Saturday, November 28, 2015

Tourist Traps

When I was a kid, the idea of space tourism would have sent me, well, to the moon.

I would have run as fast as my little legs would carry me to sign up for the journey.

My childhood coincided with the dawning of the space age which caused me to lust after all things astronomical as it did for many of my generation.

Alas, at my present age, even if space tourism becomes a reality any time soon, I’m afraid I won’t be strapping in for a journey to the realm of my boyhood dreams.

As we reached the apex of the journey, weightless, with the earth below and a billion stars seemingly within reach, I would probably doze off.

Then there is the fact that as a child, eager to embrace space travel, I forgot to read the fine print.

A ticket on Richard Branson’s SpaceShip Two, for example, will set you back $250,000. Take the wife and kids along and it runs into some serious money. Yet, CNN reported that some people have taken out second mortgages on their homes to pay for the journey.

And if you think the lines at LAX are bad, 600 people have already signed up for a trip aboard SpaceShip Two, which holds six people.

SpaceShipTwo would be flown to 50,000 feet by a jet called WhiteKnightTwo and then released, at which point its rocket engine propels the spacecraft at 3.5 times the speed of sound to as high as 62 miles in about 90 seconds.

The bad news is that when you land, you’ll be in New Mexico.

Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, is just one of a group of billionaires who are involved in a high-stakes interstellar poker game to see who flies the first passengers to the edge of space.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.Com, successfully launched a space vehicle called Blue Origin this week which flew to 330,000 feet then landed softly on its landing pad.

The capsule, according to Bezos, is fully reusable, which will dramatically reduce the cost of launches and commercial space flight.

Several companies are developing reusable rocket systems, including yet another billionaire, Elon Musk, he of Tesla electric car fame.

His company was almost the first to develop a viable rocket system, coming close to successfully landing their Falcon 9 rocket but all attempts so far have ended in failure.

Yet another wealthy investor, motel tycoon Robert Bigelow, has acquired the designs for inflatable space habitats from the Transhab program abandoned by NASA. His company, Bigelow Aerospace, has already launched two inflatable habitat modules.

The idea here is to use the habitats as space hotels. He’ll leave the light on for you.

But before you write a check for the next rocket to infinity and beyond, consider that there are real risks involved.

This isn’t like taking Southwest to San Jose.

For starters, the first SpaceShip Two blew up above the Mojave Desert last year killing one of the pilots. Another private enterprise ship ferrying supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station suffered a malfunction and was destroyed 20 seconds after launch. 

Beyond that, experts say there are health risks ranging from higher gravitational forces during acceleration to space motion sickness that strikes some people in low and zero-gravity.

Outside of the Earth's protective magnetosphere, space radiation might also pose a risk, possibly to implanted medical devices.

Right now, there’s too little information now to definitively answer the question of who is fit for this kind of travel.

“We don’t have a specific list of conditions that would be disqualifying, but certainly uncontrolled medical problems (whether it’s hypertension or heart disease or lung disease, or many other conditions), would most likely cause concern and result in disqualification,” Dr. Tarah Castleberry, an assistant professor of aerospace medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, told Reuters.

Branson, the Pied Piper of space tourism, assures the public that he wouldn’t ask anyone to go on one of his flights if he didn’t feel safe himself.

While that may be reassuring to some, not even Branson’s wealth will allow him to predict the pitfalls of space travel.

Alexander Saltman, the executive director of the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, cautioned that suborbital trips by space tourists will be dangerous.

"There are going to be dangers that we don't know about when we start flying," he said. "There will be incidents and at some point somebody will lose their life in this industry... At this point, putting a number on it is going to be impossible, because the unknowns outweigh the knowns."

Which means, like our fascination with self-driving cars, we may be getting ahead of ourselves while impatiently waiting for the future.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Shop 'Til You Stop

It’s Thanksgiving week, that time of year when we count our blessings, vow but fail to eat sensibly and come to the shocking realization that Christmas is almost upon is.

There is shopping to be done. Not the leisurely browse through the racks, try a few things on shopping. No, this is a storm the beaches, take no prisoners exercise.

With a shopping list longer than a CVS receipt, there’s no time to waste.

Nothing captures the spirit of this frenzy like Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday shopping season.

The term was originated by a bunch of Philadelphia cops because of the heavy traffic on that day. More recently, merchants and the media have used it instead to refer to the beginning of the period in which retailers are in the black (turning a profit).

Most major retailers open very early (many during overnight hours) or attempt to lure crowds on Thanksgiving Day before the dishes are even washed.

Monster sales are advertised. Huge discounts are promised. Chaos ensues.

In 2008, a crowd of approximately 2,000 shoppers in Valley Stream, New York, waited outside for the 5:00 am opening of the local Wal-Mart. As opening time approached, the crowd grew anxious and when the doors were opened the crowd pushed forward, breaking the door down, and trampling a 34-year-old employee to death.

Two people were shot outside a Wal-Mart in Tallahassee, Florida during a dispute over a parking space.

In laid-back California, two people were fatally shot during an altercation at a  Toys “R” Us  in Palm Desert. 
A woman at a Porter Ranch Wal-Mart used pepper spray on fellow shoppers, causing injuries to a reported 20 people who had been waiting hours for the store to open.

Come to think of it, it might be called Black Friday because it reveals the dark side of human nature. Mix up a bunch of adrenalin pumped shoppers, disinterested clerks and a shortage of sale merchandise, throw them together in the pre-dawn darkness and you have all the ingredients of a soccer riot, retail style.

But before you weep for the future of the human race, know this:

Black Friday might be going dark.

Last year, spending tumbled an estimated 11 percent over the weekend from a year earlier, the Washington-based National Retail Federation said. And more than 6 million shoppers who had been expected to hit stores never showed up.  It was the second year in a row that sales declined during the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday weekend.

“We are seeing the eventual extinction of Black Friday,” said Bill Tancer, head of global research for Experian Marketing Services in an interview with Time magazine.  Fewer people are participating and those who do are spending less.

According to a survey done by retail research firm Conlumino, 45% of shoppers said they planned to spend less on Black Friday this year than last year. Another 24% said they would spend about the same amount while only 18% said they would spend more.
The remaining 13% sat out Black Friday last year and said they would do so again this year.

Retailers looking for the reasons behind the decline need look no farther than the nearest mirror.

Last year, Kmart aired its first Christmas ad in early September, according to Money magazine. Walmart, Target Toys R Us and others then rolled out various versions of the season’s “Hot Toy” list, long before kids had visions of sugar plumbs dancing in their heads.

This year, Wal-Mart made price cuts on 20,000 items, including many in-demand holiday gifts, on Nov. 1. Target had a “Black Friday” event Nov. 10 that gave customers a chance to nab its deals early. And some stores, including Toys R Us, Disney Store and Kate Spade Saturday started their sales several days before Thanksgiving.

Why trade elbows with roaming packs of merciless shoppers on Black Friday when you can score a few bargains and be done with most of your shopping by then?

The fool-me-twice-shame-on-me factor also comes into play.

On the most recent holiday shopping survey from, 81 percent of respondents said that “Black Friday deals are not improving from previous years.”

Identical deals between Black Friday 2014 and Black Friday 2015 were located at big-name stores such as J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Sam’s Club, Sears and Target, among others. Macy’s has at least 60 repeated deals this year, and department store Belk has more than 80, according to a USA Today story.

Then, there’s shopping in our brave new world.

Almost half of holiday shopping, consisting of browsing and buying, will be done online: average consumers say 46 percent of their shopping (both browsing and buying) this holiday season will be conducted online, up from 44 percent last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

And online retailers are playing hardball. After launching a Black Friday online store well ahead of the actual day, Amazon said that its holiday deals started rolling out a full week ahead of Black Friday.

Our world is constantly evolving. I suspect that holiday shopping in the future will consist of selecting an item online. Then computers overseen by robots will manufacture and deliver orders via 3-D printers. 

For traditionalists, Amazon or Wal-Mart drones will deliver packages from the sky just like Santa did.

And Black Friday will be no more.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hot Off the Grill

He sat across the table from me at a fancy San Francisco restaurant.

We had just finished a hefty lunch of steaks and mashed potatoes when I told him I recently read that meat fixed on a grill was hazardous to one’s health.

I meant it as an amusing aside. But his face contorted like a man who had just taken a large bite out of a lemon.

“That’s it,” he said, “I can’t take it anymore. First, they take away our tobacco. Then they want us to give up martinis. Now, we are to forgo the pleasures of a good steak fixed properly?  I won’t do it. A man must have few vices to enjoy.”

The flummoxed speaker was a well-known journalist/author who happened to be my boss. The year was 1964.

A half century later, we are still being told that, when it comes to dining, what’s good is bad.

The most recent shot across our culinary bow came in the form of a study that found people who said they ate the most grilled meat — red meat and chicken alike — had a higher risk of kidney cancer, according to the journal Cancer.

It is 1964 all over again.

Oddly enough, this study came out of the University of Texas. Last time I checked, Texans embraced barbecue, beer, bullets and Baptists.

So warnings notwithstanding, you can bet your sweet brisket that this study isn’t going to make a dent in the barbecue business in the Lone Star state.

In fact, one media outlet in Texas pointed out that in the city of Lockhart, known as the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” has a lower than average cancer rate. And that Texas as a whole has a lower cancer rate than most states in the U.S.

Researchers couldn’t have picked a bigger target. More than 10 million barbecues are shipped each year.  Markets sell $450 million worth of barbecue sauce each year. Americans consume the stuff by the ton, be it beef or pork ribs, brisket or tri-tip.
Besides, humans have been cooking meat over an open fire since, well, since they started cooking meat. From those primitive times, it has come to mean fellowship, warmth, camaraderie, all wrapped up in the saliva-inducing aroma of grilled food.

And now, I’m being told that the next time I have friends over for a barbecue, I should throw broccoli florets on the grill?

If that’s not bad enough, this admonishment to toss our barbecues into the recycling bin came on the heels of a recent World Health Organization warning that we should avoid all manner of processed foods, saying they classified bacon and hot dogs in the same category as tobacco and asbestos. 

True enough if you ate nothing but hot dogs and bacon. But more importantly, we would think the World Health Organization would focus on providing food and clean water to the millions on this planet who have neither instead of declaring war on bratwurst.

So should we taking these warnings with a grain of salt?

After all, the North American Meat Institute called the WHO report "dramatic and alarmist overreach."

The National Cattleman's Beef Association said that cancer is too complex to be blamed on any one cause, like meat.

The answer, of course, is moderation.  It’s a life style many of us have learned over the years. The era of the three martini lunch ended at long time ago. And with its demise, American’s life expectancy has grown.

As for grilling, the Texas researches conceded that they only found a link but did not find concrete evidence that it can cause cancer. Further research needs to be conducted. In addition, they do not say that consumers should stop eating meat but rather serve it in moderation while recommending that we avoid charring or burning it. 

As for me, while I appreciate all the concern for my well being, I will continue to barbecue in the traditional way. I will grill the occasional hamburger and tri-tip and cook up a mess of baby back ribs.

After all, my boss who vowed to keep eating steaks and drinking martinis, lived to be in his 80s.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Risky Business

It’s called crowdfunding and it occupies a spot on the Internet somewhere between venture capitalism and electronic panhandling.

It is quite simply the practice of raising money, be it for a start-up business venture or to pay for a vacation, from a large number of people through Internet-related registries.

Often referred to as alternative financing, it beats hell out of trying to extract money from a gimlet-eyed loan officer or skeptical entrepreneur. But the “alternative” in “alternative financing” means that you need to convince the cyberspace collective to open their hearts and/or wallets.

And, of course, it’s not really new. In 1885, when government sources failed to provide funding to build a monumental base for the Statue of Liberty, a newspaper-led campaign attracted small donations from 160,000 donors.

These days, thanks to the Internet, crowdfunding is raising ridiculous amounts of money. The current record is $65 million from 700,000 backers hauled in by Cloud Imperium Games which is developing a PC game called Star Citizen.

Less spectacular but noteworthy: The "Coolest Cooler" raised a total of $13,285,226 from 62,642 backers. The cooler features a blender, waterproof Bluetooth speakers and an LED light.

In a more serious vein, GlobalGiving allows individuals to browse through a selection of small projects proposed by nonprofit organizations worldwide, donating funds to projects of their choice., founded in 2000, allows public school teachers in the United States to request materials for their classrooms. Individuals can lend money to teacher-proposed projects, and the organization fulfills and delivers supplies to schools.

All told, the crowdfunding industry reportedly raised over $5.1 billion worldwide.

I became intrigued by this phenomenon when I read a recent story about a grisly traffic fatality on the 5 Freeway. A car driven by a 20-year-old Burbank man who police said was driving recklessly struck another vehicle and rolled over. The driver, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected, his body landing on a freeway sign 20 feet above the road.

A friend of the victim set up a page on the GoFundMe website, asking for $50,000 to cover his family’s "unexpected financial burdens" and the cost of the funeral.

That seemed like a lot of money, considering the foolhardy circumstances surrounding the young man’s death. So far, $19,000 has been collected meaning there was a sympathetic audience out there somewhere.

But I had to wonder if the pledges actually materialized and if the money will in fact get to the family.

And that’s the problem with sites like GoFundMe. The rules are loose and quality and truthfulness are not guaranteed. You can raise money for almost anything. And you get the cash whether you meet your goal or not -- minus a 5 percent take from GoFundMe and additional processing fees.

It’s the user’s responsibility to decide which campaigns are worthy of their hard-earned cash.

Fraud is not unknown here.

An account was set up on GoFundMe that claimed to raise money for a family whose mother had died shortly after giving birth to her third child. The page received over $4,500 in donations—but it wasn’t set up by the family or even by anyone they knew. It was started by a sister of one of the dead woman’s co-workers. 

But after the money was raised, the woman cleaned out the account and disappeared, according to the Texas Monthly. She was later arrested.

According to an ABC News report, a man collected $6,500 for a baby who needed a heart transplant. The money never materialized and the baby’s parents had to start a new campaign while trying to explain that money raised by the first one had disappeared.

A Nashville family whose daughter was murdered said a GoFundMe page to raise money for her two young children was established but the grandparents, who are now raising the children, said they have never seen a dime of the $1600 that was raised.

Then, there’s the bizarre:

A woman in Portland addressed a funding request to “Dear white friends…

“The stress of living as a Thai-Cambodian woman in such a white city replete with constant interpersonal and institutional racism has a big toll on my health and well being. I see an amazing therapist to cope with this…but I spend $100/month on therapy for bi-weekly appointments. Now it's your turn to pay!”

A New York woman sought donations to help pay the vet bill for her sick cat.

Amber Roof, the sister of the alleged Charleston church shooter, Dylann Roof, asked the public for donations asking for $5,000 on a Go Fund Me page to pay for her and her fiancĂ©’s wedding, which was originally scheduled for June 21.They canceled the wedding after her brother was accused of the shooting and killing nine members of the Emanuel AME church just three days earlier.

Once in a while, however, there’s a fundraiser that reaffirms your faith in humanity.

After months of walking several miles a day to his customers’ homes to mow their lawns 83-year-old John Joyce got a break -- when customers surprised him with a new truck, according to an ABC report.

Longtime customers Robert and Nikki Norton met the hardworking man eight years ago when he was mowing a yard down the road from their home in St. Petersburg, Fl.

About a month ago, the transmission on Joyce’s 1994 truck died, and the Nortons realized how troublesome it had become for Joyce to make a living.

So, the soon-to-be newlyweds created a GoFundMe account and used the power of social media to spread the word on Joyce’s situation.

“And in just a few weeks people donated more than $13,000, but that wasn’t all -- a used car dealer, Automax, sold them a 2004 truck, leaving them with money to spare,” the Nortons said.

The very next day Joyce's stepdaughter sent a heartfelt text message. She said the day he received the truck was the greatest day of Joyce's life, because "he's not used to good things happening to him."

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.