Monday, September 10, 2007

General David Petraeus Report

General David Petraeus, the Commanding General of Multi-National Forces, Iraq and the head honcho in the war against terrorism, appeared before a joint session of the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Relations Committee today to give his much anticipated assessment.

We'll try to remain neutral. Just the facts, ma'am, and all that, right?

General Petraeus's overall assessment was that the surge of US troops met its military objectives and that we may be able to scale back to pre-surge levels by July 2008 without jeopardizing our gains. In other words, a withdrawal of about 30,000 service members by mid-summer.

"The level of security incidents has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks with the level of incidents in the past two weeks the lowest since June of 2006," he said.

Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi terrorists, Al-Qaeda, and sectarian violence remain the largest threats to stability, and although there is no guarantee of success, abandoning the country now would result in certain failure and embolden Al-Qaeda and its allies.

Throughout the proceedings, anti-war protesters, including Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, heckled General Petraeus.

"Tell the truth, General!" rang the chorus. "Generals lie, children die!"

Finally, the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Ike Skelton, gave them the boot. "No more disturbances will be tolerated," he said. "Out they go."

However, when Petraeus finished his testimony, several more protesters began chanting, "Pull out!" They also got the boot. One woman wearing a pink cardboard crown and screaming "No, no, no!" had to be forced out of the room by security guards.

General Petraeus came under attack ...

Wait a minute. Sorry.

If we were to give our lives while serving our country, do you really think we would want our families to discredit that sacrifice by protesting the very reason for which we died? The correct answer is no. We would not. We would be ashamed. Luckily, we know our families have the good sense to realize that we died fighting for our country. This is an all-volunteer Army. There is no draft. No one has forced us to pick-up arms and defend our country. We do it because we are patriots. Be proud of us. Don't turn around and say our cause wasn't just or that we died without purpose. Don't embarrass us, and don't embarrass our memory.

We know we said we'd try to remain neutral. We failed.

Anyway, General Petraeus came under attack in an advertisement in today's New York Times. Right-wing nut jobs from MoveOn.org made numerous ridiculous and unprovable accusations, including one that he was "cooking the books for the White House." The title of the ad? "General Petraeus or General Betray-us?"

Cute.

The 2000 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman, responded, "We must reject the slander of this brave soldier and patriot," and White House press secretary Tony Snow wrote it off as "a boorish, childish, unworthy attack."

Today's hearing on our progress in the War on Terror was only the first, and it begins a week-long focus on the future of the Iraqi conflict.

Remember that tomorrow is Patriot Day and the anniversary of September 11, 2007. Please do not forget the men and women who lost their lives on that day and the men and women who continue to sacrifice their own well-being to protect your freedoms and defend this great country.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Microwave Popcorn Lung

It's a known fact that workers in factories that produce microwaveable are prone to contracting bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as popcorn lung.

Seriously.

Popcorn lung is a lung disease caused by exposure to diacetyl, the chemical used for artificial butter flavoring. Over the last five years, popcorn makers like ConAgra Foods, General Mills, and the American Pop Corn Company have paid more than $100,000,000 in lawsuits filed by employees who have contracted popcorn lung.

While diacetyl is found naturally in products like milk, cheese, and butter, it becomes a vapor when heated. If inhaled for extended periods of time, it can lead to swelling and scarring in the lungs's airways.

So how do you know if you've been breathing in too many toxic popcorn fumes? Inhale deeply. No problems? Good. Now exhale. If you find the process of exhaling difficult, you might have popcorn lung, or someone might be trying to smother you with a pillow.

So factory workers who are exposed to diacetyl on a daily basis are at risk. What about consumers?

Unless you are consuming a bag or two of microwaveable popcorn a day, you should be safe. The risk comes from inhaling the fumes, so don't open the bag and take a big whiff. Keep it under a vent or in a well-ventilated area. However, there is only one documented case of popcorn lung by a consumer, so don't panic just yet.

Meet Wayne Watson.

Wayne was a chronic user. He ate several bags of microwaveable popcorn a day. "I am popcorn," were his words. He'd been eating that much for a decade. As it is with most foods we love, the smell was a large part of his enjoyment. He'd open the bag, and inhale both the comforting fragrance of popcorn and the deadly fumes of diacetyl. Ah, what sweet bliss.

Wayne Watson first noticed a change in his lung capacity several years ago during choir rehearsals when he wasn't able to hold his notes like he had once been able. He wasn't a smoker and had made no changes to his lifestyle, so he saw a doctor about it. He got scans and biopsies, he took inhalers and steroids, all to no affect. Gradually, his lung capacity continued to diminish.

It wasn't until he saw a a pulmonary specialist at Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center that the astute doctor noticed similarities between Wayne's symptoms and popcorn lung.

Further investigation revealed that the levels of diacetyl in Wayne's home were equal to a microwave popcorn production factory.

Wayne Watson has since kicked the habit, and his lung capacity has greatly improved.

Coincidence? ConAgra seems to think so. The makers of Orville Redenbacher and Act II popcorn made this statement:

“We are fully confident that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers to prepare and eat. However, in order to eliminate even the perception of risk for consumers and to provide the safest possible work environment for employees who handle large quantities of diacetyl, we plan to eliminate the use of added diacetyl in our microwave popcorn products within a year."

General Mills and the American Pop Corn Company are also working on new recipes sans diacetyl.

In the meantime, enjoy your microwaveable popcorn of death.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

New Apple iPod Announcement

Ever since the days of our Apple IIGS, we've loved Apple. While Apple Computer Inc. seemed likely to dominate the market in the 1980s, the evil Bill Gates came along and beat them into submission. Venture into an early 1990s computer store, and you’d fine row upon row of Microsoft Windows compatible programs; the Apple ones would be tucked away on the bottom shelf in a dark and dusty corner. Resigned, we eventually traded in our Apple for one with Microsoft Windows 95.

So when did Apple start making a comeback? While we admit that a desktop computer with the Mac Operating System is actually a viable alternative to Windows these days, it was the iPod that turned the company into something with teeth.

The iPod hit stores on November 10th, 2001. At that time, Apple was trading on Wall Street for around $10 a share. Today, it’s trading for $140. If you had invested $10,000 in Apple when the iPod was announced, it would be worth $140,000 today.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

Well, we weren’t going to make the same mistake twice. The day the iPhone was announced and Apple Computer Inc. became Apple Inc., we dropped some cash into their stock. Since then, it’s gone up another 56%. In July, the iPhone commanded 1.8% of the mobile handset market and outsold all other smart phones, and analysts expect this number to continue to grow.

But it seems Apple isn’t done yet.

Today, Steve Jobs announced they would be revamping the entire iPod lineup. Here are the highlights.

iPod Touch

Think of it is an iPhone without the phone. The iPod Touch features a touch-screen interface, Cover Flow (a three-dimensional graphical user interface that displays album covers you can flip through), and Wi-Fi, giving you access to the Safari web browser, a YouTube application, and the iTunes music store so you can browse and buy music anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi hotspot. The iPod Touch comes in 8 GB ($299) and 16 GB ($399) models.

iPod Classic

Video iPods were renamed iPod classics. This sixth generation version incorporates Cover Flow and an all-metal casing. A new 160 GB version ($349) will also be available, giving you the ability to create play lists of your favorite 40,000 songs.

iPod Shuffle & iPod Nano

The new iPod Nano features a larger, video-capable display with Cover Flow for your music. It also includes three games with more games available through iTunes. It comes in a 4 GB ($149) and 8 GB ($199) version. Both the Shuffle and Nano got the all-metal casing makeover.

iPhone

If you couldn’t afford it before, you’re in luck. The 8 GB iPhone has been reduced in price from $599 to $399. As an added bonus, iTunes now also gives you the ability to create custom ring tones for your phone.

If you haven’t already invested in Apple Corp., we highly recommend doing so. Make sure you pick up a new iPod and iPhone while you’re at it, too. If your significant other complains about your spending habits, show him or her portfolio, point at AAPL, and say that you are only investing in your future.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Skybus

In an industry plagued by failing companies and bankruptcies, one might think that the airlines wouldn't be the ideal candidate for a potential new start-up.

One would be wrong.

Chief Executive Bill Diffenderffer started with $160 million and completely redesigned the airline business model from the ground up. Say hello to Skybus, where an airline ticket costs as little as 10 bucks.

No, our monkeys didn't mistype that. Ten dollars. Diez dólares. Dieci dollari.

Beginning in May, Skybus began flying Between Burbank, California and Columbus, Ohio. Flights were soon added between Bellingham, Washington and Columbus, then between San Diego and Columbus. As of this article, Skybus is flying five Airbus A319s on routes from Columbus to 11 cities nationwide. If everything goes according to schedule, we'll see 80 Airbus A319s flying to various cities across the US.

So how do they do it? What's their secret?

First of all, only the first ten seats actually sell for $10. After these seats sell-out, the price increases to $50, with incremental price increases of $25 as more seats sell, up to $175 for the remaining available seats. The average cost of a one-way ticket is around $100 if you don't manage to get in early.

And by early, we mean, like, immediately. Within hours of being posted, the $10 fares on every flight for the entire year were sold-out online. Carmen Hulbert, Skybus's Director of Marketing, likened it to a feeding frenzy.

But still, even if you paid $100 for your ticket, that's a hell of a lot better than what you're going to find anywhere else. Skybus managed to sell 86% of their seats in their first month of business, which is incredible for an airline just getting its wheels up.

Okay, so you want to book a flight; how do you do it? Call their 1-800 number and talk to a customer service representative?

Wrong. There is no spoon, there is no 1-800 number, and there are no customer service representatives. You have to buy your ticket on their website.

So you log onto their website and reserved a seat. Now you head to the airport and look for the Skybus counter. Don't expect to see a smiling employee standing by to wait on you; you have to pay homeage to one of the automated kiosks. Have bags to check? It will cost you $5 extra per bag.

Hey, now. Wait one damn minute! Why do we have to pay extra to check our bags? Well, if you think about it, you pay that extra amount at traditional airlines, too. It's factored in to the inflated cost of your ticket. With Skybus, you're only paying that extra cost if you are actually using the service.

Alright. So the attendants help you check your bags. 30 minutes before your flight, these same attendants move to the gate to help board passengers. Meanwhile, since there is no separate cleaning crew, the flight attendants are cleaning the cabin and preparing it for your arrival.

Like Southwest Airlines, Skybus doesn't have assigned seating. If you want to get first dibs, you can pay another $10 for priority boarding.

So now you know this is Skybus, and they are all about cutting costs. You board the plane, expecting to find a bare-bones aircraft, probably with rows of plastic folding chairs instead of aisles of seats. Actually, the Airbus A319 is first-class. The seats are made of plush leather and are designed by the same Italian dude who makes the seats for Ferrari sports cars. It also has wider aisles for moving about.

The cost savings is in the leg-room.

There is approximately two inches less leg-room than in traditional airliners. This means Skybus can cram in 20 more passengers for a total of around 134.

Don't expect television shows, movies, or music. No complimentary lunch. Free pretzels? Forget about it. You'll be paying separate for any drinks, food, pillows, or blankets, but remember: you were already paying for this crap before in the inflated cost of traditional airline tickets. With Skybus, you only pay if you want the service.

Flight attendants are also paid less and work on a 10% commission. You can expect to find them roving up and down the aisles and peddling their wares. $10 for a meal. $2 for a soda or candy bar. A bud light for $5. They'll even try to sell you perfume, watches, and jewelry during the flight.

You'll see advertisements on the flight attendants shirts. You'll see advertisements on the over head bins. You'll see them on the carpet, and you might even see them on the outside of the airplane itself; nationwide Insurance paid $100,000 to have its logo pained on one of the Airbus A319s.

Keep in mind, Skybus doesn't do connecting flights. Not only does this cut down on the amount of lost luggage, but it saves time and money by ensuring that every aircraft is flying in a straight line to its intended destination without detours.

You also won't find Skybus at any of the major airports. You'll be landing in podunk towns like Chicopee, Massachusetts, and Burbank, California.

Why?

The average taxi-time at major airports is around 30 minutes. At smaller ones, its closer to 10 minutes. A half-hour weather delay at a major airport might result in a two-hour backlog. At smaller airports, there is no backlog. Less time waiting around equals less man-hours, less fuel burning, and more money in the pocket.

Our only question is, why didn't someone think of this sooner? Hell, why didn't we think of this? It's so simple, yet so genius.

Only time will tell if Skybus's business model will be a success, but you can bet that we'll be investing in Bill Diffenderffer's brain child if we ever see it stroll onto Wallstreet.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lake Tawakoni State Park Giant Spider Web

45 miles east of Dallas, Texas, spiders have spun a web that stretches along 200-yards of a nature trail in the Lawakoni State Park. Seven trees and numerous bushes are blanketed by the web, which also spills across the ground.

"At first, it was so white it looked like fairyland," said park Superintendent Donna Garde. "Now it's filled with so many mosquitoes that it's turned a little brown. There are times you can literally hear the screech of millions of mosquitoes caught in those webs."

Serves them right, the dirty blood-sucking bastards. Music to our ears, this lovely mosquito genocide.

In spite of the joy of hearing the shrieks of millions of dying mosquitoes, the thought of arachnids falling from the sky is a little much for some. Visitors to the Lake Tawakoni State Park either love it or hate it. Stalwarts from the media, however, were not to be deterred. Park officials have had to post guards along the trail to protect the giant spider web against the curious poking and prodding of grubby little fingers, and the flow of spectators is expected to increase over the weekend.

What caused these friendly little web-crawlers to create such a massive structure? Was it a group project by social spiders, working together in harmony, or was it solitary spiders spinning separate webs in an attempt to move away from one another? Perhaps it was the crack spider up to his usual tricks? Or, as Al Gore would have you believe, is this just another sign of the impeding doom that is global warming?

Although heated debate amongst entomology experts has taken place over the internet, the root cause of this phenomenon is still undecided. Superintendent Donna Garde wants the experts to investigate the web in person. A valid point, since the only scientific fact determined thus far has been that arguing over the internet is like the Special Olympics; even if you win, you're still retarded.

Herbert Pase, a Texas Forest Service entomologist, said, "From what I'm hearing, it could be a once in a lifetime event."

However, don't expect Lake Tawakoni State Park's giant spider web to stick around long enough to become the eighth wonder of the world. In fact, it probably won't last longer than late October, when the spiders complete their part in the circle of life, curl up their legs, and die, thus ending their tragically short existence.

Isn't nature a beautiful thing?

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