Thursday, July 31, 2008

Only What You Carry With You

The airline industry looks to be in a slump at the moment and if the news out of JFK yesterday is any indication, it isn't going to get better any time soon. Apparently around 4:45 yesterday morning, the computers in the baggage handling areas of JFK malfunctioned and the device that scans the luggage tags on checked luggage ended up failing and so bags were no longer being automatically routed to the appropriate planes they needed to go to. The airport reacted immediately and brought in extra crews to handle the heavy volume of traffic that comes through JFK but even then, the surge didn't work. The system was quickly overwhelmed and in no time, the plane delays began to increase.

In order to reduce the ire of passengers already ticked off about having to pay for having their bags checked in, the American Airlines (who was most directly affected by the computer problems) began to send off planes without all the baggage loaded. Now there's a novel idea. Charge people for their bags, then send them off without them. Sure the bags may arrive in a day or two but is that enough to reduce the frustration and anger that many passengers feel given the fact that their flights are being delayed, they are being subject to more and more scrutiny by security prior to boarding and now there's a greater chance that their bags won't even arrive with them? Now I know that the industry has literally exploded over the past few decades but as far as I know, airports didn't always have automated systems to help with baggage handling. Back in the old days it was all done by hand, isn't that why the luggage tags have airline information on it?

Now I should point out that getting upset with the people at the ticketing desk or at the gate isn't going to do anything good for you. They are not purposely withholding your bags nor are they responsible for sorting and loading them so when I see passengers going off on these poor employees, I feel sympathy for them. Still, they are the closest persons available to hold accountable so most passengers tend to take their anger out on them. Still, you can't blame them. I mean here we are paying more and more for less service and we're still suffering through an industry that had become quite decent in recent years; at least prior to 9/11 that is.

Perhaps it was the complacency that stemmed from years of terrorist free travel that made everyone think of taking a plane to be the contemporary equivalent of taking the bus. It was so easy for anyone to walk up and board a plane with a minimal of trouble that it wasn't surprising that many people came to rely on the industry so much. Now in the face of greater demand and rising costs, it's difficult for the industry that grew with leaps and bounds to keep pace with the tide that prosperity has brought it. Why are we doing the things we're doing? Why are we paying for these things and not getting anything in return such as on time service with a better than likely chance of getting your bags with you at the end of your journey?


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Buzz Words About the Office

I've been working towards earning my MBA the past few years and I'm getting very close to the end and I must say that I'm disappointed that the one class that I've been looking forward to since I began taking courses is not being offered nor does it seem to be part of the curriculum so again I'm at a loss as to how I'm to gain this wonderful insight into 'high level' office life. I'm not talking about IT management or cost accounting or even human resources management. I'm talking about learning all the latest and greatest buzz words that are used and bandied about like kids with the latest video games.

Perhaps one gets a sense of the sarcasm that I'm elliciting in this statement but it's true, I can't tell you the number of times I've sat in on meetings and wondered how and why managers choose to use words and expressions that give deeper meaning to something so simple. Yet instead of sounding profound, they sound like cheap attempts at wanting to sound intelligent given that everyone else uses these words and expressions. I'm talking about the whole talk on 'synergy'. What the Hell is synergy? It's usually defined as the congruent usage of the strengths of two or more parties for the greatest benefit. Isn't that what 'teamwork' is supposed to mean? For years now I've been hearing about how synergistic relationships within our teams will help us achieve our goals. How a lack of synergy is holding us back rather than catapulting us forward past the competition. And now it's moving from the offices to the common man. I had a friend breakup with her longtime boyfriend because she felt there was a lack of synergy.

And it doesn't stop there. There are so many buzzwords and 'catchphrases' used out there that one can literally count the number of cliched statements that many managers use during the course of a meeting and run out of fingers and toes before the first break even occurs. Think about it. How many times have you heard managers talk about 'paradigm shifts' or 'thinking outside the box'? I think these are both one and the same term and if it is used the way it should be used, then it's fine. I mean that if you simply say 'we need to change our way of thinking and think a little outside the box' then it's fine. But when you have managers and team leads who think they are speaking sagely when they make mention of a 'paradigm shift', to me they come off sounding more like a pompous ass than an intelligent leader.

Now don't take this to mean that I think that everyone who uses such terms in their presentations (whether correctly or incorrectly is beside the point) are pompous, but some make it a point to use it in a manner that makes you think they feel that it is a new phrase or expression or way of thinking that they are bringing to the table. Usually that's not the case. Still, at least words like that are actual words. What about words in the office that don't even exist? Whoever invented the word 'ginormous' and brought it into common usage is a fool. English may not be the most complex language in existance but there are more than enough words to get a point across without resorting to made-up words.

Another is the word 'irregardless'. There is mass debate over whether this word is an actual word or not and though it is in the dictionary, most people use it incorrectly. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone use the word to counter the meaning. My understanding is that the word means with regard because the prefix 'ir-' means without and 'regardless' means without regard so by the transitive property shouldn't 'irregardless' mean with regard since the two combined parts means without without regard therefore with regard? People tend to use it when the simpler 'regardless' would work just fine. Again it's an attempt to use big words to portray an image of knowledge and wisdom. To me is just stinks of showing more than there actually is.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Eternal Sunshine of the Fickle Mind

Washingtonians are notorious for being sketchy drivers. At the first sign of snow, most of us do one of two things. Either we abandon the car running and screaming or we speed up and drive as if we're in the middle of summer. When it's raining or icy out we will tailgate to the point that if you imagined a hitch between the two cars you still couldn't get any closer. But nothing seems to slow down people on the roads like the sight of a police officer in a cruiser standing on the side of the road when you know you've been speeding a bit (and by that I mean at least 30 miles) over the speed limit. So what do you do? Slam on the brakes and hope like Hell that the cop is too stupid to realize that the radar reading from your car is rapidly showing speed dropping from 90 down to 60 MPH.

Now despite the best efforts of some of us, it's still not surprising that we get pulled over. Cops aren't as dim as many of us like to think they are and when you're sitting on the side of the road listening to the cars whoosh by you can be thinking of two things two. One, you need to keep an eye on the speed limit some more but two, and most importantly, you are probably helping to back up traffic for miles on the roads of Washington. What do I mean? Well take for example this morning. I was driving down Route 28 near Dulles Airport this morning when I took the exit and found traffic slowed to a crawl and stopping every few seconds. A stretch of road I can normally pass through in about two minutes ended up taking fifteen because of the snarl in traffic. I couldn't figure it out but I figured it was either an accident or a cop.

Sure there is construction going on on Route 28 but the construction companies around here are pretty good about posting signs about closures or causes for delays and not seeing any my mind wandered to imagining some horrible scenario down the road. After crawling along for a quarter of an hour and reaching the apparent breakaway point, I was dismayed to find that the reason for the delay was not due to an accident or police car but just a construction vehicle with flashing yellow lights. Apparently this was enough to set off the chain reaction of slowdowns that carried back through traffic slowing everyone down. I can understand slowing down for accidents, construction or even police incidents but some people take it to the extreme and come to a near stop to see what's going on and gawk. I don't have the time or the inclination to do so but I end up having to thanks to those less road-worthy.

Now I'm dreading what's happening in San Mateo, California coming over to our coast and causing further traffic delays. Apparently the cops out there know that most people freak out at the sight of a police cruiser and tend to slow down so despite budget cuts and the inability to put enough cops out on the roads, the San Mateo police came up with the solution pictured above. A dummy of an officer that sits in a police cruiser near speed prone areas and effectively serves to freak people out and slow them down. I think it's a fiscally conscious solution to a problem that has long plagued the police who are looking to keep the roads safe. What I think they and most everyone else fails to remember is the fact that once past the sight of temporary fear, the speed picks up again. Big time. Everyone making up for 'lost time' speeds to the point of becoming even more dangerous. Still, as we have seen here in Washington, you don't even need a dummy in a cruiser. Flashing lights is enough. We've all been conditioned like Pavlov's dog and lights are enough. I should know, I sat through light induced slow-downs this morning.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Are Aliens Among Us?

These days whenever you ask if 'aliens are among us' most people are quick to assume that you're inquiring about illegal immigrants or some such scenario. With so many other concerns in the world it's not surprising that the truth behind the question regarding extraterrestrials is forgotten and no one bothers to really examine it any more. I mean back during the 1990's when things seemed to be on an upswing and the economy and life was tending to settle down what with the end of the Cold War, people turned their attention back to the stars so to speak. Shows like "The X-Files" and such tended to shine more light on the possibility of a vast government conspiracy aimed at quashing the truth before it got out.

Now there are plenty of naysayers out there who are reluctant to believe that man has walked on the moon let alone that there are other forms of life out in the universe. To them we are the sole form of existance in this universe and that's that. I like to quote Carl Sagan in his thoughts that if we are the only form of intelligent life in the universe then that is truly a waste of space. Literally and figuratively. I am one of those dreamers that wants to believe that there are other forms of life out beyond the stars just waiting to visit us and show us their presence. Perhaps they have already visited us and we just don't know it. For centuries, man has reported lights in the skies or strange looking beings walking among us or visiting us. All manner of strange phenomena have touched most remote corners of the world leaving the populated areas virtually untouched by these cosmic visitors.

For a while it seemed that perhaps interest in this theory was dying out among the general population when lo and behold here comes 'definitive' word from one of NASA's own astronauts and one of the last men to walk on the moon, Edgar Mitchell. According to Mitchell, he clarifies his earlier statements that he recently made regarding the existance of extraterrestrials. According to him he has been in contact with some of those who claim to have been around or involved with the supposed UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947. At that time it is rumored that an alien ship crashed and the US government found it only to cover up the whole thing and claim it was a weather balloon. The careers of many military personnel at the time were effectively ended when they tried to point out the inconsistencies with those claims and again, the public figured that it was just a bunch of crazies looking to cash in on some mundane incident.

But the statements by Mitchell, a respected astronaut and scientist have led some to wonder whether there is truly something behind these rumors. I myself wonder that at times. I simply wonder why though, if aliens do exist and do wish us to know or at least acknowledge their existance, why they tend to appear in such remote locations that no one ever encounters them and those that do are so eccentric and 'crazy' to begin with that no one wants to believe them. I'm not saying that aliens should pull an 'Independence Day' and show up one day hovering over our major cities but at the very least, if they start showing us signs that they exist then maybe that drive to discover the truth will be rekindled. Maybe this curiousity in me is partly driven by wanting to know what really is out there and perhaps some of the drive is egged on by my fascination with science fiction in general but I am hopeful that perhaps someday, the truth will truly come to light.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Maintaining a Stellar Record

With the airline industry currently in a period of relative dismalness in light of reduced service and higher prices, it's easy to overlook the incidents which prove that the airline industry is still managing to serve the public and provide fast transport around the world. Case in point, the incident yesterday on a Qantas flight from Melbourne, Australia to London, England. Apparently enroute, approximately one hour from Hong Kong, the plan experienced a 'loud bang' and oxygen masks were deployed.

The crew headed by Captain John Francis Bartels immediately took action and dropped the massive Boeing 747-400 down from it's cruising altitude about 30,000 feet to 10,000 feet where the sudden depressurization could be handled. Now call it a marvel of engineering that the plane didn't disintegrate in mid-air or call it the conduct of a professional crew who reacted as appropriate to ensure the safety of the passengers, but in either case, it's just proof that the airline industry is still the safest way to travel. The 350 passengers were then taken to Manila where the plane landed safely and after clearing customs, were taken in for treatment at a makeshift hospital at the Manila airport. There is still no indication as to what caused the hole to rip open but it appears to have formed near the cargo door (which is also missing).

Apparently the Captain came on the P.A. shortly after the hole 'popped open' and had lowered the plane's altitude to tell the passengers what was happening. Some passengers got to use their air sickness bags after the incident but other than that there were no major injuries. I think it's a credit to the captain and his crew that they managed to land the plane safely and without further incident. When you constantly get bombarded with news about how this airline captain arrived to work drunk or that airline captain was grossly incompetent and unable to take-off from the appropriate runway, it is easy to become pessimistic about how capable these pilots really are. I think that no matter where they are or what airline they fly for, there takes a certain degree of skill to land these massive machines. Sure the computers can practically do all the work for you but in cases like this, it's always reassuring to have a steady hand and mind at work to take care of business.

Arrangements are being made to get the passengers back on board another Qantas flight and get them back on their way to London though the investigation into the incident continues. It's odd that these sorts of things happen more frequently these days. I mean a few weeks back parts were falling off a Delta flight en route here in the United States. Other times doors or flaps have fallen off of planes. I don't think it's the fault of the airlines if planes are being pushed to the limits of their structural lives but maybe it's time to look back and re-examine whether this is truly the way we want to push the industry in order to get to where we're going with the least amount of delay with the maximum number of bags allowable with the best service for the price. Maybe the two aren't related but it's something to consider. In any case, I still remember the words of Ray Babbitt in "Rain Man"... "Qantas. Qantas. Yeah. Qantas never crashed." Yup... he was and still is right.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Protecting Our Children from "The Dark Knight"

I will be the first to agree that parents these days probably have a tougher job in raising kids than our parents did. That's not to say that raising kids is ever an easy responsibility but these days there are so many more sources of potential 'threat' to children that we adults (and I am tempted to use the term loosely) are sometimes in a dilemma as to how best to accomplish that goal. For example, take the case of Premier Morris Iemma from South Wales, Australia, who is attempting to bar Hungry Jacks restaurants from cross-promoting "The Dark Knight" movie with their childrens meals.

Children's meals, or Happy Meals as I've always known them, have long tied into movies as a means of raising revenue. I think George Lucas can be called the progenitor and king of this money-making operation when he began marketing and more or less franchising out his copyrighted material for reproduction in the form of toys and McDonald's meals. These days you can expect most major movies to be tied into some form of restaurant tie-in advertising. I remember back in 1999 when "Episode I" of "Star Wars" was released. Movie fans who had grown up with the films were bombarded at seemingly every corner by some form of promotion or the other and for those who were looking for escape, it was very hard to come by. But the thing with the newer "Star Wars" movies was, like it or not, they were tailored more with kids in mind than anything else. Had this been several decades ago during the pessimistic period which spawned directors like George Lucas and his co-horts, it would have been a much darker movie and perhaps, though the main storyline would have stuck, it wouldn't have necessarily been as 'kid-friendly'.

Now parents are faced with the dilemma which Mr. Iemma is attempting to stave off and that's getting kids Happy Meals while explaining to them why the can't see a particular movie. Though the general perception is that Batman is simply a comic book character, he is most decidedly darker than someone like Superman. Indeed the two characters have always been at odds with one another about their various techniques in crime-fighting. Where Superman would work within the relative confines of the law, Batman would regularly bend or occasionally break them to yield the results he wanted. Most parents don't realize that and in wanting to make their kids happy they will take their kids to see the movie despite the ratings being the way they are for obvious reasons. "The Dark Knight" is decidedly not a childrens movie. Though the Joker is often portrayed as a laughing madman, in this case he is shown to be truly homicidal and that isn't the best thing for kids to see.

This movie is a polar opposite departure from the "Batman" films of the Joel Schumacher era where Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy would trade quips while Batman pulls out a credit card with his name on it. These new films crafted by director Christopher Nolan are much much darker and are probably more closely related to the original premise of the character than the campy 1960's show would have you believe. While that's a good thing for getting us adults to enjoy the movie as being something more than just a simple comic book movie, it's a pain for parents who have to explain to their kids that they aren't old enough to see the movie. To the kids, it's just another form of their favorite cartoon and comic book characters on the big screen. Unfortunately for them, kids are very impressionable and this can lead to some decidedly negative influences.

I think Mr. Iemma is definitely doing what he can to stave off problems that I'm sure he's faced given the fact that he's the father of four children though I'm sure he'll also come under fire from people who view him as being an alarmist. I would hesitate in calling him an alarmist because if kids even attempt to emulate even a bit of what they see in the Joker, we're in for a lot of trouble. Kids see things with different eyes; we should know, most of us were that age at one time or another though some of us tend to behave as if we were born adults. Knowing how impressionable kids can be, it's up to us to ensure that they are not exposed to negative things that can influence them wrongly. Whether it is video games or movies, it's up to the parents to be the ultimate gatekeepers on these items. Politicians can help, but the final word should be from the parents. Don't let someone else fight your battles.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Batman or the Joker for Father of the Year

In case you've been under a rock for the past week or so, you'll know that the sequel to "Batman Begins" titled "The Dark Knight" opened last week and smashed all existing box office records for an opening night and opening weekend. The movie has been acclaimed by all manner of audience from the die-hard fan to the casual viewer to the critics. Many people are obviously drawn to see the final screen performance of the late Heath Ledger but mostly they are drawn in to see the movie that so many are raving about. Apparently though there are some people out there who take their fandom a bit too far.

If not taking their fandom too far they are at least getting confused as to which character, the Batman or the Joker, they should be seeking to imitate. What am I saying? Well apparently last Thursday night, the night "The Dark Knight" had its midnight premiere there were lines and crowds all over the country. Some theatres were running shows every fifteen minutes due to there being such huge crowds. In Utah was where David Farnham entered the scene. Seeing as how "The Dark Knight" is rated R for so many different reasons, Farnham apparently did the responsible thing and declined to take his 2-year-old son along. Batman would be proud. Unfortunately, Farnham was apparently determined to see the movie on opening night. So what does he do? He takes his 2-year-old son with him and keeps him in the car with the windows rolled up in 87-degree heat. Granted it was at night but a locked up car is still a locked up car isn't it? The Joker would be proud.

The movie itself runs for about two and a half hours and with previews it's nearly three hours long so imagine sitting in a sauna for about three hours with no ventilation and you get an idea of what Farnham's son probably went through. Luckily fellow theatregoers noticed Farnham's son locked in the car crying and they immediately notified the authorities and theatre managers and managed to get the kid out. Medics found the child a bit dehydrated and distressed but otherwise okay. Farnham, needless to say, was arrested on charges of child endangerment. Now thankfully this episode ended on a relatively positive note but it could have been much worse.

Now I can understand wanting to see the movie bad enough and having to take kids into consideration but do you mean to tell me that there was no alternative for Farnham other than to leave his kid in the car in the parking lot? Even if he didn't want to shell out money for an additional ticket (since someone under 17 can be accompanied by an adult) I'm sure he didn't want to deal with the nasty looks from fellow moviegoers at a kid who could have cried and complained through much of the movie. Not wanting to deal with that potential problem, he decided to do the even less responsible thing and leave his kid in the car. I'm sure there are probably many other things that Farnham could and should have done but that's ultimately his decision. So many people ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" when confronted with confounding decisions. In Farnham's case, perhaps he should have asked "What would Batman do?" instead of falling into the obvious trap of doing what the Joker would have done.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Non-Smoking Breaks

For as long as I have worked in an office (going on nearly 17 years now), I have never taken a smoking break. I can remember some of my co-workers and roommates stepping out on occasion to go smoke since smoking was no longer allowed in most office buildings. I never got into the smoking habit so I can't relate to the 'overwhelming' desire that smokers seem to get on occasion. I do realize that for some it is more than a mild addiction and it requires them to light up every so often otherwise the results vary from mild irritation to utter and total meltdowns. Perhaps they're the ones incessantly chewing nicotine gum while on overseas flights.

In any case, for those of us who work with serial smokers, it can sometimes be difficult to carry on work since some of these folks are dashing out to the smoker's compound outside the building that they are barely around to discuss things with. I remember having one manager who was outside seemingly every ten to twenty minutes. I know that for some smokers, in times of stress, nothing takes the edge off like a quick cigarette but then what about those of us who take our stress out via coffee? Are we to stand around or sit at our desks waiting for your cigarette break to end? I thought about it at that time and wondered how much productivity time is lost due to unnecessary trips to the ground floor and back loading dock or side smoking area in order to light up.

I started wondering again recently due to the fact that I work in a campus of buildings that are located in close proximity to one another. On occasion I have to run in between buildings for meetings or work or whatever and I pass by the smoker's areas for each building during each of those trips and what I found was that some people were out there all the time. And I literally mean all the time. It didn't matter what time I went (because I don't follow a schedule on going between buildings) and I have varied my routine by as much as several hours and yet, these folks are outside smoking and carrying on conversations and many of them are not related to work. If you have a team that all smokes then great, you can probably carry on meetings with no interruption but for the rest of us, it's a bit of a problem.

I wondered if anyone looking for any of these regular smokers would know where to look and whether it was even possible for these guys to get started on the day. I know of smokers who go out every two to three hours. That's fine. At least then they get some work done and then move out. If I go into a friend's office and shoot the breeze with them every hour, I would be considered a laze-a-bout. Tell me though, what's the difference other than my not smoking? Nothing. That's why I wonder why is it that more people don't insist on non-smokers breaks? If we are okay with loss of productivity in certain sectors why not have loss of productivity across the board then? I think that's the way to go isn't it? Fair and equitable.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

High Fuel Prices Low Cruising

The summer after I graduated high school (and before I started college) my parents bought me my first car. It was a fairly decent 1991 Ford Escort that had four doors, a sun roof, a moon roof and for me, my brother and my friends, it was our ticket to a summer of fun. I think every teen considers it a right of passage and a sign of freedom that comes with getting older. A few weeks ago I was flipping channels and I happened across one of my favorite movies, "American Graffiti" and even though I didn't live during the time period depicted in the film, I could relate to the cruise culture of the car drivers in the film. I related it to the time after I had my license and my car and how my friends and I would go anywhere we chose.

That time fuel prices were just reaching a dollar per gallon for regular unleaded and when it hit a $1.09 per gallon I remember thinking that I would be spending lots more money to enjoy the freedom I had just acquired. I had a summer job with very decent pay for a high school grad and so I was never short of money to take care of it, yet fuel was never something I thought of. Flash forward about fifteen years and now I feel the pinch every time I fill up and I can only imagine what some of the younger kids out there must be feeling. There was an article in the Washington Post this morning about how rising fuel costs have a lot of kids reconsidering their cruising lifestyle. Perhaps stauch environmentalists will applaud the downturn in teen driving which means less pollution in the environment but I think it's a loss of a valuable part of growing up.

Sure there are lots of reasons to be against teen driving given the number of accidents and incidents new drivers seem to get into but is it enough to applaud the hard realities that they face now? When fuel was cheap and I could fill up my tank on ten dollars, that meant one less CD (or audio cassette....which were still around at the time) that I could purchase. Now when I look at how much I'm filling up I realize that it's about the equivalent of several CDs, a few books and some groceries; all things vital to my survival. When I was younger with not much financial burden on my hands, it was good to go out and cruise around just for fun. We would often go to the mall, the movies, or anywhere else we felt like going and we didn't have to worry about anything other than getting caught for speeding.

Now with limited income or less fuel efficient first cars, many teens are curbing back on those tendancies and are sitting at home rather than partaking in this rite of passage into adulthood. I think it's sad in a way given that many of us growing up learned how to budget given that we were shelling out for fuel now in addition to getting our own things. Sure, some of us may have had parents who paid for a lot of our expenses but still, saving for fueling up every week or every other week was a way to start figuring out how much to save and how much to spend. Now lots of kids are only learning how to save simply because it costs an arm and a leg to even drive to the mall and back more than once a week. Perhaps a decrease in the reliance on oil will lead to more fuel efficient cars but until that time, I think we're going to see a change in the way many teens look at driving for a while.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Flying on Fumes

Well as if we didn't have enough to worry about when flying these days, there are more items for us to be a bit worried about. What with all the complaining about being charged for practically everything these days on airline flights (from what was once normal meal service to an extra piece of checked luggage... and sometimes for a single piece of checked luggage) it seems only logical that in the face of rising fuel costs, airlines would take actions meant to help ease their costs. Unfortunately, this latest course of action seems a bit riskier than other attempts that have been made to be fiscally conservative and it has to do with gas. I'm not talking about passengers with upset stomachs being grouped together but rather how much fuel is loaded into a plane.

It seems that the Airline Pilots Association representing nearly 5,200 airline pilots in the United States took out a full page ad in several papers across the nation which expressed their shock and outrage at the fact that some airlines (cough cough... U.S. Airways... cough cough) have been putting in just enough fuel in some of their flights that will literally get them from point A to point B and that's pretty much it. Now I've had some flight training so I know it is quite possible to calculate down to the almost the tenth of a mile just how far you can go on how much fuel based on weight and predicted speed. What they don't really help you plan for is how much longer you can remain in the air in light of problems like bad weather diversions or weather problems. I guess it helps explain a whole lot of the problems airlines have been running into these days and why pilots have been taking actions that seem odd at times.

I mean remember the cases where passengers were kept on board the plane with no A/C running and no other ammenities made available to them? Why? Well think about this; when you're in your car and you leave the engine on, the A/C continues to blow relatively cold air but it also continues to burn fuel since the engine is on and idling. In planes it's much the same thing but there's no 'accesories' function on most planes that allow you to leave the engines off and have the A/C working full blast. So if they pull away from the gate and are on internal power and you are made to wait, you will wait so that you can save on fuel since you won't have enough to get to where you're going otherwise. And I don't know about you but I don't fancy having to divert due to lack of fuel on board.

Now I'm not defending a pilot's choice to conserve fuel when and how possible but I am hoping that some of these airline leaders come to their senses and realize just how dangerous this could be. Do you want to save fuel and costs for flights? There are other things they could do; all of which would probably be about or as logical and dangerous as this fuel cutting / conserving effort currently underway. What could they do? Well given that most airlines have little to no service anymore, you don't need to have extensive flight crews so just have one crew member for the entire plane. Food service has been cut other than in business and first class, why not cut it for everyone. After all, airline food has never been a culinary flight of fancy so why not get rid of it completely? There are a few pounds right there?

But why stop there? Get rid of inflight magazines and catalogues. Most of us lug some form of sustinence and entertainment on board planes when we travel these days anyways so why do we need anything other than the flight safety card? One magazine may not seem like much but try lifting about 100 and then see how heavy that stack becomes. There's another ten minutes of fuel in the air. But still... why stop there? Most domestic flights are about five hours at the most (from east to west coast and vice versa). Why not close off theh bathrooms for those flights unless absolutely necessary? I mean if you have a doctor's note saying you have a weak bladder or something okay.. then the flight attendant can let you in but seriously, on most domestic flights, very few people use the facilities. On long haul overseas flights its a different story but for short hops if you can't hold it then you need to see a doctor anyways. There now; with the bathrooms closed off, you can then elminate sewage weight and water weight for the bathrooms and toilets. Yet anoher massive saving on weight.

But finally, given that we're in an age of computer renaissance, why not take the ultimate leap and get rid of at least one pilot? GPS systems and auto piloting systems are run so precisely that having a pilot can be a redundancy right? This means you have nearly double the flight crews available to fly so you can fly more routes or fly popular routes more frequently. Wow! Think about that. We are talking about single-handedly doing something to revitalize the airline industry. Now if someone in a major airline happens to stumble upon my humble blog and discovers this wonderous post, I'm sure they may consider running with this concept and transforming their airline into the low-cost competitor that this market truly needs. I probably won't get the due credit for coming up with a plot that seems worth of the Joker but it can't be any worse that flying on a jet with barely enough fuel to get you to where you're going.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Playing the Bad Guys

This Friday, Heath Ledger will appear on screens across the world even though he passed away from an accidental drug overdose several months ago. His final film role will be one which already has many critics and experts proclaiming will ensure him at the very least an Oscar nomination. What is astounding about this fact is not so much the fact that the honor would be bestowed posthumously, but that the role garnering the nomination is actually based on a comic book character. Heath Ledger, in case you didn't know, will be starring as the Joker in the sequel to the hit film "Batman Begins" and from all accounts, his portrayal is so disturbing and unique from Jack Nicholson's 1989 portrayal of the same role that many believe that he will have created the most lasting and definitive version of the villain on the movie screen.

What amazes me about this fact is not so much the fact that Heath Ledger is playing the part, but that so many big name actors these days and indeed some of the most sought after roles in Hollywood and elsewhere are the villainous ones. I couldn't figure out why but in thinking about it, I realized that part of it has to do with our deeper desire to understand something that is generally so alien in thought to the rest of us that these types of portrayals give us some insight into the character. Take for example the Joker. His origins in the comics have changed over the years as have his characterizations. Back in the 1960's on the campy television show, the Joker was just that.... a joker. Sure he had evil plans and all but he rarely did anything that seemed menacing. In fact the most menacing thing he ever did was to threaten to kill Batman and Robin in a slow moving death machine which was clearly too cheap to hurt a gnat let alone the Bat.

Later versions of the character, no doubt influenced by the rise in psychological profiling of criminals led to characterizations of the Joker as someone demented and twisted with such a vile sense of humor that it was scary to even consider being in the same room as this person. The Joker took on a life and became such a deeper character that there was more to the portrayal than simply laughing hysterically and jumping up and down wearing funny clothes. Sure that's still a part of the character, but there's a deeper meaning to it all. I'm sure we'll see these nuances in the performance of Ledger's Joker when the film opens. As an actor, I'm sure he found the challenge in wanting to bring true menace to someone who seems so comical but has a twisted rationale for everything he does. It makes the character that much more complex to play.

Although Batman is probably one of the more complex heroes to play, the motivation of heroes is something we come to understand quite easily. We are raised (for the most part) to accept a certain set of ideals and traits that are considered to be the norm for society. Most heroes suffer some loss that leads to their drive to do good and though it can be a difficult road, it's one that most of us can relate to. We can understand why a hero becomes a hero when we see how their motivation comes to pass. Whether it's the loss of close family or some other personal tragedy, heroism is the most obvious outcome. But for villains, this motivating factor can sometimes lead to other outcomes. Case in point is Darth Vader. When the original "Star Wars" trilogy was released, Vader was accepted as the villain without a doubt. Though there was always that underlying hope that he would listen to Luke and come to the light side of the Force again, there was always that acceptance that he was evil. Not so once the prequel trilogy was released.

Once we saw what motivated this character into becoming evil, though the movies may have dumbed it down or downplayed it to appeal to kids, we understood why someone could be so seemingly good and yet turn to evil when everyone in the audience was screaming for them to be good. Vader / Anakin Skywalker is like a tragic hero whereas someone like the Joker may have suffered tragedy but was likely already in that mindset. When that mystery remains it makes it all the more compelling. But when we see that motivation and change happen right in front of our eyes as we will supposedly see with the transformation of Aaron Eckhart's character from good upstanding district attorney Harvey Dent into the villain Two-Face, maybe again we'll understand why someone so good can end up being bad. Perhaps that's why so many actors and actresses are keen on playing the villain, it helps us realize that the only difference between good and evil is a truly thin line.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When Satire Goes Astray

I think satire is one of the finest forms of human expression that there is in a world where we sometimes take things so seriously that humor can often seem to be a relic of the past. There are times when satirical humor can cut to the heart of the issue and bring to light the certain absurdity that is often our reality. And then there are times when satire goes a bit too far and ends up being fodder for the opposition to point to as if to say, "see? I'm right!" The recent cover of the New Yorker magazine is one such example. As you can see, the cover image is a picture of Barack Obama and his wife Michelle fist bumping in the Oval Office of the White House. That image in and of itself would have been okay but the image is further 'satirized' by having an American flag burning in the fireplace, a painting of Osama Bin Laden hanging over the mantle, Michelle Obama dressed in camoflague pants with a rifle and ammo and Obama himself dressed in Muslim garb.

The title of the cover article is "The Politics of Fear" and it is an apt title as this is the one image that many Americans tend to be worried about. They fear that this is exactly what they'll get if Obama is elected to the Presidency. Now this is exactly what satire is supposed to be. An humorous look at what many people perceive to be the truth and then taking it to such an extreme that you're supposed to look at it and chuckle. Unfortunately I think the timing of this image is a bit wrong simply because while Obama has been out campaigning for what seems like forever, he is still not widely known to much of the American public and so there's danger in showing such images. Unfortunately, for people living outside of the immediate Washington area, there is a vaccum in existance when it comes to an understanding of politics and our political leaders. Living in this area, one is exposed to a tremendous amount of political information. Outside the area, you smell one whiff of something slightly non-kosher and what you see is often times what you presume to get.

What that means is that most people outside the area will see this image and take it to be the truth. They won't bother to read that the article is meant to portray just how ridiculous some claims against political nominees can be. They will see this image of someone so unpatriotic that it won't matter if Obama wears a flag for the rest of his life, he will still be portrayed and assumed to be an anti-American the entire time. Now if the editors at the New Yorker magazine intended to show Obama in such a manner with the assumption that everyone in the world is as savvy or understanding as their readers from New York then they had better wake up and smell the reality of the situation. For most of us, we'd rather read the captions of an article than spend time and read through the entire article to understand what the context is.

Sure. Some people will argue that they are very much involved in reading the entire newspaper and that's wonderful for those who do but for the vast majority of us, it's just an exercise in futility. Not everyone goes out of their way to understand what is being said and in this case, these same people will likely see this picture and have even greater doubts as to what Obama truly stands for. It's just another sad state of affairs when you have to avoid such situations completely knowing that someone will take something so far out of context that the original meaning is lost. I can't help but imagine that this image is going to play out for a while, not long but for a while, and it will end up hurting Obama in some respects but not because of anything he did but because of what it shows. It's a fake drawing but it has a nasty way of becoming the truth.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Fairy Tales with a Twist

Sometimes I think we take things a bit too far. I mean there are memories from my childhood which I treasure such as story time or things like that but it seems that these days, there is more concern for protecting children from the 'evil messages' that these stories could convey rather than in the moral of said story. It seems that the Education Department and some parents groups are pushing for teachers and librarians and anyone who reads to children for that matter, to begin caveating their stories with valuable lessons meant to teach kids what was wrong in the story and how they should learn from it. What do I mean? Read on.

Take for example the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. A classic tale about porridge and finding a comfortable bed (I guess at the time they didn't have the concept of NASA foam beds or sleepnumber beds). I don't have to go through the whole tale since most people know it but at the end of the tale, now the readers would have to tell the kids the valuable lessons they need to take away from this story which are: (1) don't mess with bears in the woods, (2) don't steal from anyone as it is a felony and punishable with significant jail time for multiple offenses, (3) don't eat strange food as it could be poisoned or full of salmonella (I guess that's a lesson for all of us) and finally (4) don't go wandering in the woods on your own and expect to find shelter with plenty of food and beds (albeit at various temparatures and sizes).

What about Hansel and Gretel? Well if your parents leave you in the woods to be taken in by an evil witch, you should probably contact child services and tell them that you've got some hair-brained parents trying to dispose of you illegally. Don't use breadcrumbs as a trail as it may not be eco-friendly and the chemicals in some breads could be hazardous to some animal life. Don't be tempted by strangers with candy or gingerbread houses as they may be well beyond their expiration date and the ingredients may have gone bad. Don't accept offers by witches to take a 'bubble bath' as they are probably intending to cook you. And if a witch does attempt to cook you, don't take justice into your own hands and burn her up in a stove but rather call the police and report her for attempted homicide and attempted canibalism. Let justice be done, not vigilantism.

As you can see, there is still a lot of use to be made of the old fairy tales we grew up with. And the lessons that we take away from these are as valuable today as they were at the time they were written. I guess it just means that kids have to be told what they should and shouldn't do as many may end up thinking that self defense is okay in all cases since that's what the characters in the fairy tales did. I just find it ridiculous that we have to resort to such methods to 'protect' the children and ensure that they don't get hurt in some way, shape or form. I don't think these stories 'hurt' kids in any way or teach them the wrong lessons. In fact I think these stories are meant to be just that, stories.

For generations kids have heard these tales and I don't think any of them have turned out kids who are that dumb that they wouldn't take away from a parent the simple lesson of don't talk to strangers. If a fairy tale tells of the negative results of following a stranger, why do we need to spell it out for them. Why do we need to treat kids like kids but to the extreme? Sometimes I think if you talk to a kid like an adult (not by cursing or ranting at them) but logically, and respectfully, they will probably take the lesson away much easier than if you talk down to them and get them to understand what all is going on. We are becoming to paranoid a society and feel that every little bump is going to adversely affect kids to the degree that they can't function rationally in society. I personally think some of the people who come up with these solutions need to have a relaxed discussion sometime and think these things through logically. Maybe they need to be talked to like kids and not the reverse.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Are We There Yet?

Times are tough and they are getting tougher, there's no denying that. All major industries are undergoing pressures to provide the same level of service to customers despite the rising costs of fuel and other items that can sometimes push companies to the limit. I mean if you think about it, most of us complain about having to pay to fill up ten gallons of fuel in our cars every week. Imagine paying more than premium prices to fill up with a couple of hundred pounds of fuel (which has an even higher octane rating than the fuel for our cars) and you can just imagine how costly it is for planes to fly from one city to another.

What many of us tend to forget or be ignorant of is the concept that the heavier the plane, the more power needed to generate the lift to keep it in the air. See in a nutshell, planes fly because they are pushed through the air by the engines which helps get air flowing over the wings and due to pressure differentials, lift is generated and the plane flies. Now if the plane is heavier, it's going to take more power to get that push so obviously it will require more fuel to get to where you're going. Therein lies the problem. We are all getting... ahem... somewhat heavier despite our best attempts and our bags are getting heavier as well and so the overall weight is going up. What to do? Get passengers to reduce the weight of course but that rarely happens these days. So what to do then? Why charge for extra bags! Not everyone is doing it yet but those days are coming.

Well that alleviates some of the problem but some people are not so cheap that they won't pay a few bucks to ensure they have sufficient wardrobe for the duration of their trip so though it helps add money to airline coffers, it's not enough to offset the additional fuel costs. So US Airways has hit on a novel approach to reducing weight. Get rid of the entertainment. No, I'm not talking about noisy unruly passengers or the aggravating clods who everyone enjoys watching bumble around the cabin, I'm talking about the seatback TVs or ceiling mounted televisions on all domestic flights. By doing so US Airways estimates that they will reduce the weight of their aircraft enough help lessen the cost to the airline. Now I'm all for helping stabilize prices though I'm just curious to know where this trend will end.

We are already shelling out more for smaller seats with nothing more than drinks and a bag of four pretzel sticks (if that) on most domestic flights. We have to pay for what was once free, we are paying to carry our bags on the planes and we're paying extra if we're a bit overweight (in some cases). There's talk of charging people based on how much they weigh, there's even talk of charging for carry-on baggage. That being said, isn't it becoming more of a case of reasons not to fly than reasons to fly? Now with the news that in-flight entertainment will be removed leads me to wonder how in the Hell some of us will make it through long-haul domestic flights. Sure most of us carry iPods, laptops, game systems, or portable DVD players but if we're being charged for carrying those as well, won't we start reconsidering? And why would it end there?

Now I wouldn't blame the flight crews for this. They are no more responsible than you are for deciding where your office builds their next location. As the saying in government goes, it's above their pay grade. That being said, I'm sure there will be reports of people lashing out at the flight crews for the loss of TV. Still, in the face of incidents with passengers being stranded in their plane for hours on end with nothing to do and no place to go, it just seems that this would be the wrong move to make. I understand wanting to limit weight and make flights profitable again but how about doing something like reducing the number of seats? If you give people a bit more room then perhaps they'll be more willing to fly. Plus you'll have fewer people and that means overall weight would be down wouldn't it? All I can think of right now is that I'd be wise to invest in some iPod battery life extenders before the next time I fly.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Crystal Skulls are Skullduggery

This summer, the movie world was stunned into excitement when Indiana Jones returned to hunt down mystical crystal skulls in his latest movie, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls". Well, people were apparently even more excited when they realized that there actually were crystal skulls in existance and that they could see them. However, it appears that the joke was on them, and the rest of us as well. In what can only be described as the best sort of misdirection and tall tales, three crystal skulls at museums in the United States, France and England have recently been declared fakes.

So what's the big deal? Well, the story went that these skulls, acquired at various times over the past century, were actually artifacts of a long since vanished race of Mesoamerican craftsmen. The legend surrounding them was that there were apparently 12 of them and if all 12 were brought together with the mythical 13th, then it would help stave off the doomsday that is currently scheduled for December 21, 2012 (or 12/21/12). This date for a possible doomsday was set according to Mayan calendar and it lent a mythical and somewhat significant air to the skulls that had thus far been acquired. After George Lucas used them as the Macguffin device for his latest cinematic adventure, there was tremendous eagerness to see these skulls which had long been touted as authentic artifacts from the past. This was despite the fact that the skulls had a bit of a spotty past.

It turns out that on further investigation, scientists found carving marks inconsistant with something that was supposedly carved at the height of Mayan power. In fact, the skull at the Smithsonian (which was acquired in the early 1960's) shows signs of having been manufactured up to a decade before it was sold to the museum. Similar signs have been found on the skulls in France and England and although those skulls are somewhat older, they are not old enough to have been made by actual Mayan hands. Unless the craftsman's name was Maya, I'm afraid that's as close as anyone is going to get those skulls to being 'Mayan'. I find it disappointing that this turns out to be the case. I'm a lover of history and I find the study of artifacts from our past is a window into how mankind has developed.

Some could argue that the skulls, had they been authentic, would still have been a mystery and would have remained one for many years to come and though that's true, I think such artifacts only serve to pique the curiousity of all people. Why are we so fascinated by things in museums? Because some of them are surrounded by mystery or reverence. Who used these things, where did they come from, why were they designed this way? These are all questions that these mysterious objects serve to elicit and helps bring the past alive in our imaginations. There is some part of each and every one of us that has a secret hope that perhaps someday there will be some massive revelation about some of the mysteries that dot our planet.

From Stonehenge to the crystal skulls, there are tons of things out there that have made man curious for a long time and it appears that in this case, the crystal skulls have turned out to be nothing more than a wild goose chase. Perhaps the Mayans really did have crystal skulls or perhaps it was just a story some writer before George Lucas came up with as a means of selling of his morbid attempt at pop art. Indeed, records indicate that the skulls that have been found to be fakes were in the collection of a French collector named Eugene Boban Duverge and were sold on to various places. There was some credence to them being authentic at the time due to the fact that Boban had nearly 2,000 pre-Columbian artifacts. I guess the assumption was that if someone who has such a love for the time period, they must be real. I guess he maybe knew something the rest of us chose to take at face value for a long time. Oh well, if George Lucas needs props for the next Indiana Jones sequel, he knows where to find some.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Flying the Unfriendly Skies

I think it's safe to say that flying these days is not like in the old days. And by the old days I would say about as recently as a decade ago. These days it seems that not a day goes by without some new report coming out about how a flight was diverted due to an unruly passenger (or passengers) or because the flight crew had some major or minor issue. One side blames the other and vice versa. It's fast becoming an arguement that could only be compared to the chicken and the egg question that has perplexed mankind for generations and will likely remain unanswered for all eternity.

Still, flying these days becomes a contest of wills and opinions in more ways than one. I mean passengers are often to blame for incidents well within their control but there are times when the incidents themselves are non-incidents to begin with. There have been instances where passengers have been asked to de-plane due to the the clothes they're wearing. Either because they were too short or too revealing, the crews took it upon themselves to ask the offending passengers to cover up or get off the plane. Okay. That's a subjective case. Perhaps the flight attendant was feeling a bit catty and decided to take the offending passenger to task to teach them a lesson. It may have been a case of undeserved discrimination over clothing sense (or lack thereof) but there are other reasons why passengers are asked to deplane.

Take for example the case recently in Phoenix where a mother, her sister and four kids were left in Phoenix by Southwest Airlines due to the fact that the kids in the group were disruptive to the point that they feared for the safety of all those flying on the plane. The sister's response to the charge was that it was just a case of 'kids being kids' and perhaps that's all it was but as some of the other passengers on the plane can tell you, it can be pure hell for the rest of us. I have flown on a number of occasions, both domestically and overseas where kids have been screaming or crying or generally carrying on to such a disturbing degree that it makes already uncomfortable travel even more uncomfortable. Now I'm not a bitter old man who hates kids but sometimes parents just aren't able to control their kids and from the perspective of airlines they have to weigh the risks. Do they risk alienating one family from future travel with them by denying them boarding on their connecting flight or do you risk alienating all the other passengers who are frustrated at having to listen to screaming children for several hours? I think the choice becomes clear.

But it's not just kids who scream and shout and cause disruptions, we adults do a pretty darn good job at times too. In New York, an American Airlines flight was cancelled when the flight crew arrived late and found the passengers understandably irate at the delay. However, they took their response a step further when they refused to fly the flight stating that they felt that they would be working in an unsafe environment. Apparently the passengers waiting in New York lived up to their reputation as being rude and crude and scared the crew enough to make them risk even more anger from the passengers by refusing to fly. Perhaps that isn't the wisest course of action but who knows if it would have gotten better or worse had they chosen to fly on.

People sometimes think that because they're paying higher prices they can take out their anger on the flight crew who have no say whatsoever on how much you're paying for your ticket or for the experience. As it is, many of us passengers treat flight attendants as something less than waitresses or waiters in cheap restaurants. They are the ones expected to handle anything and everything on a flight and if they for once do something slightly inconvenient to one person or a few people, they are immediately jumped on. It's a case of having cake and eating it too. Both parties are to blame for making the skies just a bit more un-friendlier of late and though the solution is not readily available, if we all attempt to act in a bit more civil a manner, then perhaps we can make the skies friendly again.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rooting Out Problems

Ask any humanist or person who believes that human beings are the most superior form of intelligence on the planet and they'll tell you that they key that separates us from common animals is our understanding of higher learning such as math and science. But every once in a while there are news reports and 'official' press releases in the news about the 'latest scientific discovery' that makes me wonder if any of this is actual proof of our superiority or just something to justify getting paid. Take for example the report that came out of England by the National Children's Bureau earlier this week.

Apparently after exhaustive study, the Bureau determined that toddlers can already show racist tendencies and so they should be studied analyzed to ensure that they grow up to be racially tolerant and nothing less. On the surface it sounds like an intelligent and worthwhile determination but how is this great 'discovery' to be made? Simple, by gauging the reaction of children based on how they respond when new or foreign foods are placed in front of them. Example, the Bureau found that if a child responded with 'Yuck' when having a plate of foreign food placed in front of them (and by foreign I mean exotic foods that they normally wouldn't eat) then they were more likely to grow up to be racially prejudiced. Now I don't know about you but this just seems highly illogical to me and I'll tell you why.

Any kid I have encountered (save for a few true foodies or gluttons) have always reacted to any new food with a bit of hesitation. And I feel that the conclusion that this Bureau has come up with is just ridiculous. Here's why. I'm of Indian origin but I live in the United States. I grew up here so naturally like many first generation kids, I grew up eating the food from here. When I first had tastes of Indian foods I wasn't as excited and perhaps I had a 'yuck' reaction myself (now I know better) but by the criteria of the Bureau, doesn't this make me an anti-Indian? Now I'm sure there's more to this analysis than meets the eye (at least I hope so) but I understand how difficult it is to determine the causes for things like racism but isn't this a bit much?

I guess some organizations feel that some seemingly logical explanations are better than no logical explanations at all though I find that very hard to believe. I'm sure racist tendencies form at a very early age and though there may be some merit to what this study has found, I feel the environment is a very prevalant factor in helping determine the root cause as well. I mean if you have parents or family or friends that behave very racistly then you are likely to have kids who have the same tendencies. If the environment that a kid is raised in is full of people grimacing at anything outside their normal environment, aren't they going to assume that's the way things are and that's the way it should be? Passing the blame onto food doesn't seem to be the solution. Though the study is quick to caveat their findings and say that this reaction may be a normal kid-like reaction, they do wish to show that it is a good indicator. I think it just stinks.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

What is Patriotism?

This past weekend marked the 232nd anniversary of the United States declaring its independence from England. We celebrated in the usual manner with fireworks and songs full of patriotic fervor; but in this election year, I felt that there was something a bit more..... well.... more. For a lot of our troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as other parts of the world) they too were celebrating the Fourth of July but with a slightly different perspective. Most of us in civilian garb will always profess the love for our country and how that those who are serving in the military represent the best and brightest of our nation and who are fighting to uphold our nation's honor. That may be true but I wondered as we got closer to the Fourth of July, what is patriotism?

Lately it's a question that has been coming up more and more as people for or against the war seem to bandy the term about more than the tennis balls at Wimbledon. We, the American public, seem to have differing views on what represents patriotism and how it should be expressed. First and foremost of course is an undying devotion and support for our troops serving overseas. And in principle I agree with that statement. The very freedoms we enjoy are defended by the individuals who answer the call and serve their nation in uniform and no matter where they are in the world, I would support them in whatever way, shape or form that I can. Of course if you make any statement questioning why so many troops are continuing to serve in combat zones long after their tours have ended then of course you are considered un-patriotic. I personally feel that people need to separate the two and realize that support for the troops and support for this or any war are two very different things.

Now I'm not interested in a prolonged discussion on the merits of continued war in other parts of the world, but I would like people to take a little time and think about what they are supporting and what they are calling patriotism. Take for example our politicians. If you want to see another form of combat over the best way to represent leadership and patriotism, look no farther than our current crop of Presidential candidates. Apparently the benchmark of whether a candidate is or isn't a 'true' supporter of his nation doesn't come down to whether he (or she) has served their country in the military or in Congress or any other way. It has nothing to do with the policies they support or fight against. It has nothing to do with their plans and proclaimations for the future of our nation. In point of fact, it has nothing to do at all with anything other than a ten cent piece of metal (made in China in most cases) that resembles the American flag and is pinned on your jacket lapel.

I couldn't believe it when I started seeing debates, not discussions but debates, over whether a candidate 'truly loved his nation' or whether it was all a conspiracy to land an Anti-American in the White House thus leading our nation to ruin. Is the fate of our nation truly supposed to be decided over whether someone wears a piece of tin on their lapel or not? Apparently the public at large doesn't care about the economy, doesn't worry about the downturn in the job market, and is ambivalent about the continued course of our nation on the international scene. Only the lapel pin matters. Is this what patriotism is? Is it more about what you wear than what you believe? Supposing it comes to light that one candidate wears Italian made suits instead of American made suits, does that mean that that candidate is secretly working for Italy's best interests? I don't think so but until we the people move out of that mindset, we're never going to make any progress towards solving the real issues.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Walk Farther to Your Local Starbucks

I guess the day has finally come. For years it seemed that Starbucks was going to continue its rapid-fire growth until finally there would be a Starbucks literally every five feet. We were getting close to that point now in most major metropolitan areas. Go into any major city on the east coast and you'll be inundated with Starbucks overload. One location literally feet apart for the purpose of maintaining positive coffee flow to faithful paying customers. However, the shoe began to drop when fuel costs started to rise and more and more began to realize that paying $4 for a cup of coffee that you could buy for about 99-cents at Dunkin Donuts meant an extra gallon of fuel for your car. And lets face it, if you don't have fuel in your car, you aren't getting to work and you wouldn't be able to afford that $4 latte anymore.

So what to do? Well the solution according to Starbucks is to close down nearly 600 stores that have been on their internal 'watch list' for some time due to underperformance and poor profitability. I think it's probably a good thing because as much as I enjoy Starbucks, it was getting to the point that they were having a Ferrari attitude with a Toyota product. What do I mean by that? Well obviously both Ferrari and Toyota are good but you tend to view the Ferrari in slightly higher regard due to the fact that while it is expensive, it is rare. You don't see everyone driving one to and from the grocery store so obviously, it is something well manufactured so you'll pay more for it. Contrast that with a Toyota Camry (or similar model). There's tons of them on the road and they are affordable. Now obviously if you had a Ferrari manufactured at the standard of a Toyota then you'd really wonder why you should pay for a Ferrari when you can have a Toyota at the same price (and get better fuel mileage and cargo space).

But I digress; I think it's probably a wise decision because as fuel prices continue to rise (and they aren't going to be dropping off anytime soon), people are cutting back on expenses. More and more people are carpooling. Normal things that were once considered necessities are now considered extravagances and are no longer purchased with such reckless abandon. Chief among those was Starbucks coffee. For a long time, it was the only place to get a special coffee drink fairly quickly. Now there are those who absolutely have to have a cup of coffee prepared in a very specific way. Exactly two shots of this with a shot of that, no whip, extra hot, double foam, skinny soy low fat mocha powder sugar free cinnamon grande frappucino. I think for the rest of us out there, a simple cup of coffee will suffice.

Go into any McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts now and you're liable to find the same sorts of 'basic' coffee drinks that many people would go to Starbucks for and you'll find it for a whole lot less. I think the basic difference between the two was that Starbucks always wanted to be out there and viewed as an 'upper class' coffee house that meant you were paying premium prices for premium coffee but it had degenerated over time in order to speed up the process. I remember that when you ordered coffee early on when the chain was expanding, they would grind the beans right then and there. Now they use pre-ground beans. I can do that on my own too. Why should I pay more for it? I can get the same thing at McDonalds for about a fourth of the cost.

The company's philosophy had become that you shouldn't have to wait or hesitate to find a Starbucks, there should always be one very close to you so that you can fulfill your cravings immediately upon the start of the impulse. As a result some locations ended up being visited more often than others. I have been in some where it had been so long between customers that the baristas were able to sit down and do their homework and not realize that I had walked in. Perhaps this move to cut down locations and rein the focus back on the customer will be a good thing. I guess the only downside is that we'll have to wait for a bit before walking into one of the remaining 12,000 Starbucks locations. Look at the brightside though, at least the extra walk may help you save a few extra gallons of fuel.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

End of the Oversized Era

Airline travel these days has gone from the days of elegance to cattle hauling in a lot of respects. Not that it's the fault of the crews that take care of us in the friendly skies but it's something that pretty much no one is happy about these days. With fuel costs rising leading to rising ticket costs for air travel, it's no wonder that so many airlines are making moves to either limit the number of bags or charge for what we bring on. Now for domestic flights it can be a major issue and for international I can't imagine the hubbub this would create but one area which the airlines are looking to overhaul in the near future is in the realm of carry-ons and this proposal has given me a moment's pause.

One travel peeve of mine is the fact that some people feel that they are well and truly pulling one over on the airlines whenever they pack a huge carry-on and manage to bring it on board as part of their 'cabin' baggage. Now I'm sure anyone who has travelled even for a little while can relate to you the frustration of trying to be rule-abiding and finding one person coming aboard at nearly the last minute carrying a huge bag and being absolutely insistant that despite looking like it is holding an Army regiment's worth of stuff, it only holds a small amount and can fit in the overhead bin. Then you watch as the person struggles to stuff it into the overhead bin and you sigh as you watch someone else's mini-carry-on get crushed by this behemoth.

And for what? To save a few bucks and avoid the wait at the baggage claim. Gee, thanks Mr. (or Mrs.) Large Carry On. I enjoy seeing my flight delayed by the fact that you feel it's your right to bring on as large a bag as you can and act like a stubborn child even when the two-year-old at the front of the plane can clearly see that the bag you're brining on has absolutely no place in the cabin of the plane. I've sat in utter fascination and horror as passengers have literally argued, forced and cajoled their way into getting these bags on the plane and then have proceeded to have hissy fits if they can't keep the bag in the overhead bin. Accompanied by pathetic declarations that 'the bag fit up there on my last flight', I have little to no sympathy for these scoff laws. And I think the absolute worst offenders of this are not women but men. Women have their purses (which are generally huge) so one bag is already covered but then the second bag is about as large as they can get it.

No. Men push the boundaries whenever they can. I've seen numerous business travellers lug large laptop bags and huge 'overnighters' onto the plane and then hem and haw when they find that the bags are too heavy to be placed in overhead bins. Utterly ridiculous. Who are you? James Bond that you need every single item of your travel kit at your beck and call the entire time? It's frustrating and I think we'll see a decrease in it after airlines start putting such bags under greater scrutiny. Let's see if it makes any difference. I for one hope it does. Air travel is getting more and more frustrating as it is. I don't need the added aggravation of being bumped and proded by huge bags in addition to paying through the nose for a small seat.