April 30, 2009

It's OK To Talk About The Flu

I want to say a few words about "panic," because the swine flu discussion sweeping teh intarwebs has already passed the annoying stage for many people. My observations:

People are reacting on-line the same way they react to anything unknown. There's fear, curiosity, annoyance, an attempt to share facts, expressions of frustration, joking, etc. There's information and misinformation. It's especially evident on Twitter, where people say what's on their mind pretty freely.

You're going to read a lot of stupid comments. But don't mistake everything you read about the flu for "freaking out" or "panicking." Our lines of communication are there to both spread information and express our emotions. People need those outlets to help them not panic. React to them with calm, with information and with humor. (Do you have swine flu? Try this diagnostic link.)

There are legitimate concerns, just like with the regular flu. Its up to calm people to fill in knowledge gaps. Tell people about the CDC recommendations.

The country has survived worse freaking out than what you're seeing now. I remember after 9/11 there were many people who were seriously worried that another terrorist attack was imminent, and that their lives were in immediate danger. Those fears were unfounded. Even so, I got some people seriously annoyed when I pointed out how unlikely you were, personally, to die in a terrorist attack. it was very threatening to people to have their concern challenged. Yet it was overblown.

That's why I see the public current swine flu response as actually being pretty mild, especially when you compare it to the acute terrorism panic which lasted years before ebbing to a reasonable level. Look at these statistics:

Number of Vehicular Deaths in the United States in 2008: 37,313
Average Annual Number of U.S. Deaths Attributed to Influenza: 36,000

How many people have died from terrorism in the North America between 1968 and 2006? 3,227. That's not per year, that's the total.

If you can, try to remember back to the concern over terrorism between 2001 and 2003. People were a freaking out. It certainly looks like, taken in general, people have much more founded concern in influenza (in general, not simply H1N1 flu in particular).

I am concerned about influenza. I have a number of friends and close family members with immune system issues and illnesses. I worry that they might be exposed to influenza and have relapses or complications. This is a reasonable concern, and it makes me think about reasonable precautions. Similarly, I take reasonable precautions when I drive because the statistics warrant such precautions.

In life, people are often worried about the wrong things. If you've holed up in a bunker and taped the door shut, you've overreacted to the swine flu. If you've voiced concern, you've got a ways to go before you're as "freaked out" as so many people were after 9/11.

Posted by James at 3:52 PM | Comments (3)

April 29, 2009

Government Flu Preparedness

High marks are going to the Obama administration for their handling the initial phase of this possible pandemic of swine influenza. However, we have actions of the Bush administration to thank for flu preparedness infrastructure that is now in place.

Other public health experts also endorsed the administration's response to the outbreak that emerged from Mexico. They gave much of the credit to President Bush, whose administration did extensive planning for such an emergency.

"We're seeing a payoff of the original investment made in pandemic preparedness by the Bush administration," said Jeffrey W. Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health. The term pandemic refers to a widespread outbreak of an infectious disease.

Obama administration officials quickly found the plans for "What to do in the case of an impending flu pandemic" in a big filing cabinet labeled, appropriately "PLANS."

Oddly, the flu preparedness plans were under a manila folder upon which was scrawled roughly in crayon the words "BiRD FLu" and dated 2002. Within that folder was a haphazardly-typed, all-caps, single-page document entitled simply "WAR PLANS IN CASE OF FLU." It contained amateurish bullet points linking influenza to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. There was a yellow sticky note on the folder that read "Dick, do you think we could get Colin Powell to infect the UN with bird flu?"

The document was declassified and donated to Mad Magazine.

BTW, should you be worried about the flu? Check this:

http://shouldibeworriedaboutswineflu.com

Posted by James at 9:49 AM | Comments (1)

Don't Mess With Texas!

Not Rick Perry, but almost as scary.

Sarah Palin's husband was a member of an extremist group that supports Alaskan secession. That was awesome! Secessionists are fine, upstanding Americans who love America so much that they want to stab it with their love-knife. They love the USA in the same way that Mel Gibson loves his wife; in other words they've got a girlfriend who they love even more.

Now we're hearing Texas governor Rick Perry court the attention and support of Texas secessionists. Texas secessionists are people who go to bed at night and when their heads hit the pillow they drift off to the dreamy Republic of Texas. And they hope never to drift back.

How do you court a secessionist? Do you proposition him to show you the size of his manifesto? Perhaps later. But at first you make vague statements of the same type that mobsters make. Let me give you an example:

``We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot.'' - Rick Perry

TRANSLATION: You've got a really nice union there. A person should really take care of a union like that. It would sure be a shame if something were to, you know, happen to that union.

What is underlying Rick Perry's imprudent verbal emissions which are lapped up by secessionist extremists?

It's that he's worried that the right wing fringe won't show up for his re-election in 2010, especially in the primaries. You see, while the country is a moderate place, on the whole, Republicans are becoming a fringe group. The base is shrinking and becoming both more hard-core in its ideology and angry in its mood. A Republican politician who doesn't play to that crowd is afraid that he will look too reasonable, and thus lose to another candidate who is more willing to play to the base. In Perry's case he has Kay Bailey Hutchinson breathing down his neck.

The most dramatic example of the strain on moderate Republicans is the defection of Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). The fringe will scoff - "He was a RINO (Republican in name only) anyhow." What he is is a moderate conservative. Such an animal has no place in today's Republican party, according to the fringe. So long as that fringe ejects moderates and woos candidates with kooky views, we're going to keep hearing things like this:

"I believe the federal government has become oppressive. I believe it's become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state." - Rick Perry

Rick Perry believes that the federal government is oppressive, unless it's lending support for hurricane recovery, border protection, or anti-flu drugs.

Posted by James at 8:58 AM | Comments (9)

April 28, 2009

Swine Fool

Bob McCown posted this story as a comment on one of my Facebook entries yesterday:

The outbreak of swine flu should be renamed "Mexican" influenza in deference to Muslim and Jewish sensitivities over pork, said an Israeli health official Monday.

Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman said the reference to pigs is offensive to both religions and "we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu," he told a news conference at a hospital in central Israel. (AP via Google - Israeli official: Swine flu name offensive)

I'm no expert on kashrut, but isn't the prohibition on pork specific in that orally ingesting pork is what is forbidden? Don't many Jews who keep kosher receive insulin injections which may contain porcine products, and they do so with the blessings of their rabbi?

Deputy Health Minister Litzman undoubtedly knows more about Judaism than I do, so I don't feel like I'm in a position to argue what is and is not offensive to Jews. But it certainly seems like he's presuming to speak for a lot of people. There are a lot of Jews and Muslims. He's not saying that the reference to pigs is offensive to him personally; he's saying that it's offensive to the religions. It's up to Jews and Muslims to decide whether he speaks for them on that account. As far as I'm concerned, he can make up silly rules all day if he wants. Just don't expect me to have much respect for him.

Not surprisingly, an ancient prohibition from eating pork won't make a damn bit of difference to your chances of getting the swine flu. Unfortunately there is no prohibition from getting coughed on by someone who has recently been hanging around an infected pig. Some might call that ironic. Some might find the word "ironic" offensive and prefer to just call it "Mexican."

I wanted to give Mr. Litzman the benefit of the doubt when I heard that he was afraid that the constant references to swine would stigmatize Mexicans in the Jewish and Muslim world. However, his insistence on renaming the flu as "Mexican Flu" does little to convince me of his altruism. Talk about stigmatizing.

I declare Mr. Litzman the swine fool of the day. I plan to have a BLT for lunch to seal the deal.

Posted by James at 12:35 AM | Comments (10)

April 27, 2009

Wine vs. Flu

GOOD NEWS!

Resveratrol and quercetin, two chemicals found in red wine, have been shown to inhibit the in vitro and in vivo replication of the influenza A virus.

BAD NEWS!

The oral bioavailability of these chemicals is very low due to the action of your liver. This means that if you ingest resveratrol, it doesn't get where it needs to go and it can't do what you need it to do. The chemicals help along the digestive tract, but that won't do much for your lungs. And your lungs are where the flu has its horrible little party.

What does this mean? It means I plan to get rich over the next month marketing red wine inhalers. Choose from cab sav, pinot noir, zinfandel and blended burgundy varieties. Coming soon: merlot and malbec.

Posted by James at 3:24 PM | Comments (3)

MP3

B.O.B. asked me on Saturday what I thought about iPods vs. other MP3 players. He's looking for a portable music player and wanted to know if it was better to own an iPod vs another sort of MP3 player.

I didn't feel I could answer him easily because I really like my iPod(s) and all of the other MP3-playing devices I've had have been more clunky to use. However, I don't think it's a fair comparison in my case, because I have little experience with a high-end non-iPod MP3 player.

Here are some non iPod MP3 devices I've dealt with.

Sandisk 256MB MP3/WMA Player: I got these from Woot! for the kids one year. They were refurbished and really cheap. This was the beginning of the relentless joke Maggie makes every time I buy something from Woot! One of the players was hopelessly broken. The one that worked had a very cheap and flimsy feel; the switches always felt like they were going to break. They rattled. The screen was tiny and hard to read. It was not a good buy (and Sandisk essentially said "go away" when I contacted them about the broken one.)

Olympus WS-320M voice recorder: I bought this to record important meetings and such, but also because iPods don't play Windows Media files. Windows Media is the only way our library serves up its digital download audio books. As a voice recorder, I like the 320M well-enough. As an MP3-player it's so-so. The sound is decent, but it has clunky switches like the Sandisk, which means it sometimes turns on in my pocket and runs down the battery. I use rechargeables, but it's a bummer to not have the battery when you need it. And when it switches modes it forgets where you were in the book. That's a minor concern for music but an annoying obstacle to a pleasant audio book experience.

Samsung Upstage: I hate my phone. Playing music is one of the things it does. It even plays WMA files. But it's even worse at keeping your place in an audio book. And it requires an adapter to listen to the music through headphones. So, bleh.

None of the above are high-end MP3 players meant to compete with iPod. Well, the Sandisk was supposed to be an iPod Shuffle-killer. Perhaps that's why one of them committed seppuku.

Maggie has a high-end Sansa Sandisk player that I got her a couple of Christmases ago. She also has an iPod Shuffle that I got her. I don't think she uses either of them.

I have an iPod 5th Generation (60 GB hard drive) and an iPod Touch (2nd Generation, 8GB flash memory). The 5G holds all my music and everything. Tons of podcasts and such. The Touch holds 8GB which is plenty for everyday use. My favorite podcasts and all my most recent album purchases.

What I like about the iPods is that I barely have to think about what music to put on them. The 5G has all of my music. I set the Touch up with smart playlists that contain all my favorite music plus anything I've recently added to my library that I haven't given a thorough-enough listen to.

I'm sure you can figure out how to do something similar with other high-end players, but I was already using iTunes to manage my library, so iPods made sense for easy syncing.

I didn't feel like I could give B.O.B. complete and fair advice because of my lack of experience with other players. Honestly, I love my iPods. Perhaps someone here who loves some other MP3 player will weigh in with his or her own reasons. If you are such a person, please do.

Posted by James at 8:47 AM | Comments (6)

April 26, 2009

Krell Brain Boost

Krell Brain Boost

The Krell Brain Boost

Daughter and I watched Forbidden Planet this afternoon; it was her first time seeing the classic sci-fi movie inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest.

I mentioned to friends that I felt like I needed a Krell brain boost now and again, and Bull and Patti both thought I needed to invent a drink to go with the name. You know I can't say no to a request like that. I have the stocked bar to handle special requests; I may as well use it.

A couple of attempts later I give you... the Krell Brain Boost.

KRELL BRAIN BOOST

  • 2 oz Bicardi Limón Rum
  • 1/2 oz blue curaçao
  • 1/4 oz Tanqueray Rangpur Gin
  • 1/2 oz clarified lime juice
  • 1/2 oz pineapple juice
  • 1/2 oz cranberry juice
  • splash of bitters (blood orange, preferable)

Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass.

***** WARNING! *****

Indulging too much in the Krell Brain Boost will release your monsters from the Id, just like it did to Morbius! Just ask Leslie Neilsen.

Posted by James at 7:51 PM | Comments (10)

April 25, 2009

What do all your favorite action movies have in common?

Well, perhaps not all of them, but so very many of them have a certain sound effect in common which is so common that it has become an in joke among fans and sound designers who try to sneak it out of the sound compilation library and into the film of an unsuspecting director.

It is... the WILHELM SCREAM! Even if you don't know its name, you've heard it.

First recorded for the 1951 film Distant Drums, the scream has taken on a life of its own. Check out this compilation of Wilhelm Scream uses and the next time you hear it in a new movie, you'll be in on the joke.

(If that wasn't enough for you, there's more here, including the movie 1954 movie Them! and the scream being used in The Charge at Feather River on a character named Wilhelm, giving the scream its name... Thanks to Bull for reminding me of Them! which in turn made me think of poor Wilhelm.)

Posted by James at 8:43 AM | Comments (11)

April 24, 2009

Cause For Anger, Cause For Shame

Why should you be angry about torture? You should be angry if you want to hold your head high in the United States of America. This post is about my anger, but also why if you've just wanted talk about torture to go away, you need to think again.

In the waning months of the Bush administration, I began to feel like Bush was gone no matter what happened in the election. I cared less and less about what was quickly becoming our past. Putting aside the burden he leaves behind of war and economic instability, I wanted to believe Barack Obama's exhortation to look to the future rather than to dwell on the past. I was emotionally drained from years of outrage; I felt willing to just say goodbye to George and Dick and watch them fade in the rear-view mirror of history.

With each passing day, however, it is clear that acts committed during the Bush years need to be investigated as possible crimes. Evidence is piling up which implies not only misfeasance, but malfeasance. This is seriously upsetting stuff, far beyond what anti-Bush partisans had speculated. You should be surprised at this news because you should have assumed that this cannot happen in the United States of America.

I have argued with people who defended the torturing of high-value prisoners. The strongest emotional argument they made was that Bush was protecting me from future attacks. I essentially believed this and conceded to Bush that his intention was to protect the country, even if it led him to policies that endangered the country in other ways. Ordinary men in extraordinary situations can make some extraordinary mistakes, but you have to sympathize with the situation they are put into; the prospect of another 9/11 is distressing to say the very least.

Another defense of torture was that the methods weren't known to be torture, that waterboarding was not torture. It is a difficult legal question.

Bush's own defense of his administration was that the United States does not adopt torture as a policy, but there are a few bad apples out there who were torturing against the wishes of the administration.

Those last two arguments were just plain wrong. And now it turns out, shockingly, upsettingly, that torture was not simply for your protection from future attacks.

Recently released torture memos reveal the timelines of the torture programs that the US began to create. They have information about how those torture programs were developed, about how they were patterned. These memos dispel perhaps all of the arguments of supporters of Bush-era torture policies. Ron Suskind has been digesting and explaining the implications of these memos on MSNBC lately, and the implications are staggering.

Here are some highlights:

  • New methods of torture were developed simultaneously in different branches of the government. These were the same methods and the same policies, indicating that the programs were connected at a very high level, where authorization and details were handed down. This destroys the "few bad apples" defense.
  • These new methods were based on knowledge from the SERE program - a military program to train servicepeople to resist communist-style torture that is designed to get false confessions from Americans which would later be used in propaganda. The SERE program itself is designed to protect Americans from this sort of torture. The administration took that and turned it into an American version of communist-style torture.
  • Torture programs kicked into high gear when Bush administration officials were frustrated that they couldn't find evidence linking Saddam to 9/11 and WMDs were nowhere to be found. They needed to be able to tell the American people something for political cover. To quote Paul Krugman: "Let's say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link. There's a word for this: it's evil."
  • Bush administration officials had access to information informing them of the dubiousness of their legal arguments. They chose not only to ignore that reasoning, but do obliterate evidence of such reasoning.

That last one seems to this non-lawyer to be especially legally damaging. Philip Zelikow, former personal representative to Condoleeza Rice on policy in the State Department states the following on the Foreign Policy website:

At the time, in 2005, I circulated an opposing view of the legal reasoning. My bureaucratic position, as counselor to the secretary of state, didn't entitle me to offer a legal opinion. But I felt obliged to put an alternative view in front of my colleagues at other agencies, warning them that other lawyers (and judges) might find the OLC views unsustainable. My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views. They did more than that: The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo. I expect that one or two are still at least in the State Department's archives.

They could not brook dissent; I believe this was because they knew the shaky ground they were on.

There was a time when saying that the Bush administration perpetrated evil was unsupportable and was a fringe belief based on too many assumptions. Today we're faced with the possibility that evil was institutionalized, right here in the USA, while we slept.

Defense of these activities is a defense of the legal rationale for an administration to torture whomever it wants, and for political reasons. Can the danger of such a policy be overstated?

I know the president has said he has no interest in investigating this, but he needs to back off and let the Justice Department investigate. His politics have no place in this. We've already seen the problems with an administration meddling in Justice. This is a huge blot on our nation that will not be resolved until an investigation can be done to explain the evidence some other way or bring perpetrators to justice.

Posted by James at 4:26 PM | Comments (0)

Unintentional Actions

Today I'm thinking about intentionality and its relevance to other people's emotions.

Specifically, I'm thinking about a lack of intentionality in one person and a perception which brings about emotion in another person

Some words can cause insult without specific intentionality behind the use of the word. For example: words associated with the history of slavery, or with racism, carry complex meanings that depend heavily on their histories. Because individuals have imperfect knowledge, reasonable people may interpret some usages as seriously insulting while the speaker or writer intended no insult. This insult, if it was truly unintentional, is a result of the ignorance of the individual.

Word usage is not the only place where insult does not follow from intentionality. A speaker might make a specific, true observation that is not considered polite. Again, this insult can reflect the ignorance of the speaker: ignorance of social rules. It could also reflect indifference to the emotions of the object of the comment, though you could argue that this indifference itself is an intentionality.

Intentionality and insults are interesting to me because the social dynamic often appears to depend on figuring out someone else's motivations and deciding whether to be insulted or not. Or, getting insulted and then deciding whether you're justified.

Here's another situation that diverges from insults, but deals with intentionality. What if you took a picture of an insect, and you had to get up really close to take the picture. You post your picture to the web, and someone comments "you exaggerated the size of the insect." Does the word "exaggerate" imply an intention; does it imply that you meant for people to believe that the insect was very large? The primary definition implies intentionality; "to represent as greater than is the actual case." You are presenting something as something that it is not. You are participating in an intentional deception. However, the second definition gives lots of wiggle room "to enlarge or increase to an abnormal degree." Certainly, the image of the bug is larger than the bug, and you are offering the image.

"Distort" carries similar connotations. Someone might say, "you distorted what the insect looks like." It could be they meant to say that the lens creates a distorted image at such close range. Or, they might mean your image was intended to mislead. "Distort" has a more clear intentionality embedded in its definition, especially the second definition here which states "to give a false or misleading account of; misrepresent."

The words may not be used specifically to insult, but the object of the comment might take some offense. Even if the speaker said "your picture distorts the insect's image" or "your picture exaggerates the size of the insect" there is a whiff of assumed intentionality in those comments.

So much of our interpersonal relationships depend on our perceptions of other people's intentions. Extra care must be used in both the employment of words which imply intentionality and in interpreting words which could presume intentionality on your part. In all cases, people should be given the benefit of the doubt first, and be allowed to explain themselves.

Posted by James at 2:17 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2009

My Misconception About the GRE

So, I took the GRE and, as Maggie put it, "welcome to your first hoop." It's a relief having the test behind me and I'm happy enough with my scores that it's also a confidence boost. You could say it has dissipated my diffidence.

Among all the practice testing, I noticed something and I thought I'd pass it along.

I used a prep book (Kaplan), and I also used the software that ETS (Educational Testing Service) sends you when you register for your test. These include many practice problems plus full-length timed practice tests. The practice problems are great for getting used to the types of questions you'll be asked. The full-length timed tests are good for getting a feel for how you'll manage your time, but they also provide a dynamic that is missing in paper tests: they simulate the adaptive nature of the GRE.

When I was in college, my test-taking skills taught me not to spend too much extra time on harder questions, but rather to answer them, make a note of them, and then return to them once I'd completed the test. This allowed me to answer all of the questions I was most confident about and use remaining time to strengthen my answers on the more challenging questions. On the GRE you can't do that. You aren't allowed to revisit a question.

In my early diagnostic runs through the timed test, I found myself running out of time. This upset me a great deal, because unanswered questions are scored as incorrect responses. I thought I had a problem with my time management, and I complained to Maggie and to coworkers that this was a real problem in my preparation.

So, I adjusted my approach and "rushed" through certain challenging questions, making educated guesses so I could answer more questions. My new approach had me finishing the test with time to spare! However, the adaptive practice test was now telling me that my score was really lousy. I was getting a few questions wrong, but not that many. However, my score was tanking. What happened?

A couple of smart people told me they hadn't finished the quantitative portion of the GRE. I didn't know their scores, but I figured they did pretty well, since they got accepted to good schools. I stopped worrying about finishing the test and instead concentrated on (surprise!) answering the questions correctly. As time began to run out, only then did I start rushing and making educated guesses to try to complete the test.

My score improved by a lot. Why? Because every time you answer correctly, the test adjusts to you by giving you a harder question. Answer incorrectly and you get an easier question. But the key is that the harder questions are worth more toward your score. It turns out they are weighted quite heavily. It is in your best interest to get into harder questions as early as possible. Many people give this recommendation, but you can see it in action if you vary your approach on the practice tests. The difference for me was dramatic. How dramatic? On quantitative I could finish the practice test, get 1/4 of the questions wrong and end up in the 33rd percentile: somewhere in the low 500s. Or, I could start strong, and get nearly 1/2 the questions wrong/unanswered and end up in the mid-high 600s, 150 points higher and in the 60th percentile.

Even though I'd been given this advice while I was preparing -- spend extra time on the early questions to gain access to harder questions of greater weight -- I wasn't sure how to reconcile it with my aversion to not completing the test. If you are preparing for the GRE, you may be much quicker at math than I am and this may not apply to you. The practice tests will tell you. But definitely spend time trying to get those early questions correct. If you are worried about not completing the test, try it both ways on the practice software. See how long it takes you to be fairly certain you're getting those early questions correct.

The downside is that answering correctly gets you harder and harder questions, so you might start to feel like you're not doing so well on the exam as the challenge increases. But take the hard questions as confirmation that you're doing well. That should bolster your confidence.

If you're interested, you can even download the ETS Power Prep software for free here. You can try practice questions and three full-length adaptive practice tests which will give you estimated scores. Heck, do it for fun! I found the whole test mostly enjoyable (even the harder math problems) except for reading comprehension where I hated having to scroll the boring passages back and forth to scan for details so that I could answer questions that relied heavily on shades of meaning and degrees of correctness. Bleh. I prefer reading on paper where I can mark up the text with notes.

A final note on actually taking the test: I took my test at the Prometric site on Post Road in Warwick, RI. I dislike constrained situations, but the friendly professionalism of the staff put me at ease so that I was able to focus on the test.

Posted by James at 1:36 AM | Comments (10)

April 19, 2009

Magnet Releasing - Independent Genre Movies

After seeing the trailers on the DVD for Let the Right One In,* I noticed that Magnolia Pictures' genre arm "Magnet" has been releasing some films that have caught my attention. They're finding their way onto my Netflix queue for mostly late-night viewing when my brain can't do anything else.

Let the Right One In is a unique vampire film that deals with emotion without dipping into gag-inducing romanticism. It helps that the main characters are pre-teens, a fact which evokes feelings of protectiveness, but also the lugubriousness that (in my memory) clings to those middle school years. By layering vampires on top of that we don't get a slasher film or a superhero movie, but something more introspective.

Let the Right One In is part of Magnet's Six Shooter Series, an attempt to showcase what they feel are some vanguard international films in the scifi/horror/thriller genre.

I saw a second Six Shooter Series film this week entitled Timecrimes . I'm a sucker for a decent time travel story, and this one moves along quickly to get to the complications of traveling back over your own past. The situation and "rules" of this time-traveling universe will not be unfamiliar to fans of the genre, and the participants are bumbling enough not to get too deep into the questions and implications. But it is a diverting film and worth watching. The film Primer explored just how convoluted a story about the discovery of a paradoxical technology can get. Timecrimes isn't nearly as challenging, and won't leave you needing to watch a second or third time to appreciate the plot.

By the way, both Primer and Let The Right One In are available vis Netflix "Watch Instantly." I hate the name "Watch Instantly" -- I wish they would give it a proper name. Or at least something that is more like a noun.

Splinter is another recent Magnet release; you'll see the trailer on both the Timecrimes and Let the Right One In DVDs. This one is of the "bizarre creature attacks hapless couple right after they've been kidnapped by outlaws" variety. Horror movies after 1990 often take place while some crime is in progress.

This film draws heavily on familiar themes, with the victims trapped in a confined space (in this case a gas station) and a creature that can infect people. This is definitely a creature of the same extended family that John Carpenter's The Thing came from, although a lesser cousin. My impression is that the filmmakers had a new twist on the creature and so wrote a fairly tight script to pit the creature against some ordinary people. Execution of the film itself is quite nice, steering away from overindulgence in overexposing the creature to the audience. The characters are not overly complex, but more thought went into them than a lot of their contemporaries.

Magnet Releasing has good instincts in picking up genre films. There are a number of other Magnet films on my radar that look worthy of attention:

  • Special - Michael Rappaport as a man taking an antidepressant that causes him to believe he has superpowers. It's hard to peg from the trailer, but it's very intriguing.
  • Eden Log - A French film which appears to be about a renewable energy project gone awry -- a sci-fi/horror mystery.
  • Big Man Japan - A Japanese film that seems to be a parody of Kaiju films. Or perhaps a bizarre new take on them.

Which genre movies are you looking forward to coming out on DVD or in theaters, from independent and international sources?

* I'm a little annoyed that the subtitles I saw on the DVD version of Let the Right One In were not the same subtitles that theater-goers saw. I thought the film fell slightly short of my expectations, and I'm wondering if this is why. I still recommend the film to adventuresome horror fans, in any version.

Posted by James at 6:08 PM | Comments (1)

April 15, 2009

Somerset-Berkley Regionalization - Opinion

This is my opinion subsequent to the meeting last night.

I, too, feel that the point cannot be made more plain: the primary concern in this is the quality of education of our children. And by "our children" I mean the children of both Somerset and Berkley. As Mr. Shaker points out, this student population -- these individuals and their families -- are already part of our school community. There is both an emotional connection and financial connection that cannot be ignored. We lose that to the detriment of the quality of education in this town.

We have had plenty of time for foot-dragging, and that time has largely been wasted. I heard no arguments last night for an alternative plan. If there were substantive criticisms of this plan, where were those with questions last night? I am left to assume that remaining criticisms and questions are in the details, which is only natural. But those questions must surely not rise to the level of "deal breakers." The representatives of MSBA presented the plan cogently and answered questions convincingly.

No fairy godmother is going to swoop in and fix the school for the long term or build us a new non-regionalized SHS. In this economy, no windfall of tax money is going to manifest itself on our doorstep. Yet the state is offering a remarkable opportunity in these difficult economic times. And they promise to stand by their offer if we move forward in good faith. We could have a school that is the envy of the SouthCoast. Foot-dragging in the interest of letting this opportunity pass us by is not prudence, it is folly. This is no new problem. Calls for delay in the guise of judiciousness are disingenuous and insult our intelligence; as a Berkley student pointed out last night, we've been living with this possibility for many years. The consequences of our inaction now loom more threateningly over our heads. We have foot-dragging to thank for a worsening condition.

Our problems are not going to go away, but our solutions certainly are if we choose to sit on our hands.

Part of what I was hoping to hear last night is why we took so long to get to this point. I didn't hear that. I heard a call for prudence and dotting the "i"s, but that leaves us to wonder why was it put off so long. I will not speculate about motives, but <i>if</i> the problem is that our representatives lack the impetus and pluck to lead then the citizens of the town, citizens should show them our enthusiasm, frustration, and our fortitude. If this is not a motivating force, then we have an even larger problem. I hope that the interested audience last night has helped leaders find their strength to act.

There will be questions in the details and problems to be worked out. No worthwhile endeavor is without challenge. Let us rise to meet that challenge, secure the future of education in Somerset and Berkley in a stable, modern facility and move on to future challenges.

[This opinion was first posted by me in a discussion thread on the website in support of discussion about a Somerset-Berkley regionalization. Concerned citizens of Somerset and Berkley, please join that site and add your voice to the growing efforts to keep this process on an expeditious track.]

Posted by James at 9:07 AM | Comments (3)

Somerset-Berkley High School Regionalization

I promised some folks I would take some notes on the Somerset-Berkley High School regionalization information meeting that took place on April 14. These are a much compressed version of those notes, my impressions and highlights from the meeting.

I have created a separate website for this subject on Ning called "Somerset-Berkley School Regionalization :Toward a high-quality and sustainable learning environment for our children." There's also a Facebook page for it.

First, I'd like to disclose that I am for regionalization because I believe that it is the only way we can sustain a high quality of education for our students. I've listened to details and they have convinced me that the state is offering a very good deal to our communities.

The focus of this blog post will be questions asked and answers given. I am leaving out many details, such as who asked the questions, or which representative of MSBA answered the question because I want a concise representation of the most important points I heard. The questions and answers below are my paraphrasings of the actual questions and answers, and though they may have suffered in the attempt to summarize, my intent is to give some detail in a concise presentation.

Some initial facts from the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) :

We're being offered a model school that has already been designed and used in other regions. this pre-existing design (the model school) offers a great cost savings to us and to the state.

If we choose to use a model school, MSBA offers an additional 5 percentage points of funding, on top of the 6 points of funding for regionalization. Another two points of funding are being offered for the building of a green school, for a total of 13 points of additional funding.

Many questions and answers continue "below the fold."


Q: What town would the school be in?

A: That would be up to the towns to decide. It would definitely be possible to build the new school behind the existing SHS and then demolish SHS. MSBA would assist in the cost of demolishing SHS and abatement which would have to occur because of hazardous materials in the old school.


Q: Will they still be able to fund this school if sale tax revenues continue to drop, as they have been?

A: The money promised once we vote to go forward and commit to the school appears to be guaranteed by the state. The money will be set aside. Part of the reason they are urging us to move forward quickly is that construction costs are lower in the current economic environment, and they are confident about the available money and estimates in the short term. If we drag our feet for a year, the same conditions will not exist and much of what is advantageous about the current project will begin to disappear.


Q: Can we have a façade that looks similar to the current school, with the columns and the bell tower?

A: Yes. Norwood had a similar concern, and they're getting columns and a bell tower much like their beloved, original school.


http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2009/01/18/school_moving_forward/


Q: How would the regionalized school be governed?

A: That's a detail that we would begin to work out once the independent analysis is done, but there are a number of ways that successful regional schools work. We'd work out some percentage of either elected or appointed school board officials based on student population.


Q: Are fields and tracks included?

A: Yes, but they would be basic track and field facilities. The towns would have to pay the difference for expanded outdoor facilities.


Q: What happens in the case that one town is very supportive of a school budget and the other town balks?

A: A school budget must be passed by both towns at separate town meetings. If the budget fails to pass at one of the town meeting, the budget goes back to the school committee. Then it's back to a vote at town meetings. If the budget fails twice at individual town meeting there would be a combined town meeting from both towns to allow the majority to have a vote on the budget based on who shows up to that giant meeting.


Q: What would the timeline be for completion of the school?

A: Approx 18-24 months from the agreement to go forward. So, we're possibly looking at a school within 3 years.


Q: What are the numbers on funding?

A: It looks like we're being offered an approximately $70 million school and Somerset would be contributing $17 million of that. (need some verification on the numbers)


Q: What will the state help with in the 3 years that students are stuck in a school that is falling apart?

A: Once we are committed to the regionalization, the state may look at helping with SHS maintenance issues. It's not something they like to do, but it may be cheaper to repair the school knowing it would only have to last 3 years.


Q: Next steps?

A: The towns have to vote to approve moving forward with regionalization planning. Some of that would be funded by both towns, but the state could also kick in a small amount of money in the form of a planning grant. Partly a symbolic gesture of a three way partnership on moving forward with this.


Q: What if the student population percentages shift? Would the distribution of the cost of the school also shift?

A: The building costs would be fixed, and each town would be responsible for those costs. However the future operating costs would naturally be adjusted yearly according to student population.


Q: Will MSBA assist in regionalization?

A: MSBA has staff to help with the process and resources to help us find legal assistance and other professional help for the services they cannot themselves provide. Yes, they would be a partner in helping to make the regionalization go smoothly. Also, planning grants would be available to us to help defray some costs.


At this point in the meeting Selectman Meehan stood up and made it clear to the audience that he is committed to doing what he can to make this process work.


Q: What about issues with teacher and custodial retirees and unions?

A: These are among details that would have to be worked out.


Q: What about memorials present in the current high school?

A: Again, a detail that the planning board would need to answer.


Q: What happens if there are cost overruns on the model school?

A; Their experience building this school means they have a handle on keeping costs within the budget. In the event there was a possibility of overrun, there are adjustments they can make (hypothetically) like removing some fancy finish work.


Q: When would MSBA pull the offer off the table if we were to drag our feet?

A: After a year, much of the cost benefits would start to go away. They are eager to strike while we are in a unique position to benefit. Also, they have a primary concern for the Berkley students who are without a school and in an arrangement that runs out at the end of this year. The students with the greatest need are their greatest concern. They didn't say they would refuse to help Somerset if we were to lose the Berkley students, but it is clear that Somerset would be a less urgent concern than a bunch of students with no high school.


Q: Is this full school regionalization?

A: No. We're just talking about the high school.


Q: if we decide not to regionalize, would Somerset be on the hook for the entire cost of a new high school?

A: With the loss of the Berkley students, MSBA hasn't considered in detail the situation Somerset would be in. However, it was clear to this audience member that it would be a not very good situation at all.


The problem of what to do with Berkley students would need to be resolved first.


Q: Are officials committed to making this regionalization move forward?

A; Victor Machado of the Somerset School Committee said that he hopes the independent report comes back and tells us that this is a very good deal for the students of Somerset and Berkley, and that both towns should move forward. In that case he will be behind the plan 100%. But until those details come back, he feels he hasn't done the most responsible thing for the people he represents. Representatives of the Berkley citizens expressed their strong support of the project, with a poll showing that 77% of the residents there also support regionalization.


Q: What are we looking for in this report?

A: Primarily financial details about how this will affect the towns. For example, the effect this agreement will have on the towns over time, rather than just the shorter term considerations.


Q: How long will the report take?

A: Four to six weeks, expected.

Posted by James at 12:42 AM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2009

AT&T Protest Yesterday

Yesterday there were people protesting AT&T outside of our building, at the corner of Bridge St. and Mill Rd. in Fairhaven, MA. I wanted to know what the subject of the protest was, but the signs were tough to read and the protesters were facing the road, so people driving up bridge street could only see the signs if they took their eyes off the road or stopped their cars.

After some searching, I think the protest was about AT&T trying to cut their health care benefits. AT&T's claim that they're in a similar situation to the auto industry is pretty ridiculous. Do they really expect us to believe that this growing industry is in the same financial trouble?

Posted by James at 3:15 PM | Comments (0)

Narrows Center!

If you're a fan of the Narrows Center in Fall River, you can vote it up in the Phoenix for best folk venue in the Providence area:

[I had the electronic poll here before, but it was messing up my blog layout. Here's the direct link to the poll on the Phoenix website.]

Posted by James at 8:33 AM | Comments (1)

April 13, 2009

Pirate Resolution and Escalation

I was very happy to hear about the resolution of the recent crisis involving the hostage-taking of Captain Phillips. It is unfortunate for the pirates that they decided not to negotiate an end to the crisis sooner. Other Somali pirates reported anger at the resolution is ridiculous. What is their suggestion? That they deserved the ransom? Whiniest bunch of pirates ever.

Vicissitudes in the negotiations were very disturbing, until the pirates made the mistake of simultaneously exposing their heads and shoulders to expert Navy SEAL snipers who were authorized to fire by the captain of the USS Bainbridge. President Obama had given the order to fire on the pirates if the captain's life was threatened. An AK-47 to the back of the hostage was convincing enough.

In the wake of this ordeal, President Obama has vowed to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia. The pirates, for their part, have made what could be a stupid move on their part. They're letting their anger get the better of them.

"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)," Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old pirate, told The Associated Press from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl. "(U.S. forces have) become our No. 1 enemy." [...]

"Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying," Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the Somali town of Gaan, told The Associated Press on Monday. "We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men."

I thought it was a bit silly when I heard people referring to these pirates as terrorist earlier this week. It's not terrorism every time someone commits a crime, (no matter how bold, or stupid or unusual) even if they do have brown skin and a different religion than you do. Terrorism is different; it's ideological. Crimes of piracy are motivated by greed; the motivation is money. This is why the pirates had a seeming business relationship with ships in the area. They threaten a ship and the company pays them off. It's more like a large scale mugging than it is an act of terrorism.

But this new tone struck by some Somalis in response to the hostage rescue raises the possibility that we will be facing something more like terrorism, something driven by revenge rather than dollars. This could just be bluster, or it could be a dangerous new course for Somali pirates.

(BTW - here's a great backgrounder on the challenges posed by Somali piracy. h/t @huzzah70)

One thing that really bugged my as the crisis dragged on, however, was the rhetoric of right-wing media demagogues regarding the handling of the crisis. Jumping to the conclusion that these pirates were terrorists was par for the course; some people call everyone they don't like a terrorist. Worse than that, I had an increasing feeling that right wingers, still smarting from recent political failures, were ready to hang their hat on this issue if it went south.

The internets provide what I was not willing to spend the time culling on my own: video footage of bloviators maneuvering into position to cast Obama as ineffective. Hope had returned to right wing media in the form of the possible death of Captain Phillips. Watch the video and tell me if you don't feel a little angry (and perhaps in need of a shower) after listening to Glenn Beck's comments about the Navy.

On the upside for Obama, Brit Hume declared this the "test" of Obama that Joe Biden warned would come. Guess what, Hume. Obama passed the test. I cannot say the same for the test of relevancy daily facing right-wing media.

Posted by James at 5:23 PM | Comments (7)

April 11, 2009

Vocab Time!

I've been studying GRE practice vocabulary. I want to get as quick as possible with them. So, out of my 501 study words, I've identified the ones that are giving me the most trouble; words I can get from context but cannot quickly define outside of context.

To help me remember, I'm going to list them here where I can easily scan them. I thought a bunch of vocabulary words might be mildly interesting to one or two other people out there.

When Chuck and I worked together, we used to each choose a few new-to-us words to put up on the white-board. We'd spend the week trying to use the words in conversation so that we'd remember them. This is like that, except with a lot more words.

For fun, cover up the right column and define the words in the left column without peeking. I'm sure you will know many of these words, if not all of them. Of the 501 words I've been studying, I found that I knew many of them but in my case I was missing precise meanings. If you can define all of them precisely without peeking, you win an imaginary prize. But your real prize is knowledge!

Burgeon to grow and flourish
Garrulous tending to talk a lot
Meretricious gaudy; falsely attractive
Peripatetic wandering from place to place; especially on foot
Contumacious rebellious
Panegyric elaborate praise; formal hymn of praise
Cupidity greed; strong desire
Pusillanimous cowardly; without courage
Dictum authoritative statement
Exculpate to clear from blame; to prove innocent
Arrogate to claim without justification; to claim for oneself without right
Obdurate resistant to persuasion; hardened in feeling
Imprecation a curse
Salubrious healthful
Calumny a false and malicious accusation; a misrepresentation
Wanton undisciplined; unrestrained
Opprobrium public disgrace
Desultory jumping from one thing to another; disconnected
Inchoate not fully formed; disorganized
Diffident lacking self-confidence
Mendicant beggar
Inexorable inflexible; unyielding
Bombastic pompous in speech or manner
Ardor intense and passionate feeling
Florid excessively decorated or embellished
Propitiate to conciliate; to appease
Lugubrious sorrowful; mournful
Impecunious poor; having no money
Encomium warm praise
Phlegmatic calm and unemotional in temperament
Probity complete honesty and integrity
Abjure to reject or repudiate
Inimical hostile; unfriendly
Abase to humble or disgrace
Lissome easily flexed; limber; agile
Perspicacious shrewd; astute; keen-witted
Sinecure a well-paying job or office that requires little or no work
Sybarite a person devoted to pleasure or luxury; a hedonist
Vicissitude a change or variation; ups and downs
Exigent urgent
Investiture ceremony conferring authority
Effrontery impudent boldness; audacity
Tyro a novice
Voluble talkative; glib
Irascible easily angered
Intransigent uncompromising; refusing to be reconciled
Rebarbative causing annoyance or irritation
Posted by James at 10:04 AM | Comments (4)

April 9, 2009

Unspecified Change and its Effect on Morale

From a management standpoint, "change" is a powerful word.

Obama's message of a change of leadership resonated mainly because so many people were dissatisfied with the leadership that was in place at the time of the election. Analysts agreed that 2008 was a "change election" which is why John McCain tried to co-opt the idea, and probably why he thought Sarah Palin was an acceptable move.

These decisions depend heavily on people being close to miserable, and, in fact, feeling that they are on a negative trajectory. In that situation, it's easy to imagine that unspecified change is most likely to be good change.

If you're in charge of a group of people, your communication has a significant effect on morale in that group. Open communication can mitigate the feeling that your situation is beyond your control. If you tell people what's happening (in some sort of detail) they can try to deal with it, even if it's some change they're not going to like. Changes can be put into perspective; people can adjust to them rationally and emotionally.

The phrase "change is coming," on the other hand, acts like a toggle switch.

If your workforce is miserable, then they might get a sudden boost from a "change is coming" announcement that's not backed with details. They might flip from unhappy to hopeful.

If your workforce is largely content, the toggle will switch them into an undesirable state. They are likely to interpret change as a lack of stability, causing them to feel shaken up, distracted, annoyed, or frustrated. Without details, they can't know what that change means to them. They can't prepare themselves mentally, and they can't maintain a feeling of control1 over their environment, or at least the advantage of preparing to adapt to their environment.

Even in the case of the slightly unhappy employees, they have probably learned to cope with their particular dysfunctional environment. Unspecified change may make them feel like them feel like they're about to be tossed out of the frying pan of their coping mechanisms and into the fire where they are unprotected from the dysfunction.

Bottom line, I don't think unspecified change is a good thing to communicate to anyone you manage, if you want a focused and healthy workplace.

1. "Research over the last couple of decades has shown that people who feel they have no control, no autonomy over the job they do in the work place are likely to get a stress related illness."

Technorati :

Posted by James at 8:10 AM | Comments (0)

Nutty North Korean Satellite Of Love

North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into orbit, so that it could seranade the world about how awesom Kim Jong-Il is.

The reclusive communist state, which has tested a nuclear device and is in stalled six-party talks on ending its nuclear program, said a satellite was launched into orbit and was circling the Earth transmitting revolutionary songs.

The United States and South Korea said the Taepodong-2 rocket failed to enter orbit.

That's just crazy. A government asserting that, despite there being absolutely no evidence, there's a satellite up there beaming North Korean tunes at us? It's the sign of a really delusional leadership. I bet none of the North Koreans actually believe that the satellite is up there.

It's good to know that our government would never make delusional, unsupported assertions, or act on little or no evidence.

The Bush team waved nuke after alleged Iraqi nuke over Americans' heads in the run-up to the war. On August 26, 2002, Vice President Cheney, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, warned that Saddam could have nuclear weapons "fairly soon." Two weeks later, President Bush told reporters,

I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic - the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] - that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need.

[...] But the Bush administration never presented any evidence to support these assertions. The IAEA - the UN organization that was conducting inspections for nuclear weapons in Iraq - never produced the report Bush "reminded" reporters of in September.

Oopsie.

Posted by James at 7:41 AM | Comments (0)

April 8, 2009

Palin's Press-Release Malfunction

If you're like a lot of voters, you wanted to walk away from the 2008 presidential election forgetting the name of Sarah Palin. But Palin is still inexplicably popular among Republican voters who are casting about frantically for some conservative leadership from some corner -- any corner!

Palin's political instincts are as sharp as ever, which is to say they are about as keen as a piece of toast accidentally dropped into a urinal. Forget political instincts, she has no sense of when not to wade into the muck. That's 'cause she's a scrapper! Ask the people she's taken her revenge on.

Not content to fade into obscurity, Levi Johnston appeared on the Tyra Banks show and told the sad tale of what happened to him after the role written for him by McCain / Palin campaign fantasy scribes came to an end. Essentially, he was discarded like an improperly-used condom. Among his confessions was that he believes Sara Palin knew he and Bristol were sexually active because "moms are pretty smart."

Apparently, that was too much for the governor to take. She actually had an employee issue a statement condemning Levi for telling "flat-out lies."

"We're disappointed that Levi and his family, in a quest for fame, attention and fortune, are engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration, and even distortion of their relationship," [[Palin family spokeswoman] Meghan Stapleton tells Usmagazine.com in a statement Friday.

Levi and Bristol did something dumb that many kids do. It was a dumb kid thing to do. They should have been taught that safe sex needs to be safe all the time. Talk of a "condom wardrobe malfunction" from Levi couldn't be a stronger endorsement for sex education. Bristol's life experience has educated her beyond her mom as she's already expressed her opinion on how unrealistic abstinence-only education is. She was "corrected" by her politically correct (conservative edition) mom, and you start to see a pattern emerge.

Yep, kids do dumb things like have sex before they're ready, agree to be a campaign prop, and go on TV talking to Tyra Banks. The education they need is on how to deal with the impulses that lead them to make those stupid decisions, and how to mitigate the damage of life-changing mistakes. And that education needs to be based in reality -- or as Bristol Palin might put it, needs to be realistic. Versus fantastic, or fantasy-based.

Parents ought to be adults for their children, but they sometimes fail, and sometimes they fail all out in the open at an inconvenient time.

Leaders need to be adults for themselves and their constituents. This is a lesson that Governor Palin has not yet learned; her actions are something you might expect from a jilted lover on Jerry Springer. Ignoring the question of why a paid employee of Alaska is writing press releases attacking her erstwhile future son-in-law, a 19-year old kid, it baffles the mind that she sees any wisdom in conducting this feud in public.

Obama asked us during the campaign to keep family out of the heated criticism that surrounds presidential politics. But Palin choses to attack the father of her grandchild and his family, for goodness sake her own extended family now, as if he were a political opponent.

Show your own family some compassion, Palin. And give the rest of us a break.

Posted by James at 10:07 AM | Comments (0)

April 7, 2009

Tammy Duckworth

I'm truly sorry I have updated this blog so infrequently, and that I have likewise fallen behind in reading the blogs of people I like.

But I still have time to be annoyed.

Take the recent nomination of Tammy Duckworth to run the Veteran's Affairs Department. This injured Iraq War pilot would seem a good fit for Veteran's Affairs. She's got experience, having run the Illinois Dept. of Veteran's Affairs. She's sacrificed for her country, and has a perspective that would seem only to help her in performing her duties.

But North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is holding up the nomination. Further, he has (as of the moment) failed to respond to efforts to get him to comment on his reasons.

This heroic veteran who gave both her legs and more in the service of her country deserves better than that. I have no problem with due diligence, but what questions does Senator Burr have for the president on this, and why is he so tight-lipped about them? Is this simply more evidence of a Republican attitude of all obstruction all the time? If Burr is using Ms. Duckworth's appointment as a political opportunity, what is it he hopes to gain?

If Republicans can't agree with Democrats to move forward on the appointment of a decorated Iraq War veteran to head Veteran's Affairs, what use is there in reaching out to Republicans congressmen and senators?

Posted by James at 12:29 PM | Comments (2)