17 September 2010

Taking the Hot Dog

During the great famine in Ireland, there arose the saying "Taking the Soup" to describe Catholics who denied their faith and became Protestants in order to get something to eat. I'm not sure that this is 100% historically accurate, and it could just be an apocryphal story, but I guess it could make sense given the situation- faced with starvation, and even worse the starvation of our children, who wouldn't sign up with the team that was giving away free food ? A few days ago, we awoke to a very colorful door hanger on our front door knob offering a free hot dog if we attended a local church fair.

Maybe there really isn't anything new under the sun.

Two things in life make me very nervous- clowns and proselytizing. Maybe I was approached by a proselytizing clown on the playground as a youngster, who's to say. I became a Buddhist as essentially an unrestricted free agent- I found a faith that dovetailed nicely with my own view of the world and where I want to end up. Nobody approached me, harangued me or dragged me to the Sangha kicking and screaming. I merely did my own years of research and made the decision on my own. My Buddhist beliefs are intensely personal and I feel that I greatly benefit from them in my life. That being said, I would never, and have never, approached a friend, family member or stranger and told them I had this great conversion that they needed to try as well. Just as importantly, I have retained a deep respect for other faiths and those that follow them- nobody has all of the answers and the only thing I know for sure is the limits of my own ignorance.

I've had my share of experience with front door religious recruiters over the years- earnest, well scrubbed Mormons, serious looking Jehovah's Witnesses and just plain old good folks out trying to get new members for the local church. Anyone coming to my front door is treated with respect, an invitation to have a cup of coffee (or juice for the LDS guys) and I'm happy to hear them out and take their literature. After a few minutes they realize they are dealing with a born again Buddhist who is asking too many obscure questions, they glance at their watches and head for the door. One gentleman pointed out that I was going to Hell unless I converted to his faith, right then on the spot. I genuinely admired they guy for his ability to get right to the point and thanked him for stopping by.

What has always confused me about religions that come to your front door is based on this simple argument that I always fall back on- "If your faith is so strong, so all encompassing and all knowing that I should switch my beliefs, why do you need to go door to door in order to spread it ? Shouldn't it be self evident ? Why are you out on the street effectively selling your faith ? If your particular brand of faith is so strong, the people must be pouring through the doors on Sunday morning, right ?" For the missionaries, I know there is the component of trying to save my soul in order to justify their actions. My soul is just fine where it is, thanks. "How's yours ?" It is very rare to have one of these people actually engage in a two sided conversation and it becomes apparent that they are merely rattling off a script that they are trying to follow. They aren't making the rounds because they are interested in intellectual discourse- they are on a mission and if you're asking too many questions, you're just slowing things down.

These conversations usually end with polite goodbyes and a hand shake. I actually read whatever literature is left, because I'm always interested in different faiths and views of the world. Who knows, maybe someday I'll switch faiths again. Come to think of it I'm getting hungry....now where's that flyer ?

16 September 2010

Afghanistan's Buddhist History

An interesting article from the Wall Street Journal about an attempt to rescue an important Buddhist archaeological site in Afghanistan.


Howard Stern vs. Sirius

I have enjoyed listening to Howard Stern for many years on terrestrial and satellite radio. For me, the Stern Show is a guilty pleasure like Scotch Whisky- something I enjoy but am not really sure is good for me. While many people dismiss Stern as nothing more than a foul-mouthed boor, you start to realize over time what a genius the guy is when you listen to him every morning (or it just might be a media version of the Stockholm Syndrome.) Putting aside the locker room humor, fart jokes, midgets and strippers for a moment, I truly believe that Stern conducts the best interviews in media- period. He has an uncanny ability to disarm and get more out of his guests than any other show host on radio or television. Throw in his dysfunctional cast of characters and you have a mix of entertainment that I happily pay for with my Sirius subscription.

Over the past few weeks, Stern has begun the rumblings that many of us heard before his switch to satellite radio. His 5 year deal with Sirius ends in January 2011 and he has made it pretty clear that he isn't enjoying the treatment he has received of late in terms of negotiating a new deal. Stern has an enormous ego, and a loyal legion of fans, and has only half jokingly proposed that Sirius change its name to Stern. He has made dark hints about taking his show elsewhere by leveraging the new technologies that have emerged over the past few years. These technologies effectively eliminate the middle man (i.e. Sirius) between the provider of content (Stern) and the consumers of that content (his audience.) If I owned shares in Sirius, I would be seriously be preparing to sell my position- fast.

Sirius stock has been dead money for years. Despite the merger with XM, and the rapid increase in subscriptions (due to Stern and free trials of the service in new vehicles) the company has yet to post a profit. When Stern joined the company in 2006, revenues for the year were $ 637 million. By 2009, revenues had increased to $ 2.47 billion- and the company still managed to post a net loss of $ 343 million. Still, for some reason hope still springs eternal. S&P put out a "Buy" rating on the shares on September 11th, 2010 while citing "uncertainties with Howard Stern's contract negotiations" as a potential risk to the shares. I think a better sentence would have read- "Howard Stern has Sirius by the short and curlies- and he knows it. If he leaves, this boat sinks."

To put it simply, Sirius needs Stern far more than Stern needs Sirius. In a matter of a few weeks, Stern could simply build an alternate location for his show to broadcast from and distribute the content via live internet streams, podcasts, pay per view and whatever else becomes available over the coming years. Instead of needing the massive capital investment that Sirius had to make in terms of satellites and equipment, he could probably be up and running on a relative shoestring. His fans, including myself, would happily pay $ 5 or $ 10 bucks a month for this type of content and Stern could probably do something in 30 days that Sirius never could- earn a profit.

New technologies are killing the old dogs of media and although satellite radio seems like the future, it could just be another victim on the list that includes newspapers, radio stations and magazines. All of these sources were merely the vehicles through which media content flowed- now that the channels for this information have become quicker, better and more personalized, the big dinosaurs of yesterday are essentially doomed. Consumers are becoming more discerning and demanding content that is customized to them, not the other way around. Why would I put myself through 30 minutes of Katie Couric, including commercials, when I can get my news on my I phone from the sources that I like and trust ? For me, Couric's inane babbling is content that has no value to me- I wouldn't even take it if it was free. Other people might pay for it, who knows ? The new media will ruthlessly expose companies and individuals that have rested on their laurels and reputations for far too long.

15 September 2010

Book Review- "UFOs Generals, Pilots and Government Officials go on the Record" by Leslie Kean

I've had a strong interest in the subject of UFO's (more recently coined "UAPs"- Unexplained Aerial Phenomena") for many years and recently read an excellent book which is the subject of this article. Unlike many books and television programs on the subject, Kean's work is scholarly, well researched and contains a series of pieces written by men and women who have held very high positions of authority in military and civilian agencies around the world. The consensus of these opinions is that UAPs are real and operate with technology that is far beyond anything we have developed.

As I'm writing this, I can see my reader's collective eyeballs rolling skyward in skepticism but please stick with me for a moment. For individuals that have some done some reading on the UAP phenomena, many of the cases presented here are familiar- the silent black triangles reported by thousands of Belgians in the 1980's, the dogfight between an Iranian fighter and UAP over Tehran, Rendlesham Forest, the Japanese cargo plane over Alaska etc. What makes this book different is that the author has the format in which to expound on these stories, interview witnesses and present a very compelling case vs. trying to compress and cram the same information into a television documentary.

Of all of the accounts in the book, my favorite is that of wave of sightings in Belgium as recounted by Major General Wilfried De Brouwer of the Belgian Air Force. At the time of the sightings in late 1989, De Brouwer was a Colonel acting as chief of the Operations Division of the Air Staff of the Belgian Air Force. De Brouwer explains in this part of the book how thousands of Belgians, including significant numbers of police and military personnel, reported large, silent black triangles floating over the countryside. Some of this UAPs were photographed (analysis is included in the book) and triggered the scrambling of Belgian F-16's in pursuit which proved fruitless against the performance of these strange vehicles. For the Belgians, members of the NATO Alliance, these sightings were very distressing- large aerial vehicles were moving in their air space without authority and with impunity. De Brouwer made inquiries with NATO allies, including the U.S., and was assured both officially (and privately) that they were not new technologies being tested over Belgium.

I really enjoyed this book because it doesn't stretch out into the rampant speculation that usually surrounds the subject. It doesn't attempt to answer who is driving these things, where they are from or what their intentions are- despite the thousands of books on the subject of dubious quality that claim to know what's really going on. Rather, it focuses on hard data- aerial and ground radar returns, pilot reports, government studies and briefings and observations made by police, governmental and military reports either published or obtained through the FOIA. Kean provides nearly 300 end notes to reference the materials and interviews she sifted through to build her case.

Later in the book, Kean demonstrates how the U.S. government position on the subject has been markedly different from those of other nations. Unlike the French, who released the recent COMETA report, and English, who released their MOD studies on the subject, the U.S. has taken the familiar tack of denying everything and adding ridicule to those that bring up the subject- a strategy implemented decades ago. If you have seen a news report on your local station it usually includes a smiling reporter and the X-Files theme playing in the background. Kean's straightforward writing, and the quality of the material she works with, effectively demolishes the argument that any of these sightings can be laughed off. With her background as a journalist, and backing of her major publisher (a division of Random House) this book has already made a significant splash on the UAP subject.

Whether a skeptic, believer or solidly on the fence (like me) this is an excellent book that I highly recommend. I rate it a solid 8 out of 10. Regardless of your position on the subject, I am confident that you will find the book eye-opening and thought provoking. Along the same lines of solid research, I also highly recommend the James Fox documentaries, which Kean assisted with- "Out of the Blue" and "I Know What I Saw" both available on DVD.

The book's website.
Available on Amazon.

14 September 2010

The Little Grape of Wrath

I started getting a sore throat over the weekend but it didn't seem like a big deal. The kids are back at school and have been fighting colds with their classmates, and I thought it would just run its course and go away. Yesterday at work, I noticed that I seemed to be breaking out in cold sweats, chills and was having trouble swallowing- on top of that I was short of breath. I work at a job that keeps me moving on my feet all day long, so the shortness of breath was the thing that started to worry me. Not wanting to take any chances with what I thought was strep throat, or even worse the big heart attack I keep warning the kids they are pushing me towards, I decided it was time to go to the local Med Express.

I don't know if you have these types of establishments where you live but I think they are the greatest invention since canned beer and sliced bread. Instead of calling your regular physician, and hoping they can squeeze you in the during the next 8 to 12 months, you simply walk in these places, tell them what's wrong and get seen in a matter of minutes. My doctor is a great guy who I really like but I limit my visits to him to stuff like routine physicals- I have no doubt I could call him with a collapsed lung, or partially amputated arm, and his receptionist would ask if I could hold off coming in until 2011.

Like most incidents of adversity, whether great or small like this one, I even had a brief moment to quietly meditate on some Buddhist mindfulness. In this case, because the reception area was extremely busy and noisy, I simply closed my eyes for a minute and reflected on how fortunate I was to have access to excellent medical care when compared to the vast majority of souls on this planet. No matter what the problem was, I was confident I would be quickly patched up and back out the door.

The doctor took a look in my mouth, said something like "hmmmm", took another look and furrowed her brow. "Have you had any trouble breathing ?," yes I replied, "well typically you would want to go the ER at the hospital for something like this." It seems I had a raging case of Uvulitis (the Uvula is the little thingy that hangs from the roof your mouth at the entrance to your throat and means "little grape" at least according to Wikipedia) and it was so swollen it was partially blocking my ability to breath and swallow- which would account for me drooling all over my shirt at lunch. So, I got a shot of steroids in the butt to take down the swelling, some more oral antibiotics and steroids and was sent home with strict orders to go to the hospital if I couldn't breath- sarcasm obviously not being part of the medical school curriculum I just kept my reply to myself and headed for the door.

13 September 2010

Old Airplanes Never Die

I took this picture over the weekend at the Pittsburgh Air Show. This is a C-47 transport, the second oldest of its type that is still flying. What makes this aircraft so special in historical terms is that it actually dropped elements of the 82nd Airborne on St. Mere Eglise, France in the early morning hours of June 6th, 1944. D-Day.

I stood by the aircraft while my wife and kids were inside a KC-135 tanker that was on display so I had a few moments to reflect on the reaction of the crowds as they walked by. More than a few kids tugged on their mom and dad's sleeves as they spotted the cooler, more modern F-16's, F-18's and a myriad of other sleek jets that stood by. Some asked their parents what the plane was, but they were at a loss for words- some old thing they muttered as they walked past. What a shame. As far as examples of living history go, nothing among the 50 or so aircraft parked on the ramp even came close.

After their tanker tour, I grabbed the boys and walked them to the C-47. "THIS" I said jabbing my finger in its direction "is the most important airplane on this entire airfield." We were able to go inside the aircraft, through the jump door on the left, and I explained how 55 odd years ago, a group of very brave men strapped parachutes, equipment, weapons and a myriad of other gear to themselves, flew across the English Channel and parachuted into the darkness of the early morning of June 6th, 1944. Standing in the back of the plane, so small and cramped compared to the relative luxury of the C-130's and C-141's that I parachuted out of, I was nearly overcome with emotion. Small groups of young men, who had barely begun to live, volunteered to hurl themselves out of aircraft over enemy occupied ground to defeat Fascism and destroy the worst evil that the world has ever know. Knowing the fate of many of the young paratroopers who jumped over St. Mere Eglise only made it more emotional- some were hung up on electrical and telegraph poles only to be shot by the Germans, one famously on town's church steeple who watched the battle unfold beneath his feet.

I daydreamed for a moment, and imagined the night before after the first day of the air show. I thought of all of the other aircraft, circled around the C-47 as it creaked and turned, sat on its tail and said to a bunch of wide eyed, youthful jets- "You know the difference between a fairy tale and a war story ? The fairy tale starts off with 'Once Upon a Time.' A war story starts with 'This is No Shit."

12 September 2010

A Great Bird App

I'm an amateur bird watcher- not too obsessive beyond my time in the woods and watching birds at our feeders. The Peterson Guide to Backyard Birds is a nice, cheap (inexpensive) app that I started using on my I phone. For $ 2.99 you get a lot of stuff. It has some great pictures of birds for identification, samples of sounds from the various species, and a checklist (based on different regions of the U.S.) to mark off the birds and dates on which you spotted them. For times when you are out of the woods there is also a nice quiz function which tests your ability to identify different species by sight and sounds. During a hike last weekend, my wife and I were treated to an old growth oak forest that was absolutely saturated by Pileated Woodpeckers which I have to rank as my all time favorite bird.