Thursday, December 30, 2004

Lasers and Airliners

Earlier today, I read a news article from CNN talking about how the US government is concerned about terrorists using laser beams to blind pilots on planes trying to land. Here is an excerpt:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Six commercial airliners in the past four days have had
their cockpits illuminated by laser beams while attempting to land, a government
official told CNN Wednesday.
The incidents have happened "all over the place"
and in "kind of odd places," the official said without elaborating.

I'm not sure if people realize how ridiculous a concept this whole thing is. Consider these facts:
  • A laser beam is a completely straight beam of light, that is as wide at its destination as at its source.
  • To blind someone in one eye with a laser, it is necessary to shine the laser beam directly into the iris of the victim's eye at the same time as the victim is looking at the source of the beam. When an airplane is on final approach, the pilots' eyes are focused on either the runway or on the cockpit instruments, so it is extremely unlikely that the pilots would be staring at the beam's source (unless the terrorist is standing like an idiot in the middle of the runway).
  • The iris of a person's eye is about the size of the head of pencil. To hit a target this small is hard enough when it is close. Trying to hit a target this small that is over a mile away, and moving at 200 miles per hour is nearly impossible.
  • In order to actually make the plane crash, a terrorist would have to repeat this whole exercise four times (once for each of the pilot's eyes, and once for each of the copilot's eyes), be accurate enough to pull this off within a few seconds, and would have to hope the pilot and copilot would be so stupid they would keep staring a the laser source even after they realized what is going on. Of course, pilots are not stupid people, and would look away after they realize what is happening.

Using lasers to blind pilots and make planes crash is the most ridiculous concept I have heard in a long time, and I cannot believe someone in the US government actually takes this seriously.

Of course, you can probably guess who the "terrorists" are who illuminated these cockpits over the past four days: little kids living near the airport who got laser-light toys (laser pointers, etc.) in their Christmas stockings on Saturday and who were playing with them, trying to shine the light off a low-flying plane (which if you live near an airport are an everyday sight). Watch out kids... Uncle Sam is onto you.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Earlier this week, the world saw what will probably be the biggest natural disaster in modern history: an underwater earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale generated massive tsunamis ("tidal waves") that battered a number of south-Asian and African countries (Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia, Thailand, etc.) washing away buildings, throwing cars and trucks around like toys, and killing tens of thousands of people.

To understand just how big this earthquake was, it is important to understand how the Richter scale works. The Richter scale is a logarithmic scale - so, for example, the magnitude of an 8.0 earthquake is 10 times the magnitude of a 7.0 earthquake. The earthquake that triggered these massive tsunamis on Sunday was 9.0 on the Richter scale - ten times an 8.0 earthquake, and 100 times a 7.0 earthquake. To put this in perspective, the earthquake that shook Japan in late November was 7.0 on the Richter scale, and earthquakes that even break 8.0 on the Richter scale are rare. This earthquake was huge.

What is particularly sad about this disaster is its destruction was focused in one of the poorest areas of the world; areas that are ill equipped to handle this type of disaster for a number of reasons:
  • Houses are often not built under strict building codes, and may be use weak materials (corrugated steel sheeting, etc.) that are less capable of protecting the house's occupants than stronger materials could.
  • Local governments lack the resources for emergency response to provide food, shelter, clothing, potable water, and medical attention to victims.
  • Poor people are far less likely to have insurance to cover their losses, and are likely to be financially devastated as a result.
  • Poor people are far less likely to possess some key items that may relieve their situation: stockpiles of canned food, vehicles, money, etc.

It is for these reasons that help from the world community is sorely needed in this tragedy. While 100,000 people were killed by this disaster, hundreds of thousands more were injured, and another million or more were left homeless and without food, shelter, clothing, or drinking water. If the world does not act, the injured will not receive medical care, diseases like cholera and typhoid (which are caused by drinking polluted water and eating contaminated food) will rear their ugly heads, and we will have hundreds of thousands of additional deaths that could have been prevented.

The United States and other countries have announced funding for relief efforts. But, what I think is needed now on the short term is not money, it is military aid. Military forces around the world stockpile items that can be used to survive in adverse conditions: lightweight packaged Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), water purification tablets, vaccines, medical supplies, and the equipment necessary to deliver or air-drop these items to inaccessible areas. Military forces maintain the personnel and equipment necessary to setup field hospitals and perform surgery in the field. Money is good, but boots on the ground and donations of actual supplies are better on the short term. I hope that countries around the world recognize this and react accordingly.

My thoughts and prayers are with all of those who died, who were injured, and who lost loved ones in this disaster.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Commercialization of Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone!

Christmas is without a doubt the single biggest holiday in North America. In Canada and the United States, each family has their own unique traditions for celebrating Christmas, but most of these traditions have a few things in common:
  • We put up a Christmas tree with decorations.
  • We decorate our house with lights.
  • We buy gifts for each other, wrap them in pretty paper, put them under the Christmas tree, and on Christmas morning, we get together as a family to open them.
  • We take our kids to the mall to sit on Santa's knee and tell him what they want for Christmas, and on Christmas eve, we help them hang stockings by the fireplace (if we have a fireplace). Sure enough, when they wake up on Christmas morning, their stockings are stuffed and they have the present they were asking for thanks to "Santa Claus".

Most retailers like these traditions, since they all involve spending money. The more they can encourage these traditions, the more money people will spend, and the more money they will make. So, from early November until the end of December, you cannot walk into a mall or a department store without hearing Christmas carols or seeing Christmas decorations, and your television is bombarded with advertisements for pre-Christmas specials.

Many people berate this as a commercialization of Christmas, but I disagree. I personally think that Christmas would not be nearly as big a holiday here if it were not for this commercialization. For instance, Easter is just as important a holiday on the Christian calendar, but Christmas is the one that gets all of the attention. Likewise, Hannukah (the Jewish holiday that just happens to be at around the same time as Christmas) is a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, but because it happens at around the same time as Christmas, it gets a lot more focus than it otherwise would. Plus, with all these retailers promoting Christmas, we will never have to worry about the holiday dying away into oblivion.

With this commercialization, however, there are many Christmas traditions that are all too easily forgotten: going to church for midnight mass and singing Christmas carols for instance. One of my own favorite Christmas memories was going out with my church choir a few days before Christmas several years ago to sing Christmas carols on the street. It is all too easy to forget that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus's birth (hence the "Christ" part of the word Christmas) and that in this busy holiday, we should take some time to remember the meaning behind the holiday, and that the reason the Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts started was as a symbolic reminder of the gift God gave us all two thousand years ago.

But, the commercial traditions of Christmas are fun, and I think for children, it makes the holiday one of the happiest and most memorable times they can spend with their family throughout the year. With all hectic life we lead throughout the year, it is nice to have a day where we are not working, where all the stores are closed, and all we have to do is spend time enjoying the company of our loved ones.

In 1822, Major Henry Livingston, Jr.* wrote a poem that used to send shivers up my spine when I heard it as a child. Even today, I find it so easy to read this poem and think back to the memories I had of Christmas when I was a child. Someday, I hope my own children feel the same way.

Account of a Visit by St. Nicholas
By Major Henry Livingston, Jr.*

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a
bow,And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

Merry Christmas!

*Note: until recently, it was generally thought that this poem was written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Welcome to Canada

On Saturday, I drove up to Canada for Christmas holidays. What a temperature shock! When I left New York, it was so mild that I could walk outside with just a short-sleeved shirt on. When I got to Canada, the ground was white with about a foot of snow on it.

Just before we left New York, we had taken the car to get the oil changed, and they topped up the windshield washer fluid. I’m not sure what type of washer fluid they put in, but when I woke up in Canada on Sunday morning, it was minus 27 Celsius and the windshield washer system was frozen solid. It is quite dangerous up here to drive in winter without washer fluid (in case you get splashed with salty slush from the road), so I had to take the car to a local dealership to get them to thaw it out, drain the wimpy washer fluid they filled it with, and refill it with some REAL washer fluid that could handle the Canadian winter.

Sunday was also quite windy here, which made the “wind chill” factor around minus 40. We went to a shopping mall, and with all the Christmas shoppers we ended up having to park far away from the door. By the time I got inside the door of the mall, my ears were starting to feel the effects of frostbite, and my face was stinging. While I was in the mall, I made a point of buying a winter hat that would cover my ears and face so I could walk back to my car in comfort.

Of course, my welcome wasn't quite as bad as my mother-in-law (who is also visiting for the holidays). She lives in the Caribbean, and had her winter coat packed in her suitcase. She got on the plane in a short-sleeved shirt, expecting to be able to get out at the airport terminal and put her coat on. Instead, they offloaded the passengers and had them walk outside across the tarmac into a cold shuttle bus for a ride to the terminal. My mother-in-law's teeth were still chattering when she got through immigration and got her suitcase.

Welcome to Canada.....

Friday, December 10, 2004

American Attitudes versus Canadian Attitudes

Two days ago, I saw an article in CNN that really made me laugh. Here is an excerpt:

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- An American T-shirt company has a solution for their fellow citizens who want to vacation in Europe without having to answer questions about U.S. politics -- pose as Canadians.

For $24.95, offers the "Go Canadian" package, full of just the kind of things an American traveler needs to leave their country and its politics behind.
There's a Canadian flag T-shirt, a Canadian flag lapel pin and a Canadian patch for luggage or a backpack. There's also a quick reference guide -- "How to Speak Canadian, Eh?" -- on answering questions about Canada.

I remember when I was growing up, I'd hear about Americans backpacking in Europe who would wear a Canadian flag on their backpack so that they would get a good reception there. With the current state of political affairs, it seems those days are back.

Earlier this summer, I was with a cousin of mine who was born and raised in the United States. She was telling me how she was contemplating applying for her Canadian citizenship: she is planning to travel the world, and figures she will have a much easier trip with a Canadian passport than an American one. She's probably right.

I've sometimes joked that the reason Canadians tend to be well received is that Canada's army is too small to piss anyone off badly enough for them to hate Canada. But, the truth I think is a bit deeper than that. Canadians may look like Americans, and may sound like Americans when we talk, but Canadians tend to think differently about world affairs - we take greater interest in both sides of a dispute, and look at issues from more of a humanitarian perspective. Canadians tend to feel sympathy for people in adverse situations, and will often put those people's needs ahead of their own. Canadians will generally not complain about Canadian tax dollars being used to help people in other countries, and will actually get angry if they feel their government is being too stingy towards charitable causes (peacekeeping missions, international aid, etc.).

An interesting case in point happened last week. Canadian prime minister Paul Martin was on his way from visiting a school in the middle of a refugee camp in Sudan when a pickup truck in Martin's motorcade struck and injured a 5 year old girl named Widad Isa. The motorcade stopped and a member of Martin's security detail grabbed the child from her shrieking mother and literally ran her to an ambulance so fast her little hijab was flapping in the wind behind him. Later that day, Martin himself visited the child in hospital, bringing her candy and two teddy bears. Earlier in the visit, Martin had received a standing ovation at the school when he announced that he had brought with him to Sudan "a planeload" of schoolbooks, crayons, and supplies, along with two posters signed by Canadian children in Ottawa and Quebec City.

Here are some links to news articles on this incident:

Globe and Mail
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
Canadian Press

This series of events really got me thinking about how different America's way of dealing with foreign countries is from Canada's:

  1. You would never see the President of the United States visiting a country like Sudan (he only seems to visit countries the United States has "interests" in).
  2. If the president did visit a country like Sudan, you would never see him visiting a school in the middle of a refugee camp. His public relations staff would probably try to keep him far away from places like refugee camps, being unsure of how the public would like pictures of Bush walking around in a place like that.
  3. If the president did visit a foreign school, some American "special interest groups" would surely kick up a fuss about him directing attention to the plight of children in foreign countries instead of directing that attention on children in America.
  4. If a vehicle in the president's motorcade struck a child in a refugee camp, the motorcade probably would probably not even stop for "security reasons". The president would probably not bring gifts to the child or spend time with the child in the hospital, and the American press would not even report on the incident.
  5. If the American press did pick up on this story, some insensitive editorialist might have grabbed onto the fact little Widad Isa was wearing a hijab (Islamic head scarf) and tried to make some issue about that, rather than looking at her as just an innocent child who got hurt in a car accident.
  6. You would never see them packing Air Force One full of school books and crayons on the way to a place like Sudan. And, if they did, the press probably wouldn't report on it.

I must say, reading about how Paul Martin handled his visit to Sudan, and especially how he handled the unfortunate car accident with little Widad Isa made me feel proud to be a Canadian citizen. It is also easy to read news articles like this and understand why others in the world may have a good impression of Canada and may be welcoming to Canada's citizens when we visit their countries.

On the flip side, you can easily look at the parallels with America's way of dealing with foreign countries and understand why Americans are often viewed as arrogant and detached: it is not because individual Americans act this way, but their government certainly does. Non-American lives are viewed as somehow less valuable than American lives, and a foreigner is somehow less of a person than an American. While many Americans do not think this way, many other Americans do, and the American press feeds into this mentality.

Given these differences, it is not surprising that a Canadian passport can be a ticket for a hassle-free trip abroad, and that Canadians may prominently identify themselves as Canadian (so as not to be mistaken for Americans). By the same token, it is not surprising that some Americans may choose to pretend to be Canadian when traveling, or that companies like would seek to cater to that desire.