Friday, October 30, 2009

Let the Posthumous Adulation Continue

Several months have passed since Michael Jackson suddenly passed away from a prescription drug overdose. At that time he was working on getting ready for a comeback tour that was meant to cap off his return to music but the end of his touring career. Having toured extensively with the Jackson 5 and then again as a solo artist Jackson's career had seemed to fizzle towards the mid-nineties when his medical conditions and allegations of sexual abuse against children plagued him. It seemed that perhaps Jackson's time had passed and so he decided to try for one last major concert series. Anticipation was running so high that tickets had been sold out virtually before they were even on sale. It seemed that there would be no stopping this excitement but once he passed away, fans of Michael Jackson were left with nothing but their memories. Or were they?

Expectedly, sales of almost anything and everything Michael Jackson shot up. Albums of Jackson's available on iTunes and at traditional stores sold so quickly after so long that stores had trouble stocking up enough to keep pace. Albums which were suddenly thrown together from rehearsal sessions or from demo tapes were being gobbled up like turkey at Thanksgiving. It seemed that death had suddenly erased all the stigma attached to 'liking' Michael Jackson and made it okay to enjoy his music and his videos again. I remember when he was still extremely popular in this country as well. His videos were eagerly anticipated and always pushed the boundaries (in a good way). These days it seems that that form of expression is reduced to something to run between reality shows on MTV.

Once he passed away it seemed that everyone was eager to show they still 'loved' Michael Jackson which strikes me as very hypocritical as he had more or less become the butt of everyone's jokes over here. Whether it was his numerous surgeries, his outlandish dressing up, his public disguises which never really disguised anything or his efforts to have children of his own, the jokes never seemed to stop. It was probably the low point in his life when he had to appear on television to reveal what indignities he was put through in the course of investigating the sexual abuse allegations against him. All of this meant that Michael Jackson was not ever really taken seriously anymore. His contributions to music were left to the curb like a load of trash and no one seemed to care.

Even news of his comeback tour were considered something of a joke. People were curious whether Jackson still had the moves considering he hadn't been on tour or performed publicly in years but still, it wasn't taken seriously. And now that he's gone and people are back to 'loving' him, we choose to make ourselves feel better by flocking to the theatres to see a film thrown together to 'celebrate' his last venture for entertainment. Combining concert footage and interviews the film "Michael Jackson: This is It" is a look at the preparations that had been going on in relation to his planned concerts. Some argue that it only shows the good side of the ordeal but nothing of the accusations that Jackson was abusing prescription drugs or that the promoters were working him too hard.

But then again that's not the point is it? It's not meant to look at the truth right now. We all want to remember why we liked him and not why we made fun of him. People want to see the film because they feel then that they'll have been back with him, enjoying his music before he passed away. And like little lemmings we'll flock to the theatre to see it because it's a 'tribute' to the artist. If that's a tribute or it's meant to reinforce the admiration someone has for the music then that's hypocritical too. If you like someone's music you should like it all the time and not just when the public says you should. I'm not going to go to see the movie. I have enjoyed Jackson's music for years and will continue to do so. I don't need to pay money to see a movie that celebrates his contributions to music. I will always listen to his music. It's too bad that some of us will shell out money just to make ourselves feel better.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Living in a Fantasy Land

Well I'm convinced. I had my doubts for some time but now I'm completely convinced that Dan Snyder and Vinny Cerrato are living in a fantasy world with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. In case you don't know, Snyder and Cerrato are two of the architects that have helped lead the Redskins from one of the perennial contenders for a spot in the Playoffs to a statistically and strategically unimportant team in the National Football League. They have been on the decline with the occasional spike in performance every so often but the downward spiral is not to be denied. After the debacle that was their game against Philadelphia this past Monday night, I'm convinced that until there is change at the top there won't be any change of significance on the field either.

But now, speaking for the first time since the loss on Monday, Cerrato stepped in front of reporters and stated that he's troubled by the comments he's received in the press and public regarding the decisions he's made with regards to the team's roster and player personnel. He feels that the roster is 'playoff material' and therein seems to be the problem that the Redskins have had for the last decade. Football is not fantasy football where we assemble our statistically perfect team. In that world of football all players work together well and play together even better because all they have to do is perform as an individual and the entire fantasy team does well. In reality it's a little different? Why? Well just because someone's an excellently rated player, it doesn't mean that they can work with their teammates.

Don't believe me? Recall Jeff George? The aging quarterback who was brought in during Marty Schottenheimer's reign a few years ago. He was good in his day but the ego and selfishness that he brought to the team was dettrimental and I had my doubts when similarly aging quarterback Mark Brunell was brought in but I'll say this for Brunell. He knew he was coming into a difficult situation and he made the best of it. It's too bad that not everyone Cerrato and Snyder choose to bring in play so well with others. That's a sad fact in the NFL however. That's because unlike in the past there's no guarantee now (due to salary caps and the like) that a player will remain with a franchise for his entire career. It happens but it's hard to see so often. So what do the Redskins do? They pick up the leftovers that no one else seems to want or can't afford. Let me tell you something that you probably already know, expensive doesn't always equate to quality.

The Redskins (and by this I mean Snyder and Cerrato as they always have the final say in such decisions) have a bad habit of getting players that look great on paper but fail to execute in person. What's the point then in paying someone so much if they aren't going to do well. I know there's no certainty as to whether a player will do well or not but still, if teams are not picking up these free agents who come with high price tags, there's likely a reason for it. Personally I was surprised the team didn't go after Michael Vick as soon as he was declared okay to play. I guess maybe Snyder figured he could do without more negative press and publicity.

And speaking of press and publicity, as if he wasn't already unpopular with fans at present, some of the recent announcements coming out of Redskins Park are sure to leave a very nasty taste in a lot of people's mouths. It seems that the Redskins are now banning signs of negativity (specifically towards Snyder I guess) from being brought to games. I guess no more signs that call for Snyder's scalp or his expulsion from DC. In addition, the press has also been told that they can no longer interview tailgaters before the game at FedEx Field. The team claims that it's been a long standing policy but many in the press contend that it hasn't been enforced in the past. Does that mean we'll be seeing more roving patrols cracking down on illicit interviews before game time?

Snyder already charges fans an arm and a leg to attend Redskins games or practice sessions in DC, does he really think that he's going to win over already angry fans by doing this? Redskins fans already shell out hundreds of dollars to attend the game, park, have some food and drinks while there so if Snyder thinks converting the park to a police state will be helpful or at least help keep things remaining in a fantasy world then I think he'll have another thing coming. Snyder knows that Washingtonians are very staunch supporters of the team. They have to be if they've managed to continue following the team for the last decade but by Snyder and Cerrato clinging to the belief that they have done everything right for the team and by denying the truth that the fans are trying to tell them, I think it will be a very long time before the team ever returns to its consistent winning ways.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

To Infinity and Beyond

NASA is preparing to launch today what could be one of the most significant spacecraft in the history of the space program. The Ares 1-X is the rocket that is slated to replace the aging space shuttle fleet that is due to be retired by September 2010. That is of course provided that the rocket even gets off the ground. Budget cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has left the space agency with a shoestring budget by which they are expected to not only maintain America's foothold in space but also ensure that it continues beyond the orbital space station and eventually back to the moon, then Mars and eventually beyond. But now it's seeming more and more likely that the situation that existed with Russia at the tail end of the 20th Century may become the reverse in the early 21st Century.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian space program was in shambles and the only way for them to continue making progress in space exploration was to join their one time rivals, the Americans. Going it alone was no longer an option and both space programs began a period of mutual cooperation meant to help foster increased presence in space. But as the economies of the world changed and priorities shifted, it became clear that people began to see less appeal in space and space exploration and more on more earth-bound concerns the appeal of NASA has waned. Oh sure there is still interest in going to the moon and such but not if it is going to cost the taxpayers money.

So the development of the Ares 1-X was meant to provide a more economical way to get cargo and astronauts to and from orbit. The space shuttle was meant to serve that purpose and it did so ably for a number of years but the capability that was expected (it was assumed that the shuttle would take off on a mission, land and be ready to lauch again within weeks rather than the actual months it takes) never materialized and that meant that the shuttle ate up funds and eventually began to age. Now space shuttle flights are seen as commonplace and other than the few of us who really care about the space program, it is almost a mundane occurence. NASA is hopeful that the Ares program will help bolster interest again.

The rocket that is supposed to launch today is a mockup of what the final rocket will look like. Today's flight is meant to test whether the rocket will fly or not and whether all the calculation and computer simulation performed to this point will prove to be correct. I'm hopeful that it will be a successful flight because continued exploration of space is something that I feel should continue to be a goal of our country. The results for science and in our understanding of the world can only increase if the space program continues. But the only way I see that happening is if suddenly the 'threat' of a Chinese space program with a firm foothold in the stars is established. Then and only then will we suddenly hear calls to lead the space race again.

At this point the Chinese have already launched a handful of manned space missions in Earth orbit but it won't be long before they are finally able to launch longer range missions. But rather than waiting until some sort of competitive drive compels us to keep on exploring space, I think we should maintain a steady pace and keep on moving forward. I'm hopeful that with today's launch of the Ares 1-X that we see an increased interest among our youth for exploration of space and in the development of larger, faster and more capable spacecraft. We certainly shouldn't give up on exploring the larger universe if we don't have to.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Taking a Pay Cut

Kenneth Feinberg, the so-called "Pay Czar" of the Obama Administration recently announced that he and the Administration are taking steps to ensure that companies that were bailed out through payments made earlier this year and last year (by the Bush Administration) would not be able to compensate top executives with bonuses despite the fact that many companies have continued to under perform. You talk about "damned if you do and damned if you don't"; it seems that nothing the administration does anymore is met with any modicum of support in certain circles. I for one think that this decision is a wise one given the fact that some of these executives were the ones responsible for mis-managing and running these companies into the ground.

I recall that there were some executives who cut pay and compensation for their employees yet continued to enjoy the perks of their office as if they were still raking in profits like nobody's business. What I never understood was how these managers had the audacity to compense themselves while many of those who worked for them were left out in the cold or let go from their jobs. True they may have earned their position through their shrewd business sense or high education or even their grand social status in society, but somewhere along the line, scruples have to come in and you have to realize what is the right thing to do. I suppose that was too much to hope for given that these exeuctives were supposed to lead their companies to financial success yet managed to steer them to financial ruin.

Remember when the first bailouts were announced in 2008? There were provisions in it that limited executive privledges related to how much could be paid out or offered to company executives that were already in place. It limited what could be done in terms of offering new 'golden parachute' deals to executives; these were agreements by companies with top executives to guarentee compensation in case of the company being liquidized or declaring bankruptcy and the like. Although at that time there were calls to place limits on the pay that these executives could receive there was still nothing to prevent it. So what happens? Some of these firms got bailout money and then rather than using it to help fix the problems within their company, the executives took their bonuses and perks and then let employees go as a way of compensating.

So what happens? Rather than helping to bolster the economy the companies continued to do poorly and all because high-paid heads of corporations who were brought in to help the companies could follow through on their expectations. Is it any wonder then that people are getting ticked off at the fact that these companies continue to do poorly yet pay out and congratulate theh top bosses for sticking with the company through difficult times? Let's put this another way. Let's say you're playing for the Redskins and you're being paid $200 million a season, people would expect that you'd perform to a level that shows you deserve it. Now assume that you spend the entire time on the bench or in the locker room but you never play. However, because of your contracts you continue to get the same paycheck despite the fact that you aren't playing. Is that fair to the rest of the team?

Opponents to these proposals state that this is a sign that Obama is pushing a socialist agenda. I don't think that's what it is. After spending our taxpayer money for helping these companies that were once the hallmarks of American industry and commerce we want to make sure that these 'players' do what they are supposed to and not 'sit on the bench'. If you invest in something you automatically feel that you have a say in making decisions because you do. If you invest in a company at a certain level you get more of a say. In this case the US government has used our tax money to help these companies so isn't it right that the US government then have a say in what those executives are going to get for their efforts.

Some argue that by instituting pay limitations and denying bonuses (in some cases) then these companies are going to have a tough time getting the 'cream of the crop' to join their groups and further help the recovery. I'm sorry but wasn't it the 'cream of the crop' that screwed up these companies in the first place? That being said then why do we need to give them anything more? If you want the perks then my feeling is that you have to earn them. There's nothing else to say to it. If that's socialist then perhaps that's what some of these greedy executives need to be put under until they realize that they aren't just working for themselves but for the company they work for as well.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Taking Precautions

I read in the news today that there is concern at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that there isn't enough swine flu vaccine available to help stave off concerns of a potential viral outbreak later this year. What this means for the average among us is that those of us who don't fall in the 'at-risk' category will likely not be able to get vaccinated for a much longer time than was originally anticipated. Now there are two schools of thought on this issue. There are those that believe that we should take precautions and do more to avoid getting ourselves and others ill and there are those who believe that the reports of potential outbreaks are grossly overstated and that we should just live our lives without any undue additional burdens such as helping to prevent the spread of the disease.

One thing is certain, swine flu will hit our country and I suppose the only question that remains is how badly it will hit. I recently took a flu shot (which helps prevent the flu flu and not swine flu) as a precaution and while in line a lot of the surrounding conversations (understandably) were on the topic of swine flu and catching something. Now thankfully I have managed to avoid falling sick to the flu in the past few years due to the fact that I have tried to limit my exposure to sick people and thankfully many of those who are in my office also have the common sense and decency to stay at home if they feel they are ill. That includes if they are taking care of ill family members.

To me that's a very safe precaution. The reason being that although by taking care of someone who is sick you may not get sick yourself but you could be a carrier for the disease. Some of us have a more naturally occurring immunity to some illnesses when compared to others which means that you can still carry the disease without getting others ill but that also means that you can pass the disease on to others. The reason I bring this up is because there were some individuals in my office who were out on sick leave to take care of their children only to find out that their kids were infected with swine flu. After being out of the office for nearly a week these individuals returned stating that they and their kids were fine (which is good news I'm sure) but now they are coughing up a storm and spreading fear (as well as any germs they are carrying) among their co-workers. To me, that's not a good thing to do and shows that they really don't feel the need to take precautions.

Perhaps we're all getting a little paranoid with fears about catching swine flu but I don't think many peoples concerns are that far off the mark. Especially when you see examples of folks treating the sickness a little too nonchalantly and behaving as if it's nothing more bothersome than the common cold. To you it may have only been a cold but for others it could turn into something much deadlier. I think that given how paranoid and worried many people are becoming, the responsible thing is to avoid spreading the disease by staying away from crowds or at least avoiding coughing all over the people you work with. I truly hope that these fears over the disease truly are nothing more than rampant paranoia but I certainly don't need to risk finding out that it's not by having co-workers giving me their germs.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Who's in Charge?

At this point last season the faithful among us Washington Redskins fans were seeing visions of not only the team making the playoffs but of potentially going all the way and winning the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993. Heck, by that point I would have been happy to just see the team playing in the Super Bowl. A win could come later but just to have gone would have been great. Like many who have lost out at the Academy Awards in the past, "it was an honor just to have been nominated." Then the wheels came off the bus and while the forward momentum carried the team to two more victories and an eventual 8-8 season, it wasn't enough to get the team into the playoffs let alone the big game. So what was the problem? What happened so early on that led to so many victories last year and then led to a total disintigration that appears to be continuing with the Redskins this year?

I think firstly the decision by Dan Snyder and Vinny Cerrato to elevate Jim Zorn from offensive coordinator to head coach was a prime example of wishful thinking once again on the part of Snyder and Cerrato. Since Snyder came to the organization he has continued to do what he has done best and that is to try and buy his way into the Super Bowl every year with high priced players and coaching personnel who are either so egotistical or over-the-hill that no one is willing to touch them. We have had starting lineups that have sounded more like McFarlane football statue lineups rather than a cohesive team. Unlike the rare player in basketball like Michael Jordon, football games can't be won by a single great player alone; it requires a team.

But when you have a team that has players that don't play well together then what can you expect in terms of performance against non-practice squads? The game of football is definitely hard and it's easy for us sitting in the stands or sitting at home yelling at the TV to make suggestions but one thing is certainly abundantly clear to the entire NFL fan base and even eskimos in Alaska who may watch football when not looking at Russia from their igloos and that's that Dan Snyder should not be meddling in something he just doesn't understand. It's blatantly clear that he makes decisions with his heart rather than his head. He reads stats and is convinced by Cerrato that the decisions he has made and continues to make are for the best and will be the last piece of the puzzle to create a winning team.

By spending millions on players who once filled a key role but are showing signs of diminishing performance, how are they going to ever win anything? Take a look at the latest decision that has all of football-dom talking. Sherman Lewis, once a great assistant coach who has been coaching senior bingo players in Michigan the last two years was originally called in earlier this month to be an 'observer' for the offense. Po-tay-to or Po-tah-to, it's still essentially the same thing; a sign that Snyder and Cerrato were looking to replace Jim Zorn. Talk had been circulating for weeks that Snyder would likely kick Zorn out of the job if they lost another game which would have spelled certain doom. His decision then to keep Zorn but give Lewis play-calling responsibility essentially means that the team faces uncertain doom.

I remain somewhat (though that's a very long stretch of the term) optimistic that eventually some decision will be made to help elevate the team back to greatness but this certainly doesn't seem like this is it. The players on the team right now (for good or for bad) are loyal to Zorn to the extent that several have spoken out to the media about their uncertainty as to whether Lewis will make the situation better or worse. I'm beginning to see visions of potential wins riding on the back of the fact that by introducing a new coach to the mix, the Redskins will be like a 'new' team again. The reason Zorn did so well early on was that no one had game footage of a Jim Zorn coached team before. By the time the first six games were done, everyone had an idea about how the Redskins liked to play and thus they picked their opponents picked their games apart. Similarly, Lewis may have the effect of adding new uncertainty to what they may do in the face of their next opponents but it will only be a temporary fix.

While I respect Sherman Lewis for his past performance, I'm hopeful that he fails to make the impact that Cerrato and Snyder thinks he'll have. Though it will hurt to see the team lose even more than they already have, I would hate even more to see Snyder and Cerrato even enjoy for a brief time the assumption that they have made another 'wise' decision. Perhaps if those two fluke wins this year remain the only victories then maybe Cerrato and Snyder will realize not only are some of the players and coaches over their heads but so are the owner and executive of football operations. Perhaps then they'll stop meddling and let the coaching staff make player decisions rather than going for just the name and the cost. Money can't buy you anything and if the last decade is any indication, it's time that Snyder finally realize that.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Crowning a New Champion

With one race remaining in the 2009 Formula One Championship, the world champion was crowned again this year at the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos. And once again this year the winner was a British driver but not the one that was expected at the start of the season. Rather than repeating his stellar season from last year, defending champion Lewis Hamilton was more or less sidelined during the season by fellow Briton Jenson Button who has finally 'arrived' in Formula One after having been around for nearly a decade. As someone who has followed Button with some interest for a few years now I can honestly say that it was well deserved and a long time coming.

Not only does this championship come after a well-deserved run during the course of the season but it also shows that some of the new rules that are being implemented means that newer (and smaller) teams can have a real chance at fighting for the title of world champion. Driving for the newly formed Brawn GP team that team principle formed from the remaining shell of what was the BAR Honda racing team, Brawn elevated a team that always had potential but little staying power and turned the outfit into a real contentder. At the outset of the season it looked like Brawn and the team were out to repeat their domination as when Brawn was at Ferrari during Michael Schumacher's reign as champion but shortly thereafter it seemed that the chinks in the armor were beginning to show and the team didn't show as strongly as it did at the outset.

Rather than consistently finishing in first or second, Button and teammate (and perenial 'bridesmaid' to the eventual champion) Ruebens Barichello seemed to be on the edge of winning but something or the other kept them from clearing that last hurdle. But Button and the team persevered and even in the face of criticism that Button was never good enough as a driver to begin with and relied totally on a car to be good was unfair criticism. I think that any driver (with the possible of exception of Michael Schumacher) needs a consistent car to win a race. Schumacher used to drive his car to the limits and then some because that's what the rules allowed. In the face of changing rules it wasn't possible to drive on the ragged edge all the time anymore which is why drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya probably didn't do as well as people thought they would.

But unlike past years at Ferrari where many felt the rules were always altered to give the Scuderia (Italian for horse's stable... i.e., reference to Ferrari's prancing horse logo) an unfair or competitive advantage; Brawn GP raced within the rules and managed to come out ahead. What makes their triumph even more significant is the fact that despite the fact that McLaren, Ferrari and Renault had basically the same teams that won them the championships the last three years respectively, Brawn GP was a new team with an untested chassis and engine combo with drivers who many said were on their last legs. There were such lukewarm expectations for the team that at the start of the season their car lacked even a single sponsor. It wasn't until Virgin mega-mogul Richard Branson saw the first race of the season that he felt that perhaps there was something more to the team.

Now, several months down the road and a championship later, it seems that perhaps Ferrari, McLaren and Renault aren't the only big boys on the block. If expectations were low this year for the dark horse of the circuit then they'll be even higher next year when Button and Brawn GP will look to defend their respective championships. Many felt Button made a mistake in sticking with BAR Honda as long as he did but his patience finally seems to have paid off and the expectations are now even higher. It's significant to win a championship when people don't expect you to even complete the season but it will be even more significant if they can defend it next year. Four years and four different champions and championship teams. Formula One is finally becoming exciting again and I can't wait to see what happens next year!


Friday, October 16, 2009

How Soon the Worm Turns

I was walking by one of the televisions in the office yesterday afternoon which is always tuned to a news network when I saw what looked like a UFO streaking across the skies. The sound was turned down but I could read the captions on the bottom and realized that this wasn't a UFO but a balloon that was on the loose. I couldn't figure out why that was being covered by CNN until the caption came up explaining that there was a 6-year-old child trapped in the balloon. As we stood watching it, I voiced the suspicion that perhaps the child was at home since no one had really seen 6-year-old Falcon Henne climb into the balloon and then whoosh off into the sky. What people saw was the balloon flying away and his understandably worried parents praying for his safe return to the ground.

The media was riveted to what was going on and then given the chance to cover something other than how Obama-care was going to kill all Americans or how the Dow topping 10,000 was a sign of the Apocalypse, all the networks had what they considered to be a 'heart-warming' story of peril and adventure to cover. The balloon floated across the skies for two hours and no network dared cut away for a commercial break. Why? Because if something happened during the time they were on break then most viewers would have changed the channel and that would mean lost viewership. So no network changed from their coverage of what everyone was watching. Sure it may be cruel but I know that what the media (and the public at large) was hoping to see was something dramatic. I mean why else do most people watch NASCAR for? It isn't just the racing but the spectacular crashes.

I couldn't believe how excited some reporters began to sound when they heard reports from a sherrif stating that it was a distinct possibility that the boy may have even fallen out of the balloon on the ascent to nearly 7,000 feet. So when the balloon finally came down in the middle of nowhere nearly two hours later, the media was all over the ground waiting for the passenger compartment of the balloon to be opened and the boy to be lifted out into the waiting arms of a friendly fireman or policeman. So how surprising was it when it took them nearly five minutes to hack their way into the passenger compartment and then realize that it was empty? The search then began along the path of the balloon to see if the boy had truly fallen out but I remained skeptical. If the boy had fallen out wouldn't there have been an easier time to get into the passenger compartment since he had to have fallen out of somewhere?

So I wasn't too surprised when hours later the report came out that Falcon had been found at home hiding in the attic inside of a box. According to statements given, he had released the balloon and realized that he had made a boo-boo so he went and hid because daddy would be upset. Still, the public (me included) breathed a sigh of relief once the news broke that Falcon was safe. Suddenly there was a desire to speak with the adventurous little boy even though his adventure consisted of him not wanting to get a scolding by hiding in a box. When he appeared on Wolf Blitzer's show later that evening and he was asked why he didn't come out immediately when people were looking for him, Falcon responded that he "did it for the show".

Suddenly a media storm was unleashed once again as the media realized that the family had appeared on the show "Wife Swap" two times already. Now perhaps Falcon merely meant that he saw the cameras and thought they were filming yet another episode of "Wife Swap" but now everyone is treating this 6-year-old's comments like he's part of a conspiracy by his parents to launch a media circus. Out of the woodwork come 'family friends' who have long since suspected that the Henne family did everything only for the media attention. Now everyone has gone from praying for the child and his family to cursing them for 'wasting time' and 'fooling everyone'. Why the sudden change of heart? Is it because people are upset for being fooled or because it isn't as dramatic a story as seeing a child in potential life-threatening danger? You decide.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

On the Verge of Something Big?

The Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History is preparing to open a new exhibit next year that is sure to raise some eyebrows once news spreads. From the surface it seems like it shouldn't have any controversy around it at all but I think it will all come down to what you believe and how firmly you believe it. The museum announced the other day that it will be opening a new exhibit hall next year that will showcase human evolution. This will be the first time that the museum will have tackled the issue in such a large manner. The reason I think it's going to be a bit controversial is due to the fact that many people don't take the evolutionary road in trying to trace our origins but rather the theological road and that can make for a very fine line that the museum officials will likely have to walk.

It seems that with certain subjects there is always a very fine line that makes it either a good subject to tackle or one that can create more headaches than it sometimes seems it's worth. The Smithsonian is no stranger to controversial subjects. I remember a few years ago when word first came out about the decision to display the Enola Gay (the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II) at the National Air and Space Museum. There were many who were strongly opposed to displaying the plane at all at the museum as it was a symbol of nuclear war and was responsible for the bomb that ulimtately caused so many civilian deaths. Now while I understood the reason for wanting to have equal mention made of the fact that the plane dropped the bomb that caused so many deaths I didn't understand why there was such controversy over displaying the plane.

After all, isn't the old saying "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" true? The plane itself was an instrument in the ultimate delivery of the weapon but not the weapon itself. Sure you can get into a prolonged discussion on whether the plane should be counted as 'being responsible' given the fact that it allowed the bomb to be dropped in the first place but it is not the point. The initial exhibit did acknowledge the tremendous loss of life and destruction caused by the bomb. It did so well to explain the role of the plane in dropping the bomb that veterans of World War II and historians believed that it painted an unnecessarily negative picture without pointing out the context of the bombing with the rest of the war. When the plane was finally moved to the new annex near Dulles Airport it was simply displayed as a model of the a B-29 bomber with no mention whatsoever of it's role in the bombing of Hiroshima. I suppose that's one way of avoiding further problems.

But the Natural History is also no stranger to controversial displays. In 2003 the Natural History Museum displayed an exhibit of photographs from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Where the controversy came in was over the fact that the exhibit made conclusions about global climate change that many felt could not be accurately concluded given the relatively unknown nature of the Earth's natural cycles. In order to avoid making what could have been perceived as a political statement (given that the Bush Administration had made statements to the effect that global warming was a myth and also given that the administration was looking to begin drilling for oil in the same area that was photographed), the display was moved from the main floors to the basement where it was kept until it's time at the museum was up.

Now with the decision to put up a display on human evolution, I'm sure there's going to be a ruckus raised by those who firmly believe in their religion and will see this move as something meant to stymie their religious beliefs even more. What I fail to understand is how such an exhibit meant to show one theory of evolution can be seen as the beginning of the end for religious beliefs. If you believe that God created man in his own image (and not initially as an ape that evolved over time) then you should stick to your beliefs. If someone believes the opposite then it doesn't mean that your beliefs are being challenged or destroyed so why behave that way? I'm sure we'll see protests about how the exhibit won't accurately show the religious aspects fit into evolution but then do we really need to? This is the museum of Natural History, not religious history. This is an institution related to science and not theology. If you believe that such as display is detrimental to your religious beliefs then I think your mission shouldn't be to protest but to get more people to understand your religious beliefs so that they too can reject things which you believe to be false.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Going Out on a Limb-augh

I have high hopes for the Redskins as I do every season. I cling to the hope (until it truly is hopeless) that the team will manage to pull together, turn themselves around, dig themselves out of a whole and in general just get back to their old successful ways. But until that happens, I'll still sit and stew every weekend, especially if they are a repeat of this past weekend. But I digress; my purpose isn't to talk about the Redskins of Washington but rather the Rams of St. Louis and the attempt to purchase them by talk-show host (and erst-while 'voice' of the conservative Republicans) Rush Limbaugh. Now I think that every person who can afford to own a sports team should do so. I'm envious of them at times; but in the case of Limbaugh I believe he's trying to have his cake and eat it too.

I say this because Limbaugh, who is no stranger to controversial statement or blatantly racist comments when it comes to the NFL has already kicked off a firestorm of anger among outsiders and NFL players themselves. Limbaugh was once a commentator with ESPN's Sunday Countdown and during a show in 2003, Limbaugh made a passing comment regarding Eagles quarterback Donavan McNabb. In a nutshell, Limbaugh implied that the praise that had been heaped on McNabb to that point (McNabb was in the midst of a shakey season) was more because of the media and the NFL's desire to have a black quarterback do well and not because of his capabilities. Now I will say that these comments were and are totally off the mark. McNabb has struggled in the years since and injuries have hampered the ability he had to scramble like a running back but he is by no means getting a free pass just because of his race.

Now perhaps there was no racial slight intended by Limbaugh with the comment, but rather than stating that it was a bias being given towards McNabb due to his popularity, Limbaugh purposely pointed out that McNabb is a black quarterback and that that was likely the reason that the media kept him in the spotlight. Some argue that had an African-American made the comment then perhaps there wouldn't have been so much controversy among folks but what sets this comment apart is the fact that Limbaugh makes and continues to make such comments at regular intervals. During one of his shows, he stated that James Earl Ray (the convicted murderer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) should have been given a posthumous Medal of Honor.

He also made comments that while he felt slavery was bad (and that it shouldn't necessarily be brought back) he stated that it was an institution that 'built the south' and made the streets safe after dark. Again, he could argue that this is statement that wasn't made with racial conotations but if that wasn't the intent then what is? And now here he is attempting to purchase a stake in a team which itself has nearly 30 to 40 African American players; I can't help but wonder then if that means he'd treat his players like men or property. Many NFL players have (rightly) taken a stance against the proposed sale to Limbaugh and his partners as they don't appreciate comments he has made in the past and continues to make at present on his conservative talk show.

Now I'm sure he'd view this as reverse discrimination given the fact that people like the rapper Jay-Z make detrimental comments about the African-American community in their rap songs and such but are still have stake in sports teams. Jay-Z's comments, while harsh and controversial at times, are still largely pointed at his own community and racial group (which strikes me as being a little odd but whatever floats your boat is fine with me) whereas Limbaugh strikes out at others without turning the mirror on himself. Again, perhaps they aren't all that different in terms of how bad their comments are but the other difference is that Limbaugh (like many conservatives) attempts to point to 'affirmative action' for anything and everything that someone does that is better than anyone else. I'm sure he agrees with comments being made by some that the reason Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize was due to affirmative action. If NFL owner Roger Goodell has any sense he would step in and find some way to prevent the sale from being considered for the sake of the St. Louis Rams. I think the NFL has enough controversy as it is, it doesn't need any more.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Who Do I Trust? Certainly Not Glenn Beck

Growing up in Washington you can't help but be exposed to politics. Everything you see on your local news eventually ties into government; almost all of the local newspapers have some news item dealing with national policy or what the government (local, state and federal) maybe planning for the near term. In short you can't go anywhere without hearing a political opinion (either for or against whatever it is you stand for). That being said it's no wonder that being in this area also exposes you to lots of political shows. You get to see both ends of the spectrum, ultra-liberal or staunch-conservative. Very rarely do you see anything in between simply because unless it's scandalous or angry (or provocative) you're not likely to get viewers which is why commentators (in the guise of news reporters) like Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and the like all seem to do so well depending on what party is in control of the government.

Over the last decade or so though things have taken a turn for the worse in my opinion. Not only do you have increasingly angry attacks on opposition party members by both sides but you also have rhetoric being spewed to the point that it truly has become an 'us versus them' mindset in every part of society. Now I grant you that there are definitely extremes in portions of the government but it's come to the point now that I'm almost afraid to identify my political leanings or affiliations (and note that I said almost). Given the proper arena I will jump into a political discussion if that's what it's going to be; a discussion. I'm not interested in a shouting match or name calling or anything that resembles a schoolyard. I finished school lo these many years ago and I'm not in a rush to return to those days.

But lately it's come to the point that if the Democrats are saying it then Republicans will treat it like the plague and vice versa. Rather than seeking to bridge the divide, political pundits like Beck and the rest are seeking to sow the seeds of divide and further erode the sanity that at times can permeate the government. Take for example a recent commentary by Glenn Beck regarding the H1N1 virus (more commonly known as swine flu). In this commentary, Beck talks about how he's a little skeptical of what the government is telling him in regard to the swine flu vaccine. He indicates that he is not very trusting of the people (read that to mean the government or liberal..mainstream media) who say that this virus could be so deadly that it could lead to as many deaths as past flu epidemics.

However, if you read Beck's commentary he says that he doesn't trust the government and he doesn't trust the experts who are on television or in the news saying that the vaccine works but he doesn't want to trust them. Because (get this), there has been too much lying and misinformation being spread by the government and the media in the last few years. So is Beck using this statement as a referendum against the Bush Administration (which has proven to have falsified it's statements regarding the justification of the Iraq War) or the Obama Administration which has been in power for a scant 8 months? I'll let you decide that one. But what I see more and more these days is that Republicans are starting to listen to these so-called experts as being voices for the 'true' conservative experts in America. If you believe that then I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times and a former liberal who 'saw the light' and turned conservative (though not radically conservative) recently wrote an editorial on this very subject. In it he wrote that the major problem for the Republican Party is that they have aligned themselves increasingly with these media personalities and take their rhetoric to be the voice of the people. What ever happened to actually going out and asking your constituents? If Republicans (and Democrats with their own media personality favorites) want to listen to people who are in actuality more like bloggers but with a truer and more prominent forum then I see that as a sign of a truly lazy bunch of people in the government.

I mean if we start hearing politicians encouraging people to avoid being immunized against swine flu because they don't trust their government or the medical community (not apparently divided into the mainstream and 'normal' medical communities as yet) then I feel we're on the verge of a true epidemic. In his commentary, Beck doesn't come out and say that he's been immunized (and the fact that he points out that that is a private concern of his and his family leads me to believe that he has indeed been immunized or at least plans to do so) leads me to conclude that he is a hypocrite. If you don't trust your government or medical doctors to not get immunized then don't. What I see happening is that a growing number of idiots (and there's no other word for them) will refuse to immunize and then the spread of the virus will be worse. Rather than attempting to protect and inform the public through their forums, people like Beck will cause more harm than good. Is this news that's fair and balanced... or just genocidal?

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Friday, October 09, 2009

The Promise of Peace is Enough?

I don't think I was alone in the world being stunned by the news that President Obama had been declared the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace. This marks the fourth time that a sitting US President has won the award but the first time that the sitting President has won during his first term. What is even more stunning (to supporters and critics alike) is that Obama was sworn in as President a mere two weeks before the February 1st deadline for nominees. According to officials on the Nobel Prize committee in Oslo, a great motivator for his being nominated (and subsequently voted as the winner) was the promise of change towards world peace and efforts that he spoke of when he was running for office and was visiting the world leading up to the elections nearly a year ago.

I think it speaks volumes about Obama's popularity overseas given the fact that he's won the award despite the fact that there is no definite way forward being publicly presented on the war in Afghanistan, the ending of the war in Iraq is not a done deal and the fact that negotiations with Iran over their nuclear weapons program are still a bit dicey. So then my question is that whether the promise of wanting to make change and lead the world in peace is enough to warrant winning a prize as prestigious as the Nobel. I can't say for certain but I can certainly come to some conclusions about decisions like this and what they say about the opinion of the world.

The previous administration of George W. Bush had (rightly or wrongly) put forward a stance that if you weren't with the United States then you were either against it or just plain stupid. Now perhaps I'm being a bit unfair to the Bush Administration but I don't believe I'm that far off the mark. During the Gulf War in 1991, war with Iraq was fought by a coalition of Allied nations that supported the rationale and reaons for going to war. Contrast that with the invasion of Iraq the second time around and see how different it was with nation's not believing what the second Bush Administration was spewing when it came to rationale for going to war. I don't think there was doubt that the attack on Afghanistan was justified given that the plotters and leaders of al-Queda were thought to be hiding there however when that war was more or less marginalized, world opinion seemed to skew towards thinking that this was just a smokescreen to at least show that something was being done in Afghanistan (which was justifiable) while plans were made for Iraq.

In the years since 9/11, opinion of Muslims in the world has degraded to the point that they are often cast in a negative light even if they're trying to be positive. Case in point were the protests against a Muslim assembly attempting to pray before the Capitol. But what does this or any of the previous discussion have to do with Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Simple. He at least is willing to talk and hear what non-Radical Muslims are trying to say when it comes to their views and their ideas for how to deal with the more radical portions of their community. Rather than speaking softly (or not speaking at all) and carrying a big stick like Teddy Roosevelt, Obama has at least tried to implement dialogue with the world as to what to do to try and promote peace.

When the rest of the world accepted scientific proof of global climate change, the Bush Administration didn't really believe it and stated that it was a natural cycle of the Earth. I suppose that members of the Bush Administration had been around during the last Ice Age and spoke from experience thus not requiring scientific knowledge or backing. What did the Nobel committee do? They voted and awarded the prize for the environment to Al Gore, the former Vice President and opponent to Bush's run for the Presidency in 2000. Now in contrast to the go-it-alone attitude of the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration's efforts to at least start on the road to peace in a joint manner has gotten him a lot of world support already even if he hasn't had tangible successes as yet.

I think it's a bold statement by the Nobel Committee and the world at large. The promise that perhaps Obama will really live up to all the things he's been promising is something that could definitely impact the course of our world in the future. His win sends a message that the world leaders and influential personalities around the world believe in him so perhaps our leaders in the US need to pause and rethink their opposition to him. I'm not saying that it should be treated as a pass for him but neither am I saying that he should be opposed merely because he's not in your party (and yes I'm speaking to Republicans here). After Gore won the Nobel Prize for his work towards the environment the US finally started taking things seriously with regard to global climate change. Perhaps we'll see a change and increased momentum towards peace in the world with Obama winning too.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Down with the Sickness

Flu season hasn't officially kicked off yet and already there are reports in the press about the fact that flu vaccine supplies are running low at present. While pharmaceutical companies have announced that there will be ample supplies of both, many have been surprised at the revalations that there isn't enough regular flu vaccine available out there already. Part of the problem is that most of the companies that manufacture the vaccine for the 'normal' flu have been working overtime to produce ample supplies for the swine flu vaccine. What does this mean for the rest of us? Well it means that you should probably go early to get vaccinated. the longer one waits the more likely it is that you won't get the vaccines.

And yes, I did say vaccines as in more than one. What many people still don't realize is that just because the name of the virus contains the word flu, one vaccine won't cure both of them. Part of the reason for the panic in the public is that there's real concern that even though there is already an effective vaccination for swine flu available, it is possible that it won't be used as many people would wrongly assume that their normal flu shot will prevent swine flu as well. That's not the case and especially not the case this year with swine flu predicted to run rampant.

In previous years, customers could literally walk into their local grocery store and request a flu shot and get one in less time (usually) than it takes to check out your groceries in the lane run by the pimply faced kid. Now local stores in Washington report that many grocery stores are reporting that they have administered nearly twice the number of vaccinations already this year compared to what was administered last year. Although in most stores it is still possible to walk in and get vaccinated, stores are encouraging people to call ahead and confirm that they still have supplies of the vaccine to give them.

The fortunate thing is that increasing numbers of offices are also starting to offer flu shots these days and so getting a regular flu shot may not be an issue but the rush to get the swine flu vaccine may kick in as soon as it becomes available to the public at large. Doctors indicate that people should get the swine flu vaccine as quickly as possible to avoid any long term concerns about catching even a mild dose of the virus. They say that if you wait to get a normal flu shot it should still be okay as the normal strains of the flu won't really hit until February or March. Swine flu is predicted to hit hard and heavy closer to the end of this year so it's a good idea to get immunized as quickly as possible.

I just find it irresponsible at times though to see the media attempting to spread panic by stating that vaccine supplies are already running low in such a manner as to hint that people won't ever be able to get immunized. As it is most people aren't patient when it comes to these types of cases so then why perpetuate it by covering it as if it is a major problem? It is a concern but not to the point that the majority of our population stands to get the illness due to not being able to get immunization. What worries me is that people won't bother investigating because they think that supplies are already low so why bother and then won't bother to get immunized against anything. The result being that we'll probably help spread the disease more than killing it off effectively. I feel that if we just try to learn a little more about it and keep ourselves educated and not perpetuate fear of what 'could' happen, then we'll be fine (and healthy) in the long run.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Catch a Wave

Chris Nel (shown at right) and Tom Gogola are but two of among a handful of survivors who used their surfboards to survive the tsunami that devastated the Samoan Islands last week. Their story seems extrordinary and is even more so when one considers that rather than seeking perceived safety by rushing back towards land, Nel and Gogola likely survived because they paddled farther out to sea. Not on the surface it seems a bit backwards to go paddling out farther to see considering that's where the wave was coming from but the rationale to the surfers was that the wave would crest and crash on land rather than at sea so they would be much safer out there. To think of it a different way, if you've ever been to the beach you'll recall that waves will crest closer to land while if you swim farther out to sea you'll find yourself simply going up and down as the wave passes by. Nel and Gogola spent a few hours on the water before paddling towards shore once it was clear that the surge had ended. Reports indicated that those who attempted to paddle ashore ended up being thrown into the jungle as the massive 20 foot wave hit land.

But staying away from shore during a storm is also the reason why Navy vessels will often put to sea rather than staying tied up to the dock during a major storm or hurricane. Now most people around have probably never been at the beach when a major storm hits and so we don't often realize that it's rougher closer in to shore than it is farther out to sea. For most of us, our vision of what a storm at sea is like comes from films like "The Perfect Storm" or "The Poseidon Adventure". And while those depictions of ocean conditions is relatively correct, imagine what it would be like in similar water closer to the shore. That is how the docks and beaches are and that's why it was a good prescence of mind that sent Nel and Gogola farther out to sea to wait out the inevitable surge on shore.

Their descriptions of what happened last Wednesday morning is one of the first accounts that I have read of someone actually being there and seeing the tsunami hit. Nel, Gogola and the other surfers were out early that day to catch some of the morning's waves when they realized that something odd was happening. Nel felt the tremor while he was on the water. Being from New Zealand the sensation of actually feeling an underwater earthquake was not a new one but then within a short time they realized that something had gone terribly wrong. The water 'turned glassy' which means that it became eeriely calm due to the fact that it was no longer churning back and forth in a normal manner. They also noted that the current increased after a few minutes pulling them faster out to sea.

Looking back towards shore they saw that the water on the reef-bed had dried up and cleared up as the water got pulled farther away from shore as the incoming wave built itself up more and more. A short time later they began to see water spurts as the water hit shore and then quickly moved farther inland. Once they realized that the waves had passed they attempted to come closer to shore and get back on land. While making their way they were passed by trees that had been uprooted from land and were carried out to sea. After 45 minutes of continued effort they finally managed to get ashore where they found that the camp that they were staying at on the beach had been completely destroyed and save for a few clothes they had lost everything. Using tools such as Facebook and e-mail they managed to get in touch with their family and let them know that they were all right but they certainly came away with a unique experience in surviving a terrible catastrophe.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Is it Real or Just for Show?

I was reading in the Washington Post this morning about a new movement in India where many citizens are calling into question the true motivations of their government leaders who have continued to take advantage of their status as a "V-VIP" (or very very important person) by flying first class and staying in five-star resorts whenever they travel. What is raising some ire among citizens in India is the fact that while the economy is still doing relatively well, it is not at the level that it was several years ago when such behavior on the part of leaders began to grow. Now many find it to be inappropriate and an unnecessary drain on the economy. As a result, many in the Indian public have been calling upon their government leaders to curb extravagant expectations and demand and become a little more grounded so that they can relate (or at least seem to relate) to their constituents.

One of the results has been that many leaders are now making attempts to show the public that they truly do care about the people they serve has been to relate to them. What this has meant in several cases is eating at local places or spending time with the public in a place where television access will mean the public not in attendance will be able to see how publicly minded some of these leaders are. Some have even gone so far as to start wearing homespun cotton clothing similar to the style of Gandhi during the Independence movement. To me what it all boils down to is that I am now cynical to the point that I don't wish to believe it simply becuase the likelihood of it being genuine are next to nothing.

But why stop in India? Never having lived there, my knowledge of Indian politics is spotty at best but I can certainly find ample examples within our own government. How many times will you see a politician (or any party) trying to show how well they relate to the general public by serving up grits at a Texas diner or eating a burger at a local place while in both cases the press is watching on and taking notes hoping to spin the tale that this politician is truly a 'common man'. I don't believe it. Not for one second. I have lived my entire life in Washington and I can probably count the number of times I've seen a major politician roaming the streets doing something relatively normal without tons of press hanging around as well. Sure I may not run in the same social circles as these folks but being in such close proximity to the seat of our government, you would think that I would have seen a few by now don't you think?

The fact of the matter is that all politicians, here and abroad, liberal or conservative, all are fighting for job security. Most leaders these days make their decisions based on what the popular opinion says is popular. There may be the occasional few who do truly believe in what they say or do but they are probably rarer than seeing the Loch Ness Monster on a sunny day. So then the question becomes are they truly supporting the cause because they believe it or because they think that's what will help get them elected at the next election? It's a very difficult question to honestly answer but I feel that it's the latter. Politicians of all shapes and sizes have flip-flopped on issues ranging from the simple to the complex if it meant getting more people to side with them.

What this means to me is that we'll never be able to figure out if a politician is telling the truth about what they feel about a certain subject or not. If we see a politician eating at McDonalds with the press present, then you can likely say that this is for show. But if you see the same politician in McDonalds even when there's no one else around, then you start to get the sense that maybe they truly do like McDonalds. Maybe then you can also relate to the politician more and then make an informed decision as to whether or not they deserve your support.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Going Rogue and Supporting Palin

She just won't go away. No matter how hard we try we can't seem to shake Sarah Palin from the public's eyes. I keep trying as hard as I can but every few days she continues to make an appearance somewhere or making headlines. She's accomplishing the goal she and her supporters set for herself moments after the official word came to her that she and the maverickiest of mavericks (John McCain) had not won the election back in November. Since that time McCain has returned to Congress where he continues to be a voice for the GOP (for good or bad) and Palin... well... she just is. Whether you support her or can't stand her, you have to admit that she is doing an excellent job of keeping herself in the spotlight or remaining somewhat relevant despite the fact that she's no longer even involved in politics.

Now I will be the first to admit that I was a bit shocked with McCain at having chosen Palin primarily because no one (even people in Alaska) had heard of her. His announcement of Palin last summer made me think back to the announcement of Washington that their new head coach was going to be Jim Zorn. People were puzzled and confused as to how this person was suddenly being elevated to this posting never having been in the public spotlight before (and whether I'm talking about Palin or Zorn I'll leave you to decide). I can recall the sudden surge in interest that people began to show McCain and understandably. Just as it was historic to think of having the first African American voted into office in the form of Barack Obama, it was exciting to consider that the first woman Vice President could have been elected in that same election.

But as we came to learn more about Sarah Palin and some of her obvious... shortcomings; I think some people began to realize that perhaps she wasn't as qualified as she liked to think she was. Sure the press had a field day in wanting to play up her ignorance of world events and the fact that she wasn't the brightest bulb in the bunch, I think at the very least she made Dan Quayle look like a political genius by comparison. And I couldn't help but think that were I a woman, I would have been insulted at the insinuation that she was a representative of the best and brightest woman that could go on to take the Vice Presidency of the United States. Was there really no one better? There are so many women in governments around the nation did the GOP really have to choose Palin? Perhaps they figured Alaska was so far away that any attempts to confirm or deny her claims of success in the state wouldn't be able to be found due to distance.

Whatever the reasons, we are currently not finding ourselves under an administration being run by McCain with Palin backing him up. But by choosing to remain in the public spotlight, Palin is hoping to continue to ride the whirlwind of support she gathered during the build-up to the election and ride it to victory in 2012. I for one hope she does. Now I know that seems to fly in the face of what I've been writing for so long but I'll explain why my reasons to support her run make sense. Firstly, I think one of the major problems she had was that people who were on the fence in terms of supporting her and McCain were feeling that way because they didn't really know all that much about her or how she had handled Alaska during her time as Governor. I suppose we could look at her record and see how she's done and how she continued to do even after losing her run for Vice President. But wait. She resigned even before she completed her final term in office as Governor; I guess we'll have to be content in knowing what she could have or would have done had she not resigned.

As far as her experience in foreign affairs I think she's finally moved beyond being able to see Russia from her home state of Alaska. She's actually met with world leaders and has travelled to foreign lands (besides the contiguous 48 States). She gave a speech in Asia (and for the life of me I still don't know why) and she has met with world leaders like Pakistani President Zardari who called her 'gorgeous' and joked (and flirted) that if he had to hold his pose with Palin much longer he'd just have to hug her. Now a normal woman would have realized that she was being patronized or being treated like an object rather than an equal but Palin didn't seem to realize it. She maintained her poise and accepted the condescending compliment like it was just another day at the office. I suppose no one gets tired of hearing from complete strangers how 'gorgeous' they are.

I think by far the greatest means by which she will reach the American public and gain unprecedented support is through the forthcoming release of her book "Going Rogue" which promises to be a 400 page chronicle of her rise to glory and her plans for the future all the while outlining (I'm sure) her plans for the future. I think it's wonderful that rather than continuing the 'outstanding work' she did for Alaska through the completion of her term she decided to resign and subsequently work on a book meant to convince the rest of us that she's truly worthy of being a leader. A leader leads; a leader doesn't resign their position by assuming that they can't do any more good. Maybe she saw that Seinfeld episode where George feels it's best to leave the room on a high note. I suppose she's following the same advice. To me, writing a book is one of the most self-centered and self-serving things she could do given that she's not doing anything else for her state or her country for that matter.

So then why am I saying that I support Sarah Palin's inevitable run for the Presidency in 2012? Because I'm hoping that by continuing to remain in the political spotlight and gossip columns, people finally come to the realization that she truly doesn't know anything other than a few key phrases meant to pander to her conservative base supporters. I'm hoping that she'll continue to alienate support of the moderates and centrists to the point that they don't wish to support her. And most of all, I'm hoping she continues to do what she does best and eventually prove to the world that she truly has her own interests (and not those of the nation) in mind when she chooses to run for the Presidency. Here's to hoping.


Friday, October 02, 2009

A Roundabout Solution to Road Problems

The illustration on the left is of a plan to replace existing intersections in Northern Virginia that currently have traffic signals with roundabouts (or traffic circles as some people call them). The idea being that if used correctly, they will eliminate the need for traffic lights and will allow traffic to continue moving thus cutting down on commuting time. Now what Virginia Department of Transportation Project Manager Ken Robinson states would be true but he caveats it with the one phrase which in my mind ensures that the plan won't work. That phrase is, "if used correctly". And that to me is the biggest problem because a growing number of drivers out there are making themselves menaces rather than driving courteously and that's making things far more dangerous for the rest of us rather than safer.

Now when approaching a roundabout, you generally get into the lane that will allow you to quickly enter the intersection and then move off quickly onto the turning lane that you wish to go. There are big examples of them in DC at places like Dupont Circle and the like. They can be huge like that one or smaller like the one's proposed for Gilbert's Corner. What I usually do is slow down as I approach the roundabout (and please note I said slow down and not come to a complete stop unless there is no safe way to enter the circle) and then I keep any eye out for other cars as well as my intended exit and then I signal my intentions by giving my indicator and then I slowly move off. The way most people enter a roundabout is as if they have to complete a lap of it (like a NASCAR driver) in the shortest time possible and head out as quickly as they can. A key concept that many drivers these days seems to lack is understanding of the term 'yield'.

Yielding is a necessity when driving around here and unfortunately many drivers just don't understand that. Take for example an incident I experienced on my way to work yesterday morning. I was on a two lane road in the right lane and farther ahead I knew that the two lanes merge into one. I continued on in the right lane and as the lane started to come to an end I gave my indicator to show I wanted to move to the left and merge with traffic. At this point the traffic was already slowed down and I was attempting to merge well before the lane ended (not like some drivers who will continue on the shoulder if it means getting ahead of even one more car) when suddenly a car ahead of me cut in front of me effectively blocking both lanes of traffic by driving in the middle of the two lanes. I looked up after braking thinking that the driver was trying to avoid hitting something when I looked over to see her murmurring at me and giving me the stink eye. I guess she didn't want me to get ahead of her.

There are many drivers who behave in this manner these days. When you're attempting to enter traffic patterns they'll speed up rather than slow down so that the distance you have in the acceleration lane will be cut off to a minimum. Rather than moving out of the right lane where cars are attempting to enter or exit the highway they will stake their claim on their spot on the road with more steadfast resolve than Sarah Palin and her stance on seeing Russia from Alaska being enough foreign policy experience to run a nation. What's the deal with being so stubborn and defensive? Is it because we firmly believe that life is a race and we have to translate that into our daily commutes as well or is it just a case of ego? I tend to believe that it's ego.

Many of the road improvements around the Washington area are being done to clear up existing bottlenecks. These planned roundabouts in Gilbert's Corner are just one example but in many cases, all of these improvements are nothing more than exercises in moving bottlenecks from one spot to another. Don't believe me? If you've driven in the area then you know that the point on the Dulles Toll Road where the road goes from the Toll Road to the two loops of the Beltway is a notorious bottleneck. A few years ago they expanded the lanes leading to the Inner Loop from one to two lanes. This fix helped for about fifty feet because that's about how long the lane lasts before it again becomes one lane. So the bottleneck moved about that far. Backups still occur on a daily basis. What about in Tysons Corner itself? The traffic nightmare that has come to define Northern Virginia could probably clear up a lot better if VDOT simply synchronized the lights on Route 7 and Route 123 a little better. What sense does it make if you're racing from one traffic light to the next? Until we drivers improve our driving styles I doubt that any amount of money or road improvement scheme is going to be enough to ease traffic problems.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Starbucks in an Instant

It had been a while since I had written a blog on coffee or Starbucks and I know that some of my readers were probably suffering because of it so leave it to Starbucks to oblige me by announcing the launch of their latest coffee related venture which is certain to have a fairly significant impact on the coffee market if their early market tests are any indicator. Starbucks is probably the one company most directly responsible for unleashing the concept of coffee snobs to the mainstream. Prior to the rise of Starbucks the number of people who could tell you what the difference between a cappucino and frappucino probably ranked somewhere in the dozens and now it ranks up there in the thousands. What also set Starbucks from those of us who still do enjoy making instant coffee or brewing our own was that every cup (at least in the early days) was hand made. As soon as you ordered it they ground the beans and then went from there. In that way it made sense that they charged more for coffee since it was hand made at the time you ordered it. And there was what set Starbucks apart, it was hand made for you.

But now with the advent of Starbucks's latest product it seems that you'll be able to hand make your own coffee. Via, a small packet of instant coffee produced by Starbucks is due to be released around the world in the next year. Already being tested in Chicago and Seattle, the mini packets of instant coffee resembly small tubes of sugar served in many restaurants these days. Early blind taste tests have shown that drinkers (even those who consider themselves the snobbiest of coffee snobs) have been unable to discern which coffee is brewed fresh at Starbucks and which was stirred up just moments before being served. That just goes to prove that most people, despite liking to put on airs of being a coffee snob, that they have no clue.

Sure there are those occasional drinkers whose palate is so refined to fine coffee drinking that they could tell you from which tree in the farm the particular bean of coffee was plucked just as some wine drinkers can do the same with different bottles of wine but for the rest of us I think we're content to drink what tastes decent and can keep us awake at work when we're stuck in long boring meetings. I think the step into instant coffee by Starbucks is something that has been a long time coming but has been a hard road to cross because of the fact that Starbucks has always branded or billed itself as a place for gourmet coffee (or at least something better than McDonalds) but I think the fact that people started flocking to McDonalds and were content with 'instant' coffee drinks that were nearly three dollars less than the equivalent size at Starbucks showed the company that perhaps hard economic times can have an impact on drinking coffee.

Though I enjoy the occasional cup of coffee from Starbucks I am not that particular that I can't enjoy a cup made at home using instant grounds and hot water. Now the question that I have though is whether I will find the taste of Via instant grounds so superior to something like Taster's Choice or Folgers that i'm willing again to shell out more money for fewer servings. I'm not a complete cheapskate when it comes to purchasing but neither am I foolish enough to spend on a luxury more than my dollar's worth. On average you can get a bottle of instant coffee for around $9 or $10 at the most in a lot of places. For about $10 I can get 12 servings (or mini packets). A bottle can probably give you twice that many number of servings, so once again the question comes up whether or not you have money to burn on somewhat of a luxury.

Starbucks has been struggling to find itself for sometime now. They had branched out (a bit oddly I might add) into the quick foods market at one point offering up sandwiches and lunch options (again for a much higher price than the average grocery store) and now in light of the fact that so many coffee drinkers are going to places like McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee. I suppose that if prices again came down or that the taste and caffeine high produced by Starbucks products was high enough to win back some drinkers then they could start winning back some of the market shares that they have lost as the markets have gone up and down like a ship in rough seas. I personally hope though that the company isn't looking to invest in something that will ultimately cause them to lose even more money. We shall see.