Thursday, December 31, 2009

Can't Have it Both Ways

In light of the recent attempts at a terrorist act by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria, there have been increasing numbers of people calling for tighter and more stringent security. The problem is that while on the one hand people are calling for change, the other arguement makes it seem that they aren't willing to pay the price associated with that change. In this case the discussion is over whether or not the use of full-body scanners at airports and if they are to be used then in what capacity. Now since these full-body scanners have been introduced to the public they have never really been free of controversy.

The way the machine works is that it's similar to an x-ray in that it uses various visual lighting methods to virtually 'strip' away the clothes from an individual in order to determine if the individual is carrying any illicit materials similar to how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria did over Christmas using his underwear as the bomb carrier. The argument currently being made is that had he been required to go through such a scanner it's possible (though we'll probably never know) that he may not have even made it through security let alone board the flight thus preventing any sort of terrorist attack. The problem is that Abdulmutallab boarded his flight in Amsterdam. Even if we implement these machines here in the United States, what do we do about flights coming in from elsewhere?

But that's a completely different part of the argument. The argument over these machines now comes to whether they should or shouldn't be used as primary screening devices and the reasons for it. Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA.) co-sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives last year in which he called for these scanners to be used as a secondary security tool and not a primary one. His main concern being who would undergo this type of scan and whether 'grandmothers and little children' should be made to undergo this type of scan. Now as I mentioned, since these devices were first introduced to the public, there has been controversy over how much is 'stripped' from someone undergoing a scan. Despite examples to the contrary, many still feel that it will basically reveal a naked version of you on a screen and that the image will then be stored someplace for use by devious minded perverts somewhere within the Transportation Security Agency.

For the public to come up with these theories is understandable since they may not know that much about it. But for our Congressional leaders who should know better, it's just disturbing. To me the implication that they seem to be making is that those who are entrusted to run security at our airports, namely the Transportation Security Agency officers, can't be trusted to run security without saving these scanned images for their own purposes. To me then that also implies that the people being hired to run security are of questionable backgrounds so then how could they get those positions in the first place? It sets of a chain of 'if-then' type of thoughts which simply proves that people are inherently trustworthy of authority.

I say this because people seem to want these security measures put in place but only so long as it isn't applied universally. People seem to imply through their statements or actions that the only ones who should have to undergo more thorough inspections are those with questionable names or who fit certain ethnic stereotypes. I think the thing that people need to remember is that if we want to be safe then we need to be willing to make sacrifices. You may know that you aren't a security threat but I don't know that and neither does the guy at the gate. If you want to be safe then you have to undergo some difficulty. I think these full body scanners should be implemented but they shouldn't supplant any additional checks if an officer feels that a more thorough search is required. I'm willing to make that sacrifice of my modesty if it is required.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's the Solution to the Problem?

About a week ago, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite an explosive that he had managed to smuggle aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Thanks to faulty execution on his part and the rapid response of some vigilant passengers the act of attempted terrorism was halted before it had a chance at success. But what this has served to do is raise the issue of what is being done to safeguard our skies and where the problems continue to exist. Since 9/11 the process by which passengers are screened has become increasingly stringent depending upon where you're going to and where you're leaving from. These days it can take almost as long to go through security than it does to reach your destination by air. With incidents such as this one with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the process will only get longer.

But how can you fix it? Many already assume that the inconvenience of having to go through screenings and carry along limited quantities of toiletries such as toothpaste and mouthwash is enough to keep us safe but it really isn't. I'm sure these new security procedures have helped to keep a certain type of danger at bay but not all of the dangers that exist out there. After Robert Reid, the shoe-bomber, attempted to blow up a flight using a butane lighter and homemade explosives packed in the heel of his shoe, the result was to require passengers to remove their shoes for screening and inspection. In addition, butane lighters were no longer permitted though you could still carry matchbooks onto flights. Why? Because smokers complained that then they couldn't smoke as soon as they got to a smoking area at an airport.

What this proves though is that our responses often seem to be spot responses to problems; that is fix what problems are known to exist and keep the others aside until they become real problems. So what that means is that if you have someone attempting to blow up a plane using their shoes then you should inspect shoes more closely. Done. But now you have an individual who attempted to blow up a plane with explosives and chemicals mixed into syringes in his underwear. Do you see where this line of thought will lead us? Now I don't deny that it's very hard to ensure everyone's safety in an world like the one we live in but sometimes the solutions that are put out there are beyond absurd; they border on the insane. Take for example the case of the terror watch list that the Transportation Security Agency and Homeland Security maintain.

This list contains a list of names (and known aliases I believe) of individuals with questionable ties to terrorist organizations or activities. Perhaps they are disgruntled individuals or perhaps their name was provided to authorities by concerned citizens (or parents) as in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. His own father notified authorities of his suspcisions a little over a month before he boarded his Christmas flight. So then why was he allowed? Well part of it is because there are nearly 500,000 names included the terrorist watch list and checking each and every person against that list can mean that some fall through the cracks. Now of course there are those who suggest that a simple means of expiditing the process would be to check against people's names but then I ask you who should be under greater suspicion: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or David Headley.

If you answered 'both' then give yourself a prize. Although Headley sounds like a non-terrorist name it is the name of an Pakistani-American (who changed his name) who was arrested in connection with the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. That being said then where do you draw the line in terms of being 'selective' in how you screen people. The problem is that you can't. You can't say that a certain type of name or religious belief or city of origin should be used because there have been plenty of exceptions to the rule. Headley is just one known example.

I envision two days in the distant future; one good and one bad. The one that is going to eventually happen decades from now is one in which all travellers will be able to travel without having to undergo such rigorous checks which leads to endless hours of searches and checks. The other day which will likely occur in the more near term is one in which we will be required to travel in approved translucent clothing so that nothing can be hidden from view of anyone. You will be allowed to wear approved underwear which must be vaccum-sealed to prevent explosives planting and of course there will be the lack of carry-ons which will make travelling by air a much quicker and safer form of transportation again.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Road Sense vs. No Sense

Probably since the dawn of time have two things been a decidedly dangerous combination. Men and directions and men and technology. Now being a man I think it's okay for me to talk about both of these since I'm something of a snob when it comes to these two subjects. I am decidedly stubborn when it comes to getting directions to a destination and I like to think that I can figure out most pieces of technology given sufficient time and (more importantly) interest. Hence it is not with a lot of surprise when I read an article in the paper about a couple in the high desert of eastern Oregon that ended up getting stranded in snow for three days.

Apparently the couple who had gotten a new GPS as a Christmas gift just a few days before, decided to use it on their way home. Now programming the destination was a snap and getting started was easy, but the GPS was smarter than it really needed to be. Now most people choose 'shortest route' or 'fastest route' when the GPS asks them about the route they want to take. Now choosing 'shortest route' can often be a chancy proposition because a GPS will take you by whatever route reduces the distance by the greatest amount regardless of the terrain or land features you may or may not have to overcome. In this case the road that the GPS requested the couple to take ended up being more 'road-esque' than actual road and as they proceeded down the indicated path in their four-wheel drive SUV, they managed to get themselves stuck.

Now thankfully there is a happy ending to this tale since despite being in the mountains in a particularly remote area, they had just enough signal on their cell phones that they could call for help after two-and-a-half and they had more than enough supply of food, water and warm clothes in their SUV to stay safe until rescue arrived. Apparently the couple explained that they managed to go nearly 35 miles down the path that was indicated by the GPS before getting stuck in about 18 inches of snow. That itself proves two things to me; (1) four-wheel drives don't always overcome any terrain, and (2) technology isn't always the best of guides.

Perhaps it's wrong to blame technology for the couple getting stranded but I do feel (as I have often expressed on this blog) that technology has made us a bit lazy. I say that because in times past, we wouldn't rely on something like a GPS to tell us where we were and where we're going. Reading a map was something worth learning and it was necessary. I have always believed that even if you have a GPS, you should know in general where you're going and what route you have to take. Having the general directions in the back of your head can help you figure out where you're going and where you need to be at any given time. But these days due to things like GPS, cell phones and the like you end up relying on them for information. Why memorize numbers if you can just scroll through your phone list in your phone and get it.

Similarly why bother looking up directions when your GPS will show you the route. There have been plenty of stories that could give you ample reason to at least have a little trepidation when deciding whether to use a GPS or not; stories of people ending up driving into rivers because bridges weren't completely built yet or taking roads that weren't open to the public yet. We tend to check our brains at the door as technology improves and it can have decidedly negative consequences. Now the good thing is that this story has a happy ending but I would think it would serve as inspiration to the rest of us to keep our own mental GPS tuned when going on a road trip.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Not Saying What We Mean to Say

Anyone who knows me knows that one of my pet peeves is when people say (or write something) thinking that it means one thing but it means something completely different. An example? Well when people write something along the lines of, "Your going to have to go to the store" rather than writing the correct, "You're going to have to go to the store". The difference is subtle and in this age of word check and e-mail shortform, it's very easy to overlook something so trivial but it can distract a reader (at least some of us) from what the meaning is that we're trying to get across.

I guess some of the problem stems from the fact that we often use words or phrases because they have become popular and we say them without really ever having considered how to spell them. If you read through both of those previous sentences you'll find that if you know what the word is you'll pronounce it correctly but if you don't know what you're spelling you likely won't. One way in which I keep the difference in mind (especially when writing words as contractions... and this was something my high school English teachers always drilled into my head) was to break it up into its root parts to see if it makes sense when read that way. So for example, if you break up the word into its parts in the previously written sentence, the contraction (which is the correct usage of the word) would be read as "You are going to have to go to the store" Then it makes sense and you will likely not make the same mistake.

Well that likely works fine in the case of contractions and commonly used words like that but what about words that are popular but that you generally don't use all the time but have become popular through pop cultural references? Part of the blame for those mistakes can be attributed to George Lucas. Why do I blame Lucas for this? Simply because he introduced some of these phrases to the average person and now the average person uses these phrases without thinking about what they mean. Now when George Lucas released his original "Star Wars" films he didn't refer to it as his trilogy (which basically means three stories) until much later. There was the introduction of the first of several phrases which Lucas has made popular these days.

Now my English teacher in 9th and 10th grade was Mrs. DeRoo and she made sure that we knew our Greek and Roman word parts so I know that 'tri' in trilogy refers to three so a trilogy of films is a series of three films. Similarly, a trilogy of books refers to a three book series. So then when someone refers to a four book series as a trilogy in an online review you can't help but feel a little disappointed that people don't think about what they are writing, that too on a site largely dedicated to literature like Amazon. It just proves that now many people will refer to a series (regardless of how many books or films it entails) as a trilogy. Similarly, Lucas is to blame for the popularization of the terms 'prequel' and 'sequel'. Thankfully most people know what these words mean but what it has also given rise to is the term 'reboot'.

In computer parlance, rebooting means to start over and in movies that's also more or less what the term means. However, the term is generally applied to a film series that has been running for quite some time and is suddenly shedding all of the history that had heretofore been established and was starting from scratch. Now in the case of films like the recent Batman or James Bond films, that's a fair use of the term but relating it to "Sherlock Holmes" is a bit of a mistake since though there have been many Sherlock Holmes films, this is still an independent film to the previous films. Still, it just shows that once a phrase catches on in the public's mind it is very hard to get them to use anything else.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Remember Those Overseas

There are predictions of heavy snows in the midwest and in the plains of the United States. The east coast is already in the midst of reeling from the blizzard that hit us last week and we're expecting ice again tonight in the Washington area. News reporters are chiming in from various regional airports and train stations letting people know to get to their respective departure points early so that they can transit security ahead of time. People are on the news complaining about having to get to the airport earlier than what their eventual flight time will be but that's all part of the holiday travel season. The roads are jammed, the malls were full until the last minute and through it all we continue to focus our attention on what's happening here. But we mustn't forget those who are serving in our armed services overseas.

For many of us, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so far removed from our thoughts that it's hard to contemplate having to eat Christmas dinner in a mess tin or holding mass inside of a sandbag-lined bunker with your machine gun ready at your side but that's been the reality for many soldiers who are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether you support the war or you don't, one thing that we should all do is support the troops. Like those of us who work, they are also doing their jobs and doing them under the most difficult of circumstances. While the rest of us can spend the holidays with friends and family, many servicemen and women are deployed thousands of miles from home in hostile environments. It's easy to forget these things but we really shouldn't. It's important that we don't.

Many troops have been in the field for multiple deployments; others have come home only to be deployed again within a few months. Yet the continue to do their jobs despite the difficult circumstances. Now I have never served in the armed services personally but I know many who have and it never fails to astound me that these ordinary folks often looked at their deployments not as an inconvenience but more as a duty to their country and their chosen service. They did it because it was the right thing to do and though it interupted the normalcy of most of their lives, they found that it was in service of their country so they did it.

So if you find yourself on the road stuck in heavy traffic with hundreds of miles left to go, remember that at least you don't have to be worried whether your car will be ambushed by insurgents. If the heater in your home or office fails for a few hours, remember that you don't have to do without one all the time in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan. If you have to stand in line at the airport for a longer time remember that old saying that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance". We can take it for granted because of the brave men and women who are serving abroad in an effort to ensure that the horrors visited upon our country in 2001 don't happen again. Happy Holidays to all of them!


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Updating the Classics

Every year over the past so many decades, Hollywood has pulled out all the stops in an effort to release films that are sure to draw in the crowds and in turn make the studios a lot of money. Some of these movies have been tremendously successful and others have been tremendously terrible but one thing remains; the studios keep trying. The subject matter for these films is often as varied as the people acting in the films. You can have movies like "Titanic" which was released in 1997 just a week before Christmas or you can have movies like the "Lord of the Rings" films which were each released a year apart in the week before Christmas. This year is no different; James Cameron's latest efforts (his first major film since "Titanic") entitled "Avatar" has been released and is already making a boatload (pun intended) of money. This coming week another film is hoping to dethrone the current champion and it is based on one of the most beloved and revered characters in classic literature; the forefather of all great detectives, Sherlock Holmes.

The character of Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed in numerous forms of media by actors of all shapes and sizes. Historians estimate that next to Bram Stoker's Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is one character who has been portrayed the maximum number of times in media. He's been portrayed by actors such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine and of course Basil Rathbone. He's been shown in stories based upon the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and he's been shown in films based upon completely original material. The latest version which is being directed by Guy Ritchie stars Robert Downey Jr. as the irascable Holmes with Jude Law portraying his faithful partner Dr. John Watson.

Now when I was in my final years of college I read every single story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dealing with Sherlock Holmes. I read them in the order that they were written and came to appreciate the way in which Holmes managed to solve so many mysteries. Unlike many of the current crime shows on television, Holmes didn't always have the luxury of modern technology or a team of forensic scientists backing him up; rather he always relied on his knowledge and the assistance of his able companion Watson. It made me appreciate that the human mind was just as important (if not more so) in accomplishing what can often seem to be a difficult task. But more so, it gave me an appreciation of the fact that this was all shown to be during the Victorian era when sciences like detection and forensics were still in their infancy. It's hard to fathom these days but back then it was the standard.

So what does this all have to do with the new movie that will be coming out? Well nothing so much as just helping to set the background on what I'm hoping to see in the film. Films that are set in a historical era are often required to walk a very narrow line. They can either be true to their era or they can turn it on its ear for the sake of telling an entertaining story. For me, I tend to appreciate the more historically accurate depictions. As entertaining as the "Pirates of the Carribean" films were, I thought the age of sailing was better depicted in a film like "Master and Commander". Still, "Pirates of the Carribean" spawned two sequels (with talk of another) while "Master and Commander" was appreciated but didn't result in any sequels (at least not yet).

So what worries me is that a film like "Sherlock Holmes" has to walk that very narrow line too but the filmmakers also have to remember that with a character like Holmes who is so ingrained in literature and has always been depicted as being (more or less) true to his era, they can't stray too far from what is known. What that means is that I would hate to see a Sherlock Holmes who behaves more modern than what his character really was. He was cutting edge at the time but that doesn't mean that he should be depicted as being decades ahead of his time. I would rather see a Sherlock Holmes that is more in tune with Basil Rathbone than with Captain Jack Sparrow. I'm giving the film the benefit of the doubt but I just don't want to see a beloved character like Holmes turned into a caricature of what he truly is.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Marking Your Territory

This past weekend the Washington area was hit with what was one of the largest snowstorms to hit the region in many years. Of course any snowfall total that amounts to over a quarter inch in this region is enough to send many Washingtonians into a state of hyper-panic. But in the case of this storm at least it was justified. With just over two feet of snow, it was enough to make a mess of things but fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective) it occurred over a weekend again so most people were able to stay off the roads and avoid becoming road hazards for crews that worked very hard to keep the roads and lanes clear. But by staying off the roads what that meant was that many people ended up having to dig their cars out after the snow fall reduced.

A system that works well for us is to go out and shovel a bit of the snow every few hours even as it is falling so that when the snow finally does subside then there's less to deal with. Sure you have to trudge out there more times but would you rather shovel two feet of snow or two inches? I rest my case. One of the main problems that comes from this type of storm though is dealing with the dilemma of figuring out where to dump all the snow that accumulates. In a parking lot like the one in my complex, that is a very serious dilemma and what happens when a plow coming through discovers an empty space? Why all the snow is dumped into that space and the spaces adjacent. It comes down to the intrinsic understanding of most such services. Most will tell you that their job is to clear the travel lanes in the parking lot and nothing more. What is done with the excess snow is not their problem.

So for those of us who get our cars or our parking spots buried under snow not only have to deal with the snow piled into our spaces but surrounding our spaces as well. Now what is one saving grace is that for most of us in my complex who live in my building or the surrounding buildings, we have at least one reserved parking space so the problems that were occuring elsewhere in our complex or in places like DC didn't affect us so much? What problems would those be? Well after spending several hours digging your vehicle out of the snow to either head out to work or to go out and run errands it would be frustrating to know that someone would very likely come along and nab the parking space that you had so lovingly cleaned just to gain freedom.

What some residents in DC took to doing then was to 'mark' their territory with some object that would prevent others from taking the space. Unfortunately according to DC law, if a space is along a public road then it cannot be reserved or held through the use of traffic cones or folding chairs unless police have authorized such action. Now to me that makes sense but I also think that the laws should be bent in the case of heavy snowfall like what we had this past weekend. Think about it, it took nearly two and a half hours to make the road in front of my parking space passable so how do you think you would feel if you drive off for half and hour and return to find someone parked in your space or snow piled into the spot? Exactly. Of course the anger and frustration probably wouldn't be as strong with those who simply take the spot. They figure it's their good fortune to nab a pristine spot like that. Yet it's the principle that matters. One should be able to enjoy the fruits of one's labors without having to worry if the work will be enjoyed by someone else.


Friday, December 18, 2009

One More Cog in the Wheel

The day that many Redskins fans have been waiting for came earlier this week when Vinny Cerrato, the man many charge with being responsible for some of the more 'insane' decisions made by the team over the last decade announced his resignation from the team. Now many people (myself included to a certain degree) have pinned a great deal of blame on Vinny Cerrato and Daniel Snyder for the current situation with the Redskins franchise. They took a team that was a perennial contender for the playoffs and made them the benchmark by which self-imploding or paper teams measure themselves. What do I mean by paper teams? Well these are teams that look like a fantasy football player's dream but is actually just that; a dream.

As this season went from bad to worse to a little better, people have been scrutinizing the "why's" and the "how comes" all the time. It seemed like after nearly every Sunday, analysis would be pouring out from all corners of the region with questions as to why the team was doing so poorly. And again a lot of the blame fell onto Cerrato as the man behind many of the decisions. As I've stated many times, the major problem is that the team often behaves (and still does on occasion) like it is being run by a fantasy football team. Just because a player has had big stats or was a standout player in college doesn't necessarily translate into success on the NFL field. For every Brian Orakpo we've had a slew of defensive players who were either past their prime or had never attained it in the first place. For every Jason Campbell (who I think has the potential to be good if he is given an offensive scheme built to his arm strength and not one that's built to a scheme he is not suited for) we have a Heath Schuler.

Now the blame doesn't fall only on Cerrato, it also falls on those around him but also on some of the people he brought into the organization. For all the blame being tossed around obviously there was something in Jim Zorn that made him appealing to the team when they made him head coach nearly three years ago. Perhaps he didn't end up being exactly what he was expecting to be but that's not necessarily all his fault. If he is stifled then how can he be expected to produce? For that I often blame Dan Snyder. Sure he may be one of the most kind-hearted and caring people off the field (his charity work speaks volumes) but it's a shame that he hasn't been as successful with the Redskins.

Players have often talked about how they are congratulated during their times of success but often stigmatized during their failures (which is more often the case). I can understand since Snyder is shelling out a boatload of money for some of these players and they don't live up to expectations. But sometimes the difference is in the way you treat your players. When members of the Cowboys get hurt on the field, Jerry Jones can often be seen cringing or coming down to the sidelines to see what's happened. Nowadays you can't even get camera shots of Snyder during the game lest his grimmace be used to prove the point that he seems to view his players as nothing more than commodities and not people. Perhaps that's not his attitude but I could be wrong.

So what does this all mean? Well to me in the short run, the resignation of Cerrato signals yet another round of change for the Redskins. What it also means is that barring some miraculous event, I don't think we fans can expect to see a successful run from the team for some time yet. If Zorn is removed and the rest of the 'creative consultants' are removed and the roster is started from relative scratch then I would say that it will be at least another three or four years before we can expect anything. But to me, regardless of whatever decision is made by upper management at the Redskins, one thing needs to be shown by management, in particular by Dan Snyder and that is patience and having a coach who can make decisions on what he needs based on his experience and not on stat sheets. The removal/resignation of Cerrato is one of the first steps, now we have to see if it really makes any difference. After all, Snyder is still at the helm of the ship.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Healthy Christmas to All

Every year around this time there are endless stories in the news about what the real cost of all the items in the 12 Days of Christmas would cost or about how spending trends are up or down from previous years or what toy is the most popular. They also have news stories on how fast Santa would need to be moving to go around the world in one night and leave all his presents while having enough time to eat cookies (or carrots) before heading out. This year for the first time in a very long time though I think people finally started thinking about Santa and not just about presents at that.

Nathan Grills of Monash University in Australia recently presented a tongue-in-cheek piece on Santa and the overall health concerns surrounding the jolly giver of gifts. What Grills determined through his research was that if Santa really did all the things he did, he'd probably be one of the most unhealthy people on the planet. Medically speaking he would be a walking nightmare due to his repeated exposure to various illnesses and diseases that he would likely contract from repeated hugs and kisses from kids. In this season of swine flu mania, the average mall Santa would have likely been exposed to the disease enough times to qualify as a petri dish. It's gotten to the point now that many carry disinfectant around with them so that they can sanitize themselves in between kids.

But Grills also concluded that Santa wasn't just running the risk of contracting some disease, he could also create some on his own through his various unhealthy habits. Take for example the fact that Santa would be termed obese by today's standards. Rather than exercising on a regular basis, it seems that Santa spends most of his day making lists and checking them twice. That means that he's seated for most of the day and by the time he finishes those chores he has to go down to the workshop to supervise the toy construction and wrapping by the elves. Again, something that likely doesn't require much in way of physical activity. Sure you could make the argument that he probably burns off a year's worth of calories on Christmas night as he races around the world to deliver his gifts but does the ends justify the means?

And what about the unnessary risk of bodily injury he subjects himself into by partaking in what can be considered an extreme sport or activity? He rides around in an open top sleigh with just a lap belt. Travelling at the speeds that he does in order to make his deliveries he would need to have a five-point safety restraint system to truly be safe in his travels. Additionally he runs around rooftops and down chimnies without helmets which means he could suffer a particularly bad head injury if he's not careful. Plus the way in which he carries the gifts in a sack over his shoulder is not very healthy. He could throw out his back and injure himself. I think the conclusion that Grills wants us to reach as we think through these things is that it takes a very special person to be Santa.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Taking Off with Hopes and Dream(liner)s

Finally! After months and months and months and months and months of delays, the employees of Boeing finally could breathe a sigh of relief since their latest offering to the aviation world, the 787 Dreamliner finally took flight. Designed to be a competitor to the Airbus megaplanes that have been garnering attention since their maiden flights over a year ago, Boeing is hopeful that the test flights of their new 787 will be a sign of things to come and a return to the dominence of the air travel industry that they once held nearly universally. As an aviation fanatic I've also been following the news of the Dreamliner with great interest but I sometimes wonder if it's too little too late.

When designs for planes like the Dreamliner and Airbus's double-decker (the A380) first hit the books there was a major boom occuring in the aviation industry. Economy airlines were sprouting all over the place like crab grass in summer and it seemed that everyone was looking to establish an airline. With that type of demand it was no wonder that airline manufacturers were looking to cash in on the trend and offer up newer and better planes. But what seems to have happened in the interim is that the overall industry has suffered just as the economy has. With airlines folding nearly as quickly as they started, demand has gone down and routes that many airlines fly have also been drastically reduced. Where once you had a veritable cornucopia of choices for domestic air travel you are now down to a handful. Even stalwarts of the aviation boom are no longer looking as prominent as they once were.

But now as the economy seems to be on an upswing, maybe it is the time to look into getting more airlines into the air; that too on wings made by Boeing. Boeing has been pushing their new concept very hard and are hopeful that customers will come back in the numbers that they once had. Part of the problem is that Airbus has been a big competitor and they have offered up products that are as good (if not better) than some of Boeing's planes but more importantly, the delays that Airbus has faced have not been as long or as drastic as what Boeing has experienced with the Dreamliner. With product deliveries to All Nippon Airlines expected nearly two and a half years behind schedule, it's no wonder that people are curious but not enthusiastic about signing on to purchase the planes.

Not that there's anything wrong with the Dreamliner or Boeing for that matter but it just seems that perhaps it is still a bit too early for Boeing to succeed and do well on the basis of just the sales of the Dreamliner. Last year was full of nothing but bad news for Boeing planes as their contract for a replacement tanker for the US Air Force was revoked and then delayed plus the delays with the Dreamliner experiencing manufacturing delays meaning that no major money was flowing into the aviation section. Boeing has long enjoyed having a place of prominence in this market but now that things are slowing down for them it's looking like it's going to be harder to keep things afloat.

Boeing provides many jobs in the Seattle area where they have long had their manufacturing facilities. But in an effort to diversify and 'spread the wealth' they have moved their executive offices to Chicago and are opening plants to manufacture the Dreamliner in South Carolina in addition to Seattle. Whether this diversification is timely or too late remains to be seen but one thing is for certain; the success of this test flight and subsequent test flights will prove whether or not the time and effort being spent on the Dreamliner will yield good fortune for the company or not. I'm certainly hopeful but I won't hold my breath.


Monday, December 14, 2009

How Quickly the Mighty Fall

You've undoubtedly heard the old adage, "the bigger they are the harder they fall?" Well if you have then you'll likely agree that no one has personified that statement better in recent history than golf icon Tiger Woods. After the discovery of his 'secret life' and the eventual joke that his life has seemed to become, Woods announced that he will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the golf tour. With the announcement of this decision he suddenly became an anathema to all the company's for whom he was endorsing products and now it seems that perhaps he will never again recapture the luster that once surrounded him. But why is that? Why is he so different now than he was before his SUV hit a tree and the whole sordid tale of his private life came tumbling out?

What is it about celebrity that is so fleeting? One moment you can be the poster child for everything that is good and in the next you are being treated like the scum you find floating on top of a swimming pool that hasn't been cleaned in a long while. Tiger Woods was long viewed as a model of hard work and perseverence. He earned his place as a champion in golf by working at it. He wasn't like many other players who are at the top of their game in their respective sport who mouth off about as often as they win. Woods was humble and soft-spoken and a man who played well even when he wasn't at his best. He's had his highs and lows throughout his career and it was part of what made him a household name when he first burst onto the golfing scene.

Parents in particular liked to (apparently) use him as an example of what hard work and dedication could get you. They liked to tell their kids to emulate Woods and become someone 'respectable' like him. Now I say 'apparently' because now that this scandal has broken (and continues to break) it appears that parents are all up in a huff about the fact that Woods has 'done this'. I would simply ask why parents are using complete strangers to be inspirations for their kids in the first place. Tiger Woods's public persona was no doubt a model for many to want to emulate but the private life is where the problems lay and now that the private has become public, there is the suddent and fierce desire to break any and all ties to Woods. Now parents are behaving as if Woods has betrayed their trust somehow and are all ready to show their disdain for his actions and transgressions.

But what surprises me is that people still believe that what we see in public of celebrities is how they really must be in private as well. Celebrity is a fleeting thing and what has become apparent to me as the Tiger Woods 'situation' has continued to evolve and grow worse is that as quickly as we like to build up a celebrity, the public loves to tear them down just as quickly if not faster. Gone are the stories about how he worked hard to achieve the level of success he's achieved; now Woods serves more readily as a punchline for jokes than anything else. And to think, a simple car accident is what led to the disclosure of all these problems to the public.

I think any celebrity out there needs to take notice and be wary. I say this because there are undoubtedly many many more out there with similar (if not worse) transgressions out there and it can take something so small to let it out. What celebrities (be they sports stars or entertainment personalities) need to take notice that if someone as admired as Tiger Woods can suddenly become a bane to companies and the like then it's no different for anyone else. As much as we love our public figures, we love tearing them down since I guess it makes us (the general public) feel a little better knowing that the people we see on television or playing in the big game are not so different from us. That can be a good thing and a bad thing.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Making Her Voice Heard

She just won't go away. And the sad thing is that most people don't want her to. This past week Sarah Palin wrote an opinion piece that was printed in the Washington Post regarding her thoughts on the Copanhagen Climate Conference. One of the key takeaways that she wants readers to take away is the fact that whatever is being discussed in Copanhagen is all based on lies and heresay and that she feels that President Obama should not attend the conference to send a clear message that global warming is a myth and not based on scientific fact. What disturbs me is that there are many people out there who believe that what Palin talks about is the truth and nothing but the truth. Unfortunately if people bothered to confirm what she was saying to be the truth then perhaps they wouldn't have bothered to put so much stock in her.

Now there are those who claim that Palin is doing this merely to show the public that she's aware of the issues affecting our globe and despite the fact that she's not necessarily the darling of the Republican Party as she once was she is still a force to be reckoned with. Just what direction that force is being directed is up for debate but that's the problem; most people are hardly interested in the debate. If Palin's main purpose is keeping in the public's eye until 2012 then she's doing a wonderful job because no matter what, she's having great success at having her views continually heard in public whether it is through the publication of her book "Going Rogue" or having opinion pieces printed in major newspapers like the The Washington Post.

People have questioned why the Post printed Palin's op-ed piece in the paper in the first place. Even more so because of the gross misinterpretation of events such as the debate over whether the material on the theories on global warming are true or not. Regardless I think (as some other readers do) that the reason for printing the piece was not to show support for her way of thinking but rather to put out there the fact that she constantly flip-flops her positions or contradicts herself on a regular basis? Don't believe me? Well last year when she was running for Vice President she raised the point that some global changes could certainly be associated with man's growing prescence in the world and the drain it is having on the planet. Yet in the piece that was published this week she contradicts herself and boldly states that this is nothing more than a natural trend; almost like what George W. Bush used to say when he was asked to sign treaties on the environment.

There is no doubt in my mind that science is a very subjective manner but that doesn't mean it should be completely discounted. After all, if we don't have that much faith in science then I don't think we should have faith in all of it, not just in what we believe in. After all, if it wasn't for science (albeit medical science) Palin would never have known that her youngest child Trig would be born with Down Syndrome and become the poster child for "special needs" children after Palin popularized the phrase. I suppose it's a sign of what is typical of Palin and many of her ilk in that they will put stock in science and fact when it's convenient and then conveniently ignore it if it is contrast to what they wish to portray as their belief.

The appeal of most politicians comes from being able to draw appeal from the voting public. Many past leaders have had it and they've used it to their advantage; President Obama being one of the most recent examples. But what I feel sets Obama apart from Palin is the fact that if put on the spot he'll be able to respond with some knowledge on almost any topic. Palin on the other hand seems like she'd rely on a wink and a nod to get her point across. I say this in the hope that many more Americans will take an objective view of her as a potential leader and think back on the fact that we had a leader for eight years who originally took the lead in a poll as to whether you'd rather drink a beer with him or his opponent. To me that's the wrong kind of leader to have. Sure you'd like to have a beer with a lot of your leaders but it's just as important to know that conversations you'd have be intelligent and not the 'fake' intelligence that would come from an alcohol inspired stupor.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Space: The Final (Commercial) Frontier

Richard Branson and his Virgin companies have always pushed the limits no matter what industry they have chosen to enter. From records to airlines the group has continued to hallmark cutting edge and ingenuity. Take for example the past season in Formula One where Virgin got involved with Brawn GP, a rookie team that was literally starting from scratch. They had nothing with them at the start of the season save for high hopes but after some early successes it became apparent that the team was destined for great things. So after a few races, Richard Branson and Virgin became a sponsor for the team and eventually the team went on to win the championship (for both driver and constructor). Now I'm not saying that Branson was the reason for it, but he certainly hasn't been wrong when he's attempted to hit 'the next big thing'.

I remember flying Virgin Atlantic a few years back and all I kept thinking was that I was seated in the wrong class. Touch screens in every seat and roomy seats to boot. Decent service and eclectic style (which often typefies Virgin endeavours), Virgin Atlantic set the trend that many airlines have sought to mimic and surpass. But the fact remains that Branson was the first to go through with it. In an age where air travel has become akin to riding a bus but with more hassle and less enjoyment, it was a joy to fly Virgin America. With their mood lighting and top notch service they have made domestic air travel in this country a little more enjoyable than it had been for a very long time. Now he's at it again.

Virgin Galactic, the company that Branson started to fly flights into edge of space (and back again) unveiled SpaceShipTwo this past week in New Mexico. Dubbed the New Mexico Spaceport the spaceplane, named Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise (after the starship of "Star Trek" fame) hopes to begin making regular trips into sub-orbital space within a few years. Tickets to the maiden flight have already been sold for tens of thousands of dollars and the the amazing thing about it? The VSS Enterprise hasn't even flown yet. Although tests are forthcoming (and are expected to be successful), permitting and licensing are to follow but what it again proves is that Branson is looking to become a pioneer in a business that will undoubtedly pick up within a few years.

Don't believe me? Well think about it. When commercial aviation began it was truly a unique experience and it was something that not everyone could experience. Within a few years, as with any market, as options grew, prices came down and it became much more affordable. But why look at something that's been around for nearly a century now? Look at LCD and Plasma HDTVs. When they first came out you needed to mortgage your house (again) to be able to afford one but now it's almost to the point that you can get a decent sized one for the same price as filling up your average sized SUV for the week. But what it takes is for someone to prove that it's a viable industry, product or service. For now, flights on the VSS Enterprise may only be something people who shop in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalogue can afford but within a few years I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing similar lights launch from airports around the world. And why not? I'd rather spend more to reach my destination in less time (with a little bit of weightlessness to boot) than I would travelling nearly 24 hours to get to another part of the world. Richard Branson and the Virgin Group will be a major component in making that 'fantasy' a reality.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Is This Really News?

These days I tend to dread watching the news but it's not for the reasons you might think. These days it seems that we tend to get hung up on news items that have no business being news items. Since the State Dinner held for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a few weeks ago now not much news has been made about what was discussed between the President and Singh. Rather the media appears to be more focused on Tareq and Michaele Salahi who 'crashed' the party and have raised a stink that has long after the party ended. After the initial 'who is to blame' finally died down a bit now comes news that the couple will be subpoenaed to testify before Congress as to why they attended the party when they were clearly not invited. What I'm beginning to wonder is whether this is being blown up to even larger proportions simply because this pair was making headlines and were set to appear on a reality show 'The Real Housewives of DC'?

I don't understand why they are the issue. Shouldn't the issue be how they managed to penetrate security in the first place? The Secret Service is tasked with keeping the President and First Family safe so then why are we focusing our news on whether or not Salahi's phone did or did not die before receiving the call that informed him that he and his wife were in fact not invited to the party. What does it matter? This is something that the investigative committee needs to find out; I don't need to know about it, at least not every single day.

For example today there was a major article in the Washington Post about how Michaele Salahi is listed as being part of the Washington Redskins Cheerleader alumni even though she never cheered at a single game. She claims she did even though she can't say with whom, she can't furnish any proof and in reading interviews with other cheerleaders it was clear that she couldn't cheer either. If nothing else at least we know she (and her husband apparently) are very good at manipulating their way into fancy situations. When I checked out the headlines this morning I was surprised to see that before many other important (in fact even more important) stories was the headline about the Salahis and Tiger Woods.

Speaking of Tiger Woods; again I ask the question, why should I care? I understand that Woods is a public figure so his case will obviously garner more attention than the average person's may have but still, it's his personal problem between he and his wife. I don't need to listen to recordings of his cell phone calls or see copies of mails he sent to various women. There are more important things to discuss and talk about. And it's not just the entertainment or sports media focusing on the story either; the amount of time that Fox News (the self-proclaimed bastion of 'fair and balanced' news) has covered these two stories to such a degree that it reminds me of the time that Anna Nicole Smith passed away from a drug overdose. I remember that they spent 45 minutes (45!!) covering her death. I know it was 45 minutes because I was at the gym that evening and that's how long I was on the treadmill.

So many times these days we start seeing headlines that have no business being there. Certainly these are noteworthy news bits but they are noteworthy and not newsworthy (in my opinion). I don't think it's worth looking into to the degree that many media outlets are. Granted there aren't very many 'feel good' stories out there and the disappointing news about Tiger Woods's "indiscretions" are going to tarnish the good-boy image he had garnered over the years, it still doesn't justify the time that is spent on this case. Rather than worrying about world events we seem to be focused on entertainment news. Definitely a step that should make us all a little worried.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Yet Another Surge

I remember when the declaration was made that US forces would be sent to Afghanistan. In the months following the attacks of September 11th it was inevitable that troops would be sent to quell an enemy that had run of a nation and that had provided a base to some of the most devious terrorist masterminds the world had seen. Most allied nations were with us as well. After seeing the horror and devastation that was visited upon New York and Washington it wasn't surprising to see so many nations coming out in support of the proposed war in Afghanistan. But things didn't quite work out the way they should have. Rather than sending an overwhelming force to Afghanistan to stop the Taliban and al-Queda, the military was sent over in relatively smaller numbers and was expected to subdue the organizations that ran the terrorist networks.

Well when US forces managed to oust the corrupt and malicious Taliban government it seemed like mission accomplished and now on to Iraq to many people. Unfortunately what many of us fail to realize is that unlike wars in the past where there was a clear cut definition of who was our enemy and who were our allies, in Afghanistan those lines are somewhat more muddled. You see the main problem, as I see it, is the fact that just ousting the central government from Kabul was not the main problem. That was part of it; but what needs to be realized (and I believe that many of our military leaders and government leaders should be aware of this) is that Afghanistan is made up of more than just a single people but numerous tribes and villages spread across the country. Not all of them recognize or care about the government in Kabul. They are so far flung that they often side with whomever appears to be most sympathetic to them or who seems to understand them better.

Another way to think of it is to consider that if Canadians came to the US and declared that our federal government was corrupt and evil and they were run off into the countryside, would our nation come to a standstill? No. Simply because power also rests in the states and that is more or less what is happening in Afghanistan. That being the case then how can you reasonably attempt to quell an additional uprising by various tribals who are often inspired by terrorist networks like al-Queda? This isn't like Germany in World War II where once the Nazi party was finally defeated that the conflict could end and the rebuilding could begin. This is country where even the basics and things we take for granted here are something relatively unknown and often times have no real value.

So what if we bring democracy to this nation and allow it to thrive? If the people of Afghanistan feel that there is still unfair religious bias in a government that's in power then do you think they'll support it? They'd rather support the terrorists that fight against the perception of a corrupt government. So what does this have to do with the surge that President Obama introduced to the American people last night? Simply that depending on what the scope of this surge and the mission of those in the military that will be going to Afghanistan (or are already there) really is this surge can either end up being a good thing or a very bad thing. It will be a good thing if realistic and plausible solution that should be spelled out. It will be a bad thing if it becomes a self-perpetuating problem that will continue ad naseum.

The mission in Afghanistan was the one that really needed to be accomplished before we began looking at other 'clear and present dangers'. Iraq was just one problem spot in the world and although there is no longer any evidence that the inevitable nuclear missle strike that Iraq supposedly had is gone we can concentrate on fighting those that really attacked us on 9/11. President Bush made a bold statement at the time during which he said to those nations that harbored terrorists, "you're either with us or you are against us". Those are prophetic words and after only completing part of the mission in the country, it was left at the wayside when Iraq took center stage. And if, as many people still believe, that Iraq was a danger than needed to be quelled sooner rather than later then what about other nations that have also shown signs of unrest and genocide like North Korea, Sudan, Mogadishu, Rwanda? The list can go on but what should be done should be a realistic option.