Friday, May 29, 2009

A Turn of Phrase

I believe it was English playwright, Sir George Bernard Shaw who once said that the British and Americans were two people separated by a common language. I think that was probably one of the most astute observations anyone has ever made about the English language and how it can mean so many different things to so many people. However, I don't believe that this misunderstanding can be limited to what many British perceive to be the slaughtering of their language by Americans among others. I think a lot of the confusion comes down to how slang is used in various parts of the world. I say this in light of some news I read the other day where an instructor at a Connecticut police academny bit a student after the student retorted with the jibe, "bite me".

Now anyone who has seen 'The Simpsons' knows that this is a common enough rejoinder that ranks up there with expressions like "Get lost" or "Get out of here" but apparently the instructor took the student at her word and proceeded to bite her on the arm. He has now been brought up on assault charges. Now in this case I know the instructor was probably taking action to prove a point about how the English language and the literal interpretation therein can lead to dangerous consequences but I don't think he intended to get himself arrested in the process. Again, I think it is slang or improper use of the language that has led to so much misunderstanding among so many people.

For someone coming from a foreign country I'm sure there are plenty of expressions both here in the United States and abroad (where English is predominantly spoken) that can lead to some interesting misunderstandings. I can recall a time when in high school and a foreign exchange student from Germany was making a point in my calculus class and when he concluded my teacher responded by saying, "You don't say." which meant that he was pleasantly surprised with what the student said. But the exchange student responded back by saying, "No. I do say. I just said it. Did you not understand?" A simple expression like that was enough to cause confusion and the expression is itself common enough in English that I was surprised with the retort but it made me think about those who aren't exposed to slang or colloquialisms so often.

And it's not just Americans who do it though we are typically the group that catches the most flak for it. I speak a couple of other foreign languages and I can tell that there are phrases even in those which if taken literally can cause a great deal of confusion. Those who have read my site long enough or know me well can tell you that I feel effective communications is something that is a requirement if one wants to have their voice effectively heard. I don't mean that in a literal sense of course but figuratively. If you have a difficult time getting your point across then I am sure that you won't be able to get many people on your side. All's I know is that while I will concede that we Americans are guilty of a confusing turn of phrase, we aren't the only guilty ones out there.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Who is to Blame?

After news hit last week that the two child stars of "Slumdog Millionaire" were back on the street due to the slums in which they continued to live were torn down, there was an uproar in certain communities regarding whether or not these children had indeed been exploited as so many claimed. The father of Rubina Ali, who several weeks ago had been accused of trying to sell his daughter to prospective adoptive parents, apparently stormed out of a news conference recently complaining that the filmmakers had not done enough for their children after the enormous success of the film. Now perhaps had the children been from a middle class family, the amount they had been paid could have been better but it seems to me that the real exploitive people are those who are using these children as pawns in their own devious games.

Shortly after the success of the film there was a massive effort by many of the political parties of India to gain rights to use AR Rahman's "Jai Ho" as the theme song for their political rallies. There were attempts by these same political parties to take these children and use them as symbols of what they apparently stood for. There was talk and rhetoric about how the responsibility of India is to take care of these children and the thousands of others like them who live on the streets yet after victory or defeat in the recent elections there has been silence. No one has come forward to say that they are willing to take up the cause and no one has even seemed to mention these children at all except to complain that the filmmakers have 'not done enough' to help the children out.

In all honesty, I think that because the film was made by non-Indians there is greater demand for support to these children. I grant you that with the exchange rate where it is at present, even $100,000 will go a long way to making a difference for these children. Multiply that by around 40 and you'll get an idea of about how much in Indian rupees that much money is. Sure there is a difference in the buying power of the rupee but what the filmmakers have done for the children cannot be termed as paltry. They have set up trusts and funds for the children that is being protected so that it cannot be finagled away from them. Over $700,000 has been donated to charities to help children like these get off the streets and help them learn a better way of life.

But none of this is generally acknowledged. The constant chorus that is always heard is that what they did 'was not enough'. So then I wonder what would have been enough? What would have been the point at which the public would feel that these children have been justifiably compensated for the work that they did? I can think back to the original "Star Wars" films. Forward thinking people like George Lucas decided to forego some of their fees in order to get a share of the box office profits and earnings from merchandising. It helped turn them into millionaires overnight. I'm not saying that the children or their parents should have known that the film would be as profitable and famous as it has become but then again at the time I'm sure they never imagined this would mean more than a few thousand rupees for them.

To argue that these children have been denied something more or that they deserve more than they have gotten reeks to me of hypocrisy and I say that for the simple reason that if India and Indians are so ashamed of the way the slums and slumdwellers have been 'exploited' in the film then do something about it. When the government of Maharashtra and Bombay set up subsidized housing for slumdwellers in the largest slum in Asia the housing was given to them at cost or free in many cases. But rather than moving out of the slums, the new owners of these apartments found that it was more profitable for them to rent out their apartments to the continuing influx of people coming to the city rather than move off of the streest. So then what was the point in building it in the first place? Doesn't it then lead one to believe that those who should be helped are those that want to help themselves better the situation they find themselves in?

Now again when Danny Boyle and Christian Colson (the filmmakers of "Slumdog Millionaire") came to Bombay to meet with the children and talk to their families, people started to again claim that the children were being exploited. There were again complaints that not enough was being done to help them. This again despite the fact that the filmmakers continue to give money to their familes. It seems that the father of Rubina Ali feel that the amount they have been given (close to 400,000 rupees) is not enough for a good flat. Perhaps they'd like millions so that they can live next door to Bollywood stars as they feel they have earned? Perhaps but then who is to blame for the fact that these children are caught in a Catch-22? That catch-22 being that people feel these children have helped exploit and shine negative light on India through the depiction of slums yet want them to earn millions for the work that they did in a multi-million dollar (and multi-Oscar winning) film.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

No More Smiling

Security is something most law enforcement agencies take very seriously these days and so it's no surprise that every so often we citizens are asked to do something or make some alteration in our routine that will help promote safety and allow law enforcement agencies better execute their jobs. I can think of the random bag searches that were done on subways around the country after reports of potential terrorist attacks or the ongoing drill of removing shoes, jackets, belts, hats, wallets, metal objects and so on from our persons when going through security at the airports. Most of these things we understand and accept but I think this latest changes being put forward in at least four states for now will be one that confuses the average citizen and it has to do with smiling.

For many of us, getting our driver's license was reason enough to smile as it was a sign of freedom. The call of the open road and endless travel began with the issuance of that laminated little card which indicated that you were legally allowed to operate a motor vehicle. Not everyone linked it with such lofty ideals; indeed some people think of it more of a convenience rather than a necessity but suffice it to say that it is something most adults in this country get at some point in their lives. That being said it's understandable that many (especially the younger folks out there) would want to smile for this most historic of photos. But those days may soon end nationwide if tests being conducted in four states prove to be successful.

The only part of this test is altering the way our photos on our licenses look and that is by telling drivers not to smile. It seems that the latest facial recognition software being put to use by law enforcement agencies can determine if a person is attempting to use a false identity to get a photo in another state under another name based on the fact that their face matches the records in another state. Without smiling it is possible for the software to more easily pickup the similarities that could lead to proof that someone is attempting to get licensed under false pretenses. Now I'm sure many of us have seen 'facial recognition' at work in the movies but it is a true capability; but what confuses me is why we would need to stop smiling for this to work.

If you've ever seen the licenses or false identification papers of criminals, terrorists or what-have-you, they all appear to have been taken from mugshots. Many times on the news those are the best photos the news agencies will get of a criminal they are talking about and so they'll use it. In none of those pictures will you ever see them (at least I have never seen one) where the criminal is smiling as if he's just won the lottery. Now I will admit that I don't know all that much about facial recognition technology but I do know enough to say that there are certain characteristics that are unique to each and every face that make one different from the other; this is true even of twins so far as I know.

So then my question again becomes what purpose does it serve to get people to stop smiling. I know that in Virginia for example you don't even have to go to the DMV to get your license renewed. Unless your address has changed, there is no need to go to the DMV to get your license changed and so if you got your license years before this new rule was put in place (incidentally Virginia is one of the states where 'no-smile' is becoming a rule) then who's to say that you'll ever have to get rid of that picture where you're cheesing so hard it hurts? I don't believe that it will make tracking criminals or would-be criminals any easier. Perhaps it will help some but I don't think it will be the deterrent that many are making it out to be. Perhaps it will be and I'm just being naive but I guess I'll truly believe it when I see it.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Heart isn't A-Twitter

Perhaps it's a sign that I'm getting old. I thought it would be enough to be online writing a blog or doing web-shopping and the like but I think I'm being left behind in this rapidly developing techno-world and evidence of it is the fact that I still do not 'twitter'. For those who don't know, Twitter is a web-based social networking site that allows users to post updates to their 'status' from anywhere and allows fans to 'follow' what their friends are doing. The catch is that you are limited to 140 characters to get your message across. What this means is that the abbreviations and short form that have come to define the web-generation's style of communication is becoming all the more ingrained and I think we're slowly seeing the decline of communication skills.

Now perhaps I could be acccused of being overly verbose in my blogs or that I take ten sentences to say what I could have said in a single phrase but I think effective communication is a skill that should be developed rather than stymied. Getting a message across effectively can mean a world of difference to someone; just ask anyone who has been wrongly accused of a crime and subsequently freed through the arguementative powers of their lawyer. If they were limited to 140 characters to get their point across I think we'd probably have more prisons dotting this nation than condos. Now perhaps I am exaggerating a bit but I truly feel that things like Twitter are reducing the creative power of writers or those seeking to write. I know some would argue that Twittering promotes creativity because you have to get the point across in 140 characters or less but at times I wonder why.

Twitter's main popularity stems from the fact that you can let your friends (or anyone else in your social network) know exactly what you're doing as soon as you send an update. I think it's great if you lead a relatively interesting life or are on travel somewhere and wish to rub it in, but do we really need to know that "I'm tired and rubbing my eyes" or that "It's almost time for lunch and I have a ton of work to do?" If that were the case then why spend time sending an update to Twitter. The old saying is that 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' but in the modern world I'm beginning to think that 'absence' can boil down to no coverage for your cell phone network.

We are putting so much of ourselves out there that it's becoming scary how little privacy we get any more. While some people argue over the legality of whether the government should be allowed to monitor our calls and e-mails if we are suspected of subversive behavior, I would argue that the point is moot because many of us put out more information than we ever need to on social networking sites or via our web-pages. As I said, some updates would be interesting if they were delivered on a semi-regular basis but do we really need to know what is happening every 15 minutes of your life? If I have nothing more to worry about than your updates, isn't it possible that that's a sign that I need something more to do in my life?

I'm not saying that sites like Twitter are necessarily bad; I'm sure if I dig around on the internet a bit I'll find stories of people who saved themselves from certain death by updating their Twitter page. I guess also it is healthy for some people who are social fiends and can't live without being in the spotlight for every minute of the day. Perhaps they have the need to elevate their own self-importance by updating frequently to lead others to think that they are extremely important people. I don't know if that is the real reason but perhaps it is. I know that after recent earthquakes in California, many used Twitter to provide updates to friends and family as to their safety and it made it easier for people to keep tabs on one another. That's one of the good things about the service. But then finding out that "I'm stuck in the bathroom with no toilet paper" is something I really could have lived without knowing.


Friday, May 22, 2009

A World-War-II State of Mind

I don't know what it is with guys. We have this in built fascination when it comes to the second World War. As I've mentioned in the past, there is a large majority of us that has a distinct fascination for World War II and we often tend to take that passion to an extreme. I say 'we' in this case because I do include myself in that crowd. I don't know when exactly this fascination began but I know that it has been with me for quite a long time. I can remember watching a Charlie Brown movie where the gang visits France and they make a stop off at Normandy. I remember hearing the term 'D-Day' and I can still remember feeling a bit of fascination at the fact that that one term held so much significance in history.

But if reading about World War II is a fascination that most of us history buffs have, there is another group (nearly as large if not larger) that is totally devoted to movies depicting anything and everything to do with World War II. During the late 1960's and 1970's there were an abundance of World War II movies. In fact in the sixties before opinion of war began to change, some of the most beloved movies on that historic conflict came out. These included such classics as "The Guns of Navarone", "The Great Escape", and "The Dirty Dozen" to name a few. Though many movies claimed to be based on some historical truth, many of them were dramitizations of events that didn't really occur or at least not in the way that many of the movies showed them to have come about.

But there was something to World War II movies that seemed to appeal to people no matter what. I guess perhaps it's partially because World War II was (and still often is) thought of as the 'Last Great War'. It's a term meant to convey the sheer importance of a conflict that certainly helped shape the world for the next fifty years. Indeed from the fall of Nazi Germany to the fall of Communism, very little of what history was made during the second World War did not have an impact on the way things have played out since then. I guess in the context of that war it was easy to understand who our enemies were.

The Germans and the Japanese were clear cut opponents and the Allies were the heroes. War was still fought with some degree of clarity and though many movies show that commando raids were launched by both sides, the war was almost always shown to be fought on an honorable front rather than in a deceitful back. Sure many would say that you have to do what you have to to win but at what cost? World War II was a war which had the support of most of the country and it was a conflict that though was contained to the rest of the world other than the Americas there was still nationwide support for the war effort. In the times since most major conflicts have been viewed with such cynicism that a whole "you're either with us or against us" mentality has come to pass and I think that's why there are still so many that like World War II movies.

Perhaps it seems a bit war-monger-ish to 'like' war but I don't think that's what it is. I think World War II was something that people believed in fighting. I don't mean to imply that the men and women in uniform don't believe in fighting the wars we are fighting now but many people don't seem to understand why we fight now. I won't get into the politics of why we should or shouldn't fight the wars we're fighting now but I'll say that if nothing else, films like the old war movies many of us grew up watching or the new war movies like Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming "Inglorious Basterds" again lets us say that war is okay for the right reasons. Whether for good or bad it is something that has almost always stood behind these movies and I think it's something that will always stand behind them.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Man's Missing Link

Let the debate begin again! The long-standing debate between the believers of Darwin's theory of evolution and the more 'traditional' religion based view that man was created by God got a new bone to chew over (excuse the pun) this week when scientists unveiled the skeleton pictured herein as the 'missing link' between man and ape. According to scientists this nearly 95% intact fossilized skeleton was unearthed near Frankfurt back in 1983 however there was no realization at the time (or since) at the significance of this finding.

According to scientists and archaeologists, the skeleton represents a cat-sized creature which is believed to have existed close to 47-million years ago. What sets this primate's bones apart from others however is that there are signs of more human like characteristics in them than in any previous fossils of similar nature that were unearthed. In addition to opposable thumbs, these primates apparently also had fingernails as opposed to claws; a major finding that could once again stir the debate as to whether we have evolved or were formed from the primordial ooze so to speak.

Whatever your belief system you have to admit that it's fascinating to be able to look at evidence of life from so long ago and think that if nothing else, this life has gone on to evolve into something. Perhaps it isn't representative of man and perhaps scientists will later conclude that it's actually an ancestor to the lemur monkey as opposed to man but still, I find it fascinating that over the course of millions of years, some things have remained consistent in some forms of life. Certainly it's one thing to see the bones of dinosaurs and stare in wonder at the size and magnitude of them but it's certainly another to see the bones of something that resembles man in many different ways from so long ago.

I can't help but think back again on the fact that this lifeform existed 47-million years ago; that's about 20-million years removed from the dinosaurs. If indeed man-like creatures have inhabited this planet for that long then it stands to reason that there would be other such civilizations on other planets. There has to be. I mean according to people who believe in the Big Bang theory, all matter once resided in a very compact and tiny environment which then exploded outward. Accordingly the universe continues to grow outward. That being the case, it's like a dropping a water balloon onto the ground. It's all in one space and then expands outward so then perhaps there are other similar signs of life elsewhere.

I would hate to think that all life-bearing matter would have ended up here and no place else. I would hate to think that in all the universe there's nothing else except emptiness and pockets of matter and gas that come together to form the occasional planet. It's a wonder what train of thought something as simple as a collection of bones can get you going on but it's something worth thinking about. Perhaps you don't believe that man has evolved from apes. Perhaps you think that there is some higher reason behind why man 'showed up'. That's all well and good but then why would every other form of life out there suddenly step aside at some point. It doesn't seem to make sense and hopefully this new fossil finding will help explain things a little better.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Back to the Beginning

The summer movie season for the year is already in full swing. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" opened to mixed reviews a few weeks ago, "Star Trek" with an all-new cast playing the original characters hit two weeks ago and "Terminator: Salvation" opens this week. What do all these movies have in common? Well they're all part of a franchise and in the case of these three, the youngest franchise ("Terminator" in case you didn't know) is itself already 25 years old. Now while I will still stand by my statement that it's ample proof that originality or new concepts in Hollywood are either being stifled or are dead still stands though I am more prone to believe in recent years that part of this drive is being driven by people of my generation entering the movies industry.

As a child growing up I have already said that movies played (and continue to play) an important part of my life. Some may term it an unhealthy 'habit' but it's one that has helped shape me into who I am before. Most people of my generation can say that they have a handful of movies which they endlessly saw over and over again considering that we were among the first generation to actually grow up with home video. Previously (as alien as the concept may seem to many younger children) movies could be seen at the theatre and then very rarely, if ever again. With the advent of video you could see movies as many times as you wanted once you got a copy on some form of home media.

Growing up I saw movies like "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Star Wars", and "Rocky" among many many others so many times that they became benchmarks for movies I saw since. Now again, some may argue that perhaps my taste in movies is highly questionable or that it is a very low standard but still, they were the movies which I could and would watch many times over and still not get bored. Now when people of this same generation go to the movies, they will often lament the fact that movie aren't the way they used to be. How would you then fix it? Simple. Make movies like those that you grew up watching.

In the case of a movie like "Star Trek" which is more of a religion in some circles than in others, some of the changes that were made in this latest version were considered blasphemous but the trick becomes that if you make movies that are carbon copies of what you grew up watching then you narrow your audience. What you'll want to do to keep the love alive is create something that would appeal a new generation as well. Most kids today probably wouldn't know William Shatner (the original Captain Kirk) if he came and did a song and dance for them so you create a new one that will appeal to them. Same with James Bond several years ago with "Casino Royale". They took the essence of what the character was and injected him into the modern world.

For a lover of movies like me it is wonderful to see characters interpreted in new ways. Not all of these revisions are necessarily great but they at least show us that there are other ways to look at the characters that we know and love. I mean besides the movies that I've already rattled off, consider that "GI Joe" and "Transformers" (two beloved cartoons from the 80's) will be hitting the movie screen before the year is out. If that itself isn't proof that we're seeing a movie industry being run by kids who grew up in my generation then I dont' know what is. All I can say is that I hope this trend continues though I hope it doesn't tend to skew the things we like about a particular movie or franchise. Like the way George Lucas alienated many faithful "Star Wars" fans by creating a new trilogy that appealed more to little kids than anyone else. The appeal of the originals was that it had something for everyone, not just the consumers. One can only hope and keep going to the movies.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Back on the Streets

Only a few months have passed since "Slumdog Millionaire" won many accolades at the Oscars to cap off a year which had seen it sweep many of the awards ceremonies around the world. Of particular note in all that hubbub was the furor surrounding the kids of "Slumdog Millionaire" who were rightfully feted around the world. They were flown to the United States especially for the Oscars and in the days and months since they have been celebrated at awards functions in India as well hobnobbing with celebrities that a few years ago would probably have ignored them on the streets. There are rumors that Hollywood celeb Angelina Jolie wanted to adopt one or all of them and that Rubina Ali's father wanted to actually sell her to a sheikh in the Middle East. "300" star Gerard Butler stopped in to take the kids out for lunch while visiting India and even popular model/stars like Priyanka Chopra has been wining (okay maybe soda-ing is a better description) and dining the kids all around town. So then why are they back on the streets?

Early yesterday (India time) the police in cooperation with the Muncipalty Corporation of India ordered the slums in which Azharuddin Ismail M. Shaikh (the young boy who played the lead role in "Slumdog Millionaire") to be razed as the housing was illegal. Now there are some things to bear in mind when reading this (and feeling outrage) and that is that when we say shanty I'm not talking about a few lean-to's or corrugated tin houses in an alley, I'm talking about a sizeable community in which many live and work. Now the general reaction in India to the depiction of the slums has been one of anger over the feeling that the West views India as nothing more than a collection of slums and a third world nation. I push back on that sentiment by saying if that was what the West really thought about India then why would there be so much outsourcing of work going to India? Why would the Obama administration be looking to revoke tax law that benefits companies sending work to companies overseas?

Certainly it's a shame that these slums were razed but having been to Indian many times I'm familiar with the area that was destroyed in this particular case and I can tell you that it has been destroyed numerous times in the past and it keeps coming back up. Now there are many people who state the the filmmakers of "Slumdog Millionaire" need to 'do more' for the child stars who have been exploited. Forget the fact that their tuition has been paid many years in advance by the producers (and the kids are already passing their exams and moving farther along in their education) but also they have set up trusts and funds to help them along in their lives. Critics argue that it is nothing more than going through the motions to gain public sympathy and get recognition for the movie but more than that, it is an effort to help the children get out of their impoverished circumstances. But how far can they go?

The unfortunate twist to me seems to stem from the fact that these child stars have been given varying types of 'legs up' but that the circumstances in which they are living makes it very hard for them to take that final boost and get on with a better life. Sure they may have been given money and sure they may have been authorized housing by the Muncipalty Corporation of India but if there's no housing to be had (or at least no affordable housing to be had) then how are they going to be able to afford homes? Getting a home in Mumbai is hard enough for people in the middle class. For the poor and impoverished it is next to impossible. As much as the parents of these child stars may want to take advantage of the good fortune fate has smiled upon them, it's easier said than done.

Azharuddin's mother lamented the fact that their homes have been raised nearly 10 to 15 times a year and although they are 'granted' alternate housing it is often so far from their jobs that it makes it impractical to live and work where they are placed so then only other alternative is to live in shanties. It's unforunate that this is more or less 'business as usual' for many of these families and some of the attention on this particular instance of the razing of shanties is only because of the fact that some of these children gained some recognition due to the film. To blame the West and say that more needs to be done rather than exploiting them but there needs to be some support (and even more important... action) from those in the Indian government and housing authorities to be more practical. Perhaps this is a first step in bringing more attention to this plight and eventually effecting change for the better.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rolling To and Fro

I was walking from the parking lot to enter my office this morning when I could hear a light rumbling sound behind me. There was nary a cloud in the sky so it couldn't have been thunder and it certainly wasn't a car rolling up on me (there wasn't enough base in the sound) and it was again too light a rumble to be an airplane so when I turned I realized that it was a fellow co-worker dragging a rolling office bag behind them. I don't know what it is about rolling bags that have always struck me as a bit odd. I mean I think they're one of the best inventions around when you're rushing through a crowded airport. I mean gone are the days where you would pull a large suitcase with that dinky pull strap along with two wheels which were several sizes too small to easily carry a suitcase as overloaded as most of us made them.

But these days it seems like everyone has a rolling bag. I look around the office and as I was making my way to my desk I noticed at least four of the maybe dozen people I passed in the hallway had a rolling bag being dragged behind them. Maybe I happened to see an abnormal number on the way but seriously, look around and you'll see how prevalent it's becoming. I even see kids going to and from school these days with rolling school bags that have pictures of their favorite cartoon or movie characters. Back in my day (boy do I sound old) if I wanted to carry something like that I'd schlep it on my back and carry it. That's not to say it's probably a smarter thing that kids are dragging their bags behind them these days. Have you felt how heavy kids' school books are becoming these days? I guess with the need to cover any and all topics and be politically correct in descriptions it is necessary to use more words hence bigger books.

But what about us office denizens? I can understand the need if you are a business traveller. Laptops are getting lighter but the ones we are usually issued at the office are meant to be robust and multi-functional so rare is the time that we'll find a lighter-than-air laptop being issued to us at the office. But seriously, do we need to have a rolling bag to carry it all around? I regularly carry stuff to and from the office but I don't have so much that I'm ruining my back. Maybe that's a sign I'm not working hard enough or maybe it's because I'm not important enough to warrant having to carry work to and from the office but still, are we carrying around so much crap that we need to drag it behind us on wheels?

I'm honestly surprised at this point that women haven't started dragging their purses around in a similar fashion. After all, the current trend in purses I've seen lately is that purses are getting bigger and bigger. Have you seen the size of the purses these days? I mean my gym bag pales in size comparison. Is it any wonder then that so many women have trouble finding stuff in their bags. It's slowly becoming the size of a small carry-on suitcase. I suppose that if a designer like Prada or Gucci designs a rolling purse then perhaps they will suddenly become in vogue and sell like hotcakes but I'm not holding my breath. Yet all it will take is a designer name and perhaps a few choice celebrities dragging on around Rodeo Drive and you'll see how quickly the trend picks up.

I honestly think I'm onto a gold mine here. A rolling purse that could then also double as a shopping carrier. I mean if nothing else, women need something to carry all the shopping bags that they carry around with them when they are at the mall. A multifunctional device like a rolling purse is the key. Now if you suddenly find a company like Prada or Gucci or any of the other top designers out there touting this concept then please bring it to my attention. So far as I know I'm the only one who has suggested this trend so I'd like at least some credit. Perhaps I'm old fashioned or perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment so I'll continue to carry my bags on my shoulders (be they my office bag or my travel carry on's) but I'd rather carry than drag any day.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Photo Op Gone Wrong

A couple of weeks ago there was a big stink raised over the fact that the US Air Force (at the apparent request of a White House staffer) made a low level flight over New York City for a photo opportunity. The problem surrounding the photo op was the fact that apparently no one in New York had been informed and when people saw the low-flying 747 accompanied by Air Force fighter jets, there was the natural tendency to think that this was a repeat of the horrific attacks of September 11th. Shortly thereafter it came out that this was nothing more than a photo op that hadn't been cleared with the city or with most anyone else who needed to know and because of that there was miscommunication and panic.

In the aftermath the staffer who approved the flight has resigned and the White House has condemned the actions as being foolish and irresponsible. Now nearly two weeks later the FAA and city of New York denied permission to another military aircraft to make a pass over the city. Not so much for a photo op but to allow a Navy pilot who is due to retire to make a last low level (3,000 feet to be exact) pass above the city on his way back to his home base in Maine. The request was denied due to the fact that the city feeling that there is insufficient time to notify the public and get the word out that such a flight could take place.

Now I can understand the reactions of people. After all, how can one not react to seeing a low flying plane with a similar amount of trepidation after what happened the last time low flying aircraft were seen in the airspace surrounding New York. But is the reaction and denial of any and all flights the way to go? Not having actually been on Manhattan Island during the attacks I can't say exactly what my reaction would be to seeing a low flying plane but then again I do see low flying planes almost on a daily basis since my office is located in the landing pattern of Dulles Airport. Every time I walk out the door I can almost always look up and see the planes just a few hundred feet above my head making quite a racket as they line up for their final approach.

Maybe I could be accused of being naive but I don't believe I'm that stupid or illogical to think in some part of my head that this could very well be another terrorist attack. But I ask you to consider this. In the wake of this photo opportunity disaster, many politicians and commentators have been jumping around and screaming like an organ grinder monkey about how this was a foolish and irresponsible act. How this flight probably scared the living crap out of people and should be forbidden in the most strongest sense. I find it highly ironic however that these are often the same people who will speak volumes about how our country is now safer from terrorists than it ever has been.

I seem to recall that during the twilight of the last administration there was repeated talk about how our country had not suffered another terrorist attack in the wake of the attacks of September 11th. We have new agencies and new saftey and security procedures that make it next to impossible for us to smuggle anything as dangerous as a bottle of Evian into airport security. We go through security check after security check at many places these days and yet many of these commentators like to say that the President's plane could have been hijacked and used as a weapon like the 9-11 attacks? If one were to open their eyes a bit wider and see the big picture they would have seen that the flight was under fighter escort so the chances of this being a terrorist attack (accompanied by US Air Force fighters no less) would have been something safe rather than diabolical.

I suppose part of the reaction is due to the fact that not everyone sees things for what they are but perhaps what they fear it is. If (as these commentators endlessly enjoy pointing out) believe that the last administration has left our country a much safer place then why do we have to fear that a low flying aircraft of the proportions of a 747 is up to no good? Is it because the current occupier (and deciderer in the White House) is from a different party? Perhaps. I don't condone the flight, in fact I think it's wrong that people weren't informed yet how often are people informed in general? Whenever a training flight is to be conducted in DC they send out announcements to all the news agencies in the area but I doubt that many people hear about it. I understand the feelings of being gunshy but let's not blow things out of proportion.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Gas Pump Guesswork

Forrest Gump's mama may have told him life was like a box of chocolates because you never knew what you were going to get but in today's world, I think she would have said life is like the gas station. You never know anymore what you're going to pay. One of the headlines in the news today was the fact that gas prices were on the rise again despite the fact that oil prices had come down in recent weeks and are nearly half of what they were last year. That being the case I am puzzled as to why the price we pay at the pump keeps doing the upward creep.

Now one could make the arguement that as an economist I should have greater insight into what the gas prices are going to do. Unfortunately that's not the case. I think that the price we pay at the pump is a more serious matter that doesn't require so much understanding of economic theory as it does prognostication of people's habits. I say this because 'experts' (experts in what I still don't know) have predicted that because the economy is showing signs of improvement that perhaps people will be more prone to drive and therefore consumption will rise (as it does every summer when people start travelling) and therefore our supplies (which are at the highest levels for a number of years) will suddenly be stretched thin again. Therefore logic states that we should pay more for a resource that could conceiveably become scarce.

I'm sure I'm not the only one scratching my head at that logic. After all, if anyone has driven on their normal commute in recent months they have probably noticed that the amount of traffic on the roads and highways hasn't really changed so much in the past few years, even when fuel prices were at (or above) $4 a gallon so to tell me that people's driving habits are changing that much due to rising fuel costs is something I don't want to buy. Sure more people may carpool and more may be taking public transportation but honestly, I haven't seen a change.

The next time you're driving to work take a look at the cars around you and count the number of people in them. More likely than not these cars will be devoid of anyone but the driver. Even when fuel prices were rising to new heights last year I didn't hear from many of my co-workers that they were suddenly inspired to start carpooling with their friends. We paid what we had to to keep the car fueled. We went where we needed to in order to get paid. We probably spent less on other goods simply because it didn't make sense to drive someplace to spend money that could be better spent on necessities like food and fuel. Odd how that works.

So in my thinking I would say that demand for fuel remained relatively constant (or perhaps slightly slightly lower) but demand for other goods was down. That being the case in a market where there is no alternative (or very few alternatives to fuel-powered vehicles, is it any wonder that people will pay what they need to keep their cars moving? Cars are the ultimate symbol of freedom for many. It's the power to go where we need to whenever we want to. Not everyone sees things that way but that's more likely the truth than not. I just find it funny that people think that fuel price fluctuations will actually change our basic habits. It won't.


Thursday, May 07, 2009

Darwinism in Action

I know there are many people out there who refuse to believe in the theory of evolution that Charles Darwin put out there. They believe in a higher power or something else that led to the fulfillment of the adage 'survival of the fittest'. But after reading the latest headline in the paper this morning I am inclined to point to this as evidence that perhaps Darwin was far more correct in his theory than people give him credit for. What do I mean? Well in the wake of all this swine flu (or H1N1 virus) discussion, there are many parents and friends who are throwing what are referred to as 'pox parties'.

I hadn't heard the term before as it's been nearly 20-some years since I came down with chicken pox but from what I read (in the article and elsewhere online), pox parties are where parents and friends gather together to expose healthy children to a disease so that they can build up immunity. The idea being that once a child is exposed and builds up some level of antibodies then there will be greater chance of fighting off the disease if it comes back in a far stronger and more virulent form later on. Evidence of this? Well during the flu epidemic of 1918 it turns out that people who caught the flu earlier in the year fared better than those who didn't when the flu came back in deadlier form during the fall and winter of that same year.

Research at the time has shown that it's possible that due to early exposure, people who were exposed to the flu early on were less likely to fall deathly ill from the deadlier strand. Now with the current outbreak of swine flu all over the place, people are considering that perhaps this is one possible way to counter the virus before it becomes even deadlier later on in the year. Perhaps it won't be as bad as people and some doctors believe though I'm not one to tempt fate. I do however think that the idea of these Pox Parties is probably one of the most inane and ridiculous that I have ever heard of. From what I've read about this strain of flu, the symptoms usually don't start showing up until about four or five days after infection at which time treatment can be sought. What could conceivably happen now is that carriers could be infected and wouldn't know about it until much later thus spreading the disease far wider and greater than would have happened in normal circumstances.

I mean think about it. If your kid is at school with someone who has been to one of these Pox Parties, isn't he or she going to end up sharing their 'goody bag' of illness with the rest of the school? Won't it spread the disease and end up infecting some people who may not be healthy enough to fight off the disease? Then why expose them in the first place? Why put them at risk like that? I mean if you're that keen on backyard medical advice then I recommend leeches as an addendum or dessert at Pox Parties so that they can suck the infected blood out of your system after exposure. That would make the most sense wouldn't it? Get the antibodies and save yourself the illness. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) my medical knowledge is limited to reading the labels on bottles of aspirin but I fear that there are many out there who are ready to listen to such foolish medical advice which even doctors are against simply because 'it makes sense'. I'm sure these same folks would make Charles Darwin very proud.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Why I Don't Think I'll Get a Kindle

In case you don't know, the Kindle (or Kindle 2 which is currently hitting markets) is an electronic device that allows you to store hundreds of books in a handheld machine that isn't much larger that modern day paperbacks. Invented and marketed by Amazon (the online retail giant) it has recently been making more news as now it seems that the Kindle is set to become the next iPod. Yet despite the hype surrounding the release of the latest (and so far the greatest) version of the Kindle, I myself don't think I'll ever invest in one.

If you read my blogs on a fairly regular basis you'll know that I'm a voracious reader (I think the only time I use the word voracious is when I describe my love of reading). You'd also probably be able to ascertain that I'm an enjoyer of music as well. I have a music collection so extensive that I'm not able to save the whole thing to my iPod. Given that I own an iPod and enjoy every minute of having it (I honestly don't know how I went so long without one) and given that I enjoy reading so much (I almost always have a book with me no matter where I'm going or what I'm doing) that it would make sense for me to want to have an iPod-like device that would give me access to hundreds of books at the twitch of the thumb but I don't want one.

I read an interesting quote from the Roman philosopher Cicero which goes, "A room without books is like a body with no soul." It struck me as a very nice thought. I am a firm believer that reading is one of the most beneficial activities that anyone can do without having to go anywhere or do anything to enjoy it. I have long enjoyed trips to the library or bookstores so that I can browse to my heart's content and find the next 'great adventure' that I'd like to read through or educate myself about. But I think the biggest hurdle facing me at this time regarding the Kindle is the fact that my reading habits are a bit different from my music listening habits.

My music habits are such that in the morning I may want to listen to classical music on the way to work but then in the afternoon I may want to listen to hard rock in order to decompress after long day at work. But with my reading, I tend to stick to the one book or the one subject that I'm reading about until I'm finished with it. I know many people will read various books or various topics at one time (not literally at one time but you know what I mean) but I'm not one of those. I know that the Kindle also allows you to get the latest news from the internet or blogs but after spending whole weekdays staring at the computer I think the last thing I would need is to stare at another type of computer screen. The tactile sensation of reading an actual book is something I enjoy. Using the bookmark I've used on every book I've read since the 7th grade is a simple pleasure that can't be replicated in a virtual environment. Maybe I'm a little old school and maybe the day will come when printing presses do close and the Kindle is the only option. But until then I'd rather hold a book in my hand rather than yet another electronic device.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Now I am not trying to make light of the current panic over swine flu... oh excuse me... virus H1N1. I do however find it a bit funny that the world health groups are suddenly changing the name from swine flu to H1N1 virus. Do they think that someone will be offended by the fact that the flu was originally referred to as swine flu? Well what then about the Hindus who could have been offended by the reference or ailment known as Mad Cow disease? Now perhaps it is a good move considering how many people have had knee jerk reactions and are taking extreme steps to counter the outbreak that is sweeping the globe.

What do I mean by 'knee jerk reaction'? Well the renaming of the disease is one but among the others are moves in some parts of the world to wipe out all pig populations. Now I agree that steps need to be taken to contain the disease but is wiping out an entire species really the way to go? I don't think so. Sometimes our reactions are predicated by the fact that we don't know what exactly it is we are dealing with or how to get word out to the public to contain any panic or similar 'knee jerk' reactions. Take the example of school systems around the nation. So many have closed and so many others have been taking other steps to ensure that they practice what is commonly referred to as CYA (or covering your a$$).

I don't blame the school boards for erring on the side of caution. I've referred to instances before where schools have stayed open during snowstorms and students have been stranded which is usually when parents (rightfully) raise an uproar over the fact that the school board made the stupid decision to keep the schools open despite warnings to the contrary. Then again they endure the ire of parents who get upset when schools close and very little (or no) snow falls like predicted. It seems that schools are 'damned if they do and damned if they don't'. The same can be said of the current flu outbreak.

Schools across the nation are closing at the least hint that there is a flu outbreak in the area. In Maryland there are so many schools closed (and many more closing) due to concern that the disease has reared it's ugly head. It may be something as simple as someone having the flu (the normal flu... not one associated with an animal) or even seasonal allergies. You don't believe that people are starting to panic? Try sneezing without having a tissue (immediately disposed of) or a bottle of hand sanitizer handy and see what kind of reaction you get in public. I have never regretted my pollen allergies as much as I have in recent days.

I don't begrudge schools for taking precautions and closing but I do feel bad that they are undergoing such excessive scrutiny because these same schools would come under fire for having remained open with personnel or students who exhibited signs of falling sick. I'm sure that with current technology and scientific know-how, the virus will eventually be contained but what the media and we need to do is calm down and take things into perspective so that we can get the information we need but also do what we need to do in order to stifle the spread of the disease. Panicking and spreading fear (as the media is often wont to do) isn't going to help. Just a good dose of antivirus (if needed) and a larger dose of common sense.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Doing Things the Old-Fashioned Way

I was reading the news this morning when I was hit with a bit of nostalgia. Vertigo Books is a bookstore in College Park where I spent my undergrad years and it was the type of small-time bookstores that are quickly disappearing across the landscape of our country. It was a small out of the way place where they may not have had a coffee bar or a music and movies section but it was a small and comforting place that many people visited throughout their time at College Park. The bookstore originally opened in Dupont Circle and then moved to the Maryland suburbs around 1992 and since then it had continued to see a steady stream of regular customers which unfortunately began to dwindle in recent years. Now it seems that the downward trend has meant an end to Vertigo Books.

In the face of bookselling giants like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the like offering up books at a very low cost it has become increasingly difficult for smaller booksellers to sustain themselves. In the cases of companies like Amazon, they not only offer up books from their own stores but from groups of authorized booksellers that help keep their virtual inventories stocked but without having to bear the cost of holding on to inventory and having it sit for a very long time. Compound that with the fact that they don't have to charge sales tax and it becomes quickly apparent that these online and large volume sellers are effectively squeezing the smaller guys out of the competition.

Now I'm a big time book reader. I literally cannot go to sleep without having read for at least ten minutes and in college, when I wasn't studying for class or attending class, I could be found reading books at one of many places where I would sequester myself to read. If not reading then browsing at the bookstore was another favorite pasttime of mine and the cozy familiar atmosphere of a place like Vertigo Books or the Book Nook (another College Park store) were the types of places where I could literally spend hours without ever getting bored. But there's been a fundamental shift in recent years.

Slowly the nature of buyers out there is changing and going are the days where buyers would want to hold and feel their purchases in their hands before making a decision. I guess it makes sense that you wouldn't really need to hold a book in your hands before making the decision as to whether or not you would want to purchase it, but there's still something to holding a book in your hand and reading it. Sure there are newer inventions out there that can allow you to carry the equivalent of two hundred novels in something the size of a small notebook but still, I think I'm old-fashioned enough to want to read a book in my hand rather than stare at a screen. I do enough of that at work as it is!

But casualties like Vertigo Books also has an impact on the local community. Money generated by the bookstore, like many other businesses in a community, often give money back to the community through taxes or such and it helps keep the local economy bolstered. When businesses such as these go away then the burden falls on a shrinking group of responsible people and pretty soon you are stuck with very few paying for a lot of people. But even more so, for me, it has meant the loss of something that signals continued change. I remember growing up and enjoying trips to the bookstore. I can still remember hunting for books I liked and getting excited at the prospect of finding new books to read. Maybe it is a very nerdy and bookish excitement but it was something that has shaped who I have become. I would hate to think that future generations wouldn't have this simple pleasure if stores like Vertigo Books continue to go the way of the dodo.