Thursday, August 28, 2008

Slowly Metro-ing On

The veritable tennis match that has been going on over the progress of the planned Metro extension through Tysons Corner all the way to Dulles Airport appears to be making some headway again. For the past few months, utility work has been progressing at a steady pace with intermittent road closures affecting the commute in the area. Having lived around the area most immediately affected, I can tell you that they are doing a decent job of keeping the area as trouble-free as they can when it comes to delays and diversions. Still, one hopes that this is finally a sign that the work will continue on.

There are some who are still upset that the path of the metro through Tysons will be above ground and while I do agree that it will definitely be a pain in the butt for those of us who live in and around the area to see bridges carrying Metrorail cars as we drive through Tysons Corner and the surrounding areas but is it really that big a deal? If one looks at the path the train is to take at this point, there is a brief underground passage that will take place as the train transitions from Route 123 onto Route 7 before making the turn to the Toll Road. You can already see work being done in this area to stage it for work to construct the eventual tunnel that will be in place. Now what some people have been arguing vehemently is that the tunnel is the only way to maintain the 'visual beauty' of the area or at least ensure that the urban landscape is not adversely affected.

Honestly, I think that's probably one of the last things that we need to be that concerned about at this point. The portion of the proposed Silver Line that will be making it's way from Vienna to Tysons and beyond is not going to be cutting through any neighborhoods. No one's backyard is going to become a trainyard or anything of that ilk. The areas that would be most directly affected are the businesses and malls directly along the path proposed for construction. Even now as utility work proceeds to move many of the power and communication lines underground, some businesses are being blocked off temporarily while digging and burying goes on. I don't think it will be a long-term problem so I don't think many of them are complaining. Talk to any of them and they'll mention the inconvenience of having roads to their businesses blocked but then they also acknowledge that these construction efforts are for the greater good.

The project is slowly making it's way to the last station. It's been many years in coming and while it's been a worthy fight to get the tunnel moved underground it's time for the objectors to move on from their perches and help garner support for the continuation of the work. Calling the current plan for the stations an eye-sore is a misnomer as I don't think Tysons is known for it's visual beauty or its landscape. Don't get me wrong; I think it's a great place to live otherwise I wouldn't have been there for the past few years but it's definitely not like any other neighborhood from the surrounding areas. Most of the area is dotted with shops, malls, and office complexes. Most of the residents live away from that area so its not like the area is going to be disturbed at all hours of the night by trains rumbling through.

They have been talking about this project for almost as long as people have been talking about going back to the moon and finally there is progress being made on at least one of these worthy efforts. I think it's time that people move forward with it and accept that these are the ways things are going to go for now. Route 7 already is a parking lot entering the area from either the Beltway or coming from the Leesburg direction in the morning and the reverse in the evenings. Route 123 backs up for miles at the same times. You can't enter or leave without sitting for at least sometime. Wouldn't it be enticing to see how quickly a train moves through the area? Wouldn't that be worth thinking about as an alternative to sitting in traffic and burning fuel? I think it would be.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Holy Flim-Flam Man

I have a very low tolerance for people who choose to use religion, any religion, as a means for justifying the fleecing of followers under false pretenses. But I'm even less tolerant of people who fall for these false 'prophets' and blindly follow their teachings or recommendations and then remain puzzled when something unexpected occurs. Take for example the case of supposed holy man Dr. Commander of the Hindu Temple of Georgia.

Recently the local Fox News affiliate in Georgia broke the story of how Dr. Commander (not his real name obviously) was being investigated for charges of overcharging those who requested his services as a holy man. A self-proclaimed siddhar (a type of enlightened person), Dr. Commander has founded a large temple in Norcross, Georgia, a short distance from many Indian-owned shops and businesses. As such, there are many who come to the temple in search of some religion and Dr. Commander has been more than willing to provide his own form of assistance. In addition to being a religious leader, he also proclaims to have the power to heal and cure almost any ailment known to man or beast. The news report indicated that one woman came to him with health problems and he sold her a holistic cure which consisted of sand supposedly taken from a cobra's pit while the cobra was still sleeping in it, a bag of unknown 'jelly' and some other powders which were to be rubbed on her belly with warm water. The total cost of this cure? Approximately $13,000.

Now I'm hoping and praying that this woman was so desperate for a cure that she decided to put her faith in religion and hope that the cure of the holy man helped make her feel better. I have been in situations where it's seemed that there is no answer but to turn to religion and in some cases, that's when hearing a message that makes sense seems to cut through all the frustration and make things seem right. Religion, no matter what faith, is a powerful thing and I've heard it said that the reason religion has persisted for so long is primarily because there is a compelling need within man to believe in something greater than the limits of man, there's a need to believe that perhaps there is some greater force within the universe that is behind everything that we go through and experience. What's distressing is that there are those who seek to take advantage of those messages and use them to their advantage.

The Dr. Commander of Georgia is just one in a slew of such zealots who try to sell you on cures that are really just lightning in a bottle, it doesn't really exist. But what perplexes me is how people can fall for these claims. There have been holy men like Dr. Commander for years. They have done everything from pull coins from the air (through sleight of hand) or made outlandish claims which are impossible to confirm or deny but seem to give the person and air of omniscience. It's sad but true that so many people have so little direction in their lives that they seek to find answers from those who claim to have it. They will blindly believe what they're told because I think for a lot of people it gives them a sense of having some control in an uncontrollable situation.

What makes it easier for con-men like Dr. Commander to pull scams like this is the fact that many people feel that if an activity is seen to be 'religious' or religious in nature, then there can't be anything wrong with it. Why do you think that so many Catholic priests have been able to abuse children for so many years? It's simply because young children didn't think that they could speak out freely since it was a priest who was doing the abuse and not some regular adult. Both cases are wrong but the priests obviously have greater clout as they are 'religious'. The same way, by packaging sand and calling it holy, it's seen as something more. Maybe there is some merit to such cures. A lot of times placebo medicines or cures can help you because they help your frame of mind and your frame of mind can make a huge difference. If that's all that someone like Dr. Commander provided then it's all well and good but when you charge people months of salary for it, it is simply a crime in the name of religion.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Protesting Chinese Gymnasts

Now that the Olympics are officially over, I guess the controversies can continue and boil over. At one point during the games I can remember hearing something like 77 formal protests were being reviewed over dubious calls or shoddy judging that resulted in outcomes that not everyone was happy about. The reactions varied from begrudging acceptance to kicks to the face. However, one protest that has been brewing since even before the games was over the apparent ages of the members ofthe Chinese Women's Gymnastics team.

According to the IOC, women competing in the Olympics must be 16 during the year the Olympics take place otherwise they would be considered underage and therefore illegal. Web documents uncovered in the past few days have revealed that several of the gymnasts on the team, such as Kexin He, were actually born in 1994 as opposed to 1992 and therefore she and a few of her teammates are actually underage and should therefore be stripped of their medals. Much of the gymnastics community point to these attempts by the Chinese government to purposely misrepresent the qualifications of their gymnasts as an attempt to subvert the sanctity of the sport and prove that the Chinese government only wants to promote dominance in any given sport over fair play. While there is some merit in that reaction, I don't think it's all that complete in its scope.

Many gymnastics coaches say that it is unfair to have such small and diminutive girls performing gymnastics as it isn't fair competition. Now having never been a gymnast I can't speak from experience but I would assume that the main objection would be that if an 11-year-old takes part in the Olympics passing herself off as someone older, it's seen as 'unfair' since she has less weight and less height to support compared to her competition. Now being of lesser stature myself I find it humorous to think that many people are actually complaining about someone being too short. Usually it's the other way around isn't it?

Okay, so supposing we accept the fact that Kexin He is indeed only 14 years old, heck, let's say she's not even 13 yet, and she has taken part in the Olympics, she has competed against girls who are older and more experienced than her and still managed to do well. She's in her home country, a country which takes kids from their parents at the first instance of showing signs of potential in any sport and subjected to intense training. Some Chinese gymnasts are separated from their families for years in what some people consider inhuman or cruel but what I tend to think of as 'selective breeding'. In the face of so much competition and pressure, a kid was able to perform and perform well enough to get scores that put her in the top place categories and high enough to win a medal, isn't that in and of itself significant?

What are we really objecting to? It's quite likely that the Chinese government pulled a fast one on the IOC as they did with the singers at the opening ceremonies but is the fact that some Olympians could be underage that we are objecting to or that the people we considered to be the best were the ones who turned out to lose? Are we being sore losers and by we I'm including the entire world, not just the United States. Michael Phelps was probably the story of the Olympic games and will be for years to come but if he had lost in the butterfly, would there have been as much objection? Perhaps so. It was damned close to call and though he is the winner, I don't begrudge his competitors filing protests over his victory.

If we object to the Chinese sending kids into a competition that is usually limited to older teens and adolescents then perhaps it's time to implement the changes that many gymnastics coaches have been espousing which is to eliminate age restrictions and implement weight classes. After all, in boxing you won't ever have a super-featherweight fighting and heavyweight so why not have gymnasts of equal weight competing? The Italian gymnastics coach stated this week that although he is in agreement with the need to look into the circumstances surrounding the Chinese gymnasts and their ages, it's also necessary to look at the sport as a whole; even he wondered whether gymnasts are doping considering some (cough cough... Americans) are much more muscular than others. Perhaps it's conditioning but could it be something else? I'm not saying it is but we need to see it from the other side as well.

If China has attempted to cheat (and it certainly appears that they have) then they should be penalized and proper action should be taken by the IOC but to use this as a means of pouncing on the rules of the country is a different matter. Cheating in sports is not a matter of national scrutiny. Certainly it has bearing on the lengths the government is willing to go to paint a rosy picture and make everything appear to be on the 'up and up' but it isn't a means for politicians to go in and raise objections to the way the government is run. Diplomacy is the answer between nations and fair play is what is needed in Olympic competition. I applaud Kexin He for her achievements and if she truly is only 14 or 13 or even 11 years old, then I applaud her and her team all the more for competing against the world's best and still doing remarkably well.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Cutting the Cord

The phrase 'cutting the cord' was once a euphemistic way of implying that a parent should stop treating a child as if they were still being carried in the womb and let them begin the development into an independent human being. However, the 'cord' I'm talking about in this case is the cord that powers the portable DVD players that seem to be all over the place these days. I read about a blogger who was strolling through the park over the weekend and looked over to see a couple pushing a stroller along. The child in the stroller was not enjoying th scenery however since he was otherwise occupied watching a movie on his portable DVD player replete with noise-cancelling headphones.

Now as a child I will admit that I watched a lot of television and movies and even today you could probably argue that I take in more than my fair share of the entertainment medium as well. Now granted back when I was a kid, the concept of a portable entertainment device was still something of a foreign concept. Although Walkmen were coming into being, it wasn't a common enough device that everyone had one. I didn't start using one for my walk home from high school until nearly my senior year in high school and even then it wasn't everyday. So when growing up, it wasn't as if we were constantly being entertained on road trips with our own private television programs running in the back. These days it seems that more and more parents are turning to television to be the resident babysitter.

Need to feed your kid? Distract them with the television. Need them to stay quiet in the restaurant? Distract them with the portable DVD player. Need to sleep for a little while? Distract them with television. You see what I'm getting at here? The veritable explosion of the car based or portable DVD market has meant that more kids are leaving the television in the house for the television in the car. Is it any wonder then that so many kids are looking to television for their entertainment and distraction? How can we expect them to focus on anything when the average program only runs 30 minutes and even then it's often punctuated by commercials which only serve to further break up the time needed to concentrate.

I'm not saying that we should all turn kids Amish and have them shun television or videos but shouldn't there be a limit? When my parents took my brother and I to the park, we didn't go with the intention of sitting on a park bench while they walked around so that we could distract ourselves with some movie or something; we went with the intention of running around and having fun. But some parents freak out at even the thought of such activity thinking that their little snowflakes might get hurt and that would be terrible. I don't think it makes sense to shelter your kids quite so much. Why focus their attention on a small television screen while you're out for a drive when you can look at the sprawling world.

Maybe that's why there has been a dearth of original thinking in Hollywood these days. No one seems to have any imagination or originality anymore. There will be the occasional new program or movie or story idea but then that will be it for a very long stretch. Why? Is it because our attention spans have shrunk to the point that we have short term memory problems and cannot create any memories about having seen some of these same stories in the past. Maybe. We shouldn't keep kids from discovering the world or rely on television to show it to them; we can show them just as well if not more. If you show a kid that you're interested in something, I think they'll just as enthusiastically embrace that concept too. You just need to set a good example.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Don't Mess with the Library

Librarians get a bad rap a lot of times. They're often seen as nerdy and bookish (for obvious reasons) and being completely obsessed with the Dewey Decimal System. Now although I think that the Dewey Decimal System is probably one of the smartest means of creating a database, it wasn't appealing enough for me to consider looking into Library Sciences as a major in college. Again, not to knock librarians, but it just didn't have the appeal that it has for some. That may be surprising considering the fact that I love going to the library. I can remember feeling lazy one day back when I was in elementary school (probably in the 6th Grade) and so my dad said that my brother and I could take the day off and be at home.

Now in this day and age most kids would take that to mean that they had the entire day to play on their XBox, Playstation or what-have-you. At that time, we only had the original Nintendo and though we played it incessently, we were never good enough to beat very many of the games. Regardless, we didn't even think of that as one of the 'fun' activities for our unexpected day off; rather we were excited at the prospect of going to the library. I remember walking in there and for the first time, seeing it completely devoid of kids running around and causing general mischief. I managed to get lots of books to tide me over until my next visit but it was also when I first saw the somewhat 'darker' side of the library. When I checked out that day, I vividly remember the librarian asking my brother and I if there was a school holiday today. We meekly responded that it wasn't and he gave us this suspicious smile and nod. Hey! We were at the library weren't we? It was sort of an educational hooky.

That's not to say that I became terrified of the library or librarians but it just made me realize that they also have some degree of authority. People often scoff at that concept or even the mere suggestion that librarians can make your life a living hell but it's the truth. Ask Heidi Dalibor of Wisconsin; she was recently arrested for having $30 in library fees for a pair of overdue paperback novels. Apparently she ignored repeated letters and phone calls from the library and finally, the library dispatched a sheriff's deputy to arrest Dalibor for excessive library fines. Now some may see this as being an excessive force of justice but as the saying goes, to make an omlette you have to break some eggs. In this case, if you ever want the library to prove that overdue fines are no joke then you need to make an example of someone.

I'm sure Ms. Dalibor is a very nice person and wasn't purposely ignoring the pleas of the librarians but still, who takes them that seriously and why should you need to? For good or for bad, most people take the library for granted. It's sad that there are such vast repositories of knowledge virtually at your fingertips and so many people let it go to waste. Perhaps it's rather nerdy of me to admit but I have spent countless hours browsing in the library and I have discovered so many new and interesting things that it's made me better in my general understanding of so many things. One can never claim that the library doesn't have something of your interest. I wasn't always a heavy reader but it just took that one book to stimulate my interest and since then I've probably read thousands upon thousands of books. Librarians have the power to open some of these roads to you; that is as long as you stay on the straight and narrow with them. Now that they have ties to the cops, maybe you better pay attention to the due dates on your books a little closer.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lowering the Drinking Age

The great debate has started again. No. I'm not talking about the debates between the presidential candidates but rather about whether or not it makes sense to lower the legal drinking age in the United States down from 21 to 18. Now I've been of two minds on this topic for a while and I haven't been able to make up my mind about it. So I decided to lay out the facts as I see them in the case thinking that perhaps it would help me figure out whether I think it's a good idea or not.

Back during the Vietnam War, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 because it was argued that if the government could order kids as young as 18 to go to war, they should have some legal say as to what government is in power to enforce these types of rules. It was a fairly clear cut arguement and although there was some resistance to the proposal, it ultimately came to pass and many of us who were given the opportunity to vote in time for our 18th birthday took full advantage of it. I can remember standing proudly in line to vote back in 1996 and every year since then. It's just sad that now that we don't live in a time exactly like Vietnam that there is such ambivalence towards voting. Many teens could care less. But what does voting rights have to do with drinking?

Well, one would assume that if an 18-year-old is old enough to make an adult decision as far as who should be a leader is concerned then shouldn't they have the right to drink and make that decision for themselves as well? As a society we already allow teens as young as 16 to get behind the wheel of a powerful piece of machinery known as a car and drive around so shouldn't the power to drink be in their hands as well? Proponents of lowering the drinking age argue that at present, underage drinking is a common enough problem and it's more of a problem because so many teens are required to do it in secret which they argue leads to binge drinking and cases of 'overdoing it'. Now I would agree that there are some teens out there who take full advantage of such parties and take their drinking to the limit but it isn't everyone.

By lowering the legal age some people argue that the desire to drink would be curbed because it isn't something forbidden anymore. I know of friends who were denied even a taste of alcohol growing up and as a result, when they got to college, age be damned, they were determined to drink and drink and drink and some of them still drink far beyond excess as many times as they can. That's not to say that that problem would go away if you lower the drinking age but logically, if you could go every day to the pub on campus and order a beer without worry of being caught then wouldn't the natural tendency lean towards moderation? Perhaps.

Opponents say that all it would serve to do is to encourage drinking to excess. I remember the debate in London about allowing pubs to declare their own closing time rather than having a city-mandated closing time. What was stated was that because all pubs closed at a particular time, many patrons who showed up late would then drink to excess in a short time in order to get tipsy before the pub closed. When closing times were extended, many council members said that there would likely be more public drunkeness as heavy drinkers could now drink continuously over the course of the night. However shortly after the change was implemented, lo and behold, the cases of public drunkeness actually dropped and pub owners reported better sales due to more customers coming and going.

Now I don't think we need to implement anything like that but I think by lowering the age we make things seem less of a forbidden taboo and more of something that is normal. I mean take the case of kids; if you deny a young kid something saying that it's bad, the kid will continue being curious because they will want to know why it's bad. I don't think all teens drink to the point of being drunk all the time but they do overdo it on occasion to see what all the fuss is about. For me, drinking was never made out to be a forbidden activity so I never viewed it as such. Even today I don't drink all that much simply because it's not something grossly forbidden to me. Maybe it makes sense then to lower the drinking age; I'm sure the liquor industry wouldn't mind.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Who Monitors the Monitors?

Over the past seven years, air travel in the United States has become more and more of an ordeal rather than a convenience. Gone are the days that you could show up to the airport, pass through security relatively quickly and be at your gate with two minutes to spare and still relatively easily get yourself a seat on a plane to virtually any destination you wanted. Perhaps it's a good thing that it's no longer possible since it means only that much more security will be needed to make the experience difficult and time-consuming.

As it is ticket prices are on the rise, ammenitities on the plane are on the decline, wait time at airports is increasing and overall hassle is reaching its peak. We spend enough time sitting on the ground these days that adding to the delay is a surefire way to create more ire and anger among those sitting on the ground wondering when they will depart from the airport. It doesn't help matters any when the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) makes unnecessary delays even more unnecessary by breaking things in the name of passenger safety. It certainly was the case in Chicago recently.

Authorities report that during a night shift when planes were sitting idly on the tarmac at the airport in preparation for the next day's flights, TSA officers, wanting to determine if terrorists could conceivably break onto airport property and sabotage planes decided to test out their theory with the planes. Looking for ways to get in or penetrate the aircraft, TSA officers proceeded to climb all over the plane using whatever handholds and footholds they could find. What they ended up doing was using sensitive instruments and protrubances along the fuselage of the plane as their boosts and ended up breaking them on numerous planes. What this meant was that the next day when crews began prepping the planes for departure, they found that all the planes that had been used as test subjects were broken to the point that they would have been unsafe to fly.

Now perhaps I'm wrong but isn't the TSA supposed to be protecting us from threats? I know that they were doing just that when they were testing out possible break-ins on grounded planes but is it really necessary to be quite so gung-ho? Some could argue that the ends justifies the means and that the decision to do this test was perfectly within the realm of necessity but if the TSA had at least asked the airlines for assistance in these tests then perhaps so many planes wouldn't have been damaged. When I went flying growing up as a kid one of my instructors told me that there are parts on a plane that don't look important but can make your trip a living Hell if they are broken or in disrepair. Knowing that, he always said to be careful when using things to get up high on planes. Apparently no one ever taught the TSA that.

They have the right and the reason to do what it is they were doing but if there's one thing that came out of the investigations of September 11th it was that the terrorists at that time had planned a lot of their actions well in advance and had done their research. They had done hours of flight training to at least know how to fly their planes. One would assume that a terrorist looking to do something similar to a parked plane would know how to enter the plane without causing outward damage so why send agents to simulate a terrorist who doesn't know anything about planes? It just seems quite backwards to me. Whatever the case, the TSA has apologized but I'm sure it was the airlines who had to face the ire of the irate passengers left to wait on the ground due to damaged planes.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Checking Your Sources

It probably dates me to say that 'back when I was in school, we didn't have internet research' but it's the truth. When I was going through high school and even parts of my undergraduate years, we didn't really have as much information out on the internet as we seem to have today. Research was done in the library by actually walking from shelf to shelf to get the books, scan through them and then determine if the book contained the information you needed to support your arguement. As time went on the search databases at the library got a little more advanced and gave you the capability to search for specific content but still, you had to do research on your own.

Now as I work towards my MBA I have found that the internet is an invaluable tool for research though I have found that I have to be even more careful in how I gather my sources and who I cite as a source in order to avoid any erroneous statements. This applies to the world of journalism as well but it's even harder for journalists. See for students like me, we are usually quoting about things that have already been set in stone someplace or another. We can find definitive answers; contrast that with journalists who have to break new ground at times in order to determine the facts and separate the false leads from their stories. I still look at the tabloids that line the checkout lanes of grocery stores and shake my head as I scan some of the headlines.

Sure they aren't a source of reliable information but what is these days? The National Inquirer 'breaks news' on numerous topics every issue but more than half of them can be scoffed at as soon as you read the headlines but is this always the case? Take the example of the recent news over John Edwards. The National Enquirer had made claims that he was in a relationship with a journalist who was covering his campaign. Most people laughed it off as a joke (as most of the National Enquirer's stories are) but some journalists took it upon themselves to check it out and ended up getting to the bottom of the story and found that it was indeed truth. Was this to be the exoneration of the tabloid industry? Well yes and no. They could certainly rest upon their laurels and claim to have broken news that no one else had but then again this was the first correct story in a string of false ones.

I don't mean to knock tabloid journalists but they aren't the most well-reputed. Their claims can range from the plausible to the outlandish and getting corroberation on these stories is the hard part. Even the internet can be a bane as far as that goes. In my first year of my MBA I was taking an introductory course on doing web-based research and determining what was or wasn't a good source of information from the internet. At that point, Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia that practically anyone could update, was a hot source for some quick information and many of my classmates were quick to use it. I was hesitant because of the fact that practically anyone could add information to the site which could later be altered or corrected if not exactly correct. I had my first inkling of that when doing casual reading on the Apollo space program and found that according to Wikipedia the program was named after the famous Heavyweight Boxing champion Apollo Creed (famous for his bouts against Rocky Balboa). When I read that I knew that most everything from that source was to be taken lightly.

That's not to knock this or any other source on the internet as being sketchy but it just drives home the point that not everything you see or read can be readily accepted as the truth. I guess that can apply to anything you see or read. No newspaper or print or television journalism is completely free of some slant or the other. Some sources slant even more than others but on the whole, their attempts at journalistic 'neutrality' can be taken with a wink and a nod. What you see and hear for yourself is probably the best source of information and confirmation and will help you in figuring out what is or isn't real. There may be other better sources but at the very least, don't take the first answer to be the only one.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Real or Trickery at the Olympics

Sometimes when you become envious (or even jealous) of someone or something, it's human nature to begin to try and 'take apart' the whole thing and prove that the object of your derision isn't worthy of praise in the first place. For example, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing this year have been heralded as most likely the best ever. London, which will be hosting the Olympics four years from now must already be considering what to do or how to top or at least meet the standards set in Beijing last Friday. But there are those who would rather spend the time and take apart the show bit by bit and expose it as a fake rather than acknowledging the beauty of it.

As the days have passed in these Olympic games, there have been more and more accusations flying regarding the state of the games. For example, the little 9-year-old girl who sang the song of welcome in the cermonies, didn't actually sing but rather lip-syched the song since the original singer was not deemed 'beautiful' enough for viewing on the world stage. So what did they do? They put a child model on display and had her fake her way through. Is this what we're interested in? Is this what the games should be remembered for? That the shots shown on NBC of the 'firework footsteps' approaching the stadium were 'digitally enhanced' for the audience thus the whole thing was a fake? I don't understand why there's such efforts underway out there to prove that these games haven't been worthy of praise.

The showmanship portion of the games may have been wrought with some forms of trickery or flim-flam but for the most part, the performances by the athletes themselves have been nothing short of extraordinary. The feats of Michael Phelps need not be mentioned simply because there are far better people out there who have expressed the heart and desire which he exemplified in his completion of eight Gold Medals to become the winningest athlete ever in a single games and for all time. His inspirational swims have been among the most exciting accomplishments throughout the games but they aren't the only ones. This past weekend I had a chance to watch the women's marathon. For those who don't know, it's a 26-mile run through Beijing that ended in the Bird's Nest stadium. For a little over two hours I watched as 38-year-old Romanian mother, Constantina Tomescu-Dita, finished nearly 22 seconds before her nearest rival. Now while that seems like a minor margin, seeing it on television was something else.

Now I have run short distances before and I will never claim to be a long distance runner like these women were but I could tell that Tomescu-Dita was running herself to the limit to try and at least finish the race if not win it. For more than half the distance Tomescu-Dita didn't even glance to the sides or back to see where the competition was. At one point, when she finally did, I'm sure she was wondering if she had made a wrong turn someplace since there was no one around her except for the television car. It was amazing to see and even more so to realize that she is 38-years-old. I couldn't have contemplated doing something like that at the age of 28 let alone now but she did it and did it in world class style.

Even after she finished the race, she kept up the same pace and ran victory lap after victory lap around the stadium in celebration. Rather than acknowledging the feat however, I'm sure there were some out there who wondered if she had taken some sort of performance enhancing drugs to help her along. It's unfortunate that we now live in a time where honest accomplishments have to be taken with such pessimism. I certainly hope that after whatever testing is required, she is proven to be the real champion. Sure there are things that have been enhanced or faked throughout these games but the accomplishments of the athletes in these sorts of competitions can rarely be faked. Are we so jaded now that we can't consider that humans can accomplish things without the need for 'help'? I certainly hope we aren't fully into that mindset. We shouldn't cloud the games with such thoughts.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Celebrities or Demigods?

Let me preface this blog by admitting that I'm not the world's biggest fan of Indian ultra-star Amitabh Bachchan. I admire some of his work and I think he is talented in certain roles but I don't consider him by any means to be the end-all-be-all actor and person that he is often made out to be. That being said, let me continue. I know that I'm rather late to the whole blogging thing but still, I've been blogging for about the last two years now and I can say that it's certainly helped me keep up the practice of writing. Lots of people say that if you want to be a good writer you have to keep writing and so I've been writing blogs nearly every day for the past two years. I've had over 10,000 visits from all over the world and have made over 500 posts.

I honestly don't know just how many people happen upon this blog and stay to read some of the contents when they do happen to find it by mistake. Usually the search strings tie into some key phrase that I've used in one of my blogs and that leads to a record number of hits. I remember getting over 200 hits in one day when I had blogged on the discovery of a new planet last year. I got the hits because when you did a Google search for the planet's designation, my blog was the first hit on the list. Take that NASA! Still, luck and happenstance likely have a lot to do with people finding my blog. Not so with Amitabh Bachchan, the Indian star who has started his own blog several months ago. On his blog he does what most bloggers do and that is relate his experiences during recent trips or events; talks about his thoughts on certain issues; and answers questions that some of his fans leave on his site.

Now a small time guy like me doesn't get very many comments nor do I expect them but usually the comments I receive are statements of agreements or the occasional refutation of what I've been ranting about. This is fine as I don't expect everyone to agree with every single thing that I say but in the case of Amitabh Bachchan, his comments reveal a slight more... well... disturbing side to his readers. Now as I've said, Bachchan is a household name in India as he's been a big star in Bollywood films going on four decades now. In recent years his appeal seems to have exploded and the number of people literally singing his praises can be seen on his blogs. They range from the mundane about how the reader thinks Bachchan is the greatest to the ludicrous such as the post that was made on his blog earlier this week by a disgruntled concert goer. Now to clarify quickly, Bollywood concerts aren't real 'concerts' per se. They are usually songs from popular movies of the time being sung live by the actual singers or cover artists with the stars themselves lip-syncing and dancing live. (An interesting side-note... I don't think the Indian media would have wasted even a column of news over the Chinese lip-synching 'controversy' at the Opening Ceremonies seeing as how no Bollywood star in today's market would ever consider singing their own songs a la the Hollywood stars of something like "Mamma Mia").

So apparently one of Bachchan's now former fan-for-life readers, Mr. Parag Gandhi, posted an angry comment regarding the fact that he shelled out nearly $600 for tickets and a chance to meet Bachchan and his fellow artists at a show in San Francisco. Mr. Gandhi also flew from his home to San Francisco just to see the show and due to miscommunication and an apparent 'dis-interest' from Bachchan and company, did not even get to meet the artist. Mr. Gandhi proceeded to then rail against Bachchan and his ilk over their apparent willingness to 'step on the public that built them up'. Now kudos to Bachchan for responding to the comment in such a public fashion when he wrote up his response. He indicated that such 'arrangements' with the producers of these shows are not the responsibility of the artists but of the producers of these shows and though they make an effort to meet all fans, they don't have an indication of when these incidents are supposed to occur. He apologized to Mr. Gandhi and indicated that rather than blogging about his mother on her death anniversary, he chose to respond to a former fan-for-life. And therein lies my problem.

I was intrigued by the whole discussion about this blog and the comments so I went online to check it out myself and I was rather appalled at how Bachchan was treated on this site. Not that he was insulted or bad-mouthed but he was praised like... I don't even know how to describe it. But it was almost as if he was infallible. He was perfect. He was humble. He was the greatest (though I would argue that title still belongs to Muhammed Ali). In essence, he was being treated like a demigod. Not quite God, but God-like and I find it to be something very much prevalent in our Indian culture and that is hero worship. Now I'm not saying that paying respect and acknowledging our elders is a wrong cultural tie, but this 'bowing down' in reverence to celebrities is a bit much. Take a show like "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa" which is somewhat akin to "American Idol" and when the music director judges reap praise on participants, they are quick to go and touch their feet in respect and treat it like an acknowledgement from some 'higher authority'.

That's fine, there's nothing wrong with it if it is genuine respect but sometimes it borders on excess and frequently it falls quite far across the line. And then the line that many of these commentors on Bachchan's blog take almost seem so familiar or friendly it's as if they are ordering him to do something now that he's responded to his readers. What do I mean? Now that he's shown how 'big' he is by writing about his former fans as opposed to his late mother now his fans are piling on the insults to Mr. Gandhi for making his comments and lauding Bachchan for being the bigger man and answering his jibes. Forget the fact that Bachchan then goes on to challenge Mr. Gandhi to prove that he even did some of the things he claims in his letter such as producing Bachchan's 1993 concert or being roommates at one time with his son. I doubt very much that Mr. Gandhi will respond now that he's been insulted quite vehemently on the site.

It shows just how much Bachchan's fans are willing to fight and defend their ultra-star and to what lengths they are willing to go to show their devotion. According to Mr. Gandhi's post (and this must be taken with a bag not a grain of salt) that one of his friends spent in excess of $20,000 to meet and speak with Bachchan at the same concert only to be left crying at the wayside. My question is who the Hell is Amitabh Bachchan for you to even consider spending $20,000 to meet him? Wouldn't you rather put that money away for your kids college funds? Wouldn't you rather use that money to pay off your debts? Wouldn't you rather use that money for so many other things rather than the chance to spend ten minutes with an actor? I have met some stars from Bollywood and for the most part they have been quite low-key and very reserved and humble. I'm not saying that Bachchan isn't all of these things but people in general need to be reminded of that fact. He's only human albeit a very famous human but human nonetheless. Don't make him a God.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Proud of Geekdom

Jay Maynard became something of a legend a few years ago after he rocketed to fame for his internet nom-de-plume and persona, Tron Guy. So named for the costume he wore at a sci-fi and comic convention in 2003, Maynard had photos of himself posted on the internet and shortly thereafter the photos took on a life of their own. Thinking that by wearing the costume at the convention, fans of similar ilk to him would make minor comments and perhaps a few statements of praise and then the episode would be forgotten. Not to be so. Soon thereafter the photos hit the foward circuit and within days his 'legend' was born.

Now most people who have read my blog know that I'm not one to spread a lot of details on the internet simply because you don't know where your photos will end up or how they will be used or where that information could be used against you. There are so many stories of how employers found 'incriminating' photos against employees or how criminals have used the internet to prey on innocent victims so I'm quite aware that anything that goes on the internet is bound to be shown somewhere else and not necessarily in the context that it was first used. For example; the photo I use as my profile shot here on Blogger was used in a crank call video shown on YouTube. Luckily the person who's voice I was representing didn't come off looking like a major ass but still, the photo shown is mine. I had no idea it was used and I only found out after my cousin sent me the link. (If you're really that interested, go on YouTube and do a search for "Jack Nicholson Crank Call" and you should find it... my picture is right in the beginning).

But I digress. So Maynard, no particularly big fan of the 1982 movie "Tron", became the target of many negative comments on his size, shape and marital status. For those who love to poke fun at not-so-young sci-fi and comic fans, he became something of a poster child. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel invited him to his show one evening and the intent was to undoubtedly ridicule him on television, much to the obvious delight of the audience who stood ready to laugh. But Maynard decided to approach the situation and answer the questions as if it was a serious discourse. He did this with every single interview he gave prior and after this point and it was his matter-of-fact discussion that led him to gain something unprecedented. Respect.

Sure there are lots of jokes still circulating about him but still, he's taken his punches and continued on. As a fellow-geek I can relate to his frustrations and anger at being made fun of in this way. I am still very much a fan of movies and sci-fi and comics but then again, I know I'm not alone. I'm certainly not dressing up as Maynard does but then again, Maynard doesn't dress up like Tron all the time either but because of his reputation, his media appearances always have him in costume. That's a sign of someone comfortable in what they're doing and proof that no matter what, if you like something you should stick to your guns and stand by the fact that you do.

I remember that since childhood I always had a passion for "Star Wars". It continues to this day and though I'm not one of those manic fans that buys up anything and everything related to "Star Wars" I have a collection that could be considered anything but 'paltry'. But I embrace my geekdom. I sit happily in the theatres on opening nights of movies and admire fans who come in costume getting into the spirit of the occasion. Think it's stupid? Then why the Hell do people wear jersey's of football or basketball players even if they have not the size, shape, or even a tenth of the skills of these athletes? It's because it helps us feel that we're a part of something. For good or for bad, it's something somewhat healthy. I grant you that Maynard may not be a 'chick magnet' but at least he is doing what he likes and has had his noteriety turn into something somewhat better. That's as it should be.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rooting for the Home Team

Like most people out there (I assume) I have been excitedly watching the Olympics since they began four days ago. The hard part is getting through the day without seeing an update of what's been going on in anticipation of watching the events in the evening. Being on the east coast of the United States, we are exactly 12 hours behind Beijing so some of the events that are televised in the evening have already happened and the live events we get to see are actually occuring the next day in China. It's fun to watch the various countries come out and compete and it's certainly exhilerating to see victories like the one the Men's 4x100m Freestyle Relay. It was a clear case of making the competition eat a piece of humble pie.

I think for the most part, most athletes these days are relatively restrained in their rhetoric but there are occasional instances (cough cough... France) where the athletes let the heat of the moment or the pressure of the interviewers get to them and they try to sell themselves far beyond their capabilities. Such was the case with France during the aforementioned event in which the Americans were heavily favored. The French team came out and said that their whole goal in being there at the games was to 'crush' the Americans. In the end, the stunning effort by 32-year-old Jason Lezak who swam the anchor leg of the relay. Pulling away at the last second to clinch the victory for the United States, it was a moment that will probably be used to define the desire and drive of the U.S. team for many years to come.

It's cliched I'm sure to say that you're inspired by the efforts being put out by every Olympic team but it is certainly a worthy cliche. The efforts of so many is put on world display and it is inspirational to see 'old' competitors like Lezak or 41-year-old Dara Torres come out and make such a difference against competition that is sometimes nearly half their ages. It's not an easy thing, especially considering the record number of obese and overweight people that are slowly taking over the majority in the world. As happens every Olympics, everyone seems to get that momentary boost of energy encouraging them to want to push themselves as well. Walk into any gym over the next two weeks and as likely as not you'll see lots more people on the treadmills and bikes as they attempt to reach their own goals.

It's always fun to see the team you want to root for win the top accolades but I think it's just as much fun to root for the underdog teams. So many countries from the world send teams and in many cases, these teams get little or no funding or have no resources to properly train their athletes. With minimal facilities or ill-equipped coaches, these teams still come out to the world stage and hope to have a decent showing in order to instill the same pride in their countrymen. I get frustrated when I hear commentators like Bob Costas sitting in their booths talking about how this country will never win a medal or how that country has never won a medal but that their national dresses are nice during the opening ceremonies. Countries that have a tenth the population of the United States, to say nothing of how much the GDP is, still manage to send athletes to at least try. They may not have the conditioning or ability but where would anybody's athletes be if they didn't have the proper training?

It's easy for us to show the overwhelming victories but I think NBC is doing a little better this time in showing the competitions from other countries as well. I can remember back in 1996 when the United States hosted the games in Atlanta how there was so much hype around some events and competitors and then if that competitor failed to even make it through the qualification rounds, that particular event would never be shown or mentioned again. It's great to see the tops of the medal boards but I want to see the countries that have won their first Gold's too. A big deal was made about the fact that Iraq and Georgia (two countries undergoing devastating wars at present) have sent delegations. I haven't seen a single one. Maybe it isn't in the interest of the majority of us out there, but they still deserve recognition too.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Spectacular Opening

Friday evening most of us here in the United States got to see what most of the rest of the world had been raving about for the past few hours and that was the spectacular opening ceremonies put on in Beijing for the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Now there have been opening ceremonies and there have been opening ceremonies but I think these will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most extravagant yet human set of opening ceremonies put on in recent memory. I can remember a lot of the shows from years past and it seems like every time the shows have gotten bigger and bigger but I think the bar has been set very high this time.

With a budget reported to have been in the millions, the places where the money was spent could be seen quite visibly. There were approximately 22,000 participants who took part in the ceremonies and approximately 43,000 fireworks that were lit off during those four hours. By the end of the performance, I think it was safe to say that there were very few if any people who were disappointed by what they saw. Though it must have been exciting and specatcular to have been in the audience at the time of the opening, I don't think you could have appreciated the depth and breadth of what had been put together unless you watched it on television. At points it seemed that fireworks were being lit off all over the the massive city simultaneously. The grand finale of the opening following the lighting of the Olympic Flame was probably the one fireworks display that was visible even to those on the space station.

It's amazing to think that the total number of participants in the show far exceeded the populations of some countries participating in the Olympics. And what's even more amazing to me is the fact that although technology was used throughout the show (the massive LED and LCD screens dotting Bird's Nest Stadium) was mixed in with human power. During the symbolic depiction of the printing blocks with Chinese script on them, many in the audience assumed them to be hydraulically controlled with computers but when the final reveal was made, it was stunning to realize that it was all done the old fashioned way. By human power. It is difficult to appreciate just how complex and amazing all these accomplishments are when you realize that there were very few stage directions on the arena floor. They knew exactly where they were supposed to go and when. Some of the elements were implemented so seamlessly that you couldn't notice so many of them going on. At least not on television.

I think the music, the show, the symbology of what was shown in the opening set the stage for showcasing China's standing in the world. They have the technology and they have the capability and they were proud to show it off. There was a point at the end where the music swelled, the Olympic Flame was lit and the fireworks were buzzing and the camera passed over the crowd of participants who were still in the arena at that time. While the Olympians are to be heralded of course for their accomplishments as athletes and for their forthcoming performances in the actual games, I think equal amounts of pride and recognition needs to go to the proud participants of the show who beamed their pride of a job well done and a show that was appreciated by everyone in the world. I know I certainly enjoyed every minute of it.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Is It About the Games or the Message?

I'm excited because the 2008 Summer Olympics kick off today and for the next two weeks, the best and the brightest from around the world will come to compete. I usually get excited in the weeks leading up to the Olympics because it's a chance to see sports that normally don't get very much limelight at all outside of Olympic years. Interested in swimming or badminton or table tennis then this is the time of year that you will be more than excited about, you'll be enamoured. But still, there's a side of the games that has been coming out more and more in recent years and that's in 'sending a message' to one country or another through some decision.

President Bush has come under a lot of fire this year for many things but one of which is the fact that he has chosen to attend the Olympic Games inspite of the fact that China has previously been 'scolded' by the US for their human rights violations. Many opponents to Bush's decision argued that if the US wanted to send a message to the Chinese government then he should have refused the invitation to attend and sat at home here in the United States and watched on television like the rest of us. Now while that is a compelling arguement, Bush declined to take that option and instead countered by saying that the Olympics were nothing more than a 'sporting event' and though he did make a statement condemning China's human rights violations while he made a stop in Thailand, it was more to appease those complaining against him than anything else.

Though I was young to remember much, I do recall reading about how the United States boycotted the games in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was also a show of defiance against the communist controlled Soviet Union but still, the message was clear. We don't like the way you're running things and so we aren't going to play with you. Things have certainly changed since then but I think at that time it was a powerful message to the Soviet Union about just how strongly the United States stood against their actions. But is this what the games are about? Is this what they are to be remembered for and anticipated for? In 1972, the terrorist group Black September made a powerful statement of their own when they held members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage and eventually killed them. That sent a message to the world too.

Even way back when; back in 1936 at the Berlin Games when Jesse Owens broke the colour barrier and more or less demolished the Nazi vision of being the superior race when he won three Gold Medals. There was a mixed message there too. In spite of being in a country on the verge of unleashing one of the most horrible racial genocides in history, Owens was still able to move about Germany like any other citizen though when he came home to the United States he was once again segregated and treated like a second class citizen. Though he had helped America 'prove' her superiority, he was still not treated as an equal which showed just how duplicitious we could also be.

But all this reflection makes me think about the fact that we're getting farther and farther away from the games themselves and focussing more on who will send what message and in what way? The United States will be having refugee immigrant Lopez Lomong of Darfur carry the flag in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Darfur is yet another country where the expurgation of various races has been carrying on unabated for decades and though there has been increased awareness, there is a surprising amount of ambivalence and silence on the issue. I guess maybe a lot of people feel that there's nothing for us to gain by helping out in Darfur while improving things in China will eventually help us out as a nation won't it? We're sending and receiving messages as convenient but for our own purposes it seems. Why not focus on the games. Not on how many medals our country has won versus how many the opposite country has won but the games. Simply the games and the great athletes who have struggled for most of their lives to reach this point.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Campaigning Turns Pretty?

I'm sure many of you are probably thinking that today's blog title is an indication that all the candidates for our presidency have suddenly turned nice and are playing nice and are telling the truth and are agreeing to run a fair and honest campaign right? Well get out of your Utopian landscape and return to reality. No. The 'pretty' I'm referring to is the ad that perennial party-girl and reality show star Paris Hilton released this week in response to her image being used in ads by Republican Presidential nominee John McCain.

John McCain's ad, released sometime in the previous week (depending on your location around the country) equates Barrack Obama's popularity to being a 'star-of-the-moment' type of phenomena which is then linked with images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears at various gala events. The implication being made by the ad is that Obama is just a fleeting star who is popular now but doesn't have the wherewithall to be a true and decent leader for our country. Though her parents have previously supported McCain, Hilton's mother made statements to the press that she was upset that McCain would use her daughter's image that way. Paris herself, not one to shy from any spotlight, siezed the opportunity and released her own ad in which she doesn't name the nominees but the implication is enough.

Hilton refers to McCain as the 'crinkly-haired old guy' and Obama as 'the guy for change'. In the ad, Hilton refers to McCain's age frequently by showing images of 'old people' from movies and television including "The Golden Girls" the Crypt-keeper and Yoda among others. She also takes a moment to put her own spin on both McCain's and Obama's proposed energy reform bills. Of course her solution (using the best of both worlds) is something else that will likely only see reality within the confines of a Utopian world (once again) or at least in speculative fiction books like the type written by Harry Turtledove or Newt Gingrich.

Though I'm not devout fan of Hilton myself, I think her creating this ad will probably do more for both candidates than anything they may be attempting at this time. The race for the White House is neck and neck and will only get closer until November unless one candidate makes such a huge faux pas that there is no recovery possible. Though the race is close in the polls, I've never been one to trust what they tell you. When you're sitting at home and a pollster calls to ask who you would vote for, you have to do nothing but vote over the phone. You don't have to wait in line and fill out forms or any such thing. Contrast that with voting in reality and you have to stand in line, show IDs several times, wait in line again and then cast your ballot. Most young people don't do that so even though the youth may be firmly behind a particular candidate, it doesn't mean anything if they don't go out and vote.

I'm also a big proponent of voting. You don't have the right to complain if you don't exercise your right to vote. If you have the right, it's your obligation to go out and vote. The sacrifices of so many lives in Vietnam was one of the main reasons that the voting age was eventually reduced to 18 so that people being ordered to fight in Vietnam could at least have the opportunity to choose what leader sent them there. It's telling when you have the largest voter turnout in California history to vote Arnold Schwarzenegger into the Governor's seat several years back. Though there is debate over whether or not he's a good leader for the state or not, he won on his platform but also because he was a celebrity. That's not to imply more votes would go to Hilton if she was even capable of being on the ballot but sad as it is to say or even think, if Hilton endorses one candidate or another, I'm sure there are many a love-struck guys out there who would run to the voting polls in November.

Hilton wisely doesn't show preference to either one of the candidates though it's clear she's lashing out at McCain for his use of her image as a flash-in-the-pan celebrity. Perhaps though the good to come out of her ad is that everyone will see how ridiculous and ill-conceived so many of these ads being put out by the real candidates actually are. Rather than pushing solutions or telling what they can do, the ads that are put out there are often meant to insult the opposition by offering snide remarks made by smug sounding announcers. It's a vicious campaign and since as long as I can remember, they've only been getting worse. I'm skeptical in my hopes for a cleaner campaign but who knows what will happen. I'm hopeful that if an airhead like Paris Hilton can make such a bold and thought-provoking statement then perhaps the candidates themselves will too.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Airline Travel: The Not-So-Speculative Future

Welcome to the future. The not-so-distant future but the future nonetheless. We shall take a journey together to witness where the future of the airline industry is headed. Mind you this is not meant to lay complete blame for the future on the airlines. I do realize that they are mostly operating at a loss these days due to high fuel prices and other mitigating circumstances but still, it gives them as well as us a moment to savor the relative sanity of the present state of airline travel and a moment to mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable future.

So. For the sake of arguement let's assume we're booked on a flight from Washington to New York. It's a relatively short flight of about an hour so you don't even think to consider booking a indirect flight. You book a non-stop flight weeks in advance knowing that the prices will be cheaper and you'll most likely get the seat you want. You arrive approximately six hours before your flight so that you have enough time to check in your luggage and clear security. Now that airlines have eliminated the overhead bins and space underneath the seat in front of you (the alternate carry-on storage area on all planes) remains the same, carry-on luggage has almost completely ceased to exist. Anything larger than a purse is not likely going to be coming on board with you. A positive note? You are paying more for having additional headroom thanks to the elimination of the overhead compartments.

You wait in line to check in your bags and carry-on luggage and pay the requisite fees. For the sake of further arguement let's say that the airlines run the occasional special where if you pay to have to bags checked in you get the third free. Of course if you are even an ounce over the weight limit you will be charged the normal fees. So you check in and have your bags taken away. Just before issuing your tickets to you, the ticketing agent informs you that due to limited plane availability, your direct non-stop flight has been cancelled and you'll be flying to Los Angeles, have an hour layover and then catch the flight to New York. With little option but to either take that flight or wait until the next day for the usual direct flight, you decide to take the connecting flight.

You go through the security process which has been streamlined by a moderate amount thanks to the virtual elimination of all hand luggage coming along with you. Purses are given a cursory glance and the prime concern is liquids or foods being smuggled through security. Everyone passes through the 'virtual strip' machine so that the security personnel can check your intimate persons for illegal substances and weapons. The whole process doesn't take very long and within an hour you are through security. Hitting the concourse and making your way to the gate you realize that you are famished so you pay $15 for a bottle of water and $30 for a sub at a snack shop located close to your gate. Your boarding time approaches and it's announced that your flight is delayed. You wait for an hour and again they announce there is another delay. You go to the desk to inquire about alternate arrangements and are told that for a $200 re-booking fee they can move you to the next day's direct flight to New York. You realize you've already invested time, energy and money in making the journey today so you stick to your guns and wait it out.

Finally two and a half hours after the scheduled departure time you are told that your flight has arrived and is ready for boarding. The airlines have cancelled seat reservations (except for in First and Business class) and so you have to make a mad dash for a decent seat. They figure if it's good enough for movie theatres then it's good enough for the airline industry. You rush on board and manage to find a seat that seems comfy and you settle in for a nice ride for the next five hours. There's no television or entertainment system since its removal lightens the aircraft and means less fuel needed for flight. Hoping you have charged your iPod you settle in for the flight. No A/C vents above you as the A/C system takes up a lot of weight too. Newer planes have implemented the modern window system. What this is is vents located along the front of the plane that ingest air as the plane is flying and channels it to a duct system in the plane. When the plane's moving then you get air otherwise.... tough luck.

Need a pillow? $7 Need a blanket with it? Used or un-used? Used is $7 or un-used is $10. Want a seat that reclines? Pay a dollar in change into the slot in the seat. Want to have a bag of potato chips? $15 Want to have a glass of water or another beverage? $20. Want to have an airline with a flight attendant on it? Should have paid for first class or business class. The rest of us schlep on our own. Want to use the bathroom to answer the call of nature? Please deposit another $5 into the slot. Finally you take off and head out west to California. Arriving in LA after five hours you check to see that your connection to New York is delayed. You wait and wait only to go through the same drill as in Washington. Finally you leave again and manage to reach New York almost 13 hours after initially leaving the house. If you had ridden a pedal bicycle you probably would have reached there faster but be that as it may you have finally arrived. Now just pay $35 to get the luggage belt started and you can retrieve your bags and go home.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Impatience is not a Virtue

The image on the right is probably disturbing for some and it very well should be. The tragedy that struck in Northern India at the Naina Devi Temple. Of the 3,000 devotees that were there at the temple this past weekend for a festival, approximately 145 were trampled to death when rumors of an imminent or approaching landslide caused a panic among the lines of devotees and led to a mass rush to leave that ended up with many women and children laying dead on the path leading up the mountain to the temple. I wish I could say that this was a rare occasion in India but unfortunately it isn't. It seems that there isn't even one year where a tragedy of this sort occurs.

Over the past several years, there have been similar incidents all across India, usually at temples or during holy occasions that have led to deaths ranging from anywhere from a dozen to hundreds. The tragedy at the Naina Devi temple is definitely one of the worst in recent years but certainly nothing like the incident back in 2005 where 258 people were crushed in Wai, India during a similar religious gathering. A group close to the actual idols fell to the floor and in the rush of the others in the back of the line to get forward, there was a surge of people that ended up crushing those who had fallen to the floor. Despite the cries and pleas for help, the crowd continued forward until finally there was a clear cut call to stop and render assistance to those who fell to the floor. By then it was too late for many of them.

Whether for religious fervor or for getting free saris being handed out by politicians at a rally (which led to the death of 21 women back in 2004 in Lucknow) there have been and will continue to be trampling deaths in India. Part of the problem is that the population is so large and most of the places that these deaths have occured are not built or designed with that many people in mind. I remember going to Mahalaxmi Temple in Bombay and being pressed up against a sea of humanity and being continually shoved from behind despite the fact that even an idiot could see that the temple priests were waiting for a group within the inner sanctum to exit so that there could be less overcrowding. I'm sure similar things happened at the Naina Devi temple this past weekend but what happens is that some, in their mad rush to seek the blessings of priests and the Gods themselves, push and shove thinking that they'll get there faster and this reveals the one truth about us Indians. We are among the most impatient people in the world.

Now before I get dozens of e-mails calling me a biased American or a foolish ABCD who knows nothing, I give you some pieces of evidence. Drive anywhere in India and you'll see people stopped at traffic lights in at least ten lanes of traffic despite the fact that there is only two marked lanes in that particular direction. Why? Because to get ahead of the cars the guys on motorcycles and scooters will cut to get to the front. The handcart-wallas will continue moving forward to get ahead of them. In between will be people walking to get to where they need to go and suddenly you have a mass that resembles traffic but looks more like the start of the Boston Marathon. Or what about anywhere where you are required to line up? I can't count the number of times I've been at Bombay airport and have been standing patiently in line only to have a number of people start pushing me from behind despite the fact that I can't go anywhere.

What's the reason? Do we all think that the flight is suddenly going to take off without us? We've checked in, they have us as being checked in so unless we don't show up at all at the departure time, they won't take off without us. Plus they will have to remove our luggage as a safety precaution so it isn't like they're going to suddenly leave you behind. What about at temples where so many deaths have occurred? Is God suddenly going to decide that He's done for the day and stop blessing? God is everywhere and so that omnipotence should provide some comfort that you will get blessings now that you're in line. Just wait for five minutes and you'll get what you're waiting for.

People provide arguements all the time in an attempt to rationalize why these sorts of incidents seem to happen in India so often. The systems aren't designed to handle the crowds; there is inadequate direction from the police; people are ignorant. All of those reasons or none of them may be true but it basically boils down to the fact that we are impatient as a people. No sooner the light turns green the person behind you begins to honk their horn in an attempt to get people to move faster. I've had relatives visit from India and one of the first comments they make is that traffic here in the States is quiet and quite well-mannered. I've sat in traffic before and generally unless there has been some sort or really stupid act committed (i.e., nearly causing an accident) a horn is rarely heard. Sure it happens in big cities but it's generally when someone delays moving for an inordinate amount of time. In India it starts in anticipation of the light turning green.

I don't know what the solution would be to prevent this sort of thing but some things remain clear; at a place like the Naina Devi temple, there was only one narrow path leading to and from the temple. There was only one path to go up and one path to go down and as a result, the crowd was very thick and when people began panicing and began running down the hilltop path shouting about a landslide, there was no place for some people to go. People at the top were rushing to get down and people at the back were in a fervor to get to the top and get their blessings. The poor people in the center were crushed as a result. Better organization may help as well as creating better paths in such popular temples. But the bottom line is that if we Indians learn to be a little more patient, then perhaps we can avoid such tragedies in the future.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Coffee and Sober Breath Please

It's been a while since I've blogged on coffee and when I saw the news article in the paper about an incident at a Natte Latte espresso stand outside of Seattle, Washington, I just had to write on it. I've written about the various quirks and 'fashions' that many coffee drinkers have about how they order their coffee or how they occupy tables for hours at a time doing nothing more than pretending to work while actually playing online games but I think this is the first time I've ever run an incident like this.

Apparently a woman entered the shop last Wednesday around 11:00 in the morning and ordered a latte. She then also asked the barista preparing her coffee if she wouldn't mind blowing into her breathalyzer so that she could start her car and get to work. Now if this was me I'd probably do exactly what the barista did and that was to refuse flat out. This response was not what the customer was expecting so she began to rant and rave and complain vociferously. She then proceeded to buy the coffee and then sit in her car and drink it. She returned a short time later and again complained to the barista that thanks to her failure to blow into the customer's breathalyzer, she was late for work in Seattle. She then left the store in a huff and drove off.

Needless to say the barista called the authorities as it was likely that there was an intoxicated woman driving the streets so when the police caught up with the customer, they asked her if the story was true. The customer (who had apparently sobered up by now) reported that the story was false and that the barista was in fact the rude party and was refusing to help when the customer indicated that she was having car trouble. When the police asked why the barista would then tell the police such an odd and 'false' story, the customer indicated that the 'little girl' barista was lying because 'they do that'. The police did not press charges but did follow up by contacting the state licensing office so I would assume that to mean that they probably suspended the customer's license as the only reason I can think of for asking a barista to blow into a breathalyzer is because she was too drunk to do it herself.

It's funny how the agreived parties can often attempt to turn the tables on those who do the right thing and attempt to lay the blame on the innocent. I remember a case of a woman who had numerous moving violations and was in court one day to answer to a judge why she drove past a school bus which had it's lights on and was disembarking students. The defendant explained that she had to go to the bathroom really badly and that she didn't care that the students were in the way... she had an emergency. Be that as it may, you're not helping your case when you interrupt the judge by explaining that you had to pee as that woman apparently did. Needless to say the woman's license was suspended. I certainly hope that this was the case for this woman as well. At least she'll be awake with that latte when the judge hands down his verdict.


Friday, August 01, 2008

Water on Mars

Scientists at NASA working on the Phoenix Mars Lander mission announced yesterday that the ice they found late in June is indeed water and they are currently in the process of testing it to determine whether it could have supported life on the Red Planet some time in the distant past. While some people are viewing this as an amazing discovery, there are quite a few others who shrug their shoulders and claim so much ambivalence that they just don't seem to care. Personally I am quite excited by the news though I'm a bit puzzled why not everyone is at least a bit fascinated by what's happening out there in space.

Most news sites and places that have comments forums or 'talkback' areas are full of both sides of the arguement. A lot of the people against the further exploration of space are quick to point out that with so many other problems plaguing us here at home, why are we so concerned about whether or not there is life on Mars or even better, why are we going to Mars in the first place? It seems that the excitement and enthusiasm that once existed with the exploration of space has left the consciousness of a lot of people these days. True we have many problems we could be solving here on Earth but is that any reason to ignore the cosmos? So many people choose to take the stance that space exploration and projects are a waste of money. Still, if you recall, a lot of the technology we use today is a result of the need for advances within the space program. Don't believe that? I have one word for a response then. Velcro.

There are many other products and inventions that have come about due to the need to create something that would be able to take us to the moon and back. Now we are able to live and work in space and with this news that Mars has water, there's only more reason to go on exploring. Many people have asked why bother going to the moon or elsewhere in the solar system now that we've already been there. A response that many of us on the other side of the arguement give is, "Where would we be if Columbus sailed to America and no one ever returned?" That question can set off a whole new series of arguements but I think you get the point I'm trying to make. We pushed ourselves to the moon back in the 1960's partially because of the Cold War but also because there was still that inherent curiousity to know what was really out there.

These days we as a society are becoming far more jaded about it. What with being able to go anywhere and see anything with the click of a few mouse buttons, Hollywood can take us to Mars or anywhere else we wish to go. There's no need to do anything more than sit at home like lumps if we want to explore the cosmos. There are more than enough documentaries on TV and on DVD to suffice anyone with an interest and with high definition being spread everywhere, it's as close to the real thing as most of us are likely to get. Part of the problem is that these days no one at all seems to care. That sense of wonder is leaving us. Kids these days don't really seem to care because 'they know' what is out there. They see it in their video games and in the movies.

I remember a few years back when Bush announced that he wanted America to return to the moon and Mars within the next few decades. It was fanciful at the time and it still remains a fanciful challenge but I think it's one we need to take. The only stimulus that inspired some to think about it was when China launched their first astronaut into space several years ago. They have been awfully quiet since then. I wonder what would happen if all of a sudden they launched a mission to the moon and managed to get someone there before any other nation could even figure out that they were on the way. Then there would be tremendous backlash because if there's one thing besides being jaded about such things that we are good at, it's being jealous.

When you're good at something or when you dominate a particular field by a wide margin, you tend to lose the interest of everyone but the people who are so fanatical and loyal. Remember the New England Patriots? When they were the Cinderella team everyone cheered for them. When they became the wicked stepmother, then everyone cheered for whoever was the underdog. Now I'm not implying that we'll all start cheering for China if they eventually land a man on the moon but still, no one seems to care because there is no competition out there in the space race anymore. Maybe the space program truly was only a byproduct of the Cold War and maybe we need to spend money on other programs like off-shore drilling or energy-efficient power sources; but if the space program isn't helping programs such as that either, then at the very least, it's satisfying the curiousity that still exists and will always exist about what's out there. We need to know. Even those of us who could care less, there is still a part of us that needs to know what's out there beyond the stars.