Friday, January 29, 2010

Weighing In on Employee Discounts at Whole Foods

Most every retail store I have heard of usually offers up discounts to its employees. Sure there are differences in how much of a discount one can earn depending on their years in service or the type of position they have; but Whole Foods, the popular supermarket, has come under a bit of fire for the way they implement their employee discounts. It was recently brought to light (by protests and lawsuits) that the company's policy to adjust employee discounts based on an employee's weight was a form of discrimination and has led to some discussion on whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that the management at Whole Foods has done.

These days there is a lot more focus on the fact that obesity is on the rise and good eating habits are on the decline. Despite the fact that there is more awareness of the need to be healthy, there hasn't been a great deal of success in curbing the bad habits of some. So now here comes Whole Foods, a supermarket that prides itself on quality food and organic products which are supposed to be healthier for us. That being said it isn't surprising that their prices are higher than the average grocery store. For an employee it would be incentive to shop at the store if you're getting a discount on their prices but to base it on your general health level (i.e. weight) is a bit much for some people.

Now I haven't always been of a relatively healthy weight. I was much heavier for a number of years before I finally managed to work off a lot of the poundage, still, it's hard enough trying to maintain a healthy weight in the face of so much temptation. Perhaps the discount is meant to motivate people who might be on the heavier side feel motivated to lose more weight and get healthy if it means getting a bigger discount on their grocery bill. It's a good theory but I don't know if it will have the effect that Whole Foods manangement expects. Weight issues are a touchy subject for a lot of people and I know that some will retort by stating that their weight is a result of glandular problems or because they are predisposed to having a heavier body type which is fine, but then again that can't be the case for everyone who is of a unhealthy weight type.

As much as it may be a painful or hurtful discussion point for some people, there sometimes needs to be a tangible benefit to attaining a goal (in this case weight loss) and reaping the benefits. I agree that there must be some resentment over this policy at Whole Foods but if the managers figure that the employee, overweight or not, is working there then they are already halfway to getting into a healthier lifestyle when you figure that an employee would want to use their discount to purchase groceries which are a necessity rather than a luxury. So then why not add an extra carrot in front of the employees if it's going to motivate them to lose weight and get in shape?


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What's in a Game?

Kevin T. Singer is currently serving a life sentence for first-degree intentional homicide in Wisconsin's Waupun prison. The crime that Singer committed was that he intentionally bludgeoned his sister's boyfriend to death with a sledgehammer. Found guilty in 2002, he's been serving his term out in relative peace. Recently however, one of his favorite pastimes was denied to him due to a court ruling that the pastime he was pursuing "promotes fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling." Now on the surface this seems like a potential description of some aspects of NFL football but the prison officials and courts were actually referring to the fantasy role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons.

Long a cult favorite among role playing game enthusiasts, Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D) is a 'game' in which players have characters whom they control and who have powers that often delve into fantasy. The purpose of the game is to create adventures in which the characters participate. Unlike traditional boardgames, depending on the rules a particular group is following, a narrator will describe the game to the players and the players will accordingly control their players through a roll of the dice. Games of this type can become more and more complex depending upon the experience of the players or how much time the players have to work out this particular 'fantasy'. Generally populated with characters elves and orcs and the like D&D has been a cult favorite of players for many years and in fact, Singer stated that he had been playing the game since he was a child (he is now 33).

Now the arguement that was given by the Prison and the courts was that games of this sort could promote gang-mentality among prisoners and was conducive to violence among inmates. This conclusion was reached when an anonymous note was given to prison officials expressing concern at the fact that Singer and three other inmates were forming a 'gang' focused on playing the game. The law cracked down and within a short time, all material which Singer had related to the games (including books, magazines and a 96-page manuscript he had written in almost a story-like format) were confiscated. Now while I agree that within the letter of the law the prison and courts acted properly, I think it's a bit much to crack down on a fantasy game where prisoners are limited to using their imagination (more or less) than anything else.

I mean from what I know, I don't think prisons currently ban playing basketball or football, they certainly allow card games and other recreational activities so then why simply crack down on D&D. Perhaps it's the nerdy part of me coming to the forefront but if it's okay for prisoners to play football (which is also a competitive sport that could be considered 'gang'-forming) then why not ban it? Is the arguement in that case that football doesn't promote 'escapist' tendencies? Perhaps it is a very naive thought but my understanding is that no one actually wants to be in prison; so doesn't it make sense that regardless of whether they are playing checkers or D&D that every single prisoner would be harboring escapist tendencies?

At present, appeals courts have denied Singer's charges that his first amendment rights are being stifled. The courts also argue that it's within a prison's rights to deny prisoners their right to certain forms of entertainment since prison is supposed to be a form of punishment and not a form of recreation. If that's the case then perhaps it makes a little bit of sense but given the rationale of wanting prevent gang mentality or to curb escapist tendencies makes me feel like they are reaching for straws in making their decision.


Monday, January 25, 2010

The Oddity That is Human Nature

By now, people the world over have heard and are aware of the devastating earthquake that leveled the island nation of Haiti a few weeks ago. In that time the world has responded with tremendous kindness by dispatching rescue teams, collecting donations, and doing anything and everything that they can to try and improve the situation in the already impoverished nation. It seems that people everywhere are reaching out to help Haiti in whatever way they can. But what this episode has also highlighted are some of the lighter and darker aspects of human nature.

Take for example the incident that was covered by CNN on Friday of last week. A reporter and his cameraman were filming what they believed to be the arrest of three men in Port-Au-Prince who were accused of looting when several shots rang out. When the reporter and crew looked back to the scene again and were shocked to see three men laying on the ground. Upon investigating they were shocked to see that the three men had been wounded (one fatally) for doing nothing more than taking a bag of rice that had fallen from the back of a truck. One of the wounded men stated that the truck driver had given the rice bag to the men while another stated that the rice had simply fallen into the street but regardless of the reason why, what is most disquieting is the fact that the police officer involved felt that such a level of violence was necessary to maintain the peace and to prevent looting.

It's sad to see that while on the one hand there is a desire to maintain peace and order amid the chaos of the aftermath, it's not worth it if it is going to result in violence on the part of authorities. Not having been to Haiti or (fortunately) having never experienced such a disaster it is hard to say what anyone's reaction would be but I'm sure we could see similar things happen virtually anywhere in the world. It's easy for us to sit thousands of miles away and speak out against the violence and the seemingly random acts of violence in and around Port-Au-Prince but we can never know what it's like unless we go there. I'm not trying to justify the acts of the police officer (whose commisioner arrived on the scene shortly thereafter to condemn the attack) but one can see how different reactions are based on where we are in relation to the disaster.

We all feel the need to help in some way when we see suffering somplace. It's hard to imagine people not being affected in some way by seeing footage of starving families and injured people staring at the remains of their homes. We see these images and we see them as an impartial observer. Seeing it on television takes it out of that sense of reality for me in some ways. But in seeing the results of this recent shooting in Haiti, that reality did sink in and I began to wonder why the reporter didn't act to do anything. Seeing injured people on the ground, rather than zooming in to film the individual, put the camera down and render assistance. It's clear that it wasn't a serious threat so why not help? Why do their only duty and report the news? People should want to do something.

In Hollywood there was certainly an outpouring of support when George Clooney managed to gather a veritable plethora of entertainment talent to gather funds to aid in Haiti's resurgence. But for every group attempting to do good you also see people who are trying to justify why we shouldn't do anything or to look at our nation's actions with cynicism. People like Rush Limbaugh were particularly vocal in telling the nation that no more aid should be sent to Haiti since we already did so much for the nation. Ministers from France come out and start claiming that the US isn't helping so much as coming in to occupy the country. Is that what these people really think? Is that what they really feel? Are they of the opinion that the work our military and aid organizations are doing over there is for political reasons?

To be honest, what political leverage is there to be gained by aiding Haiti? Is Haiti an important nation on the UN Security Council? Does it have a vast army that could certainly help us in our efforts in the Middle East and Asia? Does it have vast oil reserves that could help us drive down energy costs? It has none of these things so then why bother helping? Because it is the right thing to do. Certainly one could argue that one political reason for helping Haiti is to improve the standing of the country after years of discontent following the invasion of Iraq but by the same token, what was President Bush's motivation for helping Indonesia after their devastating tsunami a few years ago? Nothing more than doing the right thing. Let's end the cynicism and do the right thing. It's what I have always felt made our nation great.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reaching an Obvious Conclusion

There are times when I'm driving into work where I'll be listening to the news and I'll wonder why research on certain subjects was even done. I mean it's one thing if scientists are conducting a study because they want to discover something new but it's something else completely when you hear conclusions to research that should have been blatantly obvious but I suppose maybe it isn't. I suppose it's just a means of raising awareness and making the obvious even more so, so that people will take positive action. The latest study that I heard about reached the conclusion that kids are texting and playing games on cell phones even more than actually talking on them. But what this means is that there have been increases in the number of "distracted activity" incidents.

For example, the story on the radio interviewed a young girl who had been hit by a car (at low speed apparently) when the girl walked into the street while typing a text to her BFF (best friend forever). Now I don't have a scientific degree nor do I have a PhD in behavioral science but even I could have told you that people will start suffering injuries the more they begin to text or do other activities which keep them from looking up at where they're going. I mean did it really take a scientific study to tell us that driving and texting at the same time (and now walking and texting) would lead to increasing numbers of accidents and incidents?

But now parents have something else to worry and complain about when it comes to cell phones. Not only are they making it dangerous for younger users to drive and walk but it's having other effects as well, and none of them are good. Recent studies over the past few years have found that the number of nearsighted people has been on the rise. Since the 1970's the number of people reporting being nearsighted has gone up by nearly 66%. The reason being there are many more activities in which we are required to focus on a small screen. When I was growing up the doctors believed it was due to the fact that I'm such a voracious reader but now doctors feel it may make some contribution but not much. I couldn't help but chuckle when they brushed off reading as being the reason and pointed to small screens.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If we're texting so much more it means we're staring at the small screen of a cell phone. We're focusing our eyes on a smaller space and if you're doing it while moving, your eyes have to concentrate more so that they can maintain that focus. Just the way many people get headaches reading in moving cars, similar things happen when using cell phones. But what about those who are too young to use or have a cell phone? Well who says that iPods or Game Boy screens are any better. Concentrating on a small area can lead to the same type of result. Not to mention the little TVs that so many parents have in their cars now to distract their kids for the ten minute drive to the dry cleaner. Is it really necessary to do all that?

And then parents get confused when doctors report that their kids have attention disorders. Is it any wonder when we have so many forms of stimulus and so little time to take advantage of it all? I'd like to hear about researchers looking into ways to prevent some of these problems and again by not stating the obvious. By explaining that people who don't text while walking or who don't spend more than half an hour staring at their Game Boy screens won't develop eye problems. That much I could figure out on my own even with my limited scientific knowledge.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bigger and Better Things

I was watching the NFL Playoffs this weekend and though the Redskins were nowhere in sight (although they were shown in various teams 'highlights' reels for allowing touchdowns or missing tackles) I was happy to see that the Cowboys didn't fare much better. After trouncing the Eagles not once but twice to make it to the playoffs, the Cowboys were the last hope for the NFC East division but alas it came to no avail. Shortly after the game, speculation began as to whether Dallas coach Wade Phillips would be let go from his post. After all, after numerous trips to the playoffs, the Cowboys had yet to advance beyond and return to their Super Bowl-winning ways of the 1990's. However, owner Jerry Jones knew that he had a good coach and a good team that needs a bit of tweaking (and a bit of better luck) but that the parts of the puzzle were all there. They just had to come together.

And when I heard that Phillips was signed on to continue coaching, I knew that he would do an even better job because his bosses (despite his loss) saw the value in keeping him. So it was nice to hear a similar story with San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner. After losing a fairly close game to the New York Jets, there was a great deal of speculation that Turner would not be signed on to an extended contract (therefore making next year his final year and one in which he could be considered a 'lame duck'). But this morning I was surprised to find that Turner had been signed to a three-year extension on his contract and that he would retain his spot with the Chargers. Remembering him from his time in Washington, I couldn't help but feel just a bit happy for him.

After the way in which Turner was unceremoniously removed from his post with the 'Skins it was heartening to see that not all teams treat their coaches that way. Sure one can argue that Turner is doing far better in San Diego than he ever did in Washington or Oakland but the fact remains that he has been consistent. Most seasons have seen the Chargers get off to a slow start before launching into a winning streak that has seen them win their division the last three years. Now for some that isn't enough. To make the playoffs consistently isn't a good enough result, the fans in San Diego want to see their team finally return to the Super Bowl. I can understand that. I mean the Redskins (and their fans) have been seeking to see the team to return to the Super Bowl for decades now. Hell; I'd be happy to see the team even make it to the playoffs more than once every four years. I know beggars can't be choosers but we've been begging for so long here in Washington that we have the right to be choosy.

But one fact that I can't let go of is the fact that at one point, Norv Turner was considered to have bad mojo that would mean any team he worked with would fail. But one thing which I think was holding him back was the fact that he didn't get the team he needed. Looking back at who he had and how much say he had here in Washington leads me to conclude that it isn't so much the players or coaches that are the problem but the way in which the system has worked (or failed to work) for so long. I can rattle off names of players and coaches who left Washington and went on to have very good careers elsewhere where the owners weren't as controlling as Snyder in Washington. So many quarterbacks who were considered mediocre went on to play for teams where they had the receivers they so desperately needed. Same for running backs and the offensive line they required.

They are all parts of the puzzle which has so far eluded the Redskins. I have hope now that Shanahan is here that things will improve given the changes in the way in which the Skins foresee Shanahan choosing players and making roster decisions. I'd like to see Shanahan succeed, not because I think it's high time that the Redskins do go to the playoffs (and beyond) and not because I think Shanahan is a good coach, but because I'm tired of seeing players and personnel flounder in DC only to other teams and live up to their potential. Patience is something that the fans in Washington have shown a lot of but it's time that they finally get a chance to show their patience was warranted.

Labels: ,

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Sign of Things to Come?

I remember 12 years ago when James Cameron took to the stage at the Golden Globes numerous times when his film, "Titanic" raked in the awards in what is generally considered a precursor to the outcome at the Oscars (to be held in March I believe). At that time "Titanic" managed to beat out other films that many considered to be superior films in terms of acting and story ("Good Will Hunting" among them... the film that made Matt Damon more or less a household name). Many people felt that "Titanic" was simply riding the wave of public popularity and that it didn't truly deserve the awards that it had won. Now over a decade later, James Cameron's film "Avatar" appears to be on the verge or repeating that feat.

After taking home the Golden Globe for Best Director and Best Picture last evening, there is a strong chance that Cameron and the film will earn nominations in the same categories come Oscar time. Not only that but I'm quite certain that it will earn many nominations in technical categories along with some of the more traditional ones including music, sound, set design and editing. Whether "Avatar" deserves the awards or not is something the voters will determine but one thing remains certain, that Cameron has once again managed to change the way we look at films and how films will be made into the future.

While Martin Scorcese was honored for the work that he has done over the past decades not only in terms of filmmaking but preservation as well, I couldn't help but wonder if Cameron would share in these accolades years hence. While his movies have never been high people's lists as having acting tour de force performances, there have been the occasional portrayals that have earned praise (Sigourney Weaver for "Aliens" in 1986 for one). But when I think of Cameron's lasting legacy I can't help but think of the technical achievements that he helped usher in that have changed movies. Much the way in which George Lucas helped revolutionize special effects in 1977 in "Star Wars", I think Cameron has similarly pushed the envelope in terms of technical superiority and that has made tremendous difference in how movies are seen.

Anyone who has seen "Avatar" in 3D will tell you that more than anything, the experience helped bring the story to life in a way that it had never been done before. Gone were the old tricks of 3D where something came flying at the camera so that the audience would be reminded, "Hey, we're watching a 3D movie" but rather the effects were kept subtle so that the focus did not go away from the characters and story. Just as "Titanic" literally sunk us (excuse the pun) into the world of the doomed ocean liner, "Avatar" takes us to the future and brings it right before our eyes (again... excuse the pun). And to me that's what makes Cameron's contributions so significant and worthy of the honors he's earned thus far.

When he began using special effects in his films such as "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" people stopped and took notice. With "Titanic" again the special effects were in the background and helped to convey the story, not be the story. Similarly in "Avatar" the effects and 3D visuals help carry the story, not detract from it. Perhaps it is a sign of how movies will be in the coming years. And why not? Think of the last time you've seen a movie where visual effects weren't incorporated in some shape or form. So then perhaps the detractors to Cameron's awards should remember that these awards not only honor the movie but also in the way they push the entire art. There may be other movies out there that deserve more praise than "Avatar" but "Avatar" has certainly changed the way in which we see movies.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Mysterious Ways... Of Thinking

While most of the world is looking to provide aid to the island of Haiti after a powerful earthquake struck earlier in the week, some are already looking for answers as to why this tragic event had to occur. Many point to the fact that scientists had predicted that an earthquake of magnitude up to 7.2 on the Richter scale could strike the island at any times. Within a few years of that prediction it's sad to say that it came true. That's one explanation for why things happened that way on the tiny island nation but others have a 'different' view of things. Televangelist Pat Robertson appeared on television shortly after the rescue efforts in Haiti began and told his viewers that this tragedy was a result of Haitians having made a 'pact with the devil' during their rebellion against the French in the 18th Century.

Now I believe the expression that "God works in mysterious ways" but do religious leaders like Robertson truly believe that it's God's will to have such devastation visited upon the people of Haiti? Roberston's claim is based on reports from around 1791 in which Haitians declared that they swore allegiance to the devil if he promised them victory over the French colonists. Robertson backs his claim by pointing out that ever since then, the Dominican Republic (which is also shares the island) has been spared the problems that Haiti seems to have had since its becoming an independent nation. But regardless, isn't it a bit cheap to 'hit' a country when it's down? To put it in perspective, what would the reaction of our nation have been if North Korea declared that the attacks were divine retribution on our nation for not following the will of God.

Folks like Robertson and Rush Limbaugh who quickly called upon their fans to refrain from sending donations to help Haiti seem to view things far differently for their own reasons. It's a sad thing to see. It makes me proud when I see rescue workers from not only our country but others as well, rushing to lend assistance in a time of need. After the tsunami in Indonesia several years ago and now in Haiti, it cannot be denied that the US responds quickly and wholeheartedly. To me that's a sign of positiveness that should be fostered rather than viewing it as something that is based on political agenda or ideology. Limbaugh proclaimed that the US had already provided ample assistance to Haiti in the past and there was no need to provide more. Hopefully for Limbaugh then the doctor's at his hospital won't take the same view when he goes there the next time he has chest pains.

Now anyone who speaks out again Robertson or seeks to censure him is likely to also face criticism from some Christian groups who feel that their religion has been marginalized in this era of political correctness. Perhaps that's true to an extent. If we look at how commercialized some (originally) religious holidays have become it's no surprise that they feel that way. However, I think what raises people's ires is not the fact that it's a Christian speaking but the condescending way in which they will often talk about other religions. Recently when Britt Hume made a statement to the effect that Tiger Woods should consider turning from Buddhism to Christianity due to the fact that Christianity allows for forgiveness while Buddhism doesn't led many to raise a stink.

Perhaps there is salvation for Tiger Woods or the people of Haiti by turning to God and believing that He is on their side and is the answer to salvation. But then I would ask these same advocates to consider that German soldiers during World War I and World War II had "Gott mit uns" (or "God is with us") stamped on their belt buckles. I don't believe this was based on false faith or pacts with the Devil or any other explination. If that was the case and it was based on a true religious belief then how does that explain or justify the Holocaust? How does it explain that they lost the war? If God was with them then who was with the Allies? Did they not also have faith in God to see them through to victory? God works in mysterious ways and possibly even more mysterious than most religious leaders could ever understand. But I don't think God, no matter how vengeful He may be, would advocate 'kicking' a country when it's down.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

On a Level Playing Field?

This past Monday, Mark McGwire, the baseball player who captured the world's attention when he broke the record for number of home runs hit in a single year back in 1998, admitted that during that time he had taken steroids. In the wake of investigations into whether baseball players were using performance enhancing drugs or not, McGwire had raised suspicion among many given the fact that he wanted immunity in exchange for his testimony. Why would that be the case unless there was some reason for him to have fear. The truth came out on Monday when McGwire admitted to sports reporter Bob Costas about his past usage. McGwire's teary admission looked genuine and heartfelt though many of those that didn't have as much public adulation during their admission to using drugs (Jose Canseco) didn't have much to say in support of him and I can understand that.

Now I'm no big fan of baseball but I know enough about the game to know that its certainly a different game than when I was a kid and used to watch a bit more due to my friends in elementary school. As with most sports these days, performance is what determines how much a player is going to get paid and unless you are a big name star, there isn't much hope for raking in the big bucks. I mean for every Michael Jordan in basketball, there are at least twenty other players who aren't really known and will likely never be anything more (in the public's eye) than a name on a roster. For a team like the Redskins, this was the year where many of these players had a chance to shine and prove that you don't have to be a big name to impact the future of the team. But not every player (regardless of the sport) may get the opportunity to do that. So then it comes down to how well you perform when it really matters.

McGwire came to fame in 1998 when his home run record began creeping up close to Roger Maris's 1961 record of 61 home runs in a season. Now even then people argued that when Maris beat Babe Ruth's record in 1961, he played in more total games than Ruth and similarly McGwire also had more games in which to play in order to get home runs so again the question arose whether or not the record was actually shattered or not. At that time of course there was no mention of doping or steroids as no one really spoke out about it. It's understandable; why ask about something when you don't think there's anything to ask about. But it leads me to a question about how we choose to look at performance of players.

People make the arguement that McGwire's record making season was assisted by the addtion of more games than what Ruth originally played and so people felt it unfair that a record which had stood for many years would be broken again by someone who had an advantage of a longer season. McGwire, broke this record playing in the 145th game (Ruth played 154 the year he set the record) of his season and so the arguement was put to rest. But when Barry Bonds broke the record three years later and subsequent investigations revealed that he used steroids as well, suddenly the debate of 'playing on a level field' came up again. Many were of the opinion that Bonds had an unfair advantage in that he used drugs to help his performance whereas previous record holders (presumably this only now includes Babe Ruth and Roger Maris given McGwire's admission) played of their volition.

Now some might say that regardless of what drugs a player may or may not have used, the fact remains that the player still managed to perform at a level high enough to set a record in the first place. I mean I can see that arguement making a little sense. After all, if I shoot myself full of steroids I may become a muscle bound behemoth but that doesn't mean I'm going to suddenly start playing at the level like McGwire, Bonds or Canseco. Skill is still involved and that's what should be remembered, even if as the public more or less damns these figures for their transgressions.

Most of us are raised to believe that cheating isn't right and that it's the wrong thing to do to attempt to guarentee victory. Now while I feel that McGwire finally admitting to using steroids was the right thing to do (though it's too little too late) I think it's not fair to count his accolades unless and until the true spread of steroid usage within Major League Baseball is revealed. I mean if there was debate over the comparison of McGwire to Maris or Ruth being fair based on the number of games they played then why not over whether they used drugs or not. To me it would be unfair if one player used them and the other one didn't (as could be the case with McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa); so then why don't the majority of the players just come out and admit that they use steroids. And those that don't? Well they should start shouldn't they? I mean if we want the playing field to be level, and if the majority of players are using them anyways, then why not make it easy for everyone?


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A New Soapbox for Fox

I can't say that I'm very surprised by the announcement earlier in the week that former Governor and former Vice-Presidential Running Mate and original Rogue, Sarah Palin, had signed a deal to become a commentator on Fox News. I'm just surprised that it took this long for her to land the gig. In all honesty, I'm surprised this deal didn't get inked in the days following her resignation from the post of Governor of Alaska. I assumed that as soon as she was free from the mundane duties of running the state in charge of watching Russia and waving when Putin flies overhead, Palin would have been signed to be a commentator so that she could continue to spread her message and world view. It took a few months and even required the publication of her book (aptly titled "Going Rogue") but it seems that Palin will finally be back on television to report her views on the news rather than making it.

Now news reporting isn't something new for Palin as she was a broadcaster in Alaska before she turned her attention to politics. I have no doubt that Palin will deliver the news off of the teleprompter with as much vim and vigour as she ever showed on the campaign trail leading up to the last Presidential elections. After leaving that profession for the political arena however things were a little different. I won't say that I fully believe all the stories coming out about Palin and her trials and tribulations during her campaign with McCain but who knows, behind every story there must be some small grain of truth. But be that as it may, I think Palin made it clear that she was bothered by the fact that the media... make that the elite media (who is everyone except Fox) asked her "gotcha" questions that were meant to make her look dumb. Nevermind that she couldn't answer questions on the fly. As her interview on Fox News with Shawn Hannity showed, she could still answer questions with poise when they were posed to her in a very nice manner.

But since the end of the campaign and her defeat, Palin has attempted to maintain a public persona. She continues to visit cities around the nation in support of her book sales and signings. When asked by the media (elite or otherwise) about her opinion on this, that and the other thing, Palin always has some answer up her sleeve with a wink and a "you betcha" for good measure. Perhaps I'm being just a bit condescending (just a bit) but I really don't see what qualifies Palin to be a commentator other than the fact that she is sure to draw in an audience who will just be gaga over the fact that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin will be the conservative television equivalents of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

For Palin the move appears to make the best sense. Why wait to make news or be deemed newsworthy. As a commentator there will be plenty of opportunity for her to be asked for her opinion on what is happening in the world. Like it or not she is going to become an even more prominent fixture on television and for better or for worse, people are going to fall for the facade that will undoubtedly be put up. I'm sure the folks at Fox, who have a soft corner for Palin and her views (despite their half-hearted attempts to say otherwise) polish up the rough edges in order to paint a picture of a woman who is well-versed in the happenings of the world and is ready to take on the challenge of being President. Frankly I shudder to think about what that could potentially mean for our country.

Now of course this means that if Palin does want to run for President in 2012 then she'll need to resign from this position prior to starting her run. According to the rules as I understand them, a Presidential candidate can't have free access to television (or be paid to be on television) unless all candidates have equal access to such facilities. Still, in the meantime she'll get her stories out there and will attempt to spread her message to rally the sympathetic and supportive masses to her cause. Two years is a long time for someone to prepare for an election and that's what I believe she's doing. What she'll have a harder time convincing people (especially those who will be on the fence) is what she's done to actually take action. I'm not talking about being Governor (which is a job she would have left nearly four years earlier by the time of the next election) but in general. Being a commentator on television will likely mean less time in Alaska and more time with the rest of the Beltway Bandits or the 'Fat Cats of Washington'. Hmmm... seems like her polish is already starting to show signs of tarnish already.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

No Pants? No Panic

I was reading the news this morning when I heard that this past Sunday was officially the unofficial day for No Pants Subway Rides. The concept (started by a group called Improv Everywhere whose charter is to "scenes of chaos and joy in public places.") is for participants to assemble at Subway stations or on trains and then calmly and quietly strip down to their undies an then act as if nothing unusual is going on. What started out as an event staged by seven people in one city (I believe it was New York) has become a phenomenon that has spread to many other cities around the world. Now what I find highly ironic is that while there were reports of people reacting with a bit of surprise at the actions of some of the folks who suddenly began stripping, there was no other negative reaction to the incidents.

I began to think about that. Here we are nearly three weeks after an incident on an airliner where a passenger was attempting to blow up a plane on Christmas Day by smuggling explosives in his underwear. When vigilant passengers realized what was going on, the would-be terrorist was set upon and his attempted attack was thwarted. That was simply the case of one man attempting a dasterdly deed but what about if dozens of people had attempted to do the same thing? Now I'm not saying that something meant to be a humorous and unexpected incident is a bad thing but you have to wonder why there weren't reports of people removing their pants being tackled and injured either by Police or other passengers? Perhaps I wouldn't have been the one to do the actual tackling on either the airline or on the subway (I have never been in that situation so I can't really say) but I wonder what made this situation anymore 'normal' than the other.

I mean think about it; sure in one case (the actual terrorist) was caught because his pants started flaming when he tried to detonate the explosive in his briefs but who's to say that up until that point no one was reacting simply because they thought it was another one of these types of incidents where rather than "No Pants Subway" it was "No Pants Airlines". Thankfully the terrorist attempt was thwarted before an actual explosion occurred but do you see what I'm trying to get at? Here we have a whole bunch of people taking their pants off for no other reason than to take part in a worldwide prank but what are the consequences? I'm not one of those who thinks that these people should be arrested or that there needs to be laws against removing your pants in public. I just think a little common sense should be exercised. Why potentially cause a panic if there's no reason to do so.

And while we're on the topic of panic, I have yet to read about people complaining that there was anything indecent or wrong in people participating in this 'event'. I am even more surprised given the current uproar over passengers being screened at airports using the full-body x-ray scanners. People are contending that they will inadvertently reveal more than the public needs to see even for the sake of security. If that's the case then what about people who are willingly stripping off some of their clothes in public? What about their decency or privacy? I suppose one could argue that people who took part in "No Pants" events are actually helping security rather than hindering it. After all, if you're only wearing your undies I suppose you can't really carry a weapon. Then again....


Friday, January 08, 2010

It's All About How You Think

James Cameron may not rank among the greatest directors for many critics but there is no doubt that his impact on motion pictures has certainly paved the way for many of the current trends in Hollywood. When he made "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" he pushed the envelope in terms of computer graphics and special effects which led to so many of today's special effects driven blockbusters. With "Titanic" he proved that big budget spectacles were still popular if done right and with a gross revenue intake that shot the film into being one of the most successful of all time it's no wonder that many people had high expectations for his next full-length feature and it would be amiss to say that he didn't deliver when it came to "Avatar". But rather than looking at the film as what it was more or less intended to be, a showcase of new camera and film technology with a decent story backing it, some are choosing to look at the film with something other than their 3D glasses.

For those who don't know, a very brief summary of the film is that by the year 2154, the natural resources of Earth have been completely consumed and mankind has gone to the stars to seek out new power sources. One such source, called unobtanium (since it is so hard to find and so rare) can be found on the planet Pandora. However, the native population of the planet, the aliens called the Na'vi are not too enthralled about having their planet stripmined. Nor are they agreeable to relocating their homes just because it happens to reside on a place known to have the largest deposit of unobtanium on the planet. Naturally, the Na'vi tribes are not too happy about the suggestion that their homes be uprooted and moved just so that human miners can then get the mineral so pockets of insurgency began to pop up. In order to counter the insurgency, the United States sends private military contractors to provide security. That's the background of the film but the focus is on a soldier, Jake Sully, who joins the team on Pandora because he is capable of mind-linking into a genetically engineered body that makes him appear like the Na'vi.

Initially sent in to gather intelligence that the military can then use to exploit the Na'vi should war arise, Sully then begins to identify and sympathize with the Na'vi and ultimately joins their forces in order to defeat the humans and free the planet from the invading force. Now this is not the first time a story of this sort has been done. There have been others that share this same general storyline including "Dances with Wolves" and "The Last Samurai" but what sets this version apart is the visual way in which it's presented. The 3D presentation adds a whole new dimension (if you'll excuse the pun) to the film and makes for a very unique experience. Not surprisingly then there has been tremendous success for the film at the box office and in less than a month, the film has already topped $1 billion gross revenue around the world and it doesn't seem that the trend will stop anytime soon.

So then why the backlash in certain sectors? Well some conservative commentators are pointing to the fact that there are some obvious references to the war in Iraq and how the military and America in general are perceived. Many conservatives have openly stated that they feel that this film sends the wrong message and that it glorifies the insurgency within Iraq while vilifying the American military. They feel that it sends the wrong message not only to the American public but to the world as well. After having read that I couldn't do anything but shake my head in a mix of despair and disgust. The reason for that reaction is because I shudder to think that our society has finally descended into a level of cynicism that we really can't enjoy a film for what it is (entertainment) but instead go to great lengths to try and understand the hidden (or blatant) subtext behind the story. If you ask the average filmgoer they probably wouldn't even think about these things. I mean if you ask a kid what their impression of the movie was and they'll probably tell you about the neat creatures, the cool aliens and the battle scenes. Ask the average adult and you'll probably get comments on the beautiful visuals and the wonder of seeing a film brought so vividly to life through 3D technology. Ask the average cynic and they'll tell you that the film does nothing more than glorify the defeat of America.

I then wonder where some of these cynics were when films like "Rambo III" came out. In that film the titular character and defender of freedom Rambo (John J.) fought alongside Afghanistan's Mujaheddin against the Russians. Sure it was during the height of the Cold War and when anyone against the Russians was our unquestioned ally. Even if at that time the Mujaheddin was the Taliban and splinter groups that later became part of Al-Queda. At that time it wasn't cynical but support for freedom I suppose. There was no hidden message in a film like that about the need to support the war (overtly or subvertly) against the Russians. There was no question about how a film like "Red Dawn" (the 1984 original or the forthcoming sequel) were sending a message of fighting for democracy no matter where the battle occurs. Many conservatives point to "Red Dawn" stating the story (about American high schoolers fighting a guerilla-style war against communist invaders in America). There there was no problem with the message of the film because it was what conservatives wanted to see and what they supported. Still, I have always looked at it as more of an action film than anything else; I suppose it just means that we look at things with the eyes we choose to use.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Out With the Old and In With the New

The announcement is only a few hours old but already there is a renewed sense of optimism in Washington given that there's a new coach in town. Former Denver Broncos coach was named head coach and vice president of operations late last night (only a few miles from my house in Tysons Corner) and signed a five-year deal which is reported to pay out about (on average) $7 million per year. Not a bad deal for a coach with a proven record and a talent for getting his team to the playoffs. And once again there's a renewed sense of hope in the city that will likely last until the start of the season in August but then we'll see if this latest move will lead to a recovery of football morale in the city. I'm hopeful too but then again I'm a hopeful who has been hopeful since 1991.

I sometimes wonder about us Washington fans. I mean it takes just a small step to get us excited and optimistic again. When new head coaches were being interviewed two years ago there was a sense of hope that a good decision would be made and when Jim Zorn was finally announced there was hope but I would say it was sharply tinged with a good deal of incredulity as well. Here was someone who was brought in as an offensive coordinator and then was elevated to the position of head coach when you alread had someone waiting in the wings who the previous coach (the great Joe Gibbs) had already coached and worked with closely. Be that as it may, here we are two years later and we're almost right back where we started.

Don't get me wrong, I'm excited about the fact that someone of Mike Shanahan's stature has come to Washington but the fact of the matter is that this isn't the first time (and as much as it pains me to say it... it may not be the last time either). One thing about Washington fans and Dan Snyder as well is the fact that many of us still cling to the memories of Joe Gibbs first tenure as coach and the almost perennial trip to the playoffs. Sure they may not have been to the Super Bowl each and every year but at least there was some hope. As the 20th Century gave way to the 21st, things kind of reversed and it became almost a joke to talk about the playoffs even if the early part of the season was going well. One thing about Washington is the fact that they could rarely close out the way they began. In clinging to that past is it any wonder that Gibbs was brought back?

Now with Shanahan there is hope that the winning ways he had with Denver will somehow be recreated here in Washington should be taken with a large grain of salt and good deal of wishful thinking. It's not that I don't think Shanahan will be effective as coach or that the change will potentially be good for the team but I think by having two people who are familiar with football and who will have final say in player decisions (Dan Snyder is more or less reported to be out of the decision loop) then it speaks well for the future. This power was something that the team should have given the coach a long time ago. Things could have been very different and perhaps a decade was how long it took for Snyder to realize that but let's hope he can carry through on this arrangement and allow the team to get back to their winning ways.

Still, eight months is a long time and lots of things can happen. One thing I would hope is that the fans (but even more so the owner) doesn't look for miraculous changes to occur. Shanahan has big decisions about who to keep and who to let go on the team's current roster. Will we see a massive influx of former and current Denver players into Washington like when Marty Schottenheimer arrived and basically put together a team that was the Kansas City Chiefs in everything but name? Or will he keep elements he thinks have potential? The unknown is what makes it so exciting and is what lulls us Washington fans into a sense of optimism yet again. Who knows what the new season will bring in terms of victory but one thing it has certainly brought back to DC (at least for a little while) is hope.


Monday, January 04, 2010

Down a Familiar Path

And so another era comes to an end in Washington. I can only say that it's fitting that Sunday's loss to San Diego comes with a point margin of three since that's about how many points were needed to defeat the Redskins in majority of their games this year. After two years that began with some amount of hope followed by the bitter truth of reality, it's with some sadness that we heard this morning that Coach Jim Zorn, coach of the Washington Redskins had been fired from his position. I mean it when I say it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. If you've ever seen any of his press conferences he's probably one of the most congenial and kindest coaches to speak to the press, even in the face of some of the most embarassing and unkind situations that Zorn found himself in this year.

Though I agree that some of the blame for Washington's performance these past two years can be piled on Jim Zorn, I think there's plenty of blame to be passed around and now that one spot for piling on the blame has been let go, there's little other place to hide it. First off I think a step in the right direction has been the removal of Vinny Cerrato. Friendship notwithstanding, Cerrato and owner Dan Snyder formed a partnership that had more misses in their acquisition decisions than hits. Sure they've had a handful of good players come along during their tenure at making personnel decisions but it hasn't always been the case. They've had more busts (at times) than a Roman colleseum. But they weren't initially content with looking at themselves when the chinks in the armor of the team became apparent.

Sure it was embarassing to lose a game to the Detroit Lions (a team which had not won a game in nearly 20 starts) in front of the American public. But it was embarassing still to see it happen multiple times in the early part of a season where victories were expected to come without any effort whatsoever. What was anticipated to be a potential 6-0 start became anything but. Then in the tail end of the season, despite the turmoil and the turnover in terms of starters, backups and backup backups the team showed that they had the potential to put together drives, to set up a strong defense and push opponents (even those that were clearly infinitely better) to the edge of defeat. But in the end it was always just a little less than what was needed to secure victory.

When it came time to pin the blame a lot of it fell squarely on the shoulders of Zorn and despite having his play-calling duties stripped from him or the fact that he was almost always being targeted as a scapegoat he showed good character and integrity by continuing to look foward to each and every week with the same vigour that would lead one to question whether his team was actually scraping the bottom of the NFL barrel or if they were bound for the Super Bowl. To me it only says one thing, that one person does not make a team but one person can certainly break one.

Jim Zorn can be blamed for a lot of things but certainly not for all of them. I don't know how keen he was to get some of the players and personnel that he did. It often seemed that name recognition counted for a lot more than actual skill with some Redskins acquisitions. It wasn't always that way but more often than not it was. It's like trainers in a gym will tell you; if you want to lose your gut then you have to do more than just sit-ups. Spot training and fixes will only do so much; you have to do an overall workout that gets the whole system working right. Perhaps losing Zorn on the heels of Cerrato is a good thing but the whole system (i.e., the Redskins) need to be shaped up. It's a whole new year and about eight months to the start of the next season. Time enough to see some change; hopefully for the better.