Friday, May 30, 2008

Last of the Amazonians

With the news earlier this week that the latest mission to the planet Mars, it seemed that perhaps we were nearing the limit of what new things we could discover on our own planet. I'm sure there are lots of people out there who will be scoffing at that statement considering how uninformed and ridiculous it is when you think about the fact that we have yet to discover all of the secrets at the depths of our oceans or in the vast icy landscapes of the poles or even the mysteries of the Amazon. So it was with some relief and fascination that I saw the news article posted this morning regarding a heretofore uncontacted tribe that was discovered during a flyover of the Amazon on the border of Brazil and Peru.

The group Survival International had been doing some aerial reconnaisance of the region when they happened upon a village that was deep in the depths of the Amazon which had not yet been properly explored so they were surprised to find a tribe living in the area and judging by their reaction in the the picture above, it's easy to see why the group assumed that the tribe has yet to encounter people beyond their own. Now we could be very jaded and wonder how it is that in this day and age there can still be tribes of humans that don't know what an airplane is or that there is a world beyond their borders but the simple truth is that this tribe isn't much different from ourselves if we stop to think about it. Now granted, most of us don't start taking pot shots at aircraft with wooden bow and arrows when we see something that isn't potential dinner flying overhead but how many of us really ever venture beyond the areas that we know so well?

I have encountered people who have never even left the state they were born in. Heck, I have encountered people before who had never even left their hometown for their whole lives. I haven't lived that long in the scheme of things but I have travelled around enough to have a greater appreciation of how vast the world truly is. Sure we can cross the globe in a matter of hours via an airplane, but what about if you're still doing things the old fashioned way and going by foot? In this modern age its easy to forget about how far distances truly are. We think of distance in terms of time now rather than actual mileage. I work 20 miles from my home; that distance would have been ridiculous to consider a mere 50 years before as a commuting distance but today it's normal. I have an average commute for this region and still, I don't see much outside of what is along my daily drive. Were I limited in my thinking, I would think that the rest of the world is covered in highways and office buildings with dwellings and shopping malls stuffed in between.

That isnt' the case but we only know what we can see or what we can experience. Fortunately in the Amazon, there are still enough unknown areas that this tribe of people, who haven't been named yet as far as I know, have been able to live in relative peace for their entire existance. Now many are hoping that sometime soon, contact can be established with these people to learn about their culture and their society but I hope that they can remain anonymous and be left alone for a lot longer. Forever if possible. Why? Well because while our insatiable curiousity is a good thing, it also contributed to the demise of so many other cultures and societies in the past. Diseases were not uncommon but some of the diseases of Europe were virtually unknown over here until explorers brought the germs with them. Many died due to exposure and not having the anti-bodies to fight the disease. Sure we learned about a new group of people but we killed many of them in the process too.

We all have images of what life must be like for these people. Some will think of a society that is reflective of what early life on these continents must have been like. Perhaps others will think of the Central and South American tribes that have virtually disappeared like the Toltecs or the Mayans. Perhaps they are a splinter group of one of these older cultures and perhaps in meeting with them face to face as opposed to face to airplane will help us understand the relation between the two but it is still for our selfish purposes and not theirs. If they had wanted to explore the world beyond ours then they would have done so. Unfortunately they haven't and so isn't it only fair to leave them alone? The destruction of the rainforests in the regions has already managed to wipeout a variety of flora and fauna and all types of animal, wouldn't it be wise to stop before we start wiping out humans again too?


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Digging on Mars

One of my lifelong passions has been air and space related topics. I think from the time I was a kid up until now, I have been fascinated with things that could fly. I have been a long supporter of continued efforts to explore space and though the fire that was there in our country back during the Moon Race and at the tail end of the 20th Century with the frequency of the space shuttle flights has died down quite a bit, there are still those out there who feel that there is definite merit in exploring space. This past weekend, the lovers of space got a definite boost with the successful landing of the Phoenix Lander on Mars.

The Phoenix Mars mission is landed this past weekend and will spend the next 90 days collecting data before the harsh Mars winters set in denying NASA the chance to continue exploring the surface of our mysterious red neighbor. The challenege came in avoiding the mistakes of the past. What people tend to forget is that when dealing with space travel it isn't at all like in most space movies where ships are flying here and there with wonton abandon. Rather it's a slow and cumbersome process (at least for now) whereby you have to plan out in exact detail the moves you are going to make because otherwise, you could end up at Jupiter instead of Mars and that could really spoil your day. The Phoenix mission was unique in that it was to be the first where a ship would record it's landing remotely. After traveling 420 million miles, the spacecraft was slowed down from nearly 13,000 miles per hour using parachutes and pulse thrusters and made a successful landing on the surface.

But what's the point? Many people who don't believe as strongly in the space program and the exploration of our solar system wonder what the big deal is? Why bother exploring the cosmos when we have enough problems here at home? I agree that there are problems on Earth but that shouldn't preclude us from exploring and learning more about the universe around us. If we weren't curious about what was over the horizon, we would probably still be thinking that the world is flat. If no one had bothered to try and fly, we'd still be sailing from one continent to the other (provided again that we assumed that the world wasn't flat). We wouldn't know about medicines or the history of our planet. We wouldn't know a lot if it wasn't for that one unique of human traits and that's the desire to know more.

Perhaps there is evidence on Mars of what Earth could have been like billions of years before or perhaps it will reveal to us how Earth could eventually become long after the human race is gone. Man has been to the moon and after that we never went anywhere else. Astronauts after the famous Apollo 11 mission were often asked why bother going back to the moon after landing there once; the simple answer that they often gave was what would have happened if Columbus crossed the Atlantic but never bothered to do it again? Who knows what the history of our world would have been like had it not been for that singluar incident. So why should we go to the moon or anywhere else in our solar system for that matter?

Well it's far easier to get to other points in our solar system when you can leave from space. Half of the propellant needed is often expended in just getting the spacecraft off of Earth. In space, the absence of appreciable amounts of gravity would speed up the process. It's important because it will be the launching ground for exploring our neighboring planets and eventually leaving our solar system for any of the billions that we see in the night sky. Perhaps it's a flight of fancy or a result of watching too many science fiction movies, but I'm interested in finding out more. I want to know what else is out there. And I want there to be truth to the observation that if there's no other intelligent life anywhere else in the universe then it's a tremendous waste of space.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Touch of Nostalgia is Good at the Box Office?

Well after being absent from cinema screens for 20 years, Indiana Jones makes his return to the movies this week. His last outing back in 1989 was titled "the Last Crusade" but as with anything in the movie business, nothing is done until the box office returns are putting your studio deeply in the red. So is there hope for Indiana Jones? I think there most certainly is and it's something deeper than the fact that it's being made by nearly the entire original group of creative folks who put together the original.

If one looks at the movies in recent days there has been a sudden resurgence in the number of old movies and old movie characters coming back to the screen. Whether it is a sequel or a remake (or a loosely termed re-imagining) both film and television are full of things from my childhood and the childhood of others who grew up around the same time as me. Don't believe me? Well if you think back to 1997, George Lucas decided to re-release his original "Star Wars" trilogy to see if there was interest in the franchise on the big screen after so many years. What happened? Despite being over 20 years old, the films did wonders at the box office. I myself saw my favorite, "Star Wars" (still the best of the series) in the theatre several times and it was just as fun. It was wonderful to see the film on screen since I wasn't really able to see and comprehend much the first time it was in theatres back in 1977. People who grew up with these movies loved them even more and they introduced a whole new crop of fans to them in the form of their kids.

Fast forward a few years and now you have the prequel trilogy complete with a loyal fan following. Lucas set us up by teasing us old-timers (and I use the term loosely) and then got us to hook a new generation of kids on the films with both the old and new. I get into arguements with young kids (rather heated arguements actually) about which group of films is better. I guess I have a preference for the older ones since they are so closely linked to my childhood. The same goes for so many other characters that have been coming back to the screen lately. Stallone has rather successfully returned both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo to the screen. Though their characters are just as old and wizened with age as the people playing them, there is still appeal because these are characters that so many of us have grown up watching.

Indiana Jones is no different. I can still remember as a kid putting on my dad's sun cap (I didn't have a Fedora then but I have one now) and taking one of my mom's old leather bags (which resembled Indy's satchel) and running around with a laundry rope on my belt and a plastic gun in hand chasing invisible Nazis as I plotted my own adventures around the house and my neighborhood. Was Indiana Jones the perfect role-model for a young impressionable youth? Probably not but there were far worse I could emmulate weren't there? I was never the most athletic or most rough and tumble adventurous sort but then again, my imagination propelled me to be that way. Maybe that's why I enjoy acting on occasion.

But it's this love of our youth and things we grew up with that is driving this demand for going back and seeing sequels or seeing old shows being revisted. Knight Rider is returning to TV's as a regular series. Battlestar Galactica will be ending this year after successfully returning to television. Star Trek will be coming back to the movie screen. Transformers already came to the movies and it will be back again soon in sequel form. G.I. Joe is gearing up for a release in the near future. The list goes on and on and on. Sure there is hope that money will be generated by tying in toy sales and such to many of these things but still, look at the base fact that if there wasn't a fan following for these things to begin with, there wouldn't be the desire to even consider making such films and series. I'm glad Indiana Jones is back. He's almost like a relative who has come back for a visit after a very long time. He may not be the same as he was the last time I saw him but I'm sure it will be an enjoyable visit nonetheless.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Is Technology Our Savior or Our Saboteur

People who don't believe in the theory of evolution should look at how technology has been affecting us in recent years. What do I mean? Well rather than continuing to evolve, technology is helping to devolve man (and woman) into something less intelligent than in decades past. The fact that it is possible to devolve means that we had to have evolved first and thus, there is some proof for the theory of evolution. So what does this have to do with the state of technology in our world? Simple. The more and more technology seems to be making our lives simpler, the more and more moronic things we seem to do. I don't think any single device is helping to prove this point more than the GPS.

The GPS, short for Global Positioning System, is one of the most revolutionary navigation tools in the world and has made mapquest and Google Maps duck in fear of being permanently replaced. Now call me old fashioned or call me a fool but I think that an over reliance on GPS systems is contributing to many of the problems on the roads these days. Don't believe me? Well just check out the number of news stories you see in the paper or on TV about how someone following GPS directions ended up someplace they didn't intend. There was a couple in New Zealand recently that was headed to the airport to deliver a charity check (about as far from terrorism as you could get) when they followed the directions that were being spouted by their GPS system. Now I know traffic is bad but it must be really bad to get stuck in line to get to the airport terminal behind a passenger jet. Now the plane didn't actually land on the road, rather, the GPS system took the couple on a rather 'unconventional' route and left them on the runway. Needless to say the authorities were a little ticked off.

This is just one of the many incidents out there. Drivers have gone off road and ended up in ditches and creeks. They have ended up in bad parts of town waiting to be mugged or cutting through on roads that haven't been completed. They end up driving in circles while not really getting to their destination when all they could do is look at a map. It may seem foolish what with all the technological advantages of modern GPS systems but if they were one hundred percent foolproof and reliable, then why do our armed forces still teach celestial navigation and map reading? Perhaps because they realize the importance of knowing what to do when we don't have technology. Even though I have used GPS systems to get from point A to point B (and not always in a straight line) I will still do my research and check out the route on a map first as well just so I have some idea of where I'm going and how.

We've come to rely on technology so much that other forms are falling by the wayside. So many people these days don't wear watches. Why? Because they have a clock on their computer at work and they have a fairly accurate timepiece in the form of their cell phone. Excellent! Now what if you don't have access to either one? Uh oh. And speaking of cell phones, when is the last time anyone actually bothered to memorize a phone number? Sure the really really important ones are committed to memory but what about others? Psychologists and doctors concluded long ago (about the time phones were first coming into common usage) that humans had the capacity to relatively easily memorize phone numbers that were up to ten digits long. At one point in time, most anyone could remember a number rather quickly. Now that we have cell phones that can almost instantly save numbers, why bother to memorize them? In point of fact, why even bother to memorize your own? Just give a person a call on their phone (provided they can remember their number) and voila! they have your number now too!

I think technology and its applications are wonderful. We are truly living in an age where almost anything is possible (within reason of course) but is it at a price that is a little higher than we're willing to pay? I am all for progress and I have my own share of technology; heck, I am even guilty of most of the things I have written about here (though I have not ever driven to a dock and parked between land and a boat because my GPS told me to) but I still try to remain a bit old fashioned. Technology is blamed for obesity because so many kids would rather play video games than go out and play. So many parents blame TV for messing up their kids heads. Technology is often a convenient scapegoat; at least until the next latest and greatest gadget comes up that makes life that much easier. Then it's a wonderful thing and the world is once again a wonderful place. Now if only the damn GPS could tell me how to get to the right store to buy it then we'd really be in great shape!


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

New Things to Consider During TSA Screenings

Periodically the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) issues new policies or practices which are meant to improve the screening process at airports across the country. It can be difficult and time consuming these days to go through security and though there are a dearth of signs (both visual and written) and announcements being blared over loudspeakers, there are still delays due to people not fully understanding what they should and shouldn't do or carry though a screening checkpoint on the way to their flight. Take for example the photo included herein; I am sure that despite all these signs, there are still the occasional oversmart jackasses who attempt to smuggle their bottle of water or soda through the machines and past the inspectors. Why?

Well the fact that they are a jackass notwithstanding, there are those who consider themselves expert travellers and likely feel that because the TSA is looking for terrorists or mothers carrying breast milk in illegal sized containers, they won't pay attention to Joe Businessman in his suit with his laptop bag filled with water. There are the occasional incidents where the person has managed to get through the line but most of the time they don't and then they behave like deer caught in headlights as they react in awe when TSA screeners tell them that they cannot carry water through the checkpoint. Well the latest set of rules that the TSA is trying out is intended to help speed up the process just a bit. What do they want to do? Well they want to split travellers up much like they do at ski resorts with experienced travellers in one line and casual travellers in the other.

What's the difference? Well a casual traveller is someone who goes on occasion, isn't familiar with all the rules and needs extra time. This is the category that most of us going on vacation would likely fall into. An expert traveller is someone who usually isn't wearing a belt by the time they get to the security checkpoint, they have their shoes in hand, jacket in bin, laptop out, boarding pass and ID at the ready metal and all cell phones and iPods within carryons and is ready for inspection. Were it such a world. Unfortunately I've seen business travellers for whom even this is too much. They will chat away on their cell phone just before walking through the metal detector and hem and haw over the fact that they have to switch off for a few minutes. Most of the time these conversations are not business related but bitching sessions about the meeting they attended or are going to attend.

Will this segregation of passengers be effective? Who knows. I would think that self-segregation would work if the person is objective enough but then again there are those who live in a state of denial about what they do and don't want to do. I think it has the chance of being effective due to the fact that parents travelling with kids wouldn't feel pressured by angry gazes from those behind them in line as they struggle with diaper bags and cranky kids making wise observations about the proceedings. Still, I think the casual line would be appropriate for those who still don't realize that perfume in a bottle is a liquid and that moisturizer is a gel. I think some people take it literally and think that gel means only hair gel and that liquid is limited to drinks. Wise up people! Have a complaint about the process? Then learn the rules so that you can speed things along. Don't flaunt the rules, follow them to make the process a bit easier.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fuel-Saving Fallacies

We aren't even at the start of the summer driving season and fuel prices are already hovering near the $4 a gallon range. While some don't feel the pinch as much as others, for those who shell out for filling up on a fairly regular basis, there's no denying the fact that fuel prices are rising and will continue to do so for the near term at least. I don't want to get into discussions (which is hard to do anyways in a one-sided blog) on why fuel costs are going up or how some people assume that drilling in Alaska will suddenly drop prices back down to a $1 a gallon, but I would like to take a look at the number of new 'theories' out there on how to increase fuel economy or save money at the pump the next time you're filling up.

Whenever there is some situation out there that suddenly warrants a lot of attention (like rising fuel costs) there are always hundreds if not thousands of sites that pop up with advice on how to improve the situation. They range from the fairly obvious to the most outlandish but still, people tend to believe them. For example, advisors will always tell you to keep your air filters fresh. While this has some impact on the fuel-air mixture in the car, it's not going to suddenly boost your 10 miles per gallon SUV into electro-hybrid fuel economy range. It's probably wise to change out the filter on a regular basis anyways but other than getting you an extra few miles per gallon, it isn't going to go a long way to helping you out.

One of the other common pieces of advise is to always keep your tires inflated at the proper pressure. Now again, this seems obvious really do much in the way of increasing fuel economy. What it does do is ensure that your car doesn't have to work harder to get moving. What does that mean? Well think about it in simpler terms. If you have to start a bicycle moving on level ground with properly inflated tires, it's fairly simple. Trying the same drill with deflated tires means that you're going to be working harder to get moving and generally it means you're going to expend more energy. In the case of cars, your car's engine will have to work harder to get that initial momentum going when starting from a stop.

And what about starting and stopping? Some people have some very weird ideas about how this part of the fuel economy equation works. The advice that is usually seen on the internet and on TV says to avoid sudden starts and stops. What do we mean by 'sudden' starts and stops? Well part of it has to do with the ego (and most of the times it's the male ego). When we're at a stoplight and the car next to us just happens to glance our way, there are many people who suddenly get infected with what I call 'Formula 1 Fever' where they want to launch off the stop light as quickly as possible. Now if you were on a long stretch of highway then there's nothing like it, you can accelerate to cruising speed and enjoy but most of the time all we end up doing is racing from one traffic light to the next and end up doing the sudden stopping part where we feel the need to test our vehicles brakes in the shortest distance possible.

This is due in part to another fallacy or misunderstanding that people have. A lot of times the advice we see tells us to drive at a constant speed on the highway or roads (where possible) in order to avoid running the engine all over the threshold. But what many people assume that means is that they should continue going at 65 until just at the time you're supposed to stop so instead of decelerating it means coming to a dead stop as soon and as fast as possible. Crazy I know but still, that's what some people tend to think. Now the cruise control thing, I have seen it work to get me that extra few miles per gallon. Again it's not much but if it means the difference between filling up every week and every week and a half to two weeks, then you bet I'm going to try it.

Fuel prices are probably going to go higher this summer since demand is still high and production and costs are still low so this translates to us consumers paying more for fuel and for airline tickets (since planes do need fuel to fly too). I guess we could have planes reach cruising altitude and then have them shut down the engines and float down to the ground in a long slow descent. Passengers might get fazed a bit but at least it may help cut down on costs. I'm joking of course but I'm sure that this idea was tossed around in a few boardrooms by airline execs who have never sat in a cockpit other than for a publicity shot. Be that as it may, one sure fire way to save at the pump is to drive like a safe and sane person. Curb those racer tendencies and carpool when possible. And the simplest solution of all? Buy something that isn't a massive SUV which guzzles gas for the least amount of fuel efficiency at the highest possible capacity, you'll find yourself with a bit more change in your pocket that way.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Are iPods Bad for your Health?

In New York apparently iPods and other personal music devices are considered so dangerous to use while on the streets that the state is considering banning them from use while on the road. As far as I know this only applies to those people who walk and cross the streets while wearing their iPod earbuds in an attempt to stay musically entertained while making the long trek to work or school every morning. This push for passage of the law comes on the heels of the news out of Vancouver, British Columbia where a 23-year-old student was killed by a crashing helicopter.

Now I'm sure many of you are a bit confused about what one thing has to do with the other so let me explain a bit. Apparently what happened with the Canadian student was that he walked out of his house one day to go check the mail. He was wearing a pullover sweatshirt that had built in spaces for his earbud headphones; and so as he walked to the mailbox with his hood pulled over his head and his earbuds in place, he failed to see his friend waving at him frantically over the helicopter heading his way. Investigators believe that the student had his iPod volume turned up so high that he had essentially blocked out any and all other sensory information from being processed and was subsequently struck and dragged by the helicopter as it hit the ground.

In other similar instances, people in New York have been hit by cars and buses while attempting to cross the street because they are so in tune with their latest iTune acquisitions that they aren't paying much attention to how they walk. There have been a rising number of incidents of late where pedestrians are being struck and the culprit is usually being identified as the over-loud iPod. Scientists and audiologists have stated that the average street sounds are in the 60 decibel range; the average plane flying overhead is in the 120 to 130 decibel range. If you are listening to your iPod SO loudly that you can't even hear planes flying overhead then they assume that you're doing some potentially permanent damage to your ears. They say that if you hear a constant ringing in your hearing then it's likely that you're already suffering some of the effects.

But it isn't dangerous just listening to your iPod; even carrying one is becoming a bit dangerous. Most people know about all the problems associated with carrying an iPod. In essence it has become a popular target for muggers on the subways or dark alleyways. It isn't high enough a crime to be a significant statistic but it has helped develop a new industry whereby iPod cases are being made to resemble old style Walkmen and Discmen (and if you don't know what those are then you truly are too young to understand most of the things I talk about on this blog). In another freak and random event recently, a young man was being called out by police for suspicious activity and because of his iPod being on, he couldn't hear the police. Upon finally seeing them, he reached into his pocket to shut it off and the thin sliver of his iPod was enough for police to assume he was carrying a gun and so the individual was shot.

It's sad but true that doing something as simple as listening to music is becoming so dangerous a thing. I know that for me, music is an essential part of my life. I have always had some music or the other going on in the background and it has always helped me pass the time or set the mood. As Dick Clark once famously quipped, music is the soundtrack of our lives and though I don't always use rock music as my soundtrack, I know exactly what he meant. While it's sad that these incidents with the iPod and other musical devices has resulted in injuries and in some cases, death, but it isn't fair to lay all the blame at the feet of the devices. It is our responsibility as the user to use it in a proper manner. By banning them or keeping the volume down too low, the escape that many people seek from such devices will never come to pass.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Self-Adulation is a Bad Thing

For commuters in the Washington Metro Area (which includes Maryland, Northern Virginia and DC) there are plenty of traffic sore spots to choose from when looking to sit in traffic for hours on end for no apparent reason. Whether it is the back up on I-66 at all hours of the day or night (weekday or weekend be damned); heading north on I-95 in the morning or heading south on the same route in the evening; going through the Springfield interchange; or crossing the bridges from one state to another, there are more than enough places in which to sit and stew. Some projects undertaken in recent years have been aimed at making that commute a little better. The multi-billion dollar revamping of the Springfield Interchange was one. The building of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge is another.

For several years I was one of those downtrodden whose daily commute included crossing the Wilson Bridge and getting into Springfield via the Interchange. My commute at the time was about 45 some miles and should have taken an hour at the most. I usually ended up spending anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours on the road during at least one part of my commute (either in the mornings or on the way back) so it was with some degree of satisfaction that I heard the Wilson Bridge was being expanded and improved. Part of the problem had been the fact that there was a natural bottleneck formed when the highways on both sides of the bridge would suddenly go from four or five lanes in both directions to only three (on both sides) on the Bridge. Naturally being the egotistical and self-centered drivers that the majority of us are, we didn't let anyone merge in front of us so gridlock was a natural outcome.

The improvements on the bridge utilizing a new span were supposed to improve these problems and make them go away and while the time of construction was quite painful at times, the delays were seen as temporary as the new bridge would alleviate the problems. So it was with some amount of joy that commuters heard that the bridge span (one of the final phases of construction) was complete and would be opened this month. It turns out that it was yesterday. It also turns out that many people didn't know about it. Not content with a simple affair, a fairly complex program was assembled complete with stages, dignitaries, VIPs, marching bands, the whole shmear. Although word was apparently let out it wasn't let out enough for many of the commuters who ended up stuck in traffic for up to an hour and a half, just to cross the bridge.

Set up for the 11 AM ceremonies obviously began early on Thursday and though the new span is not yet officially opened to traffic, it is close enough to the existing bridge for people to see what is going on on the new span. So being creatures prone to rubbernecking, many commuters began slowing to a crawl to gawk at the proceedings. The result was 7 to 8 miles of back up which lasted for much of the morning. Even after the ceremonies ended and the invited guests had already left. Now while I think this was certainly a cause for celebration, celebrating on a weekday during rush hour is probably one of the worst decisions that planners of this whole shindig could have chosen. Rather than having a gala for the people who actually put the Bridge together, there are politicians and VIPs talking about how they helped put this project on the map and what it would mean to commuters.

All the while, commuters were busy honking their horns and shouting expletives at the assembled crowd. I guess people were just so thrilled that they couldn't find the words to express their joy so they resorted to cursing out everyone on that bridge. The completion of the bridge is a landmark accomplishment in a place where commuting is often measured in hours rather than minutes but it doesn't help when politicians add to the problem by doing nothing more then self-adulation on the bridge. I mean many commuters are already irate that such projects are often funded at the cost of other programs such as education or through the ever popular (and sarcasm is indeed needed with this statement) increasing of taxes. At least now that the ceremonies are over, there will be less time for patting one another on the back and commuters can look forward to less commute time. At least that's the hope.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pushing Cookies on the Streets

They can be considered highly addictive, even more than some narcotics. They can be the root cause of lots of health problems including obesity and dental decay. They can also be the perfect reward after a long day. I'm not talking about drugs but rather the other most common legal form of habit forming diversion; Girl Scout Cookies. I was reading this morning about a 15-year-old girl in Michigan who sold approximately 17,328 boxes of cookies this past year. The feat, accomplished by Jennifer Sharpe, shattered the previous record and has probably set a new standard for all the nation. Now I'm not one to poo-poo the idea of selling Girl Scout Cookies but I think the method needs to be refined a bit.

As anyone who has co-workers with daughters no doubtedly knows, when it's cookie season, parents are out in force helping their kids peddle their wares. Now I think it's a fabulous way to raise revenue in order to continue operations for the Girl Scouts as well as teaching them at least the rudimentary basics of business. Still, sometimes I think the girls get so focused on the end goal that they don't see the sacrifice that should be associated with such an endeavour. What do I mean? Well I already gave the example of parents asking their co-workers if they would like to buy some Girl Scout cookies. There's always that point in the day where it's too long after lunch and you're craving some instant gratification and too far from that point in the day when you know you'll be going home. So what happens? You succumb and end up ordering two cases of Thin Mints. Okay, so that's fine, using your parents as assistants is okay for occasional trips but sometimes it's a bit much.

I remember one winter when I went to the grocery store on a particularly frigid morning. It was below freezing or close to it and there standing in the brutal wind and light snow fall just outside the store were three mothers. They could only be mothers because they were too tall and too old to be actual Girl Scouts. With heads buried under hats and scarves and hands dug deep into their coat pockets they danced the pee-pee dance in order to try and stay warm. I looked around thinking that their Girl Scout daughters may have been buried under the snow or were huddling together behind the table but when I asked where they were, one mother pointed at the store and there were the Girl Scouts standing warm and cozy in the store sitting on the lawn chair display. Out of sympathy for the mothers I bought a couple of boxes though I already had some sitting at home. Just then one of the girls came running out and checked the box which contained the boxes I had just bought and happily announced that that was yet another case 'they' had sold. She then ran back inside complaining that it was too cold.

So I ask then who is making the sacrifice? I don't doubt that young Ms. Sharpe sold every box on her own and even if she had help that's okay because the bulk of the work was undoubtedly done by her when she set up her stand on a street corner in a highly conspicous area. As the saying in real estate goes, it's all about 'location location location'. When you have someone like Ms. Sharpe you hope that others are inspired to follow her lead and take the initiative to do things to earn their rewards. I can't claim to be innocent in such matters because when I was a kid, my parents also helped me sell items for the school fundraisers and I was always appreciative though I don't think I took into account that they were doing the work and I was reaping the reward of their peddling blocks of cheese or winter holiday baskets.

I think that Girl Scout cookies are one constant that will always be there. I don't ever recall the Boy Scouts having anything similar and if it did, it was never as successful. The great things about Girl Scout cookies is that there's instant gratification. They don't come around and do much in the way of pre-sales but most of the sales come from having the product on hand and being able to give it to customers immediately (or very nearly so). In a way it truly is like a drug dealers. They give you a taste and then leave you wanting instant gratification and immediate sales. My mouth does tend to salivate at the thought of chewy Somoas or minty Thin Mints but I am trying to the best of my ability to fight off my addiction. I am weaning myself off of the cookies but it's a hard road.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

When Vader Attacks

I don't think I'm wrong when I say that "Star Wars" has had a sizeable impact on the world at large. From the characters, to the dialogues to changing the face of movies since the 1970's, I think there are very few movies that can claim to have changed the world so single-handedly. So it wasn't with too much surprise that I read that a number of people in England declared their religion in the last census to be Jedi. Now a quick word on Jedi for those who may not know; they are the guardians of peace and justice in the "Star Wars" universe and have an affinity for the Force. It's not exactly akin to a real religion but it has some religious connotations. I guess some people decided to go with the Jedi way as opposed to any other organized religion because they could identify with it more. Either that or because they are truly die-hard fans of the series.

Well in Wales this past week, a group of churchgoers was attacked outside their congregation by a miscreant wearing a Darth Vader mask and a garbage bag cape. Now, just so we are all up to speed, Vader was the symbollic enemy of the Jedi so one could almost consider him the Devil to the Jedi Force. It's strange I know but I'm sure there are tons of people out there who have stumbled across this blog entry and are either shaking their head in disgust or utter frustration at my simplifying matters so intensely. Suffice it to say that this 'attack on the church' was unprovoked and a bit violent. Apparently what happened was that 27-year-old Arwel Wynne Hughes dressed up and attacked members of the Church of Jediism which was having a non-violent dueling lesson in the front yard. Unfortunately for Hughes, the dueling practice was being filmed and Hughes was caught on film during the attack.

Hughes denies any knowledge of the attack stating that he had drunk most of a box of wine before stumbling out to attack the members of the church. He was sentenced to serve two months in prison but the sentence was suspended for one year though he did have to pay damagers to the two church members that he attacked. Now while the incident has stirred up some feelings of resentment in the community, I'm curious to see what happens next. For a lot of people, the concept of the Jedi 'religion' borders on the insane and it probably isn't far from the truth. While I will wholeheartedly admit to following "Star Wars" with something more than a passing affection, I don't think I'm going to go out and join the nearest Jedi 'church'. Still, nearly 390,000 (or 0.7 percent of the population of England) have declared their affiliation with the Jedi religion. It may not be much but it certainly is enough to warrant some attention.

Over here in the states there is protection for those wanting to practice their religion, no matter if it's related to a series of movies or to religious tomes. While I agree that this attack is a bit much, I don't think people are going to view it as anything more than kids attacking kids and that's where I feel that we are making a mistake. I don't think that the world will eventually turn to Jediism the way some of the other world religions have spread but sometimes religious fervor is sparked by nothing more than embracing a philosophy that seems to make more sense than what you're hearing at the time. And who knows, maybe in another few decades, the Jedi religion will actually crack the single digit realm and be a growing religion. How else did the some of the off-shoots of Christianity come into being? Now I'm not belittling Christianity though I would merely say that not ever form has been happily accepted from the get go and I think Jediism is much the same. What we see as kids attacking kids could be considered an attack on religious congregations and should be treated as such. I guess it's true about truth being stranger than fiction.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Every Available Seat

If you've flown anywhere in recent years you'll know that the relative affordability of airline travel these days has made flying more of a convenience than the luxury that it once was. But with rising fuel costs and increasing expenses, airlines are always looking for ways to cut costs and ensure that most airlines are flying full rather than losing ticket revenue on empty seats on a plane. How do they do that? Well one way is by overbooking a plane so that there are more passengers than seats. Usually what happens then is that passengers bumped from one flight are given accomodation on the next available flight and passengers on that next flight are then offered a bump. It's like an endless circle of life but it helps keep the revenue flowing.

What doesn't help bring in revenue is when a passenger flies for free. This was the case with passenger Gokhan Mutlu on a recent flight from California to New York. Mutlu was flying on the JetBlue flight using a "Buddy Pass" which the airline issues to employees for use as an employee incentive. Usually what it means is that the person using the ticket gets placed in an available seat for free, but usually after all other paying passengers are boarded. It can mean not getting a seat on a particular flight but hey, with prices on the rise, a free ticket is still a free ticket. However, Mutlu ended up with an experience that most of us would rather avoid. About three and a half hours into the five hour flight, Mutlu (who had been given the last available seat on the plane) was requested to relinquish he seat to the flight attendant as the jump seat in the cockpit on which she had been sitting was declared 'uncomfortable'.

Mutlu was asked to give up his seat and the pilot came back to ask if he wouldn't mind 'hanging out' in the toilet so that the flight attendant could use the seat. For anyone who has traveled on airlines, you'll know that the toilet is probably the most clausterphobic environment imaginable. I can't imagine being in a place more unhygenic and cramped either. Nonetheless, when Mutlu showed reluctance and requested to be seated in the jump seat in the cockpit, permission was refused as a passenger in the cockpit could be considered dangerous. So, even when there was turbulence during the time he was in the toilet, Mutlu was made to sit on the throne of the aircraft and hold on for dear life. Shortly before landing he was told he could go back to his seat and the flight attendant took her seat in the cockpit again.

Mutlu did the obvious and has sued the airline for $2 million. Now here's the potential rub, one could argue that since he was flying for free, he was subject to losing his seat but the logic in most people argues that despite that fact, he was subject to losing his seat on the ground and not in the air. Also, most pilots and flight crews frown on having people in the toilets when there is turbulence as it could mean the difference between a passenger being safe or being thrown about the cabin like a rag doll. Some argue that Mutlu is being excessive in suing for such a high amount but it isn't like he wasn't put in any danger. I think Mutlu has the right to sue the airline for endangering him. I agree that the captain had the discretion to keep him from the cockpit but the flight attendant should have known that because Mutlu was not an employee of JetBlue, it wasn't the same as asking a fellow flight attendant to give up the seat. Had it been another attendant, they could have taken the seat in the cockpit but that wasn't the case.

It will be interesting to see how this case plays out since many are curious to see who courts would side with. I would think that they would side with Mutlu since he is the agrieved party but still, since he was flying on a free ticket meant for employees he should have expected some inconvenience. Yet I argue that if he was treated like an employee and subjected to losing his seat in mid-flight then he should have been permitted to sit in the cockpit jump seat as he had requested. I can already hear arguements about how it could have led to a potential hijacking situation but the odds of such a series of events occuring leading to a hijacking only happen in Tom Clancy novels or in TV shows.


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Neck and Neck: The Neverending Race

And so another Super Tuesday has passed and again another group of political pundits on the radio and TV continue to espouse the importance of states and territories which have rarely ever decided anything in a primary election come to the forefront again. No knock against North Carolina or Indiana but when in recent memory have you ever seen candidates campaigning that hard against one another in states where they'd be lucky to get one candidate to show up? It's a strange case and it's likely to get stranger if both Clinton and Obama continue trading jabs the way they have been for the past weeks.

Many of you probably know that I love movies and "Rocky" is one of the ones that my brother and I grew up watching. I credit that movie with a lot of things, not the least of which was to inspire me to live a more active lifestyle and get in shape. Still, I don't think I'm one of the only ones to take inspiration from the film. I think a lot of people have used the message of the movie to form the basis of their lifestyle. I certainly think that the two frontrunners in the Democratic race have certainly had their fill and are on their way to yet another round. Still, unlike the "Rocky" movies which (for the most part) end after about two hours, we have been reliving this same 'film' by the Democratic candidates for months now. Come November it will have been more than a year that these two have been trading blows in order to become the next candidate.

I think determination is a good thing but in the case of the Democrats I think they are only hurting themselves by prolonging the nomination process. The nation hasn't been this divided over candidates within the same party in a very long time. I sometimes wonder if people realize that they are both in the same party. You wouldn't believe it given the way they take stabs at one another in debates or in commercials but it's true, they are actually in the same party. I guess they just enjoy putting the other down when given the public spotlight. Meanwhile, the frontrunner and candidate for the Republicans, John McCain is sitting with nothing else to do until the campaigns for November start. I find it humorous that he's basically on campaign vacation right now while Obama and Clinton continue to tour the country as if they are already the one and only nominee for their party.

While the competition between the two is very close, I don't know if it's grit, determination or sheer pig-headedness that is keeping one or the other from retiring from the primary race. Sure there's nothing like being the candidate that people want for the president but then again, the split is so close that I think the country's Democrats are going to be ticked off either way. Helping matters along are Repbulicans who are switching parties for the interim in order to vote in the Democratic primaries remaining so that they can select the candidate that they feel would be best suited to lose the main campaign to McCain come November. I don't know what's sillier; the fact that we're in a virtual tie and it's going to come down to Guam to decide or that Republicans are voting Democrats to choose a loser. Whatever it is, until one or the other bows out, people in places that didn't think mattered will be helping truly shape the future of our nation.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Who's to Blame in Our Global Food Crisis?

Hot on the heels of the news that the BJP in India was angry at Vijay Mallya for bringing scandalous cheerleaders to India to cheer at cricket matches, it seems they are once again getting their socks in a dander over comments that President Bush recently made during a press conference. According to a speech which President Bush made the other day, he intimated that the global food crisis was due, in part, to the increasing demand being placed on the world food supply by the increasingly affluent middle and upper class parts of India's population. The outrage was instantaneous and in some small part, understandable but whether you love President Bush and the BJP or hate them, it does create an interesting scenario to be considered.

In economics there's a theory that says as demand increases and supply is limited, manufacturers or producers can begin to basically charge anything they want in order to turn a tidy profit. It's a common enough theory, it's the basic principle which is taught to economists over here. While Bush's observations regarding the food crisis may be correct to a certain degree, it isn't correct to put the entire blame on Indian society. But look at it from this perspective. Over the past decade or so, India has seen a major shift in their prosperity due to the advances being made in Information Technology with a lot of the progress being made by Indian-born scientists and engineers. Much of this knowledge is paid for very handsomely and studies have shown that Indians today are earning much more than the previous generations of Indians ever did. So with wealth comes the demand for luxury.

As many have noted before, the infrastructure in India is ill-suited to handle the number of cars on the road yet many families have more than one car simply because there is a greater need for it and because people can afford them. Now anyone who knows a little about driving knows that the more time you spend in traffic the less fuel economy you earn. If you are burning gas much faster for less mileage then you're filling up more often. If you're filling up more often and you only have a limited supply of fuel then the costs overall start to rise. Is it making more sense now why the fuel prices around the world are on the rise? Now again, I'm not blaming India; heaven knows we have enough culprits in our own country for something like rising gas prices. Don't believe me? Just count the number of 11-miles-per-gallon-on-the-highway SUVs you see out on the roads these days and that should tell you.

President Bush isn't reputed to be among the smartest economists in the world but then again very few of the world's leaders ever are. Perhaps President Bush meant what he said when he blamed India and perhaps he didn't. Whatever the case, we all need to turn the mirrors on ourselves before we pass the blame on to someone else. For many years there were subsidies provided to farmers to keep them from growing surplus supplies of farm crops. Now there are times when we wonder why we didn't reap the benefits when we could. So are Indians to blame? No. Are Americans to blame? No. Is the international delegation working on Antarctica to blame? Maybe... but most likely no as well. So who's to blame? We all are to blame for the global food crisis, if you want to call it something so dramatic.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Progress at What Cost?

I have had many things to complain about on my drives into work over the years but in recent times I have had a mainly opposite direction commute so when traffic is backed up in one direction I'm happily going in the other. I haven't ever viewed that as a problem mainly because I spend relatively less time staring at other bumpers and more time on the road getting to and from work. Still, as often is the case, getting to the highway is where delays often occur. Near home I live pretty close to the highway so getting there truly is half the fun. On the flip side, I'm not so close and getting from my office to the highway can be a pain at times. Especially on Route 28 in Northern Virginia.

For those familiar with the area you'll know that Route 28 is a North-South route which until a few years ago was peppered with traffic lights. At the time it was initially constructed, the number of people living and working in this part of Virginia was relatively small. Over the years, a number of companies have entered the area making it the Information Technology corridor of the area and as a result of the housing boom that swept the country a few years ago housing popped up around the area as well. So an area that was considered the boonies when I was growing up is now considered the main drag for a lot of the contractors who help make Washington work the way it does. So it's only natural that a road meant to service a few hundred cars a day would be ill-equipped to handle a few thousand cars a day. And since about 2003, efforts have been going on to replace the traffic lights with highway interchange style exits and entry ramps.

This work has been largely successful and I can tell you that commute time from one end of 28 to the other is becoming a pleasure. I think it's a bit more dangerous because people basically treat it like another highway now and so some people can hit up to 80 or 90 miles per hour on what is essentially a side road running parallel to the runways at Dulles Airport. I guess some people get their kicks in racing Airbuses as they shoot down the runways. Still, while I'm happy that the work is making my commute that much easier, I still feel a twinge of regret every time I drive past the latest interchange construction site mainly because I see the number of trees being knocked down as a consequence. While I understand that this sort of thing is essential for the road to even be made, I can't help but feel some guilt over the fact that trees that have stood in those spots for decades are being knocked down and converted to mulch just so that we can get to and from work faster.

It's a small thing but still, our growth is outpacing the ability of our leaders to keep pace with our demands. Case in point is India. A few decades ago the idea of everyone owning a car was unfathomable, now it's commonplace and roads that were built for a handful are in no-way, shape, or form, ready to take on so many new car owners, buses and the like. I can see the same thing happening here. When I grew up, having a car in high school was a luxury or something you saved up for from freshman year. I drive past high schools now where the student parking lots have three times the number of cars of the teachers lot. We're going to have to keep working the infrastructure to keep pace with all these things and I can just imagine the necessary sacrifices. More trees and more of nature being pushed aside in the name of progress.


Friday, May 02, 2008

Conservatism or Hypocrisy?

Vijay Mallya, the man who I consider to be the Indian version of British entrepreneur Richard Branson (of Virgin fame) is making serious efforts to bring India to the forefront. By establishing himself as one of the leading business leaders in the country, he has already made a name for himself by purchasing a fledgling Formula One team (naturally named Force India) and is hoping to further welcome foreign influence into the country. Now while some see this as a natural progression given the fact that the country is now one of the leading homes for outsourced work. It seems that to Mallya, the natural next step is to introduce American and European style cheerleading to the sidelines of India's national pastime... cricket. Recently, Mallya flew in cheerleaders from the Washington Redskins to cheer at his cricket team's (not the national team from my understanding but I guess you can consider it to be like the minor league for Cricket) games.

While I think there's no harm in what he's attempting, I think he's overestimating the amount of foreign influence the country is ready for. While cheerleaders over here don't really dance in purposely lewdly or provocatively. Sure there are those rare occasions but I think the main problem a lot of conservative people have with cheerleaders is the fact that they wear such revealing or minimal amounts of clothing. Now honestly, if you've ever been to a sporting event where cheerleaders are present, they are so small compared to the rest of the action around you that there's not much point in making that big a deal about them. At high school games where the stadiums and arenas are a bit more 'intimate' then I can see the problem people could have with scantily dressed dancers but they are just that; dancers.

But still, like a lot of things in India, there is controversy over this decision. Some of the more conservative parties in India have already started voicing complaints over the fact that the cheerleaders are even there at all. There are protests coming from lawmakers representing the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Mumbai who stated, "This [the pictures] is not something you can allow inside your house, or something you can look at in the presence of your sister or daughter." This statement came from Nitin Gadkari who is the BJP president for the state of Maharashtra. And Maharashtra's capital is Mumbai which is home to the largest movie producing industry in the world, Bollywood. And here is where I see the hypocrisy of the conservatives come shining through.

Last year there was general backlash against Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty over a kiss the two shared at an AIDS awareness rally. The moral conservatives of the country were up in arms over this supposed 'rape' by a foreigner. At least that's what they were claiming the incident to be akin to. At that time they touted the moral conservative values of the nation and how it was wrong for this incident to take place. Now once again the conservatives of India are calling for a ban of these dancers and demanding that they be appropriately dressed for their performances at the cricket matches. I see and hear all these things and then I wonder where these same people are when Bollywood does the same thing if not even more lewdly if some of today's movies are to be a standard.

Now take a look at this still image from last year's film "Dhoom 2" and tell me if the dance moves or dress is representative of the moral conservative values of the nation. Where are these representatives when their own movie industry flaunts the opposite of the values these groups apparently stand for? They are keeping their mouths shut and their heads low at those times though the same things they are protesting are present in these films as well. I find it to be very hypocritical when these groups jump up and down screaming at one point and then turn a blind eye at the same thing at the next. If you represent a moral conservative majority in your estimation then apply these morals equally across the board.

I think part of the reason for it stems from the mentality that unfortunately a lot of Indians have. Now before you start posting comments criticizing me for speaking out against Indian ideas, be aware that my own cultural heritage is Indian so I do have some experience in this arena. I've acted in plays before and taken on roles where I played a villain. In particular I remembered one instance where I was shown to be a person of questionable character who uses drugs and is violent towards others. I viewed it as an acting challenge because it meant trying to act in a way that made people hate me. Others had rejected the part because they felt they would be associated with those negative stereotypes. I thought that was ridiculous so it was with some surprise that I heard from one of the mother's of one of my co-stars who told me that she was very shocked to realize that I wasn't at all like the character I was portraying in the play. I was actually a decent guy, or in her words, "a nice boy."

I was surprised but as I asked around I realized that lots of Indians made that assumption. When we performed a show in New York, people there who remembered me from previous plays we had performed there came and complimented me on my varied roles. Others who saw me for the first time in that villainous role kept their distance because many of them assumed that that was what I was really like. I dont' know what to call it but it's a negative trait that is very prevalent in a lot of Indians. If we see something or someone doing something that we don't like, we automatically assume it to be bad and then we hide behind our moral conservative roots. If that's the case and that's the true nature of India then kick out all of the people who dress in western attire and embrace the ideas of Gandhi wearing only homespun cloth. And if you choose to follow Gandhi's guidelines to that devout a level, do it because it's the right thing to do and not because you saw it in the latest "Munna Bhai" movie.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Paula's Lost It

I've acted in a few plays onstage in my time and though I'm not a professional, I've had a few instances where a scene didn't go according to plan and it was up to those of us on stage to try and salvage the situation. It can be awkward and uncomfortable but sometimes you can just manage to cover up the mistakes before the audience has a chance to realize that anything's gone wrong. It's harder when you have someone making a huge gaffe in front of an audience of millions on national television and when the people sitting around you on television can do nothing but look on in horror as you continue rambling and dig yourself farther into a hole. That's precisely what American Idol judge Paula Abdul did this past Tuesday night on the show.

Let me break the story for a second and provide some background. Now I'm not a regular watcher of American Idol but I caught a few episodes this season and remembering the old stories about how mean Simon Cowell could be and how ditzy Paula Abdul behaves, I decided to check it out once in a while and I've come to some conclusions. Simon can be mean but I think his observations are astute and though they can be harsh, he doesn't try to coddle the contestants like Randy Jackson or Abdul attempt to do at times. I remember seeing the audition of Taylor Hicks two years ago and thinking to myself that this guy wasn't bad. Randy and Paula applauded him at the time and while Simon was complimentary he observed that though he was good, he wouldn't be very successful if he won the contest. When the others took exception to that fact, Simon pointed out that Hicks, while talented, didn't have the looks or charisma to be successful compared to previous contestants. And indeed, Taylor Hicks was one of the few winners on the show who hasn't been as successful.

So Simon is mean but smart. Paula Abdul... well... I won't call her stupid though she isn't helping her case with some of the things I have seen her do. She's a judge who can claim to have been a famous singer and has made money from albums and song hits but lately she seems to be going off on the deep end. Her comments are often meandering and incoherent, almost as if she is having trouble connecting two thoughts together. At times, her comments basically boil down to whether or not the contestant was dressed nicely or not (most of the times she believes they are) and then professing just how much she loves them. Now this is great and all but at times it just comes of as pandering to the audience. Of course the audience is another case. Most of the time they turn the singing competition into a contest to determine which contestant is cutest and therefore worthy of winning. Again, Taylor Hicks may have been the exception but every statistical survey has outliers.

I won't say that American Idol is in my list of favorite shows and while it's nice to hear some of the talent in our country singing their hearts out week in and week out, I honestly watch it for the comments from the judges more than anything else. Simon tells it like it is (or at least how he'd like it to be) and Paula? Well... Paula just says whatever she says hoping that it makes some sense to someone. Her comments on Tuesday left a lot of interpretation to be made. For the first time, the judges were asked to withhold their comments until after the remaining contestants had sung two songs. Of course, after all five remaining contestants sang their first songs, they were lined up and the judges were asked their opinions on the songs so far. Paula started off fine but then started talking about Jason Castro's second song. Only problem was that he hadn't sung his second song yet. There was a moment where the entire room was silent and then the laughter began. Paula admitted to being confused with her notes but even then, no matter how ditzy, she's got to realize that people have only sung one song. The show hadn't lasted that long. The question now is, how long will Paula last. There are rumors that she'll leave the show but I don't think they'll do that. While Simon adds the controversy with his callous statements, I think Paula adds to the comedy.