Friday, February 27, 2009

American Media Trends Dangerously Approaching Canada

Today, the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News published its last edition. The Denver, Colorado paper’s front page headline summed it up simply with “Goodbye, Colorado.”

The paper’s parent company, E.W. Scripps blamed the faltering global economy, which now leaves Denver with just one major daily paper to cover all the news.

As the biggest economic slowdown since The Great Depression of the “dirty thirties” continues to escalate, companies just don’t have the money to advertise in newspapers, people don’t have the extra cash to subscribe to newspapers, and that in turn means newspapers don’t have money to stay afloat.

Add in all the other free sources people have of getting their news – the Internet, television stations, radio stations, even word-of-mouth, and the newspaper business is in a serious state of disarray.

The Rocky Mountain News won’t necessarily be the only paper to fail, other big city dailies in the United States and even up here in Canada may disappear.

The San Francisco Chronicle in the city of the same name, lost $50 million last year, and may be sold or just stop publishing altogether this year if that trend continues, says it’s owners from the Hearst Corp.

Canada’s largest daily newspaper, The Toronto Star, owned by Torstar Media, recently announced that the paper had recorded its biggest loss in the last quarter of 2008. The Toronto Star has already laid off a handful of staff last year, and more layoffs could be coming if the paper continues to lose money. The paper’s direct competitor, The Toronto Sun also laid off staff recently, because of a corporate restructuring and a failing economy.

Although no one wants to lose their job, the real danger with the newspaper industry isn’t job loss – it’s objectivity.

So far, we’re pretty lucky here in Canada, with more than one major daily paper in each of our big cities across the country. This means we can get a wide variety of points of view, opinions and news analysis from different sources.

However, if papers close up shop here, as they are in the States, that could change. And when you only have one voice ringing out, the news can become quite tainted.

There’s this famous quote, about the power of the press, where the real power is by the person who owns the press.

Although the news media is always the first to tell you they are wholly objective, fair and always provide you with all points of view, anyone who’s got half a brain can tell you otherwise. The media is very subjective, covering the news the way their owners want it covered.

To be fair, the news media is usually fair – they will balance their stories with diverse points of view. But they all have a slant, an angle, a bias. And even those young rookie reporters hell-bent on being completely objective will eventually find out just how biased they really are, when they are told to either drop a story, or re-write it based on major changes “from above.”

When I was a journalist, it was always fun to watch these kids fresh out of journalism school try to defend their need to remain objective and unbiased. I even remember watching not just any editor, but THE editor-in-chief escorting one young reporter out of the building after such a debate. We never saw that young reporter again, maybe he got a job selling cars?

Late in the 1990’s there was a newspaper boom in Canada, caused by the now imprisoned media baron Conrad Black. Black had always wanted to own a daily paper in his own country – he already owned dailies in other countries including papers in Israel, London and New York. But Canada always evaded him.

So, he started his own paper, The National Post, based out of Canada’s biggest city, Toronto. Now Toronto, and much of the country were newspaper-heavy, with other big dailies, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun and The Globe and Mail.

Over the years, these papers – and all the other local daily papers across Canada – fought each other for a declining market share. Readerships continue to drop for most papers, as people flock to television, radio and the Internet for their news. Advertisers also were becoming harder to find, especially in today’s economy.

Oversaturation of a market is never good – yes you can have too much of a good thing. Reading a newspaper takes time, and these days, most of us barely have enough time to read one paper, let alone several.

But, without competing papers the news will only come from one side – and that may prove to be a fate far worse than having too many papers to read.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reaching Out Just Isn’t the Same

With email, websites, cell phones, crackberrys – whoops, I mean Blackberrys – you’d think getting in touch with someone would be simple.

Not always the case. Sometimes I’m referred to someone else, or they to me, so my fingers haven’t done the walking long enough to enter their information into my contact list.

This happened recently, where a colleague asked me to call someone at a competing company over something or other. I got the colleagues name and I knew the company’s web address, so I did the logical thing – I surfed over to the company’s website looking for a phone number.

The company, as many companies these days do, had a wealth of information on their website. Everything from a corporate history, a passionate set of guiding principles, even a cornucopia of the executive who’s who, complete with perfectly posed pictures of each higher-up.

But as hard as I looked, there wasn’t a single phone number on this website. No mailing address – a post-office box was found, but I didn’t want to mail a letter. Not even a single email address. Well, that’s not entirely true, if I encountered a problem with the website, I could email their webmaster.

They did have a method of communication – a pretty bland web-based form, which I could fill out, and submit to some unknown individual or group of individuals, to vet, decide whether my message was worthy of passing on, and maybe, just maybe I’d get a response.

Assuming I had all the time in the world to fill out such forms to begin with – that’s a pretty vain assumption on the part of some companies these days.

This isn’t the first time I’ve hit a communications brick wall of sorts, when trying to make contact in the business world.

I know we are all very busy people, but doesn’t it make sense to have some method of direct contact posted on a corporate website?

I can understand the concern with webots sweeping across the Internet, to capture email addresses and phone numbers for use in unsolicited marketing schemes. But there are ways to stop automatic webots from stealing these things, either by using third-party tools, or just from having the right HTML code.

Maybe these companies are overrun with requests for jobs by those seeking work? Or maybe these companies are up to no good.

That’s my line of thinking – nothing good comes from those who hide. They must be up to something and it just ain’t kosher.

Still, my original dilemma exists – how to contact this colleague – I just wanted to invite him to lunch to talk shop and share ideas. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Networking is key in the business world, but some companies that appear to be up to no good make that an almost impossibility.

Maybe I’ll just email the webmaster and tell him or her that their website is broken. No, I didn’t find a bad link, and it didn’t crash my web browser. But it didn’t do what a website should allow you to do – make contact.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Inside Scoop on Poop

This week, Canada’s largest city got into a bit of a poop – literally, as they wanted to ban dogs from a city-run public beach.

The City of Toronto has a program where they certify specific beaches so that people can frolic on the sandy shores, wade into the water, and bake under the summer’s sun. Part of this program prevents people from allowing their pets to frolic on these beaches, to prevent untreated waste from entering the water system.

Local dog lovers got into a hissy fit, and began protesting the new set of laws which would keep them from walking Scruffy on the sandy beaches.

Although all of our waste – yours, mine and Scruffy’s – eventually ends up in the same spot, human waste goes through an extensive filtration and chemical treatment process rendering it completely harmless.

See, when you go to do your business, once you flush it down the toilet, it makes its way to a special filtration plant, which zaps it with ultraviolet rays, soaks it in various chemical compounds, separates the solids from the liquids, eventually reducing it into its basic essential elements (think of the periodic table of elements). These basic essential elements are inert in their individual separate states upon entering our water systems, and harmless to all lives – yours, mine and Scruffy’s.

But when Scruffy goes pishy in the water, there ain’t nothin’ between it and your tap water. Sure, most responsible dog owners stoop and scoop up their pet’s poop. But I have yet to see anyone actually somehow capture their pet’s liquid waste.

That said, even though most of the solid waste is picked up, there is still residual residue left on the ground. And that’s all it takes to leave a bacterial presence, which can find its way into our drinking waters.

But – you smugly say – look at the massive size of the lake – surly a bit of poo in all that water won’t have any effect on you, me or Scruffy?

All it takes is a microscopic amount of Scruffy’s poo to mix with say Spot’s, and maybe for flavour add in a dash of Boinkers, and poof – instant e coli outbreak. The dreaded e coli bacteria isn’t usually fatal, but it can be to our kids, the elderly and anyone suffering from weakened immune systems. The rest of us will usually just get a nasty rash from e coli – if we don’t get sick to our stomachs first. Most people have symptoms similar to the 24-hour flu, stomach cramps, stiffness, muscle cramps, nausea, and it will disappear just as fast as it struck.

Which brings us back to those dog lovers protesting the City of Toronto’s ban of their pets on some – not all – SOME – public beaches.

I suppose these people don’t mind the so-called 24-hour flu, because that’s what it could be like for all of us – including Scruffy’s owner – just because someone wanted to take Scruffy out for walk.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Coyote Way

Recently in Canada’s largest city of Toronto, wild coyotes have been the talk of the town. There have been sightings of these curious creatures so close to people’s homes, that one dog has been killed, a couple others injured, and numerous cats have gone missing.

The debate revolves around one constant theme – what to do about the coyotes?
Some say they should be trapped and relocated someplace else, further from the city. Others are saying they should be killed outright, and still others say it is nature’s way, and nothing can really be done.

Truth is, coyotes are top level carnivores in the food chain, and they are doing what all top level carnivores do when they encounter another top level being – they challenge its existence.

We human beings are the ultimate top level players in the food chain – we have something no other animal on earth has – technology. We build comfy climate-controlled homes to protect us from the elements, we can put up fences to block off areas we want exclusively to ourselves, and we have weapons which we can use from a distance, so when we are challenged in a fight, all one has to do is pull the trigger.

Coyotes don’t have anything but their cunning natural instincts, their claws and their teeth. They are very fast and highly intelligent hunters, but they just can’t compete against urban sprawl.

And that is what the real issue is – urban sprawl – the constant growth of human civilizations into natural habitats.

When forests and fields are bulldozed and paved over, with massive neighbourhoods taking the place of once barren land, the ecosystem that was once there doesn’t just disappear. The ecosystem continues, but all of its elements begin to fight for survival.

In a sense, it is very much like Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” says – a fight of the fittest. Microbiological organisms, insects, gnats, and most of Mother Nature’s teeniest of living things will die off almost instantly. But bigger, stronger and higher levels in the food chain will continue the fight for some time.

That’s what we are seeing in Toronto with the coyotes. The coyote population is struggling for survival against a human-built neighbourhood sprawling onto its turf.

What is the right thing to do?

The coyote population has most likely always lived in the area, but because of people moving into coyote-land, it is becoming less fearful of humans and taking a more aggressive stand for the land and food sources from the land.

Relocating the population may have little value – coyotes are migratory pack animals and could just as easily find their way back. Or if the specific packs removed don’t find their way back to the urban areas of Toronto, other groups that have been there before probably will again.

Killing off the coyotes coming into the city may eliminate the problem immediately, but again, others will follow.

The only real solution is – sadly – to allow urban sprawl. As the city expands, and more of the coyote’s natural feeding grounds are paved over, eventually they will either die off from starvation, or simply move on, searching for other food sources, as there are none in the concrete jungle of a modern city.

That’s the natural way – call it the coyote way – and is just as Darwin wrote many years prior, survival of the fittest.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slum Dog This Oscar

Everyone is talking about the Oscars – the annual awards show where Hollywood pats itself on the back, by honouring the best of the best by handing out gold trophies of naked men called Oscar.

Many industries have awards nights to recognize outstanding achievements in their field. But everyone knows about the Oscars – it’s so Hollywood, with long red carpets, the international press swarming alongside, and of course all those big name celebrities, piling out of equally big fancy limos.

But over the years Hollywood has succumb to its own self glorification. The Oscars – and one can easily make the argument for all the other entertainment awards like the Emmy Awards, the Golden Globes and others – are more about insider industry politics and ego stroking, than about an outstanding quality achievement.

I think I started to see this several years ago, when the Lord of the Rings trilogy was coming out. After the first one came out, and then again when the second arrived, there was buzz in Hollywood that the films were both deserving of some recognition, but they wouldn’t get any until after all the films had been released.
And then, sure enough, the year the final movie was released in the Lord of the Rings saga, it received numerous nominations, and later awards.

I lost faith in the Hollywood award ceremonies when I heard and saw this occur. The whole point of giving someone an Oscar is to recognize their achievements in that specific year – it is an annual award none-the-less! Waiting until all the movies come out in a series not only taints the awards from a timely perspective, but also colors the tone of what the Oscars really are all about – popularity and politics.

I enjoyed the first Lord of the Rings movie, but wasn’t so crazy about the others. Though all were very well done, with awe inspiring landscaped settings, incredible creature creations, and captivating special effects – who’s to say that the last movie was the one deserving of all the awards for the whole series – even though not everyone who worked on the first movie worked on the others?

When an Oscar is given to an actor, director, or even the guys that do the sound effects (called Foley Artists), isn’t that award for a specific movie, in a specific year?

Even if the same actors, directors, and other numerous people that put together the films we line-up for at the theatre worked on a series, who’s to say that their work on the last film will be the best of that year? What if another movie is more deserving? Do we not grant that better film an award, because someone else is already supposed to get the award?

Once there is even the slightest indication that an award is being held for a specific reason for someone or some group, then the whole award ceremony becomes nothing more than a sham, a fraud, something which is rigged from the outset.

And the movie-going public is ultimately the group that suffers most from this fraud. Winning an Oscar, a Golden Globe, an Emmy and other such awards almost always guarantees more of the same from those who won those awards. They become more “marketable” within their professional circle, and will be offered more projects to work on.

Problem is, if the award was given to someone just because they didn’t get the award years ago when they were doing quality work, then they may end up creating more movies, but none of them really great works.

Take Mickey Rourke for example. He won the Golden Globe for his role in “The Wrestler” and was nominated for an Oscar for this role. When was Rourke last in a successful film? Without surfing the net to find the answer, just name the film off the top of your head. Go on – betcha can’t.

Truth is Rourke hasn’t had a successful film in over twenty-years, since 1983’s critically acclaimed “Diner” where he won the Boston Society of Film Critics award for best supporting actor.

The Hollywood press is summing it up as Rourke’s breakout year. If it took you or me over twenty years to finally figure out how to do our jobs, we most likely would have been sacked long before it got to that point in time.

But because the Oscars are more about popularity and politics than about actual real achievements, it’s commonplace to give out awards not based on achievement, but because it’s just time to do it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The American Rock Star – I Mean President

Today, America’s President and Commander-In-Chief, Barak Obama came to Canada. You’d never know it from the public’s reaction – it was one more commonly given to movie and rock stars than politicians.

Obama mania swept across Ottawa – and probably other parts of the country – as the American leader made his first official state visit outside of his country.

Our Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, looked really out of place during much of the public spectacle. When President Obama first greeted him, he asked him if they could step out and wave to the crowd. As soon as President Obama came out to face the crowd – albeit behind bullet-proof Plexiglas over five-inches thick – the crowd cheered and chanted his name.

President Obama, like any celebrity, put on an ear-to-ear smile, and began waving to the crowd. Prime Minister Harper immediately followed the president’s lead, but it just wasn’t the same. Prime Minister Harper looked as out of place waving to the crowd, as a pair of old ladies at a heavy metal concert.

And who can blame our prime minister? No politician has ever received that kind attention here – or anywhere for that matter. Even when American President John F. Kennedy made public appearances, he never had such a fan following.

President Obama is considerably younger than most world leaders, and his ideas speak to generations who typically do not even know who their current leader is. This explains some of the hysteria.

But most of the estimated 2, 500 fans trekking their way to Parliament Hill in the nation’s capital today weren’t teenagers. Most were middle-aged people, many of whom have been displaced by the shrinking economy. And they were out to catch a glimpse of their saviour.

Obama mania isn’t catching on just because of his rock-star presence – it’s a light in the darkness.

Throughout his campaign, and ever since he took office, Obama has been making broad sweeping statements about the need for change, to fix what’s wrong with America and much of the world today.

American President George W. Bush wanted to hold the course, and believed the economy would eventually take care of itself with minimal government interference. Obama clearly has a very different take on how to fix the economy, and those beliefs are a key to his success.

But it’s President Obama’s powerful presence which has propelled him to rock star-like status. He’s charming, good looking, warm, witty, and when he enters a room, people know it.

His speaking style is just as engaging, he’s an image consultant’s dream come true. He uses catch-phrases which quickly become common-speak among Obama mania fans. “Yes we can,” was gobbled up and has been a constant slogan used by President Obama’s awe-struck fans.

While watching the coverage of the American president’s visit to Ottawa today on television, I heard that phrase several times – uttered not just by those in the crowd, but also some of the reporters and news anchors on television.

That slogan, and the president’s image were plastered on t-shirts, hats – even on a couple’s black leather jackets. President Obama isn’t just a politician, he’s become a brand, and his ideas are being marketed to you and me, just like Coke, Pepsi, Pop Tarts and Apple Computers.

Branding aside, what really matters in any country’s leader is that individuals ability to make a difference.

The ideas and values President Obama embraces are important, and may actually do the world a lot of good. He’s the first real environmentalist to lead an American administration. He acknowledged Canada’s importance in trade, the economy, and defending our common continent. He sees the dangers of depending on oil, and is actually willing to tackle the oil industry – which many say could lead to more terrorist attacks, and even assassination attempts on the president himself.

However, if Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reaction today is any indication of President Obama’s power, it isn’t all about the message. Prime Minister Harper appeared star-struck himself upon first meeting the newly sworn-in American president, stumbling out of the warmth of his comfort zone, to wave to President Obama’s fans.

President Obama himself appeared to be leading the prime minister through the hallways, occasionally gesturing and prompting “this way?”

The good thing about having a world leader with rock star-like support is that leader’s plans will actually take shape. Who can say “no” to President Obama? The bad thing about having a world leader with that kind of support is getting lost in the glitter of his celebrity, and not really thinking and asking whether President Obama’s way is the right way.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Taking the Recession Out on the Poor -- Again

We’re all facing tough economic times these days, so when politicians make promises to help the most vulnerable they had better live up to their promises.

Take the mayor of Canada’s largest city to task. Toronto Mayor David Miller promised in his last budget that he would freeze public transit fares for the entire 2009 fiscal year. Last fiscal year, Toronto’s public transit system saw several fare increases.

Today, one of the Toronto’s councillors – albeit from one of the city’s more well-to-do ridings – started floating the idea of raising public transit fares by 10-cents, so that property taxes won’t rise.

Those who take transit are often among the city’s poorest – they are in most major metropolitan cities in North America. The poorest residents often don’t even own their homes – they rent. So property tax increases don’t affect them as much, as say, those who don’t often take public transit, and can afford to own real estate and a nice car.

Like I said at the start of this blog, we’re all facing tough economic times. But why do politicians constantly go after the poor to save their slimy skin?

Raising public transit fares will put an added fiscal burden on those who just can’t hop in their cars instead of taking transit. And the money being raised is supposed to be for all the social programs the city wants to keep – and to create some new ones – to help us all through these tough economic times. But many social programs are geared to help the poorest of our cities – yet cities take more from the poor in tough economic times.

Aside from the obvious fact that if Toronto’s public transit fares increase this fiscal year, it will be yet another politician not keeping his word, what this really boils down to is economic class power.

The poor are at the bottom of the economic class power ladder – usually the neediest have the least amount of education, experience and know-how in raising public awareness to fight for their rights. While the richer, more educated, and more experienced middle-class knows how to rally to ensure their rights aren’t trampled.

So the poor get beat-up time and again, even though they need more support than the other socio-economic classes.

It isn’t hard to figure that politicians ultimately want to ensure the people that voted them into office, will do so again in the next election. So they will look out for their particular ridings. That’s the nature of the political engine in Canada.

My question then, is where are the politicians representing the poorer areas of Canada’s largest city when you need them? How come whenever another politician puts forward a motion or a program of change which will obviously favour their middle class voters, the politicians representing the poorest areas just sit on their hands?

I’ve heard the politicians from the poorest areas speak before – I know they can. But how come they choose not too?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shhh . . . Big Brother Is Surfing

We Canadians live in a very protective culture. Beer, wine and liquor sales are highly regulated and controlled across most of the country – the exception being Quebec where you can get a six-pack in many milk shops and gas bars. We have the safest food inspection system in the world, an internationally renowned health care system, and one of the best democracies.

So government regulation isn’t all that bad.

Though some things were just meant to be untamed, wild and free. Like the Internet – that unabashed electronic super highway of every useful and useless fact.

But last week, the Canadian government announced it was going to try to regulate the last of the unregulated media – yeppers – the Internet.

The Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) which licenses and regulates all television and radio broadcasts, figures we need more Canadian content on the Internet.

More Canadian content – more “cancon?”

Cancon is the term used by many night owls, that happen to be listening to their favourite tunes on a Canadian radio station, only to be disturbed by the sudden change from what they like, to what the government has ordered the station to play. You can catch the most rockin’ tunes of Gordon Lightfoot, Ann Murray, and Rita McNeil on after-hours radio, usually about two in the morning or later.

Granted, we do have more Canadian-grown acts over the years, like the Bare Naked Ladies and Shania Twain.

Television is the same, though the major broadcasters aren’t too bad at creating some of that much needed “cancon” to fill the void. Though they did cancel the Canadian version of American Idol. Must have been the “American” part?

Getting back to the net, Canadian content – hello?

According to many studies, Canada is one of the most wired nations on the planet – one recent study even says that over 95-percent of Canadian households have high-speed broadband Internet. There’s lots of Canadian content online – you can find just about anything and everything online, be it here in Canada, or someplace else – it’s there in cyberspace.

And isn’t that the whole point of the Internet – to be an INTERnationalNETwork?

The international network of networks, formerly the World-Wide-Web (www), actually was started by two somewhat opposing forces. On one side, were the American academics, which wanted a quick, cheap and effective way of sharing knowledge. On the other, was the American military, which wanted to have an uninterruptable communications system, in the event of a global catastrophe, like a nuclear war.

The academics worked with the military, and created the Internet – a system of cheap, and effective communications, run by every computer on it, so that it would be virtually impossible to disrupt.

Though the academics won out in terms of use of the net – instead of it being reserved for private military matters, the technology was shared, and now kids right out of the womb, are downloading videos of Elmo.

Governments and big businesses have both tried to lay claim to running the net. Some companies that will remain nameless – Microsoft shhh – wanted to make the net a Windows-proprietary-run system, so that you could only access it if you were using an MS-Windows-based machine. When Sun Microsystems released JAVA, an open-source language, which runs on any operating system, Microsoft was the first to pounce, restricting their web-browsers access to it. That tactic didn’t work, as JAVA and now it’s more powerful Adobe cousin – Flash dominates the web.

China’s government controls access to the net over there – but to the extreme that it really just isn’t the same. China will actually ban certain Internet Prototcol (IP) addresses, domain names, and other identifiers, so that no one will ever see them. They even banned the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) coverage of the Olympics this past summer!

I don’t know what the federal government employee was drinking, when he came up with the bone-headed idea to try to add more Canadian content to the Internet. But I do know he or she will have to get the rest of the country quite drunk before any control over the net is accepted.

Unless our federal government takes on the same Communistic measures that the Chinese government has, any attempts at regulating it will fail. And if our democratically elected government does that – then they certainly won’t be democratically elected to office ever again. Unless of course, that’s the next step – goodbye democracy, hello dictatorship?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Inside A Plane Crash

With the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” last month, and the plane crash just a few days ago in Buffalo, there has been lots of media attention on flying, crashes and all the hype surrounding these things.

Much of the media is hype – which is so sad and pathetic, as it need not be. But today’s blog isn’t about all the hype, it’s to dispel some of it instead.

Way back in the day when I was a journalist, I covered the occasional downing of a plane. I even covered the crash of a hot air balloon – though the pilots to this day still refuse to admit that it was a “crash” as it managed to touch down without incident.

The media does fine job covering these things – just they get caught up in all the action and create a lot of excitement where none really is needed.

You’ve probably heard that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were called in to investigate. Often the media plays this up, but this is standard procedure, even before the terror attacks of 9-11. The FBI and the CIA will work with the American National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) until it is completely ruled out that the crash was caused due to malicious intent.

The NTSB is in charge of investigating all major accidents involving any form of transportation – they look into railway accidents, major vehicle crashes, even waterway accidents – as well as airline accidents. Their job is to painstakingly piece together what happened, so that future accidents do not happen. Often, they work with many different local groups – usually first responders like police, ambulance, fire and National Guard/military, to collect every little piece of the wreckage. Then they will, on many instances, try and put them all together, essentially re-creating the aircraft, to find out what happened.

If the NTSB finds sufficient evidence that something external to the flight crew, air traffic control, and the aircraft itself, caused the crash, they may look further into the possibility of terrorism. If they find sufficient grounds to lead to a possibility of terrorism, then the FBI and CIA may take a more active role.

The FBI will take a lead role if the plane was brought down by someone within the States – they investigate all major crimes committed by Americans. The CIA will take the lead role if the cause of the crash appears to be caused by a non-American person or group of persons – they investigate all international crimes against America. Though, in the case of terrorism, the CIA must pass on any crimes to the somewhat new Department of Homeland Security – which was created after 9-11 to investigate and act on all acts of terrorism against the States.

Usually, the FBI, CIA and the Department of Homeland Security will work together if there is any chance of terrorism in a plane crash.

But in most cases, the NTSB finds it to either be mechanical failure, pilot/flight crew error, or a lack of communication between the air traffic controllers and the flight crew (air traffic controller error), so the FBI, CIA and other terrorism investigators eventually pack up and leave, so that the NTSB can continue to figure out what really happened.

The media will also make a big deal about the search for the so-called “black box.” There are actually two of these on all planes, and neither of them are black.

These two bright orange metallic boxes record the last 30-minutes of everything that happened on the flight. One records all the mechanical information – the altitude, airspeed, flight angle, condition of the engines, fluid levels and what all the instruments were indicating for the last 30-minutes of operation. This is called the Flight Data Recorder, as it literally records everything the plane itself was doing for 30-minutes.

The other bright orange box records all the communication which took place among the flight crew and anything said over the radio – be it to an air traffic controller, an engineer at the company’s headquarters, or someone else. This is the Cockpit Voice Recorder, which is used to determine how the flight crew was flying the plane at the time of the crash.

Finding these recorders is crucial to solving airline crashes, as they tell the story from both the flight crew’s perspective and that of the mechanical operation of the plane. That’s part of why the media hypes the search and later find of these “black boxes.”

Because of their importance, these flight recorders are designed to withstand severe conditions – they are built to handle an impact with land or water up to 3,600 G-force and temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius. They each have their own transponder, which can continue transmitting locating information for up to 30-days.

Because of their design, in most crashes, the “black boxes” are recovered and the information contained within them is useable. Only on the rarest of cases have these things either never been found, or so badly damaged that they couldn’t be used to re-construct the crash.

And, you’ll also hear a lot of speculation based on what the “black boxes” recorded. It can take some time – in some instances years – before all the information from the crash site, the victims, and the recorders provides the final absolute answer as to what happened. Regardless of what the media reports, until the NTSB releases a report of findings on the crash – nothing is official.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Enjoying a Rare February Thaw

For those who follow my blog regularly, you’ll know if there is any one thing I love to do – besides working out – is to BBQ.

Even as I take the cover off, and scrub the grills, I’m having a blast. There is something special about the whole BBQ experience, something which – believe it or not – for this writer is hard to convey.

Maybe it’s in my genes, or because I’m a guy, but I love to BBQ so much, I even enjoy cleaning and fidgeting with the thing, to make sure all the nuts and bolts are tight and in place.

Grilling meat is nothing new – it’s the way our earliest of ancestors, the so-called “caveman,” first discovered the power of fire. Back then, fire pits were created by digging holes in the ground, covering them with rocks for a base, and then using twigs, branches, leaves and other plants for fuel. Animals were chopped into bite-size chunks, and skewered. The skewers were held over the fire, usually until they were blackened and hard. The meat was pure game – whatever was obtainable – and whatever the cavemen caught.

Too bad they didn’t invent BBQ sauce until much later!

Over the years, BBQing has become easier. My high-tech grill even has a thermometer, so I know how hot it is.

I remember my dad lugging out one of those old fashioned round metal BBQs, suspended on what looked like the most flimsy of criss-crossed metal legs. He’d pour in the charcoal, spray what appeared to be way too much lighter fluid, stood back, and tossed one lit match, and then POOOF! One big fire ball.

Eventually the fire ball would subside, and as the coals turned from black to white, he’d toss on the meat.

There were no thermometers on BBQs back then. The only way to see if anything was ready was to “test it” by cutting into it with a fork and knife. If the juices ran all bloody, than it wasn’t ready. Though this occasionally led to the meat getting a little too well done – what you can call Chicago Style, to cover up the fact that it’s burnt to a crisp.

Interesting thing about Chicago Style – named because of the famous fire which destroyed most of the American city of the same name at the start of the century – some meats actually taste better this way. The “gamier” the meat, the better it tastes well done. I can eat a fine sirloin of beef rare, but if that sirloin comes from a deer (called venison) then I’ll just have to eat it crispy.

I don’t usually go for the gamier cuts of meat – I’m a good ‘ol fashioned steak and potato guy. So most of what I cook for myself is medium-rare.

This past week and even today, the weather has been unusually warm. Perfect BBQing weather! Though truthfully, I do BBQ all year ‘round. I’ve got a nice exclusive place, covered from all the elements. So whether it’s a torrent of rain, a burst of heavy snow, or even a hurricane-like wind blowing, I have been out there, BBQing.

But thanks to this rare break from winter’s deep freeze, I’m really having an awesome time out with my grill. The sun is even out in full force, making this winter seem more like an early summer’s day.

As I type this on my laptop, I’m watching my BBQ heat up. The smell of the BBQ is so very enticing. It’s a mix-mash of all the previous things I’ve created – from simple burgers, steaks and chicken, to the more complex, like roasting veggies, toasting garlic bread, or even making some cool BBQ deserts.

Sitting out on a patio chair in the middle of February BBQing may not be the norm – but it is an incredible experience.

Usually during the winter, I’ll go in and out throughout the BBQing cycle, constantly watching the thing from my wall of warmth of indoors. But today, it’s just like summertime, only slightly cooler.

And it’s nice to be outside watching the world from high atop my 22-story high-rise perch. I’m so high up, I can and do see all, but none can see me. A perfect way to enjoy the world, with some much needed privacy.

I can hardly wait for the sizzle – the sounds of meat meeting grill. Then the smoke, and FIRE!

Just kidding – after all the BBQs I’ve had, rarely do I burn anything. Unless you like it that way.

How do you like your steak?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What Ever Happened to the Four-Day Work Week?

Back in the 1980’s when Personal Computers were just starting to make their way into people’s homes, technology fanatics were claiming we were at the forefront of a new revolution – the computer age had begun.

The microchip is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments. These little pieces of sand, copper and other metals are the backbone to everything from traffic lights to toasters. We’ve seen amazing advances in communications – remember when the quickest way to get a document across the globe was by letter mail?

These days, email and online instant messaging, rule, making global communications immediate and interactive. But one of the biggest claims made back in the 1980’s was that technology would not only assist us in doing our work, but make it possible to do the work so efficiently, we’d have shorter work weeks, use less paper, and have a healthier society overall because of less stress.

I don’t know about you, but the work week has remained – if not increased – for most of us since the 1980’s. Back in the ‘80s, I remember reading how we’d move to a four-day work week and eventually be able to go down to a three-day work week, as computers would be able to handle more of the tasks that we typically do.

Where’s my four-day work week? And working from home doesn’t count. Working – no matter where it is – is still working.

As computers advanced, we’d have less of a need to carry around big piles of paper, so claimed the technological savvy forecasters in the 1980’s.

If anything, paper use has consistently increased since the advent of computers. Printers themselves are almost a disposable commodity, as sometimes it is cheaper to purchase a new printer, than replace the ink in the thing.

We print more, because we spend so much time in front of a screen, our eyes can play tricks on us if we don’t double-check things in print.

I know I feel better printing something out, and doing a final read-through the hard copy, even after all the online edits on the computer.

Technology has come a long way from the clunky typewriters we used to use. Remember having to backspace letter-by-letter, then having to use corrector fluid to cover up the typo?

I still remember learning to type on a typewriter – what a painful experience, as my fingers would occasionally miss the keys, and get stuck in tight spaces between them. And remember getting all covered in dark, sticky black ink, as you changed the typewriter’s ribbon?

Computers haven’t decreased stress, they’ve just compounded it. We no longer have to change messy typewriter ribbons, but how many times have you cursed at the photocopier for chewing up your report just before going into an important meeting? How many emails have flooded your inbox while you were busy trying to make a deadline? And, we’ve all experienced the infamous Microsoft Windows “blue screen of death” at some untimely point in our computing lives, indicating even our computers aren’t perfect – they crash just like we do.

Only after a good eight-hour crash in my nice warm bed, I almost always recover – can’t always say the same for the computer.

Less stress because of computers? I don’t think so!

I’m glad the days of clunky typewriters are long past us, but I still wonder – where did my four-day work week go?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Geek Squad Tried to Rip Me Off

I’m pretty technically inclined – some may even call me a geek. So, when things go wrong on my computers or networks, I usually can resolve them myself. I’ve replaced hard drives, video cards, debugged wireless and wired networks, even been able to decipher many Windows error messages – which is no easy feat.

But sometimes, even us geeks need a higher power. I had a Gateway laptop which just plain ‘ol died late last year. I couldn’t get into the diagnostics to figure out what the problem was – though I had a hunch it was either the hard drive, or the motherboard.

So, I brought it to the Geeks Squad at a local Best Buy store. They claim to be able to repair any computer problem. And I’ve used them before for things beyond my control, and they were excellent at the time.

Times change – even for the best.

The technicians at Geek Squad couldn’t figure out what was wrong, so they offered to send it for a free estimate directly to the manufacturer – in this case, Gateway. I said, sure, can’t go wrong with a free estimate, and all I wanted was the thing up and running.

I wanted to get this old laptop working, so I could give it to my dad – at the time he was using an ancient desktop machine circa Windows98! Since then he’s finally got a nice new Windows Vista-based machine.

The folks at Geek Squad said I should hear back from the manufacturer within two-weeks. Time came and went, and two-weeks had long passed. So, I called the specific Geek Squad store I was dealing with, to find out what was going on. They were exceptionally busy, I had to call back several times to get someone on the phone – they don’t have voice-mail, it just keeps ringing or goes back to the main menu.

They told me they hadn’t heard from Gateway either, but not to worry, I would. Two-weeks turned into two-months, before I got a surprise from Gateway.

They told me the cost to repair the laptop would be at least $710.00 – but could be more. They said all they could give me was an “open estimate” because they didn’t know completely what was wrong with the machine, and they wouldn’t until they at least got the system running.

That kind of cash can buy a nice new machine – laptop or desktop. So I certainly wasn’t going to pay that for a repair, which would likely cost me untold amounts more.

I declined the repairs, and they told me they’d send the still non-functioning computer back to the Best Buy store where I had dropped it off. And they assured me there was no cost – the estimate was free.

Time passed again – after a couple of weeks I called the Geek Squad at Best Buy to see if my laptop had arrived. Nothing yet, but it should be in soon, so said the man on the other end of the phone.

Weeks turned into months. The year came and went – literally – I dropped off the laptop in November 2008 and just last week got a call telling me it was ready for pick-up!

I had written-off the damn thing, figuring it wasn’t working and I hadn’t heard back, it probably got lost in transit.

So, I go to get my still non-functioning machine, from the techs that are supposed to be able to fix anything. They ask for $40.00 for what was supposed to be a free estimate.

Since when is “free” valued at $40?

I told them I’m not paying for a free estimate. If they won’t release the machine, they can keep it – it doesn’t work anyways.

They didn’t want it either, so they let it go.

But I was shocked – and as I write this still am. I know they are trying to make money in an economy that is tanking. But when someone tells you several times that it’s just an estimate, and it won’t cost you a cent, it shouldn’t.

I used to enjoy going into my local Best Buy store. Being a technologically-driven person, I salivate over all the latest gadgets and gizmos. Often I’ll go in with the intent to purchase one thing, and I come out with several other items.

But today’s experience has soured my shopping taste buds. I’ll have to re-think my next trip to a technology store, because Best Buy’s Geek Squad tried to rip me off.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Political Recession Reasoning Flawed

We’re definitely in the worst economy since the Great Depression, as some of the world’s largest companies cut staff, and politicians create more promises towards job creation.

Problem is, as companies continue to kill off staff to keep themselves from dying off, the only jobs which governments are able to create en-mass are the so-called “McJobs.”

McJob – a term coined back in the recession of the 1990s – aren’t real jobs, not in the sense of creating stability in a rocky economy. Think about it, could you really survive in this world making minimum wage flipping burgers?

The average Canadian family certainly couldn’t survive that way – even if they held down several McJobs. According to statistics, the average base income needed to live with the most basic of necessities (shelter, clothing, food) is just over $45,000CDN per year.

I don’t know what McDonald’s or the other burger joints pay, but I seriously doubt any of those pimply-faced teenagers asking “if I want fries with that,” takes home that fair bit of coin.

Politicians do need to take action to help the economic engine start – but they always take the easy route.

Today, Toronto Mayor David Miller – mayor of Canada’s largest city – announced many job creation initiatives. From increasing the numbers of job-finding resources in the city’s libraries, to having more job-finding support groups, and more online resources to help people start their own business.

However, none of these government-funded programs will help the average person get back what they lost, or are about to lose – their very home.
One key player is absent – big business.

Without the mega-corporations of the world, providing funding to those wanting to start their own endeavours, and more to the point, hiring people at a decent, it doesn’t matter how great a job coach you have, or how solid a business plan you develop.

When big companies announce major layoffs it affects the economy far more deeply than any government-based job creation program.

The economy is very much an ecosystem of itself. Everything is interrelated within the great grand scheme of things.

When Canadian telecom-giant Nortel was doing well, the country’s largest stock index – the Toronto Stock Exchange or TSX – was doing just as well, as all the other technology companies working within the telecom industry were feeding off of each other. Recently, Nortel filed for bankruptcy protection, and the telecom industry has slipped into a dangerous slope.

As North American automakers continue to suffer, so to do the related industries. Magna International is suffering, because as the automakers cut production, they just don’t need to purchase as many parts from Magna.

As oil and gas prices continue to rise and fall with the economy, the cost of all goods is affected – the gas used by trucking companies to get those goods to the stores where we purchase them affects the price of the products too.

And as Toronto Mayor David Miller announced all these new job-creation programs, he’s sitting on a soon to be released city budget which will increase property taxes so that they can fund these things.

Everything is interrelated – even at the government level.

Politicians need to do more than just smile for the cameras with every job creation program – they need to really look within the ecosystem of the economy, roll-up their sleeves, and fix the economic engines which are the foundations for us all.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Intelligent Life Outside Planet Earth?

Recently, the European COROT space telescope discovered a new planet 390-light years away from Earth – that’s outside of our solar system. This new planet – called COROT-Exo-7b – is the slimmest planet ever found, with a diameter less than twice that of our own Earth.

This new astrological find probably doesn’t have any life forms like us humans on it – the surface temperatures are estimated to be between 1,000 to 1,500C, based on it’s proximity to it’s own sun-like star.

But this got me thinking – what if there is intelligent life outside of our own solar system?

The ancient Greek Philosophers thought the skies above were the heavens, and the sun, stars, winds, rain and just about everything else, came from various gods.

Thanks to technology, we now know that the sun rise and set isn’t controlled by Zeus, Apollo, or some other god-like being, but is just the natural course of planetary orbits within our solar system.

The real question scientists and sci-fi aficionados have been seeking to solve, is whether there really are other intelligent life forms.

Movie makers have long used this question to entertain us, creating a whole genre of films featuring the stereotypical olive-green men from Mars, with those scary dark as night eyes, long faces, and just as creepily long arms and legs. Sadly, most of these movies are so bad, they shouldn’t even qualify for their “B-Movie” labels.

But the question I started thinking about wasn’t whether intelligent life exists outside of our safe and comfortable home of planet Earth. My thoughts turned to the infamous “what if?”

What if we do discover intelligent beings, able to communicate with us? What then?

We have enough difficulty communicating with ourselves, with all the wars going on around the globe. Some of us can’t talk to our boss, wife, or even to our kids without getting all tongue-tied.

How would we relate to beings from another world?

Would we be open to sharing our socio-economic and technical knowledge?

Would they?

Assuming there are beings intelligent enough to visit us – as we certainly haven’t mastered space travel yet – they would probably be far more advanced than us.

Maybe they have solved all of the common global crisis we face now – war, starvation, famine, drought, holes in the ozone, global warming . . .

It would be an amazing bit of luck to pick the brains of some alien race, who could solve all – or even just one – of these problems.

But then again, what could we offer in return?

Here, have a cheese doodle.

Yeah. Right.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Bump and Grind of Mother Nature

Sometimes, Mother Nature can be a real bitch. Other times, she’s the best!

We’ve been riding a rollercoaster of weather all year. Yesterday and today we sunk to deep freezes of -20C wind chills, and they are predicting potential record highs of +6C on the weekend.

What gives?

Welcome to a whole new world order – thanks to global warming. Since the last ice age, our planet has been increasing in temperature, that’s natural. But since people have walked the earth, our planet’s average temperature increases have been quicker, in part due to our extensive use of fossil fuels.

Since scientists have been tracking this global phenomenon, our human-kind has had about a one-degree-Celsius increase per year. That might not seem like much – it is barely noticeable to us in our nice and toasty environment-proof homes.

But with every additional degree major natural meltdowns occur – some quite literally meltdowns. The polar ice caps at both ends of our planet have – and continue to – shrink in terms of physical mass. All this melting causes the earth’s oceans and other water bodies to rise.

And, believe it or not, the increase in frigid water in our oceans, lakes, and streams is why Mother Nature has been taking us on a bump and grind ride for quite some time.

Our weather is deeply affected by something scientists call the Thermohaline Circulation (THC) of our oceans. The THC is essentially this big ocean conveyor belt, constantly churning cold air from the polar regions through the warmer tropical-based waters.

At about ten-centimetres-per-second, this conveyor of oceanic currents isn’t going to win any races – but because it spans the entire world, it carries the equivalent of 100 Amazon rivers worth of water per second – that’s about 30-million cubic meters per second!

Warm Surface waters are carried in this great conveyor to higher levels in the oceans, releasing this heat into our atmosphere. This causes the water to cool and eventually to fall back to earth as rain, snow, fog and other forms of precipitation. Cooler water is heavier and sinks to the deepest levels of the earth’s oceans, which is carried via tides, around the globe, rising slowly as it warms, until it again is warm enough to enter our atmosphere. The whole cycle can take as long as a thousand years, but because the age of the earth is well beyond that thousand years, the movement of waters is constant.

Cooler, denser water has more salt, and from scientific computer models, we now know Mother Nature doesn’t like too much salt. See, the cooler, saltier waters should ideally be at the deepest levels – towards the bottom – of our oceans. But scientists have found over the past 40-years, an increase of fresh water in these areas (such as the North Atlantic). As warmer fresh water replaces much of the cooler saltier waters, this great big conveyor slows down. Some scientists are even concerned it may stop completely.

As the changes in the conveyor continue, we feel it globally. We see more wild weather patterns, like the massive hurricanes we’ve seen in recent years, such as Hurricane Katrina, and we see more uneven weather patterns, like we are experiencing now.

All it will take is a mere five-degrees-Celsius decrease in oceanic temperatures to cause enough of a slowdown in the great conveyor of water, to create another ice age, according to scientific research and historical data about the climate from our last ice age.

So what’s this all mean?

It may be annoying going from one extreme weather event to another, but these are far more serious indicators of where we may end up.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

General Motors Canadian Dine-and-Dash

Mere months ago, our federal government said it would follow our American cousins and loan the North American automakers some much needed cash to stay afloat.

Today, General Motors did the corporate version of a dine-and-dash, by floating around rumours that they intend to close all of their Canadian operations. What happened to all that hard earned taxpayer capital our federal government handed them?

If General Motors (GM) Canada does close all Canadian operations, that will put over 12,000 Canadians out of work – and most likely on our already over-used unemployment social safety net – either welfare or Employment Insurance. Add that to the money our federal government has already signed over to GM Canada, and you might as well write-off a third of your taxes to GM Canada. That’s roughly how much money you paid some American-owned corporation, for nothing, nadda, zip.

It’s like going to a fancy restaurant, ordering the most expensive items on the menu, and just before the bill arrives, making a dash for the door.

Only difference is GM is making a dash for the border – with your money.

Back when the so-called “Big Three” domestic automakers – Ford, Chrysler and General Motors – threatened major layoffs, unless they got financing from the American government, I knew it was a scam. I was against it in previous blogs. I was against it when the American administration under George W. Bush and now Barak Obama said they’d gave in and contribute billions to this private sector business. And I was even more set against it when our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, said he’d lend millions to the Big Three here in Canada after the Americans agreed to the Big Three’s terrorist-like demands.

Terrorist-like demands?

Well think about it, what do terrorists do? They invoke fear in the public, through unreasonable demands, else they will harm as many people as they can.

The Big Three threatened plant closures, GM and Chrysler even threatened to go out of business completely, and declare Chapter 11 Bankruptcy if the public purse wasn’t opened for their pilfering. All these threats would put millions of people all over the world – but mostly in Canada and the States – out of work.

Sounds like a terrorist-like demand to me.

And today GM Canada continued to act no differently – instead of keeping their word to reorganize and protect Canadian jobs, they tell us they may just have to put over 12,000 Canadians out of work, when they close up and leave this country completely.

They are doing this campaign just like terrorists do too. Instead of releasing an official statement, or even talking to the media, or even their own employees and their employee’s unions, they circulate unofficial “rumours” via “undisclosed” and “anonymous” sources.

This is no different from those garbled grainy video and audio tapes so-called terrorist-leader Osama Bin Ladden releases to the media, leading to unofficial “rumours” of impending attacks via “undisclosed” and “anonymous” means.

If our federal government wants to toss away millions and millions and millions – and maybe even billions – of dollars to really benefit Canadians and their jobs, perhaps they should invest in truly Canadian companies.

And by that, I don’t mean the Canadian arms of some big American – or other nation’s – companies. I mean really Canadian companies – ones who started here in Canada, and still have their head offices here in Canada.

I’m still not a big fan of publicly funded governments providing seed money to private sector businesses, but if the money stays in Canada, that is far better than it being whisked away elsewhere, along with all those Canadian jobs.