Archive for May, 2010

The Thinker

The wages of sin: up to $30,000 per speech

The wages of sin used to be death. Now it can pay $15,000 to $30,000 per speaking engagement. At least that’s the news from Single Source Speakers, when a couple weeks ago it confirmed the news that it had lined up former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol for the speakers’ circuit. Single Source Speakers won’t confirm how much Bristol will be paid per speech, but according to Palin family attorney Thomas Van Flein, it will be between $15,000 to $30,000.

In case you have been living in a cave somewhere, Bristol was Palin’s seventeen year old daughter when during her mother’s campaign she was shown to be inconveniently pregnant and unmarried. Bristol gave birth to Tripp about a month after her mother lost the election and quickly became estranged from Tripp’s father, Levi Johnston.

Most teenage mothers with out of wedlock babies are lucky if Mom and Dad give them shelter and help with their basic expenses. The good news for both Bristol and Tripp is that if she can make a success of herself on the lecture circuit, she won’t need to go on welfare or food stamps to support Tripp. With her mother commanding much larger speakers fees, it also looks like should the need arise little Tripp can also depend on his grandmother for financial support.

Most religions would declare that getting pregnant out of wedlock (or just having sex out of wedlock) is a sin. Sarah Palin belongs to a non-denominational Christian church that seems to have a fundamentalist bent. It is unclear what church Bristol belongs to now, if any, or if she is even a Christian. Based on her public regrets about getting pregnant out of wedlock, it sure sounds like she knows that she has sinned. This raises the question: why would some speaker’s bureau become an accomplice to her sin?

The answer, of course, is money. Sin is just between you and your conscience. Money you can take to the bank or use it to buy life’s many necessities (or perhaps in this case indulgences). Still, Bristol is an exception. The only reason she is newsworthy at all is that the media is enamored with her mother. Because it is, anything tangentially related to the Palin family is of great interest to the press, including Levi Johnston’s soon to be published buff shots in Playgirl Magazine, the proceeds of which will hopefully go to support little Tripp. Even a writer working on a book about Sarah Palin commands media attention when he manages to rent a house near her home in Wasilla, Alaska.

It’s hard to know exactly who will want to pay Bristol these speaking fees. I would think that any organization trying to promote abstinence and chastity before marriage would have a hard time giving her any money to speak, lest they be seen as tacitly endorsing her sin. According to the family’s attorney, Bristol may be hired to give her thoughts about parenting and her outlook on life.

I too am available to give my thoughts on parenting and my outlook on life, particularly if I can be get her speaker’s fee. Alas, my mother was no Barbie and my father no Ken, and neither even bothered to run for PTA president, let alone governor or vice president. However, they did raise eight of us rug rats. Amazingly, not one of us managed to become pregnant or impregnate anyone before marriage.

To recognize my virtuousness officially, I am hoping Bristol will rebate at least some of her speaking fees to me. If she did, then maybe people would realize that living a virtuous life, in addition leaving you full of virtue, actually pays. I was dissuaded from impregnating women not just because of my high moral standards but also because of the extremely costly financial consequences of knocking up a woman. It appears that Levi Johnston and Bristol did not have that conversation before Bristol opened her thighs for Levi.

Bristol’s tacit message seems to be that it’s okay to get knocked up out of wedlock, provided you have famous parents who are always in the glare of the media and have no problem selling your soul for some quick cash. Bristol is discovering her good fortune for mistakes made within a celebrity family. In her case, she helps vindicate those of us who believe Sarah Palin’s sterling parenting skills to be largely for show. It is unclear had John McCain gotten his first choice of a running mate (reputedly Joe Lieberman) and her family never gotten attention in the national media, whether her family would be as supportive of her unwed mother status. Given the rugged individualism the Palins claim to believe in, had fortune not smiled on Bristol’s mother, Bristol might now be on food stamps and getting TANF assistance.

Bristol must be doing the right thing though, because in the Republican Party, one thing triumphs both religion and ideology, and that’s hauling in cash. It’s their real religion: unfettered, glorious capitalism. Bristol may be an adult, but she is smart enough to watch her mother command six figure speaking fees and conclude, “I deserve some of that dough too.”

Let’s hope that despite her tender years Bristol is smart enough to use the money wisely. If I were living in another den of sin, Las Vegas, I wouldn’t put odds on it.

The Thinker

Hearing that old piano from down the avenue

If you hear a guy crooning, “I hear that old piano from down the avenue,” then it’s a good bet it’s Garrison Keillor, it’s around 6 PM on a Saturday night and you are listening to A Prairie Home Companion on your local public radio station. While I rarely listen to the show in its entirety, I do often hear snippets of it while washing dishes. Although I am only a very part time listener, over the years I developed a certain intimacy with the show. It sort of creeps up on you.

It’s an intimacy that creeps up on many of us Caucasian Americans of a certain age. When the show first aired on July 6, 1974, Richard Nixon was still president. Its host and star, Garrison Keillor was only thirty-one years old. In 2010, Keillor is now age 67 and is old enough to draw social security. His show, except when it went on hiatus for couple of years between 1987 and 1989 has been going continuously. Today, even people who never hear the show cannot hear Keillor’s voice without somehow recognizing it. With Walter Cronkite’s passing last year, Keillor’s voice may now be American’s most recognizable voice. It oozes gentility and civility.

A Prairie Home Companion arrives at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Northern Virginia like clockwork every Memorial Day weekend. For at least a decade, I have intended to get tickets to see the show. I always wait too long; they tend to sell out quickly after they are announced. As luck would have it, a colleague of mine with tickets decided to go out of town this weekend. Thus I was able to pick up her three lawn “seats” for the Friday night show. My wife, our friend Mary and me all finally got a chance to watch a live performance, although we did have to endure a couple periods of mild rain. Oversized umbrellas helped.

Perhaps the first few years that Keillor did the show, he was nervous. Now he is so practiced he is completely at ease in front of crowds of thousands. When listening to the show, your imagination assumes he is on stage for the duration of the show. In person, at least during our performance, it seems Keillor will spend nearly as much time off the stage as on it. During the opening song, he quickly wandered off the stage and into the crowd. He ended up with his wireless mic on the lawn behind the pavilion where we were sitting, all while singing spontaneous new verses to The Tishomingo Blues, the show’s theme song. Out on the lawn you are allowed to bring food. It is almost required that you spread out a picnic blanket, open a wine bottle and eat some cheese with fancy crackers. As Keillor sauntered out on the lawn, one woman offered him a glass of champagne.

For a radio show, A Prairie Home Companion transitions fairly well to the stage. The cast, which includes the usual voice actors, sound effects artists and the Guys All-Star Shoe Band, operate at microphones in front of a prop house (presumably from Lake Wobegon) with an American flag and a lit porch light. Except for Keillor, I had no idea what the other actors looked like. Besides Keillor, for me the most recognizable voice has always been the voice of Sue Scott, who turned out to be much taller, skinnier and blonder than I imagined.

Nor had I known about Keillor’s attire. He may be dressed in a dark suit and tie, but he has to wear red shoes, red socks and a long red tie during each performance. Last night the red shoes were actually red sneakers. Presumably finding red shoes for men these days is next to impossible. I’m not even sure where red socks can be purchased. I imagine he either dyes them himself or has them special ordered.

I expected to find the performance so-so, but I was pleasantly surprised. The show is actually improved substantially by a live performance. The cast and crew may be aging along with Mr. Keillor, but they flawlessly went through many complicated scripts chock full of sound effects. Mr. Keillor always finds a way to tie the show at Wolf Trap to Memorial Day. He managed to do so in a very touching way with a story about an African American who went to war in Vietnam, did not return, and left a lot of friends and lovers with broken hearts behind. In addition, just because he could, he had us sing the national anthem and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Pretty much everyone stood and sang with genuine heart.

We also lucked out and got an excellent guest artist, folk singer Tom Rush whose songs I was only tangentially familiar with. Not only were his songs wonderfully heartfelt, Rush was very entertaining as well. I will be seeking him out when he hits smaller venues like The Birchmere.

A Prairie Home Companion is really a very odd show, fundamentally anchored somewhere around 1950 in the mythical Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. It is corny. It is cheesy. It is mostly heartfelt. It is often humorous and sometimes satirical. While anyone can enjoy it, it is frankly a show aimed straight at the heart of white America. It feels intrinsically comfortable, like a comfy pair of slippers. In a world gone mad with overpopulation and disastrous oil spills, it hearkens us to a mythical time in the past when we lived and thrived in small communities. Today, it is sort of a national campfire that many of us sit around and listen to on Saturday nights. It is a deeply soul satisfying experience. So if the show is coming locally to your city, it is worth your time to attend a performance. We are very glad we went.

As for Garrison Keillor, while he is fundamentally a decent and gentle man, he is more complex and crotchety than his gentle demeanor on stage would lead you to believe. He is a man full of opinions, most of them well informed, but some not so well formed and occasionally quite offensive. An article he wrote last year castigating Unitarian Universalists like me was particularly offensive and off base. Maybe someday, he will have the good sense to apologize for it.

I won’t hold it against him. Last year he suffered a mild stroke. While he claims to have recovered fine, he seemed to move somewhat slowly across the stage and down the aisles at Wolf Trap last night. He is doubtless feeling his mortality. When he passes, it is hard to imagine how the show can succeed without him.

The show will probably disappear long before we are ready for it. Maybe, like the Peanuts comic strip, it will live on perpetually as reruns. When that day comes, I and millions of others will be in mourning, as well as very grateful for this wonderful show that came straight from the heart of the Midwest.

The Thinker

The price of limited government

Thirty seven days and counting. British Petroleum is now attempting to inject heavy mud a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to plug its gushing Deep Horizon oil well. BP claims that only 5000 barrels a day are leaking from the well. 60,000 barrels is a more realistic estimate, and it may turn out to be even more than that. By putting so many dangerous oil dispersants on the surface of the oil, BP is mitigating the public impact of the spill. Although some oil is leaching into Louisiana marshes and onto Alabama beaches, the dispersant is drastically reducing this problem. The vast majority of this oil is somewhere below the surface, wreaking who knows what havoc on the Gulf’s marine life.

It is clear at this point that even if this spill were capped tonight, it will be the largest oil spill in history. It may turn out to be less visible than the 1988 spill in the Puget Sound, thanks to all the dispersants being used to hide the problem. It is likely though that this catastrophe will be felt for many years, if not decades. It may be the seminal event that ends deep water oil exploration in America for good. Based on recent polls, it might also serve as a catalyst for moving toward a clean energy future. There is nothing like an egregious example to focus the nation’s attention on a problem.

Meanwhile, the public is losing patience with the Obama Administration’s handling of the problem. In actuality, the federal government is doing quite a bit. Unfortunately, what it is doing is trying to mitigate the effects of the spill that has already happened but which it is powerless to solve itself. For example, it is helping coordinate the laying of millions of feet of booms that may help keep the oil from coming up on beaches and marshes. I work for the U.S. Geological Survey. Our director has been camped out on the Gulf Coast working eighteen hour days helping to marshal the USGS response to the problem. (Yes, we do have plenty of scientists who can help with the problem. After all, assessing the likelihood of new areas of oil is part of our mission.) Many other agencies are doing the same thing. Unfortunately, while we can put a man on the moon and cure many diseases, there are still some things even the great and mighty federal government cannot yet do. One of those things is fix a spewing oil well a mile below sea level.

Why? Because Congress has never told the government it should be directly in this business. It probably will be in the future. We do have some research submarines that can descend to those depths, but not many and as best I can tell none equipped with the specialized equipment needed to solve a problem like this. Even our navy’s submarines rarely go more than 2000 feet below sea level. Why? Well, it’s very hard for a submarine to go that deep. The water pressure on hulls becomes enormous. It is hard to put any man down there for any length of time, and even if you did have the right vessel it cannot go up and down quickly without subjecting its crew to the effect of the bends. The oil companies though do have some robotic equipment that can handle those depths. It’s just that nobody ever required them to develop and test machines that could fix problems like this. All those safety measures were supposed to prevent this accident from ever occurring. It does appear that the personnel at the Minerals Management Service were unduly under the influence of the oil industry. Some federal employees of MMS illegally accepted gifts, trips and even prostitutes. These employees were identified some time ago and many were actually fired. The oil companies determined these bribes were much less costly than the alternatives. It is very clear that there was an incestuous and unhealthy relationship between regulators and those being regulated.

Granted, the president can and probably should be more on top of the situation. He should be and probably is knocking some heads. But the sad reality of the situation is that while the government can bring resources to bear on the problem, it really can’t fix this problem. In the worst scenario we will have to wait sixty more days for BP to complete a relief well to staunch the flow from the well. In the meantime we have to hope that the desperate measure of injecting heavy mud and then concrete will cap the well.

It should be noted that previous administrations, principally Republican, were far more attuned to giving the oil companies whatever they desired than regulating them. As with the financial crisis, this is largely a problem that the Obama Administration inherited. Granted it has been in office sixteen months, but with cries from Republicans to “drill baby drill” and with a major economic crisis, working on deep sea drilling safety was on no one’s major list of problems. The public however is simply impatient. It wants things done, and it wants them fixed now even if the federal government cannot fix them. The public is fickle about these things. Many of these same people just six weeks ago were calling for limited government. Unfortunately, this is an example of what can happen when you have limited and corrupt government. If Tea Party members succeed in controlling Congress and the White House, limited government would likely not include regulating the oil industry at all. If they decided it was a governmental matter at all, they would push it down to the states.

This unfortunate incident simply reinforces that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who before the incident was all about limited government, is taking the federal government to task for not solving this problem. The smell of overwhelming hypocrisy from that area of the country is nearly as overwhelming as the smell of surface petroleum. It is easy to be in favor of limited government until, of course, you need the government not to be limited.

If the government’s mission is now to include this as well, then expect that government will grow and cost more. Taking steps like splitting up the Minerals Management Service into three agencies is long overdue. This is something unsexy that the government can do to address future problems, but it does nothing to solve the immediate crisis. I can say this: it won’t be cheap but if we truly want to enlarge the size of government to ensure accidents like this are unlikely to happen in the future, the government will find a way. It may take a decade and cost billions of dollars, and it may raise the cost of gasoline a dime a gallon, but government can make it happen. It just will not happen overnight.

The Thinker

The good life on the 30th floor

Someone must have mistaken me for someone important. I am thirty floors up, living in this enormous hotel suite (which I calculate must at least be a thousand square feet) looking down on the breadth of San Antonio, Texas. To be specific, I am in the Marriott Rivercenter hotel. Perhaps my Marriott Silver Elite status entitled me to this free upgrade. In any event, I feel more than a bit flabbergasted. I have spent my share of time in four star hotels and in suite hotels. I have never had such an upscale hotel room as before. You could fit four standard Courtyard Inn hotel rooms (another Marriott brand) into this hotel suite.

All this space was purchased at a government rate, which is not much over a hundred dollars a night. I have to assume I won the Marriott lottery or something, or someone on our convention planning committee highlighted my name and told the hotel to make sure I got a really nice room. While probably higher graded than most of the attendees, there are plenty attending this convention that make more money that I do. This makes me curious: what are their rooms are like?

How do you make a luxury room more luxurious than the competition’s? To some extent you go to silly extremes. For example, my clock radio has dual stereo speakers and also comes complete with a MP3 docking port. The floor lamp has a foot control that you use to vary the light level. You make sure the toilet has two push buttons instead of a handle, a number one (which delivers a half flush) and a number two (which delivers a full flush). Presumably you use the number one for going Number 1, and the number two for going Number 2. I haven’t looked at my local Lowes to see if this model of toilet is available there. I am guessing not. In any event, press either button and you get a huge, instant whoosh that quickly carries away any excrement.

The room also comes complete with a high definition 42-inch television. Plain wooden furniture won’t do. The dresser has to have a marble top on it, and the drawers have to be on metal rails. The coffee and end tables appear to be brushed metal. The sofas and chairs have pillows for lumbar support. The bed, oddly, is much lower than my regular bed but like all four star hotels these days it comes with six enormously stuffed pillows, far more than any couple could possibly use on this king sized bed.

Alas, I am here alone. However, had I known I would have gotten a room this nice, I would have insisted that my wife accompany me. She could spend her days ambling up and down San Antonio’s lovely River Walk, which you can get to from a shopping mall on one side of the hotel. Moreover, with this magnificent view it seems kind of a waste for me to be here all alone. This is the sort of room where you should definitely include some romantic cardiovascular exercise, preferably with the curtains wide open and the lights off. I am betting the rear entry position while gazing out the window would never feel more ecstatic than here thirty floors up and with the city of San Antonio splayed like a postcard out my window.

In any event, this room has pretty much anything I could want except a whirlpool bath and a comely woman between the sheets. No matter, there is a large pool and Jacuzzi on the fourth floor, and I intend to try it out later tonight and perhaps some comely females in tight bathing suits will be there. I need the exercise from the pool, although I did at least amble a mile or so this evening along River Walk.  On the River Walk, the birds fearlessly grub for food among the tightly packed ambling humans. Motorized tourist boats chug down the small river (at best no more than three dozen feet across), and visitors can choose from literally hundreds of restaurants, many with live musicians and servers anxious to make eye contact so they can invite you to dine.

I haven’t found it yet, but somewhere near the River Walk is The Alamo, where occupying Texan soldiers were slaughtered by a much larger Mexican army some hundred and seventy plus years ago. As with most things, the Battle at The Alamo has been made to sound far nobler than it was. Vastly overwhelmed by the Mexican army, they could have easily been routed in a day, but Santa Anna wanted to play with the defenders, much like a cat will play with a mouse before killing it. While the battle does not deserve its overblown hype, it, plus the nearby River Walk helps bring in a lot of tourists, which makes the merchants, restaurant owners and hoteliers in San Antonio very happy.

San Antonio in May is quite warm and humid but still lovely. The River Walk is a strangely beautiful experience, but is somewhat marred by its many restaurants and shops that are clustered so close to its banks. It is full of paths and bridges, artificial waterfalls and limestone masonry. The city exists largely above it, which explains why I could not see it from my hotel room. This latitude has never agreed with me: it is too hot and humid overall, but at least along the River Walk you can forget the inch and a half long cockroaches and other scaly things you occasionally see here. Instead you can revel in the experience, which is sort of like the flume ride at Disney World without the flume, just the last bit before they haul you out of the boat on their artificial river. The San Antonio River is real enough, just smaller than I envisioned, with much of its water now able to be diverted along underground tunnels carved through the limestone. This is needed in the event of flooding, which happens periodically.  I learned today that San Antonio still holds the world’s record for the largest volume of rainfall delivered in less than twenty four hours.

Three more days of meetings in conference rooms await, with one day already behind me. Today I just listened and took notes. Tomorrow I speak for twenty minutes or so to sixty people or so signed up for our workshop. Down on the conference level the internet is free, but up here on the 30th floor, Marriott wants you to spend $12.95 a day for the privilege. It is too pricey for me to indulge, so instead I will take a quick ride down to the third floor to post this.

I expect during my week here to be charmed by San Antonio as well as eat a lot of great Mexican food, something I don’t do back home as my wife dislikes Mexican food. I expect to feel a little hot under the collar when I venture outdoors, which suggests I should first put on a T-shirt. This hotel, like most here in Texas, is a big believer in excessive air conditioning. Likely I will glad to be heading back to Northern Virginia on Friday.

The Thinker

Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Perhaps this twenty-year-old plus movie could be more accurately called, “The Unbearable Duress of 151 Minutes of Watching This Film.”

Granted, if you do make it to the end there is a whole lot of terrific eye candy to help pass the time. For the ladies, there is Daniel Day-Lewis as Tomas, a brilliant Czech brain surgeon who you get to see mostly naked during his many, many lovemaking scenes. There is even better news for men, or anyone attracted to the female form. Because Tomas is very generous with his passion, and he enjoys getting to know as many attractive women in the biblical sense as possible, even after he is technically married. Two big loves of Tomas get plenty of screen time either partially or fully undressed and I must say both Sabina (Lena Olin) and Tereza (Juliette Binoche) are stunning in and out of their clothes. Who needs porn when you can drool over such exquisitely beautiful women? There is even a sort of lesbian scene between them near the end of the movie, which, I’m sorry, just does not work. However, I do like to see two women getting naked and seducing each other, I just expected it would more likely be on a porn site.

If The Unbearable Lightness of Being had been marketed as a movie about a satyr bedding as many women in the 9-10 scale as possible, perhaps I would have a higher opinion of the movie. Alas, no, this is a movie with pretensions. It begins in Czechoslovakia just before the Russian invasion in August of 1968. All is fine for Tomas, who is not only a brilliantly successful surgeon but has his choice of any woman he meets, who instantly fall for him. Then the Russian Army inconveniently invades his country and the movie is supposed to get all serious.

Only it doesn’t really get serious. The Russian occupation is something of a tangent to the main theme, which is Tomas’ bed hopping and infidelity. Can Tomas really get serious about any woman? Indeed, he can, just as long as she does not expect fidelity. This becomes a real problem for Tereza, a barkeep at a resort he visits who naturally falls madly in love with and convinces him to marry her. Nor can Sabina keep her body off his once he has a ring on his finger. Neither can any of the women, once he looks at them with his dark and sexy eyes. Whether his country is or is not being occupied, whether living under the yoke of oppression or in freedom in nearby Switzerland, Tomas simply has to keep poking women. That’s what he does. He just loves everything about women, except I guess respecting their feelings for fidelity. Oddly, though with all that messing around, he never makes anyone pregnant.

Perhaps in the hands of a better director (although Philip Kaufman does not usually turn out dreck) this movie could have worked. Unfortunately, casting Daniel Day-Lewis as Tomas was a really bad choice because while Day-Lewis can look stunningly handsome, when the part requires something other than a dazed, gosh aren’t I lucky to be bedding so many beautiful women look, he cannot deliver. All he can do is be an exceptional surgeon, bed beautiful women and keep a half sincere smile on his face, even when Russian tanks are rolling down his street. The film is supposed to show Tomas growing as a human being, but Day-Lewis never delivers. It is all implied, you just never see it or feel it. Instead, you realize Tomas is a very vapid human being, which I doubt is what comes out in the book. After a while you have to pity the women he seduces, for while they are under his spell any common sense they have goes right out the window.

So, if you watch this movie you may well find yourself reacting much like me, “What the hell?” What was the point of making this movie? Granted, spending nearly three hours seeing stunningly beautiful women either partially or fully naked is not a bad use of my time, I just got the impression that there was supposed to be more to this movie than eye candy.

Despite attempts to make us think there is more than this, there is not. The film would make great soft-core pornography. Leave the sex scenes in and take the rest out and both the men and the women would be happy. It’s all that other stuff in between the sex scenes simply does not work, like those odd scenes of his farmer friend who carries around a pet pig.

I have to assume that the book the movie is based on has a lot more merit than the film, so if given the choice read the book and skip the movie unless you find yourself alone and need to get off. If so there will be plenty of licentious behavior by extremely beautiful people to light your fire.

2.5 on my four-point scale.

The Thinker

Review: In America (2002)

In America is by no means a bad movie. In fact, in some ways, it’s pretty good. It is definitely well directed, well acted, feels gritty and often leaves you feeling appalled. It begins innocuously enough with an Irish family crossing by car from Canada into the United States. They come to the USA not as tourists, but so that Johnny (Paddy Considine) can try to fulfill his ambition of being an actor in New York. Johnny and his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) come with two precocious girls. The older, Christy (Sarah Bolger) carries a small early 80s video recorder and uses it to capture the intimacy of life with her family in the city. Her younger sister Ariel (Emma Bolger) specializes in being simply too cute for the world. Seriously! She is so achingly cute and lovely and it’s all you can do not to walk into the theater screen in order to give her a hug. For child actors, they are quite good.

The time is the early 1980s. After arriving in New York City, the family decides to call home the skiddiest of Manhattan’s skid rows. Moreover, because it is cheap, they end up in the ugliest tenement building in the city, which comes complete with drug addicts, losers, crazies and probable pedophiles. Their new apartment is so awful that pigeons fly in and out through the vacant skylights. The pad is Horrible with a capital H, so bad that most people on skid row don’t want to live there either. Yet, the girls don’t seem bothered by all the crime and filth. Moreover, for some bizarre reason, their parents aren’t nearly as paranoid as they should be monitoring their children in this exceptionally bad neighborhood.

Johnny has little luck finding an acting job. He spends most of his time going to auditions and acting out scripts in their ugly flat. Sarah helps the family scrape by working as a waitress. The girls seem generally inured to their bleak surroundings. And their lives become progressively more miserable. They suffer through a scorcher of a New York summer. They need cash so badly that they recycle bottles to collect five-cent deposits. They jostle pipes to try to get water out of them. A crazy neighbor a couple of floors down named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) spends much of his time screaming and throwing things around.

Weeks, then months pass. The girls end up going to a local Catholic school. We learn that one of their children died falling down some stairs and the family is still crushed by the tragedy, each in their own way. When Halloween comes around, the girls are allowed to trick or treat their own crazy building, and end up knocking on Mateo’s door. Mateo looks crazy and you feel he is going to molest the girls for sure. Yet, he does not. In fact, Mateo is more than he looks and turns into the movie’s only interesting character. In the early 1980s, AIDS was just becoming visible. Mateo is ill and it is unclear what is killing him, but it is likely AIDS. He knows his time is short. Yet, through the girls he is introduced to their parents. A very unlikely friendship begins between this dying African American and this surreal Irish family planted in the midst of desperation.

Things continually go from bleak to bleaker. Sarah becomes pregnant and naturally, the pregnancy is a high risk one. When their situation gets more desperate and Sarah can no longer work, Johnny starts driving a cab at night. Also naturally, perhaps because she is Catholic, Sarah won’t consider an abortion, even though the doctor thinks her pregnancy will kill her and her baby.

I found myself frequently wanting to scream at these parents to get the hell out of New York and back to some place where the air is clean and crime is far away. Yet, they have lost all common sense. Little seems to matter except pandering to Johnny’s desire to be an actor, which seems ever elusive. Meanwhile, the pregnancy degrades, Mateo worsens as well, and all end up in the hospital together. Sarah tries to give birth and Mateo tries to die in a hospital bed. A baby is born, a man dies, Johnny finally lands an acting job and the movie ends.

Perhaps I gave too much away, but if you are renting the movie for a plot, that’s about it. Which for me raises the question: do all films have to have a message or at least a theme? Or can they just be a realistic portrayal of stuff happening? This movie falls into the latter category and is hardly unique, but it is somewhat unusual. The only other movie that immediately comes to mind in this genre is Dazed and Confused. Perhaps the movie is really about the family’s unlikely relationship with Mateo, and Hounsou does exceptionally well in his part. For most of us, the fact that not much meaningful happens is not a particularly compelling reason to see a movie. Still, it is a raw film so it will evoke feelings, and having those young girls around certainly makes the feelings more acute. I found myself appalled by the parents, impressed with the acting overall given the flimsy story, touched by Mateo’s transformation and in love with the two photogenic girls.

I really don’t know whether to praise or pan this film, so I will leave it unrated. IMDB viewers give it 7 out of 10 points, which means that most really liked it. It has a shot on video feel to it. However, given that there are so many other movies out there that have some meat to it, and this one just documents a mostly downer of an experience for a young family, I think you can find better ways to spend 105 minutes of your time.

The Thinker

GPS Visualizer’s global perspective

For as long as I can remember, maps have fascinated me. This may have come from not having a very adventurous childhood. Our vacations, when they happened at all, rarely occurred more than a few hundred miles from home. I never took a commercial airline flight until I was an adult. However, we did have an oversized National Geographic atlas of the world. It was a good way to visit faraway places in my imagination.

I was fortunate enough for a while to work for what was then the Defense Mapping Agency. While I had no training in cartography, I did earn a modest living tracking the printing of various topographic maps and nautical charts used by the military. It was neat to watch the process, from the careful correction of negatives (generally one for each map color) to seeing the map roll off the presses. I left that job more than twenty years ago, and since that time the Defense Mapping Agency has changed names a number of times and now probably produces far more digital products than printed products. For about four years, I was in map heaven. Trying to better track the production of maps lead me into a career in the information technology field that has since kept me well moneyed. Yet, my interest in maps never waned.

So naturally, I was quite agog when Google Earth was introduced in 2005. Who needs television when you can play with Google Earth instead? Since then, the product has gotten progressively better and their street views left me euphoric. Nevertheless, even a product as mature as Google Earth has some limitations. Want to plot a great circle route? There is no way to do it. Want to draw concentric lines around a point on the globe? Here again Google Earth falls short.

Most people don’t want to do these things, but I do. My frustration eventually turned up the GPS Visualizer site, a small work of wonder by itself, as it is a creation of one man, specifically Adam Schneider, who must also have my mapping bug. You can do all these things and more on the GPS Visualizer site.

Great circle routes fascinate me. In case you are not familiar with the term, this is the shortest distance between two points on the earth. The shortest path is not what you would think looking at your typical Cartesian map. You can sort of figure it out if you have a globe with a piece of string, but what you get is an approximation. In the northern hemisphere, trips to anywhere in Europe are typically flown far north of where you would expect them to fly. This is good. It saves the airline a lot of gas. Since the earth is not a perfect sphere, there are some minor errors in most calculations. Schneider has figured it all out and can produce extremely accurate Great Circle routes.

One of the things I like to do is draw great circle routes between far-flung airports. The routes airlines actually fly often differ quite a bit from great circle routes, mainly because in the United States the FAA designates that flights must follow standard routes. Still, you can get a good idea of your flight path by creating its great circle route. For fun, I tracked one of the more unusual flights I took, between JFK International in New York City and Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan. My flight was a bit south of the great circle route because at the time, the Soviet Union still existed and they were known to shoot down foreign aircraft that wandered into their air space. In addition, not all aircraft are certified to fly above the Arctic Circle. The great circle route for this flight though would scrape the top of the Bering Sea and pass over Vladivostok. Sadly, I remember little but clouds approaching Japan, but I only had the vaguest idea of where I was. In nearly fourteen hours in the air I looked down at a lot of frozen tundra while the sun hung largely in the same position in the west. It was disorienting, weird and wonderful, almost like being in outer space.

The GPS Visualizer site does lot of other neat geographic tricks. You can create a great circle map between any two points if you want, not just airports. You can type in two addresses and it will tell you the exact distance between them and give you an exact compass heading should you want to hoof it. It will draw elevation maps between two points. You can draw rings around a point at given distances. You can see the results in Google Earth by downloading the .kmz file it creates. You can also see it in Google Maps or get it in SVG, PNG and JPEG formats.

One thing I am discovering it that despite having over six billion people on the planet, most of our planet’s landmass is thinly populated. Last night as an experiment, I used the GPS Visualizer to draw lines exactly north and south of my house going ten thousand miles. I got the coordinates of my house out of Google Earth. I was curious who might be living one hundred, one thousand or five thousand miles due north or south from my house.

The answer: hardly anyone, except in the United States and even then, not that much. Five hundred miles south of my house is a point that looks like it is in the Bermuda triangle. At my longitude, the line cuts through Panama, but not through any populated places. It tracks through the Andes Mountains then disappears into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I then tracked it north. It came close to Rochester, then traveled over forests in Ontario, out into the tundra, over the pole, over Russia and Mongolia and did not hit anything resembling civilization until it reached Thailand. Even so, I hit no major cities.

Ideally, Google would put all these features into Google Earth. Perhaps some day they will because as good as the GPS Visualizer site is, it is just one guy having fun so it is a bit awkward to use at times. Still, to a man fascinated by maps like me its power combined with Google Earth give me a neat way to geek out. Try it out sometime. You may end up like me finding it oddly entertaining.

The Thinker

My sad prediction for today’s “biggest losers”

My blog seems to be on something of a health kick lately. This is because over the last year I have been dealing with more than my usual number of health issues. It’s not just me. This week, my mother in law complained of chest pains. Doctors found a blockage near her heart and put in an emergency stint. She then suffered a heart attack that was followed a day later by another and worse heart attack. She was technically dead for ten minutes until they finally managed to restart her heart. She is still in intensive care and is delusional, a condition I saw my own mother go through since she also suffered from congestive heart failure. Her long-term prospects look dubious, but she is about eighty years old. She is fortunate to be alive in any condition, because she made lifetime habits of smoking and not exercising. My wife plans to fly out to Phoenix tomorrow to be with her mother. Her return date is unknown. If all this close-to-home health news were not enough, one of my sisters called me today to tell me that she has been diagnosed with the onset of adult diabetes.

So feeling my mortality, I am focused on healthy living, as are many other people including First Lady Michele Obama. Obama is busy planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, demonstrating healthy eating and fitness, and working to end childhood obesity. This is long overdue but of course, this being America, there is fierce resistance. The processed food industry is all up in arm about taxing nutritionally empty foods like soda that give us sugar highs and put us prematurely into the hospital. I heard one C-SPAN caller the other morning (a self professed Tea Party member) dreadfully upset that “big government” was trying to regulate sodium in our food and was thinking about raising taxes on nutritionally empty foods like sugared sodas. To me these are “better late than never” proposals, but it makes other American hopping mad. I wonder if they also object to nutritional information on packaged food. Apparently, it is more important to be nutritionally ignorant and cause millions to die prematurely and deal with wholly preventable diseases than it is to increase the size of government. You have to wonder if the nutritionally empty crap these people are likely eating is affecting their judgment.

I avoid “reality” TV shows but about a year ago, while stuck in a hotel room, I watched an entire episode of The Biggest Losers, which now has many international spinoffs. As with most of these “reality” shows, it seems to be much more about fostering unhealthy relationships between fellow contestants than losing weight. The more weight your team loses, the “better” you are doing. The grand prize of $250,000 would certainly be nice to win, but at what price? In any event, in addition to the constant sniping you can watch contestants downing protein shakes, dehydrating themselves, working with personal trainers and engaging in the vigorous cardiovascular exercise they ignored most of their lives.

If you are obese, losing weight is usually vital for your long-term health. If you are overweight, it is also a good idea. Still, losing twenty, 40, 80 and in some cases more than 100 pounds is not by itself healthy. First, if the calories you are ingesting are not nutritious, you are not being good to your body. Second, as I discovered, dehydration can result in syncopes (fainting spells), falls, concussions and even death. No wonder Biggest Loser contestants in case they should they end up in the hospital or drop dead sign forms disclaiming NBC from all responsibility. Perhaps the most likely thing that will happen when you lose weight is that soon after the cameras are tracking your progress, you will quickly rebound, putting back the weight you gained and often more, such as happened to actress Kirstie Alley. Arguably, if you were just going to gain it back, you might have been better off not dieting in the first place.

Granted I only watched one episode, but what I saw on The Biggest Losers appalled me. Not only does the extreme competition glorify sniping at fellow team members (hardly the sort of harmonious living the Dalai Lama would encourage) but extremely rapid dieting almost guarantees that you will gain back the weight. A real competition for The Biggest Losers would not emphasize how much weight contestants lost per week, but track the contestants on how long they maintained a healthy weight, ate sensibly and followed a moderate exercise regime. The show should reward those who took off lots of weight in a sensible manner: by taking off a pound a week. They should reward those who have also successfully kept the weight off. This, of course, would make for very uninteresting television, but seeing how others did it would be very instructive to the sixty percent of us either overweight or obese.

How do people manage to lose and keep the weight off? My last post is perhaps instructive, but my method is but one of many. Methods that work will be tailored to the personality of the person and work with their eating and exercise preferences. Like alcoholism, I see obesity as a lifelong disease. I will forever be at risk of being overweight and obese. It is only through incorporating effective eating and exercise strategies into my life in a natural way that I will succeed in my real goal: being at a normal weight and remaining at a normal weight. Of course, I want all this, plus I want to be fit, to have a healthy heart, get optimal nutrition and never have to worry about high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I want to pass away gently in my sleep sometime in my nineties. I’ve kind of figured out this means I won’t be eating many French fries or getting double cones at Baskin Robbins.

In sum up, The Biggest Losers contestants are almost predestined to be tomorrow’s biggest gainers, an inconvenient fact that the producers will not bother to highlight. What we need is much more clinical research into the best techniques for losing and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, we need research on staying optimally healthy while spending our working days in office buildings typing on keyboards.

I would like to see billboards highlighting people who have taken off significant amounts of weight and have successfully maintained a healthy weight for five, ten or more years. These billboards should come with URLs to websites so people can learn more about how they did it. Like Miss America contestants, these real Biggest Losers should tour American classrooms and give public lectures spreading their gospel. Maybe this way, along with reducing sodium, calorie and fat content in our foods and restaurants and encouraging fitness both at home and work, Americans will revert to being fit and healthy again.

I would not waste your time looking for useful tips on how you can weather our obesity crisis by watching The Biggest Losers. Instead, you might want to make an appointment with your physician.

The Thinker

One year later: my healthier living update

About a year ago, I wrote that I would periodically keep you abreast on my journey of weight loss and healthier living. (Actually, I wrote this mostly to remind myself so I would not slip.) Based on previous attempts at dieting, I discovered a truth: taking weight off is relatively easy. Keeping it off is harder. So how am I doing a year later? How am I doing after about nine months of Weight Watchers, giving up Weight Watchers because I wasn’t learning anything new and am now all on my own? Did I balloon to the size of Orson Welles (or for that matter Kirstie Alley)? Did I make it back to the same weight I was at when I was married and was a skinny thing? Did I yoyo back and forth? What great wisdom have I learned that I should share with the rest of the world?

A year later, I find myself within a couple pounds of where I was when I left Weight Watchers. That part is good. When I weighed myself on Monday, I was one pound above what is considered a healthy weight for my height. That part is not ideal, but being one pound overweight is better than being twenty three pounds overweight, which is where I was when I began my journey in January 2009.

So I can say I succeeded, with an asterisk. My goal was always to take off a chunk and then maintain it, since that was where I had failed many times before. The asterisk means that I slipped a bit. Over the holidays, I indulged too much, exercised too little, and not coincidentally, I also picked up five pounds. I knew what to do (start counting using Weight Watchers points again) but it took me a month or so to find the wherewithal to do it. When I did, it worked reliably again and the pounds came off. Yet, once I lost the few pounds I put back on, I found little incentive to keep reducing. Getting back to the weight when I was married continues to be an elusive and perhaps not very important goal.

Nevertheless, maintaining a near healthy or healthy weight for a year is a genuine accomplishment. I went back to some bad habits, but not all of them. When I wasn’t counting points on a sheet of paper, I had a good idea how much I could realistically eat and not gain weight.

I am usually fastidious during the week. For example, for breakfast this morning, I had one cup of Cheerios with skim milk and a cup of blueberries. This carried me over nicely until lunch. I packed a banana and a cup of grapes to have with lunch. When I eat at the cafeteria at work, four times out of five I am getting a soup and salad for lunch. It’s nearly automatic. My sweet tooth will not wholly be denied. I try to fit in one chocolate treat, which often means a bag of Dark Chocolate M&Ms, a favorite. My salads are quite low fat and full of healthy vegetables. I skip salad dressing and garnish the top with just a little cheese. Dinner, at least when I am eating alone, often consists of an entrée of from the diet part of the frozen food aisle. Lean Cuisine gets a fair amount of my business. Many of their entrees are quite tasty and reasonably healthy. (I particularly enjoy their Shrimp and Angel Hair Pasta, one of the best diet entrees ever, except for the sodium.) Their main value is portion control. I may supplement it with some bread, add in a banana or some other fruit. If my sweet tooth calls, have a 1-point Weight Watchers Fudge Stick.

On the weekends, I am more lax. On my Fridays off, my wife and I still engage in the fatty practice of breakfast at Silver Diner. Once or twice a month doesn’t make it a bad habit. Instead, it’s a treat. Otherwise, I have given up most restaurant eating. Recently, someone at work has been leaving out chocolate Easter eggs and I confess it is hard to pass them by without doing some grazing. I do binge at times, but not egregiously.

Over the last year, I have also been challenged by other physical problems. It is hard to follow Weight Watchers when you are having vein or tarsal tunnel surgery, and two hospitalizations these last two months hasn’t helped either. It is much easier to be good when your life is not topsy turvy.

My doctor is still not happy because my cholesterol level is still elevated, but not dangerously (110 bad cholesterol). He would like me to eat a lower fat diet than I do, but my diet is markedly lower in fat than it used to be. It would be difficult to excise too much more fat from my diet, but if driven by necessity I am sure I could. In my near future, I may end up on statins or other drugs to reduce cholesterol. Over the last eighteen months or so, I have also developed an irregular heartbeat. It is likely though that dieting has reduced heart problems rather than caused them.

My exercise is reasonably consistent, but at a lower level than when I weighed twenty pounds more. When I ate too much, I tried to make up for it by exercising more. Exercise is still a good idea, and I typically hit the health club three times a week as well as walk up many staircases. While beneficial, if you want to maintain a healthy weight, excessive exercise has no particular advantage. If anything, burning those calories makes you want to eat more. One of the lessons I have learned is that although you need enough exercise, you do not need to go overboard. If you are concerned about having and maintaining a healthy weight, calories matter more. In general, Americans consume far more calories than we need. I have trained myself to demand fewer calories than I used to. If you are struggling with this problem, I suspect you can too.

So here’s to me and my mostly successful first year, and here’s hoping a year from now if I write about my adventures in healthy living and weight loss again, I will at least be where I am now. Perhaps I will find the impetus to take off another fifteen pounds and literally be the man I was when I was married. It would make a good goal for my 25th wedding anniversary in October.

The Thinker

Double Down Deadly

Why is it that cigarettes come with prominent labels from the Surgeon General warning us about the unhealthy consequences of smoking, but not fast food?

By now, even smokers acknowledge that their habit is unhealthy and could kill them. For some reason we have not yet acknowledged the same is also true about most fast food and, increasingly, most of the food served at restaurants of all types across the United States.

As bad as cigarettes and tobacco products are for your health, arguably the unhealthy food sold at fast food restaurants is even worse. I am not advocating that you give up KFC and take up smoking instead, but if you had to choose between eating healthy and smoking versus a fast food diet and not smoking, arguably the former the healthier choice. Maybe all the antioxidants from a healthy diet would reduce your likelihood acquiring cancer from smoking.

As unhealthy as fast food is, you would think that fast food restaurants might be getting a clue. You would think that maybe they would be working to make their foods if not healthy, at least less likely to kill you. Instead, there is evidence that they are going the opposite direction. The latest really bad idea from the fast food industry comes from KFC, which invented a new “sandwich” so unhealthy that if he weren’t planted six feet under The Colonel would doubtless blanch. It’s called the Double Down Sandwich.

KFC's Double Down "Sandwich"

KFC’s original marketing germ was probably something like, “We need to invent a new item that emphasizes our core product and is different, saltier, greasier and thus more addicting than anything we have thus far developed.” The result was the Double Down “Sandwich”. I put sandwich in quotes because hitherto a sandwich has always meant some food (generally proteins) placed between two slices of bread. Instead, KFC replaced the buns with two fried chicken breasts and placed between them layers of bacon, cheese and one of KFC’s special sauces. The result is an innovative “entrée” with enough sodium to wholly cover your daily need. Of course, this assumes that you are not already salt sensitive, which many Americans are, in which case it will raise your blood pressure and possibly cause hypertension.

The good “news” about the Double Down Sandwich is that if you are not salt sensitive and you are a big believer in the Atkins diet, maybe you can lose weight eating one of these things. Granted one “sandwich” does have 540 calories, which means for most women three and a half of these a day (and nothing else) would satisfy your calorie requirements. With two chicken breasts it is packed with protein. Unfortunately, your body does not need a huge amount of protein. One grilled chicken breast a day is all the protein your body needs.

But hey, without the buns, it’s low carbohydrate, right? Well, that’s hard to say. So far, I haven’t been able to find the “nutritional” information beyond the calories, sodium and fat count (32 grams, which is about the total fat per day you should have on a low fat diet, 10 grams of which are saturated). However, the chicken breasts are slathered in KFC’s secret coating then vat fried, so there should be plenty of carbohydrates there. Cheese has carbohydrates as well, and their secret sauce is likely loaded with them in addition to the fat. So maybe Dr. Atkins would not approve.

Nor is this “sandwich” by any means the most egregious fast food entrée out there. If you have the stomach for it, check out some of these “entrees”. Taco Bell, for example, has a “salad” with 1490 calories, 60 grams of fat and 2540 mg of sodium. Restaurants have become clever by hiding their lack of nutrition under the guise of healthy food.

The Double Down Sandwich is notable because it is so in your face. I am sure there are some who can look at a picture of it and start salivating. Most of us though will instinctively recoil. It looks evil because there is not even a hint that there is something healthy about it. Adding a bun would be an improvement. Even if it were your standard bun made from white flour, at least it would have some modest nutritional value and the bun would contribute minimal fat and salt while helping to fill you up. Instead, KFC replaced the arguably healthiest part of its sandwich with something even far worse: two fried chicken breasts.

Now it is true that you can order a grilled chicken version of this “sandwich” with “only” 460 calories and “only” 23 grams of fat. For some bizarre reason, the grilled version though comes with more sodium: 1480 grams worth. However, don’t expect your Double Down Sandwich to serve chicken from free range chickens (although considering one “sandwich” costs about $5 you might assume as much). No, KFC like most fast food vendors gets their chicken from 52 facilities and 18 suppliers across the country that follow standards set by the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the Food Marketing Institute. This means before your chicken was turned into a Double Down Sandwich, it likely spent its brief life in dark, dank and poorly ventilated poultry houses eating feed full of antibiotics. These antibiotics might in turn be lowering your resistance to many antibiotics. Perhaps the cows that supplied the cheese were pasture fed, but I wouldn’t count on it.

So print this entry out and cut out that picture of the Double Down Sandwich. This way, if tempted to eat fast food, particularly at KFC, a glance should dissuade you. It should make you take a beeline toward a Whole Foods store instead. Having said this, I expect the Double Down Sandwich to be a runaway success for KFC. Just as most American smokers for decades liked to pretend cigarettes were somehow natural and healthy, most regular American fast food consumers are the same way. They will be salivating as they approach the KFC. Doubtless, they will be buying the Double Down Sandwich instead of the garden salad because the Double Down is “real food” unlike that yucky green stuff. KFC stockholders will likely be very happy as well and now that they have upped the ante, and the McDonalds and Burger Kings of the world will be looking for “innovations” like this and wondering how they can out-grease it.


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