Friday, August 31, 2007

Pet Peeves at the Gym

The recent fracas with congressional leader Larry Craig and his bathroom habits have brought to light lots of questions on bathroom ettiquette and what things do and don't mean. Yesterday as I chugged away on the elliptical machine at the gym, I realized that there are lots of places where there are unwritten rules on ettiquette and actions that we sub-consciously follow. It doesn't mean that if you break them it means anything more or less but it's something that seems to come to us by osmosis. Still, there are those who choose not to follow these generalities or perhaps, they just seem not to follow them because they don't want to.

Now anyone who has read my blog for any significant amount of time will know that I'm a fairly regular gym-goer. I attempt to workout several times a week and in the past few weeks I'm happy to report that I've started seeing some results in terms of my fitness levels and shape. It's motivation that keeps you going. People have sometimes asked me how it is that I can keep going on the treadmill or elliptical machine for such long periods of time and not get bored and either music or television can help distract you enough that you can complete hours and miles on a machine in no time. Still, with all the news reports on Craig on the news it was hard not to think about what goes on in the world around us. I mean who knew that tapping a foot, reaching under a stall, and playing a bit of grab-ass could mean so much? If we are to believe Craig, apparently he didn't. But I digress.

I had occasion to think about the environment at the gym and pick up on some peeves of mine that I have experienced in the past but haven't always written down so I thought I'd go through a typical visit to the gym and recount some of my experiences. I usually get there in the afternoon just before the evening crush begins. That being the case, I can usually get to the machine I want and begin my routine. My gym is large enough that I can usually get to the machine I need without a wait but there are some who love only a certain machine at a certain spot and if they don't get it they tend to get pissy. That's definitely on my list of peeves. I mean after all, we're all paying for the gym, we all have equal rights to the machines. If you want this particular machine then I suppose you'll have to wait for it.

Not one to be rushed, I continue my workout and in an effort to distract myself, I start looking around for friends or familiar faces who may be at the gym. Not so much to get a conversation going but to at least feel as though I'm among friends. On my left pumping away furiously on another elliptical machine is a young woman who would make a skeleton look fat. She's pumping away as if she's generating power for the entire state of Virginia. She hardly ever slows her pace and continues churning as if she's determine to lose weight in her bones as well as in her figure. On the one hand I'm envious seeing as how she's into negative body fat ranges but I feel a bit perplexed as to why she's wanting to continue to burn fat as she appears set to do. I notice what she's reading and I realize she's reading a health magazine and see that she's reading up on how to lose weight and slim down her waist.

Now this isn't necessarily a peeve of mine but more of a perplexity as to how someone who is already slimmed down always appears next to you when you're attempting to workout and lose weight. Perhaps it's a spectre of what could happen if you overdo it. Still, my confusion is broken by the fact that a person close by to me is suddenly speaking quite loudly. With my iPod going I suddenly think that perhaps it's an emergency or something requiring someone to shout out for help when I suddenly realize that it's just someone speaking on their cell phone. With the din of the gym and all, it's hard to hear so those of us on the same floor as the caller are lucky (and I say that with all due sarcasm) to hear their side of the conversation. Oh joy.

Despite turning up the music a bit it's still hard to drown out the seemingly one-sided conversation but over time, your mind tends to drown it out automatically. I'm at a bit of a loss though as to why someone would want to share their conversation (at least part of it) with the rest of us. I don't know about others out there but I'm not particularly keen on hearing about how wasted someone was last weekend and how they threw up all over $500 shoes. Speaking of which, I'm a bit confused also by the people at the gym who appear to be there to push their own social agendas and nothing more. That social agenda being to meet and talk with as many people as they can without doing anything else. I mean when I'm lifting weights or doing sit ups, I don't fancy having a conversation with a complete stranger.

So then I move on to lifting weights and using the machines. Now what's with the guys who will more or less establish squatter's rights on a particular machine and then refuse to move. I mean they will do a set and then go wander off and then return several minutes later to complain if they find you on the machine. I guess the rest of us are supposed to realize intuitively that when you're standing a hundred feet away speaking with someone else while leaning on another machine that you'll probably return to do another set sometime within the next half hour and that it is akin to the greatest sin to reset the machine while you're gone. That being the case, then I will happily commit that sin. Again, I'm paying for usage of the place too so I will use it when it's free and it's not obvious that you're coming back.

Working out aside, there are certain things that people have a tendency to do in the locker rooms that can be a bit aggravating too. I mean I am not a prude by any means. I'm not one of those guys who will duck into a toilet stall to change my clothes or get dressed after taking a shower, but that doesn't mean I walk around in the locker room without a towel or clothes as if I am actually wearing them. I mean there are some guys who think that their birthday suit is an actual suit of clothes. Believe me... it isn't. I don't need to see you walking around dripping sweat or bath water all over the place after your workout. I'm not shy but I don't go out of my way to prove it. And speaking of towels, what's with the assumption on the part of so many out there that once you're done with a towel, you can drop it on the floor and leave.

I often wonder if these people are the same way at home. I know that we are all paying for the gym and gym services (which include towel service in a lot of cases) but that doesn't mean drop the towel where you are and continue on your merry way. I find it highly annoying to find a locker filled with used wet towels or have to pick my way across the floor to get to my locker. For the most part, we're all adults, so then why don't you act like it? Stop expecting to be treated like a king and go and toss your towel in the numerous hampers set up around the place. I mean it's not like it takes much extra effort. Things and incidents like that can be highly frustrating at times but still, they are minor when it comes to the overall greater good which is working out and getting in shape.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Stop The Plane! I Wanna Get Off

It's very hard to find that middle ground to satisfy the people. I mean on the one hand you've got people complaining about the fact that security on airlines these days is so stringent that you can't carry your own water or food without it undergoing scrutiny. Others complain that because of these rules people are not able to enjoy the privledges they once had and are a bit bitter about it. How do you satisfy them or come up with something that will make both sides happier? The simple answer is that you can't.

The truth of the matter is that no one (except perhaps a happy few) wants to come out and say what they really feel is the solution to all these problems and that's to racially profile people and apply stricter security measures to them. Why do I say this? Well, earlier this week, in San Diego, an American Airlines flight scheduled for an 11:15 departure (just prior to the airport closing down for the night at 11:30) was delayed due to a passenger suddenly getting cold feet over the fact that a group of male passengers sitting close to her were speaking... surprise surprise... Arabic. Not feeling comfortable going on with the flight, she demanded that she and her child be let off the plane. An arguement ensued and so the flight returned to the gate only to be delayed by nearly 12 hours because by this time, the airport had stopped operations for the day and wouldn't resume flights until the next day.

Now some people out there may think that perhaps this was the right decision on the part of the woman, but others out there probably don't agree. I'm in the camp that doesn't agree. I speak languages other than English and because of that I'm sure some people must look at me with a bit of suspicion. Hell, I've been viewed with suspicion for doing nothing more than sitting in my seat on a normal flight so speaking in a foreign language is definitely going to get me in trouble. At times like this many people have knee-jerk reactions which are that it's not racism or racial profiling that brings suspicion on these types of passengers but the fact that they are acting in a way that makes other people uncomfortable. I guess that just proves that this woman has no faith whatsoever in the Transportation Security Agency.

Given the fact that airport security can take up to an hour to pass through means nothing because our last line of defense is our common sense and for many people it doesn't seem to be operating. Or rather it operates when the person in question fits the description of someone thought to be a terrorist. Like it or not, most of the acts of terrorism in recent years have been carried out by individuals of Middle Eastern origin so perhaps it isn't surprising that these are the people who bring about the most suspcion. Still, if they are making us nervous, what about white guys with buzz cuts and pasty complexions a la Timothy McVeigh. I haven't heard of anyone complaining when guys looking like the close cousin of the Unabomber board a flight (and I've flown with a few who fit that description) with a duffle bag the size of a body. I mean these things could contain a missile for Pete's sake but that's okay. He's not speaking Arabic.

We complain about the fact that we can't carry liquids or gels in containers beyond a certain size. In the hands of Arabic speaking men it's probably a good thing but if it's holy water from a Vatican sponsored pilgrimage, it should be given an exception? No way! It should undergo the same scrutiny as any other liquid or gel that is taken aboard a flight. Blessed or not. I mean who's to say that a passenger couldn't carry illegal chemicals in these supposedly blessed bottles? If you want to enforce such rules then enforce them equally and without apparent bias. But seeing as how that probably won't happen, just come out and say it. The majority of people out there don't care for civil liberties if it means an average person happening to fit a general description and speaking a suspcious language will be allowed onto a plane.

It seems to me that not too long ago there was a struggle to eliminate such prejudices. I mean were it not for people like Rosa Parks, we'd probably have three sections now. Whites, Colored and Arabs. Is this the way we want to go? Do we want to run in place or eventually start running backwards. If some people had their way that's exactly what would happen. I have faith that the TSA and security agencies out there are up to their task and are doing what they can to keep the skies safe. What we need to do is approach things with a bit more logic. If you are that suspicious or nervous about flying or about people of a certain ethnicity, then don't fly. People may argue that someone causing suspicion shouldn't cause an individual to change their plans and that's true, but neither should a person like this woman and her child, cause the delay of over 100 other passengers simply because she's a bigot.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Miss Teen South Carolina and the Question of Doom

Have you ever watched a gameshow and sat there in the comfort of your own home and your pajamas yelling the answer at the screen followed by loud exhortations of how stupid the current contestant is? It sort of falls into the category of being a Monday-morning Quarterback or being able to view the situation with a cool mind and no pressure. No imagine answering those questions knowing that there's an audience of a couple of million watching you... hopefully not in your pajamas. A bit more pressure now isn't it? Suddenly you're not so snappy in your remarks are you? Well, that's exactly what happened to Miss Teen South Carolina, Lauren Caitlin Upton (side note... why do beauty contestants have multiple name names?).

During the Miss Teen USA pageant this weekend, Miss Upton was asked the following question. "Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the United States on a world map. Why do you think that is?" Now this is probably outside of the usual realm of questions in beauty pageants. I mean it seems like something out of the presidential debates that are going on all over the country. Still, one hopes that the response from a potential representative of the United States in the beauty world would be able to make a coherent response. Here's what she had to say. "I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don't have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S., er, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our children."

Believe me it's just as hard to write as it is to read and comprehend. I'm not quite sure what her train of thought must have been at that time but I'm sure part of the problem may have been her sudden recollection of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer is mentoring a potential Miss America. I would think it's pretty hard to concentrate on anything else when you have visions of Kramer in your head saying, "Poise! Poise!" Still, I'm not entirely sure what she even meant to say in that. Her resposne three days after the fact was more or less that we should focus more on geography. While coherent, it's probably not much better. I mean if you're looking for a reason why many Americans can't locate the United States on a map, Miss Upton's response is a hint at why.

I'm not saying that there isn't pressure in a contest of this sort but it's not exactly like the Academy Awards either where they start drowning out your response with the orchestral stylings of Bill Conti. I'm rather curious to see the connection between South Africa and the United States. It's not like South Africa has been making big waves in the news lately. Iraq... excuse me... THE Iraq is in the news daily so perhaps that's why it was in the forefront of her mind. I guess since the Iraq is on the border of Asia that it is spreading it's mis-education by osmosis so perhaps that's why if we help the Iraq and Asian countries with their education then we will improve our education here and be able to find our country on the map.

Now I'm not making any sense. Still, when confronted with a far simpler follow up question, the pressure seemed to have died off. I mean when asked what she would do after the contest, Upton responded, "Eat me some hamburgers. I haven't eaten hamburgers, French fries or hot dogs in three years, and I just want to see what it tastes like." I guess gearing up for a lifelong ambition of being in a beauty contest will force you to deny yourself the niceties in life such as burgers and fries. Still, where was the pressure then? No, 'ums' or 'ers' in sight and nary a bit of hesitation. Perhaps that's because that's an easy one. As I said, it's just another sign of why her response to the first question is all the more troubling.

A simple statement of the fact that perhaps that not all educational systems in this country have access to the same resources as many others and so people from those systems are less likely to have been exposed to the fundamentals. I mean the planned response after three days of 'focus on geography' is like saying when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Isn't that a given? Her one intelligent inference was probably to the fact that when she refers to Americans she means U.S. Americans since Canadians, Latin Americans and South Americans are all technically Americans. Still, it's a sad state of affairs when your own countrymen can't find their own home on a map. It's certainly where the heart is, but apparently not the head.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Paranoia Running Rampant

We live in paranoid times. Since September 11th, people are wary of terrorist attacks in this nation. I mean soon after the attacks in New York, Washington and the thwarted attempt that ended in Pennsylvania, there was the anthrax scare that had people screaming 'white powder' all day and all night! I can remember a wing in my office being shut down because someone had seen a white powder on the floor of the elevator in that wing. Not wanting to risk it being some sort of bio-weapon. We were basically locked down in our areas until the Haz-Mat team came and verified what most of us figured it to be. Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder (Lavender scented). Still, it's crazy not to be a bit cautious. Given that someone who had dropped some baby powder in the elevator which was enough to scare people (and our office was by no means the only place to suffer such frights), it's common sense that should be telling you to avoid such situations in the future.

I mean look at some of the events that have happened since then. There was the passenger on a plane in Florida who was getting antsy to get off his flight at the gate so he began saying that he had a bomb on board. When people started to freak out, the undercover air marshall pulled his gun and when the man refused to surrender, he was shot in full view of the passengers and those waiting in the terminal. It turned out that the man making the threat was actually off of his usual medication and so he didn't realize what he was saying. But again, you can see the heightened sense of security that is pervading and no one is willing to chance letting a potential terrorist go.

That being said, the Hares running club in New Haven, Connecticut is probably either very naive or very much enthusiastic about 'pushing the limits' of commong sense. Well what is the Hares running club? Quite simply, it is a group of joggers who mark various trails through unusual locations which other members of the club attempt to follow in an effort to vary jogging routines and trails. It supposedly adds a bit of flavor to runs that may otherwise be stale. I can attest to that fact. I used to jog quite a lot a few years back and after some time, the old trails became just that and I grew weary of seeing the same sites every day. So now your next question is probably 'how are the trails marked'? Well, it is not eco-friendly to mark territory with spray paint and unfortunately, (or fortunately) we are not like animals that can follow our individual scents for miles at a time so the only other solution is... you guessed it... powders dropped along paths.

Now I know what you're thinking, why would anyone do that given the current situations out there. Well, according to the running club members who were caught doing these things in an IKEA parking lot, this was just their way of doing it and they had never run into problems in the past. That may be but isn't it a little suspicious to see someone sprinkling powder in stores or parking lots? I mean okay, you are certainly hard pressed to find some means of marking a trail but do you really need to get charged with attempted bio-terrorism in order to fully understand the gravity of sprinkling powder somewhere?

Some will tell you that there are some fitness fanatics who are a bit... nutty like that. I have seen some who run in the roads or sidewalks with little regard for anyone other than themselves. I used to get bumped or yelled at by these guys when jogging at the track at work and I can understand that perhaps it's frustrating for those of us not as fast or fanatical as the die-hards out there but it's still no reason to think that the rules don't apply. I mean because of the seriousness with which this report was taken, much of the New Haven police and security forces were mobilized in response. You had the majority of resources in the area locked down to deal with the potential of a bio-terrorist attack.

People will argue that it's an overreaction to a not so unusual activity. I think that it's a case where someone was doing something that they obviously shouldn't. It is sad that what should be a fun activity is being viewed with such fear and skepticism. I mean it's disappointing that we can no longer enjoy things the way we did prior to September 11th but that's a result of the world we live in. We are the product of our environment and sometimes we have to look beyond our perceptions and think about how others may perceive our actions. I mean I was viewed as a potential threat on an airline for doing nothing more than listening to my iPod and reading a book. Who knows what would have happened if I happened to have some baby powder on hand!


Monday, August 27, 2007

What's It Worth to You?

So Michael Vick is due to enter a plea in court today. For those unfamiliar with what's going on and why it is significant here's a quick recap. Michael Vick is the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons; not just any quarterback but probably one of the better ones to have played the game in a long time. With agility and precision comparable to the popular Donavan McNabb, Vick was touted as the next big thing. He was already on his way to the upper echelons of superstardom within the football world when he suddenly came crashing down. Several months ago he was implicated in an alleged dogfighting ring. What he was accused of doing was arranging dogfights between pitbulls and making arrangements for those coming to watch the fights to gamble and place bets. Once word hit the proverbial street, it was a short run to the end zone of this and Vick is now facing the potential end of his career.

What's sad is that Vick had the potential to be one of the greats. He still does but now that these charges are looming over him, there's more chance that he'll remain a footnote and potential 'coulda-been' as opposed to a true legend. Now he'll likely be an infamous one. True legends are the ones we wish to emulate and play like. Kids look up to them as heroes and wish to achieve everything they have. That's part of the reason kids began to collect baseball cards. These days, cards now include all other sports as well. It's been a while since I entered a comic / card shop but from my days as an avid collector, I can remember speaking in hushed tones and handling cards and comics worth a lot with kid gloves to avoid any unnecessary damage. There were certain things that were looked upon with a certain degree of reverence and in the sports card world, the cards for superstar players were often the most coveted.

I can remember owning a Ricky Henderson baseball card from his rookie year and the amount of awe it inspired in many collectors. At the time, Henderson was still a superstar and as such, his card was 'valuable' because it represented a time when he was a 'could-be' instead of the star that he was at that time. I could never figure out who it was that decided a certain card was worth so much but it was enough for me that certain collectors considered them to be valuable. Still, like any volatile market, the value of cards and comics can fall quite quickly. For example, when Henderson came into question regarding his use of drugs and all, or when his career came to an end, there was a sudden drop in the 'value' of his card. Did I stay in the market for too long? Perhaps. Or perhaps I didn't adapt to the market.

How can one adapt to the market? Well, take for example Michael Vick. His card was worth a lot before this whole dilemma came out. There were those who would handle his card with care simply because they knew that great things could be expected of Vick. It was a worthwhile investment. Now, all of a sudden it looks as though his career is over and even if it isn't, there's little chance of him gaining the same amount of fan following and respect that he had prior to his charges going public. So the value of the card is gone right? Wrong. Adapt! Some industrious folks have found a way to 'tailor' the system to their benefit and make some money on the side.

Several people around the country have carefully 'fed' their Michael Vick cards to their dogs and are selling them on sites such as eBay for hundreds of dollars. I'll pause to give you a moment to stop laughing and wipe up the coffee that may have spilled all over your keyboard (apologies for any damage). Yes, it's true, cards that have been chewed on and slobbered over by pooches are now selling for nearly two or three times as much as cards that are in perfect condition. Perhaps it's a way for people to 'get back' at Vick but honestly, I find this just plain stupid. I mean it's just a card. In perfect condition it may be worth something to someone because it represents a certain period of time in that athlete's life. But to see it chewed on and passed off as a valuable piece of history, well, that strikes me as... reaching for straws.

I don't see why anyone would want to spend hundreds of dollars on a card that has been chewed up by a dog. Okay, you can think of it as a way of paying back Vick for his dastardly deed but is it really? I mean it's like buying worn out socks just because you think the shoe store is using child labor to manufacture their brand of socks. Sure the two are related by some shape or form, but does your protest really amount to anything? Not really. I guess the winners in this case are the people who came up with the idea to give their Vick cards to dogs to chew on. I suppose the moral victors are the ones who spend hundreds of dollars to get them. Perhaps it's a worthwhile investment. I should pick up a few Vick cards from the store and then get some dog to chew on them. I'd increase my investment by several times. Perhaps I should get while the gettin's good!


Friday, August 24, 2007

Looking to Invest? How about Starbucks?

I recently saw that I had a comment on my very first blog that indicated I should contribute more blogs on coffee. The reader happened to think that this was a 'hot button' issue. The reader also happens to be my brother and the statement was dripping with more sarcasm than anything he usually says to me but be that as it may, I know I have a predeliction for coffee so I shall indeed step up my blogging on it. Now for the setup of today's coffee blog. So whenever someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I'm a financial analyst. Now most people when they hear that immediately think I play the stock market for a living which can't be farther from the truth.

Still, given the fact that I'm constantly pestered about advice on the market from those who don't know me well enough to know I don't work the stock market, I figure I should have some ideas in mind for when I talk to them. I mean I could fake them out with talk about small cap and mid cap investments being sound investment propositions in the long run given that the current state of the market is such that there could potentially be a downturn in the current market upturn leading to quarter yields higher than the average NASDAQ quotation on the Dow Jones Industrial index. Sounds plausible doesn't it? For the life of me I don't know what I said and any investment bankers who stumble onto this page are likely weeping their eyes out.

I don't like to see adults cry so generally I stick to things I actually do know about and go from there. One piece of sound advice that I have received from several sources is that investing in something you are familiar with is probably a smart idea. For example, if you deal in IT a lot, you know what the market standards are and you are likely to know what new technologies are up and coming in the market. You could potentially lead the investment in new technology companies that will lead us into the future. I mean take a company like Microsoft, thirty years ago no one would have looked in their direction because after all, how many average people need a computer? Now you can't go any place without seeing at least one. Those who knew the potential and the possibilities that companies like Microsoft presented were wise to invest in it and are now probably sitting back and lighting cigars with lit hundred dollar bills.

So what would I recommend people invest in? Well, oil is a given. Though the trend is going for green, there is still a lot of investment in oil to be done and you can't beat that as a basic investment but it can be an expensive proposition. What else? Well, this is a blog about coffee right? So obviously the next one would have to be coffee! Coffee is definitely something I know a bit about. I won't call myself an addict although I do need to have a cup on occasion to satisfy that psychological need to have it. With the way the market is now, it's probably also one of the safer investments out there. I mean real estate is definitely a good investment too but with the current trend in mortgages, it's a mess that is not likely to clear up overnight.

Coffee is something that makes the world work. There are scant places around the world where a cup of coffee is not being poured. Sure there are the occasional stories about how studies have proven that coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you, coffee can kill you, or that coffee can prolong your life by eighty some years. Whatever the case, we will always need and want our coffee and so it's a fairly wise investment. Sure there is the possibility that a sudden freak storm will lead to the annihalation of the entire coffee crop in South America and so coffee prices will skyrocket but the chances of that happening are not very likely.

One could argue that perhaps it's better to invest in a company like Starbucks since they currently hold the lion's share of the coffee market. And it's true, you can't visit any city in the States without finding at least one. It's getting to the point that you can't visit any foreign country without running into one (literally) either. I can officially say I've had Starbucks Coffee in three countries now; the United States, England and the United Arab Emirates. I have completed my trifecta or hat trick if you will. For a company that went from 100 locations to over 12,400 in the span of two decades, it's not a small achievement and it speaks to the growth potential of the company. So long as there are those looking for a no whip, light foam, skim double decaf chai mocha latte, your money will never go away.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Kids Drawings Are Now a Threat

Okay so I'm a bit confused. For people who know me well they may think that that is nothing new but when I explain my confusion perhaps others will also admit to being confounded by the way we seem to be going these days. I read in the news recently that a thirteen year old in Arizona was suspended from school because he was seen drawing a sketch of what appeared to be a gun. He was taken in front of school officials and suspended for 'making a threat'. Bear in mind that the picture did not contain any blood, or violence or depiction of the gun being used to harm anyone in any way. Still, despite all that, the boy was suspended for 'making a threat'.

In the wake of incidents like Columbine, the reaction is generally swift and direct, and often times, quite stupid. It seems that these days no one can do anything without someone perceiving it to be a threat. I will say that the fact that this boy was doodling an apparent gun is bad but it doesn't necessarily mean that this kid is suddenly plotting to kill his classmates. It's possible but not the only rationale reason for it. In the picture included above, we can see pictures that are perhaps a little more worrisome. This stick figure drawing was sketched by another child and depicts he and his friend apparently stabbing a third kid who is shown to be bleeding on the floor. This child was arrested and suspended and treated like a criminal. The kid was no more than ten years old.

We can weep and shake our heads and cry over the direction our society seems to be taking but all these knee-jerk reactions and overreactions on the part of many people can sometimes be extreme in and of themselves. I mean who are we looking to blame? The parents? Sure we can blame the parents and complain that they aren't doing their jobs and that they aren't setting good examples. But I also doubt that these parents are raising their kids to suddenly lash out and turn violent. I mean I really doubt that the majority of kids out there are encouraged by their parents to use guns or stab fellow kids.

Who else can be to blame then? The media and entertainment industry of course! Movies are violent, games are violent, television is violent. Blame all of them! They're the ones corrupting our youth and teaching us the violence is a reasonable course of action. Um..excuse me? Are they really teaching that? I don't think so. Even if you shut off all these outlets to kids, tell me, do you honestly think they will be insulated from violence? Even if you ban all movies, games and television, simply opening the newspaper exposes them to violence and I'm not talking about the latest scheme by Catbert against Dilbert either. With all of the violence and torture going on around the world, is it any wonder kids begin to accept this as a way of life?

We view these things as a threat when a kid draws a picture of a gun but that's probably because we as a society are grooming them to think that way. I'm not talking about the entertainment industry per se but in general. You ask the average American who we is the enemy in Iraq and the likely answer will be Muslims. Now when explaining that to a kid you will likely give the same answer. I mean after all, if most adults don't realize that there are differences between Sunnis and Shiites then how the Hell is a kid supposed to know? When asked why we're fighting them, we will tell them because they threatened us. So now a kid has in his head that Muslims are our enemies.

Who is fighting our enemies? Our military. How are they fighting them? With guns. They are our heroes for defending us. We should look up to them. See where I'm going with this? I don't mean this as a slant against the war or even against our troops. But I'm giving you a potential rationale behind why some kids begin to see guns and violence as a reasonable pursuit. Have a problem with an enemy? Violence is the key. The kid who drew the picture of a gun probably didn't mean it as a threat. He's said as much. He probably didn't think it would draw as much of a reaction as it did. But is this truly the message we want to send to kids? I mean supposing you tell a kindergartener to draw a picture of a news item, do you think they'll draw a picture of the latest presidential debate or the latest battle in Iraq? I think we all know the answer to that.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

OJ: Juicing the Past

It was the summer of 1994. I remember my family and I had gone out for dinner. It was a few weeks before school started up again and I was officially going to be a senior in high school and my brother would be entering my high school as a freshman. We were seated in an area that had several televisions but the sound was drowned out by the general din of the place and the music that was conveniently played to create atmosphere though how people are supposed to keep food down with schmaltzy love songs in the background is beyond me. But I digress. We are just finishing dinner when we see what appears to be a scene out of the movie "Speed".

A white Ford Bronco is racing down a highway, apparently in California and it is being pursued by cops. Thinking that perhaps this is just a regular old police chase, we leave and head home. Turning on the TV there we find the same story is all over the news. Apparently OJ Simpson, whose ex-wife had been murdered several weeks earlier along with a friend of hers, was fleeing from the police after he claimed that no one would believe him or that he was innocent. There was a sort of macabre desire to watch simply because no one seemed to know what would happen next. Simpson apparently had a gun but would he kill himself or shoot his way to freedom. He returned home and eventually was arrested and thus began the trial that was lambasted and ridiculed and that lasted for my entire senior year and most of my first semester in college.

Like it or not, the trial divided the country along racial lines with people claiming that Simpson was being treated unfairly because of his race. Be that as it may, there were so many other problems in the case that no one came out looking good. The criminal case resulted in Simpson being declared not guilty while the civil trial several months later returned a verdict of guilty. However, the civil trial was meant as more of a show to prove that the chain of evidence was sufficient to convict him. Again, whatever the case, whether he was guilty or not is for the individual to decide and not me. Still, after the trial, Simpson proclaimed that he would continue his hunt for the killer or killers of his wife and her friend. He immediately went to play golf. It's been a decade since this whole thing happened and still no results.

However Simpson did have time to write a book. In the history of mankind there have been multiple good ideas. Sliced bread is definitely one of them along with velcro. The wheel is also quite important as far as ideas go too. But when half the country believes you to be guilty and the other doesn't, why fuel a fire by writing a book about how you would have perpetrated the murder of your wife and her friend if, for the sake of arguement, you would have done it? Doesn't this sound like nothing more than a desperate attempt to get back into the limelight after your career and reputation are ruined? It sounds just like that to me. Simpson continues to claim his innocence and has stated that this book is only meant to provide the reader insight into how he would have done it.

Now this just strikes me as very odd. Supposing for the sake of arguement he's writing this to prove that he would have been much more methodical than the actual perpetrator of the crime. He sat through hours of testimony and evidence about how the murder was supposedly done. He had evidence of the murder in his house and he knows where and when mistakes were made. Of course the book will present a case where none of these mistakes are made. He's had a decade to plan out and use 20/20 hindsight to make his decisions clearly. I guess Simpson thinks that perhaps people will read the book and say, "Wow! The original murder was sloppy, Simpson would have been more like a ninja. Less mess, quick death." Somehow I don't think that's what the reaction of most people will be.

Bookstores and many publishers have stated that this is a truly stupid idea and that it's ridiculous to even contemplate the rationale behind wanting to publish this. Families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman (her murdered friend) have stated that this is sort of like OJ confessing his crime. Perhaps it is a sanitized version of the truth but I am again wondering what the point is. The people who think he's guilty will still think he's guilty and the people who think he's innocent will still think he's innocent. To go across racial lines is something we're not really capable of doing. I mean look at the semi-mixed reactions to footballer Michael Vick's crimes.

Whatever his motivations for wanting to write the book, it's clearly for nothing more than making a quick buck or two. I honestly can't think of anyone who would be interested in reading a book like this. The case has been out of the public's mind for a long time. While it was culturally significant in terms of clearly defining race relations in this country, it wasn't a landmark case that changed the course of history in this country like Roe vs. Wade or Brown vs. The Board of Education. It was simply a case of a man who apparently had a mountain of evidence against him being found not guilty through extremely fine defense work. This is nothing more than Simpson's attempt to stir controversy and make a few bucks on the side. I guess it beats pan handling.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Can We Get Any Lazier?

The iPod will probably go down as one of the most profitable inventions of the early 21st Century. Until something smaller and more versitile comes along, I don't think anything will come to replace the iPod for a while. As a fairly recent convert (and addict) of the iPod I will admit that it's amazing to consider that I currently have over 7 days (days!!) worth of music on something the size of an old audio cassette tape. I can hear some of the younger readers out there scratching their heads wondering what an audio cassette is but trust me, the older generation out there knows to that's good enough for me.

In terms of what that means for me personally, well, whenever I take a trip, whether it is a road trip or overseas trip, I always love to have music along with me. It's important in setting the mood and keeping the energy going and so I like to carry a wide variety with me. Previously I used to have to carry a limited number of tapes or CDs in order to sustain myself. In no time at all I would have loaded myself to the limit and ended up with a bag that weighs more than my checked luggage (or so it would seem). Compound that with the fact that I also need to have books to read with me, then you can quickly realize why I have such heavy hand luggage. But not anymore! Now with my iPod, I can carry much more music with a fractional amount of space being taken up!

With such an easy interface and set up, almost anyone, from the tech savvy to the tech clueless, are able to get up and running in no time. You can quickly scroll through your music without having to do anything more than use your fingers to scroll and click your selections. Of course, there are some who feel that even this is too much. Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a solution. The image above is a new interface that has been developed for use with an iPod. Sure it looks like a pair of headphones connected to the iPod but it is actually a rig that also goes in the mouth and so you can control the scrolling and clicking with your mouth movements. Now I find this idea to be both fascinating and ludicrous at the same time.

It's fascinating to me because it's an example of someone taking an idea and making yet another peripheral invention for it. I mean walk into virtually any store and you will undoubtedly find a section with material meant to 'enhance' your iPod. From squishy protective sleeves to mobile transmitters, the iPod is one accessory that has spawned a large peripheral market that is constantly on the lookout for the latest add-on. Still, I find this new invention a bit, well.... dumb. The tooth control was supposedly invented so that iPod users would not have to use their hands to interface with the iPod. This was considered to be an ideal add-on for those who regularly use the overly crowded trains in Japan and can't let go of the bars to use their iPod.

Maybe it's just me but that seems a bit extreme. Are we all that tied up that we can't spend a few seconds doing nothing more than what amounts to tracing circles in the air and tapping? Perhaps it is meant to avoid drawing attention to the fact that you are carrying an iPod as an effort in avoiding iPod theft. I don't think that can be the case because until someone invents wireless earphones that fit into the ear with no visible signs, people will always know when you're listening to something. Perhaps it's meant as a way of avoiding unnecessary jostling in crowded trains. Perhaps. So instead of jostling, you'll see a train full of people moving their mouths with the same movements as cows.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Making History Even When We Didn't

I think most men out there will admit that they are fanatics when it comes to World War II. When most men tell you that they enjoy history, they will invariably mean military history. I can include myself in that bunch though I will admit that I study history beyond World War II as well though that's beside the point. There's some allure to World War II that has left it as one of the most written about conflicts in history. Obviously it was almost all-encompassing otherwise why would they call it a 'world war'. For those of us in America it was something that defined the course of our nation for many decades to come. There is a bit of in-built drama in it as well. The German rush across Europe. The gallant stand of the English during the Battle of Britain. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the war that ensued. It seems like some sort of movie though it was real enough.

The truth is sometimes more dramatic and more outlandish than even Hollywood would have us believe but it seems that in all their efforts to 'teach' us history, they tend to make it more of a spectacle than anything else. I mean take for example the movie "Pearl Harbor". When the announcement was initially made, I was curious about how they were going to handle a story set during the Japanese attack on the American naval base. I mean previous attempts to make movies on the subject such as the 1970's "Tora Tora Tora" had been met with mixed results. While critics praised it's attention to details and dramatic presentation and excellent special effects, most everyone who saw it felt that it was far too... sterile in it's depiction to have very much impact. So I was a bit skeptical when I heard that they were going to dramatize the events with a love triangle in the background. Again this could be the potential for success as seen in the film "From Here to Eternity".

Still, I later realized that I had every right to be skeptical. The film was part of the syndrome that appears to be the case in most every recent movie being released on World War II today and that's the impact that we Americans seem to have on.... everything. What do I mean? Well, in "Pearl Harbor" one of the main characters is shown to be flying in World War II during the Battle of Britain and then later with the Eagle Squadron which continued to fly sorties against the Luftwaffe. Then after being shot down and making a miraculous return to life (and thus setting up the love triangle) he is present at Pearl Harbor during the attack, flies planes and shoots down half of the Japanese planes then returns to the island to help in rescue efforts for the sailors trapped in sinking ships. I mean he even has time to donate blood! Then he's immediately drafted by the irrascable Jimmy Doolittle for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Had the movie been allowed to go beyond three hours perhaps we would have seen him continue to fly in Europe and the Pacific before finally piloting the atomic bomb down on Hiroshima just before flying off to meet Kate Beckinsale on the farm. Throw in a slice of apple pie and it would have been perfect.

Now I don't for a minute wish to take away from the veterans who actually served in these theatres of combat or who laid down their lives for our country in a time of war. I think they have made much more of a sacrifice than many men can make in their entire lifetimes but still, why dramatize the facts. Okay, so "Pearl Harbor" was an American experience so we can forgive the depiction of an overly heroic American protagonist. But what about a film like "U-571"? It shows a fictional attack on a German U-Boat in an effort to gain possession of an Enigma encryption machine. With a crew of clean cut Americans (including no less than Jon Bon Jovi!) the mission is carried out with great tension and success and the Allies are then shown to have an Enigma machine which helped them break German codes. That was great and all until you realized that the first successful capture of an Enigma was done by the Brits. Needless to say they were a bit peeved by the film.

Part of the problem comes from the fact that we are a bit impatient when it comes to things like history. Sure we can read 500-page books on the subject and get the truth but a movie can show it to us in 2 hours. Which is more appealing? For me it's the reading portion more than the film portion but still, I enjoy the movies too! I just wish they were more accurate. What happens is that the majority of people out there who don't read or aren't familiar with the truth tend to take the movies as gospel. They will remember that Jon Bon Jovi and Matthew McConaghey captured the submarine and won the day and not that the truth was that the Royal Navy did it first. One can argue that it's a minor point but tell that to the people who made the sacrifice in the first place.

Tom Cruise is the latest Hollywood star to experience this backlash first hand. Recently he began filming on the movie tentatively titled "Valkyrie" which is a depiction of the plot to assassinate Hitler (which ultimately failed). In the film (directed by Bryan Singer of "X-Men", "Superman Returns" and "The Usual Suspects" fame)Cruise portrays Claus Von Stauffenberg who was one of the main conspirators and is considered to be a hero among Germans. Where the controversy in this case comes from the fact that the German people in general are a bit wary of Cruise and his views on Scientology. Though this shouldn't have any bearing on his acting ability, it is nonetheless a source of some tension for him. What worries me is that the film will stray from history and focus on more dramatized events leading up to the failed assassination than anything else. Though there's very little in which a decidedly German officer can be made to appear American, this is Hollywood so anything is possible.

I mean Cruise is already stirring controversy over this movie and he's started to brew a new pot on the side with the British over word of his next movie as well. In a movie tentatively titled "The Few" Cruise is set to star as an American pilot who illegally went to Britain along with several other Americans in order to enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF) to fight the Luftwaffe. Now while the basic premise is true and while it is also true that the Americans did participate in the Battle of Britain, there is a great deal of discussion as to whether the American pilots made much of an impact to warrant a film on the events. What the British worry about is that the film will show again a very skewed version of the events. They are worried about "U-571" being applied to the Battle of Britain and history being changed to show that the Battle of Britain was won by a handful of Americans with Colgate quality smiles.

I have faith that history will stand to the truth despite what the movies show us and I think that those of us who are true students of history will seek out the films that are based on reality rather than star power. For example, I think the film "Downfall" which was made entirely in German is probably one of the most chilling and accurate accounts of the final ten days in Berlin before the suicide of Hitler. I think it was made all the more realistic given the fact that most of the actors are not major stars out of their respective countries and as such, there was a tendency (on my part at least) to view these events as reality more than conjecture and dramatization. While I hope that Cruise's depiction on von Stauffenberg will focus more on the facts than the dramatics, I am a bit wary. We should remember history for what it was and not what makes the best special effects and box office appeal.


Friday, August 17, 2007

It's as Plain as the Nose on Your Face

I have written on the constantly changing state of airport security numerous times on my blog. It seems that just when we get used to certain security procedures, the TSA and Homeland Security come up with something new to put passengers through the proverbial grinder when going through security. The latest effort to keep us safe has to do with reading the expressions on your face as you pass through security. Yes, so called 'micro-expressions' are supposed to give insight into what you're thinking and whether those things are terroristic in nature.

Now while I think that TSA has a difficult enough job keeping us safe, is this really going to make us any safer? I mean I will never confess to being an expert in facial expression interpretation. Had I studied that in college perhaps I would be smiling and raking in the dough now but I decided to go the 'traditional' route and study a subject like economics and finance. So now in addition to having our shoes, socks, metals, phones, laptops, toiletries, baby formula, breast milk, medicines and boarding passes examined, we'll also have our faces examined too. It just strikes me that this is a highly subjective thing isn't it? I don't think I'm all that unpleasant to look at yet I was very recently looked upon by a fellow passenger (nervous as she was) as if I was about to jump up and hijack a plane before the beverage service had even taken place. If a jumpy passenger can do that then what about a stressed out security guard at the checkpoint.

Most of us try to make the job easier for the TSA screeners. You think it's tough going through security when going someplace? Imagine working there for hours on end. Despite all the signs and notices and announcements and reminders, there are still those cluelessly happy passengers who seek to act ignorant of the rules and go through security with all banned items and their shoes firmly on their feet. You get annoyed when one person ahead of you does that. Imagine having to deal with it multiple times an hour! I think the TSA have enough on their minds that we don't need to add facial reading to their gamut of skills.

I was recently told by some friends of mine that they passed through security with bottled water accidentally left in their hand baggage and a pocket knife in another hand bag. Now granted this wasn't the type of knife that Rambo would carry but it was still a knife and it was water and it managed to get through security undetected. Was the TSA agent not so good at reading x-ray scans or was it just a case of them saying, 'let it go'? Whatever it is, when we have inconsistent enforcement of basic rules that have been in place for a long time what are we going to do when it comes to something as subjective as facial expression interpretation.

These days flying has become so much more stressful and it's not all due to terrorists and their plots. You have to get to the airport even earlier because you never know how long it will take to check in for your flight. It can take anywhere from five minutes to two hours. When I flew out of Dulles recently the line at United on a Saturday morning looped around the terminal several times. That's just plain ridiculous. Then you have to deal with security. After that is when you'll find out whether your flight is on time or delayed. After that you'll board your flight and hope like Hell that you don't end up stranded on the tarmac or held up on the field while waiting for a gate to open up. After that you'll pray once again that you get your bags at your destination. And through it all you're supposed to keep a cheery disposition? Easier said than done.

I think that the TSA is doing good things and I think that the efforts they undertake for the most part are beneficial but there are times when I am curious about their motivation. The TSA is probably one agency that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. They are probably more successful in recruitment than the military and because of the new skillsets that they are constantly seeking, they are always getting larger and larger staffs. They are hopeful that by the end of 2008, there will be up to 500 Behavior Detection Officers in place to perform the facial expression analysis. Attention all palm readers, your skills may be needed soon too! Close up the fortune telling shop and get ready to earn your government pension safeguarding the friendly skies!

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Television Deals Too Good to be True

It's probably happened to you before. Someone approaches you and mentions that they have some appliances that they'd like to sell to you. Dirt cheap. The only catch is that they aren't trying to sell it to you from a store but rather from the back of a truck or some other such shady place. Well, I think P.T. Barnum said it best when he said, "there's a sucker born every minute," and in these cases it's the literal truth. What's the case? Well, across the country, police have been receiving complaints about a rash of oven door thefts with no apparent reason about them. The reasoning came to light when police followed up on a tip about some dealing in 'widescreen televisions'

It seems that people as far and wide as Indiana and California have been reporting that they were approached by individuals claiming to have widescreen televisions for sales. Given that a decent sized one will cost you anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, when someone offers you one at a much reduced cost, your first instinct may be to jump on the deal before it's too late but the second part would likely be that you are suddenly hit with the realization that something in this situation is not kosher. If you were one of the ones who got hit with the non-kosher feelings then consider yourself lucky. In case you hadn't guessed yet, theives were stealing oven doors that resembled televisions and were packaging them and selling them as widescreen televisions.

The con artists had gone to such an extent that they often packaged the doors in old television boxes and included peripherals such as power cords and remote controls. Think about it though. How many times when you buy a piece of electronics from the store are you shown the entire contents even before you put down the money? You aren't. You take it on faith and assume that everything will be okay with the product. In this case you have someone ready to sell it to you at a reduced cost and is showing you the contents (fake though they are) which is meant to instill some measure of confidence in what you're purchasing. Given all that, why wouldn't you take the deal?

I bargain hunt as much as the next guy but I also use a little bit of sense when it comes to something like this. If the person is selling it from the back of his truck it's more than likely that he doesn't have a store or he didn't receive an extra consignment despite what he or she says. It's all a matter of looking at the overall picture and then realizing that it stinks to high heaven. I was once approached by a trio of guys in a van who were offering to sell me a set of high end speakers for a couple of hundred bucks. It was odd enough that they were approaching me as I was walking through a parking lot on my way to the grocery store but what was even more odd was the fact that they kept dropping the price every time I said no. Isn't that the opposite of how most negotiations are made. If car dealers operated on that principle we'd all be driving Ferraris!

These theives are apparently preying on those who aren't all that knowledgeable in electronics or who seem to be trusting. It's all a subjective thing but I guess they figure that if they have piqued their interest enough for them to come listen to their offer for the television, they don't know all that much about it. Simple things to check if you're ever approached by someone selling you something like this. If it's in a box, check to make sure that the labels on the remotes and televisions match those on the box. Meaning if the box is a Sony television box and you have Magnavox remote controls, something's wrong already. Similarly, ask to see the television out of the box. If you can see through the screen to the guy on the other side, chances are that you're looking at an oven door. Even if it's labeled Sony.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

More Proaction and Less Reaction

The collapse of the I-35 Bridge in Minneapolis has suddenly led to a strong reaction across the country with regard to ensuring that our nation's steel-deck truss bridges are safe for continued usage. The sudden revelation that the bridge had been deemed something akin to 'unsafe' in layman's terms was a shock to many but even more of a shock was the fact that there are literally hundreds more across the country that have been rated as such and now everyone and their brother is afraid of another bridge collapse. My father is a civil engineer and was talking to me about these situations. He mentioned that many a time reports such as these go unnoticed because it is very subjective.

What I mean by subjective is that while an assessment of the bridge may yield that it is not as structurally as safe as it should be, it is still within tolerances. Part of the problem in these cases is that many of the bridges around the country are not designed for the level of traffic that they now carry. For example, the old Wilson Bridge in Northern Virginia, long a bane to Maryland commuters into Virginia, was in terrible shape and finally it was replaced late last year by a newer span that was meant to be much more capable of carrying the amounts of traffic that cross it every day. It was also meant to reduce traffic in the area but that hasn't really happened. It just moved the bottlenecks a bit. But that's a different story and a different blog.

At that time, engineers had also explained to the public that the bridge was developing cracks and structural problems that could, over time, cause the bridge to collapse. At that time, the I-35 collapse hadn't occured so for the most of us, it was something we weren't even remotely concerned about. It's part of our being a largely reactive society. Now that a bridge has collapsed, suddenly everyone knows that there are 700 such bridges across the United States and the majority of them have been declared unsafe. Now everyone is calling for more money for road improvements. Our federal budgets, already starving for cash for various programs are now seeking emergency funding to promote revitalization of our nation's infrastructure. I guess the thinking is that we should 'show' that we're doing something about the problem although the problem has been there for a long time.

Most engineers will tell you that this revelation about the bridge is nothing new. They have seen such situations before and will undoubtedly continue to see such problems again. The sudden push at this point is more of a reaction to the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis. I mean you can see the signs of it everywhere. After the tragedy at the Sago Mines last year, a small majority of people directly affected by mining safety (mostly the miners themselves and their families) were up in arms about promoting mine safety. The public got caught up in it too and then over a short while the next crisis hit and it was left at the wayside. Now that a similar accident has happened in Utah, again there are calls for changes in mine safety standards. Why is it we need a shot in the arm every once in a while to get some sort of drive out of our society?

Remember Teri Schiavo? I'm sure for a lot of people, the name sounds familiar but they can't quite remember why. She was the patient down in Florida who had suffered a condition which left her in a vegetative state and her husband and her family were at odds about whether to leave her on life support or not. At that time almost the entire nation was pushing for new rules and regulations and people who had never taken any side on the issue were suddenly at the forefront behaving as if they were the ones who had been fighting for it from the beginning. After Schiavo passed away, the fervor died down. Now if you ask the average person who Teri Schiavo is you'll likely get the response, "I don't know."

It's sad but true that so many of us fall into the trap of what I call, 'crisis of the week (or two)'. In that case everyone suddenly grabs onto the one story that the media feeds us and we keep on it until the next crisis comes up. It's like a television drama where one crisis comes up and is dealt with for an hour until it's resolved or at least put aside and then the next week a new one crops up. If we stop and look at the bridges as just one example of places where we can take a proactive stance, we'll find many many more which could benefit from more proaction. It's impossible to handle all of them but if we as a society take a more even stance and hope for being more proactive, perhaps we can avoid the tragedies like the one in Minneapolis.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Coffee Overdose

My regular readers know that I am a coffee drinker. I have been to Starbucks often enough that I am compelled to write about it on occasion. I have also consumed enough coffee over the years to know that the caffeine kick doesn't hit me as hard as it does others. In a way that's both a good and a bad thing. It's good in that I can drink lots of it and not suffer any real ill effects but it's bad because when I'm sleepy, it's hard to find something to help give that boost to keep me awake. Fortunately (or unfortunately) that wasn't the case for young Jasmine Willis (pictured here).

Young Miss Willis was working in her father's recently opened sandwich bar in England when during the course of her summer exam studies she felt she needed a pick-me-up so she decided to have an espresso. Now anyone who is a coffee drinker knows that espresso is basically ground up coffee beans with a bit of hot water added to make it go down your throat a lot smoother. It comes in a cup the size of a shot glass but for good reason. It's the coffee equivalent of a shot of tequila but instead of bringing you down, the sudden and sharp boost of caffeine gives you a boost up. Jasmine had a shot of it and immediately felt better so she decided to have another. And another. And another until finally, she had drunk the equivalent of 14 shots of espresso. To put that in perspective, she had drunk three times the amount of recommended daily caffeine consumption in a little less than four hours.

So you must be wondering what happened right? Sure you are... otherwise you wouldn't be reading this paragraph by now. Apparently what happened next was a bit of a surreal experience. Jasmine began to suffer fits of laughter which she couldn't control and tears were streaming down her face. Needless to say she was quite jittery as well. After being sent home by her father, Jasmine awoke the next day to find she had no feeling in her lips and was struggling to breathe. After being admitted to a local hospital, doctors realized that she was suffering from an overdose of caffeine in her system. Her heart was racing so fast that it was causing palpitations.

The doctor's helped her through the situation and eventually as the caffeine passed through her system she slowly returned to normal but now she hesitates to even consider having coffee. Understandably so. I guess it's the same reaction many people have to binges of tequila and the invariable results. Still, it just proves that too much of anything is never a good thing. Although I have been known to go through a lot of coffee at times, I generally don't feel any effects such as heart palpitations. Perhaps that's a good thing. But I will admit that on days where I haven't had a single cup, I do get mild headaches that go away when I have a small dose. I suppose that's a sign that my body has become somewhat dependent on the presence of coffee in my system. Or at least the caffeine portion of it.

The case of Jasmine Willis is just more fodder for those who believe that coffee consumption in general is harmful. While it's true that coffee and tea have high levels of caffeine, it's also true that they have been known to offer good qualities also. This doesn't mean that we should all go out and overdose on it though. I suppose we have to look at our bodies like ovens in cooking. If a recipe says that we bake a cake for 2 hours at 150 degrees, it doesn't mean that the results will be the same only faster if we bake a cake for 1 hour at 300 degrees. Sure the proportion is correct but the effects may not be the same as with patience. Study time is a stressful time for most people out there. I know, I go through it now every semester, but I try to moderate my coffee input only because I fear suffering any ill-effects.

Some who have seen this and other cases like it argue that we need to put warning labels on coffee products like they do on alcoholic beverages. For example, the warning labels that tell of the difficulties people will have operating heavy machinery. I suppose a warning label for coffee could be like those commercials you see on TV which warn of the 'possible side-effects' of using their product. This often includes spontaneous bleeding, uncontrollable diarrhea, sudden loss of vision and whooping cough. Sometimes when you hear that it's a wonder that anyone uses those products as well. Perhaps if they implement this warning on coffee, people won't have to suffer the same problems as young Miss Willis. Oh well, at least she's a little wiser now. Speaking of which, off I go to get a cup of coffee.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Racial Profiling by Airlines and Passengers

Raed Jaffar was probably not looking to make much of a wave when he wore the t-shirt pictured at left on a recent trip from New York's JFK Airport. Still, when the crew and personnel at JetBlue caught sight of him, they requested that he put another t-shirt on top of the one he was wearing and was requested to sit at the back of the plane. Now I will admit that given the current atmosphere of the nation, it is not surprising that the airlines would take such measures. I mean after all, if you look at this picture you realize that perhaps Jaffar was a raving lunatic with box cutters in his hand luggage so it was best to restrain him in back. After all, the statement on his t-shirt could be taken many different ways and the inclusion of a statement in Arabic only added fuel to the fire.

In this case, I think Jaffar pushed the rules a bit too far and brought trouble on himself in this case. He has brought a case to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claiming that he was racially profiled and discriminated against because of his t-shirt. I feel that both sides have a case in this instance. One could argue that because he's wearing a shirt with Arabic writing which are making English statements like, "we will not be silent," it was possible that he was seeking to make some political statement that could have led to violence. Possible but not necessarily likely. In Jaffar's case he could argue that like Rosa Parks, he was refusing to go to the back of the bus. Symbolically of course. The statement on his t-shirt could have been interpreted to mean that the people of the Muslim faith would not remain silent about being discriminated against.

No one wants to admit to it but there is racial profiling going on all the time. For the sake of showing impartiality the TSA will occasionally pull aside a sweet old lady who will gladly subject herself to a scrutinized search in the name of safety but it all amounts to going through the motions. At the present time, terrorists are assumed to look only one way and that's with olive skin and black hair (facial hair is also likely). They wouldn't look like Timothy McVeigh or Robert Reed. They'd look like a close cousin to Osama bin Laden. I don't think there's anything wrong in admitting it. Why not? I mean it's going on anyways and I doubt the general public would raise a stink about it either because after all, 'they' are the problem right?

Still, I can attest to experiencing this type of behavior as well. Given the fact that I also have a light brown complexion and black hair, I have been mistaken for Muslim, Greek, Italian, and Hispanic (among other racial categories) and at times I wonder, do we all really look the same? I mean there are generic traits that all people share but is it fair to blanket everyone based on a few surface features? To give an example, on a recent flight I happened to be seated by myself when a family of four boarded the plane after me. At that time I was already in my seat listening to my iPod and reading a book. I wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary and wasn't dressed in anything other than jeans and t-shirt (which had no writing on it whatsoever). When the family boarded, the woman noticed me and began speaking to her husband in very urgent tones while constantly looking in my direction.

Momentarily I thought that perhaps something was on my face or something so I casually rubbed my face to clean off any objects while turning down the volume on my iPod. I thought that perhaps they wanted to sit together so I was anticipating giving up my seat. Not that it would have mattered to me. Still, I overheard her mention to her husband that I was seated by myself and did he think I was a safe person. She was supposed to be sitting next to me and felt nervous about it. I could tell she was a nervous flier but I could also tell that she was judging me by my physical characteristics. So her husband sat next to me while she sat across the aisle. The entire flight she kept a close eye on me and when I reached to my bag to put my book away she was eyeing me the whole time.

When it came time to land, I swtiched off my iPod (as FAA regulations require) and tightened my seatbelt. My sentinel in the seat across the aisle kept watching me and as soon as I would move she would tense up. I guess I fit the profile and raised her suspicions. At the end of the flight I let them deplane first and then got up to go but I was happy to note that not a single other person even batted an eyebrow at a guy like me because the majority don't think I'm liable to try and take over a plane. Had I come on board the flight wearing a shirt like Jaffar, okay, I can understand the scrutiny then but even when my only similarity to the terrorists is complexion and hair color, should I be viewed with so much suspcion? We all do racial profiling, whether we work for the TSA or not, it's just that we are all ashamed to admit it.


Friday, August 10, 2007

A Cliche By Any Other Name

I love the movies. I have grown up watching movies to the point that there are some that I have memorized to the point that just by hearing a snippet of even the musical score I can tell you what movie it is, what scene and what's happening. You can argue that that level of knowledge is a bit... unhealthy, but still, I think it's probably healthier than any of the other obsessions that people can develop over time. Still, despite my love of movies, there are times when I feel that screenwriters these days are simply rehashing old films with 're-imaginations' or 'updates' simply because they are running out of ideas. There are the occasional remakes that are better than the originals or that take the concepts of the originals and expand upon them to make them seem new once again. But one thing they still can't seem to get away from are the cliches. Most every movie out there these days is full of cliches and you can never seem to be rid of them. Here are some of them that are quite common:

Buddy Films: These are the movies where two people are partnered together. They are initially reluctant to team up and are always at each others throats but then they end up some place (usually a bar or other seedy place) where a fight ensues and they end up saving one another. Friendship ensues and then it's off to tackle the real issue of the movie. Whether it is international eco-terrorists or the local grocer, no villain is any match for a pair of buddies.

Laptops: My mom, who did IT purchasing for a number of years, finds this cliche to be one of the most outrageous. Apparently there is nothing laptops can't do. Just when you think you can't hack into a secure government system or override the latest and greatest bomb's timer, just boot up your laptop and you can save the day. I mean is there anything laptops can't do? There have been films whereby laptops have been used to hack into alien technology. And I'm not talking about illegal aliens, I'm talking about aliens from space. I guess Microsoft has Windows running everywhere.

High Speed Chases: High speed chases are a must and in these cases, the villains will likely be given such high end vehicles as BMWs or Mercedes Benz's. They will have at least one passenger with more ammunition for his machine gun than most Army units are supplied for a month. During chase scenes police cars will not show up unless something needs to be smashed or crashed. If the hero is being chased, he will be in the most decrepit car known to man. If he is doing the chasing he will be in a taxi cab.

Gun Play: When it comes to shootouts, no one will be a better shot than the hero and no one will be a worst shot than the villain. Now one can argue that the hero is more focused but when you've got villains firing endless clips of bullets at the hero at a fairly short distance, something somewhere has to hit doesn't it? Apparently not. Plus, just when you think your hero has had it and is cornered, the one buddy who has been missing from the scene will suddenly show up and fire a shot that would put most snipers to shame.

Kids: Kids are a strange occurance in a lot of movies. Unless it is a family drama or the "Spy Kids" movies, they are rarely the protagonists. They will have some small bit to play. If it is an action movie they will be hostages or the person to be saved at all times. If it's a comedy, they will be the source of all smart ass comments and observations on life. Whatever the case, in most films, kids are shown to be much more intelligent than their older counterparts. Regardless of the situation, they will generally be cool as cucumbers and will never break a sweat. And if the kid is particularly whiney or a cry baby, you know that they will survive to the end.

Dogs: Dogs are generally used in the same manner as kids except that they don't really speak. They are the ones who hear the enemy approach, who know when something's the matter and can generally solve any mystery long before their human friends are even aware that something is amiss. They are faithful companions and rarely die but are often left behind only to have to run to catch up creating tension as to whether or not the dog will actually survive the ordeal or not. I guess no one wants to deal with the ASPCA even fictionally.

There are many many more that I could list but time draws short but I'm sure you can think of many others. But whatever the cliche, I will still enjoy the movies as much as I ever have, even if I remember seeing the original of the movie they are attempting to remake next. Whatever the case, I will keep going to the movies and I'm sure the rest of you will too! So before the summer movie season slows down, go on and spend a hard earned $20 bucks on a movie ticket and another $40 on soda and popcorn and enjoy the magic of the movies!


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Meetings: The Bane of Office Life

It's about 7:30 in the morning. You're still reeling from the shock of the alarm going off an hour ago and so you're still sluggish. Someone finished the last cup of coffee in the coffee pot despite the fact that it's only 7:30 and as usual you're the one who has to refresh the pot. You sit there and wonder how difficult it is to remove an old coffee filter and put in a new one with fresh coffee grounds in it. Whatever the reason, your salvation and caffeine kick are a few precious minutes away. The smell of the coffee grounds helps keep you semi-conscious as you recount all of the day's assignments. Reports are due and so you'll need the kick to keep focused and ready to tackle the next set of issues.

You return to your desk awaiting your coffee pot to fill when the phone begins ringing. It's one of your bosses asking you to sit in on a meeting on a topic you are vaguely familiar with. Your boss has been called away to another meeting which he is reluctant to go to so you've been asked to take one for the team and go to the originally scheduled one. Reading over the e-mail that was forwarded a few minutes before reveals thte meeting to be on new technology that has been implemented and will soon be used by all companies. There is a raging debate over whether to use this technology or not and so this is a meeting to apparently discuss the benefits of using the system.

You shake your head in dread knowing that these types of meetings that start off with a simple agenda and get blown up to something even worse due to the fact that side-bar discussions yield side-bar discussions which rarely involve you or seek your input, yet, you are stuck trying to stay focused on the issues so that you can brief your boss and teammates later. Coffee is definitely a necessity now. You stumble and lumber your way back to the kitchenette and find that the pot has finally stopped brewing and the rich aroma of coffee wafts through the hallway. There's still about five minutes before the meeting is due to begin so you decide to savor a sip or two before going to the conference room. As you approach the kitchenette you hear the coffee pot being returned to it's hot plate and the sound of footsteps quickly retreating down the opposite hall. You enter the kitchen only to find that the person just in the kitchen had finished off virtually the last of the coffee and left it for someone else to refill.

Muttering curses in languages you never realized you knew you glance at your watch and quickly scramble to brew another pot quickly. Filter in place you start the process and wait for the coffee to start flowing. Not wanting to wait until the pot is filled, you place your mug under the spigot and let the initial coffee flow directly into your cup. Several colleagues walk in and give you looks regarding your impatience but when you mutter, "Meeting," then nod their heads and give you new looks of sympathy. Gathering your things you rush to the conference room. For semi-non-important folks like you, you are generally relegated to the wall seats away from the conference table. Your writing surface is now your notepad on your knee. Coffee mug goes underneath your chair and so it begins.

You listen to the briefing begin and already you can tell that the majority of the room is also suffering the effects of an early morning meeting. You can feel the heaviness of the eyelids and the drone of the voice of the briefer. You stifle a yawn and rub your forehead in the old Japanese style of preventing yawns in front of those of higher rank. Most of the others along the wall with you are also working that delicate balance of writing on legs while taking the occasional sip of coffee. You switch from your right foot on left knee to left foot on right knee as a way of preventing a cramp but also as a way to keep up activity meant to keep you awake. The briefer drones on. You pray that if a discussion breaks out you won't be asked a question you have no answer to but also, you pray that the discussion is kept brief.

One hour passes and then another. Suddenly the cup of coffee has worked its way through your system and to your bladder and so you begin the process of trying to hold it while attempting to appear nonchalant in the meeting. You notice others around you seem to have zoned out and are fading. The slide number is 8 though you really only had 12 to go through. Funny how the shorter the actual number of PowerPoint slides, the longer the brief and vice versa. You try to concentrate on the briefing hoping that it will distract you from your urgent needs but it doesn't work. You need to go soon. Finally the briefer appears to be wrapping up. Almost done. He asks the dreaded query, "Questions? Comments?" Eyes scan the room, some looking like they will kill the person who asks anything. It appears that the withering looks may have worked and so you begin to leap out of your seat for the door but just then someone asks something.

You sit back down and begin the process of waiting again for a few minutes. The slight release on your muscles in your bladder that you had done was a mistake and now the sense of urgency is increased. You curl into a ball and attempt to stretch hoping that some position will help keep you awake but also help return the bladder to the proper holding position. The answer to the question goes on and so do the follow ups. You glance casually at your watch hoping that time will have passed quickly and that someone else will need the room so that you'll be forced to vacate. Finally the meeting disperses and you rush off to the bathroom and relief. Tension gone, you return to your desk only to find that you have another meeting request beginning in ten minutes. So it begins again.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Beating the Summer Heat

You know it's summer when you walk out of your home in the morning and hit a wall of hot, humid air before you've even taken two steps out there. It's horrendous and when you have to endure it or when you're stuck someplace with limited relief from it. The high school I went to was fairly old so not all classrooms had proper air conditioning systems. As a result, it used to be fairly stifling towards the end of the year. We all used to complain about it all the time in those days though I guess there were lots of places that didn't have those types of conveniences. Plus the fact that despite out complaints at that time, we would always continue to play outside after school ended.

It used to be that I would live for the summer. Freedom from school for a few months, the chance to sleep in and stay up late. Still, even then there were days that you just stepped outside and then decided that you would much rather stay cool. There were lots of ways to stay cool though we were always torn in which option to take. Riding our bikes was a good option since our neighborhood was fairly hilly and afforded us the opportunity to ride without exerting much effort. There's something to be said about coasting down a hill at seemingly insane speeds while enjoying the momentary breeze before we have to peddle to get to the top again. After some time you began to realize that the amount of work you were doing was not proportional in the right way to the amount of relief you were getting so it made sense to seek other alternatives.

The swimming pool was another favorite spot of ours when growing up. When we were old enough to go to the pool on our own, we used to go quite often. Near every day in fact. We would go there at the time they opened and be there for a few hours before returning home. It was nice on those days where it was warm but not too warm. The general rule I always remembered was that the water was generally ten degrees cooler than the ambient temperature. At 90 degrees it made it a cool 80 degrees in the water. But on those dog days of August here in DC those 100 degree days meant we might as well be sitting in a steam bath for the amount of relief it offered us.

Time goes on as it wont to do and soon I was off to join the working world. In such a life you are insulated to a large degree from the weather. When you're in an office for the whole day your general exposure to the outside air is limited to the time it takes to get from the house to the car and the car to the office and vice versa in the evenings. We go from air conditioning to air conditioning with nary an exposure to the heat. I think that's a bad thing because your body gets used to cooler temperatures and soon you begin to suffer the least little bit of heat.

I can remember when I first started working, our office didn't have covered parking so our cars froze in the winter and roasted in the summer. Seeing as how I had to park about a mile from the car, there was no way I could keep the windows open to ventilate the car. Not unless I wanted the occasional pop-up thunderstorm to come in and rain all over my interior. So every evening it was the same thing. Opening the doors and waiting for the hot and sticky air to slowly seep out as I made efforts to get moving so that I could hurry up and wait to sit in traffic for another few hours. The heat is what makes a commute worse simply because your temperature begins to rise and you end up feeling angrier. Not a good combination.

Still, I count myself as lucky for having relief from the heat during the day. I look at the road crews and construction crews and outdoor crews who work in the oppresive heat all day with nary a complaint. Sure the complain amongst themselves but still, they do their work and get the job done and so I try not to complain about the uncomfortable heat I have to endure for a little while these days. Even then, it makes me nostalgic for the days when I used to think of the heat as a sign that it was the perfect day for the pool. Life comes at you fast and so many other responsibilities creep in that it's not always possible to follow up on those memories. Oh well, maybe the memories will help me keep cool.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Oh For a Cup of Coffee.... Wait... What Did I Want?

My brother will probably rib me for no end for today's topic. He claims that when I'm in need of a topic for a blog, I fall back on coffee or Starbucks as a stand-by topic. While that may be true at some deeper level that I don't quite realize, part of the appeal comes from the fact that so many studies on coffee are coming out these days that if you wait long enough, the answer you want to hear will come to you. Case in point, the most recent study released on the effects of coffee have found that in women over the age of 65, three cups of coffee a day helps maintain memory levels. What was also determined was that similar effects were not found to result in men. So you see? We men are genetically pre-disposed to have shorter memories to begin with. We don't forget important things on purpose! It's our brains that betray us.

I find it fascinating that so many new studies on a single subject can yield such a wide variety of results. When I was in college I took courses in statistics and what I slowly realized is that while you can get some good results based on your sample size, it was also quite easy to manipulate the results to get the answer that you want. In this case, the study concludes that three cups of coffee helped women maintain their memory levels. If out of ten women only seven yield this result then you can say you have a 70% probability of this being the case in larger sample sizes, but supposing you want to make the result more credible. Throw out a few of the responses that don't fit into your intended result and you'll get the answer you're looking for.

Studies of this sort are going on all the time and there are so many different results each time that it becomes hard to figure out what we should do. A few months ago a study concluded that more than two cups of coffee a day would promote other ailments such as caffeine overload or perhaps heart palpitations. Okay so now the choice is clear. Either suffer from heart problems or forget about them by not drinking the required three cups of coffee a day. For those in the pro-coffee camp, it will be like a justification of their lifestyle. At the office we will proudly congregate around the coffee pot and sing our praises for being smart and healthwise. Of course we will grumble just as loudly when several months later, we end up reading about how coffee slowly erodes the lining of the stomach.

I have long believed that anything in moderation can never be bad for you. Three cups of coffee during the day? That's not a bad amount I suppose. I usually have two these days. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. While the caffeine really doesn't do much for me other than give me something to sip on as I work, it's something that I have come to enjoy. I suppose if coffee is the only form of liquid diet I had during the day the results wouldn't be so good. So I try to balance that with the amount of water I intake during the day too. If you favor one over the other it's more than likely that you will be one of the statistics that researchers will use to point to the negative effects of coffee.

I mean coffee is one of those substances, just like cola, that is either considered a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask and who is funding the research. Cola is known to be a useful cleaning agent. It can help clear oil stains when poured on driveways and it also is a good source of caffeine for those who need it. So if it is cleaning oil stains from concrete, just imagine what it's doing to your intestines. Not so pleasant is it? Coffee will continue to be in the spotlight for these types of questions for a long while. With the recent news that Starbucks would be raising prices, perhaps they sponsored this study to entice more people to drink coffee as a memory aid. Perhaps if McDonald's withdraws their iced coffee from their restaurants then we'll see a study that says that iced coffee drinks are bad for the liver and so should not be consumed. Whatever it is, we will likely continue seeing fluctuations in the studies so long as people continue to drink it. Speaking of which... I think I'll go grab a cup now. Wait... a cup of what? I don't remember.