of the eight federal prosecutors who were fired, there is a bit of gray area in regards to whether the did or didn't deserve to be fired. In this case, I truly am curious to see what happens to the judge. Here in DC a judge, Roy Pearson, used to frequent a dry cleaning service in the city run by the Chungs, South Korean immigrants who opened the store and have been doing brisk business since then. From all reports, Pearson was a frequent customer despite having a few problems with the Chungs over the years but his most recent actions are a bit curious and I'm beginning to question the judgement of Judge Pearson.

From what is being reported in the paper, Pearson dropped off some clothes to be cleaned and picked up two days later. When Pearson arrived at the store two days later he was told that the pants were not ready and were apparently missing. Needless to say, anyone who has had something like that happen to them is likely to commiserate with Pearson and offer up sympathy. However, that wasn't the end of it. Pearson complained and when the Chungs asked the price of the pants Pearson reported them to be $1,000 in value so they decided to pay up the next time he came in. However, a week later, the pants turned up and so the Chungs refused to pay. Pearson's response was to sue.

The Chungs made offers of $3,000, then $4,600, and then $12,000 but no amount seemed to satisfy Pearson; so he came back with his own offer. He decided to sue the Chungs for what totals to about $65 million. Now I agree, it can be aggravating to have a pair of pants get lost and then refuse a store's offer to pay for them. And it's not like the Chungs didn't offer to recompense Pearson for his loss and the delay he suffered in getting his pants back. But $65 million?! First of all, how did he arrive at this amount? Well let's see. According to Pearson, he was so incensed at his treatment by the Chungs that he refused to stay within his neighborhood to go to a dry cleaner so he has included $15,000 which covers the cost of renting a car every weekend for ten years to go to another business. Renting a car to go to another business? Why does he need to rent a car? And if he's already renting a car then why not include airfare? Who knows, perhaps the dry clearners in Alaska are better since they use glacial waters for their washing process. Besides, I know of very few places in the city where there is not a dry cleaner within a few blocks of any location.

Pearson also includes the cost of 'violating' DC's consumer protection law which fines violators around $1,500 per violation, per day that the violation occurs. Pearson estimated he must have had 12 violations over 1200 days and there were three members of the Chung family he was calling out. So $1,500 times 12 times 1200 days times 3 defendents (i.e. the Chungs) and that comes to a grand total of about $64.8 million. While the mathematics of the equation work out quite nicely, I am amazed that Pearson is being so petty to go this far. Personally, I think he's a glutton for punishment. Why? Well for one thing he counted up 12 violations; I would be curious to know what he considers a violation. If for example it was bad service or not delivering the goods on time, then once is okay, twice is worrisome and a third time is more than enough. It's time to find a new dry cleaner. The fact that Pearson chose to continue patronizing the Chungs business meant that he either didn't have any other business to choose from (I don't believe that) or that he was being understanding and letting the mistakes go by (I don't believe that either).

Whatever else their faults, I think the fact that the Chungs offered up $12,000 at the height was more than a generous gesture on their part. Even associations that deal with these kind of Tort Law cases have stepped in to help the Chungs and have offered to buy a new suit for Pearson but he has remained stoically silent and refuses to change his stance. If Pearson's purpose is to raise awareness or point fingers and claim that the Chungs are bad people, well, he's got a funny way of doing it. It's funny because he is making himself appear to be the bigger fool by suing for such a ridiculous amount. I'm sure the Chungs are quite well off but for them to cough up $65 million for a pair of pants which to this day are still waiting to be picked up by Pearson, I think that's utterly ridiculous.

In one of my classes I had to read about Tort Law and how it can affect small business. Now everyone has read about cases where people have violated the rules and regulations or ignored warnings and been injured because of their actions yet the choose to sue someone else for their own negligence. These are cases like walking onto a construction site without permission and getting hurt and then suing the construction company for having a dangerous job site or driving without a seatbelt and then suing the car manufacturer when you get injured in a car accident. In all of these cases, the person usually bringing the case is a person with very little knowledge of the law and a lawyer who is doing it more for the paycheck then the principle. In this case, Pearson is acting as the client and lawyer himself and for him to bring a case before the court that is clearly above and beyond the realm of sanity merits investigation itself. If there was a judge that needed to be investigated for his shoddy actions, it wasn't the eight who were fired for 'bad performance' but judges like Pearson who are attempting to enforce the law with a large ego and very little common sense.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Matter of Political Perspective

In a few days, Queen Elizabeth II of England will be in Virginia to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown Colony. It's hard to believe that a scant 400 years ago this country was beginning to see the first immigrants come over in growing numbers. I would hope that at that time the lines for immigration were a bit shorter and not subject to investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. A little under 300 years ago the country established it's first government, a democracy of the people and by the people that would ensure that the oppression they felt by the British monarchy would no longer plague them in this new country. Built on the shoulders of the founding fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the like, this country has managed to become and remain, one of the oldest sustained democracies in the world. But when you see the way in which our governmental representatives, the so-called representatives of the people, behave, you almost wonder how it was that the country has continued to survive under a democracy.

Now I'm not calling out one party or another; in my estimation there are faults along all political fronts and there is no one side or another that is currently shining above any of the others. Quite frankly, the sheen on politics was rubbed off long ago and we're still trying to get back to some semblence of it. What do I mean? Well let's take a look at some of the political happenings in the world today. Former CIA director George Tenet was blasting the Bush Administration this past weekend just prior to announcing the release of his new book detailing his role in the war in Iraq. Now George Tenet has every right to be upset if he feels like it; it's the right of every American to feel upset when they feel like it. However, the reason Tenet is currently so livid is not because someone at the last donut at breakfast, but rather because he feels he and his agency are being made scapegoats for the current war in Iraq.

Tenet was on every show he could schedule explaining how his words were taken out of context and how his rationale for war was not needed by an administration already set on a course for war in Iraq. Now that may be true but why is it that now after being put out to pasture that he is suddenly becoming so vocal in explaining that he was being made the whipping boy? During the build up to the war in Iraq, there were many people with knowledge of what was happening and what was being discussed and decided with regards to Iraq. At that time very few, if any, politicians and leaders were taking a stand that they didn't agree with the war. Why? Simple, because the overwhelming voice of the people was for war. And why shouldn't it have been? Everything we were hearing in the public made it seem like Iraq's army was just waiting for a traffic signal to turn green before crossing the Atlantic Ocean and beginning a war with us. Now that we are past the second election of George W. Bush, everyone is coming out of the woodwork to rally against the war. Why? Because Bush won't be back in office and everyone else is looking to salvage their political careers.

The vocal majority is now beginning to come out and call for accountability with regards to the war. After the death of over 3,000 Americans in a war that doesn't seem to have an end close at hand, people are now beginning to wonder what's going on? Suddenly now politicians on both sides of the aisle are coming out and speaking on behalf or in support of Tenet and guys in similar situations. They are calling into question the votes for going to war and why it was so easily agreed upon. They all try and justify it by saying that the justification for war is in the evidence that was shown to the people despite the fact that the majority of this evidence is now known to be false. So in comes the spinning. Rather than owning up to their mistake and admitting that they didn't vote along with their conscience but rather with the popular majority they continue to fudge the truth. When asked why they voted in favor of the war, most point to the people saying, "I was duped like they were."

To say that democracy doesn't work would be a falacy because rather than looking at the evidence that they had access to, politicians on both sides went with the popular opinion and voted for war. Rather than wanting to open people's eyes and say, "look, something isn't right here" they went ahead and voted with what they were being told. You can argue that that's their job but their job is to also represent the people and that doesn't mean listening to people when they aren't getting all matters of perspective. If someone tells you the sky is orange and you're not on Mars, it pays to look up to the sky and check. The people can keep arguing that the sky is orange but as a leader, you should look up and if it looks blue to you then tell the people that it's blue. You have to work to convince them. Don't pass the buck off on someone else and say, "I'm like you, I got duped."

Unfortunately the ones being most directly affected in this case are the brave men and women of our armed forces who are out in harm's way daily. The struggle within Congress and with the White House over spending plan approval has been and continues to be the place where the soldiers are being used as pawns the most. If someone passes something relating the troops but another party doesn't like it, they immediately say that they aren't supporting the troops. Wanting the supply them and wanting them to come home or at least have an idea of when they can come home is important and shouldn't be used as political leverage by either side. It's true, if the bill has provisions in it that are above and beyond what the original scope of the bill was then there are reasons to be wary but sitting comfortably in Washington, it's easy to have debates. Tell that to the soldiers who are sitting ill-equipped and unsure of how much longer they'll be in harm's way. In Iraq on almost a daily basis there are deaths on the scale of Virginia Tech's massacre. Imagine the pallor that fell over the country falling over it daily.

The simple truth is that most politicians are interested in nothing more than protecting their jobs. At the onset of the war, most politicians spoke out in favor of the invasion simply because anyone who didn't support it was lambasted in public for being against the country and against their countrymen. When last I checked, this type of quashing of dissenting opinion was part of the reason for the original immigrants to this country to leave England in the first place. At that time our forefathers came here to escape from a government that did not allow free speech or free thought. After nearly 300 years, isn't it funny to see a British monarch coming here to celebrate a democracy that doesn't seem to be quite as democratic as it used to be.