Monday, August 31, 2009

An American Icon in India

Harley-Davidson, the world-renowned motorcycle company of the United States is finally looking to make an entry into the Indian market. It makes sense considering the number of motorcycles in use today in India and the fact that the reputation of Harley's is well known in India as well. At present there are only a few in the country where Honda (among others) has dominated for a very long time. The reason for this is that motorcycles are often the cheaper and less expensive option for travelling around the bustling cities of India. Not to mention the fact that it allows you easier access to zip in and around traffic (and believe me, that's an ability that is much needed in a country where cars are seemingly as prevalent as people). But what's taken the Harley-Davidson company so long then?

One could be the fact that Harley's aren't the most economical of motorcycles. To give you a comparison of how different the prices would be (once Harley officially enters the market), an average Honda motorcycle (the Hero Honda) costs about the equivalent of $1,200. The new economy car by Indian giant Tata, the Tata Nano, will be retailing for about $2,500. The Nano was introduced with the idea that by making a car more easily affordable to less affluent people in India, it will make roads safer by allowing families to sit rather than seeming to hang on for dear life on a motorcycle that can often be used to carry a family of four throughout the city. Compare that now to a Harley which is expected to retail around $14,000 for a starting price.

Now don't get me wrong. I think it's a great idea. If the IT boom has done one thing in India, it's brought a lot of wealth to the nation and with it, it's brought a level of consumerism that hasn't been as prevalent there for a long time. The photo that accompanies this blog is of Indian cricket star Mahendra Singh Dhoni who currently owns a Harley-Davidson. I believe that at least initially, it will be individuals like Dhoni who will be springing for such luxury items and once the market becomes a bit more firmly established, you'll possibly see a lot more of them on the roads of India. Though even there I see some impediments to sales being really high and it doesn't really have anything to do with Indians being able to afford them (I think Indians have more than enough money to afford whatever they want) but it's a question of being able to enjoy the motorcycle.

I am not a motorcycle rider and I haven't sat on motorcycles save for a few occasions. However, I do know the pleasure of enjoying a drive in a vehicle that is built for the road. In my car I have enjoyed driving along windy wooded roads and feeling the wind in my hair and from what I've heard, many motorcycle enthusiasts feel the same way. They enjoy riding motorcycles along the open roads and take pleasure in the journey. In India, those types of opportunities are few and far between at times and the reason is traffic. Getting from point A to point B can be a real pain and though (as I mentioned earlier) motorcycles allow you to maneuver and get around traffic at times, the feeling of cruising along at speed is a relatively rare experience.

For most that won't be the reason to get one. There is a certain bit of pride in being able to say you own a Harley when there are only a handful in the entire country. We had the same thing here with the iPhones which were initially produced in very very limited numbers. Once they became common however is when the novelty wore off. I don't think the novelty of Harley's in India will die down as quickly because there is a great deal of mystique surrounding the Harley but I think the lofty plans that the company has of establishing a major presence within the Indian market may take a little longer than even they anticipate.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Are We Getting More Narcissistic?

The Greek myth of Narcissus tells the tale of a young man of unparalleled beauty. Within short order, the entire village has fallen in love with him but due to his vanity, he spurns all attempts on his attention. Therefore as punishment for his vanity, the Gods punish him by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. Narcissus then perishes when he finds that he is unable to leave the vision of himself that he has fallen so deeply in love with. So what does that have to do with my blog? Well I think a little explanation would be needed for those who didn't know what narcissism means. In a nutshell, it's vying for attention and self-adulation. That may not be the exact definition but it's close enough.

The reason I bring it up today is because I happened upon an article that said that in a recent survey of college students who use social networks like Facebook or Twitter, a whopping 57% responded with results that indicated they have very serious narcissistic tendencies. Now I understand there is some motivation for wanting to stand out in a crowd. Practically all of us did it when we were in high school. Wanting to fit in or be part of the popular crowd was something many people aspired to and what others within that small community wanted to be the top of but if anything, it's a tendency that appears to be following us into adulthood as well. Now don't get me wrong, I think social networks are a wonderful way for people to reconnect with their friends and family and to establish good business contacts. But what astounds me is when you find people with nearly 859 friends or some such insane number.

I remember running into one guy at work and over the course of introductions he asked if I was on Twitter and whether I could add him as a contact or vice versa. I don't belong to Twitter so I told him 'no' much to his apparent annoyance but I found it a little odd considering I had met this person for no more than ten minutes and he already wanted to add me as a friend on his social network? For me, a friend is someone that I have a slightly deeper relationship with or that I've known for quite some time, I don't consider it something that can be used for improving social standing in terms of statistics. What I mean is for a person who has 859 friends, I'm very skeptical that this would be a person who keeps in close contact with all of them. To me it's more of a bragging right or a way to elevate their importance. I mean if someone logs on and sees that you have over 800 friends then the natural assumption would be that you're very important or popular and people interested in that type of relationship/friendship would likely add you.

I personally don't see the point. If I want my friends to know what I'm up to or what I'm doing, I would let them know. Then again, if they are that close a friend then they'd know what I was up to anyways and it wouldn't require me to tell them. Some people use their Twitter or Facebook accounts to let the world know what they are up to or about how exciting their social life is. But do I really need to know that Scarlet had a roast beef sandwich and that the bread was a little stale? No. Frankly my dear I don't give a damn. I think in an effort to continue that fight to gain social stature and acceptance, many of us are turning more and more towards social networking sites to fulfill our desire to be socially elite. I think it's a relatively childish tendency that is being fed by technology. Hopefully it won't last.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

End of a Political Era

Most of America woke to the news this morning that Massachusetts Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy had passed away late last night after a battle with brain cancer. Now I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who aren't sure why there is such an outpouring of grief among Americans today. But regardless of whether you are a liberal who loved him or a conservative who despised him, one thing is certain and that with his passing, an era in American politics has come to an end. Sure there may be other Kennedy's but it won't be the same thing. Many countries have their political dynasties; India for example has had the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that began with India's first Prime Minister Jawarlahal Nehru and is currently running with his Grand-daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi. Kennedy though represented a different part of this type of legacy.

Of the three Kennedy brothers who were in politics during changing times in our country, Edward Kennedy may have been the youngest but he certainly lasted the longest. In a family that has dealt with tragedy in that generation for decades, it's sad to see that even now they can't escape tragedy. Just a few days after his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver passed away, her brother Edward joins her alongside many of his other siblings and relatives who have passed on before their time. Some argue that Kennedy was helped along in his career by the untimely passing of his elder brother John F. Kennedy during his Presidency and middle brother Robert Kennedy (during his run for the Presidency) but no one can deny that even decades after their passing, Kennedy continued to garner support of not only his constituents but his peers as well.

Kennedy was considered to be a liberal in his political leanings but he certainly didn't lean so far to the liberal side that he refused to work with his peers in the Senate. On the contrary; Kennedy was considered a champion of bipartisan cooperation and compromise. Many have commented on the fact that due to his declining health he was missing from the current Health Care Reform debate (which was a favorite cause of his and one he had fought for for years). Perhaps his passing will buoy a new sense of cooperation among Congressional leaders and perhaps it will be a way for his legacy to live on if bipartisan cooperation is inspired by his loss. Though he was sometimes involved in some controversy or the other during the course of his career (particularly the Chappaquiddick Incident) but he still managed to fight back and remain in the public's good graces.

He is also credited with getting President Obama into the White House. Early on in the campaigns of 2008 there was a great deal of discussion on just how much experience Obama had and it was having an effect on his standings in the primaries around the nation but it was the endorsement of Kennedy that is seen by many as being the inspiration behind so many taking another look at Obama and realizing that perhaps he stood for the ideals. Maybe in some strange way they felt that Kennedy's endorsement was a way of showing that Obama's name held the same mystique. Certainly no family in the near term will have as much aura about it as the Kennedy generation that was called Camelot but then again who would want to replace it. They have a place in the history of our country and why would anyone want to change that?


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

History Through the Eye of the Beholder

Though I haven't seen the movie yet I have read the script (it's been available online for months now) to Quentin Tarantino's World War II film, "Inglorious Basterds". I won't get into spoilers and reveal plot points which would 'ruin' the movie for some but suffice it to say that it creates a lot of disinformation. Now in Tarantino's defense, he has never stated that his film was intended to be a true depiction of action during World War II. His film was meant to be more of a homage to the World War II action films of the 1960's and 1970's. During those times authors like Alistair MacLean and Ken Follett created stories that weaved a bit of truth with a lot of fiction. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing but at that time, people of course understood that fiction meant just that.

These days with general knowledge appearing to be on a mild decline, it's not surprising that many people tend to view movies as a source of information and history. I've blogged on it before with regard to other World War II related movies like "U-571" which took historical events but changed them around for the sake of the story. In the case of "U-571", the capture of the German Enigma coding machine is credited to the American Navy as opposed to Britain's Royal Navy which left a bitter taste in the mouths of many veterans. Though there are notes crediting the British at the end of that particular film, the image has already been created in the minds of many who would simply see the movie and accept what they see as the truth.

Now perhaps if people are generally that interested in knowing what the truth behind World War II is they would take interest and educate themselves by reading. What power reading has over movies is that they are not constrained by movie runtimes. A book can be as long as it needs to be to describe a particular event and all that it involved. In the case of Tarantino's film, had these events as he's shown them, actually occurred then the war would have ended much sooner and the world in the interim would probably be a little different. This brings up the genre which I particularly enjoy reading, alternate history. These are stories that bring up the point of how some small action could eventually have large reprecussions. Authors like Harry Turtledove and Robert Conroy (among many others) have written about alternate histories where the outcome of world events has changed the shape of the world.

Here again, given that it's fiction then it's possible to paint a different picture but it's different from movies. For some reason (whatever it may be) there is an underlying assumption that what you see in the movies is more likely the truth than not. A large part of that is because you see interviews with veterans talking about how realistic the movie is and there is the introduction of historical characters in the story at places so people tend to think if a historical person is there then it must be real. That's certainly not the case but it can be deceptive in that manner. For example, "Saving Private Ryan" showed the invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach but the action shown later in the film is a made-up conflict that was added to help carry the story along.

Sure there was some historical basis for the film but it still isn't a real event. Movies do require a little bit of spice added to them to help keep an audience that is increasingly losing its attention span interested but that isn't the reason to completely change the truth. I'm hopeful that most will realize that Tarantino's film isn't a real depiction of World War II and while some of the events may have a little historical basis, it's all based on what Tarantino interpreted the events to be for the basis of his movie. I don't think it's wrong, movies are supposed to be entertaining, I just hope that audiences don't take it to be the gospel as the saying goes.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Making Movies that Sell

Many people that know me know that I love movies. I enjoy good ones and bad ones and I love the whole process as well. From the time I was a kid I used to enjoy seeing documentaries on how films were made in addition to seeing the movies themselves. Perhaps it was an outgrowth of my parents having been involved in theatre so much so that from the time I was a kid to the present, I was always fascinated by the process of putting together a production. Now lest you believe that my interests lie solely with the kind of films that require little brain power and a slight case of attention deficit disorder, I'd like you to know that I enjoy movies that require a little bit of thought as well. That being said, I was saddened to read an article this past weekend in the paper that talked about how it's becoming harder for Hollywood to justify making some of these films as cerebral films often require cost more than they earn at the movie theatre.

Now an accusation I've often leveled against the Indian film industry is that the films that are so stupid that they make "Harold and Kumar" films look like Shakespeare are the ones that do well at the box office vice the ones that actually have a good storyline and plot which ulimtately bomb outside of the metropolitan areas of India. What the article I read indicates is that this trend is also starting to show its head here in the States as well. Take for example a lot of the films that were nominated for Best Picture Oscars from earlier this year; none could be considered a 'box office smash' in that they didn't earn the hundreds of millinos that films like "The Dark Knight" did. That fact raised a question earlier in the year as to whether there should be more nominees for Best Picture and such for next year's Oscars.

You may wonder why the Academy wants to consider adding more nominees and the reason is that while the movies usually nominated are the critical hits, the box office smashes are the ones that draw in the most audience. I remember the year that "Titanic" won the Oscars it was probably the one telecast that saw the most viewers (way back in 1998) but in the years since, very few people have actually seen the films nominated for Best Picture. Even now, of the five films nominated for Best Picture last year, I have only seen three of them. I will probably eventually see all five but therein lies the problem. Studios want to make movies that make money. That's the point of any business isn't it? But if no one is going to see these films then why spend the money to make them?

I will admit that it's difficult to see some of these in the theatre or that you really need to be in the mood to see that type of movie in order to be motivated to go to the theatre now and spend upwards of $15 to see a film. I mean these days the movies come out on DVD almost as soon as they are out in theatres so rather than spending $15 to see something dramatic in the movie theatre you can wait a little longer and see it as many times as you want in the comfort of your own home. Sure a lot of us want to enjoy the experience of seeing a movie in the theatre but with the way the economics of the time are, it's no wonder that DVD sales continue to hold steady while box office receipts tends to fluctuate.

Now this past weekend, the top movie of the week was again Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" which tells the tale of an alternate version of World War II. It's supposed to be a homage to some of the World War II movies of the past but from all accounts, it's more typical of Tarantino's usual film escapades than anything else. That could be both good or bad depending on your viewpoint but the bottom line is that a movie that is meant to be enjoyed rather than thought about is what is doing well at the box office and movies with a little more drama (like "The Hurt Locker" or "District 9") are being shown with little fanfare other than word of mouth. It's unfortunate but just the way things are in the world of the movie going audience. I hope studio heads dont' come to the ultimately stupid conclusion that perhaps it would be better to stop making such movies altogether because such movies deserve to be made but perhaps it's just a sign of the changing face of movie audiences today.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Is Online Shopping Hurting Our Economy?

These days, you can practically buy anything online. You can buy the simple stuff, like groceries or books to the expensive things like cars, planes and boats. About a decade ago, online retail was still a novel concept with not too many looking to get aboard the bandwagon but in the years since you can see that the retail market has been feeling the effects given that many more people are buying online as opposed to typical brick-and-mortar stores. Evidence of this is the fact that Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest bookseller, announced a drop in profit in the 2nd quarter of the year. Projections were still higher than what they actually experienced in terms of profit loss but it was still a loss nonetheless.

Part of the reason as explained by the company has been that increasing numbers of people are turning to online retailers (Amazon comes to mind) to purchase their books. And as a frequent reader, I can understand why. I mean within days of the latest book coming out, you can practically find it for about half price at any one of a dozen online retailers. And so what if you have to pay shipping charges, even that option is quickly disappearing as more and more companies begin to eliminate these charges in some cases, so that they can entice additional customers. And it does work. I bought some books online a few weeks ago and got them within days without having to pay for shipping and handling. I paid the price of one new book yet got three near perfect copies of recent titles. Perhaps they won't grace my bookshelves for years but it was a way to get a copy of the book for less.

But why else are traditional retailers not doing so well? I mean record stores (an anachronistic term but still one that is in popular parlance) are also experiencing losses thanks in large part to companies like iTunes. Think back a few years ago and think of how often you saw people with their ears stuffed with headphones. Not too many right? Nowadays you can't take three steps without seeing a dozen people with their headphones on and their music playing away. These days, why fill your home with CD cases when you can simply download and listen to your heart's content? I myself have fully embraced this concept now. Oh sure I still get CDs at the store (or online) these days but it's so much more convenient to get them online and keep them digitally. But still, why aren't companies doing that well anymore?

I know that with people worrying about losing their jobs or not having enough money for luxuries, they are starting to turn from buying items like books or movies and turning to the library. In recent months, the libraries around the country have started experiencing a boom in patronage. I can understand that as well. I love to read but I also know that I can't spend endlessly to get all the books I would want. The library offers up a cheap alternative to buying books. If I end up really liking what I'm reading then I can always get it but I don't have to spend money if all I want to do is read and enjoy a book. That being said then it starts to become clear why traditional retailers aren't seeing the profits they once did.

I don't think online retailers will go away anytime in the near future (if ever) but I do think that we will slowly see the decline of more of the mom-and-pop stores that have managed to survive the advent of the so-called big-box stores. It's possible that if most of the major online retailers manage to cause the decline of larger traditional stores as well that they may step in to fill the void but one thing's for sure, the economy is in some way being affected (for good or for bad) by the changes in the way we shop.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Right to Bear Arms (and Protest)

As if protesters complaining about their country being taken away from them by the ubiquitous (though not really specified) 'they', now comes news that there are a growning number of protesters outside health care reform town halls and rallies who are choosing to stand outside armed. Now I agree that there is a lot of pent up tension surrounding the health care debate but is it so tense that it justifies the need to attend the protests outside with assault rifles? The gentleman in the photo accompanying today's blog seemed to think so. Last week outside a rally in Arizona arrived carrying an assault rifle and although he didn't identify himself or even state explicitly which 'side' of the debate he was on, nonetheless he was allowed to more or less freely wander the designated protest area.

What I find a little more disturbing (from a certain point of view) is the fact that the White House is not protesting or complaining against this fact. Now before gun-nuts get into a tizzy about how their rights to carry assault rifles and the like is protected by the Constitution and their state's laws (and Arizona does by the way allow for open carry of registered weapons) the issue isn't about whether or not they be allowed to carry their guns with them but rather whether it is right. We look at the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan where people (who most of us imagine to be thugs or members of the Taliban or al-Queda) wander about with AK-47's on their back and we shake our heads condemning them for being violent and brutal people. What makes this fellow any different?

In New Hampshire last week a man holding a sign reading "It's Time to Water the Tree of Liberty" also had a handgun strapped to his leg. Again there's no reason that he shouldn't be able to but don't these guys think that someone might find it a little inappropriate? Like him or not, President Obama is the President and has been legally elected to the post. As such the post does have a certain aura and deserves a certain degree of respect. That being said isn't it a bit wrong to bring such heavy weaponry to a rally or town hall? Well let me ask you this another way. If you were to show up tomorrow at the library or at the mall wearing your assault rifle, don't you think people would look at you funny?

Maybe in some states or areas it is completely normal but I'm saying in general. What then would set 'normal' citizens apart from deadly criminals with violent intent. Not a whole lot. How would I know that the guy walking around the library isn't ready to open up and kill a whole bunch of us. I don't. But then again I don't think anyone doubted the purpose of the shooter in the gym in Pennsylvania earlier this month either. They knew what he was doing and responded accordingly. I don't think a different standard should be enforced when it comes to the President making a speech but I can very near guarantee that had this happened at a rally outside of a speech being given in defense of the War in Iraq a few years ago, there would have been arrests galore.

It's almost like a double standard is being applied. The White House doesn't want to insist the public not carry guns because it is their constitutional right but nor do they want to make the situation difficult or dangerous for anyone at these rallies either. Some people argue that if more of us had ready access to guns, in the cases of incidents like Columbine and Virginia Tech, we could defend ourselves. By the same token I wonder if that would apply to defending ourselves from threats (perceived or otherwise) at political rallies and meetings as well. All I would say is that if you feel that strongly for or against a particular debate topic and you feel that you would be physically threatened to the point that you require an assault rifle for protection, you probably shouldn't be going anywhere in the first place.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Un-Retired Again

I had thought that perhaps that after his less than stellar performance with the New York Jets last season, Quarterback Brett Favre would have decided to stay retired now that he made the decision for the second time in his career. However, three weeks after he said that he planned to 'stay retired' the Minnesota Vikings announced today that indeed, Favre would be joining their roster as (most likely) the starting quarterback. I say most likely because although Minnesota coach Brad Childress says that he'll give all his quarterbacks a fair shot at the starting position, I think it would be a bad 'business' decision to keep Farve in the backup role.

After all, despite not having a great season last year, Favre was probably one of the major draws for all the Jets games. I mean how many times do you get to see a legend play? It's the type of story that has been played out numerous times in all sports. In boxing there was Ali's multiple comebacks to say nothing of George Foreman's stunning comeback at age 40! Then there was Michael Jordan's amazing comeback with the Bulls and then his less than stellar second attempted comeback with the Wizards here in Washington. There was Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France this year and even though he didn't win as he had hoped, his strong finish showed that even after being away from the race for a number of years, what he accomplished was not done through the aid of performance enhancing drugs. And just a few days ago we were within days of seeing Formula One ace Michael Schumacher return to Ferrari if not for his neck injuries keeping him from getting medical clearance to race.

Now it's safe to say that over the course of his career, Favre has accomplished a great deal. He can certainly be counted among the legendary quarterbacks of recent memory and will undoubtedly go into the Hall of Fame in the first year of his eligibility, but the thing is that some people just can't go away gracefully. I fully respect his desire to play football. I mean there is no denying the passion for the game he obviously has but if you don't do as well as you think you can, you tend to tarnish the image just a bit. When you go out on top you know that your reputation will remain relatively stellar. Sure you can make mistakes in your life outside of the game but mostly players who have retired on top have retained that legendary status. With Favre's repeated returns, I am curious as to what people will start to think.

Maybe he's thinking along the lines of Jordan. Though Michael Jordan's first return was more successful than Favre's perhaps he thinks his situation will be reversed; after a dismal first return, a second return would likely be more successful. It's a great deal to assume but not out of the realm of possibility. But part of what affected Jordan or other quarterbacks like Joe Montana who chose to go to other teams before retiring is that though they are great players, they are part of a great team and if you don't have all the elements, you can't do a lot. Players like Jordan or Montana did well when they had elements on their team that supported them and helped them perform at the top of your game. In team sports it's just not possible to shine as brightly no matter how good you may be.

But I think there are other drawbacks to the decision to sign aging quarterbacks to your roster. As a Redskins fan I can say this from experience over the last few decades. The teams that sign on older quarterbacks often hope to add experience to their rosters but the problem is that in letting the older guys play, the younger guys lose the chance to develop and grow. It happened numerous times in Washington and continues to happen. Just when a quarterback starts to grow he was usually replaced by a name. Not all these 'names' can pull out victories as easily as they would pull on their socks but it's the mindset and the aura that seems to follow these guys. I certainly wish Favre well but I have a feeling that if he does this same act again next year, the novelty is going to wear off pretty quick. Especially if he has another abyssmal year.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Shah Rukh is a Khan

U.S. flags are being burned. Protests are being held outside of the U.S. Embassy. Politicians are demanding that the government seek to potentially implement a 'tit-for-tat' policy against Americans. And of course, celebrities are up in arms against a 'slight' against one of their own brethren. No I'm not talking about a situation brewing in Iraq or Afghanistan. I'm talking about the incident this past weekend where noted Bollywood mega-star Shah Rukh Khan, was detained for several hours at Newark's Liberty International Airport after his name appeared on the no-fly list. Despite attempts to explain who he was and what the purpose of his visit was (he was on his way to Chicago to lead the Indian Independence Day parade). After communication was finally established between the Indian Consulate and the State Department, the situation was cleared up and SRK was allowed to proceed but the incident has left a very bad taste in many people's mouths.

What has enraged most Indians is that someone of Shah Rukh Khan's stature was treated so shoddily in a foreign country. And while I feel the frustration and anger that many feel I don't think it justifies behaving the way many of the people are. Politicians within India are calling for a tit-for-tat policy. Why does the government need to step in and harass Americans just because an Indian actor was harassed? And besides, didn't the Indian government already do a wonderful job of that when they attempted to arrest Richard Gere when he kissed Shilpa Shetty a year or two ago? Here is an actor who has done a great deal for the Dalai Lama and who has enjoyed every trip to India who then went overboard and kissed Shilpa Shetty and the next thing you knew, his effigy was burned, his photos hit with shoes (a major insult) and he was nearly forbidden from returning to the country. Thankfully common sense prevailed and he was allowed to return though I'm not sure he has since.

But people who don't know Shah Rukh Khan from Genghis Khan are probably wondering what the big deal is. Well to put it in perspective, just imagine Brad Pitt showing up in London and subsequently being detained and questioned because his name resembled the name of someone on a terror watchlist. That's precisely the reason that SRK was detained the way he was. Now no one has ever indicated that the terror watch list is a perfect thing. I mean just ask Senator Edward Kennedy. In 2004, Kennedy was denied permission to board a flight because his name was supposedly on a terror watchlist. Now I would venture that it's safe to say that if a person of repute here in the United States is detained for being on that list, is it any surprise that an Indian actor might undergo the same type of detainment?

I think what is further enraging people is the sense that SRK was thrown into a prison and locked up. The images of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib Prison flash before people's eyes and they think that he must have been tortured until his release. I hate to break the news but that's not what he went through. He was inconvenienced and treated this way because of his name. Now Shah Rukh Khan conjures up many things to many Indian movie fans but for the average Joe who is working security at an airport, it probably doesn't mean all that much at all. Sure in Bollywood we have Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Sohail Khan, Irfan Khan and a host of others, it is common. Over here in the United States I can't think of a single mainstream actor with the name Khan. I don't mean to imply that it was therefore right of the Transportation Security Agency to detain him but neither do I think it's any surprise.

I am ashamed that someone of repute like Shah Rukh Khan had to undergo such treatment when he was visiting our country but in the name of safety and security, he suffered more because his name is Khan than anything else. I wouldn't call it racism or discrimination. I would call it bad luck that Shah Rukh Khan has the name Khan and that it is probably what flagged him on a terror watchlist someplace. In India he and other major celebrities can often bypass security due to their stature and standing in public but over here they are just another face. Perhaps there is some resentment over the fact that they aren't recognized over here but I can imagine that happening to tons of other actors as well. I mean if it can happen to a Kennedy, I would imagine it could happen to anyone.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Drawing a Line in the Sand

Sixty-two years ago today the infamous Radcliffe Line which was to show how the British Raj would be divied up into the newly Independent countries of India and Pakistan. In the years since, there has been much debate over the decision of how and where to divide up the entire Indian territories but it was the nature and attitude by which the decisions were made that left a bad taste in many mouths and impacted the relations in the region for decades to come. I hadn't really studied the history of how the countries were divided up and upon reading a bit more about it, I came to understand why there was a level of resentment over how the process was carried out.

When the two countries gained their independence from India, it was decided that areas with a heavy Muslim population would become part of Pakistan and the heavily Hindu regions would become part of India. How and where these dividing lines were to be laid out came to be the responsibility of the Boundary Commision headed by lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe. The commission was tasked with marking off the final dividing lines between the countries that would then be accepted by the governments of India and Pakistan. Sounds like a good plan in theory but the execution of the plan left much to be desired. One of the chief problems that neither Radcliffe nor the other lawyers on his Commission team were familiar with this type of work. No advisors with experience in these types of exercises were provided and no assistance was rendered.

The United Nations offered to step in and provide support however the Commission (and the English government) was steadfast in its belief that in accepting aid from the United Nations would show the world that the English weren't able to keep proper control of their Empire without outside support. What this meant was that then there were decisions being made by people who had no knowledge of how to properly survey and lay out boundaries nor take many of the other deciding factors into account. Although the general principle of the division lay in the decision to divide the nations based on where majority populations were living there was no consideration given to some of the non-Muslim or non-Hindu populations such as the Buddhists who lived in what eventually became part of Bangladesh. In addition, most glaringly was the fact that Radcliffe himself had never been to India prior to his assignment to this commission nor did he know anyone there.

When lines and decisions began being laid out, points were raised regarding the fact that in many cases, the border ran right through the center of villages. Rather than going around the village or making adjustments, Radcliffe and his commission to the attitude that no matter what decision was ultimately made, people would be 'hurt' so why pay excessive consideration to the issue. As a result, villages in parts of Punjab province lie in both countries. Many at the time reported with some concern about the haste and speed which was shown by the commission in laying out the borders and equally distressing was the fact that the decisions were held as a very closely guarded secret and were not shared with the governments of either country until the final decision had been made. The purpose seemingly to avoid the constant bickering that had characterized the meetings between the Indian and Pakistani governments up to that time.

If there was any method to the madness behind the decisions made by the Boundary Commission they too were lost to the passage of time almost immediately after the decisions were rendered as Radcliffe destroyed his paperwork and documentation immediately after leaving the country. His attitude was described as being one of haste and urgency at wanting to leave India as he felt his 'fitness' was lacking for the Indian climate. The plans for the division of the land into the two countries was revealed and then Partition began. Anyone who has studied the history of the region probably knows all about the death and destruction that occurred at that time. The exact number of deaths may never be known but it is easy to say that it ranks in the thousands. The seemingly random division has had effects affecting the region even today. Dispute over Kashmir continues and has been the basis for at least three wars and the Kargil War a decade ago. If anything this date in history shows just what can happen when decisions are made in a hasty and half-assed manner.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Don't Count Your Pennies Before You Have Them

You remember the old saying "don't count your chickens before they've hatched"? Well I made a slight variation on it when I was thinking up what to title my blog on the forthcoming Chevy Volt hybrid vehicle. All this week there was a lot of hype surrounding the car and the fact that it could potentially get 230 miles per gallon. Now that figure is astounding when you consider that so far, vehicles are only getting a maximum of around 30 to 40 miles per gallon at present. And before I get innundated with e-mails about people who have cars that get more than that and that run on kitchen grease or human methane emissions let me just say that I'm talking about mainstream cars, not something someone ginned up in their garage over the course of the weekend. If the Volt lives up to its promises then it could certainly change the auto industry around the world for a long time to come. Hell, if the car even only gets half of what they are estimating I'd still be impressed since it is far more than any of the other vehicles competing in the hybrid market at present.

Still, with everything good there has to be a drawback and the Volt is no exception. Now many people will argue that the fact that the Volt can (or could) get 230 mpg means that we'll be able to cut our dependence on foreign oil by a tremendous amount. The cost of energy could also be potentially affected in a positive manner. I mean if we're no longer so dependent on fuel for cars then perhaps the fuel needed in the production of electricity and such will also go down. The overarching benefits are really exciting to consider but then again if you think about it, while you're not stuck paying more fuel you may still have to shell out to power your Volt. Don't believe me? Well think about it. Here you have a vehicle that can go at least 40 miles on a single charge. Once the 40 miles for the battery nears the limit the gas powered engine takes over and powers the car while also continuing to charge the battery back up. Because of this cooperative 'arrangement' within the engine it means that the mileage numbers will go up. No downside right?

Well if you have to charge your car don't you think that's going to affect your electric bill? The car is built to be able to be plugged into virtually any standard home outlet. If one were to do that everytime that you have to charge the car then you can figure that the cost of filling up will be about $2.75 per kilowatt hour. That may not seem like much but over the course of time that tends to add up and it may end up that we're paying the same (if not more) in order to get good mileage. And if many more of us start driving cars like this then perhaps the fuel that we save from being pumped into cars will go into powering electric generators. That being the case then won't we now be paying (indirectly of course) for the fuel and the the electricity? Maybe I'm looking at things wrongly but that's what makes sense to me about the relationship.

I have no doubt that as more and more people start using these products then the cost of operations will go down. It's like most any such product in the market. If there are more suppliers then the product (and it's related support elements) also come down in terms of cost. But until that new equilibrium point establishes itself in the market as it were then costs will remain high. Sure there will be environmental benefits like lower emissions from vehicles on the roads but that assumes that sufficient numbers of these vehicles replace the smokey ones that still inhabit our roadways. And what about the rest of the world? Will the vehicle catch on there? I mean it's great if the emissions are down in our country but what about the rest of the world? I guess it could happen but still, it will take time. I know I have promoted the idea of patience in wanting to see results due to programs like this but I'm also realistic in knowing that unless there is immediate impact and benefit, there will be resistance in certain sectors of our society that will keep this and technology like it from prospering and that would be a real loss.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cash for Clunkers -- And Patience

A short time ago, the government approved an additional $2 billion for the 'Cash for Clunkers' program. For those that don't know what that is, basically it is a federally funded program where if you trade-in a qualifying car (cars that get very lousy gas mileage and have excessive miles on them) then you get a credit for the car up to $4,500. The program was initially set around $1 billion but seeing at how successful it has been in stimulating car buying in recent days the additional funds were sought to keep up with demand. Now opponents to the plan call it a waste. Others claim that it is again a government stimulus plan that will put us deeper in debt and isn't doing anything to help the economy but I choose to argue the opposite. And as I mentioned in my blog yesterday, here's my rationale for why.

During the closing days of his second term, President Bush had authorized economic stimulus checks of up to around $700 per person (who qualified) in order to 'entice them' into spending the money and thereby providing a 'shock' to the economy to get it going on the road to recovery. Unfortunately there wasn't much 'shock' to the system to get the money flowing in exactly the nature that many were expecting. Now most people have debt which they have to take care of. Home loans, student loans, car payments and credit card bills to name a few of the more common ones. That being the case, the idea that an additional $700 would suddenly spur spending seemed a bit silly to me then and it seems silly even now that $700 would make any difference regardless of your income level. And to me that was the main problem. The people coming up with this plan probably think that for someone earning about a third of what they do, $700 is pretty significant but it's not.

Rent on most major apartments in the Washington Metro area don't fall into this category and those that do are not in the best of areas. Regardless, I didn't qualify and so I didn't get one but if I had then I probably would have stuck it in the bank as most people did. A little extra saved away for a rainy day is never a bad idea. That said then why was there the assumption that suddenly people would be out shopping like there's no tomorrow? That was part of the reason we were in the situation we're in in the first place. So then what's the difference between what Bush tried and what Obama is attempting through his Cash for Clunkers program? He's providing enticement that has farther reaching benefits.

The way the first time homebuyer credit got people looking to buy homes again has gotten people buying more fuel efficient vehicles. Driving around I've seen signs pointing out that the credit for clunkers would mean a car costing around $15,000 could cost you $10,000 after the credit. So what right? Opponents say that there's no difference but there is. If you buy a more fuel efficient vehicle, you don't need to fill up your tank as often. If you're getting more miles to the gallon then you have to buy less fuel. If you buy less fuel that means fuel consumption goes down. If fuel consumption goes down then the price of oil should drop. If the price of oil drops then there's probably going to be a shock to the spending habits of people because if you're spending less on going from place to place then you can pay more for other things. After all, isn't breaking dependence on foreign oil exactly what everyone (Republicans and Democrats) have been calling for all along?

And what about the car dealers themselves. Well dealerships that were complaining of slowing sales for months are now complaining that they don't have enough cars on the lot to keep pace with demand. That being said then that means we need more inventory and if you need more inventory you need people to build the cars so you start re-opening factories rather than closing them. I know that some people will say that this is only temporary and that in the long run things will be back to where they are and perhaps they are right, but until consumer habits change a little bit we're still going to be in the same hole we've been digging ourselves into for years on end. If for example GM's new car concept the Chevy Volt does what it says then there could be a major change to the car industry. This electric-hybrid vehicle is reported to get nearly 230 miles per gallon in the city. If that's the case and we get credit for buying such a car we could see a major resurgence in the American car industry and a major impact on the oil industry. Wouldn't that be a good thing for those of us who don't have an electric hybrid? Paying less at the pump is something I would never mind doing.

I get tired of hearing arguments about how these programs don't work. We can't be naive and expect that as soon as money is approved that there will be a positive change within moments. This program contrasts Bush's because the effects will not be felt immediately but rather within the short term. It took time for car factories to close, it takes longer to open them again. It took some time for the program to gain some momentum but now that it's there, why try to slow it down? Everything takes time and patience. Patience is the one thing our society is beginning to lack. Or rather we're patient for certain things but not for others. We have patience when it comes to finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (we're still waiting by the way) but not when it comes to programs that have more tangible results. Patience! It is working and it will work.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What Constitutes "Un-American-ism"?

It's funny. I remember a time where when anyone spoke out against the war in Iraq or the quest for the Weapons of Mass Destruction (side note: why when I write that do I suddenly get reminded of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail") in said country, those people were labeled un-American. When anyone questioned the rationale or the reason behind why the United States entered into the war when the mission in Afghanistan and the primary motivation for the invasion there (capturing Osama Bin Laden... mastermind behind 9/11) was incomplete, these people were accused of 'siding with the terrorists'. It seemed that a few years ago the supporters of Bush (i.e., the Republican Party) jumped up and cried foul and made accusations of anti-American sentiment against anyone who didn't agree with them. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it's a whole different story.

In all honesty, the way Congress and party representatives (and I level this at both parties rather equally) are behaving these days, it makes nursery school lunchrooms seem more mature by comparison. Now that the Healthcare Reform debate is going full force there are attempts by the Democrats to get the word out about why people should support the bill, or at the very least they should come to public forums to learn more about it. The problem is that there is a lot of dis-information out there. When people call Obama a socialist there will be a bunch of people who agree with the statement but what I often wonder is how many of these people actually know what a socialist is or what he believes. Similarly, when someone like Sarah Palin (why in the Hell does the media still deign necessary to cover her anymore anyways... she's Jane Six-Pack now) makes statements that claim that she and her down syndrome child (and political symbol) Trig would be put before 'death panels' and not given proper medical care, her devout followers will proceed to 'jump of the bridge' with her.

I'm not saying that we should live in a society where you can't disagree with what someone is saying or proposing but how is it possible that we can't come to terms with anything anymore? With Judge Sotomayor the debate was over whether or not she, as a judge, would be able to render judgement without personal bias. Excuse me but what human being in existance would be able to do that? Similarly, if you don't agree with something being proposed then bring facts to the table. Speaking in jingoistic terms or making unfounded accusations laced with 'you betcha's' and 'gotchas' isn't going to do a bit of good to anyone or any debate. The last few years have shown me that the overall maturity level of our country is on a downward spiral. It's not unrecoverable but it makes me weep for the future.

Do we actually live in a country where if you can't agree you resort to name-calling? I was told that this was an ineffective means of settling an argument when I was in pre-school so do we need to have this discussion again with the public as a whole? If you don't agree with the government or with your leaders for what they are doing then come out and generate the facts that show why you don't agree. Don't come out and make statements that someone is un-American but then again don't also stoke the fires of discord by not providing an alternative suggestion or even providing an understanding of why you disagree. Most of us who completed high school or college know that if you are asked a question you generally won't get good marks for simply answering yes or no. You have to justify and quantify your response. If you don't agree then explain why; don't jump up and down like a little monkey and complain.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sometimes Safety is a Strange Priority

There is no winning for the airline industry these days. There's very little in the news when it comes to air travel that's good anymore. Some of the 'damage' is self-inflicted and some of it is due to the fact that regulations or circumstances make it so that an airline can't win or keep passengers happy. Rising operational costs coupled with new security regulations means that there's just too many opportunities to arise that make for 'interesting' (read that to mean horrendous and nightmarish) situations. Case in point would be a Continental Flight (operated by ExpressJet) that was scheduled to fly from Houston, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota on Friday night but didn't end up there until about Saturday morning.

Now to read the situation in the newspaper or to see the story in the news, you would automatically want to side with the passengers but then no one ever talks about how the airlines are dealing with it. I know it's probably not in vogue to side with the airlines (the big corporate giants that they are) but I feel that it would be the only way to understand the true nature of the situation and see how a lot of it is not a situation of its own doing. In the case of the ExpressJet flight I mentioned, it was diverted from Minneapolis after major thunderstorms erupted at their destination. Rather than risking a dangerous landing the flight crew (smartly) diverted to Rochester, New York. Given that there have been several reports in the news of passengers being injured when planes flew through storms and the resulting turbulence, it's no wonder the crew chose to divert rather than risk more negative press. Now under ordinary circumstances there wouldn't have been any coverage from this incident. It would have been just another normal airline diversion and not worth reporting. Now come the circumstances that make this story 'news worthy'. The flight was stuck on the tarmac for 9 hours and passengers were stuck in the plane for nearly the entire time. How? Read on.

So the airline landed in Rochester, however since it was after midnight the airport in Rochester was closed. Although ground crews were around, there were no security screening personnel from TSA. Think about it. If you've ever flown a late night flight you'll know that after a certain point at night the airport security gates are closed. Flights may arrive at the airport but they rarely will leave after the airport is closed. That being the case, why keep TSA screeners on duty the whole night for circumstances such as the ExpressJet flight? So the aircraft was on the ground but the passengers couldn't get down because there was no one there on the airport that could screen them again through security once they went to the bathroom or went to eat something. The reason being that if there was a terrorist among them, they would be able to hatch their plan in Rochester seeing as how they would have somehow 'known' that the flight would be diverted there.

So that's the reason behind the decision to keep the passengers on the plane. Until a TSA security crew arrived, they could not leave the aircraft until there was someone around to screen them. Since the flight arrived just after midnight, this would not happen until 6:00 AM on Saturday morning. Okay. So now you've got passengers aboard your plane for the next six hours at least, what do you do? Well you certainly can't feed them if the plane isn't carrying food. Most airlines these days carry very little food and that which they do carry they charge you for but in the case of regional jet carriers like ExpressJet, they generally don't carry anything since they aren't expecting long duration flights anyways. So then why not get the airport staff to bring food? Same reasons as before. If they airlines aren't going to operating at that time of night then why bother keeping the food staff on hand to hand out food? No reason whatsoever.

Now after 6:00 AM the passengers were allowed to get out of the plane for a bit. By this point the sole bathroom on the plane had begun to stink and the passengers were getting a bit angry (to say the least). But they couldn't leave at that point either. See, Federal Aviation Administration rules stipulate that pilots and flight crews are only allowed to operate for a set number of hours in the cockpit. If you hit that threshold then you are required by law to surrender the controls to a fresh crew. Contrary to what you may be thinking, airports don't have pilots and extra flight crews just hanging around waiting for the chance to fly a plane so it took time for the actual flight crew to come aboard and replace the original flight crew. By the time this occured and the flight finally left, it arrived nearly 12 hours after it was supposed to have arrived. Suddenly makes the case for driving cross-country all the more appealing doesn't it?

But leaving all these things aside, and given the circumstances, do you begin to see why the airlines are screwed no matter what they do? They can't offload passengers due to TSA regulations, they can't feed them because it adds to ticket costs which passengers aren't willing to pay, they can't fly after eight hours in the cockpit so they sit around and wait and then they take it on the chin in the press. Now in this case perhaps there were reasons to sympathize with the airlines in addition to the passengers but it certainly isn't always the case. All I can say is that the allure and glamour that once surrounded air travel is slowly losing its luster and is beginning to look a lot like a piece of tin rather than a piece of silver.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Another Sad Day for Hollywood

It's been a tragic year for Hollywood. So many of the industries luminaries have been passing away at such a steady clip that I sometimes wonder when this will end. The latest loss was one that particularly saddened me and that was the loss of writer/director John Hughes. Now for those of you who don't know, John Hughes was the man whose teen films and comedies in general helped form the nucleus of the 80's movie output. To give you a smattering of his films, they include: "The Breakfast Club", "Sixteen Candles", "National Lampoons Vacation", and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" to name a few. What set him apart, at least in my mind, was the fact that though the teen movie is nothing new, what Hughes did with the genre was make it honest and enjoyable and something most of us could relate to.

Hughes wasn't what you would consider a 'Hollywood insider'. He lived and worked in Illinois close to his Chicago roots. Though he was often mis-characterized as a recluse who preferred to live and work in Chicago, Hughes was very much prevalent in the Hollywood scene. When asked why he preferred Chicago to the typical Hollywood locations he explained that it allowed his teen actors (and actors in general) to focus on the work they needed to do. It allowed them to concentrate on the roles and characters they were taking on and it often showed in the films he created. I remember seeing "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" long before I was in high school and I simply remember thinking that if this was what high school was going to be like then I had better be on my toes.

Though "Sixteen Candles" was more of the out and out comedic of the two films, it nonetheless tackled some of the issues that many teens go through in those awkward high school years. Not that I was the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) though I came pretty darn close at times. Similarly with "The Breakfast Club" (a film that has been making the rounds again recently on HBO and such on cable) it dealt with the issues of social norms and character types in high school and how none of us can really fit into the roles people assume for us. As the movie concludes, though outwardly we may fit a certain character-type, on the inside we are all one and the same. It was a powerful message that resonated with me when i first saw the film but continues to resonate with me even so many years after my high school days.

Despite the fact that most of his films are now at least 20 years old, they still hold relevance to what is happening today. I also find them to be a lot more honest and the characters in them to be less superficial than many of the characters we see in many of the current crop of teen films. Though there may be the occasional film that relates the stories of teens in an honest manner these days, it doesn't occur without some comparison to a Hughes film. Even when his films didn't deal with teens directly but rather with the everyday person, they managed to do so in a manner that didn't try to be blatantly hilarious or over the top. The humor in Hughes films came from the fact that much of what was happening could actually happen in real life.

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is one movie that comes to mind. The road trip that Steve Martin and the late John Candy take across the United States is made all the more funnier because you could imagine these types of things happening to someone. Perhaps it's nostalgia at having lived part of my life in that era or perhaps it is just a fondness from having grown up with those films but there's definitely something different about those films versus what we get today. Someone once compared Ferris Bueller to a teen James Bond and what made that appealing to many of us who grew up with that film was the fact that unlike James Bond, whatever Bueller did was at least someone plausible (though I grant you the karaoke scene during the parade is a bit more than I would believe) but it was a sign that teens could be equals to adults in the real world.

Perhaps I'm reading more into these films than I should. Perhaps it's just that I feel bad that we lost Hughes at the relatively young age of 59 from a sudden heart attack but whatever it is, I know that his movies will be a legacy that will live on for many years to come. Though we continue to move past the decade he so epitomized in his films, we can still look back on them and laugh. Not just at the hair or the clothes or the phrases that they used but at the situations; because those situations are as funny today as they were back in the 80's. John Hughes will sorely be missed and my one hope is that the way to remember him will be to remember his films, not by jumping on the current Hollywood trend of simply remaking it, but seeing the original films themselves. They will stand the test of time.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

What Does the Picture Mean?

A short time ago, posters such as the one accompanying today's blog, were seen around the city of Los Angeles. In case you have been hiding under a rock for some time and aren't too familiar with current events and pop-culture of the last year you may not know that this is a photo of President Barack Obama which has been made up to resemble the Joker from "The Dark Knight" as portrayed by Heath Ledger. Since first being spotted this poster has done exactly what the creator most likely envisioned; it set of a malestrom of discussion over what is right and what isn't and where to draw the line in terms of social and political commentary.

Now whether you liked him or not you have to admit that George W. Bush was ridiculed and insulted or commented upon in just such a manner too many times to count. No matter what he did (or thought he did) right, there was always someone who jumped up and tried to bat down his standing. Right-wingers will state that it was left-wingers and vice versa when the target of this commentary is a liberal. What astounds me however is the way in which many of us react. I grant you that no matter what, the Presidency should be afforded some modicum of respect and therefore the person occupying the position also deserves some respect but if not in the case of Bush, certainly in the case of Obama there appears to be a schism of opinion.

Again you may not agree with one or both of the men but you have to admit that there were and are many negative comments being spouted about the both of them. What a lot of people feel is wrong with this current statement on Obama is not the fact that the word socialism is plastered on the bottom of the poster but rather what the image itself is meaning to imply. Calling Obama a socialist isn't anything new. People have been accusing him of that from the beginning. Agree with him or not; consider it socialism or not, all I'll say is that after the Depression, Roosevelt created many government run and/or sponsored programs which were integral in revitalizing our economy. I don't recall reading much about whether people thought those programs were socialist or not. Maybe I haven't read the right history books.

But regardless, the discussion isn't over whether or not he's a socialist but the image. Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post yesterday about the fact that this image, to him, conveys a sense that someone is trying to send a message that like the Joker in "The Dark Knight", Obama is also unpredictable and dangerous and this is because he is black. Kennicott believes that the subtext to the image is that because Obama is a child of the inner city and from a racial minority that he is more likely to be unpredictable and dangerous like the Joker or any common criminal. That's an interesting interpretation but I don't necessarily interpret it that way. My feeling is that the picture's creator is meant to imply that Obama is trying to be a White-face as opposed to a white man attempting to be black as in the case of a Black-face.

I think the subtle message that the creator of the image is trying to send out is that he's just as dangerous and unpredictable as any other politician who has had his doubters but that because he's black, we (the American public) may be more tolerant of his decrees out of fear of offending him. Again, this is only my interpretation and thought on the image but it makes more sense to me than the violent black man stereotype being applied to Obama. After all, that too has been applied to him. I don't think that anyone has managed to create such a polarization of the American people in politics as much as George W Bush managed but Obama (whether he means to or not) has made a similar impact as well.

It's unfortunate because rather than wanting to understand the reasons behind his decisions, most of us take it for granted that if a President is in the opposition party then he must be wrong. By doing this though I think the end result will be that the problems will persist longer and recovery will take a much longer time. But to those who find the photo insulting or racially biased I would simply ask you to remember the statement or lecture that your parents (or some adult for that matter) gave you at some point in your life when you got upset over someone calling you a name. "It doesn't really matter if anyone calls you 'stupid'; if you know you're not stupid then it doesn't matter what anyone ever says." I think that's wise advise. So what if someone paints a picture of Obama as the Joker? If you don't think he's a vicious, psychotic socialist then he isn't.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Years Ahead of Time

John Qunicy Adams, the sixth President of the United States (and the first son to succeed his father -- albeit by a few years -- to the presidency) apparently was a cutting edge figure. Recently a group of high school students visiting the Adams Family museum in Massachusetts made the observation that the diary/journal entries that Adams made in his daily diaries were the same, bite-sized bits that are seen in tweets sent by Twitter in today's world. Immediately the Massachusetts Historical Society decided to jump on the bandwagon of Twittering and has announced that they will begin tweeting Adams's original diary entries verbatim to commemorate his trip to Russia when he was foreign envoy to the nation.

Now again I've mentioned before that I don't really get the appeal of tweeting on Twitter. I don't understand how important it is for people to know what you may be doing every moment of the day. I can understand if you read a fairly interesting life or you are experiencing something out of the ordinary but most Twitter tweets I've heard of deal with mundane things about how boring class is or how someone is looking forward to partying this weekend. If that's the extent of the tweet then what's the point? Why do we need to know but more importantly, why do we care? Not that Adams didn't lead an interesting life. As those who may have seen the recent HBO series (or read David McCollough's original book) on Adams's father John Adams would know that even from childhood he led an interesting life by accompanying his father on trips around the world and the like.

But still, it's not like every day on his journey was wrought with adventure and excitement. After all, if life was that exciting every moment of every day then I think we'd all explode from an overload of adrenalin or something. Still, I think it's fascinating that people are able to find ways of linking people from the past to the present using modern technology. Now if someone were very naive I'm sure they'd come up with a theory that Adams knew short, concise communications would be the key to future communications technology like Twitter or cell phone texts then I'm sure they would also believe that the state of Hawaii has faked Barack Obama's birth certificate in hope of creating a global conspiracy that was meant to take down our country forty-plus years later.

Conspiracy theories and ridiculous concepts aside, I think this is at least one way to entice kids to take a more active interest in learning about the history of their nation. I'm sure many people will follow along on the tweets being sent in Adams's name but I also hope that it spurns them on to learn more about him. For me, if a period or story in history fascinates me, I try to learn as much as I can about it. The world can be a fascinating place and history is an important part of it. Maybe my reluctance to understand or follow people along on Twitter may be changed by this new concept but it remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Birth Certificates and the Grassy Knoll

Yesterday President Barrack Obama celebrated his 48th birthday and though there were some events held to commemorate the day there was one that seemed to get more attention and that was the protests held by the 'birther' movement. I don't really think it can be called a 'movement' as such but that's what the media has chosen to call this group of conspiracy theorists. Just what is a 'birther'? Well a birther is someone who believes that Barack Obama is not legally qualified to be the President of the United States due to the fact that he was born in Hawaii and they contend (despite evidence to the contrary) that in fact he was born in some foreign land therefore due to the rules of the Constitution he should be thrown out of office. Now I've heard and read my share of conspiracy theories but this is one that really takes the (birthday?) cake for me.

As I stated earlier, there has been evidence brought forward to show that Obama is indeed a 'natural-born citizen' which therefore cleared the way for him to be President is being discounted in many conservative and ultra-right wing circles. What these folks choose to contend is that 'they' (whether the birthers mean the state of Hawaii, the followers of Islam, or perhaps the 'elite' media) has cooked up a fake birth certificate for the media and public to be fooled with. Apparently the conspiracy to put a 'Muslim card-carrying member of al Queda' in the White House so that he can lead our country to destruction was hatched forty-some years ago. Now I grant you there are conspiracy theories and then there are conspiracy theories, but this one blows all other theories out of the water. Despite the fact that the state of Hawaii has provided copies of both the long-form and short-form of his birth certificate and despite having seen newspaper clippings announcing his birth in Honolulu newspapers, there is still lingering doubt.

With the Kennedy Assassination, there was some basis for the theories that surround the incident. There are witnesses that provide enough evidence that there was possibly a shooter on the Grassy Knoll overlooking Dealy Plaza where the shooting occured and perhaps yes, there was a government conspiracy but even those theories have been discounted due to evidence that is so thin it could be considered the perfect material for a doiley on an English Tea serving set. Yet despite the continued presentation of proof there continues to be doubt. Now when President Bush (part II) was voted into office, there were calls by those who doubted his military service. Once the records were released and declared to be legal, the claims died down and subsided, in this case the calls continue. I don't know how many times I've seen bumper stickers calling for Obama's birth certificate.

Have you actually seen your own? I know many people who haven't. And even if it was a conspiracy to put a foreign-born individual into the White House which was hatched forty-plus years ago, do you think that if they were powerful enough to put this plan into action that they wouldn't be able to carry out any dasterdly plans? Do you think a paltry 21% of the population would be able to stop it? For as much as our society likes to talk about how progressive or modern we are compared to the rest of the world, we still tend to act like country bumpkins. For most of the people who support the idea that Obama is a false citizen, I challenge them to locate the countries they think he's from on a map. I have had conversations with such theorists who were convinced that Obama was born in Kenya yet couldn't find Kenya on a map.

Now you're right, what does one have to do with the other? Not much really but honestly, if even in the face of overwhelming evidence you still harbor so much doubt then you'll never be satisfied with any answer you get. We all believe or see what we want to see. Global warming is not a reality, just a scare tactic being perpetuated by the liberals and the 'elite media'. Don't believe the science and don't believe the proven facts, it's all lies meant to scare us. So if you believe that then you'll believe that Obama is a Muslim secret agent who has been trained since birth to be one thing and when someone utters a code phrase in the right sequence, he will suddenly lapse into crazy mode and create actual doom and gloom. And if you believe that then I have some ocean-facing beachfront property to sell you in Kansas.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Remembering an Inspiration

Eighty years ago today, Kishore Kumar, the famous playback singer and actor was born in what is presently known as Madhya Pradesh. Coming from a family of actors including his elder brother Ashok Kumar and his youngest brother Anoop Kumar, it seemed only natural that Kishore Kumar himself would enter into films as well. However his first love was music and despite not having any formal training whatsoever in singing, Kishore Kumar was determined to make it in the industry. With the assistance of his brother Ashok Kumar, Kishore Kumar landed smaller roles in films and managed to sing a few songs before finally making it as a playback singer. But for me, he will always remind me of the songs I used to listen whenever we went on trips someplace.

Music has always been an integral part of my life and my appreciation of Hindi music from years past comes from people like Kishore Kumar. Despite not having been trained as a singer it astounds me at the range and versatility he showed throughout his career. In films like "Padosan" he could sing a melodic love song before turning around and singing a tuneful 'duel' against Manna Dey in the classic 'Ek Chatur Naar' which showcased not only his dynamic range but his comic sense as well. And to me that comic sense is what made him most special. I think it's safe to say that all of us like to laugh but the one thing that always made me appreciate Kishore Kumar's songs and comic acting as well was the natural way in which it seemed to flow from him. His wildly expressive face and his hilarious sounds meant to underscore the humor made it all the more a pleasure to watch him.

One of the films I grew up watching (even though I didn't understand a word of Hindi and the copy we had didn't have subtitles) was "Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi". In it not only does Kishore Kumar provide playback for himself but also presents some of his best comic work that I can recall seeing. Many actors will say that comedy is much harder to do than serious or dramatic roles and I for one can believe it. But in seeing Kishore Kumar's performance in "Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi", I couldn't help but think how easy he made it seem.

Though he acted off and on throughout his career and even though he sang playback for many actors up until his death in 1987, it's probably his songs from the earlier part of his career that mean the most to me since I have been hearing them for so long. In the years since his loss (over 22 years now) many have attempted to replicate his voice and his creative spark but none have really been able to do it. There are few artists who are ever truly irreplaceable and special but I do believe that Kishore Kumar was certainly one of them. He may be gone but his comic timing, his wonderful voice and the impact it has had on so many will ensure that we remember him for many many more years to come.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Homecoming after 18 Years

The first Gulf War began in January 1991 and I can still remember seeing the images on CNN and most every other news show of tracer fire being shot by anti-aircraft batteries as US warplanes began fighting against Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces in what would be one of the most decisive air campaigns in history. What I don't recall quite as clearly was hearing about US Navy pilot Michael "Scott" Speicher whose plane was shot down in the early hours of the war. Since then no information on Speicher was to be found anywhere and nearly a decade after his disappearance in January 1991, Speicher's status was changed from killed in action to missing/captured. No evidence was formally presented but it something managed to convince the Department of Defense that Speicher was perhaps in the clutches of Iraqi forces even after so long.

Shortly after the Iraq War began, US forces uncovered evidence in a prison where it was thought that perhaps Speicher was held prisoner. Scratches in a prison wall, the letters "M" and "Sp" were found though no other evidence was found that would have indicated that Speicher had been held there. Still, for the family of Speicher it was at least hope that perhaps their loved one was still alive someplace even after so long. Those hopes came to a tragic end this past weekend when Marines were directed to a site out in the desert where plane wreckage and the buried remains of a pilot were found. Forensic analysis has given preliminary confirmation that the remains belong to Speicher.

I can't imagine what the family must have gone through upon being told that their loved one was now confirmed to have been killed in action. According to the local bedouins, the wreckage was found and Speicher's lifeless body was found as well. Realizing that he had been killed, the bedouins quickly buried the body and left the area. It wasn't until recent activity with US forces in the area that locals were willing to come forward and take the US troops to the site of the crash and where Speicher had been buried. In a sense however I'm sure to a certain degree the family does feel relief. After all, the unknown fate of a loved one can be a terrible thing.

For the families of this Gulf War casualty the mystery has ended but for thousands of others the mystery lingers on for even longer than the fate of Michael Speicher. Thousands of soldiers from the first and second World Wars as well as Korea and Vietnam still remain missing to this day and for their families the mystery lingers. Although efforts are being undertaken to try and locate these missing soldiers it is not a concerted effort and the results have been few and far between so far. The recovery of Speicher's remains does give some hope however. Perhaps the fact that even after nearly 20 years the mystery could be solved means that other similar stories could be put to rest.