Friday, November 30, 2007

Killing in the Name of Religion

I don't get it. I really don't. When I was a kid, I had a teddy bear that I used to sit at the head of my bed when I slept. I didn't really need it for comfort or to 'protect' me as I slept but I just always had one. I gave him a name that was rather innocuous and thought nothing more of it. Ask any kid who has ever had a teddy bear and they will likely tell you a name that relates to something that they know and are familiar with. All of the kids I've ever met have given their bears names like, 'Bobo' or 'Teddy', not necessarily the most creative but apparently a lot safer than naming a bear Muhammad.

For those who hadn't heard the news in a while, there is a British woman currently in the Sudan who worked at a prestigious Sudanese private school (populated by predominantly wealthy Sudanese Muslim children) who is in trouble for allowing her students to name a bear Muhammad. Now if you didn't know that, perhaps you also weren't aware that Muhammad is the name of the most revered prophet in Islam and in so allowing her students to name a bear Muhammad, she has blasphemed against their religion and has been arrested, tried, and convicted. If she gets the sentence that is currently on the table, she will spend up to six months in prison, receive 40 lashes with a whip and be deported from the Sudan for good. Apparently that isn't enough though. Many Sudanese are demanding that she be executed for her crimes. Now perhaps this group is in the minority and the press is making a bigger deal out of it but who knows.

Religion is a crazy thing. I think after politics, it's the one topic most people attempt to avoid if they are certain that the people they are talking to have different points of view compared to someone else. I myself have very neutral points as far as religion is concerned. However, one thing I've noticed when it comes to the media and public in general is that when it comes to a religion that doesn't mesh with theirs, they immediately decry it and declare it to be a foolish and dumb thing. For example, when news of this new protest for the execution of the teacher, Gillian Gibbons, hit the internet, the comments section of much of these sections was plagued with vile comments regarding the religion of Islam. Now granted most of the people making these comments are idiots who have no real basis for making statements against this or any other religion but I couldn't help but notice that the common theme was that either Islam should be banned from the United States or that Islam should be condemned as a religion. Funny. Isn't that sort of what the Sudanese are protesting about too?

The Sudanese are protesting for an implied slight against their religion and calling for the execution the offending party while protestors here are calling for the end of the religion itself. I find it ironic given that most every religion in the world has some form of tolerance or peace in their messages. It's a shame to see that these messages are conveniently 'forgotten' or 'ignored' when someone's viewpoint doesn't match with yours. I think religion will ultimately lead to the downfall of our society because despite all the efforts of a few to ensure that all religions do their best to be balanced and tolerant, the majority who are simply going with the flow are the problem that can't really be stemmed. No religion in the world can claim to be free of some form of extremism at all. All religions have had problems of this sort in one form or another and in the case of Islam, the religion has gotten a bad rap due in large part to the misguided interpretations of a few influential people.

Groups like those protesting in the Sudan or in other parts of Africa and the Middle East where Islam is predominant are oftenn villified but are their views any different than those of someone who proclaims that their version of religion is better than anyone elses? I mean some religions have so many different factions of their same religion that it begs to question whether there is even one truly correct answer. I don't believe there is. I will never claim that my religious beliefs are better than anyone elses because I believe that my beliefs are just that; mine. I can yell and scream and demand deaths till I'm blue in the face but it won't mean that someone not of my opinion will bend to my beliefs. It won't be a true belief because it's been forced upon them. Religion has been doing that to our society for generations and it will likely continue on to infinity simply because we are so steadfast to being right all the time that finding tolerance is easier said than done.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Working Out? Don't Sit Down on the Job

Certain things in life are so obvious that you don't feel the need or understand the reason why someone needs to be told those things. Like for example at a restaurant, when the waiter tells you the plate he's serving you is hot your first instinct isn't to cringe in fear rather it's to grab onto that plate with both hands despite the fact that it's a cast iron pan that's searing hot and your waiter is holding it with ice cold oven mitts. It should be obvious to us not to do it but we do it anyways. In the case of working out that principle holds true as well. Don't know what I mean? Well how about a recently published article in which scientists at the University of Missouri have stated that they have found evidence that when standing up (just standing up mind you) your body continues to burn fat as opposed to the mechanism completely shutting down while you're seated. Should be obvious that there is a correlation between the two right? Well not exactly.

Most people know by now that there is no miracle cure for losing weight much to the chagrin of most of us out there. There's no single pill that we can take that will burn off fat while we sleep, the body just doesn't work that way. So what do we do? We have to work out of course. Now I have been a regular gym-goer for a number of years now and I can attest to the difference working out means. For years working out for me meant the walk from school to home or on campus when in college. It wasn't really working out unless I was in a rush to get to my destination in which case I might break a slight sweat or I might not. It ultimately meant that I wasn't really getting a good workout. I used to feel frustrated at the fact that despite my efforts to walk or jog around on occasion proved fruitless. To think that I didn't realize that my time sitting down was the culprit.

Around the time of my sophomore year in high school I began working in offices over the summer as a data analyst or general clerk. I did odd jobs here and there but I never really did jobs where I would be on my feet or be required to do heavy work. I sat at my desk for the whole day and again, since I didn't have a license, I used to walk home in the evenings. It would generally end up being a three mile walk at the most but still, it wasn't enough to counter the eight hours that I spent in my seat at my desk. Since that time, I have still not had a job where I spend time on my feet or move around a lot. I continue to work at my desk since that's the most convenient place to do work or at least to do the type of work I am supposed to be doing. But I feel that the times are a'changin' and soon enough the findings at the University of Missouri may lead to changes in the office environment.

Most companies are aware that they pay out a lot more in health insurance if they have employees who end up with health issues resulting from a sedentary and relatively unhealthy eating lifestyle. I mean if you expect your employees to work 15 hours a day and then pay for them to get pizza or burgers or Chipotle as an office meal, the employers are doing nothing more than exacerbating the problem and contributing to the unhealthy lifestyle of their employees. Some have taken steps to help ease this problem. They offer incentives such as bonuses for employees who attend a company sponsored gym. They pay for memberships at local gyms or health clubs, they promote walking and physical activity clubs and some are even starting to implement workstations with built in treadmills and such. This latest discovery may make promoting healthy living even cheaper for companies. Why pay for a treadmill desk when you can just have your employees stand for eight hours?

Now that's not to say that I assume that many offices will start encouraging their employees to stand around all day but it's a plausible idea isn't it? I mean I try to take a break from my desk every once in a while if to do nothing more than give my eyes a break from staring at the screen for so long and to stretch my legs. I also do what scientists had also previously linked to a 'healthy' office denizen lifestyle and that's shaking my feet. I have had a habit since childhood that when I'm sitting down, after a little while, at least one of my feet will start to shake, often subconsciously. Doctors had said that even this little bit contributes to burning calories. If I do it almost constantly I can probably burn off most of the coffee I drink during the day.

This standing concept seems easy and straightforward but I don't know how effective it would be. What the scientists found was that when standing, the fat cells were in the bloodstream and then passed through the muscles where they were burned off. Once the test subject sat down the fat basically sat and was eventually absorbed back into the body. That's definitely not a good thing. So what to do then? Well stay standing for as long as you can. The longer you stand the better it appears to be. Of course this will lead to all sorts of unintended results as well if this trend catches on. What do I mean? Well now you'll have all the sports shoe companies like Nike and Reebok looking to cash in on the performance/standing formal footwear section. Air Jordan dress shoes with built in air cushion chambers will be all the rage. You'll hear of incidents of office workers threatening on another with whiteout to get a pair from another office mate. Soon anarchy will reign in offices and employees will complain that the gatherings around the water cooler or coffee pots aren't standing affairs anymore but sitting affairs. It could spell the beginning of the end for office life as we know it. Of course we'll all be healthier for it though.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Remembering Sean Taylor

By now most everyone, even those who are not even regular football fans (let alone Redskins fans) will have heard the news that Sean Taylor, the 24-year-old defensive stand-out for Washington died after being shot in his Miami home early Monday morning. What many people hadn't realized is just how it would affect people in Washington. Now most people know that I myself am a Redskins fan having watched them since childhood. Washington is one of those towns where the city and it's residents are crazy about their team and those who are die hard fans who will stand by the team through thick and thin. In recent years they have suffered a lot given that most seasons it's never a given whether the team will be good or not.

Be that as it may, we still enjoy our football and as a result most fans tend to think that they are a part of the team. Sure most of us will never have even one iota of the skill required to play in the NFL but by being such staunch fans we tend to develop this feeling that we are a part of the team and that the players are our best friends. I think that holds true for most any team out there in virtually any sport. No matter what, there are always fans who support their team and come to bond with them in ways that are sometimes bordering on obsession. The death of Sean Taylor though has brought to light (in my mind) some of the negative aspects of being a football fan in this town simply because it highlights the Johnny-come-lately attitude that pervades a lot of people in this town.

What do I mean by that? Well stated simply, until earlier this week, most people in this town would agree that Sean Taylor was a great player and was having a great year prior to his knee injury which left him sidelined. There was already talk about how he was hopeful to return later this season and again become a threat which had already managed to get five interceptions and give receivers second thoughts about catching the ball given his hard-hitting mentality. Still, while most people appreciated his efforts, he was never elevated to the role of someone like Terrell Owens who makes it a point to highlight his skills or boast every chance he gets. Taylor was relatively reserved in that way and shunned the press and as such he wasn't viewed as a media darling.

As I entered the gym last night, most every TV at one point or another, had a story on the death of Sean Taylor going. This included not only the local news channels but CNN and Fox News as well. Suddenly Taylor was national news and despite the fact that some people outside of this town wouldn't know Sean Taylor from Shawn Springs, his face and case were plastered everywhere. Suddenly the man who shunned the media was front and center in the media spotlight. Coverage ranged from scenes outside the crime scene in his Miami home to fans gathered at Redskins Park in Ashburn to share their grief. The most common statement made by people out there was that they "felt they needed to do something" and in this case that 'something' was gathering at the park and holding a candlelight vigil.

The news networks lauded his achievements and praised him as a stellar young man with a career and life that was tragically cut down. Looking back on it now I guess it's just a case of the media not wanting to speak ill of the dead since some of these commentators were the same ones who tore him apart (in a figurative sense) when he missed training camp meetings, orientation meetings and caused the Redskins to lose field position due to penalties on the field. His legal troubles were the highlight of their talk at times and though he was a great player from almost the time he first arrived on the field to the time he left it, his darker side is what made him standout for the media. It seems like they solely wanted to focus on the negative rather than the positive.

I mean it makes sense to me given that most people would rather hear about bad news so that they can feel good about themselves by thinking, 'jeez he's in a bad way, at least I'm not doing that badly.' When I see on the news that reporters are suddenly full of praise and bits and pieces of trivia and then I see fans who have never watched a Redskins game rushing to stores to buy a replica Sean Taylor jersey I get a little perturbed. Is their definition of 'doing something' exploiting his death? Suddenly now collectors will see the value of his cards and jerseys and such skyrocket for at least a little while. He'll be remembered as long as it's profitable for a lot of these guys to keep him such and then he'll fade away. Fans who loved to watch his hard-hitting, pass-stealing, passionate style of play will miss him and the Redskins will not be the same defensive threat without him, but those of us who appreciated him, as we appreciate the team, through thick and thin will still remember him even after those appreciating him for the moment have gone away too.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Class Conflict in the Friendly Skies

See these images of life aboard some of the newer airliners hitting the skyways these days? You get the full comfort of home as well as your own private nook in which to enjoy the flight to wherever it is you are going. No longer do you have to schlep around in cramped seats with no food and no service right? Wrong. These images which you see are indeed enticing but aren't really the reality that you will be faced with even if you are fortunate enough to fly the friendly skies now and in the near future. How come? Simple. Class warfare.

Now class differentiation and differences have been around since the dark ages. I think it became a big deal again in recent years when people saw "Titanic" and saw how poor Jack Dawson and the rest of the third class passengers were treated when the ship began to sink (ill-feelings from Cal Hockley notwithstanding). Looking back on that time (almost exactly ten years ago now when the movie first came out) I remember discussion starting on how we as a society had moved past those types of attitudes and that there was greater parity these days than there had been then. In theory that may be true but in actuality I don't think it is at all, especially not in the airline industry.

If one looks at how the airline industry has been trending the last few years they certainly know where and how they are making money. I've blogged before on how by elmiminating olives from salads on longer duration flights where meals are actually served, airlines saved millions over the course of one year. By the same principle, by eliminating the need for meals on flights that previously served them then you're making much more money and charging the same amount for less service. Northwest Airlines eliminated the pretzel snacks from their flights and they found that they saved millions as well. What if your passengers get hungry? Well, in that case you can purchase a $5 snack pack full of snacks that together shouldn't cost more than $2 but I guess you have the 'luxury' of eating it in the air right?

Earlier this year, Spirit Airlines (an airline that offers cheap fares and no frills)made the news when an e-mail from chief executive B. Ben Baldanza hit the internet. In this e-mail, which was written in response to a disgruntled passenger's request for the airline to compensate him for missing a concert he was flying to, Baldanza bluntly responded in a manner which illustrates exactly how the airlines tend to look at us, the general flying public. Baldanza said, "Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I'm concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He's never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny." To be fair, Baldanza and Spirit Airlines had offered up $200 vouchers for free flights (a lot considering the passenger in question only paid $73 for a roundtrip) and did make efforts to satisfy the passenger.

Still, while some airlines are making feeble attempts at making flights more pleasant for those of us stuck in coach, the difference in perks and attention is disparaging. One merely has to look at how many ammenities are available to those in premium classes compared to coach and you find out just how much is being spent on them vice what is being spent on us. Most airlines will admit that while premium passengers probably dont' make up more than 8% of their total passenger count, they account for nearly 36% of the revenue. That's fairly staggering when you think about it and one has to remember that if we pay $800 for a flight (international) then they pay nearly three times that to have the priviledge of having a fully reclining seat bed and other such perks.

Despite that fact, coach passengers continue to come out in droves. During the recent Thanksgiving rush, I'm sure that the majority of passengers flew coach and for short duration flights of a few hours it must not be that bad a deal to be stuffed into a cramped seat but for longer flights it can make even the most non-clausterphobic person feel as though the walls are closing in. And some airlines are only making it tighter. Since most airlines have elminated meal service for those in coach, why have a full galley? Eliminating the ovens and such in some airlines has resulted in more seats being brought in and by shrinking the seats (in addition to our collective growing girth) it makes for very tight travel. This is the reason why airlines are continuing to do well despite the occasional news of a bankrupt airline.

Over all they are finding that the most profitable business is coming from premium passengers so I suppose their logic is sound. Make life in coach a living hell and perhaps soon enough you can start making the entire plane premium. I wouldn't pay premium prices for a flight that is merely a few hours long since though I may be spoiled I'm not stupid enough to spend three times the amount when I'm eventually going to the same place. Still, for international flights it's certainly something worth considering. And another benefit to all the niceties being added to premium cabins these days is the fact that you will certainly have a restored sense of faith that the airlines aren't all completely interested in making your life miserable, just in coach.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Black Friday... A New National Holiday

So the Friday after Thanksgiving is soon to be declared a national holiday even for those who already have the day off from work. I was one of those fortunate few who actually had the day off so it was good for me. It's going to be good for others too in light of the fact that people are lining up at all hours of the day and night outside of stores in anticipation of sales and even more so given the fact that stores are opening their doors at all hours of the night. For those who don't know (or have never experienced the madness) they may not know that the Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday simply because everyone 'traditionally' rushes to stores to begin their holiday shopping. I say 'traditionally' because I think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy and nothing more.

That's not to say that there aren't great deals to be had by going shopping on this day. Since it marks the start of the holiday season, people are looking to get deals on their holiday shopping and in order to entice buyers, stores will offer up seemingly irresistable merchandise for a fraction of the cost in order to get more people to come out. Most retailers know that when they open their doors they will have a rush of customers since it means less than a month for Christmas to roll around. And despite the arguements about the commercialization of Christmas and all related activities, it's not something that's just going to go away. It's here to stay and stay it will as long as people keep rushing to stores in droves the way they have been.

I remember when Black Friday actually began at decent hours on a Friday. We would get up at my place and have a leisurely breakfast before heading out to enjoy a day of shopping at the mall. Over time it has gone from being a fun activity to one of stress simply because if you want to get that great deal, you have to be among the first one hundred people (sometimes less) simply because they have limited quantities of the one item they know everyone wants. And it isn't so much that people want it as much as it is wanting what someone else wants. It's as if we adults revert to childhood and desire things just because someone else wants it. I have seen the same attitude in children so it's no wonder they behave that way when they see grown adults doing it too.

Last year when off to a friend's place to have Thanksgiving with my family friends I passed a Best Buy around 5:30 in the evening and at that time there appeared to be ten people in line. When I came home that night there were approximately 30. This year I drove by at the same time and there were about 40 at 5:30 and then close to double that a few hours later. People set up tents and had chairs and were making a big thing of it. I remember when Thanksgiving was when family and friends gathered together. Now it's more like the day before Black Friday where we get a day off to plan out how we're going to hit all the stores we want to. In a few more years I think there will be a growing number of people who eschew Thanksgiving dinner in lieu of getting a big screen TV they don't really want.

And are the savings that great? Sure; in some cases they are quite good. I mean they were selling a 42" LCD at Sears for $1000. That's not a bad deal in any sense of the term but still, there are only fifty (sometimes more) per store so if you are number 51 in line, chances are you aren't going to get your TV and you'll end up having stood outside in the cold for nothing more than the minor deals on big ticket items. And even the items on sale are a bit... well.... dated. I mean do you think that out of the goodness of their hearts (or pocketbooks) the executives at companies like Best Buy suddenly decide to 'reward' their customers by cutting prices on expensive items so easily? No! They are smartly getting rid of excess inventory by making it seem more enticing. It's like a Lamborghini body on a Pinto frame. Sure it looks like a great deal but it'll likely explode in your face.

I'm not against the idea of Black Friday. I think it's a good thing since all that sales tax revenue eventually goes back to the government where it can be used for better things. I think it's just getting a bit out of hand when you have people lining up at all hours of the day and night waiting for deals that they may not really need. Thanksgiving was started as a time for family and friends to reflect and be thankful for the things and people they have in their lives. For my family it's always been a day full of the traditions that make me appreciate what I have. I don't want to sully that by wondering if I have time for an extra piece of pie before schlepping out into the cold November night to be ready to run (and get trampled) just to pick up a DVD player. I'd rather let the carbs and tryptophane lull me into a warm Thanksgiving slumber.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

It's Not the Size of Your Carry-On, It's What In It!

The FAA is encouraging those of us traveling this holiday week to make their job easier and your experience more pleasant by leaving all unnecessary baggage behind and travelling with the bare essentials. How can this best be achieved according to them? Simple. Leave your carry-on bags at home. Now I agree that most of the delays at security checks are due to people not being all that familiar with the rules and regulations regarding what can and cannot be carried.

My biggest pet peeve are the people who carry jumbo 8-gallon sodas through the security line only to act surprised when they're asked to get rid of it. This despite the fact that there are signs all over the airport and announcements and visual aids informing passengers that liquids are not allowed through the security gate. I guess some of these guys figure that they can possibily become the one exception to the rule. Meanwhile the rest of us are standing in the back with our belts, shoes and jackets in hand waiting for you while you argue about having spent $15 on a soda you now have to toss out.

Well, the hope on the part of the FAA is that by having passengers come through security with nothing more than what they have in hand they should be through security that much faster and with little or no problem. In theory this seems like a fine suggestion but unfortunately the realities of air travel these days tend to run counter to the arguement that air travel is anything but speedy. I agree that some passengers go a bit overboard with what they term carry-on. I once saw a 300 pound man get on an aircraft with a duffle bag that was nearly as large as him and then sat mesmerized as he proceeded to push, shove and force it into the overhead compartment. Things like that should definitely be banished from flights since they are unnecessary and cause greater delays.

But what about in instances where we are making a normal trip; if such a concept even exists anymore? I mean most flights are only a couple of hours but they aren't the same as they used to be are they? Previously for a cross-country flight you would get some food that came in something larger than a pack of dental floss. You actually got real food served on real trays with real silverware; no sporks in sight. Nor did you have to pay $5 for the food; it was included in the ticket price. What's so good about that and what does it have to do with carry-on bags? Simple. People need their carry-on bags to provide sustinance and distraction for flights that rarely arrive or depart on time. If we put all our possessions in the proverbial 'egg basket' and then check it in, what happens when we land in Washington but our bags are up in Detroit? Well, I suppose we can look at the bright side and be happy that we cleared security in record time.

I think the rules that the FAA and TSA and DHS (the alphabet soup in charge of our collective security) have in place are great and all but there are times when they just don't make sense. All these problems in the airline industry today are all related. Rising costs to airlines means cuts in their staff which lead to cuts in service which leads to longer lines which means missed flights which means frayed nerves which means problems with security which means delays which means sitting and starving on a plane waiting to go home which means it's time for a new regulation meant to alleviate problems but only serving to make them worse. If you're going to be travelling this holiday, please, for your sake and the sake of your fellow passengers, pack smartly and don't try to play innocent in pretending a full-size suitcase will fit in the overhead bin. Pack smartly and get their early. Keep food on hand and entertainment by way of books or music close and above all.... relax. Getting there is rarely half the fun anymore.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Not Your Dad's Sesame Street

I am not ashamed to admit that I grew up watching "Sesame Street" in the heydey of the show. As a child of the late-70's and early 80's, both my brother and I used to watch the show even after we had learned all of the lessons that the show taught us. Though we understood all the letters of the alphabet and all our numbers, there was still something about watching the show since it was like visiting with friends who you knew since childhood. I used to have a field day imagining what Oscar the Grouch's trash can condo must have been like since there used to be sound effects of swimming pools and bowling alley's and I figured (like most children are wont to do) that the trashcan was just his balcony and the true luxury existed below the surface.

I remember Big Bird and Snuffy, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, the Count, Grover and of course Kermit the Frog. Even the humans who populated the show used to lead such interesting lives. They would have to since they were dealing with muppets on a daily basis. And the show wasn't just aimed at educating kids, but there were very subtle storylines in pretty much every episode, whether it was regarding Luis and Maria making a trip to Puerto Rico or Susan and Gordon having company, there never used to be an episode that didn't have something interesting going on. Recently it was announced that these early episodes of the show were finally coming to DVD, much to the nostalgic joy of many young adults out there. The only problem is that these DVDs will likely have to be viewed after hours or away from any of the children currently watching the show.

Besides the fact that Elmo and many others have yet to make an appearance on shows from the early days, the fact that many parents worry about the messages that the old episodes seem to espouse is what worries a lot of people. Messages like what? Well, look at Cookie Monster, some parents argue that he sets a bad example in that he devours cookies with no worry about exercising or counting calories. Heck, it's only on occasion that he actually has a glass of milk. What about the way Oscar is referred to as 'the Grouch'. Logic explains that he's grouchy hence the moniker 'the Grouch' but some parents are worried that their kids will take it as a sign that all homeless (since Oscar basically lives in a trash can) are grouchy and mean (and have swimming pools stashed beneath cardboard boxes in alleyways).

There are those who wonder about the interaction between some of the adults and kids on the show and whether there is some sub-conscious sub-text to what all is happening on the show. As if we should be wondering why an adult would want to hold a kid's hand. What about the fact that Bert and Ernie (two males of roughly the same age) are living together and sharing the same room. In a society that is becoming so prim, proper and utterly paranoid about possibly exposing kids to homosexual undertones (none of which were even remotely present in the show) then how can you even allow them to share the same room? And the hugging? Forget about exposing today's kids to all that hugging. Given the number of times and incidents of kids being suspended from school for hugging a friend, it's probably best to teach kids to walk around as if wearing a straitjacket in order to prevent any unwarranted physical contact.

I think these days parents are reading far too much into what they're seeing on television and media. The only reason people think that Bert and Ernie might be gay is because they want to think it. Unfortunately in our society these days there's no longer any such thing as a friendly relationship, everything boils down to physical attraction and carnal desires. I think it's a sad state that a show like "Sesame Street" is being treated in such a way. I credit the show for teaching me the English language and giving me a solid foundation for my education. Being on public television it was freely available to anyone who could get the signal. It was fun, educational and best of all, entertaining. If parents are worried about supposed sub-text in these older episodes of this show then they need to wake up and take a look at the shows on TV today. Watch virtually any show on the Disney Channel or on Cartoon Network and then tell me if you don't think "Sesame Street" is tame by comparison.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Flying for Turkey Day

Well Thanksgiving is almost upon us and that means that with it comes the manic mayhem of holiday travel. Given all the problems that have been cropping up with air travel these days you would think that most people would avoid the airports this holiday season but that is not the case. Despite rising costs, dropping service, overbookings, increased security, decreased fuel on-board, longer lines and shorter frills, surveys find that record numbers of travellers are going to be on the road or in the air this year for Thanksgiving. Still, it isn't as if people aren't trying to help.

President Bush announced yesterday that he realizes that delays in air travel are becoming more frequent and that as president, he and the government are supposed to do something about it. Well, yesterday he announced that he is requesting the Pentagon to open normally closed military air traffic routes to airlines in an effort to reduce delays in transit. That's great! What a wonderful idea! Airspace that would otherwise be used at a far lesser rate than the normal traffic routes will be available. In road driving terms you can say that in addition to the highway, you are now using parallel running side streets as well. It's a momumental step seeing as how part of the problem with air travel these days is the fact that the skies are jammed with planes.

Still, that's not the only problem. Nor is it very likely to be cause for celebration as the end-all-be-all solution to the problem. On the contrary, it's more likely to cause many more. One of the major issues that airlines have long contended with are delays at the airports themselves. With so many airlines competing for gates that are limited in quantity, you are hard pressed to get the full service that you once enjoyed. If we as passengers are starving these days for lack of service, it's because airlines are also having to shell out for more room at airports. When an airline flies a flight to a destination, they have to pay to rent the space, the crew that loads and unloads the bags, fuel, etc. as well as the time they spend on the ground at the airport since that is ground that would otherwise be occupied by other airlines.

Therein is one of the major problems. If you don't increase the number of ground personnel (both planeside and airport-side) all you're doing is playing musical chairs with few seats to begin with but then adding more players every few minutes while keeping the number of chairs the same. So even if a plane has smooth sailing to and from their destination, after they get to the airport you are stuck waiting to get your bags, get a taxi, get to your car and just go home. And the problems just aren't on the arrivals side, the departure side has it's share of problems too. Changes in security requirements every so often mean confusion and angry fliers who still don't understand that no liquids in containers over 8 ounces does include the 20 ounce drink you're attempting to bring through security. On a side note, just a comment for people who like to plead ignorance to these rules and ask for an exception. You are only acting like an ass and further delaying the rest of us trying to get through security, toss the bottle and remember to purchase it after you pass through security the next time.

Anyways, beside security, the check-in for airlines is just as bad. With few actual ground personnel working limited numbers of desks they are hard pressed to check-in dozens of fliers bound for dozens of different destinations. We're told by various sources to get to the airport early. But how early can you get there? Some airlines won't check you in until a few hours before your flight but if you get there too close to that start time you end up spending most of that time waiting in line to check in bags and even more time waiting in security lines. Then there's always the possibility of being bumped off of your flight in favor of someone else; a common enough practice these days.

The government is attempting to step in and force change by increasing the 'payback' passengers get after being bumped by an airline. I mean I've paid for my ticket just like the next guy. Most people plan accordingly and if their flight is delayed by a day because of overbooking, all those plans are thrown out of whack. What do you do then? While these efforts to increase compensation or increase airspace for flights to travel certainly seem like efforts in the right direction, they are just what they sound like. Hot air. Until airports grow in size and capacity, until ground crew unions get additional help and until our paranoia over super-security (which still fails tests to detect bomb components) dies down, we're going to be waiting to get to our destinations for a long time.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Desperately Seeking Gas

Anyone who drives frequently these days is probably aware of the fact that since the end of summer, gas prices have been on the rise. As if that weren't enough, analysts are predicting that prices will continue to increase due to winter demands and more people driving. What can you do? We're a mobile society that wants to be warm in the cold winter. I can remember when I had my first car, gas prices for regular unleaded were hovering around 99 cents; it was cause for complaint if you had to pay more than a $1.50 for gas anywhere in the area. If you paid that much per gallon, people figured you either owned a sports car or lived in a swanky part of town. These days if you pay anything less than $2.00 per gallon you are considered lucky. There are many reasons for gas increases but I'm not really interested in laying the blame on anyone. It is a simple fact of modern life and we have to deal with it. Unfortunately, the way some people deal with it is not so bright; or so safe.

Take for example the case of the man in Albuquerque, New Mexico who was looking for a safer way to siphon gas from someone else's car. Typically siphoning requires you to insert a hose into the gas tank of a car and create suction by sucking the hose as if it's a straw. Soon, natural action results in the flow of gasoline and there, you have successfully siphoned gas from an automobile. Now this gentleman from Albuquerque decided to forego the risk of getting a mouthful of gasonline in his mouth (the inevitable result when siphoning) and decided to create some artifcial suction. How? With a vacuum cleaner of course! I can hear the slapping of foreheads all the way back here. I'm sure many people are thinking about how they should have though of that first. Now you know what to do with those cleaning tools!

Now before some of the more industrious of you out there get all excited and start off for the closet and an empty jerry can, read on to discover how our inventive friend fared. Well things apparently were going well when all of a sudden a spark was generated by the vacuum or something close by and the resulting explosion sent the man flying several feet with severe burns and the explosion was severe enough to force the city to close the area immediately surrounding the blast site. I'm sure people's first impression must have been that this was a terrorist attack but it isn't. It's merely the result of higher gas prices and desperate measures. Okay, so using household appliances that can spark and result in explosions, so it's probably a bad idea. What to do then?

Well, we could try and ask the person who stole an entire gas tanker from Baltimore and left it bone dry in DC. This happened a few weeks ago. A trucker hauling a tanker full of fuel stopped off at a rest stop in Baltimore and returned to find his rig stolen. Police in the region were called and shortly thereafter a search began. A few hours later the truck was found abandoned in a DC neighborhood with the keys in the ignition but the tanker was completely drained of fuel. Either someone hooked it up directly to their SUV for a day's worth of driving or someone has an ample supply of fuel stored at their house for some time. Whatever it is, it's a case for the arguement that alternate fuel sources need to be found in order to power automobiles. Either that or fuel efficiency standards need to change and they need to change now.

When you have so many people trying so many desperate and inane things to save a few hundred dollars per month for fuel, it's a sign that things are bad. Now things probably aren't as bad as they were during the fuel crisis of the 1970's but still, it's bad enough that people have started to do such things. Like the guy in the Bay Area of San Francisco who used a truck with a tank in the bed and marine batteries to power a pump that would then extract gas from underground tanks at gas stations. What he used to do was park over the outdoor fuel tanks and then dropping his hoses into the appropriate recepticles. Police estimate that he may have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fuel. Whether for personal use or for black market sale, the fact remains that unless things improve, we're going to see a whole lot more of this kind of action.

I can sympathize with most of these people since I cringe every time I have to fill up my car with fuel. I dread driving up to the stations and seeing how high gas prices have gone. Still, perhaps it's my fear of going to prison for stealing gas or ending up burning off all my hair and starting to resemble a billiards ball, but I don't think I've gotten to that point yet where I'll start doing insane things to get fuel. Not yet. Maybe if we start seeing gas prices rising over $5 a gallon I'll start thinking about it but until then, I'll hope that no idiot with a dust buster comes over to my car in the middle of the night to rob me of my precious fuel. It's starting to resemble Mad Max out there!


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Close Encounters of the Modern Kind

As if it wasn't enough to have to deal with security checks, removal of shoes and endless delays and problems with air travel, now it appears we have to contend with UFOs as well. About a week ago, dozens of people at Chicago's O'hare Airport were stunned to see what appeared to be a large silver disk floating in the air above the airport. Witnesses claim that the object made no noise and displayed no lights but then suddenly lifted off into the cloud deck and left a sizeable hole in the clouds. Many were stunned and couldn't believe what they saw. I suppose if Congressman Kucinich had been there perhaps there would have been some reason to understand and agree with the claim but in this case the FAA immediately discounted all claims of a UFO and declared that it was nothing more than normal air traffic.

Speaking of Kucinich, it seems like UFOs are getting a lot more press these days. Recent attempts by organizations in the US and elsewhere are attempting to lend creedence to the belief in UFOs. These groups are not your normal every day groups that have a stigma attached to them. What stigma would that be? Well the same stigma that is associated with single 45-year-old guys (and girls) who still live with their parents in the basement while endlessly collecting action figures and watching re-runs of the X-Files. In this case, some of the groups are comprised of respected former military pilots and government officials who claim to have encountered UFOs and are calling upon the US government to investigate these claims in greater detail.

I think it's a worthwhile cause and worth investigating but I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon. At least not from the government's standpoint. If we approach it logically, we can safely say that most government officials (if not all) are simply working to get re-elected at the end of each term. They will back programs and projects that will help guarantee that re-election will take place. They'll fund programs for national security, national defense, education, and healthcare (or sometimes they won't) but funding research into UFOs? I don't think that's going to happen for a long while. It's not that there isn't an air of importance on this topic, on the contrary, besides Kucinich, former Presidents Reagan and Carter have both also claimed to have seen UFOs. Now maybe not everyone will be so quick to laugh and pass judgement on Kucinich.

Still, there are many people out there who wonder why we should fund something so vast when we have tons of problems at home already. These are the same people that argue that the space program is a waste of money as well. Now being a staunch supporter of the space program and space exploration in general, I disagree wholeheartedly. I think that space exploration and the discovery of new life and new worlds out there go hand in hand. The research that can be conducted or the new sources of energy that can be found out in space can pay huge dividends for us back here on Earth. If we don't at least explore the opportunity or see what possibilities exist out there, we'll never make any progress and the naysayers to these efforts will be proven right.

Most people have fanciful ideas of what a UFO encounter will be like. They have visions of movies like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" or "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial". Who knows if it will actually be like that. Perhaps the life we encounter out there in the cosmos will be far more advanced than us. So much so that to them we are but an image of what their world was like thousands of years before. Perhaps that's why the come and visit us the way they apparently do. On a whim and fleetingly. Perhaps they want to see what their civilization was like prior to advancing to their current state. Still, I can't imagine what they hope to learn by occasionally abducting Iowa farmers or visiting an airport like Chicago's O'hare. Whatever it is, I at least find it humorous to think that O'Hare is truly so busy that even a UFO gets delayed in landing.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Calling in Sick

I don't think there is a single working person out there who can honestly say that the only time they have called in sick at work is on a day when they were truly sick. Most of us out there have at one time or another made one of those calls or sent an e-mail detailing our illness or infirmity which is making it next to impossible to come in to work. This is in sharp contrast to those who despite coughing up lungs or bleeding from the nose, will continue to come in rather than use up sick leave or vacation time. Be that as it may, the topic under discussion here is sick leave and how some people tend to abuse those 'vacation' hours. For people who don't have kids or family to take care of (meaning running them to a doctor or taking care of them when ill), sick leave generally becomes leave that may seldom be used and lost if your particular company doesn't allow you to carry over those hours or accumulate more hours than the cap. So what do you do? Call in sick even if you're not!

Still, if you're going to do that, it's important that you don't go overboard on it. What do I mean by that? Well, let's look at a recent case of an intern in New York working at a fairly presigious bank. As Halloween approached (in the middle of the week this year) he wrote to his managers detailing a 'family emergency' which would preclude him from being in the office for the rest of the week. The next day one of his co-workers checked his FaceBook page and found a picture of the intern dressed in a fairy costume as part of his Halloween celebration. Apparently the emergency was not sever enough to warrant his missing out on some Halloween fun but enough to keep him from the office for the next few days. The intern's manager wrote a reply to the intern and copied the entire office on it. In addition to responding to the note that he would be out of the office, the manager attached the picture of the intern at his Halloween party in costume for the whole office to see. Basically it was an indication to the intern that his manager knew that the call in sick was a sham.

Now there have been numerous discussions on this and similar incidents on various forums to be found on the internet. There are many who feel that it isn't 'legal' for a company to view someone's facebook page or other such page since this is 'private' or personal. For those people who believe that, I say 'you are living in a fantasy world'. I have said it before and I will say it again, people tend to think that no one else in the world is capable of seeing their 'personal' pages on the internet save for those who are on their list of friends or associates. I have news for them. If it's on the internet, there is a very good chance that someone else will be able to see it too. I have no illusions that this page is only being viewed by a select group of people that I know. I am aware that strangers from all over the world visit this page and as such I don't post any personal or private information on here simply because there is little or no way of safeguarding it.

On sites like FaceBook and Orkut, you can have text conversations with people via your message page but unlike instant messaging which generally only the person you are chatting with can see, the message pages leave the messages there for as long as you keep them there. That being said, it becomes very easy for someone to come along and read all the conversations you're having with someone. Just because it's your page and you have to sign in with your name and password doesn't mean that anyone else can't see what it is you're writing. If you don't want people to read what you're saying then why post it someplace as public as the internet in the first place. Perhaps the Halloween intern in New York figured that his managers were not internet savvy enough to discover his FaceBook page. All I can say is that most people in this day and age are savvy enough to know or be able to find information about someone they are interested in. I mean very few people can similarly claim never to have googled their own name out of curiousity.

I haven't been able to find out much else about this particular intern though I do know his manager had stated to the entire office that this was not the first time that the intern had 'called in sick' and requested time off from work. Is it really an invasion of privacy when your manager then looks up information about you on the internet or on sites like FaceBook? Not really. If you don't want them to know then don't put it out there. People ask the same thing when it comes to ranting against your bosses or similar things which can affect the work environment. Angry at your boss for passing off your idea as his own? Chances are you won't be the only one reading your post about it so don't go nuts and say what you want thinking that it will remain anonymous on the web. Anything and everything written out there is probably being viewed by someone you have never even suspected. That being said, greetings to my readers out there in Timbuktu.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Remembering Our Veterans

Today is Veteran's Day and for many, it is a day to remember those who have sacrificed their lives for their countries and for those who continue to put their lives in harm's way all in the name of freedom. It sounds trite and cliched to make such statements but for most of the men and women in uniform, they are the very words that compel them to persevere despite conflicting ideas about what the role of the military in this country should be. Whether you believe in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or you don't, one thing to remember is that the men and women over there are doing their job despite the fact that they may feel the same as the rest of us on their being over there.

Many who have gone over to either country have not come back and many who have come back have not necessarily come back the same as they were. This doesn't just mean lost limbs or the like, but sometimes something deeper. When most people think of war they think of the glorified looks you see in the old war movies starring the likes of John Wayne or Lee Marvin. Tough guys who would lead their men through thick and thin. In the old movies, war was seen as violent but 'clean'. When men (and it was always only men back then) died it was a clean and quick death. None of the reality that many have started to relate in recent memoirs or movies. Lately the reality that was war for many veterans has come to the forefront and though it may be Hollywood's version of what war is like, it is nonetheless important to know that these are but mere tastes of what war is like.

A generation of youngsters grew up on war films before going to Vietnam and they viewed this as the way war really was but it wasn't. Yet the continued to go. Some voluntarily and others involuntarily. They served and fought because it was either what they believed or what they were ordered to do. Despite that, there were many back here who looked down upon those in the service as being evil and killers. There may have been some, but not all. For most they were just doing a job that they were trained to do and they did it for something as simple as the soldier next to them. It's become yet another cliche to hear veterans talk about how they cared so much about the guy next to them that they would go through Hell just to keep them safe. It's a bond of friendship and brotherhood that those of us who have never experienced it cannot understand.

Though there are those who talk about their sacrifices and efforts to keep our country safe, those who serve on the front lines, those who eat out of serving sized containers while dressed in layers of protective clothing, those who spend months and even years away from their family and friends are the ones who will know it. They are the ones who make the greatest sacrifices for their country and for the security and continued well-being of our nation. They are the ones who proudly wear the uniform of their nation and they are the ones who deserve to be recognized for their sacrifices on a day like today.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Flying High on Low Fuel

I believe that the aviation industry is one of the industries that has helped define our world over the past decades. Sure one can argue that computers and other forms of technology have done it but really, aviation has helped serve to make the world a much smaller place and as a result, the global economy has likely seen the positive effects of it. That being the case, it's also the industry that has been getting quite a bad rap in recent years. Ever since September 11th, 2001, the aviation industry has been under higher scrutiny and not always because of actions of their own doing. Prior to 9/11 there were occasional complaints about delays and lost baggage but nothing out of the ordinary. In recent years the problems have been... well... growing.

Passengers have long complained about things which the airlines seemingly control like flight delays or lost baggage but now they are also held accountable for security concerns or other such traumas that some passengers experience. See when the world was all honky dory the oil costs and competitive offsets meant that airlines had to compete to keep your business. Startup airlines were like the dot com businesses of the 90's, full of promise but rarely living up to the expectations placed on them. Southwest was one of the first airlines to offer fewer niceties but reasonable fares to major cities. Soon came the likes of ValuJet, Independence Air and a slew of others. Unfortunately, rising oil prices and further competition has managed to dwindle those airlines to only a few and even those that remain in business are seemingly trying to make a buck or cut corners where they can.

Having never flown first class I can't speak from experience in higher class cabins on board airlines but in economy, you rarely get gourmet meals anymore. Not that they were gourmet to begin with but at least you could expect to get a sandwich or some lighter fare on a coast-to-coast flight. I remember flying to California direct from New York back in 1991 and we got a full blown lunch in transit. These days you're lucky if you get a bag of five peanuts or six pretzel twigs. But it isn't surprising. Studies found that by eliminating an olive, one olive, from salads served onboard flights, the airlines could save tens of thousands of dollars a year. That's fairly significant! And quite telling. If you can save that much by eliminating the cost of a single olive then imagine what will happen if you completely eliminate the whole meal!

Still, before we get all up in arms about that, we have to remember that while costs should be coming down due to cost savings for the airlines, the price of oil has continued to creep up and as such, the burden of paying for that price increase falls on the passengers as well. So we get stuck with higher ticket prices and lower perks. Plus, according to recent reports in the media, we also have a higher chance of arriving at our destination with more air in the fuel tanks than fuel. ABC news and other agencies have started investigating claims that some airlines have started to purposely lighten the loads of fuel on board flights in an effort to arrive at destinations with very little fuel on board which means that they will get priority for landing. I mean isn't that preferable to endlessly circling for hours at a time?

See, before we get up in arms about this fact we have to remember some of the costs that an airline has to pay at airports. Airlines have to pay for the gates, for the personnel helping to load and unload the bags, fuel, etc., they have to pay for using the airport and the longer a plane remains on the ground, the higher the cost. So why burn up even more money in the air if you can arrive on time (if not early) and then get off for the return trip in less time? Makes sense doesn't it? Now I can hear most people out there complaining that this is a highly dangerous situation and could lead to airlines suddenly running out of fuel and dropping out of the sky. Just for the sake of comfort for those panic prone people, that isn't what would happen. Despite their penchant for being equated with Tom Cruise in "Top Gun", most pilots are cognizant of the dangeers of flying with less fuel and are capable of stopping somewhere else in case of emergency.

Most people will see this as a further reason to knock the aviation industry. After all, they are milking us for all we're worth already right? It isn't fair of them to do more to put us in jeopardy is it? Honestly? I think it's no more dangerous than any other time we fly an airline. There are so many other events going on that we are seldom aware of as passengers that it doesn't make much sense for us to be worried about this one simple incident. I mean there have been so many other problems in the past that this practice is just fuel for the fire (excuse the pun). I mean how do you know that the next time your plane lands it won't slide on some ice and go off the runway? How do you know the nose gear won't be locked at an angle? How do you know that an engine won't cut off in mid-flight? So then how will you really know if your plane barely has any fuel left when you land? I guess it's true, ignorance is bliss.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Noisy RCA Dome

Normally when two of the best teams in any sport face off against one another it's usually a great match. It's even more so when both teams are undefeated and former league champions who are playing an opponent they have had many memorable games with. So it's generally no surprise that these games are highly contested with the outcome often being decided at the very last minute. That's more or less what happened this past weekend in Indianapolis in a game between the Colts and the Patriots of New England. What was important was that going into the game both teams had undefeated records and so it was a preview of a potential post season matchup.

The Colts were likely the more popular team out there, even for people who don't normally even watch the Colts simply because the Patriots, in the wake of Brian Bilichek's 'cheating scandal' has come to have an aura of evil about it. Indeed that's how many sportscasters were choosing to tout the game; as a contest between good (the Colts) and evil (the Patriots). Well the hopes of many were dashed when the Colts lost after the Patriots managed to come back in the fourth quarter and get ahead of the Colts. Unable to do anything to counter it at the very end, the Colts walked the short walk home with their tail between their legs. They played well and nobody could fault them but still, there is that feeling of disappointment in them that they couldn't close out the game despite being ahead. In such cases many teams or athletes choose to indicate that they lost due to some sort of cheating.

Boxers have claimed to have been poisoned before matches as have some tennis players. Football teams have complained too. One recent complaint that surfaced however, didn't come from the losing Colts but rather from the Patriots and others who have played in the RCA Dome. Apparently a security guard working at the stadium mentioned to a cameraman at the game that the crowd noise when the opposing team had the ball was artificially enhanced in order to make it exceedingly difficult for the opposition to call in their plays or even think straight. I have attended games before though in open air stadiums and when the crowd gets loud it gets really loud but still, I can only imagine just how deafening it must be in an enclosed stadium. And though the Patriots haven't made a big thing about it, they aren't the first team to level this contention against the Colts. Teams such as the Steelers have also made accusations back in 2005 (following their loss) at which time stadium officials did admit that they did enhance crowd noise.

Now one can argue that this is a simple tactic meant to give a slight advantage to the home team because during their plays, the noise level would drop to very soft levels and when the opposition took possession, the noise was again deafening. Some may say that this isn't fair play while others argue it is a non-intrusive or non-direct way of affecting an opposition's concentration. I don't agree. I mean if Brian Bilichek can be fined record amounts for filming the signals of the opposing teams in order to 'counter' their defensive formations then teams that do perform feedback loops of crowd noise should be penalized as well. Now I'm no fan of Brian Bilichek but still, I think what's good for the goose is good for the gander as well. I mean I've heard of teams in domes adjusting overhead airflow ducts so that it blows wind against field goal kicks made by opposing teams. Now accusations like this just go to the heart of the matter. If you can't win fairly, is it fair to win dishonestly?

A team like my Redskins have not been a consistent team for a number of years though they go out and try every single year. I don't know if they have ever resorted to these types of tactics and I'm a little worried about what the answer might be. I used to think that teams would spend the week before a game reviewing the last game tapes of the opposition in order to understand their strengths and their weaknesses. The teams would then design plays or practice formations that would exploit these weaknesses and that would then help them to defeat their opponents. Now it seems more like they adjust the environmental controls within the stadium to give them an advantage, and that just strikes me as being.... juvenile. I can't think of any other word for it other than that. Juvenile. Are we all becoming so 'win-crazy' that we have to resort to cheating in order to pacify the fans and owners? I certainly hope not.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

License to Tase

Next to the men and women currently serving in uniform in Iraq or Afghanistan, the next most dangerous work being done on a daily basis is probably the work handled by our law enforcement forces here in the states. Now for years, police have carried firearms as a means of protection but also for defense against any threat that could harm them or others around them. Now needless to say there have been instances where individuals have been fatally shot for something that was not even a life threatening event. Whether it was for waving a toy gun or refusing to follow police directions, there have been cases where innocent people have been shot up by police and immediately the media (followed closely by the public) jumps on the police for being 'too harsh' or 'trigger happy'. The taser was meant to act as an alternative though it has been getting a lot of fairly negative press lately as well.

As you can see in the photo accompanying this blog, a taser basically fires two probes at the threat and remains connected to the 'gun' portion which then can deliver a jolt of electricity through the connecting wires thus subduing the 'attacker' with a minimum amount of injury. Now people who have been tased by this device claim that the sensation is anything but pleasent and that it too is a cruel and unusual device that police can carry. Perhaps because of the case in Florida where a student at a political debate with Senator John Kerry was tasered was the public's first exposure to what exactly a taser does but if nothing else, it has given the media and the public something else to latch onto when discussing whether the police are purposely being mean and nasty to assumed criminals.

Now I am fortunate enough to live in a fairly safe area and have seen my neighborhood patrolled on occasion by police officers though I won't say it's a regular thing simply because it's a fairly quiet residential area. Still, the police that I do see patrolling my area do carry firearms despite the fact that the most they may run into is an angry shopper at Tysons or a jaywalking jogger (or should that be a jayjogger?). In any case, I don't feel that it reflects badly on the officers nor does it mean that they are purposely carrying it to show their power. After all, most people when they see a uniformed person without a sidearm they generally assume the person to be nothing more than a glorified security guard with a flashlight and mace to back him up. A handgun or taser is part of the uniform and part of a police officer's tools of the trade.

I think that people, especially criminals, are probably safer now than they had been when police were simply armed with handguns. They are generally taught to wound a violent criminal unless he is directly threatening someone in which case officers will generally fire enough shots to ensure that the criminal is no longer a threat to anyone. That's fine in cases of psycho killers waving guns or knives around but what about someone turning violent at a political rally and shouting and defying police direction to vacate the room? Should the police draw a firearm at that time in order to pacify and subdue the troublemaker? If you do that then the immediate reaction is that the officers are overstepping their powers and being unnecesarilly brutal. I mean if the officers in Florida had drawn a gun on the student there I'm sure the fallout would have been greater.

A taser adds a level of separation from a potential troublemaker by adding some distance. Similar to the negative connotations of a handgun in front of the public to subdue a protestor, if they had pulled out their nightsticks and used them to subdue the troublemaker they would have been in trouble too. Rodney King and the whole situation with the LA police back in the early 1990's has forever tainted the public's view of nightsticks and their use. It's come down to the taser now and even there the public is beginning to wonder whether or not this device is too much of a threat even in the hand of police. I mean lately you can rarely read through the news online without running across an article about police using a taser on someone or the other who apparently does not warrant a tasering and in some cases I agree. For instance, recent statements by police nationwide indicate that many police districts authorize police to use tasers on anyone regardless of age. Immediately the critics jump on this statement saying that this is an indication that the police would even stoop to tasering children as young as six.

It's an arguement that is not likely to go away anytime soon but still, I don't think it should be an arguement at all. If an officer is of a temprament that he will injure someone, whether he has a gun or a taser is moot, he will do the injuring somehow or the other. Similarly, just because an officer has a taser as an option doesn't mean that he is automatically prone to abusing that power. People ask whether tasers are a viable and proper option for police to have and I would pose this question to them. Would you rather be shot with a 9mm bullet or would you rather get shocked. Or better yet, just in case there are any gluttons for punishment out there, what if your child was brandishing a gun in a highly threatening manner and police were attempting to disarm him and subdue him; would you rather he be shot or tasered? I think in those cases the question answers itself.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Once in a Comet's Lifetime

Every so often there is a celestial event so unique and rare that even the most jaded of people out there can't help but look to the heavens in awe of the displays that the cosmos deems us worthy of seeing. In the coming days, we'll have another one of those rare opportunities when the comet 17P/Holmes passes through the skies over the United States over the next day or so. Some people out there may be wondering what exactly a comet is. Well, put simply (and please bear in mind that I am in no way shape or form an astronomer so keep snide comments to yourself), you can think of a comet as a ball of cosmic ice and dust which is generally quite large and is on an orbital path that takes it around the sun and eventually back into space. As the ice approaches the sun (in relative terms) the ice is converted to gas and hence the long tails that appear behind the comets.

The picture above is not of the Holmes Comet but of the Hale-Bopp Comet that passed through the sky a few years ago. What makes the Holmes Comet unique is that it will be bright enough in the sky to be seen with the naked eye. Now when most people hear the term comet or think of what it must look like they believe that it will look like what you see in movies like "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact". That is massive chunks of rock that are on fire and pose an immediate threat to our livelihood. Fortunately (or unfortunately for some) this is not the case. The path of a comet rarely (if ever) brings it along a path that will impact on our planet's surface. What do impact on us from time to time are meteoroids which are actually pieces of the moon or other celestial bodies that have broken off and are on random paths that sometimes lead them to earth. Even then, there are rarely pieces as large as are shown in the movies that can lead to the utter and total devestation of man.

I remember the last time a comet similar to the Holmes Comet passed through our skies. This was not too long before Hollywood began making movies on killer meteors hitting us. At that time my parents, brother and I were returning from a dinner outing when we drove through a country road close to our home. We had heard the news about the comet being visible that night but we figured that without telescopes or any idea of where to look we'd probably not even see anything. We also figured with all of the ambient light in our neighborhood, we wouldn't see anything anyways. But along this country road we were astonished to see the comet right there in the sky. It didn't appear to be moving rapidly across the sky nor was it leaving a firey trail across the sky. In fact it was rather still and luminous. So much so that even after we got home, we could see it despite the surrounding lights in our neighborhood. We all stood quietly watching it and I wondered just how far this comet had traveled before passing this way. To think in simpler terms, this could be compared to your zooming past a house along the highway. Except that this highway was the endless sky and the speed of this comet may have appeared minimal due to it's distance from us but it was probably faster than any of us will ever travel.

The next morning at school I spoke with some of my friends and I was rather dismayed to hear their comments about the comet being 'boring' or the fact that it wasn't moving or was just sitting there. And on the one hand I could understand the disappointment or frustration. Thanks to Hollywood and pop culture, we often have incorrect visions of what an object like a comet is 'supposed to look like'. Not that I considered myself smarter or more appreciative of the comet but I have always tried to think of such things in different terms. From our vantage point on Earth the comet may not appear much larger than a jet we see travelling through the skies on occasion. Now compare those two.

Even when you see a jet in the sky leaving a vapor trail, it is high up enough that it can often appear no larger than a pin head. If it wasn't for the vapor trail we wouldn't even see it despite the fact that it's only a few thousand feet in the air. Now think about a comet which is a few million miles in the air. In order for us to see it, the comet has to be massive and for the tail to appear as long as it does, it needs to be quite massive as well. Given all those things and the relative size of the sky, you tend to have slightly more appreciation for just how grand this rare light show in the sky actually is. I'm hopeful that I will get a chance to see the Holmes Comet in the sky before it disappears again on the next leg of its voyage through space. Perhaps it's a slightly romantic notion or my overwhelming love for space travel and exploration but by having seen an object that will undoubtedly see parts of the universe I will probably never see in my lifetime, at least a part of me, in some small sense, will be on that journey too.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Modern Medicine Turns Spicy

I will admit that I enjoy spicy food. The other day a group of friends from the office and I went to lunch at a Thai place. Most Thai places have sliding scales in terms the level of spicy in the food. When I saw most of them ordering a level 2 out of 4 I decided to try 3 out of 4 because I knew that if they could tolerate that much, I could go with a bit more. I was disappointed that the food wasn't spicy enough but just enough to give a zing. Not that I'm one of those crazy guys who munches on habanero peppers as if they were potato chips. Rather, I enjoy spicy foods when they are flavorful and that hotness adds a bit of a kick. Well, it turns out that my passion is being shared by some doctors as well, though not in the kitchen.

I read the other day that doctors in California are experimenting on volunteers to determine if hot sauces can be used as a pain reliever after major surgeries. The concept being that when we ingest a hot sauce, the area touched by the hot sauce (such as the tongue) go numb and you lose the sensation in that area for a while. The doctors in this hospital are hoping that the Tabasco sauces will have a similar effect on those areas that have recently undergone surgery. So far experiments have been conducted on several volunteer patients though they have been sedated when the surgery is actually underway and the hot sauce is applied. According to the reports, this is to 'prevent them from screaming when the hot sauce makes contact.' That statement itself, issued by an actual doctor, had me on the floor laughing simply because it struck me as being so funny. They know that the hot sauce will burn (in a figurative standpoint) so they are doing what they can to avoid unnecessary screaming in the operating room.

I find it fascinating that someone would think to apply a common food additive, long known in the military to add flavor to otherwise bland field rations, and think of it as a pain reliever. People who have ingested too much of it at one time have different ideas. I'm sure they think of them as pain inducers rather than pain relievers. Still, if it proves to be successful this could mean not only a change in the way pain is managed following surgery but also how the military could handle pain in the field as well. I just hope this doesn't lead to some amateur experimentation on the part of foodies that could yield no useful results but more ridiculous ones.

I mean there are plenty of people out there who would love to be known for a medical breakthrough but while there are a few 'real' experimenters out there, such as the group working with the hot sauces. In this case I'm more worried about the guys out there who think they know everything about everything and want to prove it by showing that they have the wherewithal to come up with 'the next best thing'. These are the guys (and they are most often men) who you will find sitting in hospital emergency rooms because they figured they could do it on their own. In their less than capable hands we're more prone to hear about things like chicken gravy washes as a means of improving the complexion. That's the type of renegade medicine that we don't really need.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Testing the 'More Starbucks Less Waiting' Theory

Most of my readers know that I'm a frequent coffee drinker and that Starbucks has been one of my destinations for quite some time now. I go there every so often during the week just to sit down and have a freshly prepared cup of coffee while listening to XM radio that is often blaring in the room. In the DC area, it's next to impossible to go very far without running into another Starbucks and as I've written in the past, it's hard to understand the reasons why there would be a Starbucks across the street from another which is merely down the block from yet another. Well, according to the corporate theory, it's so that those looking for a cup of coffee won't have to wait very long to sit back and enjoy it. So I recently decided to put the theory to the test.

Sure everyone who is a relatively frequent visitor to Starbucks has a farvorite location of barista who makes the coffee. I'm not so much of a coffee junkie that I get frazzled if the person making my coffee isn't as good as the usual barista but I do like my coffee to be prepared in a timely fashion. If you visit some locations, the line can be out the door when you get there but within a few moments you'll have your coffee in your hand. Common sense tells us that. But Starbucks' philosophy is that if you just go down the street a ways (generally not very far) you can find another location where the line is probably shorter or maybe even non-existant. I went to Tysons Corner Mall the other day and given that I live so close to the mall, I visit frequently enough to know that there are two Starbucks locations within the mall itself. That too not far from one another.

The first is probably the original and that's the one next to Macy's on the ground floor. Being in the center of the mall it is frequently the target of coffee thirsty consumers who are looking for a quick boost before continuing on their shopping sprees. Most days, unless you are there during working hours in the middle of the week, you will find a line snaking out the door to both order coffee and to pick up. Though the baristas work at a freverent pace to get the coffee to you as quick as they can, the demand often outpaces the producers so it takes time. Seeing that was the case, the chain (and mall) allowed for the opening of a second location farther inside the mall near the newer extension that opened over a year ago. This location within the mall (closer to the Barnes & Noble end) is larger and has more seating yet is not always that full. I guess what they say about real estate is true, 'location, location, location' is everything.

Once when I had been on a shopping excursion with my mom I went into that one and ended up waiting in line for ten minutes to place my order and then another ten waiting to pick up my order. Granted it was a busy weekend that we found ourselves in the store but still, the total wait of twenty minutes left us hungering for our coffee. On a more recent visit to the mall, I passed by the same location and noticed a line again snaking out the door. Deciding to test the theory I walked a little farther along to the newer location and found a minimal line (of two people versus ten) and was out the door within ten minutes if even that long. So perhaps the theory that more Starbucks means less wait does mean something but my question still remains in the other regard about Starbucks and that is do we really need that many locations?

In the past I've written about how in some cities there can be multiple Starbucks locations located within a building let alone on a block and the theory behind that goes that someone looking for a quick fix of java while working on the 20th floor of a high rise shouldn't have to go all the way to the lobby to get a cup of coffee. The descent to the tenth floor is a long enough wait. That strikes me as being a little too extreme. If someone is that ravenous for some coffee all the time then they definitely have some sort of addiction and that needs to be examined rather than catered to. For the rest of us, coffee is like a break or a distration to help pass some time. In the office I have a cup of coffee not because I need a quick boost or crave the caffeine but because it helps my pass some of the time during the day when I go to get a cup of coffee or brew a fresh pot. By eliminating some of the time I would be waiting at a Starbucks means less time for my non-smoker's break.