Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Containing the Panic and the Pandemic

By now, unless you live under a rock or only visit this one site on the internet (which is both flattering and disappointing... there's a wealth of knowledge out there) you would have heard about the swine flu outbreak that originated in Mexico and has slowly been making it's way across the globe. Despite precautions being taken, it seems that some who have been exposed aren't recognizing the symptoms soon enough to take action and as a result, there has been one confirmed death from the swine flu disease in the United States. Now this pales in comparison to the hundreds who have already died in Mexico but already as the included map illustrates, the illness is spreading and people are trying to take precautions to prevent a further spread.

But how can it be contained? Part of the solution is by educating the population around the world to recognize the symptoms and encourage treatment if there is any sign of illness. However, that form of education comes at a price in that many in the media choose to educate through panic rather than calm and rational thought. One of the main drawbacks to having 24-hour news coverage now is that when there's not much else deemed 'worthy' to report, the media will beat an issue even more than a dead horse, they will beat it until it becomes glue and then keep beating it. What do I mean? Well over the last several days, if you turn on any news outlet you'll see hundreds of experts and talking heads chatting with reporters about the outbreak and what needs to be done.

These folks will often throw out words like pandemic and other words of that ilk meant to convey the severity of the illness and what would happen if it's not contained but they also tend to overplay just how dire the current situation is. I was seeing the news the other day when reporters were speaking with medical experts about the number of vaccinations available at this very moment and the experts expressed (with the appropriate amount of doom and gloom) that at this very moment, if the entire population of the United States suddenly and immediately was stricken by swine flu, there wouldn't be enough for every man, woman and child. Now this isn't a case like the "Titanic" where the designers knew there weren't enough lifeboats on the ship and they let it sail anyways. No, rather this is like trying to equate the situation the to "Titanic" when it really isn't.

What I mean is that the chances of every single person coming down with swine flu at the same time are astronomical. That doesn't mean I would go around kissing pigs (or putting lipstick on them) but it's not a fact that worries me as much as the media wants it to worry me. The medical community is aware that should this absolutely rare case occur they would need to manufacture more and given that knowledge, more vacinations are being prepared but what people need to understand is that while the outbreak is serious, it's becoming tough for medical practicioners out there to help contain the panic. Already there are reports of hospitals being inundated with patients complaining of symptoms despite the fact that the closest they have been to Mexico (or anyone else even remotely related to Mexico) was at their local Taco Bell.

Doctors warn that vacinating oneself without any symptoms being present will just make it easier for the disease to defeat the vacination. It's not like heart conditions where taking aspirin every day will help drive down the possibility of a heart attack. I think the media needs to take responsibility for educating the public but in a manner that doesn't convince people to run to the emergency room if all they have are pollen allergy symptoms. Educate and make people aware but don't scare them to death with constant images of doctors looking dour and children crying in ER's with people running around in surgical masks. As much as I enjoyed watching the old "GI Joe" cartoons I never thought the surgical mask over the face look was all that 'cool' so I don't think we need to force that trend by scaring people so much.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Allure of Auto Racing

I think since the invention of the automobile there has been a certain segment of the human race that has always wondered if their car was faster than someone else's. Humankind has always enjoyed racing in one form or another. Whether it is on foot or in a vehicle, human nature probably has some instinctive impulse which encourages competition and the desire to be first. Now some people do still wonder why auto racing (in whatever iteration... Formula 1, NASCAR, LeMans series) is as appealing as it is. Despite being a fan of racing (Formula 1 more than any of the others these days) I am at a loss to explain the appeal myself.

One thing that does kind of make sense to me the more I think about it is the desire on the part of many to see crashes. Now I know it sounds rather sick or sadistic but I think it's true. In the case of NASCAR you have cars going around in circles (most of the time except for road courses) for several hours and although there is a certain strategy in the seeminly random circling, if there are no crashes or no problems sure no one will complain but some of the fan base will undoubtedly feel... cheated maybe? I mean let's face it, with the speed some of these cars attain these days it's not surprising that the accidents that do occur are as spectacular as they are. Take the example of Carl Edwards crash this past weekend at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend.

The race had been proceeding in more or less a normal manner when Carl Edwards's car was tapped from behind causing him to spin out of control, he was then bumped again by another car that was following him and that was enough to send his car spinning skyward and slamming into the fence surrounding the track thankfully limiting injuries to the spectators (only about 7 to 8 people in the stands were actually injured). Edwards himself was able to walk away despite the horrific nature of the crash; that itself is a testament to the continued improvement in driver safety over the past so many years. But is this safety ever going to be enough?

A few years ago the governing board of NASCAR instituted what is known as restrictor plate racing which is basically a way to limit the top end speed of the racecars. Now one of the linchpins of NASCAR was that the engines and cars were supposed to more or less be 'stock' (hence the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing -- NASCAR) and differences came down to engine design and car aerodynamics. What happened then was that some teams were very fast and others were very slow with variations in between and the result was that some fan favorite drivers were left behind since the team they raced for couldn't keep up or didn't have as much money as others.

So to make things a bit more 'stock' the restrictor plate was meant to slow cars down (also termed for safety) but what happened then was that races began to become wild melees in which cars were bunched closely together, often dangerously so. The result, more crashes which seemed to draw in more viewership. Now perhaps that's speculation on my part and the parts of other viewers of racing but it's true. And the scary thing is that people don't seem to realize that this is a real danger to the drivers. Take the case of the Formula 1 race in the United States at Indianapolis a few years ago. Drivers using Michelin tires were driving them to the limits and at a very high speed track like Indianapolis (where speeds get close to 300 MPH at times) tires were bursting which resulted in spectacular crashes in practice! In practice!

The teams most directly affected protested vehemently and called for delays or at least changes in track design to make it a bit safer which was immediately poo-poohed by the governing boards. Drivers were told to 'slow down' in dangerous sections of the track. Now honestly I don't know what racing related person would consider slowing down when your income depends on winning or at least placing higher. The drivers who didn't get the changes they wanted then sat out the race. The fans booed and the race was ultimately dropped from the schedule in subsequent years (it has yet to return) but what amazed me was the fact that people were complaining about the fact that the racers didn't race. Is it any wonder when they ran a very good chance of ending up in a wall at 200+ MPH or even worse?

I think ultimately that incident and this incident on Sunday shows me that truly part of the appeal of racing is the desire to see fast moving objects suddenly and quite violently come to a halt through crashes like those that you see in the movies. I think what we tend to forget though in such cases is that there are actual human beings in these cars and they aren't mindless machines going around and around. People can and do get hurt and implementing rules meant to encourage 'more passing' or 'more racing' means that there's more chance of being involved in a major accident. On the heels of Carl Edward's crash I'm sure there's going to be a bump in viewership of the next NASCAR race this weekend.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Drafting the Future

It seems like a very very long time since I wrote about the Redskins and with good reason. After a shakey start to the previous season I had hope (which was as always... falsely placed) that the team was finally starting to mesh together despite years of player and coaching changes. It seemed that perhaps the addition of Jim Zorn and the retention of Jason Campbell at the quarterback's position the team was finally going to pull together and have a season worth being proud of. After the first six games where the Redskins had record better than some of the teams that would eventually make the playoffs, the team ended the season the way they usually do which is breaking even and barely making a passing mention on the road to the playoffs.

Usually when that happens, the leadership of the team (and by that I mean the owner Dan Snyder and vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato) tends to get a little antsy in the off-season and decides to shake things up in the hope that change will mean good things. Now granted that Snyder has owned the team for a decade and has not seen them progress the mid-playoffs at anytime in those years. Indeed I can't really say that even when they did make the playoffs that they were playing strong enough to warrant even speculation that they could go all the way. After years of so many 'close-but-no-cigar' moments it seems as though the team is sinking into a depressing pattern of do sort of good and then change things up.

Take for example the entire episode leading up to this past weekend's NFL Draft. Usually the draft is meant for teams to pick prime candidates from college football that could make a major difference to their team after a bit of seasoning. Rare are the occasions where someone is drafted and is immediately capable of leading their team to the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl. Still, many in the NFL believe that every player coming out at the top of the draft is going to be the next phenom. That being the case, for every Eli Manning you get a Heath Shuler. Sure Heath Shuler may have been the top quarterback in his draft year but he's frankly had more success in Congress than he ever did in the NFL.

What the team seems to think (and again I mean the leadership... not necessarily the coaches and players) is that by drafting someone who is great in college will mean that they will be great in the NFL. Quite honestly, just as with any other profession, there is a vast difference between the college environment versus the working environment (or NFL in this case). And if there's one thing that Washington is very good at besides overhyping itself at times is in creating a quarterback controversy. These are instances where the media or coaches or owners indicate that they are looking to create competition, end complacency or encourage excellence by threatening someone's job (either directly or indirectly).

Take the example of current quarterback Jason Campbell. Sure he may not be Troy Aikman but he's shown leadership and poise in many tough situations and has come a long way in a short time considering he's never used a single offensive scheme for more than a few months. To look at it another way, you may have a computer programming genius in your company but if you expect them to learn a brand new programming language within a few weeks and then perform at the expected levels you're bound to have problems. Not everyone is ready to perform that well that quickly. I feel bad for Jason Campbell who has dealt with the situation in far better a way than many less capable players who have faced similar situations. What the owners of the 'Skins need to understand is that football is a team sport. It's not like basketball where a Michael Jordan could likely win a game on his own with a group of supporting players. A quarterback needs a good set of receivers. Maybe if they understand that part of the equation they can fix things so that the Redskins actually get past the playoffs and into the Super Bowl. One can dream.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day

Over the last few years there have become two very distinct schools of thought in the United States regarding global warming; those that think that it is causing the many environmental problems that we seem to be facing and those that believe that it's a myth and that God (whatever form they choose to believe it in) is responsible for doing this to us through the natural progression of life. Now perhaps it's a bit too broad a brushstroke that I have painted these two schools but it is more or less how the two schools of thought can be perceived. But regardless of what your belief whether it is scientific or theological, the one thing that holds true is that today is the day that the Earth is celebrated.

Whether to allay any feelings of guilt we may have about the amount of pollution we put out into the air or the natural resources we are often using to the point of depletion, Earth Day was meant to be a day in which to give something back to the Earth. Many people use the day to plant trees or save electricity; they go and clean up sections of the environment or mark it as the day they will use more public transportaion or cleaner transportation (i.e., bikes and hybrid vehicles) that will help keep the environment clean. Whatever it is, at least it is a day that can help bring awareness to people about what little they can do (and how relatively easy it is to do) and how it can have a greater impact on the planet as a whole.

Let's face it. If the recent fuel crisis of the past few years has shown us anything, it's that our reliance on oil as the primary fuel for most of our major activities is probably going to make things more complicated rather than less. At the outset of hybrid vehicles it was viewed that perhaps this technology would merely be a flash in the pan but that is not the case. Actually the alternative energy vehicle market is beginning to take off and that's what is ultimately helping spur on the market and help the environment. I mean whether you choose to believe the scientific findings on the subject or not, one thing that cannot be denied is the fact that if we do end up depleting all the ability of the planet to sustain life then the need to find an alternate home somewhere in the universe becomes a more compelling dilemma.

That's why I found it a bit ironic yet interesting that this Earth Day is when scientists and astronomers in England confirmed that two planets that they had previously found Gilese 581 e and Gilese 581 d were such planets that they could be capable of sustaining life. These conclusions were reached not because astronomers looking at the planet saw human-like astronomers on that planet looking back at them (although that would have been very Hollywood and very cool) but because of the location and approximate size in relation to the star which the two planets orbit. It's significant for two reasons; firstly, it means that there are other planets out there that could sustain life but more importantly, it means that there is the possibility that there is other life out there in the universe and that we aren't such unique beings.

After all, according to scientific theory, all matter in the universe was once compacted and then exploded in the Big Bang which ultimately led to the creation of the planets and the universe and that's what led to life evolving on Earth. I would hate to think that such a small piece of uniqueness was limited to one part of the universe. I would like to think that there are similar beings to us out there somewhere. And I would hope that the desire to discover and eventually explore these places would come from the desire to answer that question rather than find a new place to live due to the fact that our own Earth is no longer able to sustain us due to environmental catastrophes.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Where Are the Protestors Now?

For anyone who missed the Oscars or who hasn't seen the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" yet, you probably won't recognize the little girl pictured at right. She's Rubina Ali, a child from the Mumbai slums who was cast in the role of Latika (as a child) in the film and since the skyrocketing success of the film (not to mention multiple awards around the world including the Oscar) she has become quite famous. Yet despite this newfound fame, Rubina remains in the slum where she and her family have lived for quite some time. Shortly after the popularity of the film began to take off, there were loads of protests, none louder than those coming from India.

The protestors complained that the filmmakers (read that to mean non-Indian westerners) had exploited the children and had made what amounted to 'poverty porn' in an effort to highlight only the negative parts of India. It's gotten so bad now that backlash against the film and its success has resulted in many of Bollywood's luminaries declaring that the word 'dog' should no longer be used in Indian cinema. Now perhaps it is petty or a bit of jealousy but whatever it is, it's a bit ridiculous. Despite the fact that the filmmakers paid the children in the film and have set up trust funds or set aside money for their education, many in India protested the fact that the filmmakers still hadn't done enough. Time and again the word exploitation was being thrown about and often to deaf ears that didn't want to hear anything to the contrary.

Flash forward a few months and read the latest news. According to reports, the father of Rubina Ali has now been accused of brokering a deal to illegally sell his daughter to a 'buyer' in Dubai for 200,000 British pounds (or over $300,000). Though there is some skepticism as to whether this is just accusation or it's the truth, I find it funny that the reports are coming more from the Western media and not so much from the Indian media. Is this not true exploitation of the highest order? Isn't it exploitation to take a child and bump the price from 50,000 to 200,000 simply because "this is an Oscar child"? Rubina's 13-year-old sister Sana Ali reportedly left the house recently to live with her biological mother because the father apparently didn't want her around the house anymore given the fact that Rubina is worth more.

Now perhaps all this is heresay and sensationalism that is not true. Giving the father, Rafiq Quereshi the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he's not really interested in 'selling' or giving away Rubina, but then besides denying allegations, why isn't anyone else saying anything? Why aren't Indians jumping up in protest and stating that this is wrong and that the child is once again being exploited? Certainly the life of the child has been changed since being exposed to the world in a high profile movie but I think it brings to light the fact that there is a certain amount hypocrisy in people. If it's something seemingly done by an outsider then it is exploitation, if it is something done by an Indian than is it only a shame and something to tsk-tsk at? I don't think so. I certainly hope that there isn't any truth to the accusations against Quereshi but if they are then I would wonder if the vocal majority who shunned Danny Boyle and western filmmakers will shun the actions of Quereshi just as loudly.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Some Motivation

Sometimes it takes a little something to motivate those of us of a slightly sedentary prone nature to get out there and get in shape. For some it is seeing the Olympics and seeing athletes compete on the world stage; for others it may be seeing "Rocky". For me that was my inspiration. I don't know how many times my brother and I had seen that movie and finally it is what ultimately compelled me to get in shape. Maybe it was the music or the desire to get in shape and be able to box if the need ever arose but whatever the case, it was my inspiration. For others still it may be the desire to push oneself to the limit and complete something that may have once seemed out of reach. For many that has meant competing (or at least completing) a triathlon.

For those who don't know, a triathlon means a course of running, swimming and biking. Distances can vary depending on how long or tough the organizers want to make it but it can be quite an ordeal yet it has helped inspire people to get in shape. But that may change based on the information that doctors have been passing out these days. According to recent studies, triathletes are now determined to be more prone to sudden onset of heart attacks than those who simply run marathons. The logic behind this being that runners have more or less a constant strain on the heart while triathletes will often experience varied impacts on the heart. In particular they point to triathletes swimming in relatively cool (or cold) water which is enough of a shock to the system to cause the onset of a heart attack.

Now what the news item was caveated with was the fact that before starting any triathlete type training program, people should have a medical exam performed. Then again if you think about it, most any exercise should be undertaken with some sort of supervision, especially those that will put tremendous strain on the heart. I mean if someone 300+ pounds suddenly decides to start running, undoubtedly there will be tremendous strain on the heart and the inevitable could happen. But if a person of these dimensions decides to start off slowly then there is less chance of suffering dire consequences. To me, what that means is that it all boils down to common sense.

If anyone suddenly changes any aspect of their life in a dramatic and drastic fashion is likely to suffer some sort of consequence and those not likely to be good. Still, I think an unintended consequence of such news reports or studies would be to dissuade a person from taking inspiration and doing something good for themselves. One could say that for a 300+ pound person, a triathlon is probably always going to be out of their reach but still, won't it be a way of getting them started on the path to better health and physical fitness. If you scare people off completely then aren't you simply exacerbating the problem rathter than helping? That's my opinion anyways.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jumping to Conclusions

I was skimming the headlines this morning when I noticed one in the breaking news section of a couple of news sites which indicated that new housing construction fell to new lows this past month. Given the history of mass panic and effects on the markets by so much as a mouse passing gas it wouldn't surprise me in the least if this announcement sets off another chain of ripples through the market. But honestly, is it that big a surprise that housing construction is starting to drop off? I mean given that we're just coming off of a few years of record home constructions fueled by banks giving loans to people who couldn't afford a car yet could 'qualify' for home loans for multi-million dollar homes is it any wonder that new construction is finally catching up with the market and slowing down?

It seems that about a decade ago we couldn't build houses fast enough over here. Everywhere you looked new neighborhoods were popping up and new communities were blossoming. Areas of the state in which we lived where previously deer and the antelope played was suddenly replaced by tract housing, townhomes, condos and apartments. I remember seeing so many old apartment houses being bought up and sold off as condos to the latest crop of people wanting to own homes. Is it any wonder then that builders jumped on the bandwagon and decided to build what was in demand? Simple economic theory teaches us that when demand is high, people are willing to pay high cost if the supply is low. But eventually the two intersect at which time you have an equilibrium. But if demand falls below supply then you have excess supply which will sit until sold.

That is more or less where we're sitting now. Given that the market is still in the process of recovering from the shambles it has been in the past so many months and that people are uncertain whether the bank or lender they go to today will even be in existance tomorrow means that people will be unwilling or at the very least, less willing to plunk down money and buy a home. Certainly not a home that is well beyond their means. A few years ago the trend had become to show wealth and prosperity of the nation by declaring homeownership as the benchmark to the prosperity of the nation. The problem was that people took that to mean any home; even ones you couldn't afford. Sure if everyone was willing to buy a house within their reach things might not have been so bad but with banks coming up with schemes that were really too good to be true and people willing to spend more than they had to get that home of their dreams, it was a hosue of cards ready for collapse.

Now the market is a mess, banks are no longer a sure bet and houses are sitting empty. I'm sure people will begin investing in homes again in the near future but it isn't going to be like the boom of a few years ago. Why should it be? People are still worried about what's going to happen tomorrow so why will the majority invest in a home and think that far ahead? Why buy a home if tomorrow it means that I won't have a job to help pay for it? Why buy a home if my lender is going to raise interest rates so high that I'll never be able to pay back my mortgage? Why why why? So many uncertainties and so much fear that one wonders whether people will realize that this is just a period of market correction. Things are going to improve again and it doesn't really matter who is running the government; we the people haev the power to affect how soon or how long the problem persists.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Driving While Distracted

I don't like to think of myself as one of those paranoid drivers who grips the steering wheel with both hands creating permanent handprints in the wheel while driving well below the speed limit just so my mind can process anything and everything that comes within view of the car. However, I am one of those drivers who believes in driving safely and getting to my destination in one piece. It seems though that there are other drivers out there who are of the school of thought that says that they will rely on the skills (or lack thereof) of other drivers to react to whatever they themselves wish to do whether it is changing lanes with no notice or driving God-awfully slow in the left lane.

Based on some of my previous blogs I think it's safe to say that bad drivers are really a dime a dozen but there is another sub-class of driver that I think needs to be called out and that's the supremely egotistical driver club out there that thinks that they are so skilled in the art of driving (and good driving is an art) that they can do anything and everything while driving and not put anyone in danger. Or so they think. Take for example the chap I saw this morning while on the highway. I was cruising along with the flow of traffic in the middle lanes when I noticed that cars were eagerly switching from the right lane to get around a car that was cruising along below the speed limit. I figured it was a distracted driver so I wasn't too surprised to see that this fellow (and yes... it was a guy) was reading a novel.

A couple of things flashed through my mind at that point as a steadily made my way past him. First was that perhaps he was a college student on his way to campus and was busy reading to catch up or freshen up on the last assignment so that he would be ready to answer any questions his professor may ask. I also couldn't help but think that he was someone somewhat like me in the sense that he can't ever pass up an opportunity to read. I have always been a voracious reader but I think I have become even more of one since my final few undergrad years. I used to read and read and read every moment that I got. I have never tried to read while driving on the road, let alone on the highway but I guess some people are just too fanatical about reading to pass up the chance. The final thought that passed through my mind was the fact that this fellow had obviously never heard of an invention that has been around for quite some time. Books on tape (or CD or iPod).

Now most people hear about how women will be driving all over the road as they put makeup on while driving and perhaps there is merit to their argument that they don't have the time to put all of it on while at home but still, what's the point in looking good if you're only going to end up on the side of the road with a ruined car and half-applied makeup? Still, as stereotypical as it is to point to women putting makeup on, they are also often guilty of reading or holding business meetings in cars that require multi-tasking. I think that also is a very sure sign of an egotistical driver.

Many people pride themselves on being able to multi-task and accomplish numerous things in a short span of time. I think it's something that is an asset to have in the office but not while driving; especially in heavy traffic. I was driving past a car the other day on the highway when I noticed that it was weaving rather heavily to the right and left. Everyone was giving the vehicle in question a wide berth and when I drove past I saw a woman in a business suit with a phone wedged between her ear and shoulder, briefing slides in her right hand, a cup of Starbucks in her left and she was driving with her left wrist, occasionally taking a sip of coffee (at least I assumed it was coffee and not a chai latte) as she made here way across all lanes of traffic. I'm sure her bosses would give her kudos for being so committed to the job but what good will it do anyone if she ends up in an accident?


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

It seems that the authorities in Fairfax County, Virginia, are looking to show that their stance on speeding is toughening up and if the current proposals to the law hold true, I think we'll see a lot more drivers slowing down in the area. According to the newest rules in Fairfax, judges have the ability to throw you in jail if you are in flagrant violation of the speed limit. In the surrounding areas, going anything significant above the speed limit (usually around 20 or more miles per hour) then you will likely get a speeding ticket and potentially points on your license. In Fairfax County, if you are caught going 80 miles per hour you will be charged with reckless driving (which is a misdemeanor). If you're caught doing 90 (or more) you can go to jail.

Now in seeing traffic in the area over the past few years I can tell you that it is a change that needs to be made and hopefully it will help effect change in the driving habits of drivers around the area. But what I think is lacking more than the need to follow the speed limit is the ability of the majority of drivers to drive sanely. What I mean by this is that many a time we are left to try and figure out what other drivers are thinking about doing in terms of lane changes since many drivers out there seem to think of an indicator signal as a pretty light on the side of the car. With problems like tailgating, reckless driving (in terms of cutting people off or becoming an impediment in the road by driving well below the speed limit) are all part of the problem.

I think the addition of jail time to the consequences of speeding on the area highways is enough to inspire many drivers to reduce the amount of lead in their feet and invest in some tin. I know that I can be a bit heavy footed on the accelerator when driving but I try to keep it within reason, or within the speed of the cars surrounding me. Now of course, the decision whether or not to throw someone in jail for speeding is something a judge will decide but generally if you are pulled over for speeding that much, you will have to appear in court anyways. However, I think the impression that is being formed in the way this news is being reported is meant to make people think that if you are speeding enough to fall into this category, police will haul you away on the spot.

And perhaps that will be the case. Perhaps police will indeed arrest you on the spot if you are driving so recklessly but still, I think it would have be a very extreme case for that to happen that quickly. Still, I'd rather avoid being the one who tests that theory or finds out if it's true or not. I also think that this is meant to not only drive the seriousness of the point home to experienced drivers but younger drivers as well. I think kids who have grown up watching movies like "The Fast and the Furious" and such and see speed as a relatively cheap thrill (now that fuel prices are back down a bit) that they speed to their heart's content but if they end up with jail time as a result of their speedy ways then perhaps they'll also realize the consequences of not following the rules. I guess until we see how this new rule is enforced, we'll find out just how effective it will be.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Getting Your Chocolate Fix

I will admit it. I have a problem. I'm a choco-holic and I can't really help myself. I remember working in one office where one of our admins would always stock his desktop candy dish with little Hershey chocolate bars and I used to be able to fight the temptation but when I saw that he had loaded it with dark chocolate, I just wouldn't be able to fight off the temptation for very long. I could fight it off as long as I didn't take a single piece but after succumbing to the temptation to eat just one square of chocolate, it was enough to set me off for the whole day. I would then go back to the admin desk every so often to get a piece of chocolate. Now a piece itself may not constitute much by way of calories but when you start adding them up that's when you get to trouble. I mean for those looking to live a relatively lifestyle, a piece or two isn't going to do much but when those two pieces turn to two dozen pieces then you're talking about a problem and in my case an addiction.

It probably wouldn't be so bad if it was something healthy like fruit or veggies but still, I have yet to meet anyone who can honestly say that they are addicted to eating fresh cut celery. I think I enjoy celery as much as the next guy but that's not something you would care to admit to being addicted to. So like any relatively unhealthy habit you need to find a relatively healthy alternative and it seems that the scientific minds at Harvard may have come up with a solution. Inhalable chocolate. Now I know what you must be thinking and it's probably what I was thinking the first time I heard it. What would be the difference then between chocolate and cocaine. But rest assured the actual product isn't cocoa powder which is inhaled through a straw but rather an aerosol spray that is something akin to a breath spray.

The company making this product, Le Whif, says that the chocolate inhaler will give people the chocolate kick they desire without the excessive calorie intake that ordinarily accompanies chocolate consumption. Now I will believe it when I see it (and when it stops showing up on my stomach in the form of excess weight) but it sounds like a plausible alternative. I mean after all, any wine conniseur will tell you that food (like wine) is something that stimulates all five of our senses. And seeing as how the pipes from the nose and throat do intercept at certain points it's not surprising that there be some biological connection saying that if we inhale a chocolate spray we will still undergo the same 'kick' as if we had eaten a piece of chocolate.

We'll know first hand once the product starts hitting the market on 29-April. Perhaps it will be the answer that many people have been waiting for but then again I don't think Hershey or any of the other chocolate giants really have to worry way too much. After all, there's definitely something to be said about eating a piece of chocolate. Like any good food or something that appeals to our primal instincts, there's a different sort of pleasure derived from eating a food rather than the substitute. Perhaps for those of us who want a healthier alternative on occasion to defeat the usual excesses it will be a good choice but I do know that no matter what the scientific basis for the spray and inhaler, I will always have a soft spot for a nice solid piece of chocolate.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Life Without Telecomm

I was reading an article in the paper this morning about the apparent act of phone sabotage that has hit California. It seems that vandals have hit various fiber optic line locations around the the state to knock out all telecommunications in parts of Southern California. Now while it may seem a minor thing to lose land line phone and cell phone service in the area, it's disturbing when you realize just how reliant on telecommunications networks in this modern society. There was a time when living without the ability to instantly call someone on the telephone was no possible and the idea of using a wireless device to call someone seemed something only to be seen in a science fiction movie. It seems some of these vandals are bent on trying to return us to those times as quickly as they can.

Seeing as how these incidents have occurred in California, I'm inspired to believe that these acts were the acts of a group that is likely infuriated with the ridiculous amount of time and energy people spend on the phone these days. Seeing as how in many cases, the phones have become more of a nuisance than a benefit (from some perspectives) I can understand why they would want to do such a thing. I mean you begin to see their perspective when you're standing in line somewhere and someone around you begins talking loudly on their cell phone or the guy in the lane next to you starts weaving into your lane because he's texting or dialing rather than focusing on the road and driving. I'm sure it's at time like that that many of us would love to snatch the phone and toss it away for all time. Unfortunately, we can't do that and the real question then becomes would we really want to?

I see cell phones and the spread of telecommunications capabilities to be a double edged sword. On the one hand it has made the world smaller in so many ways that it has undoubtedly changed the way in which the world works. No matter when or where something happens in the world, the incident is communicated across the globe almost instantly. How else would Americans in the far corners of the world be able to find out the election results the same moment that they were reported to us here in the United States? Then again, it's also become like a leash holding a dog. We can't go anywhere anymore and claim to be out of touch from work. Whether by e-mail, cell phone, blackberry, twitter, or good, old-fashioned telephone communication, we are never more than a few moments out of touch from anyone or anything. That can be a mixed bag for some.

But I find it bad also in the sense that it is feeding the need for instant gratification in all of us. Years ago when I would browse the internet via a dial-up modem it was a good day when we could get 9600 baud and load a website within five minutes. These days if the page takes five seconds to load we start hemming and hawing and picking up the phone to call tech support and chew them out for the problems the internet seems to be having. That subtle art of patience is slowly dying. There were times when we would wait days, weeks, even months, to hear from family who were in different parts of the country or the world; we would have to wait for the phone service to grant us time to make international calls. Nowadays we can do it instantly with no difference in sound than if we were speaking to someone in the next room.

We have come to rely on that instant gratification so much so that it's like an addicition. Think about it. When you're on a plane you'll hear a chorus of phones chiming off just before take-off and they'll chime on again the moment the flight crew tells you it's okay to do so. People feel the need to tell anyone and everyone wherever they are and the moment they get there. Sure I can understand the need to account for everyone's time since people at the airport are waiting to pick you up or so that you can tell a loved one that you arrived safely but I'm talking about the folks who feel the need to update the world at the drop of a hat. It seems they can't do anything without that need to communicate it to someone and that's where I think the primary motivation came from for these vandals. You don't appreciate things until they are gone and I think these vandals wanted people to realize just how reliant on technology they have become. It's a convenience but not one that should ever be taken for granted.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Guns and Ammo

Last week's tragedy apparently perpetrated by 41-year-old Jiverly Wong in Binghimton, New York again brings up the debate on gun control that many people seem to rekindle at the end of such incidents. For those who don't know, last week Wong entered a community center where English classes were being taught for new immigrants. Barricading the back door with his car Wong then proceeded into the center and began firing and killing whomever he could find. Before taking his life he had killed 13 people and injured scores of others. Recent reports indicate that Wong apparently fired nearly 100 bullets in the span of a few minutes (98 to be exact) and that he still had plenty of more ammo left in the bags that were found around his neck when his body was found.

Now gun control advocates point to this and state that it's the perfect instance of showing why people shouldn't have guns. They will debate endlessly about how it is avoidable incidents like this that make it necessary to restrict the number of guns on the street and to curb their availability. On the flip side, many gun advocates say that this is actually the perfect reason why licensed guns should be allowed in greater numbers. Indeed in Texas at present there is debate over whether or not concealed handguns should be allowed on college campuses. The agruments being that if another incident like Binghimton, Virginia Tech or Columbine happen, people will be able to defend themselves. I tend to think that this is more of a case of escalation.

What I mean by escalation is that if someone is allowed to carry a gun someone will want a bigger gun. If someone carries a single-shot rifle then someone will want to have a fully-automatic rifle. The tendency of the human ego just proves that there is no end or limit to what someone will want to 'prove' they are better than someone else. I have thankfully not been in a situation like those listed above but I can safely say that I'm not all for guns on campuses or schools. I understand the logic behind it and do agree that people should have the rights to carry guns if they so desire but to introduce guns to learning institutions is just a bad idea. Bullying is what is believed to have led to the shootings at Columbine so by carrying a gun will that act as a deterrent or an easy means to ending the argument?

In the case of Wong, despite the fact that he was only earning $200 a week, he managed to get his hands on enough ammo to set new records. Already in the media they are referring to his spree as the 'new Rambo'. Does anyone find the fact that he was still able to load up on so much ammo strike anyone as a bit scary? There are assumptions that he may have bought a lot of the ammo via the internet or over a period of time, but regardless, the fact that he carried a 9mm Berreta and an .45 handgun just proves that he had way more than he needed if his only purpose in owning a gun was self-protection. I understand that having more than one gun doesn't make someone a criminal but I ask again, should someone be able to buy multiple guns with no overwhelming need for them?

I understand that gun shooting can be a recreational activity for many people but for the average Joe, I don't think it's a necessity. I mean other than for recreational purposes how often do you actually need to fire a gun to defend yourself? I don't think there are that many people who can point to an instance since owning a gun where they've had to go cowboy and defend their home and hearth from marauding bandits. Some argue that by allowing people tons of guns but making ammunition expensive is the way to go and in a certain way it make sense to me. It's kind of like what's happening with cigarettes. The actual cost of cigarettes is not all that much but when you look at how much is paid in tax it's no wonder that so many people have cut down on the amount of smoking they do. Maybe that's the way it needs to go to prevent further tragedies like last week.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Office Food Etiquette

I've blogged in the past about the office etiquette I have found lacking in many offices I have worked in but another I have found that is just as bad are the general kitchen habits of so many co-workers I've had in the past and the present. For whatever reason (I don't think it will every be fully understood or explained) people tend to take on slightly different personalities than those they have in their private lives. I say this because I can't believe that some people are this slovenly or this unkempt in their own homes. Or perhaps that's my desired belief and I am deluding myself into believing that people can't be so messy or inconsiderate at home.

The reason the kitchen is the focal point for so much bad blood in the office is because of what goes on in there. Take for example the fridge. There are so many people in an office that the fridges at work are often as full as the ones at home though that is not always the case. Given that the current trend in the office these days is to work more (at least for some people) the idea of the fridge was so that workers could bring something other than a sack lunch like they were in school. Instead we are now able to bring in leftovers, fresh food, microwaveable meals and a veritable cornucopia of food and beverages that transforms what could be a very mundane lunch into s meal fit for a king. Or so the thought process went.

What happens though many a time is that people sometimes forget that they have stuff in there. Take for example the one office I worked in where people would bring in the raw ingredients for sandwiches or veggie wraps and then would assemble a fresh meal for lunch virtually every day. I guess it makes more sense than making one at home and bringing it in every day if you have the option of making more than one sandwich if the mood should strike. What tended to happen in that particular case however was that the individual would often forget that they had raw ingredients left at the end of the week and rather than clearing it out or finishing it off, it would be allowed to fester. Then opening a fridge and finding stale and rotten leftovers made for a nasal journey that most of us would just as soon forget.

But sometimes it wasn't even a case of forgetting food; rather someone would come along and take the items that people had left in there. I remember one time I had made breakfast burritos for the office (there were very few of us there so I didn't have to make that many) and I had made a couple of extra for myself for later in the week. I had put the extras in a bag with my name on it and kept it in the fridge. The next day when I went to get one I found that someone had gone into my labelled bag and taken some of my extra burritos. Now one can argue that perhaps that isn't such a big deal since I had made them for the office but still, as I said, some people tend to change their attitudes in the workplace. After all do we go and take other people's food at restaurants? I don't think so.

Even the microwave, that wonderful modern convenience can be a curse at times when the power of the atom is misused in the office. If you don't know what I mean then I only have one word for you: popcorn. For all the times that someone has popped a fresh and fine tasting bag of popcorn in the kitchen there are at least ten instances where someone has set the timer and left popcorn to burn and there's no more potent an office smell than burnt popcorn. Fish may be another but I don't think I've smelled fish as often as I've smelled burnt popcorn. Are you so busy that you can't spend the five minutes it takes to make the bag watching it to make sure it doesn't burn? If you are that busy then why are you wasting time eating popcorn in the first place? When you sit in a cubicle environment where air permeats from one end of the room to the other in no time flat, it helps if people are considerate enough to be mindful of the olafactory senses of those around them. Not everyone's culinary ideals match up so what you think smells wonderful may drive your cubicle neighbor up the wall.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Most Stressful Time of the Week

I was reading an interesting article this morning which may help explain why so many people get stressed out on Tuesday's. It seems that the British did a study in which they found that the average worker was most stressed at around 11:45 a.m. on Tuesday's more than on any other day. The reason behind this is that Monday's are usually spent in catching up with co-workers or associates on the activities of the weekend and is usually seen as a slower time of the week due to the fact that everyone is catching up on their social networking. It seems that by around 11:45 on Tuesday morning however, everyone has caught up and now realizes what all they have to accomplish for the week and that's usually what seems to get many people in a tizzy.

Now while I realize that this study is meant to show a sample group as opposed to the total working population, I couldn't help but take this analysis a little farther. I've been working in various capacities since about 1992 and in that time I've come to a realization. I think that the findings by scientists with regard to stress times on Tuesday's does make sense but I don't think it ends there. Stress may peak around Wednesday which is when you realize you're halfway through the week and you haven't accomplished half the things you wanted to accomplish to that point. Many silently curse themselves for having wasted Monday on simply socializing and not getting started sooner. Although some people thrive under the pressure of looming deadlines, not everyone is prone to being happy under such circumstances.

By the time we get around to Thursday people are really on pins and nails as they continue trying to work through their assignments. But that's when something strange starts to happen. It's something I've noticed for many years and it was something that I felt even in school. If there's a looming Friday deadline most people will be working like fiends on Thursday to finish it off but by the time Thursday afternoon rolls around, people tend to get very... laid back. Again, I won't say that this is a uniform feeling among any and all workers but it is something you could probably see for yourself. People tend to relax because they know that Friday is here so it's almost time for the weekend.

Friday is the one day where another period of socializing happens again. Most people tend to spend a large portion of the day planning for the weekend or easing themselves into that mindset. Casual dress in offices on these days only perpetuates the sensation. Plus the feeling that now that the weekend is upon us, work can be left behind and forgotten for at least two days. If the Friday in question is before the start of a long weekend you can fully expect this to be in full swing by about the time most people are getting their first cup of coffee. If the long weekend in question begins on a Friday then you can move the whole process back a day.

It's odd to think of so many people getting stressed out on this one day only to likely lose that urgency within a few days given the fact that two days off are looming. It's a cycle that has probably been part of the office environment since cavemen were the ones in the office. If you think about it, whether you're in school or in the workplace, the tendency and attitudes are more or less the same. And though I'm still a few hours away from the 'most stressful time of the week' I'm still trying to keep things in check and know that within a few days it will be back to easing into the weekend.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Stimulating Stimulus

I was eating lunch the other day when I overheard a conversation between a couple of people a few tables over. I am generally not in the habit of eavesdropping on anyone talking in my vicinity but when the people in question are speaking loud enough to be heard from across the room let alone from two tables away it's hard not to hear what they were talking about. In any case, they were talking about the fact that the latest economic stimulus being put forward in an effort to jump start the economy would begin appearing in people's paychecks in the near future and the group having the conversation was complaining about it.

Now everyone is entitled to their opinion but I think it's a little misguided in terms of complaining that this stimulus is any different than any other stimulus that has been proposed or provided. They were arguing the differences between the stimulus checks which many received last year versus the addition of a few dollars into their paycheck every month. Now in either case the end result to me seems to be the same. Whether we get a lump sum or we get a few dollars in every paycheck what the net result is expected to be is that by having a little more money we'll spend it and thereby inject it back into the economy. Given that fuel prices have been holding steady around $2 for a while (in most places) and that there is so much uncertainty with regard to the market, it's no wonder that many people are preferring to hold onto the money rather than give it away and that's where I think any differences in stimulus payments are wiped out.

What I mean is take for example the people who got $600 in stimulus checks last year. If they were in danger of losing their house to foreclosure would they go ahead and spend that $600 on luxury items (as was the initial hope) or would they spend it on their home? What about people whose 401(k) accounts have been slowly been turning into 41(k) accounts? Would they be more prone to inject that type of money into their retirement plans or plunk it into the bank hoping that even a little interest will keep the money afloat; that and a good deal of hope that the bank in question won't go under any time soon. What needs to happen or what decisionmakers need to understand is that the American culture is on the verge of changing.

Now I will grant you, there are people out there who probably blew that $600 stimulus within a day of getting it but there are a lot of others who have held on to it or used it for a matter of survival or sustainment and that's because to me it seems that the monetary conditions of the country have changed. A few years ago most everyone was doing fine financially so an additional $600 from the government would have seemed like a bonus so since you didn't really need it for anything else (such as paying the bills or your mortgage) then you would probably be more prone to spend it in the economy as was intended. What is different now is that people need this money and aren't willing to part with it so easily. If I'm worried that tomorrow the company I work for will suddenly announce massive layoffs or will close down completely, am I going to spend $600 like there's no tomorrow or will I hold it close? I think you can figure out the answer.

I think the approach of just giving money away in a check and then expecting that people will spend it like they have historically spent any bonus didn't take into account the difference in economic times. A few dollars added to a paycheck will likely have the affect of effecting people's spending habits and seeing spending return to the economy over a longer period of time but it will see it return nonetheless. Sure maybe not everyone will run out and buy a $15,000 home entertainment center like they might have been inspired to do a few years ago but that doesn't mean they won't continue to spend. Change takes time and it is often slow to come but it will eventually come. We just have to be willing to make the change.