Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rising to the Occasion

If you work in the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, it's been a busy time, what with SARS and the Avian flu. Likewise at the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission. While disasters there may be more of the manmade variety, they are ubiquitous none the less. And so it goes at a gaggle of acronymed agencies, from the NHC (the National Hurricane Center), to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the NTSB (the National Transportation Safety Board). Every day that you come to work there's a better than even money shot the something will happen that will force you to send out for lunch.

That's not the usually the case for the hardworking gang at the VAAC. At any of their nine locations around the globe, from Anchorage, Alaska to Wellington, New Zealand, their dedicated staffs come in, check their computers, weather maps and newswires, then likely spend the rest of the morning trying to figure which type of tea to brew. For normally there's not a lot to do. It's not that they don't see a lot of activity in their particular field of scientific study. It's just that most times things in their world don't amount to more than a hill of lava. That is, until this past week.

That's because VAAC stands for the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center. Set up by the UN in the nineties, each of the nine centers are actually run by the national weather forecasting organizations of the country in which they are based. They are tasked with improving forecasts regarding the locations of ash clouds from volcanic eruptions. Not just an academic exercise, the idea for the centers was driven by a potentially fatal situation that happened with a British Airways flight in 1982.

Known as the "British Airways Flight 9 Incident," it involved a 747 which flew through an ash cloud generated by the eruption of Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. Beginning with smoke in the cabin, it quickly progressed to all 4 engines cutting out. With just 23 minutes of glide time until the plane crashed, the pilots steered the plane around mountains toward a water "landing." But 14 minutes after the first engine cut off they began to restart, enabling the crew to regain control and make an emergency landing. It's worth noting the announcement to passengers by Captain Eric Moody: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."

An almost identical incident in 1989 with a KLM jet meant another pilot had to make a similar announcement. And so the VAAC was brought into being around the world. However, while there are perhaps 20 eruptions going on at any time in the world, with about 50 to 70 in any given year, few of these produce any major trouble or are located in air traffic lanes where they could cause a problem. But then you have Eyjafjallajökull.

Quiet since its last recorded eruption nearly 2 centuries ago in Iceland, the gang at the London VAAC were probably settling into another non-event when the first fissure opened on March 31. A little steam here, a little lava there. Indeed, overflights on April 13 showed nothing special. However, on the morning of April 14, an eruption plume rose to 4 miles over the site. Evacuations were ordered and planes were cautioned about getting too close... all very manageable. But then it kept getting worse.

As the plume spread, VAAC made its recommendation, and air traffic over Northern European was quickly shut down. As of this writing some flights are starting to be allowed, though with restrictions on routing. It's worth noting that the loosening of the reins was driven by a number of factors, including the result of test flights over the weekend, as well as the howling coming from the airlines as their economic losses mounted. But it was also the realization that the last time Eyjafjöll blew in 1821 it didn't stop for 2 years. That's a long time to keep people sleeping on cots in Heathrow Terminal 4.

For the scientists at VAAC, one can imagine their proud mothers finally boasting to their friends how their kids were not really in a dead end job studying dead volcanoes. And their newfound fame does give hope to colleagues at the EHP and the PTWC. For if the gang at the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center can hit it big, there may be hope yet for those toiling away at the Earthquake Hazards Program and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Tomorrow might be their day to shine... they can only hope.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is glad he's not heading to Europe this week. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mike on the River Thai

As our oldest has rented his first apartment and has his first full time job, and our youngest is nearing the end of his second year in college, I would have to say we are definitely empty nesters. True, anything can happen and circumstances can change at a moment's notice. But while we'll always have room for them wherever we are, discussions have moved to the next phase of our lives, and where that might lead us.

There are as many possibilities as there are people, which makes it all the more confusing. And you never know who might have an idea which might provide some guidance. So when I heard about Mike and Debbie and their approach, I was more than curious about their story. It took a little doing to make the connection and arrange a chat for one simple reason: their version of retirement was to sell everything they had and move to Thailand.

While the bulk of their personal and professional lives were in the west and southwest, they most recently had spent 5 years in the Washington DC area for Mike's work as an executive with a major corporation. But with their kids grown and Mike looking for a new challenge, when offered a chance to run their office in India he jumped at it. However, in the course of his routine physical before they headed out, heart problems were discovered. That led to a quintuple bypass, which in turn led to a rethinking of priorities.

They decided that what really attracted them to the overseas posting was the overseas part and not the posting. So Mike retired and did extensive research on foreign destinations, focusing on Asia, an area where he had traveled a good deal and spent some time in his youth. Eventually they settled on Chaing Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, in the cooler, less politically volatile northern part of the country. Taking a leap of faith, they sold their house, gave away what they didn't put in storage, packed the maximum allowable 68 pounds of luggage per person and set out for the adventure.

Mike had rented them a serviced apartment to live in till they got the lay of the land. They figured they'd give it a few months: worse case they could move somewhere else. But the more they lived there, the more they liked it. They explored, made friends and starting working with the Foundation for the Education of Rural Children (FERC), a local charity that helps needy kids. Their lives quickly fell together, so much so that just two months later they decided they were there to stay for a while, and rented a 3000 square foot duplex overlooking the city and the Ping River... for just $1100 a month.

As to their daily routine, Mike says every day is an adventure. "Our apartment is an American dimension, but once outside it's totally different." Just walking down the street, buying fruits and vegetables, ordering in a restaurant is a new experience. Even making a pit stop has its moments: "Every rest room has several attendants, and rarely are they men. You're just doing your thing, and 3 women are sweeping around you." And don't even ask Debbie about the challenges of the Asian "toilet."

Still, even with the occasional stressors, like dealing with immigration and driving on the other side of the road, the experience has far exceeded their expectations. "The cost is about 65% of what we were paying in the states," Mike explains. "And with the great surplus we have from inexpensive living, we travel." When I spoke with him, they were just back from a trip on the River Kwai, and were planning a month-long journey with Indian friends into China. And to unwind from those long trips? "Three minutes from our doorstep is a beautiful massage studio, where we get a foot massage or Thai massage or an oil massage for $4.25."

Admittedly, it's a not an approach to retirement that's for everybody. It takes a certain type of personality to throw the key over your shoulder and roll the dice. Mike says before you do anything like it, do your homework, as they did. "Talk to someone who is doing it. There are 100 little tricks: what do I do with mail? What do I do with taxes? How do I set up a phone?" But the rewards are vast. "You have to give yourself the time, wherever you go, to find the beauty. Every corner is new experience, a new dimension. And when you consider the joy we get from helping needy children, while spending our free time figuring out where we'll travel to next, I‘m in a state of bliss."


Marc Wollin of Bedford isn't quite ready to move next door to Mike and Debbie, but he'd love to visit. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Barbie Rules

Long before Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, Annie Oakley was breaking the rawhide ceiling in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In performances around the country and in Europe, she showed the guys how it was done, shootin' and ropin' and ridin' better than any of them. While not a feminist per se, "Little Sure Shot" also pressed for women to have opportunities and skills, teaching thousands to shoot as a form of exercise as well as for their own protection. She even promoted women as part of the armed forces, offering the government the services of "a company of 50 lady sharpshooters" should the U.S. go to war with Spain.

Oakley's efforts built on those of pioneers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton towards achieving not only the vote for women, but an end to gender discrimination. Of course, while significant strides have been made, few would argue that it's all in the past. After all, it was just last year that the president signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, named for a former employee of Goodyear who was paid 15 to 40% less than her male counterparts.

Still, progress has been made, and that has meant role models. From Amelia Earhart to Condoleeza Rice, from Marie Curie to Margaret Thatcher, girls have any number of accomplished women to look up to in a nearly endless assortment of professions. In that light, one individual stands out if for no other reason than the sheer myriad of careers she has tackled successfully: Barbie.

Launched in 1959, Barbie has been the dean of the doll world for over 50 years. She's withstood the onslaught from Cabbage Patch Kids, American Girls and Bratz to anchor herself firmly in popular culture. You can argue about her figure, her focus on clothes and even her taste in men, but that doesn't change the bottom line: it's been estimated that over 90% of American girls aged 3 to 11 own Barbie dolls.

That's one of the reasons that Mattel, the keeper of the Barbie mystique, has more recently viewed her as more than just a plaything. Over time they've changed her from just a good time girl looking forward to a party with Skipper, Midge, Ken and Tommy, to a serious career woman with an occupation such as Astronaut, requiring her to don a custom made flight suit for her 39-19-33 figure.

In fact, recent years have seen a whole plethora of special editions that highlight just some of the opportunities open to women. Barbie has been a paleontologist, stewardess, veterinarian, chef, pet stylist, business executive, Sea World trainer, diplomat and paratrooper, to name just a few. She's even run afoul of the law: Christian Louboutin, working with Mattel, released Cat Burglar Barbie, where her skin-hugging black bodysuit is complimented by miniature versions of the designer's knee high boots.

More recently, the company let the public vote on what her 125th career would be. After more than a half million votes were cast, two winners were actually declared: turns out that young ladies see her in a different light than the public at large. And so the Girls' Winner was News Anchor Barbie, while the overall popular vote was won by Computer Engineer Barbie. Interestingly, no mention was made of other demographic selections, though one might guess that among guys the winner might have been Victoria's Secret Barbie.

Perhaps more influential is her support of high profile causes. Along with such corporate heavyweights as American Express, Best Buy and Ernst and Young, Barbie (note that it's not her corporate parent, but the doll herself) is a sponsor of "The White House Project." Under the tag line of "Add Women, CHANGE Everything," the group seeks to promote women in both public and private leadership roles. I can't wait for the photo op with the CEO's of those corporations and Ambassador Barbie at the head of the table.

Still, as a way of helping promote careers for young girls, this all seems like its moving in the right direction. As a male, however, I am troubled by one thing. As the lead sponsor for "Take our Daughters and Sons to Work Day," Barbie is "inspiring a future generation of girls by helping bring them into the workplace and sharing experiences and stories from inspirational women leaders." However, for little boys, there is no equivalent. So on that day at the workplace, young men will learn the true way of the world: if you want to succeed, you best listen to Barbie.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't quite get the appeal of "See's Candy Cashier Barbie." His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Legislative Calendar

While we were all watching Congressional leaders introduce "the honorable man from the great state of" in favor of health care reform, or "the gentle woman who has been an invaluable member of our committee" against the same, the world kept turning. Iraq was busy counting its votes, Haiti was still trying to dig out from their earthquake and Greece was still trying to figure out its finances. And in the category of the stuff that really counts, Sandra Bullock was deciding enough was enough and will reportedly start divorce proceedings in her five year old marriage.

Still, regardless of which side of the health care debate you were on, it's over for now. I say "for now," because the Republicans are gearing up to try and mount a repeal effort. That means that debate will continue as to whether or not the legislation just passed will or will not do anything to tame the beast that is the medical care status quo in this county. But as a practical matter, at least for the time being, it's been signed into law, and so we can all get back to seeing what Sarah Palin is writing on her hand this week.

And what about Congress itself? With no more single topic on its agenda, it's free to revert back to smorgasbord that is the legislative calendar. That could mean action on issues ranging from energy to national security to education. And perhaps, like me, you're curious as to which priorities will now move front and center to be debated and acted upon.

For instance, Representative Mike Honda of California is set to ask for passage of House Resolution 267. This bill recognizes the "cultural and historical significance of Nowruz," an Iranian festival which marks the beginning of Spring and the first day of the Iranian New Year. Representative Todd Platts of Pennsylvania is putting his political capital on the line in pushing through HR 4395. This legislation "expands the boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park to include the Lincoln Train Station." And Representative Susan Davis, also from California, offered up HR 1128, which goes out on a limb "thanking Vancouver for hosting the world during the 2010 Winter Olympics and honoring the athletes from Team USA."

But just to show how nothing is easy in government anymore, one need look no further than the resolution proposed by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Hoyer, who represents the Old Line State, proposed a decree "Congratulating the 2009-2010 University of Maryland Men's Basketball Team, Greivis Vasquez, and Coach Gary Williams on an outstanding season." It was the kind of routine declaration usually offered up without objection for the home town folks.

Not so in this case. California Representative John Campbell, a Republican, while saying that he "didn't want to cast any aspersions on any Terp fans or anything like that," noted that he had offered a similar resolution for the University of California at Irvine back in October, congratulating them on winning a men's volleyball championship. However, he said, Hoyer had "pulled that resolution from the floor." He went on: "Therefore, those kids who won that national championship were not able to get the same recognition that apparently today these players for Maryland, who are just in the playoffs, are going to receive." (Actually, the bill was pulled by fellow California Representative George Miller, reportedly over a feud regarding support for water rights in the Golden State.)

Then it got really ugly. Campbell continued, "Finally, Mr. Speaker, I have here the sports section from today's Washington Post. I will read from the front page where it says that according to a study, Maryland had the lowest graduation rate, 8%, among the 65 NCAA tournament teams. Given that this is being put forth in the Education and Labor Committee, if we were going to look at all the 65 teams in the NCAA championships, should we be considering the academics of the teams that are in or not in?" Hoyer's office shot back, "Whether it's health care, job creation, or basketball, Republicans aren't for anything." And so it goes: largely along party lines, the bill finally passed by a vote of 279 to 132.

And that's just college sports. Thankfully, Congress has decamped for 2 weeks, giving members a chance to head back to their districts and hopefully cool down. By the time they come back, perhaps China will have made peace with Google, the nuclear arms deal with Russia will be almost final and Israel might have a compromise with regard to the new settlements. Most importantly, the Final Four will be history, so perhaps we can now focus on the important stuff, like the start of the baseball season.


Marc Wollin of Bedford finds C-Span fascinating and troubling at the same time. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.