Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New Battlefronts

The war on terror has a new battlefront; our waterways and boating areas. In a decision announced recently, the Department of Homeland Security is considering enlisting the help of nearly 80,000 boaters that pepper the United States in order to gain added manpower in keeping an eye on our waterways. So the picture that you see here might become a harsh reality sooner than we think. While the request isn't officially official, there is enough backing to the suggestion to assume that it could become a reality soon enough.

Part of the motivation for this decision is the fact that there is such a vast area of water to defend and not enough resources to defend them. The Coast Guard is there but there's only so many places that they can be. I mean just how many boats do you think are defending the Great Lakes which are unbordered entry and exit points into Canada? Not that the Canadians are planning a Normandy style invasion of the northern areas of the United States but it's certainly worth considering isn't it? Seeing as how the budget is currently a bit tighter than we'd all like, the decision comes down to using what you have and what we have are 80,000 boaters who can help lend a boat.

One common complaint that has been heard repeatedly is that there are lots of calls that are made by boaters about suspicious activity on the water but that the Coast Guard and state police don't always have the time to check out each and every report. That's not surprising what with so many places to protect and so many paranoid people out there. Not that you shouldn't report someone in a boat taking excessive pictures of bridges and dams but honestly, are we to assume that someone taking a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge is doing it in order to plan a major terrorist attack? Not that everyone doing so is, but how are we the people to determine this?

I remember back when the DC Sniper case was making the news and reports had been released about the type of vehicle apparently being used in the attacks. A white boxed cargo van. Immediately every vehicle that resembled that vehicle was viewed with such suspicion and scrutiny that anyone and everyone was spotting them. Leave aside the fact that the suspects were eventually arrested in a car that had no resemblence whatsoever to a white box cargo van. But what it proves is that when you're given a certain set of parameters, you use what you know or what you have heard to maintain your vigilance. Do we really need citizens out there being erstwhile police? As it is the reports that are filed are not always followed up on by authorities due to lack of manpower; do any of us really think that having private citizens officially requested to be aware will make that much of a difference?

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Escape from Reality?

Get ready for the controversy to start brewing again. Love it or hate it, the latest iteration of the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series is hitting the stands today and unlike previous releases, this one seems to have been launched with not as much hoopla as the previous edition. Part of the reason being that the last time there was so much controversy brewing prior to release that people were set to ban the game even before it officially went on sale. Not the case with this latest version. For those not familiar with the series, it's a type of role-playing game where the player takes on the role of a criminal (with a title like Grand Theft Auto... what did you expect?) and goes on various missions that help push the story forward.

The series has long been applauded for the dynamic cities in which the stories take place. Most times these cities are very loosely based on actual cities. For example, in the latest game, the city being portrayed is called Liberty City but even looking at the commercials that have aired, you can tell that it's supposed to be New York City. Be that as it may, the general purpose in these games is to complete some criminal enterprise and win the day, no matter how vile a person you must be within the game world to achieve this goal. Now because of this main thematic element, many people are against the idea of these games. I don't wholeheartedly agree that they should be completely banned but I also don't agree with those who say that these games don't have some degree of influence on the people who play them.

As with most games out there, the most popular ones are usually the ones based in some sort of virtual reality. First-person shooters are among the most popular and though many of the games take place in fantasy locations, the realism that is often portrayed in these games is what leads many to feel that these games tend to de-sensitize the people who play them. Now I have never been in combat and I'm quite sure that were I to be in combat, it would not be with an XBox controller in my hand. I would think that most everyone would realize that. Still, the power to regenerate health by ducking down behind cover or 'absorbing' health packs is enough to convince many out there that the real world isn't so tough. That assumption couldn't be farther from the truth.

While these games do a great job of portraying reality, it is still only virtual and nowhere near what the real-world is like. Now while you may not agree with the portrayal of a criminal as the protagonist of a game, I think it's far healthier than having a kid actually going out and being an actual criminal. I remember a friend of mine in school who used to play martial arts games like Mortal Kombat all the time; he was a pro who seldom failed to beat the game no matter what version it was. The unfortunate thing was that he couldn't fight worth a lick in the real world and when he actually got in a fight at school, he had his butt handed to him. No matter how realistic, one should remember that they are only games and are in no way proof positive that you can lead a squad of marines into combat or that you can run a successful criminal enterprise.

I think parents who don't want their kids exposed to this type of material should take charge and ensure that their kids don't have access to them. While I agree that game makers shouldn't necessarily glamorize such themes in their games, they should also realize that these games are meant as diversions from reality. The real world is tough enough and it's nice to be able to live out childhood fantasies or be a hero for a short time where all the time it takes to make a difference is the time it takes to make it to the next level. I guess the main concern is that people don't take their virtual reality to be more important to them than their actual realities.


Monday, April 28, 2008

People Don't Read This Do They?

One common misconception regarding the internet is the idea that no one will be able to find some of the stuff that we post out there unless they are looking really really hard. One of the other misconceptions is that it is so very easy to find information about people on the internet these days that almost anything and everything you post out there will come back to haunt you in one way or another. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. In the case of public servants such as teachers, this is becoming a bad thing.

I think most everyone who is on the internet these days is familiar with the site Facebook. In case you aren't, it's basically a social networking website that was set up by a not-yet-thirty-year-old who is now a millionaire (several times over at the very least). People can personalize their pages much the way a person would decorate their room and because of this, you can find friends with common interests or reconnect with old friends via the web. It's an interesting phenomena that is occurring more frequently in recent years with growing numbers of people signing on to make friends virtually. In some cases there's not even the possibility of meeting these people (I mean really.... if you're in Iowa... do you think you'll actually meet your 'best friend forever' from Malaysia? I don't think so). Still, people do seem to think that since connections or messages sent via the web won't be of interest to anyone else besides their list of contacts, some people tend to say anything they want.

The reality is that more and more companies are starting to look at the web to find out more about candidates before or after they are hired. Do you claim to be a Harvard graduate on your resume? Well it's probably not a good idea to post on your Facebook page (publicly or privately) that you are actually a graduate of Harvard County Community College because once the truth comes out on that score then the house of cards will come tumbling down. It isn't that we should be maintaining a completely squeaky clean facade on the internet but still, it's very naive to think that no one is going to find what you post up there.

I remember the case of an intern in New York who had a habit of calling in sick. One Halloween he called in sick saying he wasn't feeling so well and the next day there were pictures he posted himself of the time he spent at a Halloween party, supposedly when he was home dying in bed. His astute manager managed to find the Facebook page and posted it along with the employees original e-mail in which he claimed to be sick. I guess the moral of this is that if you don't want something posted as public knowledge, don't post it on the internet. No matter how secure or how private you make things on the internet, there is always some way for the information to leak out. Sometimes we aren't even aware of it.

I am often amazed at seeing the way people find my page. It may be the most innocuous thing but the end up here and some read for a few seconds while others tend to linger and read. I'm not so egotistical to think that my page will draw the kinds of readers that will make this page a noteworthy one but I am also not stupid enough to think that no one besides my close family and friends reads this page. Sure there are somethings on this page that are fairly evident of my interests and likes but its all things I want people to know. If it's something I want to keep low key then I won't make mention of it. Like for example if I don't want people to know that I've collected nearly all of the quarters depicting the 50 states then I won't make mention of it here. Oops. I messed that up didn't I?


Friday, April 25, 2008

What Are We Protesting?

The Olympic Torch is slowly making it's way back to China for the start of this summer's Olympic Games to be held in Beijing and in almost every single place the torch has visited thus far, there have been large protests and attempts to douse the flame. In fact in places like France and such, the torch was doused so many times that the French security forces literally were forced to create a defensive perimeter around the torch bearer. I think this was the first time in history where so many security forces were set up to defend against a sniper with a Super Soaker in hand. Jokes aside, it is a pretty serious thing to be having the Olympics in Beijing and whether you agree with the protestors or not, you can't help but wonder, are we really protesting the right thing?

I am in no way supporting the attrocious actions of China in Tibet or the continued human rights violations that crop up in the news now and then, but aren't the Olympics supposed to be more than that? Aren't they symbolic of more than simply saying look here... our country is hosting the Olympics... that means our country is best and acceptable among other countries of this world. I don't think that's the message at all. In fact I think the message that is often carried around is best carried by the athletes of each nation themselves. Now I wasn't around then, but I have read enough history to know about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. At the time Germany was under the rule of Hitler and already there were rumblings of what was to come a short three years hence but while there were protests, the Olympics still went on and in fact it was the time when Jesse Lewis, a supposedly 'inferior person' shamed the so-called superior race into submission and he did it with nothing more than his talent, heart and determination.

The Olympic Games have long been a meeting ground for various races and religions. There are stories that at the beginning of the 1972 Olympics, some of the Israeli athletes went and spoke with their Muslim neighbors from nearby nations. While their leaders may have had to be led at gunpoint to speak to one another at the time, the athletes themselves transcended this foolishness and sought to compete against one another not to prove one nation being better than another, but in a competition of men against men (and women against women). Politicians may scoff at this sentiment but who cares? Sometimes it doesn't take anything more than knowing where the person you're talking to has come from in order to understand them better.

What I mean by that is not so much what nation they have come from as much as I mean what they have sacrificed to be where they are today. An athlete who has dedicated his life to his sport will relate so much better to someone who has gone through that same sort of trial to reach the point they're at today. While boycotting the Olympics can be symbolic of a nation's stance against another, protesting the running of the torch isn't protesting the country hosting the games but in my view, it's more of protesting the athletes themselves. For many of them they have spent their lives working to get to this point and it isn't fair to protest what is inherently a symbol of the games, not the nation. If you want to protest China than protest by boycotting their goods, protest by boycotting their panda bears at the zoo. Protest the IOC for making the decision to have this year's games in China to begin with. Just don't protest the athletes... they are after all athletes, not true politicians.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Dirty Dozens

Have you seen the movie "The Dirty Dozen"? If you're a guy the chances are that the answer to that is most likely a yes. If not then you owe it to yourself to get out there and see the film. Not that it will make this blog make any more sense but at least you can count yourself among the thousands who have seen this movie and drawn some enjoyment from it. The reason I bring it up is because the thematic elements from this fictional film are now slowly becoming a part of our present reality. Now while it's thankful that we still aren't fighting the second World War, what part of this fictional story that is coming true is the fact that more and more people with criminal backgrounds are being accepted in to the military.

Now in the film, the main characters of the story are largely criminals who are sentenced to life in prison or death and are given a chance at full pardons if they complete a highly dangerous mission behind enemy lines. While this makes for fine entertainment in the movie theatre, there are a lot of people out there who are a little concerned about how this will go over in real life. Lots of people out there are a bit distressed at the fact that people with criminal backgrounds are being accepted in the military. That's not to say that all of them are sociopaths or psycho killers who are being let loose in Iraq and Afghanistan but the fact that already the standards for the military (especially the Army) are being lowered to allow those who previously would have been exempted are being accepted now.

So what is a possible alternative to having criminals represent our country's military in Iraq and Afghanistan? Well the simple answer is to get more people involved in the military. Now of course that's easier said than done. Part of the reason for it is that most people are not all that thrilled to join up with the military at this point since enlistment likely means rapid deployment to the war zones of the world. In the past there was always some allure to the reserves because it meant additional income for limited deployment time. But with the end of the Cold War and waning enlistment numbers in general, the reserves are part of the backbone of the current military's make up.

So if we can't get people to enlist then what's a solution? Well implementing the draft is certainly one way to go about it but if that happens, you will suddenly see support for the war drop to near record numbers. It's all fine and dandy in theory but it isn't all that peachy reality. The draft was last used during the Vietnam War and at that time opinion (much as it is in many parts of the nation today) was firmly against the war. While support for the troops is high, there aren't very many kids or parents who are willing to consider allowing their kids to sign up if they run the very real risk of being killed over in Iraq. I guess that means the criminals are a way to solve the enlistment problem because no politician I can think of would want to commit political suicide by suggesting the draft be rekindled. Too bad Lee Marvin isn't around to whip these guys into shape and ensure a successful mission.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Are We Voting Like Kids?

I'm ashamed of the way things are going in this election right now. I don't think there's a single candidate out there who can claim to be completely innocent or free of childish actions and behavior thus far in this election and I think the public is catching on to this trend as well. The latest bit of nonsense coming up these days is the controversy brewing over a sign put up outside a church in Jonesville Church of God in Jonesville, South Carolina. I think the intent of this sign is rather clear and though it is a cheap shot, Pastor Roger Byrd of the church doesn't see anything wrong in it.

According to Byrd, the sign isn't meant to be racial or political but rather meant to make people think. In this case, the message or idea that Byrd wants people to think is that Barrack Obama is related and in league with Osama Bin Laden. While this isn't the first time this arguement has come to the forefront, I think this is the first time it's been spelled out with such undisguised implication. Now arguements have already erupted across the country and on blogs everywhere about how by making this bold statement the church has violated the concept of separation of Church and State and how supporting a particular candidate goes against what gives a Church or other religious organization the freedom from tax status. Whatever they may be in violation of, they are at the very least in violation of common sense and sanity.

Anyone who has been following the news these days knows that Obama has come under fire for the ravings of his former pastor in Chicago. Obviously if Byrd intends to imply that Obama is in any way shape or form related to Osama then the implication should be that his entire church there in Chicago should be the same shouldn't it? I think this type of mudslinging by the public now in addition to the candidates is childish and inopportune. The congregation had the choice of taking the sign down this past Sunday when the Pastor put it to vote. Apparently the congregation voted unanimously to keep the sign up. It should be noted that there is not a single African American member of the congregation in the Jonesville Church of God. That is not meant to imply that all white Americans are such racist and vile people but as the saying goes, one bad apple spoils the bunch.

I think the biggest problem in this election is the fact that all this campaigning began more than a year ago. People are so familiar with what they perceive to be the issues and problems with each candidate that now they and the public have resorted to name calling in order to get support for their candidates of choice. I think it's utterly ridiculous that grown adults are doing things that children are normally chided for. Even if Obama was of the Muslim faith, is it fair to call out people for their supposed connection to a particular religion that has some fanatics? What then is the difference between this church and the terrorists who hijacked an Air France plane back in 1976 and released all passengers but the Israeli and French Jew passengers on the flight? Some of these people were held only because of their names. The hostages shouldn't have been held in the first place but others were stigmatized for nothing more than having a different name.

Aren't we all a bit old to be arguing over names? The voting age in our country is 18 and the assumption is that if you are old enough to vote, you are old enough to understand some of the reasons why you should or shouldn't choose someone. Living in a political town like Washington I think one gets over-exposed to the issues and topics surrounding candidates but out in the rest of the country where these issues may not take as much presidence as local news stories, it's distressing to think that messages like these are rekindling old hatred and misguided ideas. It's statements and blind foolishness like this that led to the beating and death of so many people in the days after September the 11th. Members of the Sikh community were often attacked simply because they wore a turban. I can understand this kind of gut reaction in the wake of something like that but Pastor Byrd and his congregation are a bit too old to be carrying on this type of false association even after it's been established that there is no association between Obama and Osama.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why Should We Be Going Green?

You might be wondering why on Earth Day I would have a picture of gas prices accompanying the blog which so obviously seems to be hinting at a rant on going green. Well the answer should be fairly obvious; we don't go green unless it affects us directly. In fact, we as a civilization rarely do anything unless the effects hit us directly and this is what makes the fact that we even have an official 'Earth Day' all the more distressing. Though it's not a holiday in the classical sense of the word, it is a day for many people who seek to conserve the one resource we can't easily renew and that's the Earth.

People will go on and on about how they recycle or reuse things or how they eat only organic foods or do whatever else the trend is to show that they too are concerned citizens of the planet and are doing what it takes to save the planet. Unfortunately the majority of us are very much Johnny-come-lately's when it comes to such actions. It takes something like Earth Day to shake us from our comfortable existance and get us thinking about how or what we can do for the planet. Who are we kidding? Most of us ask that question only if it affects us. Do you really think that the trend in rising sales of hybrid cars is driven by concern for the planet? I don't think so, I think it's driven by the fact that people are tired of paying $80 every week in gas just to go to and from work. No one likes spending that much, especially when we would rather spend it on tall, no whip, no foam extra skim soy milk mocha lattes rather than on a gas guzzler. Besides, we do our part for the planet when we drink coffee don't we? It's served in recycled paper cups most of the time.

Cheap lightbulbs that run longer and burn brighter for far less money still aren't flying off the racks like they could. How come? Because most of us prefer the soft light of normal bulbs. The change in scenery brought about by energy efficient bulbs is almost too alien for many people to fathom and so they don't even consider doing it. We tend to view people making small contributions to the environment as weirdos unless of course it's someone like Leonardo DiCaprio; then suddenly every teenage girl out there is inspired to take up the cause and do their part for the world. Maybe it's a shallow reason but hey, at least they are taking some action. I think part of the problem also stems from the fact that there's a subtle secondary message that's often bandied about when it comes to the environment and that is that every little bit helps.

If you see ads or see films like "An Inconvenient Truth", the catch phrase is always the same. 'If you only do activity X, then in time, the carbon emissions of the planet will be reduced. It just takes one person to start.' Unfortunately the majority of us figure why should I do it, someone else will. In this case it's like a warped version of the pay it forward idea where if one person does it then the next one will too. We don't want to take responsibility for it, we figure someone else will do it for us. That's a dangerous trend.

So what can we do? Little things add up but they have to be inspired by ideas that affect our pocketbooks and wallets. If you've got a long commute like me, start following the speed limit. You may think it ridiculous to see a sports car cruising along in the right most lane but I'd rather maximize my fuel economy rather than proving my ego is larger than the rest. Recycle whatever you can. Go to Starbucks often? Why get and waste their cups on one visit. If you're going that often, by a Starbucks mug and use that, they usually charge slightly less to fill up your coffee container than they do to give you a paper cup. Get off your butts. If you have to go somewhere close by, walk, run or saunter on over to your destination. We are a mobile society but unfortunately most of us have turned it into an automobile society. If you have the time, take the healthier mode of transportation, your feet. Sure things like the weather will drive the decision, but it can't rain all the time. Do a little and once you start, you'll find going green isn't all that hard.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

How the Worm Has Turned

When I attended the University of Maryland at College Park at the turn of the century, one of the key issues with lots of students was the fact that there was a shortage of two things for students, parking and housing. Now the administration at the time seemed to assume that with the demand to attend the university at the time, the problems would eventually wash themselves into normality and there wouldn't be any problems in accomodating everyone. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. At the time I attended the University, I was one of the many commuters onto campus. That meant that as a Freshman I was assigned to the farthest parking lot on campus, the infamous Lot 4 which was so far off of the main part of the campus that many people struggled to catch the on-campus bus to avoid the long walk to the center of campus.

Now I was never one to shy away from walking and that was rarely ever my complaint about the parking assignment for freshman and incoming students but it seemed that as the campus grew in popularity (and prestige) more and more people sought to attend the University and so while demand grew, accomodations and space remained relatively the same. So what do you do for commuters? Simple, add more spots by shrinking the average size of the existing parking spots. What this meant was that when you parked your car, you barely had enough space to open your doors to get out. I remember one time being wedged in so tight (because people running late didn't have time to adjust their parking) that I had to climb into the car through my hatchback. Imagine if I didn't have that capability in my car.

For students on campus that wasn't a guarantee of space either. I remember some of my friends who lived on campus being assigned to a room with three other people, living in a room meant for two. Now seeing as how the campus seemed to adopt the Ikea style of economy of space, it wasn't a bad thing but still, four people in a room meant for two was a bit much. And though lots more space was bought up and built up by the campus, it always seemed that they were behind the curve. In my final year at Maryland the campus was so overcrowded and so little dorm space existed that the University bought out a hotel for the semester and again put up multiple students in rooms meant for far less than they accomodated. Now costs for dorms weren't cheap by any means and parents were understandably irate at having their kids living in a hotel a couple of miles off of campus when they had paid enough for them to live on campus.

At that time at least the understanding was that for Freshman and Sophomores the possibility existed that they would be bumped into lesser accomodations because they didn't have enough time on campus and preference would be given to upperclassmen. Well the days of those assumptions seem to be going out the door too. Now the University is making noises about accomodating incoming students while not guaranteering housing for upperclassmen. Due to the housing crunch on campus, the University is indicating that upperclassmen will now be responsible for finding their own accomodations outside of the University system. So now we're adding to the commuting problem (which is even worse now) while asking students to pay for housing off campus. I like where this is going. I don't understand how the university can seem to 'stick it' to students like this. I guess the thinking is that incoming students and underclassmen still need guidance and experience in living on their own. That plus the fact that they will be willing to spend more I guess as debt rates for new students is higher than someone who has been around for a while. I guess it won't be long before students are sleeping seven to a room and cars are stacked on top of one another.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Ruining Childhood

These days there are times when I think back on my childhood and wonder if I wasn't set off on a course for doom and gloom from the beginning. Not that I didn't have a happy childhood; on the contrary, I think I had a very happy childhood and the memories I have growing up are just wonderful. But now whenever I see the news or read about it in the paper, I feel that with each passing generation, the concepts of childhood are changing so rapidly that soon kids will just become miniturized adults who are so sheltered from the realities of this world that they are going to be in bigger trouble than many of us realize.

Recently in a school in McLean, Virginia a school principal decided (as was the case in several other schools around the country) that the game of tag was to be forbidden due to the fact that it promoted violence and could lead to undue aggression in kids. Now I don't know about the rest of you but tag was an essential part of my childhood. I don't say this because I was the best tag player around or because I dominated every person I ever played with but it was just a simple, fun and mindless game that you could practically play anywhere. Don't have an xBox 360 or in the case back then, don't have a Nintendo or Atari? Doesn't matter, the only thing you need for tag is you! It doesn't cost very much either. But nowadays it seems the focus has shifted and there is constant worry that kids are going to turn into violent, aggressive psychopaths so we need to shelter them.

I don't think kids are going to turn out that way unless the environment around them is conducive to that type of attitude. If all kids do is grow up in an environment of violence, and I mean real violence or aggression, not just stuff on TV but in the home as well, then isn't it likely that they will know what violence is? Playing tag isn't going to make them violent, it'll more likely make them competitive but then again that's bad too right? In every competition there is a winner and a loser (or losers in the case of tag) but that's thought to be a negative connotation because kids shouldn't be made to think they are losers right? They shouldn't be exposed to not winning. They need to know that they need to win all the time. Is this the message that games are sending our kids? All they are are games!

But we're tending to read too much into things these days. Episodes of "Sesame Street" that I watched as a kid are now rated for adults because of some 'questionable' scenes in the show. Are they scenes of violence? Does Big Bird suddenly take inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock and go around killing people? No. But because he hugs a kid, there is fear that this could inspire kids to sexually harass one another. What about the fairy tales we heard growing up? I'm sure it won't be too long before even those are censored or cut from childhood because they spread negative imagery and ideas to kids who are impressionable.

Take for example Jack and the Beanstalk (one of my favorite stories). In a lot of versions (I've heard variations) Jack's father is missing and he lives with his single mother. Though this is reality for many kids these days, it wouldn't do to sensationalize it now would it? Jack then sells off his family cow for the beanstalk beans. That teaches kids to give in to their selfish desires. That's another negative image that they should be sheltered from. Ultimately he goes up the beanstalk and steals from the Giant at the top. Stealing! How utterly wrong! And then the ultimate... he kills the Giant by chopping the beanstalk down as the Giant is chasing Jack. Murder! How insane! I guess that by today's thinking then I should be a selfish thief who will murder those who get in my way!

Take a look at practically any fairy tale and you'll see this same trend. Goldilocks enters the house of the three bears (breaking and entering) and eats their food and sleeps in their beds. Stalkers of Hollywood stars probably grew up reading these stories over and over again. Hansel and Gretel? They get left in the woods by their parents and so when the evil witch tries to cook them, they kill her by shoving her into the oven. I don't even want to get started on that one. The Three Little Pigs? That might be thought to be an insult if perhaps there is a Muslim student sitting in the pre-school classroom.

Is this the type of environment we want our kids to grow up in? Sheltered and protected from anything and everything? I've seen more violence and negative storylines presented on "safe" channels like Disney and Cartoon Network than I ever did when I was a kid. That doesn't mean that I would take a kid in to see violent or scary movie just because they wanted to, but I wouldn't shelter them so much that they aren't allowed to play a simple game of tag. We need to know what we are sheltering them from and to what purpose. Sheltering them for the sake of sheltering them is wrong and I don't think it serves any purpose. It just serves to ruin what childhood they could have.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We Fear Change

I think this cartoon speaks volumes about the feelings many have towards the fact that Microsoft is slowly moving off of supporting Windows XP for very much longer and moving over to Vista full time. From their perspective I can see the point. You're running two similar yet inherently different operating systems, one of which is popular enough among the people and the other still quirky enough that people are completely against it. I can remember the similar broughaha that went on when Windows transitioned from support to Windows 98 to Windows 2000 and higher. People were upset over the fact that Windows 98 (which was probably one of their most stable operating systems) were being forced to use a newer yet less stable operating system. I guess it's not so much that we fear change as it is we fear the track record of Microsoft.

Whether you love Microsoft products or you hate them (and there are large majorities for both) it's hard enough to find a happy median ground. People argue over the fact that Microsoft has more or less monopolized the operating systems market and while that's true, it isn't completely their fault. At least I would argue that it isn't. They made an interface that was pretty easy to use and was pretty popular with general users. Sure it is probably one of the most problematic operating systems that is currently out there but so what? They cornered the market when there was no one else willing to jump in and play. They are now more or less firmly in control of the market and I don't blame them at all for wanting to stay that way. I don't blame them for their efforts to make Vista the default system now as well.

In Economics and Business school you study on monopolies and what you find is that when there is little or no competition, it is easy to corner the market and define what actions you do or don't want to take. Now granted there are other options out there in terms of operating systems such as Linux and the like, but for the average user, it is a little beyond their understanding to wipe out Windows and install something that requires a little bit of brainpower. Now that's not to belittle people but it's true. We want computers to be simple to operate machines, not complex items which require a good deal of know-how. That's both a good and a bad thing but still, if you don't have or don't want to acquire the know-how on how to install something like Linux, you don't have that much right to complain about the fact that Microsoft is more or less pigeonholing you into doing certain things, such as switching over to Vista.

Microsoft has probably spent a bundle on the development of Vista and for good or bad, it is here to stay. Though there are apparently problems galore (I am still running XP myself) I'm sure they will get straightened out soon enough. I think it's unreal to expect something to run perfectly the first time. There are rare cases where it does happen but not often. I think the public and the media tend to blow a lot of these things out of proportion. Sure Vista isn't perfect but it isn't suddenly going to wipe out your computers just because you install it. You may think so and detractors of Microsoft may want you to think so too but relax, change is good! Don't fear it... embrace it. And if you fear it that much.... educate yourself so that you don't have to rely on Microsoft to make these decisions for you.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Preserving our Past for our Future

Gettysburg National Battlefield up in Pennsylvania is slowly making progress in the efforts undertaken over the last decade or so to modernize and revert the battlefield back to some semblance of what it was at the time of the famous battle fought there over the Fourth of July in 1863. Over the past few years, modern pieces of humanity visible along the battlefield such as power lines and the horrible visitors tower that once overlooked the battlefield have been removed or replaced so that the sites that greet visitors now are something more akin to what was visible to the soldiers who fought and died on these hallowed grounds. There are some who look to this and say, "So what?"

I have been a student of history for a good number of years. I have studied it enough to know that there is some value in preserving that which we have and which links us to our past because as the old adage says, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I heartily believe that and though I don't feel that we'll fight another war here in the United States quite like the Civil War, I still feel it's important to preserve this piece of our nation's history. I have driven all around the Washington area and people from other countries have commented on the fact there are so many 'historical districts' and areas within our regions and that there doesn't seem to be anything of importance there. There are often times markers in innocuous places denoting some historical fact at the crux of an intersection and people wonder why? What's the big deal?

I think one thing I love about the United States is that even though it's a relatively young country compared to places like Europe and Asia and the like, there is a strong sense of preservation that runs deep within the nation. I've heard people speak derisively about the fact that any and every small bit of history is denoted with a marker telling of some inconsequential event that occured in this area. I think it's important to remember these things. When I visited India on tours of the different states, I was amazed to take note of some of the historical sites and landmarks where history was made. The images of kings and queens in lavish kingdoms came to life in front of my eyes... just before I saw someone spitting chewing tobacco on those same walls. Sure it's just a wall but isn't there some pride in the fact that this is a symbol of your country's vast heritage?

Over here in the States we may make note of small things but it's the small things that add up in the end. Why is it so important? Well maybe all the place is known for is the fact that George Washington held some meetings there. Maybe those meetings are ones that helped him and the rest of this nation's founding fathers come to an understanding about the course this nation could take. Isn't it fascinating to think that the state of our nation could have been decided in a building that was nothing more than the same farmhouse we are looking at today? I think the efforts to maintain Gettysburg in the same fashion that it was back in the early 1860's is commendable. The future of our nation and the course it took since the Civil War is burned into that ground and it's important to remember it as it was. The fields of dead and lost gave their lives for our nation and for their ideals. Isn't it important to remember that?


Friday, April 11, 2008

No Sense of Alcohol Induced Humor

Most people believe that after a few drinks they and everyone around them are the funniest people in the world. I'm sure you've experienced it at one time or another. You drink way too much and suddenly you're sitting next to contenders for 'best comedian of the decade' awards. This same humor at times of sobriety is not quite so hilarious and it just proves the point that without alcohol, nothing is quite the same. So I guess that's part of the reason so many people are steaming mad at an ad that the Absolut Vodka company released in Mexico. The ad, shown here, is pretty self explanatory. It shows the state of the nation as it was in 1848 just before the Mexican-American War began.

Now I'm sure the ad wizards who came up with that one didn't expect that it would generate the type of ire and hype that it has. Apparently word spread that this ad was making the rounds in Mexico and that the implication was that Mexico was privy to the land that it lost prior to the American Civil War nearly 150 years ago. Then somehow the message got warped again and people thought that this was a call for immigration reform and a call to arms for people to rise up against immigration reform in the United States. Still others assumed that this was an indication that it was a statement on the number of illegal immigrants flowing into the United States and that part of the country from Mexico so it was implying that we may as well consider it a part of Mexico. In an Absolut world anyways.

I don't see the big deal about it. Honestly I think people need to get off of their moral high ground (which isn't really so high) and think for a moment before reacting so strongly. As far as I know, Absolut Vodka has absolutely (pun intended) no influence over the course of either Mexico or the United States. I don't think it's an inflammatory ad and I don't think it is making any implication that the citizens of Mexico should rise up and reclaim land lost to them in the 1840's. I think it's just a simple statement that in a perfect world, knowing what we know now, things probably wouldn't have changed and the status quo from the 1840's would still be the status quo for Mexico in the 21st Century as well. After all, whether you agree with the ad or not, there's no denying that Mexico probably thinks about the loss of all that land with some disappointment. California and the other Western states beyond the land of the Louisiana Purchase is some of the most important land in the country.

Much of the gold that has been mined in the United States was found out in California and the area in question. Mexican citizens had settled that land and worked there and continue to work there. Though some may be illegally in our country, I don't think they are leading an underground revolution to sieze back the country. This is not a Tom Clancy novel. This is simply an ad for vodka. As I said, typically alcohol makes things a bit funnier. I guess the people raising a stink about this ad are probably teetotaling souls that would rather drink water than to ever contemplate partaking in alcoholic drinks. Perhaps they should have a drink once in a while. They may find their outlook to be a little less angry and a bit more humorous as this ad originally implied.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Between A Rock and an Inspection Place

American Airlines took a bold step this week in announcing the cancellation (or think of it as a 'prolonged delay') of many flights in order to inspect their fleet of aging MD-80 aircraft. The reason that American, and other carriers operating the MD-80 such as Delta and Alaska Airlines, chose to cancel flights was due to concerns over the maintenance standards of these aircraft. After a series of 'incidents' in which Boeing 737 aircraft operated at Southwest Airlines were discovered to have been approved for flight despite being in less than perfect shape has raised concerns in the airline industry that these planes may not be safe despite Superman's protestations that "statistically speaking, it (flying) is still the safest way to travel."

While I admire American, Delta and the others for taking the steps necessary to ensure and reassure passengers that the flights they take are perfectly safe, I can't help but feel that they are hurting themselves a little bit too. The reason I say this is because it's one of those Catch-22, you're-damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't situations that will neither help nor improve the opinion many people have of airlines. Often times, moves like this in any industry are reactive as opposed to pro-active. Remember when the bridge collapsed in the midwest late last year? The immediate reaction across the nation was that our nation's bridges are not safe. Our infrastructure is collapsing at the seams. An immediate investigation was launched and immediately there were expressions of shock and awe at the fact that most of the bridges and overpasses in our country were in far worse shape than people anticipated. The reason? Well prior to this point there was no reason to make such inspections all the time was there? I mean no bridge had collapsed like that before so why bother?

Same attitude applies to the airline industry as well but it is often looked at with much more scrutiny and public outcry. When parts of airplanes fall out of the sky, it is cause for notice. I think most of us who fly would feel safer knowing that the plane we're sitting in has been repaired and maintained to top standards. I mean this isn't a case where we can simply pull the plane over to the shoulder and let the plane sort itself out. We have little control over the situation so it's a little comforting to assume that the plane is safe. Sure there is no such thing as a hundred percent guarantee that there may not be some bug here or there but one has to assume that precautions have been taken. In this case, despite being more of a reactive course of action, I think they are doing the right thing by cancelling flights for further inspections.

Of course passengers aren't happy about it and with good reason. For many people who scheduled their vacations far in advance, it's frustrating to arrive at the airport and be told that this and all other flights going to your destination are being cancelled. Gone are the days where air travel was a rare and luxurious thing. It's so common now that it's probably the prime form of travel for many people. It no longer really suffices to pile everyone in the family car and go off for a vacation within a short driving distance. So the fact that passengers are irate is not surprising. Still, these same passengers continue to express their ire when they hear that inspections were properly conducted on the aircraft they are due to fly. So either they toss explatives for sitting in an 'unsafe' plane or they toss them for having their flight cancelled. It's true what they say, you can't please all of the people all of the time. In this case you can't please anyone at all.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Free Coffee...

What's the best price for enticing someone to try something new? When it's free of course. At least that's the idea behind Starbucks latest coffee concept. For a half hour today, the 8th of April, from 12:00 PM to 12:30 PM EDT, the coffee giant will be offering up a free 8 ounce cup of their newest coffee blend, the Pike Place Roast. Now I've made light of Starbucks efforts in the past to get customers back to their good graces and some concepts haven't met with much enthusiasm and I'm not sure how successful this one will be. Sure you're bound to get lots more customers, especially when you're giving away something for free, but it doesn't necessarily mean that those customers will keep coming back for more.

The reason I say this is because on average, a cup of premium blend coffee is costlier than a regular cup of coffee at most other places (including Starbucks). Unless one is a coffee fiend (and I will admit to being a coffee drinker but not a discriminating coffee fiend), there is probably no difference between a cup of premium roasted coffee beans and the cheap stuff. So unless this new roast is so addictively good, people are still going to think before investing in a cup of coffee. I think a lot of it comes down to the economy. Now it's probably very cliched to blame declining coffee sales on the state of the nation's economy but one can't help it. When consumer confidence is down as it largely is right now, financial advisors (be they websites or actual people) recommend curbing extravagant spending. One of the first on the list is almost always cups of premium blend coffee.

Like fuel, most people don't require premium stuff to function properly. Sure there are benefits to having something slightly more expensive but in the end, is it really that big a deal? I don't think it is. Now I have frequented Starbucks for a number of years and I still go back and have my usual choice of drinks. I rarely (if ever) vary from that routine as I think most customers are wont to do. I mean if you are someone who goes to Starbucks regularly (or semi-regularly) then ask yourself, don't you go in there for something you already want and enjoy? So then do you really need some other coffee product to entice you to come in? Chances are you aren't going to be drinking the new blend anyways so what's the point?

Even if you go in to get the free cup of coffee, are you really going to get that cup of coffee and then order something else on top of it? Lots of people complain of having the jitters when drinking too much coffee so after drinking an 8 ounce cup are you going to think it a good idea to have another cup even though it's your triple venti no-whip, double shot soy milk skim mocha vanilla caramel machiato? If you're already caffinated by the free cup of coffee I doubt that there will be much coherence due to the fact that you'll be talking so fast, no one will understand you to begin with. While I admire Starbucks for attempting to revamp their image in the wake of declining sales, I think until the economy improves, their efforts are going to be hindered by the fact that most people will still view coffee as an optional luxury rather than a necessity.


Monday, April 07, 2008

How to Build a Better Burger

Most engineering students these days usually have at least one semester where they are required to design and build a device up to specifications and usually within a set of pre-determined parameters. This can vary from making the machine or device very simple or highly complex. I remember in high school we were required to build a catapult intended to launch a golf ball the farthest distance. It was a fairly easy process but my teammate and I went a little farther and through some trial and error came up with the optimum angle of release for the number of rubber bands that we had. We ended up launching our golf ball at least three or four times the distance of our nearest competitor. Still, the further one progresses, the harder such tasks are made and Purdue University proved that their team was best at accomplishing the problem set before them at this year's Rube Goldberg Machine Contest.

In a nutshell, the contest stipulated that the competitors were required to invent and build a machine which would be rated on it's complexity and inefficiency. In a minimum of 20 steps, the machine was required to make a hamburger which would have at least one meat patty, two vegetables and two condiments between two bun halves. Universities and engineering teams from all over the United States participated but Purdue's 156-step wonder was the machine that took the prize. The contest rules stated that once the process was started, that there could be no 'assistance' by anything or anyone. Only the machine could be set to the task. It's certainly a more humane contest rather than the traditional 'how to build a better mousetrap'. I think it's a unique concept as well though I'm sure Vegetarians and Vegans probably have some qualm over the fact that the main 'course' is a meat dish.

Still, I find it a little odd that prizes are being given based on complexity and inefficiencies of the machine design. I would think that a highly efficient machine would make more sense given that we are living in an environment where inefficiencies are frowned upon and compact is the way to go. I mean just a decade ago it would have been difficult to imagine carrying days worth of music on something the size of an audio cassette but now iPods are ubiquitous and so common that it isn't at all that uncommon to carry tons of music on something so small. Would Apple have done so well to store it on something the size of a dictionary? Probably not. Sure you may have tons more music but would it sell as much? I know the point of the contest is to make machines that would drive home inventors mad but still, I feel the mindset of some of our future minds should be focused on what will work for us in the future as opposed to something no one will want.

I remember a similar tasking I had in one of my engineering classes. We were to design a wind-powered device which would be capable of carrying over 200 pounds down the length of a wind tunnel and then we'd get bonus points for being able to return the weight against the wind. Our team managed to do the first part fairly easily since we just built a large sail meant to pull the car along. The second part was the difficult one and out of the twenty teams that took part in the contest, there was only one team that was able to accomplish it. Given the drive to go green these days, wouldn't such a device be viewed with more appreciation rather than a machine that makes a hamburger inefficiently? Go to some local fast food places and you'll find ample evidence of that. We don't need a machine to highlight it.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

To What Purpose?

Let me start by saying that I think the police are usually under-appreciated and overly-criticized by people until they have a need for them. For most of us, we don't interact with the police on a regular basis unless we are perpetual speed demons who are constantly getting pulled over or we're Paris Hilton who complains of getting pulled over just because she is Paris Hilton. But whatever your interaction with the Police, you have to admit that when you need them, they are usually there in a pinch and at least try to be helpful. Now let me caveat this by saying that I'm not writing this up as a pathetic attempt to butter up the police for some ulterior motive nor am I ready to launch into some enraged tirade against them. I say this with confidence because I think some of the things I have observed in recent years, people will have noticed too and they will perhaps join me in wondering, 'why?'

What happened? Well I was driving into work this morning on my usual route when I noticed that there was a police car and a motorcycle cop parked on the side of a fairly busy thoroughfare that I take on my way to work. Traffic on my side of the road was slowing down (as it is usually wont to do at the sight of cops) and I figured that they must have pulled over a speeder or someone may have had a small accident. As it was their lights weren't blazing for everyone on my side of the street to see but as I approached I noticed that the two cops in question were merely standing on the side of the road and were having what appeared to be a normal conversation. Now I was sure that perhaps earlier there had been some incident that required them to stop on the side of the road and indeed, after I passed them, I saw their lights on for those on their side of the street but the other result was plainly visible for anyone and everyone and that was traffic backing up tremendously on the other side (as they drove past the cops).

Now I have often wondered why people feel the need to slow to a crawl when driving past cops stopped on the side of the road but in this case there was nothing for them to get worried about. But what this little scene was serving to do was become what I like to refer to as 'clogging of human arteries on a massive scale'. What I mean by that is cops on the side of the road are like cholesterol in human arteries. They 'build up' (or park) on the side of the roads for some purpose (usually) and then the 'blood' (the rest of us commuters) trying to get past the area slow down out of fear for that small area. It results in a chain reaction that ends up creating a temporary bottleneck. Then for hours afterwards (or at least until the volume decreases enough) traffic remains slow at that point and those of us who get their much afterwards are frustrated at trying to figure out what the original cause was.

It's a bit mean but come on, how many times have you been stuck in slowed traffic for an extended period of time. You sit there and wonder what the hold up is. You wait and wait and wait and start feeling that if you don't see some massive accident then your delay was all for nothing. Then when you finally get to the slow point you realize that there isn't anything there to slow you down. You get frustrated even more and speed up only to get pulled over by the cop who was originally the cause of the initial slowdown but who had simply moved down the street to lay in wait for speeders speeding up after passing the point where traffic was no longer slowing down. It's a vicious cycle that seemingly serves no purpose other than to slow us down more and more. I have yet to figure out why.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Speaking Gooder English

Webster's, the people famous for their dictionaries, recently released a list of words that they felt were either over-used or too often misinterpreted or simply leading to the 'death of the English language' and as a person who strives to use proper grammar (though not in a snobbish sort of way) I am inclined to agree with the folks at Webster's. For example, the winner of the "Most Cheapened, Cherished Word" was the word 'awesome'. According to the Webster's people, the word was originally used to describe something that was beyond description in either size or ideology. Now it's simply an adjective that can describe the warmth provided by a pair of gym socks.

Perhaps that's a bit extreme but if you think about it, you'll see how overused the word has become in modern society. Another case is the "Worst Unnecessary Lead-In"; which is a way of prefacing something you're going to say. The winner in this category is the expression, 'I mean'. Think about that as well, how many times have you had a conversation with someone that has begun with the expression at the front of it. Doesn't it go without say that you mean what you say? If you didn't mean it, would you actually be saying it? Perhaps or perhaps not but it isn't necessary to preface every single statement with such an expression. Similarly, the most irksome euphemism that was declared to be the term 'issue' which has become the catch-all phrase for anything that is of concern or problematic. Go into any meeting these days and you walk out with a list of issues. There were times in the past where if you'd walked out saying that you have issues, someone may think you're attempting to sell magazine subscriptions.

The English language has long been an evolutionary thing and while it seems that the Webster's people are making honest attempts to keep their dictionaries up to date with inclusion of slang or terms that are part of the popular culture, by bastardizing the English language in this way, are we doing the language a service or disservice. Every country in the world has colloqiualisms or expressions that are unique to that country. Take for example England and America. Although the language of these two countries should be relatively similar given that the country was founded predominantly by English settlers, you'd think that similarities still existed. In some cases they do but take for instance the aforementioned expression 'awesome'. An English speaker in England probably wouldn't say awesome to describe their feelings of excitement over something 'cool' but rather they'd probably respond with an excited 'brilliant'.

In both cases, the other expressions that we Americans and the British use to describe something that could fall into the category of being 'awesome' are also incorrect associations that have changed with time. 'Cool' is often used to describe something that is found to be quite enjoyable. It no longer has a direct linkage to the temperature, at least not in most cases. It has also changed into something of a term to declare positive acceptance of a decision. I was sitting in a meeting earlier when our manager asked whether work had been completed on a particular task as requested. The team lead responded that it had so the manager's reaction was 'cool'. Even the British aren't much better. Their use of the term brilliant has nothing to do with the intelligence or even the brightness (in a lighting sense) of the thing being referred to. Where in the course of human history did these expressions gain a foothold that was completely different from their original meaning?

The English language certainly needs to adapt but there are times when I shudder and cringe at some of the new words being bandied about by some very big people. Words such as 'ginormous' (an amalgamation of 'gigantic' and 'enormous') are making an inroads and though these words have never existed before, they are being accepted as actual words. They aren't. They shouldn't be. Made up words or neologisms are fine if they serve a purpose but I think the English language is diverse enough to have sufficient expressions that encompass describing most anything in the world today. We don't need to do 'gooder' or add '-er' to the end of the word to make it a descriptive phrase or describe how someone is as some people attempt to do. By doing so it screams of a lack of knowledge of the English language and a disregard for what proper grammar is.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ending WiFi Connectivity

The Federal Communications Commission announced today that effective at 8:00 PM EST, WiFi connectivity across the United States will effectively be ended. Although there had been rumblings about this for quite some time, it wasn't until late last month that the FCC began showing signs of going along with the proposals that had been put forth by members of the Airline industry and coffee houses across the United States. It seems that a joint commission from the two industries had lobbied hard for the end of WiFi simply because they were tired of dealing with customers who demanded better service while in airports and coffee shops.

Members of the airline industry reported that in the years since WiFi connectivity was first introduced to airports, it's become increasingly difficult for non-WiFi communications to occur due to the dearth of signals crossing the airwaves in airports. There are reports that many of the delays on airlines aren't due to overbooking or loss of gate space for airlines but simply becuase terminals which the airlines use to communicate passenger information across the areas of the airport are being overwhelmed and are experiencing so much interference that confirmed seat assignments aren't reaching the gate area and so overbookings are occuring. Additionally, because current laptop batter capacities are currently not good for more than a couple of hours, many travellers take to plugging their laptops into wall outlets in the airport which means there are less for the people at the airport to use.

At coffee houses around the country it is much the same scene. Many patrons complain of the fact that coffee houses around the nation are turning into de facto offices. I mean think about the last time you went to a coffee house and couldn't find a place to sit because of tables being occupied by patrons using up the entire thing in order to surf the internet or do research for something related to school or work. Managers of coffee houses across the nation have stated that they have seen a drop off in customer patronage after the advent of free wifi in many locations around the country. Coffee houses also report that many customers complain of the double standard that seems to be applied to customers depending on how much and how long they appear to be spending at the coffee house. Students and teenagers who come there for a place to hang out report that they are often thrown out after some time for loitering while others who are doing nothing more than mooching off of free WiFi at the same coffee house can sit for hours and hours.

Beginning last year, the airline industry and coffee industry began working their way into Congress and began calling for the ban of WiFi connectivity outside of normal office spaces. Although hesitant to deal with the issues that will likely stem from this unilateral move, the FCC with backing from Congress has kept this debate relatively quiet and any reports that have surfaced were lost in the ongoing Presidential race. It is likely that there will be calls to rescind this new rule and all officials have agreed that WiFi capability will not be immediately removed from airports, it will be disabled for the time being. It is assumed that after January 2009 when the new President enters office, the debate will come to the forefront again, but in the meantime, by later this afternoon, most airports and coffee houses will no longer be WiFi capable. To quote one leading Congressman familiar with the issue at hand, "April Fools".

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