Friday, February 29, 2008

Media Coverage Versus Common Sense

Prince Harry, third in line of succession to the British Throne (after father Charles and elder brother William) has apparently been deployed to Afghanistan since December and though people were aware of this fact, it was something that had been kept from the public due to an agreement between the British Ministry of Defense and the press. Unfortunately the news was leaked this week by the Australian media and propogated by German media sources. As a result, Harry, who went through his military training at Sandhurst is due to be withdrawn after serving only ten weeks of a normal six month tour. While people may argue that Harry was out in the field surrounded by bodyguards and the like, I think this incident raises a more important issue and that's just how much freedom the press should be granted.

Now I grant you that Prince Harry is a bit of a wild child. After tussles at numerous parties and incidents of bad judgement (being photographed dressed as a Nazi soldier during a costume party come to mind) he seemed to have settled down quite a bit after entering the military. Like anybody who volunteers for the military, Harry was naturally eager to join his comrades on the front lines when they were deployed. However, when his regiment, the Blues and Royals, was deployed to Iraq last May, Harry was kept back in England due to fears that he would become a prime target for insurgents and assassins. I can recall the major furor that was aroused when people were told that Harry was being denied the right to serve with his regiment in Iraq. Some said it was the right thing to do to keep him behind since it would make those around him likely targets as well while others commended a member of the royal family for wanting to take part in efforts around the world to maintain peace.

The press would have had a field day with the news had he been deployed to Iraq in that they would have been surrounding him like drones to a queen bee. Anyone interested in finding him wouldn't have to look hard, they'd probably just have to look for the mass of reporters shouting "Harry". Now the current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are different; for the first time the media has been involved in the front line operations that were previously kept from the public. Sure they may not have been able to cover every single action in the war but at least they were allowed to 'embed' themselves with troops to show the people what was happening in the war. Rather than allowing rumor to become fact, the hope was that by granting this much coverage to a somewhat lukewarmly supported war, support woudl jump as it did during the first Gulf War. Unfortunately the media is not one to shy away from opportunity.

In an effort to 'one up' their competition or to break news first, every news agency out there is always ready to push the limits in order to gain ratings. As such, they want to be the first to provide 'exclusive coverage' of events and interviews so that we the public will continue to watch their programs. Never mind that the insurgents can watch these same transmissions as well and plan accordingly. I remember when US forces arrived in Mogadishu and other places back in the 1990's. In the post Gulf War era this was a great thing and when Marines landed on the beaches, they had full camera crews waiting. It didn't matter that they were landing in the dark, the media had full floodlights and night vision cameras ready to capture the Marines landing. Did anyone stop to think that this was a bad idea? Why didn't they just fax the plans of the military to the opposition.

Even now, with what has happened to Prince Harry, I think it's ridiculous. I admire Harry for wanting to serve his country in uniform. No one has served in a war zone in the Royal Family since his uncle, Prince Andrew, flew helicopters during the Falklands War in 1982. Rather than letting his position of prestige be a guard against such a dangerous task, Harry fought against it for the opportunity to serve. Perhaps it was nothing more than male bravado that put him out there but at least he was making an effort. But other than the fact that he is a member of the Royal Family, what else is so significant about him? What makes him different than anyone else in his Regiment? Why should he be worthy of coverage? And knowing that he is a potentially high profile target for insurgents, why should the media leak his whereabouts? Is it simply because they are hoping that he be injured in the field so that they can gain more coverage? Do they hope his partying lifestyle will continue even in a war zone so that they can exploit it? Media freedom is good but not when it purposely endangers the lives of people. Prince Harry aside, I think the need on the part of many in the media to have unrestricted access to such things is too much.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cracking Down on Street Racing

A few days ago there was a horrific accident in Maryland where bystanders watching an illegal street race were run down by another car that apparently did not see the people standing in the roadway. The high profile case in which multiple people died has suddenly raised street racing in the collective consciousness of the community despite the fact that it's been a persistant problem for a number of years now. Don't believe me? Next time you're on the highway please note that every so often you'll see someone zoom by everyone else (even if you are already above the speed limit) followed shortly thereafter by about two or three other cars attempting to catch up and pass the first speeder. Most of the time, the other cars are not cop cars.

What is this need that compels a lot of us to speed like this? I admit that I have done it once or twice but nothing like the two gentlemen who had their cars impounded over the weekend. Apparently on Sunday night they were driving down an arterial road in Virginia when they came up to a traffic light. The unwritten and unspoken challenge was delivered; the revving of the car's engine and the race was suddenly on. So enthralled were they with their engine revving that they failed to notice that a short distance behind them was a police cruiser. No sooner the light turned green the cars shot off the line and behind them came the cop. Rather than pulling the two over and merely issuing tickets, the officer handed down a stiffer penalty. He impounded both cars (shown above). I think it was the right decision and should be done with more frequency given the danger a lot of these drivers put other people in.

As I have said, I have sped on occasion but not for any particular reason. Sure there are times when I'm running late and I want to try and make up for lost time but I have tried to avoid those situations that crop up now and again where drivers in souped up looking cars attempt to goad me into a street race. Most of the times all it does is burn off fuel faster and though I'm not a cheapskate, with fuel prices on the rise, it isn't the smartest thing to speed around and burn off fuel with such reckless abandon. But not all speeders are necessarily racing and racers aren't the only ones that need to be pulled over. All too often in the morning rush hour you'll see drivers pulling off crazy antics all in the name of saving a few minutes. Why? Are you that desperate to get to work?

For example, the other day I was driving down a two lane road going a few miles above the posted speed limit. I wasn't by any means holding up traffic when suddenly from behind comes a beat up sedan who proceeds to tailgate me and then speeds around me going into the opposite lane of traffic in order to execute his pass. Putting all of us on the road at that moment in danger what did the driver accomplish? Nothing really. He was ahead of me at the next traffic light. And did he take off from there and leave me behind? Not really; he got stuck behind another car and continued on at a stately pace with me right behind him. All that manuevering and for what? To get one car ahead of me? Seems stupid doesn't it?

It'll be difficult for cops to crack down on all these incidents; after all, there's plenty of other stuff for them to worry about. I think the impounding of the two street racers earlier this week was a wise move and should hopefully send a signal to drivers out there that if and when they get caught, they will be in for a lot more than a costly speeding ticket. They will face having to ride public transportation at least until the get a new set of wheels or spring their car from the slammer. Not a cheap proposition to be sure. I think I'll continue on at my stately pace and learn to curb any urge I get to push my car to the limits. I'm sure I'll be a lot safer that way. I'm sure others around me will be too.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Making Issues of Non-Issues

The current race for the White House began much earlier than previous races and for good reason. Both of the major parties are in a desperate bid to get into the White House now that the incumbent George W. Bush will no longer be eligable to run for a third term. Some candidates have been vocalizing their candidacy for years now while others were what could only be termed as "Johnny-come-lately's". With a race running as long as it has, it's no wonder that some aspects of it are slowly wearing down the resolve of those running while it is causing others to revert to dirty tactics to try and convince people that one candidate is better than the other. The current target that's in the crosshairs appears to be current Democratic front runner Barrack Obama. Now whether you are a supporter of Obama or not, I believe that what he is currently being subjected to is a bit much.

What's been going on? Well, earlier this month, a photo was released to the press (which is included with this blog) which shows Obama wrapped in the garb of a Kenyan elder which he donned on a visit to the country some time back. Now Obama is certainly not the first candidate to wear the clothes of the people from another country and certainly won't be the last but the issue that is being raised by this picture is one of utter childishness and what can only border on stupidity and ignorance. What some have intimated is that this photo is evidence that Obama has "secret ties" to the Muslim community and that these ties are for devious purposes. Forget the fact that he has spoken out against the current war in Iraq or that he immediately came out and explained what the context of the picture was. The seed of doubt was planted in the heads of many and unfortunately, this little picture is going to paint a whole new portrait. That too an unfair portrait.

And the release of the photo wasn't the only type of subversion being attempted by opponents of Obama. Yesterday at a rally for Republican frontrunner John McCain, conservative talk radio host Bill Cunningham attempted to rile up the audience by providing an introduction for McCain which included disparaging remarks against his opponents on the Democratic side and in which he used Obama's full name which included the middle name Hussein. Now McCain of course was not present at that time and immediately apologized for any comments made by Cunningham during his introduction (which I feel was a classy move on his part) but the seed of doubt was once again cast. I'm sure that when Obama was named, his family didn't think ahead thirty-plus years and assume that Hussein would be associated with a former dictator in a country our nation would be at war with just when young Barrack would be making a run for the presidency. It was serendipitous and a case of unfortunate timing. Does it mean again that Obama has "secret sympathies" for Muslim people? Not really, but then again that's not what people tend to remember.

Unfortunately in our attention deficient world, sound bites rule our lives. We care more about quantity versus quality at times and the more news that we can fit in our heads the better it is. Often times we'll only get to hear part of the issue and in cases like this, we see pictures of Obama out of context wearing a turban and hear that his middle name is Hussein and assume that he's a Muslim sympathizer right? That being the case, were I to simply tell someone that John McCain was a former prisoner of war of Vietnam during that war, would it be fair to assume that McCain's only interest during his presidency would be to re-engage in war with Vietnam? Would it be fair to assume that he'd want to bomb the country back to the stone age due to his mistreatment during his time as a POW? No. What about Hillary Clinton? I find it funny that during Bill Clinton's first term, people joked that she was secretly running the country by telling Bill what to do. Now people are worried that if Hillary becomes the next president, Bill will be running the show from behind the curtains. Is that the case? Probably not but it's a fair thing to assume right?

I wish the media and candidates would take a page from what McCain did yesterday and take action to attempt to at least run a fair campaign. There's still a while before the elections in November and I for one would like to hear more on how the candidates plan for our country rather than constantly defending themselves against accusations being leveled against them left and right. I'm more interested in finding out what the plans for our nation for the future are rather than worrying whether or not Obama likes to dress in turbans regularly. That's not the issue; the issue is our country and how these candidates propose to lead us. I'm not interested in childish name-calling or false accusations. I know that candidates (all of them) are far from perfect but that's what comes from being human. I don't expect them to be infallible, but I also am not interested in robots. Let's keep it clean huh?


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Clipping Wings in the Airline Industry

For the second time in two weeks, two airlines at a local Washington airport clipped wings while on the tarmac waiting for permission to depart. The first incident happened at National Airport near downtown DC and the second happened at Dulles Airport on the outskirts of the city. In both cases, the airliners were sitting on the tarmac or on the taxiways waiting for permission to pushback and line up for take off. What the media makes it sound like is that both of these incidents either happened in mid-air or while they were taking off. I think it's unfair the way the media and people in general are portraying this incident. That's not to say I excuse the mishap but I feel everyone is making it worse than it actually is.

The damage to both the planes and the delays that it resulted in were unfortunate and shouldnt' have happened in the first place but what many people who complain about these incidents fail to realize is that parking a plane isn't as easy as it seems. Don't think so? Think of it in this context. Just go to any parking lot and look at how more than half the people park their cars. They aren't lined up in the center of their space a lot of times, and other times they are either on the lines or parked in their spots crooked. So apparently it's hard enough for people with a vehicle only ten feet long. Imagine doing the same thing with something a hundred plus feet long with wings sticking out the sides (which you can't see) whiles sitting about a story off the ground all while rushing to get things parked so that you can get refueled and back in the air within a very short time. Knowing all that it's a wonder that more of such incidents don't occur.

There have been reports about how there have been near-collisions in the air or how planes have had pilots fall asleep and leaving the planes on autopilot while they flew past their destinations. All that being said, the airline industry is obviously getting a bad rap. It's not being helped by the fact that more airlines are looking to increase baggage charges either. That being said it's easy to understand why there is an increasing urgency being felt within the industry. Since September 11th there has been a shift overall in how the airline industry is viewed and whether it is still as safe as it once was or at least as it was once perceived and it's true. While numbers are finally returning to levels that they were at prior to 9/11, it still doesn't mean that the services and timeliness enjoyed at that time are still in place. People's patience is down and expectations are up. People want air travel to be safe but not inconvenient. They want it comfortable but speedy. This leads to the desire to rush around and that's when incidents like this can and do occur.

Last year similar incidents occured in Europe as well. Thankfully there were no fatalities involved with the clipping of wings but it's a delay that most of the airlines involved can do without. It doesn't help their safety records and reputation either. I think rather than blowing these things out of proportion and then intimating that the airline industry is a proverbial trainwreck in the sky, we need to step back and realize that most of the airports in the country were designed at a time when air travel was a luxury and not as common as bus travel. Most airports aren't equipped or designed to handle the loads they experience these days though most passengers expect that service should be the same as when air travel was a true luxury. In some cases it does happen but it's becoming rarer. I don't think the incidents at National and Dulles are harbingers of a decline in safety in the airline industry; on the contrary, I think they are indicators of the fact that the industry is outgrowing the capacity and capabilities to operate safely at current rates.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

And the Oscar Goes To...

The Oscars aired on television last night; the first awards show that was held since the Writer's Guild of America came off of their three month strike. And while several other awards shows did get cancelled, it was nice to see that things got resolved before the Oscars were set to air. While some of the other awards shows that we get subjected to may be more entertaining due to their format, there is something different about the Oscars. More than the glitz and the glamour it is often about rooting for the movie that you liked most of all. Most years you will find movies that you have seen but there are some years, as was largely the case this year for many people, the major categories were full of movies not everyone, in fact very few people, had seen.

I don't think it's due to the fact that these movies are bad or that they deal with subjects that people aren't interested in but its more because these are movies that are a bit 'off the beaten trail'. In other words, most of the movies that were nominated were those that weren't wrought with major explosions or action sequences. There were no thrilling car chases (for the most part) or special effects-filled action sequences and so predominently they weren't the typical summer schlock that fills the screens and that allow you to check your brain at the door. These were the movies that were limited to a smaller number of screens or theatres for shorter durations and that was mainly because they were tailored more for the true movie fan rather than those of us who enjoy a mindless summer blockbuster. That's not to say these movies are snobby or not worth seeing but I think the people behind them knew that these weren't the type of movies to break box office records.

I remember the 1998 Oscars when "Titanic" won in almost every category that it was nominated in. It seemed that the movie could do no wrong that year. It also happened to be the one movie that everyone had pretty much seen at least once that year. Teenage girls had apparently seen it too many times to count making it one of the most profitable Best Picture winners in recent years. A lot of people at that time, at least the ones who can be truly called 'movie insiders', felt that this was a signal of a disturbing trend and that was the preponderance of summer blockbusters on a cinematic art form and if a movie like "Titanic" could win when compared to other great films that came out in that period, were the movies truly being judged on artistic merit or on popularity. It was like being back in high school and that wasn't going to stand. At least not exactly in that way.

Since then, most of the Best Picture and major category winners have been deservedly awarded. I can't say that I've seen every Best Picture and acting award winners but I know that when I see these films I come to understand why they were nominated in the first place and why they won in the second. But when do we see these films? Generally we end up seeing them when they're on DVD and therein is the problem that many of the writers had. I don't think "There Will Be Blood" or "No Country for Old Men" was even close to where "Rambo" was in terms of box office income or to the "Hannah Montana" movie but then again it was never expected to be. It will likely make tons in DVD rental and sales and that was the problem most writers had. Not all of them were privy to earning money from that income and as a result they felt they were shortchanged.

I think they deal they brokered will make for a more equitable arrangement for them and I hope they don't feel slighted to have to resort to striking again because despite what many in Hollywood think, if it isn't for the writers, they are just actors standing around on fancy sets in fake clothes. You can't have great acting like we've seen this year without great writers and they are the true winners at this years Oscars in my book. With such a diverse variety of stories and challenges for actors, they truly help showcase the talent and creativity that is there in Hollywood. Sure the majority of us enjoy pure entertainment films which require no thinking at all, but every once in a while, it is great to see acting that isn't a special effect.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Mud-Slinging With a Purpose

We are finally starting to get down to the nitty gritty of the election season and it looks more and more likely that the candidates on the main part of the ticket for the fall are going to be John McCain and Barrack Obama. In recent days both candidates have been surging forward and their nearest competitors are struggling to keep pace. That being said, it's no wonder that so much mud-slinging and rumor mongering is beginning to abound. Last night on the debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton (held in Texas where the next major primaries are to be held) Clinton perverted Obama's campaign slogan and declared that Obama stood for "Change You Can Xerox". This was a slight intended to hint at the fact that Obama had been accused (and admitted) to using portions of a speech from fellow congressman Duval Patrick.

In the way things usually work in politics, it was probably a milder form of mud-slinging but it's mud-slinging nonetheless. It's relatively minor when looking at the mud being thrown John McCain's way. The New York Times recently reported that McCain had previously had inappropriate relations (read having an illicit affair) with a congressional lobbyist. The reason this is of more significance (to some anyways) is the fact that McCain ran his last campaign for the presidency on a stance of looking to end the power of lobbyists in Washington. What this scandal hopes to reveal is that no only is McCain 'in bed' with lobbyists (figuratively and quite possibly literally) but that he is not going to be able to hold up the promise of ending the reign of lobbyists in congress.

Still, no matter who you support or don't support, are these really issues that will make or break these candidates? As I recall, Bill Clinton was racked with scandal after scandal the first time he ran. It seemed that more than handling how he would handle the presidency, Clinton was spending most of his time shooting down accusations of illicit affairs. But is this perhaps what made him likeable in the first place? Think about it. The presidency has some sort of mystique linked to it. It's a powerful position that grants the bearer of the position, a great deal of power. That being the case, do the people want someone in there who is truly benevolent or do you think they would prefer someone who is more likeable. I say likeable because I feel that other than a few exceptions, most of our recent presidents were probably elected because they were 'more likeable' than their opponents.

Even this denial by McCain yesterday to ever having an affair seemed a bit... canned to me. It seemed as if he was going through the emotions of making his denial. Almost as if he was expecting the question. And perhaps he was. Perhaps this 'revelation' of a story was meant to be nothing more than a way to get word out that John McCain isn't so unlike the rest of us. Plus for the Republicans, it is also a way to prove that McCain isn't gay. The party was caught off-guard with the summer shenanigans of Larry Craig last year and for a party (and Craig in particular) that was seen as one that cracks down on gay issues, it is important for them to maintain that solidarity isn't it? They want a candidate that exudes heterosexuality and by McCain being accused of having an affair (most importantly with a woman) there is only good feelings to be felt by all in the party.

Call it a case of mass cynicism but lately that's how I feel a lot of political issues have become, nothing more than a reason to prove to the public at large that "hey! I'm just like you!" but that can either backfire or serve to aid a candidate. It's a fine line. I'm personally of the opinion that lots of people were turned off by Al Gore back in 2000 due to his condescending tone towards George W. Bush during their debates. It was clear that Gore was a smart man but he came off as over smart and lots of people seemed to relate more to Bush. Rather than being a super genius as Gore tried to portray himself, Bush played up his sort of "aw shucks" appeal and it won him many supporters, many of whom still side with him through thick and thin and it's an approach that worked. So perhaps McCain coming forward this way was a set up and perhaps Obama being accused of plagarism is a set up too. Most college students will admit to cheating at one time or another and why should they feel bad, presidential candidates are doing it too aren't they?


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Making a Withdrawl from Your "Other" Account

Some guys have all the luck and others get arrested and all because they have the same name. In this case it was a case of mistaken identity but it was on the part of the Bank in question and not the customer. Recently, a gentleman named Benjamin Lovell went to a New York branch of Commerce Bank and was informed that his account balance stood at $5 million. Now for someone expecting that much to be in their account it was no big deal. The only thing was, Benjamin Lovell, the one who happened to be in the bank that day, was not the same Benjamin Lovell who's account contained $5 million.

However, that's not to say that the customer at the bank that day was lying. On the contrary; he was (and is) Benjamin Lovell, just not the Benjamin Lovell with the high dollar bank account. The Benjamin Lovell who was in the bank that day was a salesman who was told, quite confidently, by the bank officials that he had nearly $5 million in his account and he was free to withdraw as much as he needed when he needed it. Not one to make too big deal over the fact that despite his protestations he knew he didn't have that much money, Lovell withdrew approximately $2 million and went happily on his way. It didn't yield dividends quite like he hoped and Lovell ended up simply buying some gifts for friends and family, getting a few items for himself, and losing the rest in bad investments. Once the actual (and richer) Benjamin Lovell found out, he and the bank drew charges against the 'other' Lovell and he has now been arrested for larceny.

Now perhaps the 'other' Lovell was wrong for withdrawing the money in the first place, but isn't it also the bank's fault for being so sure that they had the correct Benjamin Lovell without checking all possibilities? I'm fortunate in the fact that my name is unique enough that if I ever run into another person with the same name as myself, it will likely be one of those moments that is often discussed in time travel movies where a paradox will occur and the universe will suddenly end in a massive explosion. Since that's not likely to happen, I don't have to worry about someone showing up at a bank someplace and suddenly finding out that they have more money in their account than they anticipated. Conversely, I doubt I shall walk into a bank anytime soon and find out that I have a lot more money in my account than what I was expecting to find in their. My funds (or paltry lack thereof) are my own and I don't have to worry about it being misallocated or withdrawn.

Lovell probably viewed the situation as one of those arising in the classic game of Monopoly. Because of a 'bank error' he got what he believe to be free money. Now I don't know how much or what Lovell (the less rich one) did to fully convince the bank that he was not really worth $5 million at their bank but let's face it, if we were suddenly told that we had that much money available to us, would all of us take the saintly route and refuse it? I doubt there are very many people out there who could honestly look themselves in the mirror and say they could flat out refuse it. Most of us would take the money and spend it on all the stuff we wanted without considering the possible consequences. It's unfortunate that Lovell is paying for this (pun intended) by spending time in jail. I guess the way the richer Lovell and the bank see it, poorer Lovell should have kept the money in the bank and let things sort out on their own. I guess bank errors in our favor aren't always a good thing.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wal-Mart Owns Up to a Faux Pas

Though I don't go there regularly, I have been to Wal-Mart on more than enough occasions to take notice of the fact that it probably has one of the most diverse workforces that I've seen anywhere. At least in the Washington Metro area in any case. You walk into one and there are usually workers from almost every corner of the globe working at some point or another in the store and it's hard not to run into someone who speaks your language. That being said, I was somewhat surprised to hear that Wal-Mart was apologizing to a customer who had apparently been insulted by a cashier at a store in Riverdale, Utah. When a Muslim woman dressed in her traditional burqua approached the cashier, the cashier stated, "Please don't stick me up." Which is another way of begging not to be robbed.

Now many people may think that this fairly 'innocent' comment should not have warranted the eventual dismissal of the employee in question, but I am rather satisfied at the fact that the company saw fit to terminate the employees job and put the employees in that job through sensitivity training. Some people would question whether it's really necessary to make such measures over something like this but I think it's quite necessary. Right now in the world at large, Muslims aren't generally viewed in a positive light. Very few people out there make a distinction between a Muslim and Muslim fundamentalist and so whenever someone says Muslim, the general reaction is to think of nothing but terrorism. It's a bad case of guilt by association but it's a natural tendancy in human nature so what can you do?

I ask the reverse question; supposing the cashier had made the same comment to an African-American? Do you think it would have been met with a playful chuckle and wholehearted acceptance? I don't think so either. It just goes to show that while some comments are acceptable to people they are seen as vile accusations by others. It's all a matter of perspective. I think Wal-Mart has done the right thing in taking swift action against this type of behavior and I would hope that if similar incidents occur elsewhere in their vast empire of stores that they take the same stance. And I don't believe that they should simply stop at the insulting of minorities. Insults to anyone's culture, religion or what-have-you should be dealt with in the same manner.

Most companies tend to sweep incidents such as these under the rug or attempt to point out that this was one worker at a particular store that has been dealt with. But to take efforts and publicly show that they do care about how the organization as a whole is perceived takes something more than just a Cover-Your-Ass approach. Will this affect Wal-Mart sales? Probably not. I mean the people who want to go there will continue to go there and the people who don't will probably start going to Target but whatever their preference, at least people should take heart in the fact that the sometimes sinister face of corporate America does care and is making efforts to show that they don't appreciate racial intolerance either.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

High Definition Vs. Average Joe

Japanese based electronics giant Toshiba announced yesterday that they will soon end manufacture of High Definitiion (or HD) drives and players simply because they don't find a large enough market for the devices. Now many people who aren't so into technology of this sort will wonder what the big deal is but as the picture included in today's blog shows, there is a difference between the picture generated on a DVD and an HD DVD. In an absolutely simplistic sense, you are able to contain much more imagery in an HD disc versus a regular disc because of the compression and decryption of the images. As a result, you can literally count the number of nose hairs someone has in a close up. But what's the point? That's what many people are asking.

I'm all for progress in terms of technology but are we really all that cognizant of differences in picture quality to that level of granularity? I will admit that there's a definite difference in picture quality when comparing my normal television with my parents HD television. The picture seems so much more... alive... when you watch it on the HD television versus being 'not-quite-so-alive' on a normal television. It makes watching television a slightly different experience at their place and since digital transmissions are becoming the standard in another year, I think it's a step in the right direction. However, while digital transmissions will mean better transmitted picture quality, it doesn't mean that we require that level of quality for everything.

HD discs came out a while ago now and as always, there was the debate over whether or not this was a good idea or not. Suddenly our society, which had long since made the switch from VHS video cassettes (what's that?) to DVDs was suddenly seeing a push by the industry to make the switch again to HD DVDs. The catch? Many players wouldn't play older 'standard' DVDs and you were either going to have to wait for backwards compatible HD DVD players or just start your collection again. Now I don't know about you but for me, that would be a major pain. I could buy another DVD player and just leave the old one to enjoy my older discs but why should I? Do I really need to sit there and count nose hairs or see that the extra in the background didn't have a completed makeup foundation applied before he was filmed? Not really. At least I don't believe I should. I remember something my Dad would always tell me about theatre. If people are more concerned about the fact that something trivial in the background is wrong means that the actors on stage aren't effective and you've already lost the audience.

I think from a movie director's standpoint this would be a point of concern as well. If your movie is shakey in terms of plot or storyline, would you really want to have more visual distractions for your audience? Do you really want them to notice that the actress on screen has bloodshot eyes that have been digitally whitened due to her penchant for partying every night after filming concluded? I would think you're more interested in people getting caught up in the story. HD can certainly make things more lifelike but not once am I suddenly going to forget that I'm sitting at home watching a movie. I'm not going to suddenly wake up and think that I'm in the middle of the desert with a group of US soldiers running while the Transformers arrive and start reeking havoc on everyone and everything around them. Sure I'll be able to see exactly how many button holes Shia LeBouf leaves when putting his belt on his pants but the question is... do I really need to?


Monday, February 18, 2008

Gaming at the Library

When I was growing up (and even now to a great extent) the library was a place for me to get away and enjoy some quiet time while discovering something new. I would go there and browse, sometimes for hours, and find some new author or new subject that I was curious about and I would read and read and read. Getting me or my brother to go to the library was never a problem for my parents but for many others out there, they say it's as hard as getting their kids to go to church. I find it sad that so many kids have a reluctance to get into reading since it offers a fairly simple way to stimulate the imagination while serving to educate as well. I think many kids, once they start reading anyways, begin to see the merit in reading and eagerly continue the habit but for many parents (and librarians) the dilemma is how to get kids to the library in the first place. Several libraries around the country seem to have found a plausible solution.

Recently a library in Michigan began renting out video games for various game systems from some of their branches. The jump in attendance at the library by kids jumped up several fold. Now kids make it to the library on a fairly regular basis. The library hosts monthly competitions between kids meant to get them to the library regularly and hopefully interest them enough to stay there. Now I think this is a novel approach to getting kids there but aren't video games and television viewed by these same parents as being part of the problem behind getting their kids to come to the library in the first place? Parents have long complained that their kids come home and sit in front of their televisions for hours after school and are reluctant to do anything else. That being the case, then why simply transplant the problem from the home to the library?

I would be curious to know if by bringing kids to the library if there has been any significant impact to the number of kids checking books out. From what I have read I think the wrong statistic is being viewed. If one looks at what the checkout trends have been at the library among kids and teenagers, I'm sure they won't find educational books that high up on the list. I mean after all, when you have a choice between the latest video game and a new history book, I think the majority of kids are going to go for the video game. It just stands to reason; if the kid enjoys reading or finds something interesting enough to want to read about then they will read it anyways. They won't need incentive to get to the library. I remember when my library started renting movies to the general public. I saw many new releases thanks to their being available at the library but that didn't mean that I gave up on reading library books just to go and get movies. On the contrary, it was a reverse incentive for me. I viewed the movies as a bonus for going to the library anyways.

I think video games will serve the same purpose but is it really that effective a method for getting people into the libraries? I remain skeptical. I think a lot of this comes down on parents for the most part. Both my parents read a lot though I'll never call them a couple that takes books with them to restaurants for dinner and reads them rather than having conversations (which I've seen some bibliophiles do on more than one occasion). My brother and I saw them reading books all the time and it came to be viewed as a normal thing. If parents are interested in getting their kids to read then they should read to their kids and encourage them to read things they like, not what parents think they should read. But get that bug in them and they will continue to read on their own, with no need for 'carrots' to be put in front of them as stimulation. I often go to my library and see kids in front of the computers for the internet but rarely browsing for information, rather visiting sites to play games. Parents can then proudly boast about how their kid spends hours at the library while the kid can boast about achieving the high score for the library. Is that the goal that we're hoping to reach? I don't think so.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Going "Green" in Space Too

It seems that pretty much any efforts at 'cleaning up' or 'going green' are met with resistance these days. Whether it's because people believe that the goals are too high to ever achieve or because they feel the costs outweigh the potential savings, there is seemingly no way to win the debate. And now, the latest entrant into this category, though it's more closely related to space than earth-bound clean up efforts, is the talk this week of the U.S. Navy's plan of shooting down a spy satellite that will potentially fall out of orbit and crash into the world with a deadly payload of hydrazine fuel still on board.

Now the politicos will note that this whole debate on the issue is controversial because last year when the Chinese did the same thing to one of their errant weather satellites, the U.S. and everyone else was up in arms that it was a sham meant to cover up China's testing of a new anti-satellite missile system. Now what's good for the goose is good for the gander and many skeptics out there are claiming that the U.S. is using this spy satellite as an excuse to do the same thing. Now I'm not all that concerned with what is or isn't the reason behind all these things. I could care less if this was an actual test for anti-satellite weapons systems. If it is then there are people earning a lot more money than I am making the decision and at this point there is very little you or I can do about it. What concerns me more is the revelation that this incident will likely bring about for a lot of people and that's the question of all the 'junk' hanging in orbit above our planet.

Now most pictures in space show this serene and empty view of the Earth and spacecraft hovering over the planet with nothing else in sight. The truth is that if you were to go a few hundred more miles out then you'll find that there is a ton of stuff in orbit. Remember all the satellites delivering you daily weather news. The ones that spotted Hurricane Katrina before it hit land? The one that allows you to call your Aunt in France? The one that transmits your credit card information so you can purchase that pashmina from the store in Kashmir? The one that was used to transmit television images from one site to another? And there are literally thousands and thousands more. Though for the most part most of these eventually fall back to earth and burn up in the atmosphere, a lot of this stuff doesn't. Back in the 1970's this was clearly illustrated when Skylab, America's first space station, dropped from orbit due to miscalculations as to how 'high' the station was. It eventually came down and crashed in the Pacific and parts of northern Australia. Now thankfully no one was killed but there was uncertainty for a time as to what could happen.

These days is no different. There are so many things orbitting or sitting above our planet that there's the potential for some deadly results. Forget scenarios of meteors crashing into Earth like in "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact". I'm worried about that old MTV satellite that could come crashing down on us one day simply because we forgot it's up there and thus don't remember that its orbit is constantly decaying. Now what does that mean for the orbit to decay? Well, put quite simply, any object in orbit around the planet is still under some amount of influence of Earth's gravity even way out in space. If you see astronauts in the shuttle, though they are weightless, the still tend to eventually fall towards the Earth because there is still some gravity acting upon them. Satellites, even the ones way out there, are under the same influence and eventually, if the satellite or other object is not kept at a certain point, the gravity pulls the object back home and therein is what I term the "Chicken Little" problem. In other words, the sky is falling! The sky is falling!

While I have no doubt that there is a lot of idea about what all is up in orbit above us, it's difficult to track how many things are actually out there. I mean we are by no means the only ones launching stuff up there. Pretty much the entire world has launched something or the other into orbit at one time or another and so it's literally like a parking lot up there. The accompanying image is only a rendering of some of what is up there in 'low' Earth orbit. In relative terms that's only a few thousand miles away. There are more in higher orbits that make any moves up there potentially dangerous ones. Well, one thing is for certain in all this, any alien species wondering whether our planet is inhabited or not will know from the fact that we have so much junk up there that there's someone down here. Maybe that's why we haven't had real signs of aliens, they are getting lost in all that junk.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Torturous Starbucks

During the first and second World Wars as well as during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, there were always attempts to make the front lines appear a bit more like home. I can only imagine the comfort soldiers fighting far from home must have felt in seeing something symbolic of where they had come from. For the soldiers operating far from home in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's no different. In fact, compared to those older conflicts, there is greater chance of finding some comforts of home not on the front line but close enough. Restaurants like Burger King and McDonalds and Subway have been operating front line outlets so that soldiers can have some of their favorite foods while defening our freedom. But food isn't the only thing; they're getting Starbucks Coffee too. And Starbucks is raising a few eyebrows of late.

Starbucks is not only operating in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan (as pictured above) but at Guantanamo Bay (or Gitmo as it is sometimes called) in Cuba. For those who may not be aware (where have you been hiding?) Gitmo is the location of the interrogation centers for many captured or suspected terror suspects being rounded up all over the world. It is the center of controversy not only here in the United States but abroad as well. Accusations have been flying back and forth as to whether or not the site has been used to torture prisoners or not. There has been a long-standing debate over what constitutes torture and what constitutes the right to protect the country from further attacks on the scale of September 11th. I'm not really here to discuss the legality (or lack thereof) of these questions but rather to bring light to why Starbucks is coming up in this topic at all.

For many people (myself included), there was a general unawareness of the fact that there was Starbucks located at Gitmo. Not that it would make that much of a difference to me since I am not going to Gitmo anytime soon. Still, given the fact that it's there and the fact that Gitmo has been the center of the 'torturing suspects for information' debate, many are beginning to wonder why interrogators didn't try something as simple as offering suspects a cup of coffee and kindness in an effort to get them to talk and provide information. It's a plausible method but one that is uncertain to yield results. I'm not an interrogator nor have I ever interacted with anyone on Gitmo so I can't say with any degree of certainty as to why this method wasn't tried. But still, I don't think that this topic should have that great an impact on what goes on at Gitmo.

The question comes from statements by the FBI where they indicated that they were able to get answers without resorting to "torture" so why then did the CIA have to resort to using it? I think part of it stems from what many of these groups and individuals have stated about their views of Americans and our country in general. Many of them view our consumerism and behavior to be boorish and uncouth and they view anything American as being a source of scorn. In the view of some, by accepting food or 'bribes' from institutions such as Starbucks, you are likely to be seen as accepting exactly what you claim to scorn and this would be unfathomable. To stoop down and accept something like that would go against what they stand for. Then again if the suspect has nothing to do with terror, he's as likely to spill his guts for a venti caramel latte as he is by being tortured. At least it would be a way of seperating the chaff from the wheat. Oh well, I guess Starbucks can now add "interrogation tool" to their list of accomplishments.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Driving on Ice

It never fails. Every time there's a bit of snow and ice on the road, people seem to think that if there's pavement visible it's okay to drive like normal. Now I may be called a pansy or I may be called a chicken but I'd prefer to keep my insurance premiums down and my car in one piece. Now I don't say that because I own a sports car or because I'm cheap but because I know that it's a situation I can completely avoid. Unfortunately the thinking of most drivers out there, especially those in SUVs, is that nothing can stop them, not even ice and snow. But as you can see from the accompanying picture to today's blog, this is an utterly ridiculous falacy.

This past evening in Washington DC, we had a bit of an ice storm blow through the region. Now ice storms are fairly common in Washington but they don't yield the same reaction in Washington as snow tends to do. I find that highly surprising since both cases are deadly in their own way but they aren't viewed as such. I guess the perception is that with snow, you can potentially be dealing with several feet whereas with ice, you're only talking a couple of inches. But what a difference those few inches can make. That being said, the psychological impact this fact seems to have on people astounds me. They seem to figure that if there's only a few inches of ice on the ground, if I have an SUV, I'll be able to drive through it with no problem. If that was the case, any fool could strap on a pair of ice skates and become an Olympic caliber skater.

But that isn't all it takes is it? Change one piece of equipment and suddenly we seem to think that we can all make the impossible possible. That's not at all true. It's hard not to feel envious of those that seem to have the power. I remember my Dad telling me one time about how he was struggling to get home during a pretty severe snowstorm. He was taking an offramp from the highway and was inching along. Suddenly an SUV roared past him on a snow covered shoulder. My Dad, driving his little sedan watched with a bit of envy at the SUV rocketing past him. He thought that perhaps the perception of SUV power did have some merit. That changed about a half hour later when he reached the top of the off ramp and found the SUV flipped over lying in a nearby ditch with the driver standing outside rubbing his head in utter shock. Not that he flipped over, but more likely at the fact that he was not driving anymore.

Ice is a different animal than snow and though I don't recommend going out and testing that theory at any given opportunity, it is still something to be remembered. Yesterday a neighbor of mine driving a large 4-wheel drive vehicle entered the parking lot and was attempting to enter his parking space. Unfortunately he kept spinning and spinning and was not going anywhere. Finally a trio of us went out and basically got whatever grip we could on the ground and held the car in place while he slowly accelerated to get the car into his parking spot. All it took was fifteen minutes but it just went to show just how bad it was to get traction in what was nothing more than a quarter inch of ice. A quarter inch of ice versus a thousand plus pound car. Kind of puts things in perspective doesn't it?

It gets frustrating when you're chugging along and someone zooms by in inclement weather with seemingly no problem whatsoever. I'm no expert but these bits of advice have helped keep me on the road in many a snow and ice storms. They should be obvious but they are often overlooked by everyone, myself included at times.

  1. Slow down. The slower you go the more reaction time you have to sudden skids or accidents ahead of you.
  2. Keep your distance. If you're tailgating the car ahead of you, if he suddenly brakes, you're more than likely going to rearend him.
  3. Small moves. When driving don't make sudden lane changes or abrupt moves, keep them slow and steady and you're less likely to slip on that unseen patch of ice and snow.
  4. Listen to slower music. This one isn't as obvious but it has some merit. If you listen to music with a fast beat or something similar, you're more prone to pick up the pace. Avoid doing that.

Drive safe!


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Flying the Well-Groomed Skies

Some time ago I had written a blog on how some passengers are targeted by airlines due to the way they dress; whether it's having a dress that's deemed too short or shirts with 'inflammatory' statements it seemed that passengers were being scrutinized too much. Well it appears that the tables are slowly turning and Indian Airlines is the first to make greater inroads (and the news) by apparently targetting an employee for the way he 'wears' his moustache.

Recently, former Indian Airlines steward Joynath Victor De, appeared in court to protest his 'forced' 2001 retirement from Indian Airlines on the grounds that he was discriminated against due to the appearance of his moustache (see the picture accompanying the blog). Now there are some members of the Indian community, namely those from the Sikh community, who are required to keep beards and moustaches as part of their religion and these folks are allowed to have facial hair within reason. Everyone else on the airline staff was expected to have well-groomed hair (be it on top of the head or facial hair). Unfortunately, Indian Airlines felt that Mr. De's moustache was a bit too unruly. Now in viewing the picture of Mr. De's moustache I can see why perhaps he was called into question as to whether or not it was appropriate for him to be on an airline staff with such a moustache. Not that there's anything wrong with such a moustache but when the airlines have a standard grooming policy there is reason behind it.

In the airline industry as with any professional industry, there is a desire to show professionalism and that goes hand in hand with the way your employees dress and groom themselves. Like it or not, this is something that's expected isn't it? After all, most of our first impressions are based off of what we see visually isn't it? If you see a plate of food looking as if it just came out of the trash rather than a kitchen, you're more likely to toss it rather than savor it. But if that same dish of food is brought to you looking like a chef has lovingly arranged everything on a plate just for you, you'll probably feel like the star attraction at the restaurant and enjoy the food as such. Similarly, if you work in an office dealing with important people, if you're dressed the part in smart business attire then you're more likely to have that professional attitude compared to someone who is doing the same work but dressed in shorts and a tank top. Both people may have the same knowledge and ability, but the one dressed like a slacker is probably less likely to get work.

In some industries there is an expectation of casualness or even over-casualness in the way people dress. In the IT industry where programmers can spend umpteen hours a day entering code, there is a desire to have them be comfortable and this translates to dressing however they want. Of course the ones dealing with management and customers are usually the ones not quite so casual and not quite so laid back but then again, that goes with the task you're accomplishing. Getting back to Mr. De, his moustache may be his expression of self but it's also reflective of his company. If he has an unruly moustache which lends itself to the impression that he's equally uncaring the rest of his hygene and sanitary details, then that's the impression people take away and hold for much longer. People begin to wonder whether or not he's actually dirty and here he is attempting to serve them an inflight meal. No wonder he was encouraged to meet the standards of his company. Right or wrong, it is the only way to ensure that people are impressed appropriately. Like it or not, our first impression is usually the lasting one.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Exercise Your Right

I'm sure most of us have been in that position before. In an informal gathering of friends a discussion ensues on the state of the nation and what they'd like to see and what'd like to see changed in the current way things are done. Everyone has an opinion and the great thing about living in a democracy like America's is that everyone has the right to crib and complain because they have the power to do something about it. Unfortunately not everyone chooses to make use of that power. If you don't like something, vote for change. If you don't go out and vote even though you can, then don't complain because you didn't take the simplist step and try to make some change.

When I was in high school, just around the time of graduation, our teachers encouraged us to register to vote. I jumped at the chance wholeheartedly, not because I was a political fiend; quite the contrary in fact. I was more enthusiastic about taking part in the process more than in the notion that my one vote would make a difference in the course of the nation and therein is the problem. Most people think that one vote can't make that much of a difference. Now think of that problem being multiplied because if you're thinking it, there are likely a dozen or so others within a short distance of you thinking exactly the same thing and if this trend is spread out more and more, one begins to realize why there is such a difficult road for many candidates. They may be popular but if people aren't getting out and voting then what's the point?

I remember having a discussion with a group of friends once and someone again began complaining about how they wanted to see change and that things hadn't changed since the last elections or since candidate A for his district was still in power. He would have preferred candidate B. I asked if he was registered to vote and he responded that he was and when I asked if he had voted in the last election, he answered that he had not. I simply responded, "Then shut the Hell up." It might seem a bit harsh but it's true isn't it? If you can't take the time out of your day to go and vote, a process which can't take that long, then why on Earth are you going to complain? It seems that those who rarely, if ever, vote are the once who complain most vocifericiously are the ones who never go to the polls. When you have lots of people like that then it's no wonder that no one ever sees the change that they want.

As I previously stated, I'm of the impression that if you feel that there's no difference in the eventual outcome of an election depending on whether you vote or not then you'll end up not seeing what you want. To say that one vote doesn't make a difference is a fallacy that needs to change. If there is any proof of this fact, nothing is more apparent in the validity of this than the first election of President Bush. It was such a close election in Florida that it literally came down to ensuring that each and every candidate's earned vote was tallied. Opinions on the election aside, it's quite clear that in that election, your vote would have mattered. When you can see the difference your vote makes and you begin to realize that you are not just one among thousands of others, you will begin to realize just how important you really are to the process. So when election day rolls around in your neck of the woods, don't complain; get out there and vote.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Following the Laws of the Land

Most people tend to view airport security as inconveniences that must be tolerated even though they seem to target people who 'aren't security threats' such as old women and children. Still, the security services around the world have a tough job and it often goes unappreciated. I know there are tons of people here in the States who resent having to stand in lines at airports to go through security checks and baggage screening but it's for our own safety and for them to be able to ensure they are doing all they can for our safety. After all, how would the world react if it's discovered that the latest act of attempted terrorism was allowed to go off because security at an airport was far too lax?

That being said, there are times when what we go through here in the States pales in comparison to what some people endure around the world. Many people tend to have an insular view (and I'm not just talking about Americans but people everywhere) of what laws do and don't apply to them. Some of these laws are a bit outlandish but others are rules that the people of those countries have passed and do abide by so if we are to visit those places then we are expected to follow those rules. I think most people understand that but what they fail to understand is just how strict some of these rules can be. Take for example the United Arab Emirates which is located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The major city, Dubai, is fast becoming one of the most modern and advanced cities in the entire Middle East and as such, it is becoming a popular European tourist destination for shopping and beach-going. What many don't realize is that they also have a very strict, zero-tolerance drug policy in effect. How strict? Read on.

Recently, a British citizen on his way home to England from a trip to visit relatives in Ethiopia stopped off in Dubai for some shopping rather than taking a direct flight to England as he normally did. While walking through the airport, he was stopped by customs officials and he was searched. Detectors turned up approximately 0.03 grams of hashish on the bottom of his shoe. How small is that? It's so small that it isn't even visible to the naked eye. And was it hiding in his shoe? No. It was on the bottom of his shoe, as in he had stepped on it. Still, he was convicted of attempting to bring illegal drugs into the country and was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. And this person is by no means the first. People have been arrested for possession of illegal drugs which are anything but illegal. People have been busted in Dubai for possessing anti-jet lag pills even though they are available over the counter in Dubai and most parts of the world.

People can protest but officials in those countries point to the fact that it is the law and they are enforcing it. It seems a bit much but it's the law of the land. What about the recent incident in Saudi Arabia where a woman was arrested and thrown in jail for meeting a work colleague in Starbucks. What happened was she was working in an office with her co-workers when the power suddenly went out. They came out of the office and went to Starbucks to take advantage of the wi-fi connection available there. She was spotted with the co-worker, who was a male she was not related or married to, which was in violation of Saudi Arabian law. She was arrested and thrown in prison. Although she was later pardoned and released, officials stated that the officers who arrested her were well within their rights to make the arrest as they were simply enforcing the law.

In the face of such stringent laws, not being able to carry water through security checkpoints seems to be a minor thing. I mean people are being arrested for having poppy seeds (a raw opium derivative) on their clothes which were leftovers from the bagel they had for breakfast so what else could set off guards in other countries? Rules like that seem to be extreme and they are, but like I said, they are the laws of that particular country and no matter how stringent or unbending, they are to be followed. Remember a few years ago when an American visiting Indonesia was arrested for vandalism? He was sentenced to public caning? Everyone up to the President protested that this was a violation of his rights but the counter-arguement was that he violated the laws of the country and therefore could be punished. End result? He was caned. Probably a painful alternative but better than spending years in prison for simply leaving crumbs on your clothes after breakfast or stepping in something you didn't even see. I think I'll stay home this summer.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Future of Air Travel or a Pipe Dream?

Right now travelling across the globe is achievable but it can also be a pain. It's possible to board a flight in Europe and end up in Australia in less than a day. Of course while that doesn't sound so bad, it sounds worse when you consider that you're sitting in a cigar tube with wings for 22 hours. Now I'm not clausterphobic but I can't fathom sitting on my butt for that long. I get antsy after a few hours and as it is, I like to move around or do something every so often while in flight simply because it helps the time pass faster. There's nothing more maddening than being stuck in a plane for hours on end with nowhere to go and nothing to do. But that could all change very soon if development of a new hypersonic plane goes through.

What hypersonic means in rough layman's terms is faster than supersonic. Where the Concorde could travel at Mach 2 (or twice the speed of sound), the hypersonic jet could go nearly Mach 5 (or five times the speed of sound) thus making the trip from Europe to Australia drop from nearly 22 hours to a mere four and a half hours. Now I can already see people thinking that this will be a wonderful thing once it comes into operation; but therein lies the rub, the jet is still a long way from being in operation. At present, I think most major airline manufacturers (namely Boeing and Airbus) are more interested in making comfort and convenience a priority over speed. Like it or not, travel across the globe will take time and until low-orbit flights or hypersonic travel becomes relatively commonplace, there will not be a mad dash to develop the technology and so long-haul carriers with more comforts on-board will continue to the manufacturers modus operandi.

Even if the technology exists and it is possible to build this jet, is this really the right time for it? With the drive to promote 'green' technology, will there really be a primo market for a jet like the hypersonic jet? At present there are not many supersonic (let alone hypersonic) transports in the air. Part of the problem with the Concorde was the fact that it was limited in the scope of it's supersonic ability by the fact that it could only go faster than the speed of sound over the ocean. Hence there were rarely any supersonic flights across Europe or the United States. The primary reason being that when a plane crosses the sound barrier there is a pretty loud sonic boom and if that is occuring regularly then you know what kind of reaction the public in general is going to have.

Plus there will be undoubted concerns about whether these hypersonic flights will have any significant environmental impact. For example, planners and designers have stated that these planes would follow routes that were largely over water therefore they would have the ability to surpass the sound barrier that much longer. Immediate reaction from the general environmentally conscious public would of course be that there would be significant impact on the environment in the polar regions or that there would be greater air and noise pollution as a result of the jet's usage. Already there are problems and the plane hasn't even come off of the drawing board as yet. I find it a bit funny that such things have a way of happening with the advent of new technology these days but it shouldn't come as a big surprise. I think the jet is definitely a step into the future but hopefully our present won't keep that future from happening.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Beware Nigerians Bearing Gifts

Now before some reader gets into a huff about my title for today, let me explain that this is not a knock against the Nigerian people. I have not had the opportunity to know many of them in my relatively short life but I'm quite certain that Nigerians are a wonderful people and that when they bring you gifts, they mean it from the bottom of their hearts. That being said, people should be aware that they are being used as scapegoats for a new series of scams being perpetrated online. And in this case they are targetting the lovelorn and lonely. I was reading about the scam, which is seeing a great deal of success in Australia, and how it works.

In a nutshell, a con man will contact a lonely person via the internet hoping to establish a relationship, the two may begin dating or at least establish a good enough relationship online to build trust. The con man will suddenly be called away to Nigeria for work or to sell land that will help set up the new couple for life. While on the trip, the con man will contact the victim and report that he's been mugged and in desperate need of money in order to get ready to come home. Usually the victim will be asked for a rather large sum of money and if the con man has worked his charms properly, loyalty will win out over reason and the victim can wire any amount they choose. Some victims have been known to wire up to $35,000 to accounts which are then quickly cleared of cash and then closed down with nary a sight of the con man seen again.

Australian officials are trying their best to get word out on the street but there have been many victims thus far. The unfortunate thing is that this is just one of many scams targetting unsuspecting victims who have a great deal of trust in someone. A similar case is the letter that comes to people via e-mail or snail-mail in which the con artist will indicate that they have come into posession of a great deal of money through inheritance (or lottery) but in order to get the money they have to show that they have a bank account with a certain amount of money in it. The letter is asks you to kindly provide your bank account information and signature (along with your social security number and address for good measure) in order to affect the transfer. Usually the victim is promised tens of thousands more than what they provide the con artist. The rub being that the con artist takes the account information and again clears the account of all cash before disappearing again.

Though at first glance it seems obvious not to want to help provide someone information that is meant to defraud you but it's surprising how many people fall for it. Occasionally there will be phone calls from people where they ask to confirm your account number. The caller will indicate that they are from your bank and have some new offer to make you but you need to verify information in order to get the offer. They purposely read you an incorrect account number and if you go to correct them, they get your correct bank account number and particulars. Enough to go and again clear your bank accounts. All these schemes and so many victims, it's a wonder that many more don't fall prey to it.

But what's with the fascination behind Nigeria and other African countries? Why are so many scams associated with these countries? Well the truth is that they aren't but they are usually chosen at random so that the average Joe who is the usual victim of these cases is less likely to go to Nigeria to help out in person. At least that's the theory anyways. Plus with passive knowledge of these countries through the news and incorrect assumptions about the countries themselves, it's no wonder that many people fall prey to believing that these guys have their best interests at heart. It's not very likely. In fact it's more likely that their sole interest is in making you yet another victim. So the next time you get a mail from someone pleading with you to provide private information in order to get home or share their lottery winnings, take the note and toss it in the trash.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Suddenly a Lot Less Starbucks Abound

Seems that newly returned Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is already making headway in his efforts to return Starbucks to the head of the coffee chains. With newer 'threats' in the coffee market like McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts, it's hard not to be worried; especially when you are charging nearly double what the competitors are for half the amount of coffee. Schultz has already started taking steps that are meant to return the coffee giant to its roots and make it more competitive in comparison to newer coffee market entrants. In a nutshell, Schultz is looking to reduce the number of stores being opened in order to cut down on canibalization of neighboring stores; there will be more emphasis on returning to a coffee selling approach, and there will be a reduction in non-coffee items being marketed by the company.

It's interesting to see primarily because I can see some similarities between what McDonalds has been trying in response to Starbucks and what Starbucks is trying in response to McDonalds (and others). For example, Starbucks gained popularity with the young because it promoted a non-alcoholic alternative for the young out there. Though kids love McDonalds, the corporate policy is to not encourage loitering in their locations (unless accompanied by parents) and so kids needed another place to hang out with friends besides the mall. Starbucks often became that location. Being popularized by shows like Friends and such, hanging out in coffee houses was a trend that came over from Europe and has found new roots here. McDonalds was quick to react and after a few test stores which were converted to more of a 'coffee house' type of decor, the redecoration boom began and now many McDonalds are looking like swankier not-so-fast-food fast food places. A change for the better; and in an effort to gain customers back. And you know what? It worked.

McDonalds still has an unwritten policy (or so it seems) on excessive loitering by customers but it's not as pronounced as it once was. They have found that people who linger are more likely to continue buying. Starbucks attempted at one point to enter the breakfast food market as well and began selling breakfast sandwiches. The only problem was that like the coffee, the sandwiches were costlier than the competition. One can argue that you can't get the same quality of sandwich at McDonalds as you could at Starbucks but then again, how many people are that choosy? People who have such high standards probably don't frequent either of the places anyways so what's the purpose? If Starbucks was hoping to land customers based on the prestige factor then they put their eggs in the wrong type of basket. I never tried any of the sandwiches at Starbucks and though they looked good, I just couldn't stomach paying as much for one sandwich as I would pay for three at McDonalds. Call me cheap or fiscally conservative but I know I'm not in the minority.

Starbucks was a big draw during the dot com boom; everyone was someone when they were seen with a cup of Starbucks coffee in their hand but without it, they were seen as just an average joe on the street. Or that's what everyone like to believe. When the market was good, spending on extravagance items like Starbucks shot up through the roof. More demand means a greater need for coffee locations. More locations means less wait and greater income (or so the theory was). Now that the economy is slightly shakier and investor and consumer confidence is a bit lower, people's willingness to spend on items like a $5 cup of coffee suddenly drops and that is when McDonalds came in to try and steal Starbucks thunder. They are doing a decent job of it too.

For good or for bad (depending on the image they are trying to portray), McDonalds has a reputation for being a place to get a decent meal for relatively low cost. I won't deny that I have had McDonalds on occasion (sometimes more than I should) and the fact that my dollar gets me a lot more there than at other places is a motivating factor. Sure I can have my cup of coffee at Starbucks (which I still do and which I still enjoy) but when I'm hungry, I know I'll get more to satisfy my hunger than just a cup of coffee with some side items. I think most people look at it that way. Starbucks was losing focus on its original concept and that was the fact that they were offering a product that was seen as higher end than the rest. I think when the market started getting with Starbucks locations, the image went from unique to McDonalds-like. It might not be a bad comparison but people began to see it as a generic place rather than something to be appreciated. I know I did. I'm hoping Schultz is able to return the company to some level of its originality.


Monday, February 04, 2008

A Long Time Coming

Finally! It's been ages in the making but finally the story we've been waiting to hear in the football world has come to pass. Now most people will be thinking I'm talking about New York's stunning upset of the heretofore undefeated New England Patriots, but I'm talking of another story that hasn't made quite as many headlines outside of Washington and that being the fact that Art Monk finally made it into the Football Hall of Fame in Canton. Now for those outside of Washington it's probably not all that big a deal but for a long-time fan like myself, I am immensely proud of the fact that a guy like Art Monk, who had long been snubbed by the Hall of Fame committee members, finally gained admission into the 'club'. People may wonder what the big deal is since Monk hasn't touched a football on the playing field since 1995 and some of his records have long since been broken; well, that's part of the reason that he had a difficult road into the Hall of Fame.

Monk played for the Redskins during the first tenure of Joe Gibbs as head coach. At that time Gibbs wasn't riding the laurels of past Super Bowl wins. He was a coach looking to make a name for himself and what he did with a string of very different quarterbacks was nothing short of amazing. Going to the Super Bowl three times with three different quarterbacks is not only unusual, it can be considered downright amazing. Now granted the league was a different place from then to now, but in order to engineer such a feat, obviously Gibbs needed a strong 'supporting cast' and in that sense, Monk could be considered one of his stars. Monk was one of those wide receivers that played a difficult game but never got the credit for it. In an age when we expect deep passes completed for high yardage gains, Monk was there for the short passes that gained modest yardage but helped move the ball down the field. That was the essence of the Gibbs offense at that time. But it wasn't the fact that Monk wasn't a consitent deep threat for the pass that made him so 'unnoticeable'; rather it was his work ethic.

Monk was reputed to be one of those players that said very little but let his actions speak for themselves. He would celebrate on the field with his team when he made a play to keep their season alive but he was never to be seen on TV making outlandish quotes or claims. He didn't criticize his coaches or his teammates for any mistakes. He was a essentially the 'quiet man' on the field and off of it. It was primarily for this reason that many voters on the Hall of Fame committee (who are sports writers) seemed reluctant to vote Monk into the Hall. People tell of instances where reporters came to Monk to ask him about the game and he modestly deferred to his teammates and spoke on how they played together rather than how he himself may have performed. Many viewed this attitude as stand-off-ish but I don't think it was anything like that, rather I think it was more out of not wanting to draw attention to himself for doing something other than what he thought to be his job.

It's odd for many of us to consider that these days. When you have players like Terrell Owens constantly cribbing that he doesn't get proper playing time or that his quarterback is a weak-armed whiner, it's odd to see someone like Monk who played so well but spoke so little. Though he never shied away from celebrating on the field, it was always a team celebration, not one centered solely on Monk himself. He rarely showboated on the field by high-stepping into the endzone for a touchdown or running to a camera to talk trash on television. He simply did what he had to do and let the hoopla surrounding him die down or pass him by. Others who didn't think him worthy to be included in the Hall of Fame pointed to the fact that Monk's overall yards per pass caught was 'only' around 13.5 yards. True; Monk may have 'only' gained a limited number of yards per pass but he was consistent and he played just as hard each down, not just when it meant an opportunity for him to show off.

I remember watching Art Monk play. Back when the Redskins were a perennial playoff favorite I used to sit with my mom and try to learn as much as I could about the game. In those days I didn't watch as much as I do now but I do remember seeing Monk playing on the field. In those days there weren't as many boisterous and pompous players as there seem to be today. Or maybe they just weren't given the coverage. But still, if Monk were playing today versus then, I'm sure he'd still be the same. Playing and performing on the field rather than off of it. He never made excuses or pointed to his teammates as the reason for his shortcomings on the field; when he knew he wasn't playing well, he would always own up to it and try to improve. Players with less ability but bigger mouths have been inducted for less; isn't it only fair to have let Monk in for those reasons alone? He was the first to have a 100-reception season; it was a record that stood for six years but Monk himself never would have brought it up. I think a lot of the players from today could learn a lot from Monk. His humble nature and his unwillingness to succumb to building his own hype is something to be admired, not puzzled over. Had he been snubbed for his nature off the field, it would have been one of the greatest tragedies in football.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Smoking Bans

So the state of Maryland took the plunge and has officially banned smoking from all restaurants and bars. Non-smokers across the region are rejoicing but those who still light up are not quite as happy. Previously, there was a limited ban on smoking in certain parts of the state in restaurants or bars but now that ban has spread to the entire state. As a non-smoker I'm happy to have smoke-free environments but I can understand the ire of some smokers. The way I see it, smoking is a completely voluntary thing. The way we choose to drink alcohol is the way we choose to smoke. But you just can't walk into any place and start drinking alcohol can you? Similarly, you generally can't (and shouldn't) be able to walk into any place and start lighting up. Now I don't mean that smokers should have their own restaurants or anything of the sort but it's not the same as with something like alcohol. When you're having alcohol, generally those around you don't suffer the consequences. Unless of course you have too much and puke on someone.

But seriously, I don't smoke so then why should I be exposed to someone else's exhaust when I'm trying to enjoy a drink. I can't remember the number of times I've walked out of bars and clubs with bleary eyes. Not because of the excessive drinking but because of the clouds of cigarette smoke I have endured during my time inside. And not being a smoker, the smell of smoke eventually permeates every pore of my body and seemingly every folicle of hair on my head. Until I shower up and wash my clothes, the smell never seems to disappear. It's an annoyance more than anything. Restaurant and bar owners are concerned that this ban being enforced statewide is going to adversely affect their businesses. It's possible but I don't think it's very likely. Why? Well simply because if you don't eat, you die... eventually.

I understand that for some smokers, smoking is a necessity rather than an option. They are so addicted to the nicotine rush that they really can't get through the day without a hit. I have a mild form of dependency on caffeine. If I don't have my morning and mid-morning coffee, I often develop headaches. I understand then the compulsion or desire to have it when you need it but unfortunately cigarette smoke includes those who don't wish to 'enjoy' it either. Still, while I can deal with the headaches due to lack of caffeine and smokers can probably endure a short duration without cigarette smoke, not having food for long periods of time will have greater impact and harm than not having either caffeine or nicotine. So do I think the ban will adversely affect patronage at local restaurants and bars? Not in the least. At least not enough to suddenly have abandoned restaurants suddenly popping up.

I remember stories of how office buildings used to be full of smokers at one point in time. Smoking was considered the normal part of the workday and smokers would smoke at their desks the way we coffee drinkers would down gallons of coffee. But when smoking was banned from offices, was there a sudden decrease in the number of workers working in offices? No; they simply took longer breaks by stepping out to designated smoking areas to have a smokers break. Just like food, work is also a necessity and if you don't work, you won't have money for very long to pay for your cigarettes so compromise is a must. In an age when parents (and some adults) are so freaked out about how much someone smokes around them, it will probably boost attendance at places where there was previously limited attendance due to smoke. In any case, all it will mean at the worst is that smokers again have to step out to get a smoke, but shouldn't they already be used to that?