Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Man and Machine

One can make the argument that advancements in technology have made life that much easier for all mankind. One could also then make the argument that technology has been detrimental to one thing in particular and that's the human mind. I say this because over the past few months there have been several accidents which have been attributable to human error in the sense that because humans didn't fully understand what feedback they were being given, there was confusion with often deadly results.

Take for example the Metro accident in Washington, DC last week. According to early reports, the computerized system which the train operators oversee, usually adjusts speed and brake systems based on inputs the computer receives from various switching systems and the location sensors on other trains within the system. If these systems fail then the human operators are the ones tasked with stepping in and taking action. However what has happened in a lot of the recent cases, the humans have either not reacted in time or reacted in diametric opposition to what they should have done to save themselves. Case in point the plane crash in Buffalo, New York some months ago.

While it's true the flight crew may not have had the proper amount of training for the particular aircraft they were operating at the time yet when the plane began to build up ice and approach a stall, the controls underwent what is known as a 'shaker' whereby the pilot is to understand that the plane's nose should be dipped towards the ground to gain airspeed and thus keep the plane in the air and flying. Unfortunately, natural human reaction when in the air is that you don't want to go down unless you really want to. So what happened there is that the computer was attempting to angle the nose down to gain airspeed but the pilots were pulling up in order to gain altitude. The end result? The plane ended up stalling and crashing into the ground.

Similarly with Air France 447, early reports indicate that the airspeed indicators were not functioning properly so the plane's computer may have believed that the plane was going slower than it actually was so it may have increased the speed and eventually flew the plane at speeds at ranges above its structural limits which may have ended up with the plane breaking apart due to stresses on the fuselage. There again, human reliance on computers and trusting the computers to do the right things at the right time ended up with the potential for confusion and problems that had deadly results. Now I don't wish to imply that the operators of either flights or the Metro trains in question were incapable of doing their jobs; on the contrary, I'm sure they were great at it, but when we come to rely on computers or technology more than ourselves is when we can have problems.

Don't believe me? Well take the simple example of cell phones. It used to be that you either memorized the phone numbers of your friends or wrote them down. I remember writing down my school friends phone numbers or committing them to memory. What about now? Well all you have to do is call your friend's cell phone once and they will have your number and if they call you back you will have their's. Now supposing you're in an emergency and your cell phone battery has died. What will you do then? That's when I start to realize that while technology is a wonderful thing it can also be a crutch and a double-edged sword that can hinder us.

Now before people think that I'm some backwoods character who enjoys reading by firelight while cooking pheasant I went to catch while out hunting and gathering I'd ask you to note that I do maintain a blog and I have most (if not all) of the major accoutrements of modern society at my fingertips as well. I enjoy my technology too but it's incidents like these (among others) that remind me that I shouldn't rely on machines wholeheartedly. I need to rely on the one machine I've always owned. My brain.


Monday, June 29, 2009

The 'King' is Dead

I think it's safe to say that most people were stunned by the news last week that singer and world-mega-star Michael Jackson passed away after going into cardiac arrest. Although the exact reasons behind his death will not be known for certain until his autopsy results are released, one thing for certain is that suddenly there will be a tremendous outpouring of emotion (both positive and negative) that will attempt to portray a man who was both adored and despised depending on who you ask.

Now perhaps 'despised' is a very strong word but there is no denying that the media did a tremendously good job of portraying Michael Jackson in as negative a light as was possible at the height of the accusations leveled against him. Whether the allegations were true or not, there were plenty of videos or editorial commentary going around to convince even the most skeptical person that perhaps there was some truth to the rumors. And in a very fell swoop, whatever other impact he may have had on the world was swept aside (particularly here in the United States) as it seemed that many people wanted to forget about him. I mean for years, you could probably count on your hand the number of times you would hear a Michael Jackson song on the radio. Sure at Halloween you'd hear "Thriller" until you got sick but when else would you ever hear him sing?

There may have been the occasional tribute to him here in the States with people singing his songs on shows like "American Idol" but on the whole people had reduced him to a caricature of what he once was. More than the music people chose to remember and bring up his love of exotic animals or the fact that he portrayed himself to be a perpetual child. Never mind that he did tremendous work for HIV/AIDS research and awareness around the world or that he raised millions for charity, what remained in the collective consciousness of the media was the accusations of molestation. I think he became a poster child for what could happen when someone becomes famous around the world, and not necessarily in a good way.

I remember seeing his concerts on television being broadcast from Europe and seeing how much love and affection these kids had for him over there. I don't think I'll ever be able to understand how much his music meant to so many people around the world. Don't get me wrong, I think his songs are among the very best and no matter how lame it may seem to many people, I think he's still one of the most creative artists out there. But what seemed to happen to him later on was that as society transitioned into the 1990's and grunge and the whole hip-hop movement made it's way into the mainstream, he lost his identity.

One could maybe say that that was part of the reason he kept coming up with new looks or styles. Sure he had medical problems that affected his outward appearance but rather than sympathizing with the man he remained a caricature for people to make fun of. It's unfortunate now that the positive message many are attempting to place on him is now coming after his death. In life after these accusations came to life it was hard for anyone to speak of him without mentioning the accusations against him in the same breath. Now he has suddenly again become an object of adoration and appreciation. Some say that people believe death can absolve people of all the wrong things they've done in their life and while that may be, I think it's more illustrative of the media taking someone and tearing him down when he's at his lowest point and then using his death as a means of boosting their ratings.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Bigger, Badder, and Worser?

As a child of the 80's I grew up with certain staples of childhood. I think our generation is unique in the sense that we had such a diverse set of cartoons and entertainment that inspired many of us that it is helping shape the world of today. We are also unfortunately the generation that is seeing many of these same staples of our childhood being changed and modified for the modern era but in ways that aren't necessarily for the better. I start off this blog by saying this because I want people to understand what I feel about certain movies that came from the cartoons of my youth and how they have often been corrupted into nothing more than a shell of what it used to be in our collective consciousness.

This weekend the sequel to 2007's "Transformers" opens. Entitled "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" it continues the story that began in the previous film and is once more directed by Michael Bay. For those who don't know, Michael Bay is the creative mind behind such films as "Armageddon", "Bad Boys 1 & 2" and "Con Air". His hyper-kinetic style of editting along with mildly sepia-toned scenes interspersed with mega-explosions and the occasional slow-motion montage to convey macho-ness to the extreme is what typefies his style and though his films have not been certifiable classics that will stand the test of time and be mentioned alongside the movies of Kubrick or Hitchcock, they have nonetheless changed the way we look at movies and in particular action movies. Now that being said, it rather makes sense that he would direct a movie about robots from space that come to Earth to do battle with their opponents.

The movie screams action even when its standing still and for the most part in the first movie, the film lived up to expectations. But what usually happens with Michael Bay when he has a moderate amount of success is he makes the next film even bigger than the previous one. Plot can go out the window as they make the film as convoluted that only the most astute of minds will be able to realize there's really no story there unless they sit down and filter out the endless explosions. Now I grant you that most cartoons or shows from the 80's may have been low in plot but at least there was some coherence. I think part of the problem these days is that due to the fact that most people want 'instant' gratification there is seldom any delay between when one action scene ends and the next one begins.

Perhaps I'm being a little overly critical of Michael Bay given the fact that I haven't seen the second movie at the time of this writing but given the reviews I have read so far, I'm thinking I may avoid it entirely until it comes on cable or DVD. Apparently chock full of racial stereotypes (disguised as robots no less) and fouler language than in the previous part, the film is pushing the limits given it's rated PG-13. But there's a reason. Most studios know that kids are a major draw for films like "Transformers" and if they aren't allowed to see the film due to the rating, you will lose tremendous income. Never a good thing. So what do you do? Simple, cut enough language that you don't get a higher rating. But you can leave in the gratuitious violence because it's robot on robot or robot on human or vice versa which is a little harder to classify I guess.

Films like "Transformers" or the forthcoming "GI Joe" film due out later this summer (another that I had high hopes for which is slightly being subdued until I see more than the trailers) are running a fine line. They have to appeal to the core audience, kids, while still appealing to the original audience (those who were kids in the 1980's). It's kind of like what happened with the latest "Star Wars" films or "Indiana Jones" movie. Kids of today enjoyed them and it somewhat reduced their opinion of the earlier films but those who grew up with the originals always felt that those were superior and in many ways they were. After films like "Toy Story" and the like showed that even kids movies could have something for adults it became something that all studios aimed for with varying degrees of success.

I'm sure that while the new "Transformers" film is going to be a fairly decent success at the box office it isn't going to do much for the fans of the films. There will be dollar signs rather than quality control in the decision to greenlight a sequel (and I'm pretty sure there will be a sequel) but I shudder to think of what boundaries that version will push. I'm saddened that so many films and stories that I grew up with are being corrupted in a way to make it appealing to kids while appealing to those of us watching the originals but there's really nothing more we can do. Studio bigwigs who know very little about what the original appeal truly was are still in a dollar mindset. They see profits and losses, we see the original story and concept.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Playing the Blame Game

It seems that whenever there is a disaster like the Red Line Metro crash here in DC this past Monday, everyone is on the prowl looking for someone to pin the blame on. What galled me the most however was seeing news footage that night of reporters standing outside hospitals and emergency facilities looking to get comments from passengers/victims of the crash. Sure Freedom of the Press is great but isn't there a time to be sensible and sensitive? I understand the need for the media to want to provide answers to the public as soon as is possible but does it have to be at the expense of receiving medical care. Now I grant you that not all reporters at the hospitals or at the accident scene were doing the same thing but in our quest to find out who to blame this recent accident on, everyone is seeking to be the one with the answer.

I find it odd that at times like this or in relation to incidents like these, everyone begins to treat the accident like a math equation. Most people who studied in school will tell you that math is a subject where there is one and only one answer. I'm sure there are math wizards out there who will say that I'm misstating it by saying that or that I am over simplifying things but let's face it, when you add one and one you will get two. That being the case we often want to then be able to point to one and only one cause for any accident or mishap. Take for example the recent case of Air France flight 447. Although at the time of this writing the search for the 'black box' flight recorder (which oddly is actually bright orange) continues in the hope of understanding what happened to the flight. Early autopsies on victims recovered from the crash indicate body trauma that would point to the fact that the bodies hit the water after falling through the air. What does that mean? That the plane potentially broke up in mid-air and the bodies fell to the ocean below.

What was the result of that announcement? Everyone has begun looking at airframes in order to ensure that there are no problems at all. Result of this mania? Boeing announced earlier this week that the planned maiden flight of their 787 Dreamliner prototype would be delayed due to stress analysis on the fuselage revealing a series of stress fractures along the body of the plane at approximately 20 different locations. While project leads are stressing that this in no way means that the plane is not safe, they do state that they'd rather err on the side of caution. Kind of how Airbus did when they recommended that all airlines owning Airbus 330 model planes (which is what Air France 447 was) replace and upgrade their air speed sensors as some of the final data available from the plane indicated that the airspeed indicator was not functioning properly.

Now what you'll hear in news reports in subsequent days will be about how much training the pilot received (in light of reports of pilot error in previous air accidents), when the last maintenance on the vehicle was (problems with the systems on the vehicle -- such as the Airbus 330 or the age of the train in the Metro crash on Monday) or the age of the system which the vehicle is operating on (again, the Metro train involved in Monday's crash was among the first cars to enter service with Metro in 1976). We'll point to these things in the media like the smoking gun and speak as if these are the only causes that could be the reason behind the latest disaster. Everyone who is anyone seeking media attention (whether it is an official with the National Transportation Safety Board or the Mayor) will want to be the first to point out what the problems were and what the 'probably cause' was.

While this quest for the truth is all well and good, can't we also look at these incidents and see how we can improve things? We in the public can also be held accountable if we think about it. Operating costs are going up as is the cost of most everything else these days so wouldn't it make sense that the cost of services like air travel or subway travel would rise as well? What does that have to do with anything? Well in the case of recent airline crashes, some of the blame has been shifted to the pilots and their lack of training. Not all have as much time behind the controls like Captain Sullenberger who successfully landed his plane on the Hudson earlier this year but we won't have many of them flying the friendly skies if we aren't willing to pay them or will want the cheaper less experienced alternative to keep ticket prices down. Same goes for the subway system. Certainly there may be human error involved but if we rely on a system that is decades old because the public won't stand for higher ticket prices if they ride the rails, aren't we partially to blame too?

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Television CAN Save Your Life

Well kids, the next time your parents or someone close to you tells you that television rots your brains, you might want to point to the case of 9-year-old Grayson Wynne of Utah whose TV watching skills ensured that he survived a night in the woods all by his lonesome. Grayson was out on a hiking trip with his family in a Utah forest when he got separated from them. However, rather than panicking, he began to recall the survival techniques he saw on his favorite Discovery Channel show, "Man vs. Wild" (hosted by Bear Grylls). It was because of this show that Grayson ended up being reunited with his family on Father's Day (much to their relief).

Grayson apparently got separated from his family when they paused their group of 15 people to tighten the saddle on a horse they took along with them. Grayson, not realizing the group had stopped, continued on and took a fork down a smaller trail that ended up taking him farther from his family. Once he realized he was no longer with his family, he began to recall techniques shown on "Man vs. Wild". He began by ripping pieces of his yellow rain coat and tying pieces to nearby trees not only to make a trail for himself but in case anyone was following him to try and find him. He kept close watch on the amount of food he was carrying and rationed it so that he could keep energized in case rescue took longer than expected. Finally searchers found him the next morning by a pair on horseback.

Now while many will want to point to this incident as being chalked up partially to luck on the part of young Grayson, I would like to point out that the television show was part of the reason he survived overnight. Rather than freaking out like many of us would do, he build a small shelter for the night and decided to hold tight until the next morning. He remembered from the show to follow streams as they most often lead to civilization. In his case, Grayson hoped that the stream would eventually lead him to the nearby lake at the park where someone possibly camping out there would be able to help him. Now perhaps some 9-year-olds would have been able to figure that out but most of the ones I've ever met would probably have started to whine about not having their Playstation with them.

I think this is a case that proves that perhaps not all television these days is so bad. I mean if an interesting (though sometimes disturbing show) like "Man vs. Wild" can save a child from dying of exposure in the woods think of all the other good things that could happen if only parents encouraged their kids to watch 'good' television versus 'bad' television. Of course the dividing line between that standard is always up for debate. I mean some people may find "Jon and Kate Plus 8" to be educational while I myself find it to be yet another piece of reality crap. I think something like "Man vs. Wild" proves that education (albeit extreme) can be interesting and informative.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Letting Freedom Ring

Anyone following the news in recent days has probably heard about the protests in Iran over the recent elections and the accusations against the current regime regarding voter fraud and attempts to quell the election of a new leader vice the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An angry public has taken to the streets in the days since the election results were announced (with nearly 76% of the votes going for incumbant Ahmadinejad) as opposed to what the vocal majority claims was it's choice for President, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. What has made the protests even more profound is the violence that has accompanied it from the government's side. Police and military forces within Iran have been accused of trying to stifle the protests by resorting to violence.

For the first time that I can remember, the attempts of a fledgling democracy to restore itself to a democratically elected government is being covered around the world through the new media sources such as Facebook, YouTube and other internet-based media. What this means is that now not only do those within the country of Iran know what is going on, the rest of the world does as well. And what this also means is that the rest of the world will let it's opinion be known whether it has any right to say anything or not. I say this as more and more people begin to protest the fact that here in the United States, President Obama has been accused by some of 'not doing enough to show support to Iranians struggling for freedom'. Not doing enough? Well what exactly are people expecting President Obama and the United States to do?

President Obama has issued statements directed towards Iran condemning the violence and stating that the United States and the world is watching the developments in Iran and strongly urges the government to seek peaceful means of determing the will of the people and what the elections truly show. Yet many opponents to Obama (let's call a spade a spade and just say Republicans) have come out to protest his 'limited' response and claim that this is a moment in history where the United States could have a profound impact on the future of Iran and what it could mean to the Middle East. Excuse me? Profound impact? Hasn't the assistance of the United States in the past had profound impact though not always in the best possible way? After the overthrow of the Shah in the late 1970's it was clear that Iran's stance towards the United States was not to friendly. After that time and in the years since Iran has been a country that has not received much attention from the media or anyone else for that matter until it was linked with the so-called 'Axis of Evil' by President Bush.

I'm not saying that Iran was ignored since those years but what I mean is that where were all of these people supporting freedom in Iran in the interim? Certainly the Iranian people haven't been quiet for so many years and now that they have banded together to protest what amounts to voter fraud on behalf of the government (and seeing as how they appear to be reeling against the loss of the White House after 8 years) Republicans are suddenly jumping up and down like organ-grinder monkeys telling the people and anyone else who will listen that the United States needs to offer up support to Iran. What support do they propose? The United States already has committed tremendous resources to the region in Iraq, Afghanistan and is offering support to Pakistan in its efforts against the Taliban. So what more do these protestors here in the United States think we should offer?

If that means military support then I think every able-bodied male will probably soon start getting calls from the military to enlist so that we can fill our ranks with sufficient numbers to help out in another country. If they mean monetary support I ask where they think that we'll be able to get the money? With the economy over here in shambles do they really think we should be spending more money abroad? That just leaves token support in my mind. By President Obama coming out and saying that he supports the 'freedom loving people of Iran' isn't going to make the situation better. If it comes down to a revolution in the vein of the American Revolution in Iran, what are we going to do? What can we do?

I think it's comendable and brave what the people of Iran are doing and I certainly hope that the will of the people perseveres and triumphs over the tyrannical rule that appears to be gripping the country but in all honesty, when other countries around the world in the past and even today fought for democratic freedom, did we jump to their aid or send troops? In some cases yes and some cases no but the end result was the same. When the people wanted it bad enough, the people got what they fought for. But if people are of the opinion that the United States needs to do more then where do we draw the line? If we help Iran then shouldn't we help the nations in Africa where genocide and regime changes occur with disturbing frequency? Or is it only because none of those countries possess nuclear weapons or don't pose a threat to us?

Is Iran different because we don't like Ahmadinejad because of statements he's made? Maybe so but then there are other despots around the globe who have made similar statements. Shouldn't we help those countries defeat such terrible people as well so that we'll be safer in the long run? I understand that we need to express support for the people of Iran and that it is an important point in that country's history, I just don't understand what more people want of the United States government. Like him or hate him, President Obama is the leader of the nation and while we may not like some of the things (or all of the things he does), I think he's taking the right tact at this point in time. Rather than backing a horse we know nothing about (Mousavi), it's better to get a little smarter before backing a horse that could end up having us lose more than we can afford at this point.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Heads Up Hawaii

If you've been paying even peripheral attention to the news over the past few months you'll know that North Korea has been in the midst of bolstering their long range strike capabilities. Several months ago the North Korean government announced the testing of a long range missile that was scheduled to overfly the islands of Japan. Now granted some could argue that the islands of Japan lie almost directly in the path of any test rocket/missile that will eventually land in the Pacific (which was the intent of the North Koreans) but is that any excuse to say 'okay, fire away'?

One of the chief concerns at the time was supposing the missile (which was not armed with a warhead so far as has been reported) did not make the reported distance it was supposed to and fell well short. Perhaps short enough in it's projected flight path that it ended up impacting Japan; what would have happened then? There was immediate reaction from most of the world condemning what North Korea did but the fact remained that the North Koreans continued to develop their devices as per their desires. Some months after that they detonated (underground) a nuclear bomb which if paired with a warhead, means they would be able to launch a nuclear strike from their country and have it impact anywhere within the range of that missile. That includes Japan, most of Asia, China and Russia. And now they are getting ready to test a missile that has the potential of reaching the islands of Hawaii.

Now hindsight being 20/20 means that people have the benefit of having lived through something to look back and see how things could potentially have been better. Hawaii has been the example case of this phenomenon ever since Japan launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December, 1941. Now once again Hawaii is being pegged as the longest range potential target of a missile launched from North Korea. And not willing to take any chances, the United States is beefing up security and protection for the Island State in order to offer up some means of defense in case the missiles from North Korea indeed do have the range and capability of reaching 4,500 miles.

It's quite easy to dismiss efforts of countries like North Korea or China (with their space program) as being inferior to nations that have developed such technology far earlier and a lot longer than them. But I would offer up the observation that even our efforts here in the United States could be considered rudimentary if we look back at it now. We have the advantage of having more advanced technology now which allows us to look at these fledgling attempts with a certain amount of skepticism as to their ability but I don't think we should ever consider it to be any less deadly if used with that type of purpose in mind.

Recalling back to 1941, 'experts' and analysts all over contended that it was more likely that Hitler would launch an attack across the ocean on the United States than Japan. Despite what the Japanese had accomplished in Asia up to that point, there was doubt that the Japanese could ever mount an attack on the United States. Though they had a significant Navy, it was still considered inferior to what the Allies had by way of ships and weapons. Yet it was this 'inferior' Navy that nearly destroyed the entire Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. I bring this up only because I wish to point out that it's wrong of us to assume. There's a saying that one should never assume because you make an ass of u and me. I think the statement is quite appropriate and some of the measures being undertaken now (such as moving floating radar platforms into the area) are steps in the right direction.

Some may argue that this is proof that the United States should have invested in missile defense technology long ago. Well I can say this, forget what you see in the movies, the actual application of anti-ballistic missile technology is so difficult that by merely having it won't guarantee that a missile launch can be diverted or prevented. Others may say that negotiating with the North Koreans to have them end their nuclear weapons program is the way to go yet ever since the 1990's the North Koreans have constantly backed out of negotiations for whatever reasons. And quite honestly, our economy isn't in shape enough to enter another Cold War with accompanying spending necessary to outspend them the way we did with the Russians. It's a completely new and unique situation and although the North Koreans continue to state that they will not 'attack' Hawaii, I think it pays to be alert. I always remember what Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." I think that's quite true.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Superfight: Virginia Versus Maryland Drivers

Let the debate continue. As a former resident of Maryland and a current resident of Virginia and having had the privledge (good or bad you decide) of living in the DC Metro area means that I've been able to observe drivers from all three areas for most of my life. I admit that I didn't really pay attention to how people drove until I myself started driving on my own over 15 years ago. In that time I've been part of the debate over which state's drivers are the worst and if a recent survey's results are any benchmark then only one place has anything to be proud of and that's Washington D.C. A recent survey by AutoVantage ranked D.C. as the sixth most courteous city in the United States.

Now before the rest of us in Maryland and Northern Virginia begin getting in a tizzy about where our respective states and cities ranked, be happy (or disappointed) in the fact that neither Maryland or Virginia ranked in the list. However, I would note that Baltimore did rank third in the cities with the least amount of Road Rage. So what constitutes road rage? Well for most people it can be any number of things which includes (but is certainly not limited to): cutting people off, changing lanes without turn signals, driving below the speed limit in the passing lane, failing to obey traffic laws and in general, failing to apply common sense when on the road. Maryland and Virginia drivers have always been at odds with one another over their skills (or lack thereof) and having driven in both states for roughly the same number of years, I think I can rightfully say that both drivers have their faults but there is more of a reason behind the sometimes boneheaded things many Virginia drivers do.

The reason I feel more Virginia drivers do boneheaded things as opposed to Maryland drivers has to do with the amount of gridlock you find in Virginia in general. My smoking gun? Take a drive on I-66 (east or west bound) almost any time of day, any day of the week and you will undoubtedly hit traffic. There's typically no reason for it. I can understand if there are delays due to construction or accidents or what-have-you but in most cases the slowdowns are at the usual areas simply because it is expected to be slow in those area. And if you'll notice one thing that I have whenever I've driven around Virginia, no one is willing to let anyone else merge in front of them. What is this ego trip that so many drivers seem to be on? I can't count the number of times I've been driving down the road ready to merge onto the beltway when someone is driving along in the right lane and proceeds to speed up despite the fact that I am attempting to merge into traffic right next to him. Never mind that the lane next to him is open and that he could switch lanes for that brief stretch.

Drivers tend to become territorial for the area immediately surrounding their cars and tend to want to defend that particular spot at that particular time like a lioness protecting a cub. So then we're faced with a split-second decision. Slam on the brakes and get behind the person or test your car's acceleration and try and zoom ahead. All this to do nothing more than merge onto the highway. That's to say nothing of the numerous instances of other road violations people regularly commit while driving around. Virginia drivers will be quick to point out that drivers in Maryland also do the same thing and they do but I do caveat this by saying it's worse in Virginia because of the gridlock described above. I think what happens then is that drivers are so miffed at having taken half an hour to go one mile that when traffic opens up, they don't know how to accelerate and go above the speed limit or they become so defensive that they don't want to let anyone get ahead of them because God forbid anyone who didn't sit in traffic for that same half an hour should get ahead of them.

But whatever your stance in this debate I would say that the debate basically boils down to the fact that we're all very bad drivers in some way, shape or form. We all inherit bad habits from those who came before us and rather than adjusting what we're taught given that cars are changing in their abilities as time has passed, most of the major rules of the road still apply back when the Model-T was the most advanced and popular car on the road. If drivers take their ego out of the equation, even for a little while and became a little more courteous then perhaps the roads around here wouldn't be so replete with angry drivers and then we could all rank higher as far as courteous cities go.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Prisons May Need New 'Currency'

If you've seen a prison movie, virtually any prison movie, made up to this point in time, you'll know that cigarettes are the one form of 'currency' that many prisoners will use to barter for whatever they can 'purchase' while in jail. I remember the scene in "The Shawshank Redemption" where cigarettes are used by the prisoners as stakes for a bet or how they were used to curry favor with the guards in war movies like "Stalag 17". But now if state courts continue ruling the way they have, prisoners are going to have to find a new 'monetary' system.

It seems that the prisons in Virginia are now joining prisons from 24 other states that have made the decision to ban smoking and tobacco products from being used in prison systems. The rationale behind these decisions? Well the courts argue that by denying prisoners cigarettes they are helping to keep them healthy. The reason for keeping them healthy is that although they are already paying a debt to society by being in prison, it doesn't make sense for them to eventually return to society in a sickly state which would mean their potential admission into the state medical facilities which could eventually cost more than if the prisoner had left prison in better health.

I suppose it makes sense on the surface but I wonder if it is really something that states need to regulate. One could argue that perhaps prison guards are unnecessarily being exposed to second hand smoke by continuing to allow prisoners to smoke indoors but is that so bad? I mean I'm sure many prison guards themselves smoke up a storm when they're not on duty. But of course they can step out into the designated smoking area and light up. In what I've been able to find thus far, tobacco would be banned for prisoners completely. I suppose that means no more 'betting' or 'buying' in the excercise yard.

Some would say that it shouldn't matter what prisoners want. They are in prison for breaking society's rules and should therefore be made to suffer or be denied those pleasures which mark freedom. I agree but is this truly that important a pleasure that would make being in prison all that more 'enjoyable'? I have often contemplated what life might be like in prison. After all, what would you do all day when you're simply sitting in your cell? You need to do something to pass the time so why not smoke? I understand the health concerns as well but I sometimes feel we go a little too far when it comes to laying down the laws in our prisons.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blowing Things Out of Proportion

Just when you might have thought it was safe to talk about Alaska without having to mention Sarah Palin in the same sentence then the latest brouhaha finally blows over. What happened you ask? Well about two weeks ago, late night TV host David Letterman made a joke with regards to Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol (although it ended up that the daughter in question was the younger daughter Willow) and New York Yankee Player Alex Rodriguez. The joke alluded to the fact that A-Rod had apparently 'knocked up' Palin's daughter during the course of the game. Now under most circumstances I don't think it's fair for comedians to go after the families of politicians but in this case I think it's something Palin and her family brought upon themselves.

Now before I keep going, let me just say that I found Letterman's joke to be a bit.... odd. I got what he was trying to imply but I think it was a little off kilter and shouldn't have been made. Be that as it may, I'm surprised at the reaction that some segments of the public have had with regard to David Letterman. Conservative segments of the public who are still ga-ga over the Alaskan governor have started protesting Letterman and have been demanding his firing by CBS. I highly doubt that this will happen but I guess you can't blame them for trying. It's like a court case in many ways. Sure a lawyer's objection may be overruled but at least it gets on the record.

But getting back to the matter at hand. As I stated, I think it's wrong for comedians to go after the families (especially children) of a politician in their schticks. If you'll recall (for those of you who are old enough to remember) when Bill Clinton was elected to office in 1992 there were jokes aplenty directed towards Chelsea Clinton but when the White House requested that media respect her privacy she was more or less left alone and for good reason. She didn't need to be in the spotlight in that way. Same with the Bush twins when W. took office in 2000. Certainly they made their share of headlines (and not always for the best of reasons) but when the media was requested to curb their jokes against the girls they by and large complied though not 100%. Still, they were left to their own and managed to still make the occasional headline thanks to their conduct.

So what makes the Palin kids (Bristol in particular) so different? Well nothing really but Palin seems to want to have things both ways. When her candidacy as Vice President was announced last year during the run up to the election, she was out there promoting her core conservative values and the values she instilled in her children (whom she lovingly introduced to the public at every opportunity). But when it was revealed that her 18-year-old daughter Bristol was pregnant out of wedlock then suddenly there were calls to respect her privacy and to leave her be. But then shortly thereafter we started hearing about how she was learning to take on responsibility at such a young age. There was talk about her impending wedding to would-be father Levi Johnston and her rise to prominence as a 'model' teen.

Flash forward to an election loss later and Bristol has delivered her child and has called off her engagement to Johnston. Plus now she has become an advocate for teen abstinence? How hypocritical is that? Is that supposed to be a ploy to prove that she and her family truly have conservative ideals and that her pregnancy was a mistake? To me that's like robbing a store, getting caught and then becoming a spokeman for anti-theft activities. I'm not saying that she shouldn't be an advocate nor am I saying she should be a target for jokes but when she is constantly being thrust into the public limelight as a poster-child for so many issues, it seems hypocritical to me again to say that people shouldn't talk about her in any terms but awe and appreciation. I guess some people truly believe that they can have their cake and eat it too.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Not So High-Flying Air Show

The Paris Air Show at Le Bourget field is celebrating it's 100th Anniversary. Although all the signs around the venue proudly proclaim that the show is the 48th iteration of the Air Show, it's actually the 100th Annivesary due to the fact that the show alternates years with exhibitions in Farnborough, England. The show is among the most popular during the year due to the fact that most major aircraft manufacturers announce major sales and typically unveil their latest products in the hopes of enticing customers to make purchases of newer and better products. Unfortunately the crash of Air France 447 two weeks ago has tempered excitement an dampened the usually festive atmosphere of the show.

In recent years, the show has been marked by the competition between rivals Boeing and Airbus with the prize being the sales of newer commercial aircraft to airlines eager to win more customers ready to fly on the latest and greatest aircraft. The competition came to a head several years ago when Airbus unveiled the double-decker Airbus A380 which subsequently made major sales to Qatar and Singapore Airways. Several other airlines also have commitments to buy them and though Boeing's entry into the Ultra Heavy Carrier commercial airline competition (the Boeing 787) is still to make it's debut with an airline, there was hope that this year would see the competition continue; however, Flight 447's mysterious crash has left many people wondering how badly the aviation industry will be affected by this event.

Already we can tell that there have been affects of the global economy on the aviation industry. If you every have any doubts all you need to do is look at how the aviation industry has been faring in recent years. With the rising cost of fuel, it isn't any wonder that people aren't travelling as much. Although rising fuel costs are one aspect of drop in people flying, the other is the added security procedures that make flying sometimes take longer than driving to a destination. After all, why fly from DC to New York when you could probably make the drive in less time when you account for time spent in check-in, security, boarding, flight time, de-planing, baggage claim and on to your final destination? Doesn't seem like much but the time certainly adds up for most people.

And what about with events such as Air France's flight and the US Airways crash from a few months ago? It seems that whenever any such event occurs the immediate concern is about proving to the public that there was something trivial at fault and that it is something very easily corrected. It's a logical way to reassure people but have you noticed how they go about doing it? After the US Airways crash there was talk about how qualified pilots were and how much flight time they had. Prior to that crash or the water landing of the US Airways flight in New York I don't think I had ever read about how many flying hours a pilot had. With the Air France crash, both pilots had thousands of hours of flying so then what was the smoking gun? The aircraft speed sensors.

There always needs to be that smoking gun for the public to see in order for that reassurance to be there. But what I think people need to realize is that air travel is inherently safe. It is probably the safest form of transportation that there is. Certainly when there are problems they are elevated to a larger scale due to the fact that airplanes do something that man was not really built to do (namely fly) so it's not surprising that there is a different aura about flying but that doesn't mean it's any more or less dangerous than getting in your car and driving to the store. I think we need to stop looking at what the perceived 'problems' are and look at reassuring the public that there is nothing wrong with air travel or the aviation industry. Maybe buyers aren't buying new orders of planes because the public isn't willing to spend tremendous amounts of money to pay for aviation fuel but that doesn't mean they wouldn't take to the air again if ticket prices (and the economy of operating some of the latest planes) made it cheaper to do so.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Share the Road...With Some Sanity

A sure sign that the weather is getting better is when you begin to see joggers out for their daily exercise and when bicyclists begin to appear in numbers that would make one believe that the Tour de France is passing through your area. Now I'm all for biking. Although I haven't ridden my bike in a number of years, I'm quite sure that if I were to break it out of retirement and tune it up, I would be back to enjoying rides along the sidewalks like I did when I was a kid. Of course I'm not the only one with a touch of nostalgia for days like those. Look out on the roads these days and you'll see many more cyclists out there. I think it was already a popular pastime with many people but it seems to have become even more so in the past few years. Maybe I'm just noticing it a bit more these days.

That being said, there's more and more awareness being raised about 'sharing the road' with cyclists but sometimes it seems as if cyclists are going out of there way to make the situation dangerous for themselves. On my commute to work I drive along a winding road that has the advantage of being nicely tree covered and quite calm. The speed limit is quite low and for the most part people follow the speed limit rather judiciously. Seeing as how it is a very country-esque drive many cyclists began riding their bikes along these roads. Now I'm sure they were there long before drivers starting using the routes but as more and more cars began to appear, in an effort to make the path safe for recreationists (I think I made up that word just now) a rather wide bike path was made for bikers and pedestrians to use rather than clinging to the side of the road.

Now when I used to ride my bike, I would kill to have paths like those because it was a safer alternative to riding on the street and risking being hit by a car. As I mentioned, this road in particular is quite windy with many twists and turns and though (like I also mentioned) many drivers keep the speed limit down, if a cyclist is riding on the road and a car comes around a blind corner not expecting to see said cyclist, you can imagine what the results could be. And therein lies the problem and point of deferrence between cyclists and drivers. According to many cyclists, they don't use the paths because there are 'too many walkers and joggers and kids' which makes it dangerous. So then they jump onto the streets and cycle around.

I've driven these roads on the weekends in the past as well and I do know that on those days (particularly when the weather is really nice) there are plenty of cyclists out but fewer pedestrians and to ask some of the pedestrians I know as to why they don't walk on these same paths, it's because 'cyclists come whipping around as if they are actually running a race or training for the Tour de France'. So if no one is using these bike paths and trails then why don't the cyclists use them? I find it to be a convenient excuse for cyclists to claim that it's dangerous for them on the paths if there are indeed pedestrians but is it any safer for them (or us drivers) to have them riding along in the middle of the road? I can't count the number of times I've rounded a bend to find a cyclist chugging along in the middle of the lane.

I have confidence in my driving ability (or lack thereof) but I don't have as much faith in the guy behind me. I came around the bend recently to find a pair of cyclists riding side-by-side and as I slowed, the Mario Andretti clone behind me nearly ran into me. When I finally got an opening I crossed the double yellow line to go around these cyclists so that I wouldn't hold up traffic anymore and they proceeded to fling curses in my direction. How childish is that? I think it's a great thing that cyclists are doing their part for their own health as well as the environment but they are putting themselves and others at risk of accidents by ignoring paths built for their safety and the safety of drivers driving along with them.

If there are no bike paths I think it's perfectly acceptable for cyclists to share the road provided they also follow the rules. Think about the last time you've seen a cyclist blow through an intersection without stopping simply because they could get through the line of cars ahead of them. Isn't that creating risk where none existed before? I think most of us have stressful commutes to and from work or school as it is, I don't think adding the danger of darting cyclists will make the situation any better. Cyclists, if you wish to share the road the share them as equals and not like you're above the rules of the road. If you do your part then I'll do mine.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Where is Gandhi-giri Now?

Australia is fast becoming the latest hotbed of racial tension when it comes to the Indian community. Over the past several weeks tensions have been mounting in the capital city of Sydney as Indian students gather to protest the apparent racially motivated attacks on Indian students. In some of these incidents, students have been stabbed or attacked physically and it has led to many to demand action from the Australian government whom many Indians believe to be not taking strong enough action. It's not the first time when the specter of racism against Indians has been raised and it probably won't be the last but the furor erupting in the public is what is dangerous and what could make the situation that is already bad even worse.

Earlier this week approximately 200 students gathered together in the Harris Park area of Sydney to protest additional attacks on Indian students. The protest got so loud and vocal that riot police were called out to take action and calm the crowd before the violence turned into something more dangerous than raised voices. The Indian government has been in constant touch with the Australian government and specifically those in the Sydney region but to limited avail. Although police in Sydney have been taking action in an effort to curb violence and stop attacks on Indian students, many believe that it isn't enough and lump complaints against Australians as being simply a matter of racist actions but of hatred.

Now I am the last person who would condone racism but in all honesty, are we people of Indian origin any different? It would be a simple exercise to ask the question of racism in India and point to the caste system but that would be too easy. It would also spark the typical knee-jerk reaction from most Indians which is to imply that a comment against Casteism or racism in India is a slight against our culture. I don't agree. Other arguments are that a North Indian may have a low opinion of a South Indian but we are all Indians so it doesn't matter. But isn't that racism as well? If it isn't then why is it so uncommon for Indians of different backgrounds to mix in their own country? As an Indian haven't you hear Punjabis talk about Mallus and vice versa?

Maybe because we are all Indians it doesn't seem like a racial action but why isn't it any different? To be treated differently because of our regional origins in India is just another form of racism but because it is practiced internally is it acceptable? We people of Indian origin will point out that "sure racism occurs but we don't target specific groups like the Australians" but then what about when Christians are attacked in India or when riots occur between Hindus and Muslims? Isn't that part and parcel of racist actions because of differences in backgrounds or is it acceptable again because of the long standing history and bad blood between religion in India? Certainly violence of any sort is bad when the motivating factor is something like race or religion but to use that as a justification is bad. Certainly the history of India and the rest of the world is full of problems but do we need to perpetuate the problem so many years on?

Indians in Australia will write about how they themselves have experienced racism and acts of violence (or near-violence) and that those of us outside Australia don't know how tense a situation it is. Is that so? Well I've lived in America my whole life and I have yet to have experienced racism so bad that it will lead me to violence. I admit that I have lived in areas where racial understanding is probably better but I honestly have not experienced hatred and discrimination that many people seem to imply is so rampant. But then again I also ask these same Indians who live in other countries, are you so free of racism while living there as well? Let me ask you then what your impressions of native Australians or Americans are?

I can tell you from experience here in America that many Indians who come here from India have a very low opinion of Americans and I would imagine the same cases occuring in Australia as well. I was having a conversation one time with a group of Indians who had come here during the IT boom of the late 1990's and the earlier part of this decade and they universally seemed to have a low opinion of Americans. They cursed them out and called them stupid and always talked about how useless people in this country are. My question back to them was then why were they even here? If you are that frustrated or that angry about the working conditions or situation in this country then why stay? Go back to India. I'm sure there are people here and in Australia who would also agree to that.

Again, I'm not trying to justify the acts against Indians in Australia and while the situation may be different out there than it is here in America I don't think turning to violence and accusing the government and the people of racism. A few years ago after the film "Lage Raho Munna Bhai" came out there was a sudden outpouring of support for so called 'Gandhi-giri' which is basically non-violent opposition to something. Indians proudly stood up and showed their moral superiority by embracing this ideal but somewhere along the way it seems to have suddenly been forgotten. What about when Shilpa Shetty was treated to racism by the late Jade Goodey on the show 'Big Brother' in Britain? Suddenly there too were accusations about British racism and how it is actually more of a widespread problem than people want to admit. Honestly in England, Australia, America and virtually any other part of the world there is some racial tension and there most likely always will be.

While the Indian public likes to point out that this racial violence is a widespread problem that demands immediate action I don't think turning violent against the government, any government, is the way to go about effecting change. Racial incidents throughout history have called for violence in the past and if attacked I think any rational person has the right to defend themselves but if people feel that by violently protesting the government of Australia and picketing in the streets of Sydney with baseball bats and hockey sticks during rush hour is the way to gain support I don't think it's going to work. Others have said turn the mirror inwards before making accusations against others. I say that in this case there is the right to protest these acts of violence but I would also encourage these same people to practice what they preach.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Top Gun in the New Age

It was the summer of 1986 and I was in a movie theatre when I saw a movie that inspired many to go out and join the Navy in the hopes of becoming a Naval aviator. The film was "Top Gun" staring Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and a plethora of other then-famous actors. Incidentally it marked one of the first occasions that Meg Ryan appeared on screen albeit for a brief part but I digress. The purpose of today's blog was not to recall the careers that could have been and never were in Hollywood but about miltiary aviation and the future that appears to be cresting the horizon these days. Before seeing "Top Gun" I already loved anything aviation (or space) related and the moviem ore or less cemented that love. More than anything else in the film, I (like most guys) loved the aerial dogfight scenes and it was the part that I recreated the most with toys in hand.

At one point I had the desire to join and serve in the military so that I could recreate some of those aviation scenes with actual aircraft as opposed to toys but alas life is full of twists and turns and it was not to be. But that didn't mean that I couldn't live out some of my fantasies of piloting. Flight simulation and aviation related games are something that have long been part of my suite of software on any computer I've owned and I have been a long time fan of most any aviation related game. If it was realistic then I wanted to play it to at least get an essence of what actual aviators would experience when flying a plane. I have a couple of simulators at home that are so realistic that apparently on full realism mode you have to go through the proper sequence of button pushing to get the engine to start before you can even close the canopy and get to flying.

But I used to wonder if this would ever amount to anything more than fantasy role-playing. I don't have to wonder any longer. In an age when drone or unmanned aviation is becoming more and more common place, flight simulators may soon become the new pilot's academy and Tom Cruise may yet be able to make a sequel to "Top Gun" despite getting on in age. It was recently reported in the news that the first class of 'pilots' to graduate from the Air Force's Weapons School (the Air Force version of the Navy's Top Gun) was imminent. This is historic in the sense that for the first time, pilots who fly their battles from the comfort of a computer workstation are learning in depth how to use unmanned drones in combat type situations.

Already drones have been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan and it isn't surprising that there are more plans on the horizon. Aerospace companies are already developing the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that will not only be able to do reconaissance but also fight more than the current crop. At present, UAVs are capable of carrying limited amounts of ordanance which can then be delivered on target but the future has visions of UAVs with the capability of carrying as much as current fighter and bomber aircraft but have the added benefit of longer range and less need to put pilots in danger. This is key because if history is any guide, more than aircraft the need for pilots is greater. During the Battle of Britain during World War II, Britain was able to hold its own not only due to the the British industry churning out planes at a rapid clip but also because British pilots could be rescued and returned to their squadrons as many battles took place over British territory.

Now with the advent of UAVs it's possible for all pilots to survive catastrophic problems in their planes because they won't be aboard them. That's not to say that the future is set and all wars will be fought from the comfort of our own homes (though visions of armies fighting using their XBoxes doesn't seem all that outlandish anymore) but it will certainly change the face of war. One things which certainly has an impact is when the loss of life in a war (any war) probably makes people realize just how precious a commodity life really is. But when you take away that human factor and things look to be more like a video game than anything else, it is easy to become disconnected. While I think UAVs make fighting a bit safer, I hope that the human element is never completely removed. I don't really have visions of a takeover by the machines a la "The Terminator" but more that we will artificially remove our humanity instead.


Monday, June 08, 2009

The Circle is Now Complete

While watching the final of the 2009 French Open yesterday I couldn't help but think of the title for today's blog (which is a quote from the original "Star Wars"). Roger Federer's long-in-coming victory at the French Open yesterday finally allowed him to break through the one barrier that had been in his path since winning virtually every other tournament he has played in. Now having won all four Grand Slam tournaments, Federer is one of the few tennis players who can proudly proclaim to have won all four. At the ripe 'old' age of 27, he still has a number of years to go before he retires and I think that certainly means that the record set by Pete Sampras a number of years ago for the most titles won (fourteen to be exact) will soon be shattered and I for one don't think it could happen to a nicer guy.

Now I will say that there are many people out there who have proclaimed the mens draw in tennis to be boring. They will claim that finals have typically been limited to a certain set of players and that it was almost a guarantee that the same two (usually Federer and Rafeal Nadal) would be in the final against one another. However if this past French Open has been any indicator, that assumption may not always hold true. I think one of the things in tennis is that when someone really good comes along, they will hit their peak and play at that championship level for a while before someone just as good or better comes along to claim the spot of 'king of the hill'. Perhaps this is now the pinnacle of Federer's career and newer faces will begin to appear (I think Soderling could definitely be one) but what does it matter?

In most any sport there are competitors who tend to dominate the top spot for sometime before abdicating the 'throne' to another player (or team). However the one thing that I like about tennis (both the mens and womens draws) is that virtually any player who you talk to is so humble that it astounds me. In a day and age where ego dominates and players tend to talk about themselves rather than anything else, it's quite refreshing to see players who can offer up more praise for their opponents than themselves. Plus tennis players are among those whose detractors will latch onto any perceived weaknesses and will try to break down a player through criticism in the press. Case in point with Federer. Despite the fact that he has been such a consistent player, there was talk about how he was beginning to show signs of weakness in having lost the Australian Open and tournaments in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne leading up to the French Open.

But so what? Isn't that what the press itself had been complaining about? That there was no competition and that tennis became 'boring' when the same players kept winning? While there are some great players out there, everyone has their 'off day'. Not every champion plays at the top of their game for their entire career and few are the players who retire as undefeated champion but why should it matter? I think some of the current crop of tennis players are among the very best role models that young athletes could have. Humble and gracious in victory or defeat, they exemplify what it means to be a good sport. Is it any wonder then that so many fans keep pulling for them whether they win or lose?


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Extending an Olive Branch

President Obama is in the Middle East this week to deliver a speech he promised to make back during his campaign for the Presidency. In it he promised to go to the Middle East to re-establish cordial relations with the Muslim nations of the Middle East where opinion and ideas toward the United States have been on the decline for some time. Now I'm not politico and I'm certainly no expert on world politics and such but I can certainly speak on my opinion and view on things; after all, this is my blog!

That being said, whether you believe and support his policies or not, Obama's overtures to the nations of the Middle East are something that he should be doing. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued to rage on, the idea that these were conflicts born out of the need to defend ourselves from potential threats was allowed to transform into a War on Islam. At least that's the way the more radical elements of the Middle East and parts of the world chose to spin it. And believe me, I think more portions of the Middle East get their news from local sources than CNN or the BBC. That being the case, is it any wonder then that much of the world has begun to think that way as well?

There has been sharp criticism of the Obama Administration (as is always the case when the opposition party to the last President's party takes control) and especially of it's actions in the Middle East up until this point. I think these are necessary steps though. If one looks back at history then one will see that in having helped Germany rebuild after the Second World War, the country was able to pick itself up and dust itself off and at least attempt to thrive. The Allied nations didn't go in and simply wipe the place out and then walk off into the sunset. Certainly the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War could have been handled differently but what I mean to say is that our former enemies became our allies and we helped one another.

Speaking of enemies turned Allies, what about the former Soviet Union? For decades the enemy in every single action film from the 1980's was either Soviet or communist (which was a way of saying Russia back then without explicitly pointing at the Soviet Union). After decades of near war with them they became our allies. We 'fought' a space race with them and now we are working with them to continue our exploration of space. See what happens when we work with those who were once considered our enemies? I'm not saying that the entire change has been all smiles and roses and I'm not saying that the situation between our nations is completely amicable either but at least we are striving towards a common good.

This is exactly what I see as being necessary for the Middle East. Now perhaps it's naive and perhaps the ultra-Right-wing folks are correct in their assumption that the nation's of the Middle East can't be trusted but then for all their accusations against Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor being racist, are they any different? Just because the people of the Middle East follow a different religion, have a different skin tone or dress differently, does that mean that they shouldn't be dealt with with anything other than a gun? There is a time for violence but there is also a time to ensure that when you do have to go to war, you have support. Perhaps we don't need it since we are the world's remaining Superpower but there's nothing wrong with having friends.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Speed Cams: The Cash Cow

If you've been driving around Montgomery County, Maryland anytime in the past year or so and you have a moderately 'heavy' foot when it comes to driving then chances are that you've received a speed camera speeding ticket sometime in that time. I myself was the victim of one a few weeks ago. Now the way the speed camera works (in a nutshell) is that it has a built in radar that tracks vehicles as they approach the camera and the speed is calculated on the rate at which you are approaching the camera. if the speed is faster than the programmed posted speed limit then most likely you will get a ticket with a nice clear photo showing your vehicle approaching the camera and after the camera with a blown up image of your license plate (just to confirm that it is you).

Now as always there are two schools of thought on this new technology; those that love it and those that consider it a bane. I find myself being a member of the latter group while the county itself is in the former. Why do I say that? Well that's because ten months into the current fiscal year, tickets issued by the speed cameras have earned nearly $15 million in revenue. That's no small sum considering the previous year's total income was approximately $12 million. And what do you think is going to happen to the numbers when the number of cameras in the county are doubled during the next fiscal year? I can hear the collective nod of all readers out there; you guessed it, revenue is going to go higher, perhaps even double of what it currently is.

Some people will jump up and claim that it isn't a bad thing that these cameras are out there. After all they will help curb speeders and should be effective in making drivers around Montgomery County safer. Police officials also point out that it will be a more pronounced deterrent. If a Police officer pulls you over for speeding you will get a ticket, two points on your license and a fine of $90 (largely dependent on how fast you were speeding in relation to the posted speed limit). The unspoken caveat (and drawback) to doing things the 'old-fashioned' and low-tech way is that an officer can only issue so many tickets per hour. With a speed camera you can click away to your hearts content and literally rake in the money. The thinking of most drivers who get these tickets (and I know that my thinking was the same) was $40 isn't much of a fine but in large quantities it will add up.

But something else came to my mind as well. My violation was for driving 41 MPH in a 30 MPH zone. Now I know that technically I was in violation of the law in driving 11 MPH above the posted speed limit but when you think about it, how many times have you been pulled over for driving 11 MPH above the posted speed limit when there was a cop car involved. I'm sure you could probably count the occurences on one hand (if even that many fingers were required). Sure it's an unwritten rule that driving about 10 miles above the speed limit is acceptable though not necessarily encouraged but is that the threshold that has been built into these speed cams?

According to the County police department, ticket fines are flat at $40 with no points on the license but what I'm wondering is if for that instance I was driving 39 MPH instead of 41 MPH would that two MPH difference have meant no ticket? If these cameras are programmed to have such a narrow window for speed fluctuation then is it any wonder that cameras are generating so much revenue? And it isn't like I got my ticket a day or two after the incident, I got it nearly a month later. How am I supposed to remember where I was off to and what the circumstances may have been for my driving 11 MPH above the speed limit? How many drivers can honestly tell me that they drive at the speed limit with absolutely no fluctuation in speed? It's highly unlikely; I mean even when my car is in cruise control on the highway it goes up and down by a few miles per hour.

I don't necessarily disagree with this method of deterring excessive speed throughout the county, Lord knows drivers across the nation could use a bit of a lesson when it comes to speeding around but this just seems to be a bit much. Fines are pulling in nearly $1,500 a day! A day! With more cameras it will only increase and pretty soon I think the County will be in a budget surplus. Isn't this a way of 'generating' revenue from residents and non-residents alike? Most people won't think twice about sending $40 to Montgomery County if it means saving court appearances or points on their license but I really wonder if someone shouldn't check to what standards these cameras are expected to operate. After all, is someone who is driving 11 miles over the speed limit as bad (or as guilty) as someone driving 30 miles over the speed limit? I don't think so.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Air Mystery

By now most people would have heard about the disappearance of Air France flight 447 en route from Rio de Janerio to Paris this past weekend. Since the disappearance of the plane a search has been ongoing yet the fact that the plane was in radio contact (not radar contact) has hampered search efforts. Although the flight's path was more or less pre-determined, the plane was beyond the radar range of South American radar networks as well as those on the West African coastlines. It's a narrow window when one thinks about it but it's still hundreds of miles across through a zone in the ocean where air and ocean currents from the northern and southern hemispheres collide and often result in major storms that can and do create thunderstorms that can go as high as 52,000 feet (well beyond the range of most commercial airlines to fly above).

Reports indicate that the plane's computer reported automatically to the Airbus maintenance shops that there was a sudden loss in electrical power followed shortly thereafter with a loss in cabin pressure. Now these two reports together don't provide definitive proof of what may have befallen the aircraft yet it points out that there are still many mysteries to be solved with the disappearance of this plane. Some experts already appear to be downplaying hope by pointing out that the vastness of the ocean, the uncertainty of the plane's position when it may have gone down and a variety of other unknowns will make it very difficult to find (if ever) what exactly happened to the plane and it's 228 occupants.

The media however is already ripe with speculation and theories based on countless interviews with 'aviation experts' and other subject matter specialists. And already you can see that Air France, Airbus, General Electric and anyone else with any association with plane are in full defensive mode and a lot of it has to do with pointing the finger and wanting to blame someone for what has happened. Recall several months ago when the U.S. Airways flight performed an emergency landing in the Hudson, suddenly the number of hours a pilot has flown and their technical expertise is what came into the picture as being a vital factor in determining whether or not a plane would survive a calamity. In subsequent incidents involving planes then one of the first statistics that the media would clamp on was who the pilot was and how many hours of flying time they had.

Even now Air France has started providing info on the pilot that explains how many hours of flight time he had. There are stats on how old the plane was (to mitigate accusations of old equipment being the cause) along with stats on when the last maintenance period was (again to avoid accusations of what shoddy condition the plane was in). General Electric (who supplies the engines) has been providing statements about how reliable these latest engines are and how they can survive a general lightning strike. And there is what all signs seem to be pointing to; that a lightning strike hit the plane and caused the electrical systems to fail on the plane resulting in an assumed emergency that led to the disappearance of the plane.

Now as much as there is truth in the stats that lightning strikes are rare, when you are in the air there is not much else that will attract lightning in a storm as much as a metal airplane. That's not to say that that's the definitive proof that a storm is what brought the plane down but it is possible. With a plane that is largely controled by electronics and a 'fly-by-wire' system (which basically means the controls are moved and the computer then translates those moves into the corresponding control surfaces as appropriate) which can be affected by electrical surges, it is possible that this caused the plane to come down. Yet until some trace is found, there will be no way to know for sure. In the meantime, I'm sure the media will continue looking to pin the blame the way kids play pin the tail on the donkey.


Monday, June 01, 2009

The Great Debate Continues

What I term as 'the great debate' continues in Fairfax County, Virginia today with the likely approval by the Board of Supervisors of close to $3.5 million to study and propose plans of how to improve commuter life in the Tysons Corner area. Having lived in the Tysons area for going on six years now I have seen how the landscape has been changing over the past few years and while I understand the desire to change the landscape to be more friendly to commuters as part of a lure intended to increase the status of Tysons Corner and continue the development from a fringe neighborhood to something to rival the urban live/work/play communities of other cities. Unfortunately it seems that the timing couldn't be more off.

With the current state of the economy it isn't surprising that many businesses are looking to downsize or lose employees in an effort to cut down on costs. While this would seem to make sense, it also makes sense to cut down on office space if you know you can consolidate your remaining employees at existing sites and cut costs until the market improves. That being said, it's no wonder there are a dearth of slowly emptying office spaces in the Tysons Corner area. Perhaps many people aren't noticing the 'For Lease' signs located all over the place but for those of us who live and work in the area, they are kind of hard to miss.

Now I know that some would argue that part of the reason for the amount of businesses leaving Tysons Corner at present is because of the construction related to the Tysons Metro project and the Beltway HOT-lanes making driving in Tysons Corner (an already messy proposition) even messier by tearing up roads and medians. Sure the loss is likely to be temporary and some of the exodus is likely more for that reason than any economic downturn but isn't it time to think about how changes can be made to improve things now rather than later?

The purpose of the study is to seek and determin alternatives to cars commuting around Tysons. The hope is that by building on the forthcoming expansion of the Washington Metro by adding local commuter rail that will potentially encircle the area and encourage additional people to take public transportation. The other hope is that by making Tysons a hub for public transportation will mean homeowners (current and future) will be encouraged to live in the area as opposed to commuting to the area. Some estimates have shown that approximately 17,000 people live in the Tysons area on a permanent basis and that during the work week, approximately 117,000 people can be found there. That being said is it any wonder that the roads are congested.

I'm sure the study will find wonderful ways in which to create a light rail system and commuter buses that will circle the area or how the addition of sidewalks will make pedestrians feel a little more comfortable walking around the are considering that right now there are absolutely no (well maybe a few) sidewalks to be found in the area. However, I'm sure they haven't taken into account the way that many of the companies in the Tysons area work. Most companies that can be found in Tysons may be headquartered there but most of the employees are located on site and are required to come to the headquarters on an occasional basis (if at all). The rest of the employees come in and work there but that is the support arm of the company so perhaps that would be the segment that would make full use of the public transportation network being envisioned.

However, I think it's safe to say that most working indvididuals would continue to drive on their own if their work made it easier to do so. I also drive from site to site on multiple occasions and so while I wouldn't mind taking public transportation it isn't practical. I would continue to commute as I'm sure many others would do too. There would undoubtedly be a significant portion of people who would use the transportation being proposed but even the hope that many planners have at increasing shoppers through Metro and public transport seem not to realize that most of the people who shop at higher end stores in Tysons would not 'stoop' to riding the subway. Perhaps that's a snooty assumption but next time you're in the area, check out the zsa-zsa cars that you see and tell me what you think? It's a good plan but I think if we spend more on improving the infrastructure in and around the area (expanding Route 123 to three lanes all the way from Tysons to the GW Parkway and to Route 66 would be a major step in the right direction) then perhaps that will help to ease traffic too.