Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I have fond memories of going trick-or-treating with my brother and friends on Halloween. We used to get doubly excited when it happened to fall on a Friday or on a weekend because that meant that we could stay out a bit later and get some extra candy. Then for the next few weeks we would spend time going through our candy, savoring the things we liked, getting rid of the things we didn't. Since I'm allergic to peanuts, my brother would take pity on my and trade me a lot of my peanut candies for non-peanut candies he collected. That used to be our big thing, just trading back and forth and then enjoying the fruits of our labor in having collected the candy.

Like most kids out there we wanted to dress up in costumes of people and characters that meant a lot to us or that we admired. I remember dressing up as Luke Skywalker (you knew Star Wars had to come in somewhere) in one of those old plastic suits which resembled one of the costumes and had a plastic mask that covered the face. You'd wear those for a few years and then realize you didn't want to walk around roasting in plastic suit but would prefer to wear and actual costume. We did the same thing, we began getting our own accessories and making up our own costumes. We continued to wear costumes of people we had seen in the movies or somewhere else but our parents always made sure that they were tasteful or proper emulations.

What do I mean by that? Well one Halloween I remember wanting to be an astronaut since my parents had bought me a flightsuit similar to the one astronauts on the shuttle used to wear when we had gone down to Florida. Some days later when we went to the store to buy some candy to hand out I spied a Freddy Krueger glove and it just seemed to 'call' to me. I was convinced I had to have it. I tried to convince my mom of it too but she just wouldn't have it. Given that I didn't have an allowance at the time didn't help my case either since I couldn't pay for it myself. She told me over and over again about how she didn't want me to mix up a good costume with a bad one. I didn't understand it much at the time but I do now.

I think it's important for kids to have characters or people they look up to and wish to emulate. I think it helps to steer them in a direction that will let them have a successful future. My mom's arguement against my having a plastic knife laden Freddy Krueger glove was not only due to the fact that no astronaut has, up to this point, worn anything resembling this item and it would just mess the look of the costume but more importantly, Freddy Krueger was a killer. Sure you can argue that he was a killer in the movies and not really a killer in real life but if you think about it, doesn't it make sense that he should be shunned and not idolized? There's a difference between wanting to simply dress up as someone and idolizing them. I think the older you get the easier it is to figure out but not always.

It's probably the best thing that I could have learned that Halloween and though in the ensuing years I did have a wide variety of costumes that were either scary or representative of someone or something, I don't think I ever came close to portraying a 'killer' ever again. You can say that it's a bit too deep to think about when you're talking about something fun like Halloween but you never know how great an impact it can have on someone. I'm something of a nut on History anyways but when I dressed up as a pirate one Halloween it spurned me to read and learn more about who I was portraying and that whole era. I'm not saying that we should all take efforts to make Halloween a learning experience but we should make it a safe and sane one.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Sales Strategies

The housing market, like pretty much any market, has its share of ups and downs. Currently we appear to be on the downward trend around here and that it evidenced by the fact that sellers are finding more and more creative ways to convince people to purchase their property versus another. In recent months I have seen ads for people offering free fee payments for a year (as in condo or neighborhood association fees). I have also seen ads where the purchase of the advertised property will also get you a free plasma TV or other set of electronics. I've even seen ads for people offering up sports cars as part of the deal. But I think Bob and Ricki Husick of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have a deal that takes the cake.

According to the offer, they are requesting $399,900 for their four-bedroom, 3 1/2 bathroom home on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The house has been on the market for nearly a year now and so the Husicks decided to step up their offer a little and go the route of The Godfather, basically making an offer that they hope no one can refuse. In this case, the Husicks are offering to pay back the buyer the full value of the house at the time of purchase upon their death. Yes, you read correctly; if you buy the house from them, after they die, they will give you the full price of the house back. They are even attempting to sweeten the deal even more by stating that if the buyer agrees to help take care of them in their old age or after their retirement, they will be named the inheritors of the Husick's retirement property in Arizona as well as their earnings. According to the Husicks, "if it amounts to $2.5 Million then it's all theirs." The Husicks have no heirs so they figure they have nothing to lose by making the offer.

I think this speaks volumes about the current state of the market if a couple is attempting to sell for a year and realize that the only way they'll be able to sell their property is to 'buy' a buyer. I don't think it's a bad idea really. They have no one else to give their money to and rather than letting it go after they pass on, the Husicks are at least guaranteeing that they have someone to inherit their life's gains. From a buyer's standpoint, it will be a relatively sweet deal though I wouldn't jump in on the deal simply because I have the potential of getting the money back. Life expectancy these days is quite long and the Husicks could conceivably live for a very long time. Then again it's not a deal that seems to have any drawbacks on the surface. I mean if you can afford the house and the mortgage, why not? Every dollar you pay into the mortgage is potentially coming back when you receive your money.

And what about the 'taking care of us in old age' portion? I don't think that's a bad deal either. If I read the news article correctly, the Husicks have a retirement property in Arizona so it's not like they would be living with the buyer in the Pittsburgh home and having 'relatives' like the Husicks wouldn't be so bad would it? I mean I'm sure they're nice people so what's the harm? Who knows? A market downturn technique to bolster sales could lead to a potentially new friendship that could last a lifetime. After all, if it means a potential windfall in terms of income after you purchase the property, why wouldn't you at least consider it? I would.


Monday, October 29, 2007

'Working' Out at your Walkstation

These days, with people working as many hours as they are, it's becoming more difficult for people to work and work out all in the same day. Evidence of this is the fact that the number of obesity cases that are being reported are getting higher and higher and the number of diseases linked to inactive lifestyles are also on the rise. Now I think most people know that working out is an essential part of staying fit and living a healthy lifestyle but it's hard to keep up with that when you're required to work odd or long hours during the work week. And during the weekend there are so many non-work related activities that you need to tackle that doing it then also gets struck down. So what are we supposed to do? Accept the inevitability of our becoming increasinly unhealthy sloths or is there a solution? Apparently so.

A Michigan based company, Steelcase, Inc, has recently unveiled a workstation that combines a treadmill with a traditional workstation. Now as you can see from the illustration, in place of the usual cup holder and magazine stand, you have a complete workstation. Now I know what you must be thinking because I thought the same thing too. Are we really supposed to consider this a viable alternative to having an unhealthy workforce? After some thought, I figured 'why not?' Most companies these days are starting to get wise that the healthier their employees, the less sick time is taken and the less is shelled out in insurance coverage. The cost of paying for gym memberships pales in comparison though it is admittedly harder to get employees to go when you're keeping them in the office all the time. So what's the solution? Investing in the new Walkstation of course!

Now before some of you gym fanatics suddenly have visions of jogging multiple marathon lengths while completing your latest work project, I'm afraid you'll have to temper your visions with a healthy dose of reality. It's not quite so easy. My first thought when reading about this technology was that, 'man, meetings are going to stink' and I don't mean because of long hours, I mean because of sweaty co-workers stuffed in a conference room after working out at their desk. But that's not the case either. Rather than allowing for a high speed runs or jogs, this machine has a maximum of 3.5 miles per hour in terms of speed which will allow users to enjoy a leisurely strolling pace while continuing to burn calories. Therein lies the key, burning calories as opposed to intaking them.

As someone who has benefited tremendously from having a treadmill in the house (when I was living at home with my parents) I know that using one means that you are capable of burning off a tremendous numbers of calories for not a whole lot of effort. Combining that with reduced intake and you end up seeing health benefits. I for one would think that this sort of contraption might be slow to catch on but who knows, if a few forward thinking small companies buy into the concept then we could see a whole new industry spring up. I mean just think of the by products that this type of technology would promote. Sweat resistant dress shirts; dress tennis shoes; towel ties. You see where I'm going with this?

As some of the scientists and doctors involved in this project pointed out, our society has become a society accustomed to sitting and stewing for multiple hours a day and this is promoting a very unhealthy lifestyle for all of us. This type of work out technology will certainly help steer things in the right direction and perhaps rekindle the drive to live a healthy lifestyle in those who may not enjoy it as much or have slacked off in recent years. I wouldn't mind having this type of thing. When things get a little tensed or stressful, there's nothing like burning off a few hundred calories. The resulting rush of energy is sufficient to help surpass those negative feelings and keep you feeling fresh. Plus, I guess for those looking for any excuse, it's reason enough to partake in another office tradition; coffee and donuts.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Optimism is a Way of Life

I like to think of myself as a 'glass-half-full type of guy', meaning I like to think that I am an optimistic person. Into every life a bit of pessimism falls but still, if you have a stronger optimistic epicenter then there is greater likelihood for retaining an optimistic point of view. And according to recent studies done jointly by New York University and University College of London there is a location within the brain that contains the region responsible for the optimistic outlook in life. What the study found was that in the brains of people who were more prone to optimism had brighter imaging in those areas versus those who were more prone to pessimism.

How this helps the rest of us I don't particularly know but for the pessimists it's yet another sign for them to get down and dreary about. I mean as if they didn't have enough to contend with now they have to contend with the fact that an area in the brain behind their eyes is not as bright as an optimists? That may be too much to take. But still, I think anyone can become an optimist, there is no clear cut formula or arguement to promote that it's a nature or nurture question either. I grew up in a household where optimism was a way of life. Both of my parents have had their share of adversity in their time but they have dealt with it in an upbeat and positive manner and that has made a tremendous difference for me whenever I have had to contend with similar problems in my life.

Now I don't count being extremely cheerful or upbeat at all times as being optimistic, it certainly helps but it isn't the only indicator of an optimist. In my time I have seen people in very dire circumstances who have always looked at the positive, no matter how small the positive may be. From my own experience, I have always looked at down times as part of the journey for heading back up. Having studied physics I remember the principle that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That being said, if you're hitting a low point in life, embrace it because you will soon be hitting a high point. For an optimist that is the way to go. I think if you can spread enough of it around it can change the attitude around you as well.

Feelings are like absorbant towels; it sucks up everything that's around it. I have seen instances where one down and dour attitude managed to affect everyone. Conversely anyone who is positive in similar circumstances can lighten the mood for everyone else. I remember when my dad was in the hospital after his heart surgery in 2006, he kept a positive attitude throughout and as a result, despite the fact that the surgery was fairly serious, anyone who came to visit him never felt that he was in a dire situation. An attitude like that makes everyone feel better because they know that if the person undergoing the difficulty then they have nothing to worry about either.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Super Fans

As most of my regular readers know, I am a sports fan. Now that doesn't mean that I leave normal life behind over the weekends and become a denizen of the local sports bar or in the area immediately surrounding the nearest TV but I do enjoy watching a game in support of my favorite team, which in this case happens to be the Washington Redskins. They have been on the long, long road to regaining the prominence they once held back in the early 80's and 90's though they have not come close to that form other than on a few occasions. Back in about 1999, despite the slump the team appeared to be in, I purchased a jersey to show my support for the team. I know that the play of the team wasn't suddenly magically improved by my single purchase but for me it was a sign of solidarity with my long-suffering team and a sign that through thick and thin, I was no fair weather friend.

Shortly after my purchase of the jersey I noticed that the slump the team had been experiencing seemed to improve and I took it as a sign of the Sports Gods that perhaps this was an omen and something that had to be done in order for the team to go back to its winning ways. Now my dad is always quick to point out that a team that needs their fans to dress a certain way or act in a certain manner on game day is probably already in a lot more trouble than they care to comment upon but be that as it may, both my mom and I have our little quirks for watching games. The years they have gone to the playoffs or done reasonably well (and for the Redskins in recent years, that means finishing even one game better than 8-8) we will follow a similar ritual.

We occupy the same locations on the couch and go through the same routines. Variances in this routine not withstanding the team still seems to play as if driven by some other force and so regardless of what we do, there is often little or no effect to our taking the time to do these rituals. So then why do them? Well, for the same reason that the gentleman (and I assume it's a gentleman and not a devilish demon) pictured in this blog and that answers the question. We do it because in some small way it allows us to become 'part' of the team. I have never had the physique or physical acumen to be able to play at a professional, semi-professional or even pee-wee level. My play time was limited to weekend afternoons in the backyard with friends. Still, despite my lack of actual skill, my ability to wear a jersey can never be questioned.

For the fans out there, even those with the skill, this is a way to show support, love and affection for their particular team of choice and sport of their choice. There are those who take that devotion to extremes and you may have the chance to encounter them on occasion. Case in point is the gentleman devil shown here or some of the other hellions you occasionally run into on game day. I remember attending a Redskins game in 2003 with my mom when the Redskins were playing their hated division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. It was fun to be there but a bit intimidating to be surrounded by more Eagles fans than Redskins fans. Needless to say, I kept my jacket over my jersey and tried not to show my utter disappointment in the proceedings (the team lost and lost badly that night). Still, as I sat in what was supposed to have been a sea of burgandy and gold instead of green and silver, I couldn't help but see so many fans showing their support in so many different ways. Whether it was simply wearing a shirt or painting their faces, fans were out in force.

Such devotion can be a good thing because it is great motivation for a team to see so many out there wearing their colors and shouting their support. It's even better when they're winning because the voices of support grow louder. I will continue my rituals but I certainly won't take them to the extremes like wearing the same socks game in and game out on the chance that it will help secure victory. I'm not a player so I shouldn't partake in such rituals. Donning a jersey and cheering with the TV is more normal... and preferable... to me.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hit the Road Jack... er... Roy

Remember Judge Roy L. Pearson? Sure you do. He's the DC judge who made headlines around the nation when he famously (or infamously) sued a dry-cleaning shop for false advertising. According to his lawsuit, he felt that the store had not lived up to the 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' sign hanging in the window and because of mental anguish and torture, he ended up suing the store for approximately $54 million which would cover the costs of various things including his renting of a car to go across town to get his pants cleaned at another store. Well, after the case was most obviously dismissed in court, Pearson is making the news again. No he's not suing the court system for not living up to it's motto of 'Justice is Blind' but he could have.

No, in this case Pearson has made the news again because he was officially removed from his post as a judge by the city council. It didn't come as a surprise to many people who had been following the case but it was a long time coming. The fact that Pearson was up for an extension of his tenure during the case was probably not beneficial. At the time, there was discussion going on over whether or not his case in court should have any bearing on whether he keeps his job or not. In all fairness, it shouldn't have any bearing whatsoever on his ability to do his job but in this case, how can it not? A judge is usually meant to have some modicum of impartiality in his manner to prove that he can try to live up to the motto of the legal system.

Still, in the case of Pearson, his case was making headlines across the nation as was the fact that he was up for extension in his post. Anyone would be hard pressed not to bring up the side-by-side comparison of his actions as a private citizen versus his actions as a judge. I think it's only fair that a comparison be drawn simply because it has a direct bearing on his possible conduct in court. For the sake of arguement, let's say someone was an executive within a major corporation which deals with financial reporting and auditing (Arthur Andersen ring a bell?) and let's say that this executive is sued for falsifying his personal tax records and other sorts of financial chicanery, if his company catches wind of it, there is likely to be some delving into whether or not this type of action carried over into his office work as well won't it? Is it wrong to do so?

Like it or not, someone in this type of position is going to undergo scrutiny in such matters. No matter how impartial or fair we attempt to be, there is always going to be some bias that creeps into someone's judgement over whether or not someone is or isn't capable of performing their job ably. Go into most any job interview these days and on the questionaires you usually fill out there are sections which query whether or not you are involved in organizations or groups plotting to overthrow the government. Now while this may be a personal question, it certainly has bearing on whether or not you would be seen as a team player or an anarchist wouldn't it?

Pearson's suit (pardon the pun) could have been settled amicably and with less attention had he not gone and sued for so much over a pair of pants. If one reads the details on how he arrived at a total cost of $54 million (down from the original $63 million) one cannot fault his logic but could arrive at the conclusion that he is looking to milk as much money out of one family business as he possibly can. Pearson has the right to sue for the apparent loss of his pants and the failure of the dry cleaning company to properly recompense him (as he claimed) but by blowing the case out of proportion he not only hurt himself but the dry cleaners as well (the expenses incurred during the case forced them to close the location Pearson had visited). There is a chance that Pearson's dismissal could be overturned but the likelihood of that is very slim. Maybe it has to do with the fact that he's still appealing the original decision to dismiss his case.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Tattooing in a Foreign Tongue

I have never had a tattoo nor have I ever really contemplated having one. I have had a couple of friends get some and for the most part they are pictoral rather than word related simply because a picture can express a thousand words but they are generally not that bad. However, a popular choice among those getting their first tattoo is to have something tattooed in a foreign language. I suppose it's a way of having a taste of the exotic and looking much more culturally refined but sometimes these decisions can backfire; and backfire badly.

Case in point; a young woman in England decided to pay tribute to her mother by having 'mum' tattooed on her back in Chinese caligraphy. Two years later she happened to be walking down the street when a Chinese woman began saying something along the lines of "evil, evil, very bad." Now if that wasn't a troubling sign then I don't know what is. So the young woman decided to inquire with some Chinese people as to what the meaning of the tattoo was and it turned out that it actually said, "Friend from Hell". Now the young woman promptly had the tattoo covered over with a larger and more generic leaf design which covered the evil message previously plastered on her back but it brings up a very interesting point about what I consider the exploitation of other cultures.

I think it's wonderful to have an appreciation of other cultures. I will never profess to understand all the nuances of the varieties of cultural practices out there but I try to learn a bit about each one that I have opportunity to be exposed to. You learn to appreciate things more when you understand the reasons behind certain practices. While wanting to bring greater exposure to certain aspects of a different culture, one should be careful that the exposure remains complimentary rather than serving to exploit. An example, a few years back there were a couple of sandal manufacturers who came under fire for having images of Hindu gods printed on the bottoms and soles of their sandals. For devout Hindus this was akin to stepping on an image of God and treating it like common footwear. For the manufacturer it was a chance to cash in on the symbology and appeal of Hindu related items.

Similar things have been going on for years with Chinese and Japanese cultures and culturally related items. Thanks to martial arts movies, the Ying Yang has gone from a symbol of peace and balance to a sign of martial arts. While this association isn't necessarily bad, it takes away from the actual meaning. Perhaps some of the people being asked to create tattoos in their respective languages feel a sort of resentment for being asked to print their language on someone else's body for the sake of amusement. I am a Hindu but I would still hesitate to ever get something inked onto my body in Sanskrit or Hindi because I wouldn't be able to read it myself. That's not good.

I'm not saying that only the Chinese have the right to have their language tattooed onto their bodies nor am I saying that they or other foreign language speakers have the right to use non-speakers as the butt of one of their jokes, especially in a case like this, but I am saying that I understand part of the reason for their wanting to 'lash out' at people. Perhaps this young woman in England had a real respect for the Chinese language and symbology but now she'll probably be less trustworthy and open to learning more because part of her experience has been tainted by this action.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Video Games as Recruitment Tools

A report came out of the United Kingdom (England for those who didn't know) that the British are planning on advertising for their various intelligence agencies within the confines of the video game world in an effort to recruit 'smart and tech-savvy people' who will then provide an apparent frontline for the coming intelligence storm. What that means is that not only will you have the chance to beat video game villains but you could have the potential to be a live action hero as well. Doesn't this seem like the premise for the movie "The Last Starfighter"? I think it's an excellent idea but do we think that this will be an effective option for increasing interest in various defense and intelligence related fields?

At least here in the states, recruitment and retention within the military has reportedly been on the decline. Whether it is due to the state of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan or other reasons, it's becoming harder and harder for the military to maintain their personnel goals. This isn't a good thing since our armed forces are the first line of defense and if no one is springing to the defense of our country then that's never a good thing. Video games as recruitment tools are a pretty decent idea seeing as how today's kids are going to eventually become tomorrow's leaders. The Army tried this before with the release of their "America's Army" video game. This game series was released for free to the public as a first-person shooter and was meant to give gamers a taste of actual life in the military. Often times in video games that reality is lost simply because if you lose a life, you restart from the last saved game.

This type of attitude can be a bit dangerous since it sort of divorces the human element from combat or dangerous situations. It can be compared to what used to happen in the first World War where generals safe behind the lines would order men to charge into Hellacious fire and mortar attacks for no gains whatsoever. This type of attitude is also quite dangerous simply because it takes the compassion and feeling out. What use is there in sacrificing so many for so little gains? If there is some way to ensure that once a gaming character is lost and lost permanently then there will be some level of realism to what a player would experience in reality. Not that video games will ever come close to reality in combat. At least not with modern technology.

I think it speaks volumes that we're getting to the point now that we have to start recruiting at younger and younger ages in order to ensure that when the time comes, some of these impressionable youths will choose to serve their respective countries. I suppose these types of games are also more popular in comparison to other industries that could use video games as recruitment tools. I mean can you honestly imagine kids lining up to get the latest financial analyst video simulator? How about the auto-assembly line challenge? See what I mean? The just don't seem to have the same appeal. I think that the types of jobs these games are targeting will probably do well to link themselves with such industries but it's also misleading in the sense that although it's cool to be like James Bond, most actual spies don't do anything even remotely similar to it. I guess reality isn't all it's cracked up to be.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Killing for Coffee

As my brother would say, "it's been another week so it's time for a blog about coffee.... the hot button issue on this website." Well he's absolutely right. This latest story comes to you from New Haven, Connecticut where apparently patrons at a Dunkin' Donuts are irritable in the mornings before they have their coffee. Very irritable. Mr. Martin Forte was unfortunate enough to find out just how irritable several days ago when he stood in line to place his order. Witnesses state that the line was long and that many were in a rush to get their order and go. The customer behind Mr. Forte took exception to his asking how much coffee a large cup held.

Apparently the customer was so upset that he decided to speed things up by taking a box-cutter from his pocket and slashing Mr. Forte across the neck before leaving in a huff. Thankfully the other patrons of the place didn't jump ahead in line but did manage to provide some help to Mr. Forte and take him to the hospital where he received treatment and is in stable condition. In case you're wondering, the coffee slasher is still at large and no arrests have been made at present. However, it just goes to show how impatient we are collectively becoming. I can understand the frustration that must come in the mornings when you're looking for a boost of caffeine and you're running late for work and the guy ahead of you is asking questions like, "How much coffee does a large coffee hold?" I can understand the frustration but not enough to condone slashing someone across the neck.

I have been in situations before where I've been accused of jumping in line ahead of someone (when that person wasn't even in line before I got there) or taking to long to make a transaction (I had correct change and I was determined to get rid of it). My logic says that if you're running that far behind, then why bother taking the time out to get a cup of coffee in the first place? Is this a sign of how addictive caffeine can be? I mean is it a case where coffee denial is leading to increased levels of violence? Perhaps there will be a study released in the coming days from a reputable university or research company that states, lower levels of caffeine in violent people can lead to increases in violence inducing hormones within the body. Makes sense doesn't it? There. I've just given some med student a killer PhD thesis. Pardon the pun.

But seriously, do I need to be worried about people behind me in line now too? With the state of paranoia running rampant these days is it any wonder that we are getting more and more paranoid as time goes on? I remember the days when the Soup Nazi was probably the worst person you could run into but now the customers are the ones you have to worry about. I usually know what I want when I walk into a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts but on those rare occasions when I want to try something new, I don't want to order in fear of being beaten up or stabbed to death. I mean I hope this doesn't mean that soon we'll have metal detectors installed at the entrances to all coffee shops. Coffee is probably one of the more popular commuter drinks out there, perhaps we can convince the TSA to start patrolling coffee shops too.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Oldies but Goodies

This past weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a program that featured a retrospective on the music of OP Nayyar, a very popular Hindi music director who passed away early this year. Having grown up in a household that was always filled with music I was rather familiar with the music of OP Nayyar though I had not always associated with him. The program itself offered up video clips, audio clips and live renditions of some of his evergreen hits. The audience was largely made up of people from my parent's generation who were familiar with his music. I may have been slightly younger than the average person in there but that didn't preclude me from having a good time.

As I said, I am a long time listener of music and music truly is the soundtrack of my life. In having taken part in the program, I was able to enjoy the sights and sounds but also enjoy the mood it created. For me, the nostalgia didn't go back quite as far as it did for my parents and their friends but it was nostalgic nonetheless. For me, the music reminded me of some of the roadtrips we took with our parents as kids. We used to alternate between tapes (no CDs at that time) so one western musical tape and then one Indian (classical or Hindi songs) and like it or not, a lot of that music stayed with me and became ingrained in my memories.

Looking back on those times, there were times when I used to think about how much longer the Hindi tapes would last but that didn't mean I wasn't listening. Even for someone who didn't understand the words or the meaning behind what was being said, I think the power of music comes when a listener can appreciate the tune and the 'feeling' behind the song. Most of the older songs from the 50's through the 70's have those feelings. The music was often new and fresh and could be retro or new age at the same time. The tunes were unique and the words had a great deal of meaning. When comparing it to the music being produced today there are some good ones but as many artists and fans have stated time and again, there is no comparison between the music of yesterday to today.

As I sat there listening to the various tunes and watching them in the movie clips, I found the tunes grew on me more and more and though I had heard some of them before, some of the others which I wasn't so familiar with stuck with me just as easily simply because the quality and style of music was so much better than some of the artists of today. And it's not just the music of OP Nayyar that does that but many of his contemporaries as well like the Burmans, Shankar-Jaikishen, and so many others. Their music was just as great then as it is now. Don't believe me? Attend any party where people gather and begin singing (most any and all Indian gatherings have this happen at least once or twice) and you find that the oldies are the songs that dominate. They may be sung off-key or slow... but the feeling and enjoyment is there. I think that's the true power of music and the true power of some of the greatest Indian music composers.


Friday, October 12, 2007

The Dangers of Modern Technology

I think it's safe to say that most every traveller who travels by air is aware that cell phones are not allowed for use while flying in the air. According to most FAA regulations, there are concerns about the sudden influx of signals coming in and affecting the communications systems within a plane if everyone has their cell phones on so the phones are supposed to be switched off. Most cell phones I have seen do have an 'airplane mode' which allows them to remain on and function in every other way other than making and receiving calls which makes them safe. Or so it would seem. More on that in a minute.

I'm sure people are also aware now about the iPhone and how it combines the features of an iPod Video with a blackberry and phone all in one. What Apple wants you to know is that rather than carrying several objects for the different purposes, you can carry this one item and have everything you will need in an electronics sense. Sounds reasonable right? I mean rather than carrying tons of stuff you can carry one item, no larger than a regular blackberry and have music, movies and connectivity to the world at large. And being a phone it naturally has an 'airplane mode' too. In this mode it apparently locks out all cell phone, bluetooth and wi-fi connections. Only problem is because it looks like a phone, apparently airlines are prone to believe that you are secretly using a phone in an effort to cause mischief in mid-flight. At least that's what the crew on board a recent ATA flight to Hawaii assumed.

A flyer on a trip to Hawaii, well aware of the flight rules regarding phones, switched his phone to 'airplane mode' thus disabling the 'evil' functions of the phone in flight and leaving it as nothing more than a video and music player. Issue over and done with right? Wrong. Seems the flight crew on this particular flight came by the passenger on several occasions and reminded him that cell phones were not allowed for use during flight. The passenger explained that the phone functionality had been disabled but the crew was insistant. Despite offering to show them and prove to them that the phone was off, the crew continued to demand that the phone be switched off as it was a violation of FAA rules. As the passenger looked around the cabin at the other passengers, the majority of whom had their ears stuffed with headphones from their personal players, he asked to know what specific rule forbade him from listening to an MP3 player.

Therein lies the rub. While, the passenger was right regarding the right to use an iPod, there is still no clear regulation regarding the iPhone. The passenger wanted to know what rule he was violating and the crew told him that he had to follow the rules because they were the authority in the air. Coming to a standstill in terms of negotiating a peaceable solution, the crew radioed ahead for the police and the passenger was nearly arrested for breaking FAA regulations. When the police reviewed all stories regarding the incident, they did inform the passenger that he was correct that he should have been allowed to use his phone in flight but that he should have also complied with the request of the flight crew. Of course the captain and first officer remained locked in the cockpit but still, the flight crew were only acting in the interest of safety.

Part of the problem with any new technology is that there are often safety features put in place to promote the safety and well being of users such as 'airplane modes' however, not all of this functionality is quickly passed on to industries such as the airline industry. For example, about seventeen years ago I was on my way to Frankfurt when a stewardess came by to inform me that I was not permitted to use my CD player while in flight. I wasn't quite sure what the problem was at the time as it was simply a regular old CD player with absolutely no external transmission capability whatsoever. I explained that it was a CD player but she still insisted that I not be allowed to use it. I didn't make a big thing of it then but I checked with my next flight crew on the next leg of my trip and was cleared to use it. For a few hours at least I was inconvenienced but I didn't make a big thing of it.

The passenger aboard the ATA flight was right that he wasn't breaking any rules but in the current environment, I'm sure the crews on board flights are always a bit wary of people challenging their authority whether it is warranted or not. It's not necessarily true that they have a large ego and are looking to take advantage of their position but for every person making a stink about using an iPhone in the air, they have dozens of other passengers complaining about everything from the pillows not being soft to the types of clothes people wear to the lack of services. In this case I think both the flight crew and the passenger were at fault. The crew didn't need to inform the police and the passenger didn't need to be so insistant. A bit of inconvenience is better than getting arrested on a foolish charge any day.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

All in the Name of Religion

More and more these days, religion is becoming a hotbed of debate among the peoples of the world. Not that it was never a topic of debate to begin with but still, lately it seems like it's coming more and more to the forefront. I suppose in a way it's not too surprising that it's a touchy subject with many people but I sometimes think that it's touchy for the sake of being touchy and not because people assume it to be a true insult to their own religion. What do I mean? Well, there were a couple of incidents recently at London's Heathrow Airport that involved British Airways and it sort of illustrates the misunderstanding and extremism that seems to pervade anything related to religion.

In the first incident, a Hindu woman who works for British Airways was asked to remove her nose piercing because BA has a policy against "flesh piercings that can pose a hazard to customers and co-workers". If you see a picture of the nose stud, it is a very small piercing that she wore and it was hardly in a position to 'hurt' anyone. Still, despite her protestations that this was a requirement by her Hindu beliefs, she was asked to remove it or be removed from her job. She refused so she was removed from service. In a similar incident prior to that, a Catholic woman was asked to remove her crucifix due to the BA policy regarding jewelry that can be worn. While this woman was removed from work, the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury helped her get her job back with the understanding that the policies of BA would attempt to be more lenient. Apparently the message didn't get through.

Earlier this month, a Catholic worker in the airport car park (i.e. parking garage) was cleaning out the office when he found a picture of Jesus on the cross. Not wanting to throw it away, he hung it up in his office. This action was much to the ire one of his Muslim co-workers. A formal complaint was filed and the Catholic worker was suspended for failing to comply with requests to remove the picture. So who is right? I frankly think they're all wrong. I'm not a deeply religious person and I'm not so naive as to think that all the religions of the world can get along. We don't live in a Utopia and that vision of the world will remain just that; a vision. It's not surprising seeing as how most people of the world generallly don't know anything about any other religion other than their own. Even then, their knowledge is generally limited to what is ingrained in their heads over the years.

I have been fortunate to be exposed to many religions in my time though I still have to discover many more. While I will never confess to understanding all religions, I have made efforts to understand my own before jumping to its defense or putting down any other religion. That's a problem that many people seem to have. They don't understand their religion, all they know is that their's is supposed to be far superior to any of the others and that being said, they will fight tooth and nail to prove that their religion is better than anyone else's. I think the recent spats at Heathrow are evidence of this. I mean I can understand the policy of not wanting to offend anyone due to having excessive piercings or hanging religions photographs all over the place but some of the reactions that have been shown here have been extreme.

In order for this Hindu woman with her nose piercing to hurt anyone with it she would either have to remove the stud and start pricking people with it or rub her nose against someone really hard to even cause a scratch. As for the photo of Jesus? What's the harm in it if this chap isn't going around espousing his religious beliefs on everyone who comes and goes from the car park? Many of the objections that come out of these discussions come from an inherent fear of the unknown and gross generalizations. I remember when a Hindu temple was being proposed for construction along a relatively busy road near the University of Maryland in College Park. One of the objections at the time was that there would be a sudden influx of traffic along the road during religions gathering times. While that may be true, it didn't prevent the dozens of churches of all denominations from setting up shop and delaying traffic along the road.

The reactions of some folks at Heathrow seems to be wanting to please everyone by treating all religions the same way; very shabbily. I say shabbily simply because if you ask a Catholic woman to remove her cross then you must ask a Hindu woman to remove her nose piercing since both are signs of religion. In the case of the Muslim protesting the fact that his co-worker put up a picture of Jesus, the objection comes on the grounds that the Muslim felt uncomfortable with the picture of a Christian icon in a common office. I do understand that Islam has certain rules against iconography in their religion but is any religion in the world that weak as to be set out on its ear if another religion sets up shop close by? Most of the major religions of the world have been around for thousands of years now. They have been cause of much strife in the past and will undoubtedly continue to cause strife for years to come.

However, if we can't embrace the fact that if our religions have survived for so long despite the fact that there are 'competing religions' out there then we will never get anywhere in progressing towards an eventual Utopian society. If the Catholic with the picture of Jesus began spouting philosophic about his religion to every non-Christian in his vicinity then he could be considered guilty of harassment, but for putting up a picture? Everyone out there, especially those with a peripheral or general knowledge of any religion (including their own) should try to learn a little more about the other religions out there. And regardless of whether you seek to learn more or not, be comfortable in your own religious skin. If someone tells you that their religion is better than yours, be the superior and say nothing. Rather than entering a prolonged arguement on this score... just be comfortable in knowing you are happy with your religion, if you aren't, then why are you practicing it anyways? Your beliefs are probably very weak to begin with.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Celebrities Say the Darnedest Things

I will admit that I am also in awe of celebrities. I mean to the rest of us they are actually living a life we dream about. Or at least the life that a vast majority of us dream about. I say a vast majority because there are some who get so disgusted with the latest celebrity gossip that they shut the radio off in the car in disdain or they hurl objects at the television to no avail. Thankfully I am not one of those more because it's pointless but also because I don't want to risk damaging my television. Still, celebrities are often good for a chuckle, simply because they sometimes say things which are meant to be deep but come out sounding so inane that you truly begin to appreciate the talents of movie directors and screenplay writers who make some of these dunces sound absolutely Shakespearean.

To give you an example, Lindsey Lohan finally checked out of rehab this month. Either she's finally learned her lesson or the facility just wants to get rid of her so that they can get rid of the dealers who followed her in. In either case, she's out now after having spent a month or so attempting to clean herself of her addiction to drugs and alcohol. Naturally this is Earth-shattering news so the media was on hand to find out how Ms. Lohan felt after her long duration stay at the facility. Lindsey, the epitome of ironic quotes replied with this gem of a statement. "Rehab was a sobering experience." Now some people may be wondering what in that statement I find ironic and it's the fact that she basically followed a principle that was drilled into the heads of students in schools for ages. It still is I believe and that principle is never to use the word you're defining in the definition. That means that if asked to define the word definition, I wouldn't say that it means to define something. That answers without really answering.

In the case of Lindsey's answer she's saying the same thing. Of course rehab was a sobering experience. That's the whole point of rehab isn't it? To get you sobered up to the point that you stop making a mockery of your life and career in the public's eyes. Perhaps it's her attempt to 'make good' on the fact that her career is in trouble following her recent relapses compounded with problems in her past. She was chewed out by studio heads for acting in an unprofessional manner. Still, she's from a crop and generation of celebrities who take celebrity to another level and use it as an excuse to act like a total clod. I mean on the one hand in films and/or television they may act like angels and in real life they are often hard-charging abusive and abused Hellions. That right there is another ironic feature isn't it?

Still, celebrities are what the public craves and the media does its best to cover the topic for us. I mean even respected news networks cover celebrity news with as much pathos as is found in their coverage on the war in Iraq. I mean when Anna Nicole Smith died there was constant coverage on channels such as Fox News. When Paris Hilton was to be returned to prison there was a helicopter hovering over her house to watch the entire process. It was nice to see that her roof was in fine condition. I suppose perhaps the media was hoping that Hilton would suddenly seek to become infamous in addition to being famous and drive one of her expensive cars down south to Mexico. Still, with the gas mileage that some of her super-cars get, she probably wouldn't have made it very far.

But celebrities, even the ones who claim not to want attention, still do and say things that are meant to grab attention. Remember OJ Simpson claiming that he wouldn't rest until he found his wife's killer(s) after he was found not guilty in his murder trial? What about Paris Hilton claiming that she would open a home for recently released women prisoners so that they have a chance to get back on their feet? I guess she's doing 'research' by hitting the party circuit. How about George Clooney ranting against the media attention he gets to the same media hoping that the media will understand he wants to be left alone? Do you see a trend here? I guess it's necessary for some of these stars to remain prominent but they also deserve some modicum of privacy and not everyone is willing to give them that. They are just ordinary people too and they desire some amount of normality in their lives. They just don't often get it. Still, when they continue to offer up silly phrases like "rehab was a sobering experience" then I tend to wait for the latest crop of news too.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dangerous Entertainment

Thanks to my parents, music is an integral part of my life. Whether I'm making my bed, cooking in the kitchen or attempting to study for class, some music or the other will be on in the background providing me with some soft of stimulus. As such, I found that the iPod and other similar MP3 players are a Godsend. I say that because I have a rather large collection of CDs and I like a variety of music so it's a bit inconvenient to carry around so many CDs when you're looking to have some variety along. It becomes easier when you have something the size of a cassette tape that can carry all of those albums and then some. Still, it's becoming more and more apparent that care should be taken when using an iPod or a laptop these days.

Recently, a worker at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport was innocently going through the working day listening to his new iPod nano when all of a sudden he noticed that his pants were smoking... and not because they were stylish. Apparently, the iPod had overheated and the heat generated by the lithium-ion battery inside the worker's pant pocket was enough to generate some heat and eventually set his pants aflame. Luckily for him he was not going through security otherwise he would have likely have been detained as a security threat and made to prove that everyone in his family was in no way shape or form related to any organization wanting to overthrow the government. Thankfully the worker managed to avoid any major injuries but he did suffer some first and second degree burns.

While this case is one of the first to get some attention in the media, it certainly isn't the first case where the iPod has been to blame for some problems. A few months ago, another young man was struck by lightning and it was determined that the bolt was apparently attracted to the iPod enough that it struck him. Thankfully he also survived but then came the necessary unnecessary warnings about how it could be injurious to listen to your iPod during rainstorms; especially thunderstorms. So not only is the iPod prone to burn you (if it is played for too long and allowed to overheat) but it can also attract stray bolts of lightning. Swell. Some in the media also wish to blame it for the slight rise in pedestrian accidents. Apparently people listening to their iPods don't realize that cars still travel on the roads and have been struck while crossing the street without looking. Strange.

Still, part of the blame can be heaped upon the lithium-ion batteries that are used by the iPods. Several months earlier there were massive numbers of recalls from laptop manufacturers who realized that the batteries that they used in their laptops could overheat and explode. Wonderful, so even those of us who are trying to actually do some work can get some exercise by evading exploding laptop batteries. I guess part of it is the price for wanting to make things smaller, faster and better but without a lot of bulk. I'm waiting for the day when our iPods and laptops will be powered by small nuclear charges. I have no doubt that those days aren't too far along in our future. That would add a whole new dimension to concerns over portable munitions wouldn't it?


Monday, October 08, 2007

Columbus Day

In recent years there's been a lot of discussion over whether or not Columbus truly 'discovered' America or not. I mean it's known that he didn't land anywhere along the actual east coast of what is now known as the United States, rather, he landed in the Carribbean. And there are those who claim that he wasn't the first to make the trip either. A former British submariner has put forth the hypothesis that members of the Ming Dynasty in China had actually made explorations of the American West Coast as far back as 1421, nearly 71 years before Columbus' voyage. Prior to that, there are even assumptions that Vikings made forays into modern day Nova Scotia and Canada hundreds of years before Columbus was even born.

This being the case, there are many who wonder why we should celebrate Columbus at all. Now I'm sure the people who have the day off today aren't complaining about the fact that we're celebrating Columbus but still, should we celebrate the achievements of someone who wasn't even the first to accomplish something? One can put forth the arguement that he wasn't the first and therefore isn't as important in the grand scheme of things but I argue that he is important. While Columbus may not have been the trailblazer that he has been touted as for generations, perhaps he's more of a trailblazer than we give him credit for. Though the Chinese and the Vikings may have landed here in the United States and done some preliminary explorations, they didn't stay long enough to make a difference.

Columbus arrived and soon after, the immigrant flood began. The New World was discovered and it was Columbus who exploited this fact. For a long time, people were convinced that the world was flat and that there was no way to get from Europe to Asia following a westerly path. Columbus was determined to prove otherwise and indeed he did dispel one of the major myths and misunderstandings that had led to the limitations of seaborne exploration. Had it not been for Columbus' steadfast belief that a path to Asia was available via the west, this direction would have likely remained unexplored for many more years. But was the opening of the west necessarily a good thing?

It's no secret that the introduction of the Europeans to the Americas led to some major upheavels in life on this continent. The indigenous people of these lands, from Canada down through South America were all affected by the arrival of the Europeans to this land. There's no doubt that some of these people were wiped out by diseases or outright slaughter by those who came from Europe. That's not to say that all Europeans came here with the mindset that the people inhabiting this land were to be wiped out, but it certainly was the option that some people took. There was the hope in some to 'save' the native Americans and show them the civilized ways of the world. The new world came to be looked upon as a place to be exploited and used to further provide for the prosperity of Europe.

Unfortunately, within 300 years of Columbus' first voyage, the country had already declared it's independence from the shackles of European monarchies and was well on its way to becoming the premiere democracy in the world. All of this due to Columbus making a trip around the world in the opposite direction that the thinking of the time told him to be correct. One can argue that Columbus eventually caused the destruction of native life in this country, but you can also say that his voyage led to the establishment of a country which has become the home to millions of immigrants who have helped shape this country into the place that it is today. For good or for bad, it's important to celebrate Columbus Day. We wouldn't be here if he hadn't set out to prove it made sense to go west.


Friday, October 05, 2007

The Price of a Good Education

MasterCard tells us that there are somethings that money can't buy but for everything else there's MasterCard. Well, it seems that some school officials down in Georgia are hoping that perhaps money can buy something good and that's decreased dropout rates. Not sure what that means? Well, apparently Fulton County administrator Robb Pitts is pushing for the approval of a pilot program in which students would be paid a base 'salary' of approximately $7 an hour for the time they spend in school. What he hopes to prove through this pilot program is that kids who are given some incentive to go to school will work harder to stay in school (and continue earning a paycheck apparently).

I am personally of the opinion that this is going to send the wrong message to kids and teachers. Teachers have one of the toughest and most under appreciated jobs out there. Working in often difficult conditions with limited resources (depending upon the school system) they try to get kids ready for the big bad world. What people fail to realize is that they sometimes earn less in some counties than an office admin who simply xeroxes documents and answers phones all day. Both are essential to the industry they support but I think teachers are of greater importance simply because they are the ones who will continue to feed intelligent young people into the workforce. They are actually helping students get better prepared for the workplace so that when they start working, they may have more opportunities presented to them.

Some may say that this paying students to learn may be beneficial to those in low income areas but do you think that it's going to help keep a family together if their financial situation is that dire? Plus where is the money going to come from? Teachers have been lobbying for years for pay increases and not many of them have seen it take place. Here now is money that could be going to them to help their cost of living going to students who don't really need it. Plus, isn't this really a type of microcosmic Communism in essence? Although the details of this 'plan' by Pitts hasn't been detailed completely, I didn't recall hearing any provision for academic excellence. I mean does it mean that someone earning a perfect score will still only get the same as someone barely passing their courses? Rather than being a motivator, I foresee this becoming a de-motivator.

Students may get to the point where they'll realize that there's no point in bending over backwards to study in school since you'll only end up with the same base pay anyways. While the trial program is set to be paid for by corporate sponsors, I don't know how long that type of arrangement would last. After all, even corporations have to look at paying their employees rather than sending all that money to students who may or may not see it as motivation to study. Perhaps it may cut down on truancy and perhaps it may encourage students to be present in school but sometimes forcing perpetual troublemakers to remain in the classroom by offering them a 'carrot' can be more trouble than it's worth.

I remember one case of a student in my eighth grade class. He had once been about three years ahead of me in school but due to repeated failures (due to excessive absences) he had stayed back long enough for me to catch up to him. His main problem was that he just never wanted to be in school simply because he didn't like his teachers. He used to argue and create havoc to the point on the days that he was forced to return to school that our teachers spent more time in pacifying him than anything else. He still remained truant and no matter what they administrators or his parents tried, they couldn't figure out how to motivate him. Finally there was a breakthrough when they found that there was one teacher, our physics teacher, Mr. Reeves, who spoke to him in a manner that was neither condescending nor insulting. He used to treat him like a friend rather than a student and on the days we had his class, this boy was always there. It made such a difference that he started attending a little more regularly and managed to pass into ninth grade with us. It just shows that sometimes education isn't about incentive, but rather in the approach to teaching kids.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fifty Years Since Sputnik

Hard as it may be to believe, it's been fifty years since the former Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. For many years it was considered a hallmark in the history of the space program and a sign that perhaps the Soviets had a leg up on the competition, namely the US. However, new information coming out of Russia indicates that the Sputnik project was not as straightforward as it appears on the surface. Scientists involved in the original program have indicated that the goal was not to outdo the American space program but to get something into orbit sooner. The successful launch of the satellite sent shockwaves through the American public which now feared that the Soviet space program would lead to the development of space-based nuclear weapons, ready to rain down on the United States. Thus the space race began.

The Americans then switched from the fledgling Vanguard satellite program (with it's comparatively smaller payload) to the Explorer program. The drive to excel was only exacerbated by the fact that the Soviets followed up Sputnik with Sputnik 2 which carried Laika the dog into orbit. Again, the American program seemed to be falling behind the competition and the possibility of Soviet domination of space seemed likely. Over the next three decades, the space race heated up and ultimately led to President Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960's. The American Apollo program accomplished the goal with about six months to go on the deadline. From Sputnik to the moon in twelve years. It amazes me that in such a short time man developed the technology to go to other worlds. I mean it was less than sixty years before that that man had first accomplished powered flight in the form of the Wright Flyer.

So what drove the change and the development? Competition. Wanting to be first to do something or accomplish something. When the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into space, Alan Shepard followed soon after. When Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman into space in 1963, America would follow with Sally Ride nearly 20 years later. Okay so there was some delay in the race now and again but the competition clearly helped bolster the desire to accomplish the goal. It also helped secure American sentiment behind the race into space. Propoganda was put in place to make it seem like the race into space was a race against communist aggression from the heavens. Now this may or may not have been true but for whatever reason, it was enough to get people motivated and enthusiastic about the space program.

And then after the missions to the moon were accomplished.... nothing. The space program began a steady decline in terms of public perception and although there is still a great deal of work to be done and new frontiers to be explored, the overall desire of the public to see further space exploration has dwindled to the point that some news outlets out there like to focus more on the negative aspects about the space program (especially here in the States) as opposed to talking about what some of the benefits to the continuation of the space program would be. Don't believe the space program has hit the skids? Remember prior to the Challenger accident? Launches were still rather rare and events that were covered quite extensively by the news. After Challenger there was renewed interest, mainly to see if the space program had learned anything from the mistakes of the past. They had but not enough to keep the interest of the people. President Reagan had said that soon space travel would be so common that there would be launches on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, just as with the local bus service, flights into space began being viewed as nothing than a routine jaunt around the block, albeit a block millions of miles long. It took the Columbia accident and reports of drunkeness and diaper-wearing escapades across state lines for the space program to make the news again. And not necessarily in a good way. People seem to think that there's nothing more to be gained by exploring the cosmos. Afterall, there are enough problems here; why go someplace else and find new ones to deal with. That's a logical arguement but one that continues to keep us insulated and self-centered. I think it's important to continue the exploration of space, and not just because I am a proponent of space travel.

One of the best things to happen during the early years of the space program was the drive to work together across many industries and walks of life to accomplish a goal. The way the world was brought together during the initial landings on the moon prove that people do care about finding out what is out there. Not everyone believes that man actually walked on the moon or has even been in space but no matter what, there is that allure to the fact that there are other worlds out there that could contain life or that could be explored for new resources. I continue to hope that the peak of space program was not hit with the landings on the moon. We should go back there and continue our expansion into other worlds. Mars stands waiting for us to visit. It took 12 years from Sputnik's flight for us to reach the moon, it shouldn't take us 100 years to get back there.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Battle of the Brands

I guess the Iced Hazelnut coffee that McDonalds introduced earlier this year was simply an experiment meant to test the coffee waters. You see, the fast food giant had long since been a staple for those looking for a quick and cheap pick-me-up. Walk into any McDonalds during the evening hours and you'll often see a pack of parents picking up a quick meal for their kids before heading home. There are a few who have the regular old coffee while sitting there but these days, Starbucks has spoiled us to the point that we all want something or the other that is a blended coffee drink with various flavors and shots of things we really don't need but ask for anyways. So it was natural for McDonalds to attempt to get into the market by offering up something similar of their own.

An obvious step would have been to partner with Starbucks to offer up brewed Starbucks coffee which is good enough for some patrons, but for many, it's not the cup of coffee alone but the accoutrements that go along with it that they find appealing. Why have a large cup of coffee when you can have a venti double shot mocha cappucino? It just sounds so much more.... mature. Now the iced hazelnut coffee that McDonalds serves and continues to serve was one of their first forays into a drink not aimed at kids (like their McFlurry) and it quickly became popular. But if you've seen how its prepared, it's basically mixing the hazelnut syrup with the coffee, adding milk and shaking. Not much to it is there? The baristas at Starbucks would point out that that's the biggest difference in the quality of the coffee. And that may be true but how many actual coffee junkies are out there to tell the difference?

I enjoy having Starbucks coffee. I love it so much that I've had it in such exotic locations as London and Dubai and I continue to have it here at home. Still, once in a while there's that desire to just have a quick coffee drink that will serve as a pick me up and send me along my merry way. Despite the virtual explosion of Starbucks locations out there, unless you go at an odd time, you will end up waiting for your coffee for a few minutes. Compare that to McDonalds where even in the height of rush time, your coffee will generally be served to you within moments. I know both Starbucks and McDonalds have standards as to how quickly to serve customers but the difference is that Starbucks coffee is never pre-prepared and it takes time to create, whereas the current version of McDonalds coffee is either prebrewed or one of those squirt and shake into the cup deals. If time is a major deciding factor then Starbucks is definitely in for some stiff competition.

There were complaints from consumers about a year ago about the time it takes to get your drinks at Starbucks and I would argue that that is because the milk is always freshly steamed, the mixes made when ordered and the espresso shots freshly ground and brewed when your coffee is ordered. If the deciding factor is quality over speed then Starbucks will definitely have a leg up. In terms of locations, I'd say it's probably neck and neck as far as area saturation is concerned. You can't go too far in most major cities without running into either a Starbucks or a McDonalds. Plus the fact that you get slightly more drink for lesser amounts of money means that those looking for a quick drink rather than a drinking experience will turn to McDonalds so again, Starbucks is in for a run.

I don't think this spells the end for Starbucks but I do think that it means that perhaps someday there will be some role reversal. McDonalds is already making strides to turn their restaurants into places that people will feel comfortable lingering in and enjoying time in. Starbucks continues to push to improve service time and saturate the market even more with their products. Starbucks already has a reputation for being a slightly upscale coffee house despite the fact that it too has McDonalds size market penetration but it will need to continue to take strides to keep in competition with McDonalds if it is to survive.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Television at Gas Stations

I enjoy watching television. Though I read a lot compared to many people, I still enjoy the world of television and feel that in addition to mindless entertainment, there's also a great deal to be learned from television. However, I also feel that too much of something is a bad thing. Alcohol in moderation is fine, alcohol in excessive quantities can be lethal. Same goes for red meat, salt, and anything else that's so good that it's bad for you. Television is no different. When it was first invented, people just couldn't get enough of it. Auto manufacturers even went so far as to try and include a working set in cars back in the 1950's. The idea didn't pan out then, but perhaps it was simply ahead of its time.

These days it's getting to the point that I would challenge you to find a minivan without a pair of DVD screens in the back. It's next to impossible to do it. Perhaps it's because television is once again serving the function of surrogate babysitter for beleagured parents looking for some respite from the age old question "Are we there yet?" while on a simple run to the grocery store. Perhaps it is also a sign that television, through the relative encheapening of LCD screens, is making a major comeback in terms of information overload. Take for example the latest trend that is appearing in California. LCD screens are being installed in gas pumps at various locations to determine if it truly is a helpful item. Now for places like New Jersey where there is only full service gas pumping it's a moot point since we the driver wouldn't get to enjoy it anyways but when you're going self service, would it be beneficial?

There are enough people out there who have problems dealing with a car in general, do we really need more distractions out there? There are efforts in place to curb or ban the use of cell phones while driving, to end text messaging or using blackberries while in the car. To some extent it has worked but now adding televisions to gas stations, that's a step in the wrong direction in my opinion. To me, part of the reason for going out on the road is to get away from the daily grind and stress that can come from constantly being connected to work and the world, through phones, e-mail and television. Sometimes it's nice to just get out there and enjoy the open road for a little while. Why do we need to have television during those times?

Some may argue that television at a gas station is a great thing but I ask if it really is. Would you be willing to go to another gas station farther away from your house simply because you could watch ESPN while filling up your SUV? I grant you that perhaps the fact that filling forty gallons of gas in an SUV is a time-consuming effort but how much time does it really take? Is your life going to suddenly be bettered by the fact that you can catch the latest sports or news stories? If you are that obsessed with either topic, wouldn't you already be listening to this on the radio, and if you are truly that obsessed on either topic, would you be out of the house, away from your TV at all in the first place? I think not.

I won't call televisions at gas stations a danger to the roads, but I certainly think it isn't something that is necessary. We get enough information thrown at us as it is, I don't think we need more than that. I think Simon and Garfunkle said it best, "these are the sounds of silence". Sometimes it's the best thing. I mean seeing as how we're fast becoming a society of individuals who are bent on seeking out the most dangerous possibilities in society and taking action on these horrific thoughts, do we need television there? I mean, the Transportation Security Agency is now seriously looking at banning all remote controlled toys from airlines because they could hide radio activated bombs. That being the case, wouldn't televisions at gas stations be just as dangerous? Supposing a die hard sports fan finds out his team has lost, being disgruntled already he sees a supporter of the opposing team in the lane next to his, in retribution he douses him with gasoline and then lights it on fire. Not likely but possible isn't it? Just wait, that new study will be out soon enough.


Monday, October 01, 2007

It Was Bound to Get the Blame Sooner or Later

Everyone out there is always seeking a reason as to 'why' something happens. One of the big questions out there is about why there is so much violence in society? What is the causing factor or the catalyst that causes it all to happen? Well, a study by the Washington-based Urban Institute has reached the conclusion that the influx of iPods into society have led to increasing levels of violence. Now before you shake your head in dismay at this latest finding and disconnect your iPod and put it away, take a moment to understand their rationale. The study indicates that robbery figures have increased over a two-year period in comparison to other similar crimes such as theft and burglary. Secondly, the number of thefts has increased among juveniles who are most likely to see the iPod as a 'status symbol'. And thirdly, this jump occured in the period in which the study was conducted.

Now given all those factors, isn't it logical to assume that perhaps the finding is right and that we should all stop using our iPods? Well, in my opinion, no we shouldn't. When I was in middle school, Starter Jackets were all the rage. I remember guys in my middle school were crazy about those jackets and if they could get their hands on one they would. They were considered the envy of the school because they had something that everyone else wanted. At that time, there were numerous reports that parents shouldn't get their kids these jackets because they were being beaten up and robbed for these jackets. Same thing with Air Jordan snearkers. I remember a friend of mine whose mom refused to get him the shoes on the grounds that they were likely to lead to an attempted robbery.

Some of those trends and others like them have come and gone and in that time, crime has more or less fluctuated. In that time, I don't think I have ever seen a decrease in the possession of these items with people. On the contrary, I think it stirs the market and ensures that more and more people purchase the item in question until it becomes something so common place that no one pays much attention. Remember when (and I'm dating myself here) the walkman was new? I'm not talking about the discman that played CDs but the Walkman that played cassette tapes? Refer to it on Wikipedia if you don't remember. In any case, it was one of those items and initially it was costly beyond the budget of many people. Had there been a study at that time, I'm sure there would have been conclusions that Walkmen are to blame for any peaks in violence in society.

It's convenient to lay the blame for crime on a luxury item like an iPod but it just doesn't make sense. Robbery generally occurs when the victim has something that the criminal wants. Now the iPod is still quite expensive but it is so common these days that I think within a few more years, it will be very common and then the blame for robbery peaks will be blamed on something else. There's a difference between a coincidental timeframe and an actual causation. I think that iPod saturation of the market is maybe partially to blame for increases in robberies, but I don't think it is the sole reason.