Saturday, May 31, 2008

"It's Academic" presents high-performing high school students

It’s Academic, a syndicated quiz show competition for well-performing high school students, made the news this week because its “intellectual founder” Sophie Altman passed away in Washington DC, as indicated in local media reports.

The program usually has tree teams, each with three members, from three different high school in a Metropolitan area. In Washington it is hosted by Mac McGarry (on NBC4), and usually plays on Saturday morning from 10:30-11:00 AM. In the late spring, there are playoffs and a “super bowl.” Giant Foods is a major sponsor, with scholarships going to school funds. George Washington University has also been a major contributor in Washington. The US Army and Sylvan Leaning are also major sponsors.

Most students are seniors, and most announce their ages. Usually the ages match the grade: 17 turning to 18 some time during the school year. But occasionally students from other classes are invited, with juniors, sophomores, and in at least one case a freshman on his 14th birthday. The appearance of younger contestants from earlier grades probably means unusual academic ability and excellence. On television, business suits, which are usually worn by the men, tend to make them look like adults.

Teachers and administrators from the participating schools are also present, and are introduced by the student in the middle of this team’s bench. The presence of teachers shows that teaching sometimes becomes a very public occupation.

Public, private and parochial schools are included, as are some schools that are all female or all male .

The high school from which I graduated in 1961, Washington-Lee, appeared on March 1.

Other major syndications include New York, Buffalo, Charlottesville (NBC), and Baltimore (on CBS).

Questions are on a variety of topics, with at least one “visual” round, and sometimes are asked by government officials or celebrities. Mathematics questions tend to be simple but require a quick mental calculation, with a lot of emphasis on exponents and radicals.

Jeopardy, hosted by Alex Trebek, has also had high school and college contests. I haven’t seen such a special on Merv Griffin’s Crossroads.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dr. Phil features pianist William Joseph

I like to report about musical talents that appear, and today (May 28) Dr. Phil invited Yamaha pianist William Joseph (and “piano prodigy” according to the show description) to perform on his show with an ensemble (link here. The music had a Hispanic flavor (reminding me a bit of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s and his famous “Malaguena”, or even Moritz Moszkowski ’s “Seguidilla”). Joseph is a native of Phoenix and discovered music early but his parents could not afford piano lessons. He was able to get help for his ambitions with a scholarship from the Local Boys & Girls Clubs. The show displayed a picture of Joseph as a boy at the piano with sheet music that looked like it might have been the notorious "Hanon Studies." His new CD is called “Beyond,” and he played compositions called “Beyond” and “Asturias” from that on the show. (His earlier CD was called “Within”). The website is this. The show made an appeal for the Clubs, website here. Dr. Phil provides a separate sublink today about the group, “keeping kids safe and off the streets.”

Joseph said that he was nervous speaking on the show, but not performing. I am reminded of composer prodigy Dominik Maican’s radio interview on NPR in which he says he has “stage fright” performing his own works. Although Maican composes in a very different style (“modern” with emphasis on Romanian and perhaps other Eastern European dance music), I wondered if there could be synergy; perhaps they could both appear on Oprah some day and Joseph could perform one of Dom’s pieces.

Joseph looked very youthful on the show, but he is actually age 27 and is married with three children. According to a Wikipedia article, he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and served on a mission in Australia.

Dr. Phil today also presented the efforts of Lutheran Family Services (headquarters Roanoke VA).

On 5/29, Ellen DeGeneres featured musician Patrick Henry Hughes on her show. Patrick was featured in an earlier show of ABC's "Extreme Makeover" with Ty Pennington.

Picture: Grand piano at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington DC

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

PBS: "Master of the Killer Ants", going against a termite colony

Tonight PBS aired the NOVA film “Master of the Killer Ants.” The documentary is set in Cameroon, east of Nigeria, where, as usually the case in rural Africa, the people (here, the Mofu) live off of the biological cycles of the land. The movie documents the native termite population first. Termites are eusocial insects in the sense that ants and bees often are. But termites have soldier and worker individuals, and the soldier “people” are about twice the size of the ordinary workers. But, in a practical sense, only the “king(s)” and “queen” have gender. The various entities in a colony might be viewed as analogous to chess pieces. The queen is hundreds of times as large as a worker, and looks like an amorphous mass, laying thousands of eggs a day. The organization of a social insect colony helps model some of the social attitudes people have had in the past about the components of their own civilizations.

There is an interesting classroom scene where a male teacher drills grade school boys on the difference between a vertebrate and invertebrate animal, in English and French. The classroom is Spartan and seems the school seems to have been built partly with mud.

The termites destroy the homes and food storage of the Mofu. However the people use a “free” resources from nature (note: current sunlight). A shaman calls for the Jaglavak, an ant colony, where workers, protected by thick exoskeletons, will attack soldiers many time their own size by using teamwork and attacking the limbs of the termite, and then climbing onto it and pulling it apart as if they were piranha. The ants are summoned into the village, and they go after the termite colony. The film shows detailed underground sequences in video of the “hand-to-hand” combat. A number of soldiers manage to scuttle the queen to safety while closing off the tunnel, a remarkable feat of communication and cooperation.

Is "ants v. termites" like "lions v. hyenas"?

Social insects have been the topics of some animated films, like "A Bug's Life", "Antz" and "The Any Bully", all of which explored the tension between individualism and the common good in analogy to human society. The comparison may be a bit of a stretch.

See also review of "Lord of the Ants" on May 20 on this blog.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Oprah Windrey launches "O Ambassadors" program -- good works in developing countries

Today Oprah Winfrey presented a launch of her “O Ambassadors” program. Twelve teenagers went to Kenya and in three weeks built a school building. There was a lot of social interaction and some emotional bonding between the teens and the Kenyan kids. The kids appeared to be of high school age. One important concern presented in the show was drinking water, which US kids generally take for granted. The link for the show is here.

Oprah presented Marc and Craig Kielburger, two young men from Ontario who have worked for children’s rights and have authored a book “Me to We”. I ordered the book today and will report on it soon.

She also encouraged teachers and others (such as parents) to start “O Ambassador” projects at their schools. The website is this and the cover page flashes a slide show of a number of facts about child poverty, and child labor.

An earlier posting from June 2007 on my books blog discusses several water projects, including one in Guatemala, link here. Similar efforts are discussed in the book “Four Souls” reviewed on that posting. A recent posting on my “dramas” blog discusses the “Nacascolo” mission project in Nicaragua, link here.

But Oprah’s is obviously the most ambitious yet.

See book review of Kielburger's book on books blog May 30.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

CNN covers Mars Phoenix Lander touchdown in live mode (16 minutes behind for the speed of light)

Today, CNN covered live the “seven minutes of terror” for the Mars Phoenix Lander, live, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, with Miles O’Brien as host. The lander is to land in the Martian north polar region to look for additional signs of Chemistry 301 (evidence of past organic activity and possible past or current life). Scientist Steve Squyres also helped explain the happenings. The employees at the JPL all wore blue T-shirts as a uniform.

With its current position relative to earth, it takes light about 16 minutes to reach the earth, so whatever was shown in the broadcast had happened that amount of time earlier. The lander had to be slowed from about 20000 mph, deploy a parachute, and descend through the thin Martian atmosphere, which is something like earth at over 20 miles (100000feet) in density and has mostly carbon dioxide (which probably makes the planet a little warmer than it would otherwise be). The last 6000 feet of descent would be slowed by rocket thrust. The temperature where the land touches down will be less than minus 200 F. Temperatures in the southern hemisphere summers on the ground in direct sun may reach close to 100 F sometimes.

The current CNN link is here.

Steve Squyers's blog along with a photo gallery is here.

New pictures from the surface, which may show carbon dioxide dry ice “snow” should be available at CNN after 10 PM EDT (7 PM PDT).

Update: One picture, black and white of bare ground, showed at 10 PM

Picture on this entry: "Mars" country north of Abilene, TX, with lots of red earth.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

ABC 20/20: Show on forgiveness, almost Biblical

ABC 20/20 last night covered three major stories of personal “forgiveness.” This sounds like the spiritual command (“turn the other cheek”) in the New Testament, but the stories carried a secular lesson: forgiveness does not mean forgetting, it means settlement. It reminds me of the theme of the Joe Wright film “Atonement.”

The most compelling story concerns an African American, Dewayne McKinney, who built an ATM business in Hawaii after being released from a California penitentiary after serving twenty years for a murder that he did not commit. He had grown up in south LA with a single mom, then bounced around in street gangs and committed some petty crimes, but not the murder. He was forgiving enough to support the district attorney politically, whom he says was doing his job.

The ABC News story is called “From Prosperity to Millions: a man wrongfully accused of murder turns misfortune into millions,” by Mary Fulginiti, Lynn Redmond, and Sylvia Johnson, link here.

Another story, by Bob Brown, is about the mother of a murder victim who made a statement of forgiveness in an Canton, Ohio courtroom, “I was not going to let this destroy me: face to face with her daughter’s murderer, will a mother ask for forgiveness or revenge?” link here.

Another story concerned journalist David Holthouse, who was abused when growing up as a boy in Alaska. Decades later, he discovered that his abuser was living nearby in Denver. He planned to kill him, but then his childhood diary. He knew he could never carry out the plan and not be a suspect, so he changed his heart and had a meeting. He said he would forgive his assailant conditionally it the assailant’s claim that he was the only childhood victim were factually true. The story is by Chris Connelly, “Revenge not taken, the better path?” link here.

ABC broke this 20/20 show into separate stories online. You can find the stories now under the 20/20 link on the web page, although they will eventually displace.

We all remember, of course, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about revenge, and has speeches as to whether honor requires it.

The Biblical idea of "kingdom economics" depends on forgiveness, and is critical of the way the western debt economy works. A typical reference is "America in the Kingdom Parables," article by C.O. Stadslkev, "The Parable on Forgiveness," Matthew 18:23-35, about a debtor who does not continue the chain of forgiveness, link here. Islam, remember, does not allow formal interest at all because of Koranic teachings regarding debt.

It’s important that wrongs be fully explained publicly. One should not be expected to “hide” or cover up the commission of a past wrong just for the comfort of others.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

PBS Nova: "Saved by the Sun", progress with solar energy

On May 22, MPT rebroadcast NOVA’s documentary about solar energy, “Saved by the Sun,” with this website. The film starts out by showing large solar farms in the Mojave Desert and near Las Vegas. It shows solar power in Sommerville, MA, in Maine, and at a Whole Foods shopping coop in New Jersey, where there was a county sponsored plan for businesses to invest. Flat roofs on many buildings in most cities could provide significant power to be sold back into the system with reverse metering. The program then examines solar power in Germany, where government policies encourage farmers and communities to invest in solar farm panels, much more so than in the United States. A clean room at a solar cell plant in Germany is shown, with the workers in bunny suits. A pig farmer, who borrowed over $1 million in US dollars to invest in a solar farm, is interviewed.

The film goes on to examine other possibly more efficient solar cell design, including using titanium compounds and nanotechnology (reminds me of "Jake 2.0"). A innovative home owner in Colorado, with his son, give a tour, including an indoor solar greenhouse almost in the middle of the house.

The United States gets only about 1% of its electricity from solar and wind power right now, a number that must go up.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

PBS Frontline: "Growing Up Online" looks at high school students on social networking sites

This evening PBS Frontline broadcast an important documentary about kids on the Internet, directed by Rachel Dretzin, “Growing Up Online.” The main website for it is this.

This is the first generation to grow up in a world wired with an “alternate universe” topology that allows someone global fame quickly. The film did not go much into blogs and search engines, but tended to focus on social networking sites. Myspace and Facebook, the two most popular, now have 160 million members.

The show focused on middle and high school kids and parents in several northern New Jersey communities, and talked to some teachers. One male social studies teacher said that now he has to be an entertainer, to get through the mass of material on the Net and get them to focus on the essential curricula that they must learn. An English teacher who has taught thirty years says that it is difficult to get kids to focus on meaning and context that you only learn by reading many whole books from many different cultures and historical periods. The problems of kids depending on Sparknotes (for summaries of novels and Shakespeare plays) was discussed; kids are not supposed to use them, but do. One boy said he reads a Shakespeare play in about fifteen minutes with Sparknotes. The anti-plagiarism website was presented. (The website offers a lot more than just plagiarism checks.)

The documentary moved into the issue of the dangers of the Net for kids. One girl posted moderately risqué photos of herself on her Myspace profile, and the principal called her parents at home. The parents made her delete her profile as they watched. Her online existence was “erased.” About a year later, she would get her Myspace privileges back. The show documented kids hiding their activities from parents, who have difficulty grasping the extent of their social networking site use. However, parents discussed their concern that kids did not understand “social context” and that one “mistake” online could mar them for life. This is the now relatively well known "reputation defender" problem (and the recent controversy about "JuicyCampus", not mentioned in the show because it is more about college students, comes to mind).

Toward the end the show got into the problem of predators (as on Dateline), and underplayed it. Experts said that most “solicitations” are from other teens and may be relatively innocuous, and kids generally know not to respond to the “bad guys”. However, cyberbullying had become a big problem even a few years ago. One thirteen year old boy had been bullied on AOL chatrooms and setup by girls pretending to be “friends” and dumping him – this was even before Myspace, and he committed suicide in the fall of 2003, three years before the Meier case in Missouri (which did involve an older person acting as an imposter).

Toward the end, parents were weighing the risks and benefits from the existence of the public Internet as it is now, and even admitted than in the long run the benefits win out. But learning to use the Internet safely is like learning to drive a car safely. You don't turn 14 year olds out on public streets (well, maybe if the teen is Clark Kent in Smallville Season 1, you can).

The show is inviting more input from the public through the website, and I will follow up on this.

Review of "Myspace Unraveled" (Magid and Collier), mentioned on the program, is here, along with reviews of two similar books.

PBS: Nova: "Lord of the Ants" and Sociobiology

On May 20, MPT on PBS presented the NOVA program “Lord of the Ants: Sociobiology” about the life and work of biologist Edward O. Wilson, born 1930. Dr. Wilson grew up in southern Alabama and developed a fascination with wild animals in the bayous. Because of some hearing and vision problems, he decided to focus on insects rather than birds, his first interest. He became an entomologist. He says that his whole life he has felt his interest in science was like that of a little boy.

He would become a professor at Harvard in the 50s, and would set out to categorize social behaviors of animals. For the most part, insects and mammals (sometimes) have social organizations. Ants, bees and termites often have social organizations in colonies, with queens, workers, drones, and sometimes other specialized forms. The social organization of colonies seems sometimes to offer political lessons for human society. Dr. Wilson performs experiments to show that insects communicate with chemicals. If a particular termite is covered with a particular chemical, other insects presume it is dead. Chemicals also lay out routes for them to follow. Wilson wonders if social organization is compatible with evolution as usually taught, since it seems to demand altruistic self-sacrifice of some individuals.

He also explored social organizations among monkeys, and altruistic behavior, grooming and wound cleaning. Although not mentioned in the documentary, lions are interesting in that they have social organizations whereas tigers, almost genetically identical, do not. Could this have happened because male lions can be distinguished by manes, which might encourage a social hierarchy of males with a distinguishing secondary sexual characteristic?

In a time when DNA science came into being, Wilson came to believe that genetics influences social behaviors in animals. He published a book called “Sociobiology” in the late 70s, and included a chapter on humans, causing controversy when he claimed that genetics could strongly influence human behaviors, too. Wilson is said to be the only scientist attacked for an idea. There was concern at Harvard that his ideas could justify eugenics, advocated by the Nazis and a subject of an exhibit last year at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Wilson became a proponent of preserving species. He found that 2-3% of the earth’s surface houses 50% of its species. He did a study on how well species return when life on a small island is wiped out, and found that many species would not return. He showed how human activity can wipe out species, with a study comparing Haiti (poor) and the Dominican Republic. Another book was called “On Human Nature.”

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sci-Fi: The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls (review)

Today, the SciFi channel premiered the documentary “Mystery of the Crystal Skulls,” narrated by Lester Holt. The documentary supplements the anticipated opening of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” (My blogger review is here.) Up to eight skulls are reported to have been found deep within the ruins left by the Maya, particularly in Hondouras and Belize. The Maya, as we know, had an advanced civilization that disintegrated (otherwise they might have promoted civilization in colonial areas of North America before Europeans came), as in the film “Apocalypto”. They are made of quartz, and some attribute powers to them. There is a legend that there are thirteen skulls corresponding to thirteen advanced civilizations in our galaxy. They all need to be found and placed in some kind of alignment to prevent a cataclysm on Dec. 21, 2012, when the earth will be in some kind of alignment with the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

The movie presents F. A. Mitchell Hedges, from the 1920s, as a kind of real life Indiana Jones. A modern writer (and Hedges son-in-law) named Richard C. Hoagland (book "Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA") has extrapolated on his work and examined NASA experiments on a Hedges skull, which he thinks could only have been made at zero gravity. And another researcher Bill Hollman keeps one of the skulls at home in Indiana. The skulls could be remnants of Atlantis, which would have been destroyed in a past cataclysm. They could even be extraterrestrial. The movie presents the idea that the skulls could have come from an ancient civilization on Mars that was destroyed by cataclysm (and loss of atmosphere and magnetic field, perhaps after an asteroid hit), with some of the skulls deposited on the Moon and known secretly to NASA.

The documentary does present a lot of "speculation" about a coming purification. Somehow, the skulls remind me of the cave artifacts that young Clark Kent finds in Season 2 of "Smallville."

The link for the show on the Sci-Fi website is here.

The sci-fi film showed brief images from the Paramount Steven Spielberg new movie. I think the documentary could have used an appearance from Shia La Beouf, and even from Harrison Ford, who was made “buff” recently on Access Hollywood to make a point about the loss of rain forests and global warming! Perhaps his stunt will be replicated on Saturday Night Live.

Picture: Hill Country, Texas, south of San Antonio, from a personal picture taken on a 1985 visit (and rephotographed for digital).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

PBS: Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

Today, PBS Maryland Public Television showed the NOVA film “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.” This concerns a controversy over the teaching of intelligent design in a small town of Dover, PA, near York PA.

The controversy grew slowly and would result in a federal lawsuit by eleven parents, decided in 2005 in Harrisburg. The case would be Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Wikipedia has a detailed discussion of the case here.

The controversy seemed to start when a student painted an art mural showing the progression from apes or hominids to modern humans. The painting was taken from the school and burned. In the mean time, the school district reviewed a new biology textbook by Miller “Biology” (I saw it when substitute teaching myself in Virginia) and found that it often mentioned concepts of evolution. Because evolution has been so controversial religiously, it had previously been left out of high school biology curricula. The text would tend to bring it back. Evangelical interests tried to bring the book “People and Pandas” to advance intelligent design.

The school board had ordered that a one minute statement offering intelligent design as a theory be read to students. It did seem modest. The case would tend to concern whether such a practice would be promoting religion with public funds (related to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment). Lawyers and the judge were wondering how well they remembered their own ninth grade biology tests.

The show does explain the theory of intelligent design, which is caused by an “intelligent agent.” It maintains that life is so complicated that Darwin’s “tree” could not have assembled itself just by chance, even over a few billion years. The show also demonstrates Darwin’s theories, such as in the Galapagos, or in the Canadian arctic, where scientists found a fossil in 2004 of a “land fish” with fins turning into limbs, a mix of fish and amphibian.

The show did make the intelligent design case with a small creature that looked like a paramecium and an apparatus like a bacterial flagellum, where the various cellular parts were so specialized that they seem like manufactured parts, as for a car or machine tools.

As a whole, the film takes the position that the suppression of much material for religious reasons causes much evidence to be suppressed. The show examined the importance of modern genetics and the tendency to confirm elements in Darwin's theory. One interesting problem is that other apes have 24 chromosomes and humans have 23, but one human chromosome seems to have fused two original chromosomes with telomeres in the middle of one such chromosome (#2).

The show staged the trial in Harrisburg with actors, with a little "courtroom drama". The testimony of Michael J. Behe, author of "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge" was shown. He claimed that the bacterial flagellum is "irreducibly complex" and appears to be "designed" like an automobile driveshaft. He says there are no parts for natural selection to work on until the complete "auto part" is assembled, but the expression of bacterial toxins confounds that idea, since here the flagellum transmits disease rather than helps it move. They refuted the idea of irreducible complexity by showing how a mousetrap becomes a tie clasp.

The documentary mentioned the classic film "Inherit the Wind" about the Scopes trial.

There was also an attempt to show that the Panda book started out as a creationist book by bringing up the book "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" from the Discovery Institute. This investigation showed that the Panda book had been affected by a 1987 New Orleans schools Supreme Court decision prohibiting teaching creationism as a religious concept. Intelligent design had been invented as supposedly non-religious concept, as showing some cleansed manuscripts associated with that case. A paperwork investigation had shown an ironic "missing link fossil" that showed some hypocrisy in the intelligent design movement. We find that people simply come back sometimes to wanting to defend faith on an emotional level.

The MPT link is here.

A related movie is called "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," review link here.

First Picture (above): PA Turnpike tunnels at Blue Mountain

Second Picture: Dover Area High School, from a July 10, 2008 day trip.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Oprah covers FLDS (YFZ Ranch TX, Colorado City AZ), story of one woman who "escaped"

Today the Oprah Winfrey show (ABC, 4 PM EDT in Washington) presented the most detailed look at the action taken against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and particularly the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. The report was by Lisa Lang, and the link is here. The title of the article is “Forced to Marry at 14: Lisa Ling’s Special Report on Polygamy Continues.”

The show started with some objectivity, as some older women in the empty ranch saying they were not forced to do anything and that women could remain unmarried if they wanted.

However, most of the report comprised a tour of the facility and an interview of Elissa Wall, author of a new book “Stolen Innocence” about life at the similar Colordado City AZ facility which Warren Jeffs had run. As we know, Jeffs is now in prison. The tour showed kids rooms, decorated in grays and blues with many beds including bunks in a room. They also showed “secret passages” and tunnels in which kids could have been hid from authorities.

The most interesting part of the hour was Elissa’s discussion of the culture. Girls were not told the “facts of life,” even by their mothers. They believed that babies came from God, and consummation of marriage was a physical and emotional shock for them. It appeared that the culture was set up for the tribal satisfaction of men, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of extreme radical Islam in tribal societies (such as the Taliban). Elissa described having partially escaped and sleeping in a car in the southern Utah desert. She also said that law enforcement in Colorado City was populated by FLDS members who normally would not act against the church elders. The town is an isolated part of the state (AZ), not well connected to other communities. I visited it in October 1987.

A portion of “Stolen Innocence” is available at this link.

Also, tonight, NBC4 in Washington DC reports that Virginia is cracking down and tracking down and revoking licenses of teachers convicted of offenses with minors. The story is here. School districts sometimes fail to report the behavior to state education departments.

Update: May 15, 2008

Jawn Murray reports in "" that Oprah Winfrey has decided not to so a second season of her "Big Give." The story is here.

Update: May 16

ABC 20/20 also carried a story about Elissa Walls tonight, as she again repeated her odyssey to the Utah desert, and some of the "catacombs," apparently at the Colorado City site, were shown. She tesified against Warren Jeffs. The story by Rick Diaz is here. The 20/20 link also provides a photo gallery of Elissa's life. Elissa Walls also appeared on ABC Good Morning America May 17 and pointed out that people in the FLDS do not understand or grasp the concept of making "personal choices" and taking personal responsibility for these choices.

20/20 also has a story about the arrest of Yisraul Bill Hawkins, pastor of the "House of Yahweh", twice near Abilene, Texas yesterday, story by Vic Walter and Rehab El-Buri, link here.

Update: May 22

KXAM (through CNN) reports today that the Third Circuit has ruled that the state of Texas had no right to remove FLDS children. Link here. Watch for breaking news stories on all major news services.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dooce -- a new verb in the English language, explained on ABC Nightline (Heather Armstrong's mommy blog)

Tonight (Monday) ABC Nightline aired a report on Heather B. Armstrong, the “mommy blogger” well known for her Dooce site. The leading blog entry there tonight is “Nightline Segment.” I got in to the site OK, but it was slow; traffic is obviously heavy right now. It looks like “dooce” is also a trademark how. It shows up on in a TESS search with a decorative trade dress that looks like a captcha.

It looks like she is scheduled to appear on ABC Good Morning America (Tuesday May 13?) so stay tuned. (Note: Didn't see her on May 13, maybe later.)

In fact, Heather invented a new verb, “to dooce”, which means to fire someone from a job for what he or she wrote and published on a personal website. Her account of that is here in “Collecting Unemployment” and I loved the line “The Company no longer had any use for me.” I believe she was a web designer. In fact, “dooce” is a category for the whole site. It looks like a Wordpress blog, although I am not sure. The word “dooce” is supposed to come from “dude” (yeah, like “Dude, where’s My Car?” with Ashton Kutcher) .

She is one of the relatively few people who has made a living off of a personal blog, and the site gives very clear directions as to how to buy ad space. It appears to the visitor that she runs the advertising herself. It appears that she does not accept comments on the blog (so you have to comment on your own blog).

She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and there are categories related to Mormonism and BYU. Also, poop! The Nightline report characterized her as an ex-Mormon. She sounded as though she has still great intellectual respect for the ideas of the religion (which is a religion more of works than grace, I think – and works are important!).

Toward the end of the spot. the show told the story of her firing (she had written about her boss’s using Botox, but never identified the person or company; an email tipped off the company, so this was not a problem that Michael Fertik ‘s “Reputation Defender” could have easily found.) She married six months after the firing and changed the focus of her blog to talking about marriage, family and kids.

Most of the report related the current effort to journal the psychological issues of being a parent and raising a family. She seems to have developed the blogosphere’s answer to Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Sinfonia Domestica.” The show told about a study that shows that parents actually endure a lot more psychological depression than do singletons. Her posts vary from satirical and humorous to serious conversations about post-partum depression.

Her father had a hissy fit when he found out about the blog, and she says her degree of self-censorship has more to do with protecting the family from going over the top over certain matters than about the sensitivities of advertisers, even the LDS Church.

Writing about family is controversial in the minds of many people, and sometimes leads to the use of pseudonymns. The issue came up (with respect to short stories in print) with the 1948 film “I Remember Mama”. Heather said on the show that 95% of her family life remains private and out of sight from the blog.

Heather has books in the works (probably with publishing contracts) based on the blog (maybe she has read Cameron Johnson’s “Call Your Own Shots”), and she says she is talking to film companies. I won’t mention studio names, but I have my favorites (mentioned elsewhere) and I hope her agents talk to them. (Like anyone else, she will have to honor the movie studios’ “third party rule” that protects proprietary creative content.) I will mention one name. I can just imagine Morgan Spurlock making a documentary about her story. I would love to write the script for the “dooce” part.

Here’s another idea. Have her host Saturday Night Live. Invite Jon Heder as a guest (I understand he comes from a Mormon background.) Let Shia and Ashton be in the SNL Digital Short about being dooced. (Shia plays the boss.) Let Andy Samberg direct the short. In fact, if not Morgan!, let Andy Samberg direct the feature!


The ABC story is "Mommy Blogger's Irreverent Observations: Heather Armstrong's Popular, Controversial Blog Pokes Fun at Everyday Life," by Eileen Murphy and Mary Fulgniti, link here.

The Nightline segment tonight also covered the massive earthquake in SW China, and thieves stealing gasoline.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Shia Saide La Beouf hosts SNL at age 21: The Best Look in the World

Last night (May 11), Shia Saide La Beouf hosted Saturday Night Live for the second time. This time he is 21 (maybe makes certain things easier – as on June 11 last year he was on Jay Leno with “grown up things to do”, and last year he hosted it at age 20 with no C2H5OH on the set or in the theater) and was dressed up in a business suit to start. That didn’t last long.

In his opening prologue, he said that, as for his new Spielberg movie about the Crystal Skull, he was “sworn to secrecy.” I’ve heard that before from 21-year-olds who room in fake frat houses near campus. Did you know that Hollywood has a script in which Wall Street securitizes people’s souls? (Don’t tell Lions Gate, in case it’s unsolicited.)

In some episodes of MacGruber, he sported long, metallic-gold hair, shaggy, and was hard to recognize for a moment. Every episode ended with a catastrophe for some WMD facility (angel dust, etc) that they had infiltrated.

Shia confessed to one sin, getting arrested for smoking in the wrong place. They say that somewhere on the Net, that Shia smokes. That’s depressing, and not good for role-modeling any more. But he’s 21.

But the height of the ancient evening was the SNL Digital Short “The Best Look in the World.” This was real movie making, and would have won the “On the Lot” contest – well, except for the fact that it was made by established professionals at NBC Universal. Andy Samberg, Shia La Beouf, and other SNL male leads find themselves in an dream-created alternate universe, nattily dressed in coat and tie, spitshined shoes and socks with garters good enough for IBM or EDS, having forgotten to put on their pants. You know how you can wake up like this in a dream and look for a towel or sheet to cover up. It gets intimate, actors of unknown or unpublished orientation engaging in what rapidly becomes gay comedy.

The gender bending continued when Shia had to answer questions about his own anatomy posed by an Italian Mafioso, and at the end, he went into frank drag, with a department store closet and dressing room behind. Nothing happened to him, however.

Now, one supposes that in the future, SNL will do some adventure based on Harrison Ford’s recent sacrifice (on Access Hollywood) of his own Sherwood Forest to make a point about the Amazon Rain Forest, carbon absoprtion and global warming. That could have fit in tonight because Harrison co-stars with Shia in Crystal Skull.

There were other takes. There as a spoof on Suze Orman, without Oprah or Nate around (that’s right – have Nate Berkus host SNL some time, maybe before the General Election). Seth and Amy did their usual, with Allen Greenspan subtracting from the GNP. And, oh yes, Hillary isn’t ready to drop out yet. She needs to retake Algebra I.

Shia appeared on ABC Good Morning America May 13, and said that his first name means "Gift from God" and his last name means "Beef". Hi-ya Shia.

Update: May 18

Republic presidential candidate John McCain appeared on Saturday Night Live last night and said that the worst thing that could happen to the Democrats is to come out of the convention in Denver without a nominee.

(See May 8 on this blog for note on embedded SNL links.)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

CNN: Notes on North Korea

Christiane Amanpour aired a one hour report “Notes on North Korea” this evening on CNN, centering around the recent visit of the New York Philharmonic, a visit that may have been connected to North Korea’s agreement in 2003 to deactivate its nuclear power station, the innards of which are shown in the film. That agreement had supposedly allowed North Korea to be released from the official list of sponsors of terrorism. As ABC has done before, CNN showed the “human stoplights” doing ballet in blue uniforms. The Philharmonic visit was controversial for one member, whose family had escaped from the North to the South years before, and she felt some danger of kidnapping, which did not happen. A couple of musicians who had escaped to the south for cultural freedom (reminds one of Shostakovich). One musician spent three years in prison for listening to ideologically subversive music in her home. Musicians work for the state to serve the ideology of the state. The Philharmonic played the Brahms Symphony 4 and the Bruch Violin Concerto.

Friday, May 09, 2008

ABC 20-20 "new" tires may actually be old and can fail at high speeds

Tonight, Friday May 9, ABC 20/20 carried an important safety report about aged tires. The industry has been saying that tires over six years old represent a risk of sudden failure because of chemical breakdown of the tires with age. Many tires sold as new may already be over six years old, or become that old before much tread wear has occurred. These sorts of tire failure may lead to catastrophic loss of control of the vehicle on the road and have led to fatalities.

The consumer can look on the inside outer surface of the tire (must look underneath the car, as this is not consumer friendly) at the Department of Transportation Number. The last number on the right is a code in this format WW-Y. 467 would be the 46th week in 1997 (over 10 years old). 3103 would be the 31st week of 2003 (less than five years old, but would be over six years in about a year of use if purchased now as new).

Britain requires notification of motorists of ages of their tires since manufacture, but the US does not. There is some disagreement in the industry as to the seriousness of the problem and the data on probability of failure is not completely clear from the report.

The link is here.

20/20 also carried a story on “Intrade,” phantom stock on presidential candidates.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

ABC: "Audition: Barbara Walters's Journey"; also, Ashton Kutcher on SNL

On Tuesday May 7, ABC broadcast a special 20/20: “Audition: Barbara Walters’s Journey,” a detailed biographical interview of anchor Barbara Walters conducted by Charles Gibson.

Walters was born near Boston but grew up in midtown Manhattan and her father ran a latino-oriented nightclub (a bit like Ricky Ricardo in “I Love Lucy”). She had a retarded sister Jackie, and she had concern that she would wind up having to take care of her. She resented the fact that the sister’s needs got most of the attention. Again, there was a potential sibling responsibility situation that we don’t often discuss openly. Her father would die of a sleeping pill overdose.

Nevertheless, Walters got going with her career, getting on to WNBC and then the NBC Today Show. In 1976, ABC signed her up to be news anchor with Harry Reasoner for $1 million a year. I was living in Greenwich Village myself at the time and working for NBC in midtown as a computer programmer (right in an annex to the 30 Rockefeller Plaza Building), and I remember the hullabaloo. The experiment didn’t work, and Barb had to work her way back by digging for interviews with world leaders. She built a rapport with both Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat during the time of the 1978 Camp David peace talks with Jimmy Carter, to the point that it is likely that she helped bring them together. She interviewed Fidel Castro, and the report indicates that they became “friends” and she says she liked him, but he tolerated no freedom. She also interviewd Saddam Hussein about the possibility of his getting nuclear weapons.

She has been an anchor of 2020 for 25 years (since about 1983) but she says that Hugh Downs originally opposed her coming on. He was wrong. So 20/20 (“We’re in touch so you be in touch”) has been her life for a quarter century.

Nevertheless, she has had three marriages and adopted a girl who would go through being a troubled teen; the girl is interviewed in Central Park.

Martin Clancy and Christina Claron have the Internet story “Walters’s Personal Revelations: Balter Walters on Guilt, Redemption, and a Difficult Childhood” here.

The idea of Barbara's viewing here life as an "audition" is interesting to me; the concept of developing a biographical story from a young actor's "audition" drives one of my own screenplays, "Make the A-List."

Barbara's new book "Audition: A Memoir" is from Knopf, Amazon link here.

Charles Gibson had an angioplasty in 1999, the details of which were shown on Good Morning America, link here.


Try this SNL video (offered for blogs by the NBC SNL site). It shows Ashton Kutcher's starting his SNL show May 3. There is a little bit of Andy Samberg comedy, and Ashton talks about what producing a show is like. (Some of his washboard abs show, accidentally.) Kutcher has appeared on The View and on Oprah, telling how he almost went pre-med and became a surgeon instead of becoming a star (story here). A brilliant man, he would have done well in medical school -- which, however, requires "unifocus". Also, Ashton appeared on "Ellen" today (May 8) and sung karaoke and demonstrated the alopecia areata in his fledgling beard. He talked about his new movie "What Happens in Vegas" (dir. Tom Vaughan, 20th Century Fox). At th end of the show, Ashton Kutcher made his pitch for Nikkon (which takes a picture when you smile) and Ellen did a big Nikkon giveaway. On Friday, Ellen pretended to be a future biological mom.

The "Embed SNL link" for embedded videos offered to bloggers is here.

(Important: I presume that this link, and the way it is worded by NBC, confers legal permission for bloggers to "hot link" to their content. Normally I don't do this [except to domains that I own like] without permission.)

The basic SNL link is this. Shia La Beouf hosts on May 10.

Who knows. I'm in "retirement" now but someday I might see NBC again. I'll have to get tickets to SNL myself some day.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

PBS Frontline: "The Al Qaeda Files"

PBS Frontline has packaged several programs about Al Qaeda on two DVD’s called “The Al Qaeda Files.” They are produced by CBC/"Fifth Estate" and WGBH, and distributed by PBS.

Disc 1 has three one hour films:

Hunting Bin Laden (March 2000)

Looking for Answers (Oct. 2001)

The Man Who Knew (October 2002) (dir. Michael Kirk)

The films overlap to a large extend, covering the biographies of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others. The underlying theme seems to be fundamentalist rage and humiliation of American support of corrupt governments in the Middle East, all over the region, as well as American presence on sacred Arab lands.

In some parts of the Arab world, particularly Egypt, the rise of militancy occurred within well-educated Muslims could not find work partly because of deteriorating economic conditions and corruption. For a time, the militants were known as the World Islamic Front, and the danger that bin Laden could pose started becoming apparent after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia and moved to the Sudan in 1994. By the mid 90s, the links of various plots, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing by Ramzi Yousef (very close in timing to the first Waco raid), Andul Rahman and others, blasts in Saudi Arabia, and the murder of American helicopter cavalry in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993 in Somalia, and even events in the Balkans abd Chechnyna, would become apparent. The nature of Al Qaeda (“The Base”) as a kind of franchised terrorism was starting to become apparent, but would not be widely reported in the media until after 9/11. Bin Laden was not so much a financier as an operation planner. Two of the films cover the 1998 attacks in Africa, and of President Clinton’s hasty cruise missile response that did not get bin Laden.

The rise of Al-Jazeera is covered, and characterized as a form of "sham freedom of the press."

The most interesting of the three films is probably Kirk’s “The Man Who Knew” (“Too Much” without Alfred Hitchcock), the story of FBI Agent John O’Neill, a kind of Fox Mulder with “sharp elbows” but some of Duchovny’s slickness. O’Neill’s outspokenness tended to make enemies, and after he was promoted and moved to New York other fibbies pounced on him for some mechanical security and procedural lapses, like a lost briefcase and misuse of a government vehicle. Nevertheless, he started to be involved in the USS Cole investigation after the Oct. 2000 incident, but the UA Ambassador in Yemen did want him around. Some leaks to the New York Times (retrospective link "Funeral; F.B.I. Expert On bin Laden And Terrorism Is Mourned") led to his “retirement” from the FBI and his taking a job as chief of security for the World Trade Center, where he would perish on 9/11, his first day of work.

This does sound like the proverbial "shoot the messenger" story. It's plausible that had he be allowed to do his job, the FBI might have put enough pieces together (including the Zacarias Moussaoui laptop) to prevent the attack. (Here's the PDF of the Bush Aug 6 2001 memo that was "overlooked").

Disc 2:

In Search of Al Qaeda, aired in Oct. 2002. The program documents visits to Pakistan and Yemen. The tribal areas of Pakistan, controlled by Pashtun, are depicted as a "free zone" with no effective state. Karachi, on the coast, is depicted as having a huge number of cells capable of hiding Al Qaeda or facilitating escape through the Indian Ocean. The arrest of one of the 9/11 hijackers happened in Karachi the day of the filming. Young men in Yemen are interviewed, and average 14 year olds know how to use rifles. The inside of Saudi Arabia is shown, as kind of Phoenix on another planet, where religious police troll the plush shopping malls to keep women from talking to men. A mother (in Yemen) is interviewed, and she indicates she would like to raise boys to grow up to be suicide bombers.

Chasing the Sleeper Cell, aired 10/2003, dir. Rumnel, traces the government's investigation of a group of Muslim men living in Lackawana, NY, south of Buffalo. One or more of the men had gone to Pakistan or Afghanistan in early 2001 and supposedly received terror training, but the men maintain that they simply wanted to transcend themselves by getting closer to their religion. The government claimed one of the men had cross-dressed as a disguise. The men were eventually sentenced to years in prison, but the case has always seemed questionable. The story is cited as an example of application of the USA Patriot Act, with the surveillance and sharing of data among agencies. The movie migrates to ties the men might have to Yemen, and to the use of an unmanned CIA drone to assassinate a suspected terrorist in Yemen.

"Sleeper Cell" was a TV series on Showtime, and I am aware of a screenplay script (not mine) called that with some interesting depiction of radical psyche.

Son of Al Qaeda, 4/2003, tells the story of Abdurahman Khadr, son of an Egyptian man close to Osama bin Laden. The story is told in his words, and is taken at face value; the producers of the show gave him a polygraph which he passed. Even as a teen, he rejected radical Islam in his own mind, to the consternation of his family. He would be present at Clinton's attempt to destroy Osama bin Laden in 1998. He would get into arguments with his family about 9/11, and the idea that individual Americans shared the personal culpability for the supposed sins of America. He would wind up "working" for the CIA as a fake prisoner at Bagram and later Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo. He detailed the brutal treatment of prisoners in American hands, including being kept motionless for hours and being stripped and physically humiliated. Eventually, his own quarters at Gitmo would get better, and he even got to go to a barbecue on the beach. He would be moved to Bosnia, to blend in with Muslims, and the CIA wanted him to go to Iraq. He declined, and was eventually sent to Canada after a brief time in Sarajevo. His family would disown him, but recently his family's attitude has started to change; his father has died, and his brother was partially blinded and paralyzed in the war, but may stand trial. The PBS link for all this is "Life with Osama bin Laden," here. LiveLeak has an interview here. Another important link is the "Trial Watch" concerning the brother Omar Ahmed Khadr, here. The Canadian CBC link is here.

Khadr's story certainly would make a movie. It would sound like a tempting project for Participant or 2929. Who would play Abdurahman? Perhaps Shia La Beouf. Who would write the spec and shooting scripts?

The last film, "Al Qaeda's New Front", covers the role of radical Islam in Europe, with the Madrid and London incidents. The Madrid 3/11 is shown as photographed by cameras in one of the train stations. Spain withdrew from Iraq in the political aftermath. The failure of European society to assimilate Muslim immigrants is discussed (as in Bruce Bawer's book "While Europe Slept"). The history of Islam, and its success in Spain until mid last millennium, and the reasons for its decline are discussed, as well as the plans for the old caliphate. The radical branch Salafism, whose adherents do not follow all of Muslim rules for dress, is presented. Prosecutors in Europe say they have never seen ideology justify activities like this, at least not since Nazi Germany.

This set of seven programs makes for a colossal documentary film.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

ABC 20/20: Secrets of the Sistime; and a preview of documentary "Bloodline"

On Friday, May 2, ABC 20/20 presented a one hour documentary narrated by Martin Bashir, “Secrets of the Sistine: Michaelangelo’s Mystery,” about the ceiling frescos in the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.

The show had been anticipated by a Nightline preview Thursday. There was some summary of how Michelangelo got the job, and at first resented it as grunt work. The show depicts how physically demanding the painting job was for the artist who otherwise was best known for sculpture, sometimes homoerotic.

The documentary examines whether the frescoes incorporated hidden insults aimed at Pope Julius II. But more important was Michaelangelo’s own theology, which accepted the historical origin of Christianity in Judaism and its continuity with Judaism, an idea that the Vatican had been trying to bury in the 16th Century. Michaelangelo felt that the concept naturally derived from the Old Testament stories that he depicted on the ceiling. He felt that Jews could be saved just as Christians, as depicted in his “Circle of the Righteous.” A portion of the frescoes were plainly erotic, and were covered up by the Vatican, but they may be viewed today. The theological concept is that everyone is eventually naked before God at final judgment.

The ABC story is "Forbidden Messages in Famous Frescoes?: What Secrets Might Be Hidden in the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling?," by Ralpj Avellino, Jenna Millman, DAaneil Huyssein and Ali Sargent, link here.

Nightline also presented, on Friday, a brief report by Elizabeth Vargas about a new documentary film by Bruce Burgess, “Bloodline,” about the possibility that tomb has been found in southern France near “Rennes le Chateau” that could house the body of Mary Magdalene, and could support the “Da Vinci Code" thesis of Dan Brown, that Jesus was married, that the Holy Grail symbolizes his wife Mary Magdalene carrying his child, and that the Church and Knights Templar have covered this up for centuries, even paying off a remote priest who discovered the tomb or its artifacts.

The IMDB reference for the documentary is here, and the film is to be distributed by Cinema Libre.

Da Vinco and Michealangelo seem from a distance to have been two similar figures, both strongly individualistic, in Italian Rennaissance history.

Friday, May 02, 2008

ABC "The View" debriefs Ward Connerly on "affirmative action"

Today, ABC’s “The View” (Barbara Walters ‘s daily “gals’ gabfest”; link invited African American conservative Ward Connerly to speak about affirmative action, against the usual implementation of it, which has been partially supported by the Supreme Court in some cases. Specifically, in 2003 The Supreme Court decided 5-4 that the University of Michigan Law School can consider race as a factor in admissions. However the Law School did not have numerical points for race, only subjective consideration. The Supreme Court reversed the point system (for race) in use at the University of Michigan undergraduate admissions program. However, it allowed less specific means to consider race in undergraduate admissions.

Connerly says that the 1964 Civil Rights Act really calls for aggressive non-discrimination and race (and religion and everything else) neutrality in all public policy. The same sentiment is typically expressed in conservative publications. Some of the hosts on the View did question whether some African Americans could have had the opportunities that had without some preferential treatment, but Connerly reiterated that the idea of preference is itself demeaning.
There is a lot of criticism of Connerly’s positions. Ms. Magazine, in a Winter 2008 article by Katherine Spillar, writes “But if Connerly and the initiatives' other proponents have their way, the term "affirmative action" will not appear on the ballot or be talked about in the campaign -- that's because most voters support the concept. The debate will instead focus on whether "unqualified" minorities are admitted to public colleges and universities over "more qualified" (i.e., white) students,” in an article titled “Ward Connerly Using Deceptive 'Civil Rights' Initiatives to Ban Affirmative Action,” link here. Wikipedia characterizes Connerly as seeing himself as an (African American) Republican with a libertarian philosophy, here.