Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ship of Fools

The recent engine fire aboard the cruise ship Carnival Splendor, which left its 4,500 passengers and crew temporarily adrift off the coast of Mexico, rapidly became the most overblown media event in recent memory.

To hear tell, it ranked somewhere between the Titanic and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald for sheer unmitigated human suffering.

Except that it didn't. Sure, the poor souls had to subsist on Spam and Pop Tarts washed down by free booze while the ship was towed back to port.

And a fire at sea is no trifling matter. But it became quickly apparent the worst result of the incident was inconvenience for the passengers and a public relations disaster for the cruise line.

The most daunting challenge passengers faced was the onslaught of reporters and the morbidly curious who descended on them like seagulls on a garbage scow when they disembarked in San Diego.

One traveler grumbled that he hadn't had a hot cup of coffee in four days. Another had her honeymoon interrupted. This got translated into "Cruise From Hell" in headlinese.

Most of the passenger comments went like this:

"Considering the situation, everyone was pretty well behaved. I think we all made lemonade out of lemons. What are you going to do?"

Carnival said the passengers will be fully refunded, awarded a free future voyage and receive reimbursement for transportation costs back home.

Seems generous enough. But it was a lesson the industry learned the hard way.

In 2006, a passenger revolt forced the Cunard cruise line to offer 2,500 passengers aboard its flagship Queen Mary 2 full refunds after the ship missed three scheduled ports of call. Originally, the company said it was willing to give only 50 percent refunds.

The QM2 brushed the side of the channel as it rounded Florida. The resulting damage caused the captain to reduce the ship's speed for the rest of the voyage. To make up for the lost time, the cruise line announced the ship would not make scheduled stops in Barbados, St. Kitts and Salvador, Brazil.

But irate passengers reportedly demanded full refunds, notified the media and threatened a sit-in and a class action suit. The company relented and said full refunds would be made.

All of the above lends support to my decision to forgo cruising as a recreational outlet.

Look, I'm an adventurous guy. I've traveled to faraway places with strange sounding names. And I know that at any given moment, thousands of cruisers are enjoying themselves bobbing along on the oceans of the world.

To them, I wish bon voyage.

I love my fellow man. But the idea of being cooped up on a massive floating mall/playground/nightclub/disco with thousands of people to experience a week of long lines and orchestrated fun doesn't sound like my idea of a good time.

Visiting a port of call as a member of an invading horde doesn't appeal to me.

Neither does dining at the same place and time every night with the retired couple from Des Moines who regale you with tales of his 30 years in the cement business.

Neither does having your tiny cabin as your only resource if you don't like the entertainment.

Ditto for rogue waves. And a norovirus outbreak. One wag called a cruise ship a "petri dish on the open seas."

Neither does giving my money to an outfit like Royal Caribbean, which last year ferried passengers to a private beach on the island of Haiti for an outing of fun and sun at the same time the residents of that country were digging out of the rubble following a massive earthquake and burying more than 50,000 of their citizens.

That same Royal Caribbean has now given birth to two monsters lyrically named Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas.

The Oasis displacement - the actual mass of the vessel - is estimated at approximately 100,000 tons, about the same as an American Nimitz class aircraft carrier.

Arthur Frommer, perhaps the best known travel writer in the United States, called the Oasis a symbol for the end of Western civilization. The gargantuan ship is really America for Americans who don't want to travel, he says.

"The sole explanation for a 6,000-passenger ship is that it is able to offer more entertainment and thus cater to more of those people who are unable to entertain themselves, those arrested personalities who rely on constant, massive, outside distractions to ward off depression," he wrote. "I'm talking about people who get fidgety if they have no nearby television set, who never read a maga

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Tweed Effect

“As long as I get to count the votes, what are you going to do about
it?” --- William “Boss” Tweed.

Nothing validates the American Democratic experience like election
day. Be you a Tea Bagger or a Trotskyite, it’s your chance to make
your voice heard.

But truth be told, it’s a day that has seen enough snafus, fraud and
dirty tricks to make old Boss Tweed smile in approval. And this year
promises to be no exception.

According to a report by two nationwide voting rights groups, Demos
and Common Cause, administrative complexities or intentional
interference in the registration and voting process can result in
individuals not voting or casting ballots that count, as was the case
for 3 million eligible voters in 2008's presidential election.

In the past, I tended to take this alarmist view with a grain of
salt. The losing party always cries foul, the winners claim the
spoils. But it seems each year things get worse.

Now, Tea Party members have started challenging voter registration
applications and have announced plans to question individual voters
at the polls whom they suspect of being ineligible, according to
published reports.

In response, liberal groups and voting rights advocates claim that
such strategies are scare tactics intended to suppress minority and
poor voters.

That conflict is underscored in the Demos/Common Cause report, which
states that the current political climate is not conducive to an
orderly state of things. Health care reform, the tea party movement,
the party in power watching that power dissipate and the immigration
debate combine to make it a particularly volatile season.

"When the stakes are this high, the rules of the game -- and whether
or not they are enforced -- make all the difference," said Susannah
Goodman, director of election reform for Common Cause and co-author
of the report. "This report shows where we need better rules—and
better referees."

Eligible voters, especially first-time voters, could be asked to
present ID beyond legal requirements, be videotaped, or receive
misinformation about where and when to vote -- all before even
entering a polling place, according to the two groups. Once inside
polls, individuals could have their credentials as eligible voters
challenged by partisans.

According to one report, the ability to widely disseminate
misinformation --by Internet-based phone calls, fraudulent e-mails,
etc. – is growing faster than you can say tweet. One example cited by
Common Cause and Demos was from Ohio's Butler County, where a cyber
attack on the county Web site delayed the reporting of results during
the spring primary. The attack caused the county server to crash.

On a somewhat less Draconian note, a GOP operative in Arizona this
year enlisted homeless people to run for state office on the Green
Party ticket -- possibly in hopes of siphoning votes away from

In Michigan, Democrats are facing ongoing allegations that the 23
candidates filed to run under the tea party line are Democratic
plants. Almost 60,000 of the tea party's signatures were collected by
a political firm with ties to liberal groups, and a Democratic Party
official notarized the paperwork for some of the tea party candidates.

Two years ago, we were witness to a plethora of election day dirty

In Virginia, bogus fliers with an authentic-looking commonwealth seal
said fears of high voter turnout had prompted election officials to
hold two elections — one on Tuesday for Republicans and another on
Wednesday for Democrats.

In Milwaukee, fliers went up advising people "if you've already voted
in any election this year, you can't vote in the presidential

Latino voters in Nevada said they had received calls from people
describing themselves as Obama volunteers, urging them to cast their
ballot over the phone.

Also that year, Republican candidates Rudy Guliani, Fred Thompson and
Mitt Romney were targeted in fake Internet sites that featured
"quotes" from the candidates espousing support for extreme positions
they never endorsed.

What’s to be done? Our elected representatives seem reluctant to do
much of anything. While we have laws prohibiting such deceptive
practices, Congress clearly needs to toughen them.

It’s called preventive maintenance. As the stakes get higher, the
temptation to tamper with voter rights gets stronger.

We can ill afford a loss of confidence in the cornerstone of our
democratic process.

We would also be wise to listen to Allen Raymond, who knows
first-hand the pitfalls of voter fraud.

Raymond is a Republican political consultant who spent three months
in federal prison for his role in the 2002 New Hampshire Senate
election phone jamming scandal.

In his book, “How to Rig and Election,” Raymond warns:
“The electioneering tactics I write about it the book will only get
nastier and more brutal, because the tricks of the trade are known,
embellished upon, and passed forward by people like me to more people
like me (or, like the person I had been paid to be). The competition
is growing stiffer and the stakes are rising with every election.

"The only real solution is a savvy, committed electorate.”

Scare Tactics

In my never-ending quest to provide you, the readers, with the latest in social trends, mores and manners, I offer the following tips on how to have a hip Halloween.

1. Imbibe. Responsibly, of course.

2. Wear a costume that will define you as witty and devil-may-care.

3. Mix well.

Dump the gorilla suit, get rid of the Michael Jackson outfit, forget the vampire get-up. They're so yesterday.

And don't do what I did several years ago when I wore all white with a piece of yellow felt on my stomach and told everyone I was a fried egg.

Today's Halloween superstar requires a little imagination and cutting-edge knowledge of current events.

There will be lots of Lady Gagas, for example, this year. "Jersey Shore" characters will be identifiable because they "tawk like dis."

A few Na'vis from the film "Avatar" may show up although being blue, 10-feet tall and keeping your tail out of the onion dip will take some doing.

Bedbugs are hot this year but since they are despicable blood suckers, the costume may not win a lot of friends.

One couple I heard about is going to a party as Mel Gibson and his estranged girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, who participated in a rather vocal, public breakup.

This may be hard to bring off. If you are "Mel," you will be required to circulate among guests trashing every ethnic group and religious belief within earshot in expletive-filled rants. "Oksana" follows closely behind secretly recording his every utterance as lawsuit fodder.

Then there's a company that is selling oil-stained jumpsuits with the British Petroleum logo on the pocket. The downside: you run the risk of getting clocked by someone from the Gulf who fails to see the humor.

For the same reason, you may want to avoid dressing like Bernie Madoff. Ditto Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Reggie Bush.

The political arena is always good fodder for Halloween attire. With the elections just a few days away, it's a perfect time to make a statement about your favorite - or least favorite - politician.

President Obama is sure to be a favorite. There are lots of Obama masks (including a Barackula model). Just complete the look with a sharp suit, a great tie and a Teleprompter.

Where there is Barrack, there is Michelle. It's the perfect get-up for the woman who is statuesque, hates junk food and does bicep curls every day.

Sarah Palin attire is a hot seller. Many Palin masks now come with the lips sealed in order to preserve her presidential aspirations. For a special look, wear a Palin mask and a bear costume to capture that "Mama Grizzly" attitude. Accent with a moose pelt.

How about a Tea Party activist? Just wear a Glenn Beck T-shirt, an Uncle Sam hat and wave a placard that says "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" or some other equally inspiring words. Then explain to guests why President Obama is a Muslim loving, socialistic, granny killing, anti-Christ while foaming at the mouth. Good conversation makes a lively party.

Too intense? The Joe Biden look is simplicity itself. Just wear a conservative suit, bright blue tie and make a lot of inappropriate and embarrassing comments. For an extra treat, have your wife/girlfriend dress as Nancy Pelosi.

Hillary Clinton: Just add an exaggerated laugh and barely controlled hostility and you'll be an exact copy.

Don't want to draw attention to yourself? Get nine friends together, don dark robes and go as the entire U.S. Supreme Court.

Come Fly With Me

Just in time for the holiday travel season, Readers Digest, America's favorite source of abbreviated information, has blown the lid off the airline industry.

Well, maybe "blown the lid off" is overstating it a bit. Investigative journalism doesn't condense well.

But what they have done is interview commercial airline pilots from throughout the country about the state of things in their industry.

The topics run the gamut from silly security rules to bad cabin air. And it provides an interesting snapshot of air travel in this day and age.

First, this startling revelation from a US Airways pilot in South Carolina: "We miss the peanuts, too." Then, from a first officer on a regional airline: "Sometimes the airline won't give us lunch breaks or even time to eat. We have to delay flights just so we can get food." (See peanuts above).

"The government insists that security theater, and not actual security, is in the nation's best interest," says one pilot. "If it makes you feel any better, our crew had to endure the same screening as the passengers. Never mind that the baggage loaders, cleaners, caterers, and refuelers receive only occasional random screening. You can rest easy knowing that I do not have a pair of scissors or an oversize shampoo bottle anywhere in my carry-on luggage." (Yeah, but think about the economy. Eliminate the TSA screeners and 45,000 people are out of work).

"I'm constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I'm comfortable with. Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel," says another pilot. (I'm sure you could lighten the load by getting several passengers to exit the plane, especially if they knew the chance of reaching their destination was sketchy).

"We tell passengers what they need to know. We don't tell them things that are going to scare the pants off them. So you'll never hear me say, `Ladies and gentlemen, we just had an engine failure,' even if that's true." (I really don't want to know if an engine is failing or the rivets are popping out of the wings. If the oxygen masks drop and the attendants are singing hymns, I'll get the message).

"The two worst airports for us: Reagan National in Washington, D.C., and John Wayne in Orange County. You're flying by the seat of your pants trying to get in and out of those airports. John Wayne is especially bad because the rich folks who live near the airport don't like jet noise, so they have this noise abatement procedure where you basically have to turn the plane into a ballistic missile as soon as you're airborne." (Too bad they didn't mention Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, which is the equivalent of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride).

"No, it's not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes." (The last time I flew from Burbank to the Bay Area, the flying time was announced as two hours. The old Lockheed Turboprops flew faster than that).

"Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence. It's all but impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. We avoid turbulence not because we're afraid the wing is going to fall off but because it's annoying." (News item: A plane had to make an emergency landing after 10 people were injured when the flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles hit turbulence).

"When you get on that airplane at 7 a.m., you want your pilot to be rested and ready. But the hotels they put us in now are so bad that there are many nights when I toss and turn. They're in bad neighborhoods, they're loud, they've got bedbugs, and there have been stabbings in the parking lot." (Who does this guy fly for, Air Somalia?)

"The general flow of air in any airplane is from front to back. So if you're really concerned about breathing the freshest possible air or not getting too hot, sit as close to the front as you can..." (This is called first class. The price will take your breath away.)

"Here's the truth about airline jobs: You don't have as much time off as your neighbors think you have, you don't make as much money as your relatives think you make, and you don't have as many girlfriends as your wife thinks you have. Still, I can't believe they pay me to do this."

And despite all the gripes, you do it well. Happy landings.