Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Phenomenon, on Halloween


Wednesday, Oct. 31, All Hallows Eve. Phenomenon, two hours , is another reality contest, this well testing how well people can entertain. I recall that Geico won’t sell its umbrella policies to professional “entertainers” and these are the kind of people the company seems to exclude. The concept makes an interesting contrast to Fox ‘s “On the Lot” where the contestants create short films.

I’m also reminded of the two films “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige”. I sort of expected Ed Norton, Michael Caine or Hugh Jackman to walk out onto the stage at any time. The contestants obviously plan their tricks carefully. I’m not sure how easily one could find “the pledge” “the turn” and “the prestige” in each magic trick. These were simply plotted acts, whereas in fiction the subject of magic can generate labyrinthine plots beyond those of these movies, something like Clive Barker’s 1991 novel Imajica.

You can get a rundown of the contestants here. The judges were Criss Angel and Uri Geller. They rather pretended to play judge, and were not as constructive as the judges On the Lot.

A few of the stunts were noteworthy. Wayne asked a girl do make a drawing on an easel, and then showed a matching tattoo that had been burned into his upper arm. As for body abuse, Guy had some electrocardiographic leads pasted to his opened up, hairy chest and then pretended to flatline, with the monitor and all, and then to restart his heart, all with mentation. (There was no treadmill stress test here, no "American Flyers".) Another contestant demonstrated automatic writing by the dead (or was it remote viewing). And the last contestant played a form of Clue (or was it Mr. Ree) with the audience.

I tried to vote, and found that the age verification script would not work.

An now, they say, the WGA wants to make reality shows union. That will be the day…

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dems have another debate (MSNBC) at Drexel in Philadelphia


Tonight, the Democratic 2008 presidential candidates had another face-off at Drexel University in Philadelphia. This was one year to the date of my own trip to Philadelphia to watch the COPA trial. The debate was carried on MSNBC from 9-11 PM EDT and hosted by Brian Williams and Tim Russert.

The candidates played with semantics on the Iraq issue, some of them accusing Hillary Clinton of saber rattling on Iran. Nevertheless, Clinton insisted that she would focus on diplomacy, not military threats, in dealing with new concerns about Iran. Hillary said that the president was playing the WMD card with Iran with the same lack of integrity that had been used in 2003 with Iraq. She also referred to how the Supreme Court “gave” Bush the 2000 “chad” election.

Senator Joseph Biden pointed out that the possession by Pakistan of actual nukes is a much more serious issue (since Pakistan is unstable) than the possibility that Iran might build a nuclear weapon some day. Biden also called Republican candidate Rudy Guliani as "underqualified" for he President, and Bill Richardson claimed that he was the only candidate with experience in making a profit at a business and with international diplomacy.

The candidates supported increasing support for math and science education and making it easier to attract math and science teachers from other fields, possibly by dispensing with NCLB (Bill Richardson) and letting some teachers focus on teaching content rather than playing school system politics. But the candidates also agreed that there was a need for a longer school year, and for school to start earlier, meaning that there would be a greater need for teachers who could deal with pre-school and with the social problems of teaching in inner city schools.

Senator Dodd supported total public funding of campaigns, strengthening McCain-Feingold. He did not elaborate on how this would affect blogging and the informal unorganized support that some candidates get today.

There was brief mention of the need to protect kids on the Internet.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dr. Phil takes on paternity fraud and "cuckolded" men


Today, Monday Oct. 29, 2007, the Dr. Phil show presented two men who had been “cuckolded” – deceived by “paternity fraud” committee by their female partners into supporting children that they did not father. The link is this: One man, Enrique, discovered that his thirteen year old daughter discovered that she was conceived during an adulterous affair of his ex-wife’s, and stopped paying child support and seeing her. Dr. Phil interviewed her backstage, and she was surprised at his lack of “heart” even if he was right; she had bonded to him.

Another man (Carnell Smith) from Georgia -- after talking about cukkolding in birds like cowbirds -- lost in court but pressured the Georgia legislature to pass a new law excusing men from paternity responsibilities when they can prove by DNA evidence that they are not the fathers. Then Dr. Phil brought on a couple of attorneys, including California attorney Gloria Allred (author of “Fight Back and Win: My Thirty Year Fight Against Injustice: How You Can Win Your Own Battles”), who argued that the interests of the child must come first, and questioned why it took these men so long to challenge the paternity. Another LA attorney claimed that paternity fraud is much more common than believed, and is being uncovered regularly by DNA tests.

Dr. Phil stated what he thinks at the end, and he feels that when a father has a long standing relationship with a child, the interests of the child come first. He believes that fathers must challenge these claims more quickly.

One can make the Catholic “moral argument” that if one participates in sexual activity at all, one has a moral responsibility to also participate in supporting children, even those who may not be one’s own. That is how this sounds.

The problem of supporting “other people’s children” is turning up in fiction, including several recent films, as well as the soap opera “Days of our Lives,” where paternity of several infants has been manipulated in the story, and where the geeky character Nick Fallon is “tricked” into a phony marriage in Las Vegas and winds up with custody of two (opposite race) boys.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Oprah reports on polygamy


Today, Oct. 26, 2007, the Oprah Winfrey show (with reported Lisa Ling) was about polygamy. The link for the show is this. Oprah started the show interviewing a Utah woman who voluntarily had "married" a man that already had two wives. She made the interesting legal point that it is not illegal to have a mistress, but it is illegal to have plural partners and call them "wives." So the crime of bigamy seems more related to semantics than to the actual relationships in the home. That seems to be the important legal point.

She also presented a family in Centential Park, AZ, of a man with more than one "wife" and many children.

Finally, Ms. Ling did a report on the controversial community in Colorado City, AZ, run by Warren Jeffs, who would be convicted in September 2007. One woman from the community told of being raised in total ignorance, and of having no knowledge of her individual rights as she grew up, and her concern that her fourteen year old daughter would soon be forced into involuntary marriage.

I drove through Colorado City, AZ in a rental car in October, 1987, and saw the dorm houses and the women in pastel dresses. Mennonite women in West Texas also had a similar appearance. This trip was during the week that Baby Jessica was rescued from the abandoned well in Midland, TX. On the same trip, I was unable to get coffee (and settled for limeaid) in an LDS-owned restaurant in St. George, UT.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

CNN and other networks cover California wildfires thoroughly


The intense television coverage of the California wildfires started (or at least caught my attention) Sunday afternoon (Oct. 21) on the East Coast. I know at least one person in Malibu Beach and assume he is OK, but I was shocked to learn that the immense Castle Kashan had burned to the ground. By Monday (since I am “retired” and work from home a lot on a number of things, I can follow this) reports were constant of up to fifteen wildfires, with some of the largest fires northeast of San Diego, over a hundred miles from Malibu. Anderson Cooper's film "Planet in Peril" was punctuated with breaking news reports on the fires Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and they almost seemed to be part of the film. (CNN changed its corporate color to green this week.)

I recall seeing some enormous fire damage on a visit to the LA area in December 1978, riding through it with a friend. In February 2002, when I was in the area again on the way back “north” to Santa Barbara to talk to a college professor about “don’t ask don’t tell,” I recall hearing about two or three major fires in the area. I have never lived in California (not yet, but the day might be coming) but it seems that fires happen almost every autumn, and the hottest months of the year seem to be September and October, not July.

The CNN, ABC, and NBC reports seem to make it look like most of the destroyed homes were on ridges or in the back country (well away from the cities and larger suburbs), well surrounded by brush. Many of them seem to be new, extremely pricey developments with homes over $1 million. One man was asked why he lives with the “risk” and he said, he can’t take a concrete jungle, that he would take bears and mountain lions any day. (Mountain lions will actually come into open homes, almost like domestic cats.) Current media reports indicate that about 1600 homes are destroyed. In comparison, Hurricane Katrina displaced much poorer people and apparently made many more people permanently homeless.

Visitors may remember that there was an enormous residential fire in Oakland, CA in 1991. Stanford has a typical website about it here. Huge wildfires in mountain states started to increase in 1988 in Yellowstone.

The Cooper film (below) and other news stories pointed out that underbrush grows in wetter periods, and the chemistry of the desert plants is particularly flamable, easily ignited by dry lightning, fallen power lines, or, worse, cigarette butts or matches, even failing mufflers or PCV's on cars.

Most of my life I’ve lived in relatively “safe” places: Washington, New York, Dallas, Minneapolis. Now these places are not as “safe” as I had thought, of course, because of a number of possible perils. All of this raises new questions about property insurance and the ability of insurers to actuarially quantify risk. I could very well be living in California some day for the Big One.

The North County Times (referring to Riverside and San Bernadino) talks about home fireproofing. There is an article dated Sept. 29, 2007, “Fireproof neighborhoods shrink wildfires” and the author of a University of Colorado study says, “we need to protect the fires from houses.” Link is here. It would seem that new developments must be very aggressive in building fire-retardant homes and clearing nearby vegetation, and from the pictures on television, it does not seem that this was done all the time. Visitors should comment on this.

The Michael Crichton novel and film “The Andromeda Strain” had called the government investigatory project (which did weird things to the researchers) “Project Wildfire.”

Weather.com has an informative piece on "fire tornadoes" (by Dr. Greg Forbes) as products of the Santa Ana winds, here.

On Sunday, Oct. 28, The Washington Post Outlook section had a sobering op-ed by Janet Fitch, "In the Line of Fire: Where We Don't Belong," here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Oprah has special today, "Gay Around the World"


Today, Wednesday Oct. 24, 2007, Oprah Winfrey (4 PM EDT on ABC) had a show “Gay Around the World,” to show how serious anti-gay attitudes still are. The link is here. She started the show by interviewing Prince Manvendra from India, where homosexual acts can be punished by ten years in prison (it’s not generally known how homophobic much of India is, important given the migration of businesses there). He was disowned by his “highness” mother who had not raised him in person; instead he had been raised by nannies. He married, and his wife became depressed and left when he did not pay attention to her. He sought psychiatric treatment for a nervous breakdown, and promised not to attempt a fake heterosexual marriage again.

Then a young woman named Staveyann related her experiences in Jamaica, popular with tourists and famous in the James Bond movies. Attacks against gays are celebrated publicly in songs, and rapes of lesbians happen there. She moved to New York City to a Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn.

At this point Oprah gave some facts about other countries. In Uganda, homosexuals can be imprisoned for life. In Algeria, there are honor killings of gays; in Nigeria, gays are stoned, and in Saudi Arabia there are public beheadings. She also said that there are 65000 gays in uniform despite the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and over a million gay veterans; and that GLBT parents are responsible for 4% of all adoptions, despite laws in a few states (like Florida) prohibiting gay adoption.

Her last segment was an interview with former NBA star John Amaechi, who is now a psychologist, and was the first NBA star to come out (even after retirement). They discussed homophobic comments by Tim Hadaway, which may embolden other youths into bullying. Amaechi maintains that the codification of "don't ask don't tell" into law for the military has psychological effects outside of the military where there can be forced intimacy, especially in collegiate and professional sports.

At the end of the show, Oprah interviewed Rachel Dowd, editor of The Advocate, and she pointed out that the best country for gays in the world is probably Sweden, which decriminalized sodomy in 1944 (it took the US until 2003). That is so despite the fact that Sweden has mandatory paid maternity and paternity laws that are very generous with heterosexual parents (among the most generous in the world). How do they make it work?

Update: April 11, 2008

Oprah repeats the show today (4 PM EDT). I don't know if is exactly the same or includes an update.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

CNN: Anderson Cooper's "Planet in Peril"


Planet in Peril. A film by Anderson Cooper (and Jeff Corwin). Today, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2006, CNN presented Part I (about 140 minutes) at 9 PM EDT. It’s interesting to see CNN 360 Star Reporter Cooper get into the global warming business, following Al Gore and Leonardo Di Caprio, with an “indie” film for cable, with the full corporate resources of Ted Turner and CNN behind the production. If it wound up in theaters, I suppose the distributor would be Miramax.

In fact, most of Part I was only directly about global warming. Most of it dealt with extinctions of animal species, which in the last few decades have accelerated ten fold to 1000% of normal. Much of the film was spent in showing illegal poaching in Cambodia (elephants and tigers and many other animals) and other areas, with depictions of the illegal markets in Thailand (no cameras allowed) and China itself. In that sense, the presentation recalled Di Caprio’s “Tempest” film in 2000 called The Beach, that starts in Thailand. The showed the traditional Chinese custom of eating endangered animal sweetbreads and even genitalia, and even the practice of extracting bear bile. But Cooper and his associates (including Dr. Sanjay Gupta) showed some positive things, like the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, which would have a beneficial “trophy cascade” effect on the rest of the ecosystem. Toward the end, they went back to China and showed the incredible pollution associated with iron open pit mining.

At the very end of the show, Anderson had multiple blood tests (with vacutainers drawing as much blood from his forearm as in a conventional blood donation) to show his own burden of up to 250 chemicals. Even children have major chemical burdens. Ironically, one of the side effects could be sperm motility (someday maybe a "Children of Men" problem?).

Politically, it appears that China’s pollution and CO-2 emissions, in an attempt to build a consumer society in a heavily regulated, pseudo-Communist society, could threat world security. Cooper theorizes that over-population, in time, will stretch the planet as the world consumes 30% more than it can replace (living off old energy, as Di Caprio had pointet out in The 11th Hour). Politically, though, some conservatives have worried about demographics and a replacement birth rate dearth in advanced countries (western Europe, Japan).

The show was punctuated with “Breaking News” reports from the thirteen live wildfires in Southern California, which are approaching a History Channel mega-disaster. The San Diego Charger’s Qualcomm football stadium is sheltering 12000 people now, much more acceptably than did the Superdome in New Orleans in 2005. In fact, there are reports of yoga and acupuncture being offered in the stadium ("this is California"). The NFL game (Houston at San Diego) next Sunday may have to be moved. But almost a million people have been evacuated, more than for Hurricane Katrina and more than at any time in American history.

Part II of the film deals with melting glaciers and global warming more directly. I note quickly that the PBS series “Rough Science” in 2000 had already mentioned the melting of New Zealand glaciers.

It starts with a field trip on the Greenland ice camp, with the spartan base camp, and the exploration of under-glacier rivers and moulons. The climate change is described as a forward feedback loop. A small island civilization near New Guinea, sinking into the ocean as its coral reef dies, is shown. They visit Lake Chad in Africa, which is drying up through evaporation of its river source. They visit the Amazon, where the cops chase illegal logging, and where an activist nun was murdered on a hit ordered by ranchers (the crime scene is shown). Anderson and other reports are shown getting tribal body markings from indigenous peoples. The occurrence of cancer near the Houston Ship Channel with all of the pollution is discussed, with the point that the poor bear most of the problems of environmental degredation.

At the end, Anderson discusses how all of the processes in his film are "interconnected" -- how one problem affects the next.

Update: Dec. 21, 2009

CNN re-aired this segment Dec 20, 2009. It seemed to have been updated slightly.

Monday, October 22, 2007

CBS 60 Minutues interviews Valerie Plame Wilson, outed after the Niger scandal


Wilson, who spent over twenty years in the agency while her flamboyant husband was a career diplomat. I watched it while Johann Hummel ‘s perfunctory b minor Piano Concerto concluded on the radio tuned to WETA in the next room. They showed the “his and hers” office, with her side of the business room in their home rather barren. She, as a public servant, actually tried to keep a low profile, as required by her chosen career. Not all of us can live with that. There story is here.
"Valerie Plame Wilson, No Ordinary Spy: In Her First Interview, Former CIA Officer Speaks to Katie Couric.” Mrs. Wilson also appeared on the NBC Today show this morning (Monday Oct. 22, 2007).

Her book, "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy" from Simon and Schuster, is reviewed by Alan Cooperman in The Washington Post this morning on page C01, "Valerie Plame: Telling the (Edited) Inside Story," here.

Joseph C. Wilson IV ‘s article, “What I didn’t find in Africa,” reprinted from The New York Times, July 6, 2003, is available here. Niger is an impoverished, mostly arid landlocked country north of Nigeria (with which it should not be confused); CIA link.

Clifford D. May wrote a piece in National Review Online, July 12, 2004, “Our Man in Niger: Exposed and discredited, Joe Wilson might consider going back.” The link is here.

Of course, we know the rest of the story. Valerie was “outed” as a CIA officer shortly after her husband’s op-ed; no one was prosecuted for the security leak, but Scooter Libby was indicted for perjury in the course of the investigation, and convicted in 2006 (Wiki story here). Amateur bloggers were actually seated at the trial.

I recall Colin Powell’s speech to the UN (about Saddam Hussein's supposed evidence of WMD's in Iraq) in February 2003, “Retired,” working only part-time in one position, and at home on a special contract, I could watch it. I believed him. The only thing about Powell (“My American Dream”) was that he had behaved deceptively as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when Bill Clinton tried to lift the ban on gays in the military in 1993. So in the back of my mind, I knew that coverup was possible.

The administration could have focused more of Afghanistan, on the hunt for bin Laden, on North Korea, on stabilizing Pakistan and calming the tribal areas, and particularly on working to secure nuclear material around the world. Particularly galling are the money laundering scandals, apparently involving Saudi Arabia, showing up with the “libel tourism” editorial recently in The New York Times, and even mentioned in the recent indie film “Meeting Resistance” about Iraq. (See my movies blog.) This has become a mass of contradictions, and I would like to believe it is just intellectual incompetence.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Meet the Press interviews Stephen Colbert, and what he says is pretty outrageous


Today, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007, Meet the Press featured an interview of "comedian" Stephen Colbert by Tim Russert. Colbert has a new book “I am America! (and So Can You) (from Grand Central Publishing, 2007) and says some pretty outrageous things. It’s pretty hard to tell if he is serious, but he rants about all the things that supposedly destroy our “culture.”

He wants to abolish pensions and social security. He says they are “tips” at the end of life. He wants to abolish tipping, too, of course. No social safety net, but let people perish. He can’t be serious. Or can he. Some people are.

He doesn’t want women to work outside the home, unless they bring their children to work. The only priority a woman should have is her children. (Does that mean that women are to be breeders at the behest of men?) Gay marriage destroys our culture because it hurts the feelings of (e.g., offends the masculinity of) straight men. He actually said on the show, “I need to get married to taunt gay men.”

Is there any logic in this? No. Not even Nathaniel Brandon would have cast "objectivism" this way. The MSNBC link is here.

He says he will run for president in South Carolina, and wants to lose once as a Republican and once as a Dem. Sounds like Lyndon Larouche.

Give me a break!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

ABC 20-20 challenges conventional wisdom on global warming, presents Lance Bass out of sync


ABC 20/20, on Friday Oct. 19, 2000, had four interesting segments. No, they didn’t mentioned that this was twenty years to the date of the “Black Monday” stock market crash of 1987.

The most important was John Stossel’s “Give Me a Break” on global warming. Stossel assembled a few scientists who question that global warming is man-made. It has happened before, they say. Greenland temperatures rose faster in the 1920s than they do today. And carbon dioxide levels rise after the planet’s fever increases, not before. The scientists have gotten threats. Most polar bears, they said, are doing all right. One of them had been on the list of the IPCC, the Inter-governmental Panel of Climate Change (which shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore), and had to sue to get it removed. The link is “Man v. Nature, Challenging Conventional Views About Global Warming, here.

Another segment was about former ‘Nsync singer Lance Bass, raised as a southern Baptist in Mississippi under the belief that homosexuality is wrong and that you don’t question why. Bass has a book “Out of Sync” (Simon Spotlight_ The press boomed when he “came out” last year. Gay reporters claimed he looked a bit “chubby” in pubs around Washington like JR;s, but he still looks great on television. The other story was about how Justin Timberlake gradually weaned ‘Nsync out of existence by not coming back. This all seemed to happen, I personally noticed, as Justin’s forearms started looking shaved (they still do) in magazine photos and TV appearances. (He also covered himself with more tattoos for “Alpha Dog”). I had attended an 'Nsync concert ("Popodyssey") on June 24, 2001 in the Minneapolis Metrodome.The ABC story is by Jessica Hornig, “Lance Bass Opens Up: Singer Talks About Living Life ‘Out of Sync’”, here.

There were two other stories. Joanne Napolitano and Tracie Hunte have a story about an Oklahoma man whose young wife had a cardiac arrest. When he decided to stop life support, she miraculously recovered spontaneously (though she had been treated by lowering her body temperature). The story is “Back From the Brink: 'I Want to Go Home'
Jill Finley Was Taken off Life Support, but Made a Miraculous Recovery”
and is here.

Chris Francescani has the story about a woman who shot a pedophile who had molested two of her children when she confronted him at work and he said, “what do you want to do about it?” The story is called: “Murder or Vigilante Justice?
“Kim Cunningham Killed Her Daughter's Alleged Rapist; Two Juries Acquitted Her of Murder,” here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dr. Phil brings up some subtle legal problems (alienation of affection laws; more reputation defense)


Today, Friday, Oct. 19, 2007, the Dr. Phil show presented a couple of legal problems that bear watching. The show is called "Suing for Love," is identified as 956 and the link is this.

The first 45 minutes presented a case where a female teacher's ex "boyfriend," after being "dumped," desktop-published and distributed a "The Bonnie Chronicles" filled with various defamatory allegations. She had to undergo a hearing at school to keep her teaching job after the principal received a copy. It is noteworthy that the distribution of this document was by hand, and there was apparently no formal publication as a book (with an ISBN number, etc). Furthermore, apparently there was no online component (blog, social networking profile) that could lead to her being found by search engines.

The last fifteen minutes concerned an "alienation of affection" lawsuit against a women who incorrectly believed that the man she was seeing was separated from his wife and "free". When she found out otherwise, she stopped seeing him. Nevertheless, one day a process server showed up at her door with papers for an alienation of affection complaint, because the man's wife lived in a state that allows such suits, and under "full faith and credit" they can apparently be pursued in other states. Furthermore, she could not have used supposed marital problems of the couple as a defense. Dr. Phil took an audience poll and solicited emails and found that a surprisingly vocal minority of people support pursuing "mistresses" for "breaking up families," although a majority feel that the "fault" is with the marital partner (usually a husband). California does not allow such suits.

Update: Oct. 29, 2007


The NBC Today show at 9 AM today presented another "alienation of affection" situation in a spot called "The Millionaire and the Plumber." Seven states still have these laws. The guests maintained that some cases occur when women, trapped in poverty in poor marriages, are invited to become "mistresses" of wealthier men and then the wives of these men sue.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Boston Legal: "Do Tell"; NBC Dateline interviews Larry Craig


Tonight (Oct. 16, 2007) network television had two major “events” regarding GLBT issues.

Boston Legal” presented a somewhat clumsy dramatization (the episode is called "Do Tell") of a 4-star Army general suing to overturn the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” in a Massachusetts state court. It belongs in federal court, but Judge Brown runs around in circles and finally strikes it down. The General had outed himself after learning that his son is gay. He admits that he has enforced “don’t ask don’t tell” in his job himself. One observation made by the lawyers is that all the presidential candidates refuse to talk about it. In fact, all of the Democratic candidates have supported repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” in the debates, most of all in the Logo network debate.

There was also an unrelated custody case over a boy allowed to bullfight like a matador.

NBC Dateline had a special report with Matt Lauer interviewing Idaho Senator Larry Craig, about the “bathroom bust” at the Minneapolis airport. He claims that he was “profiled” or that his mannerisms were profiled. He also claims that the bloggers and media jumped on him without looking at the facts. He delayed even telling his wife, he says, thinking that the guilty plea to a reduced charge would make it go away. When he was arrested, he almost resisted out of disbelief, and could have been taken to jail. Mrs. Craig was present and the interview appeared to occur in his Idaho home. At one point, he said that he doesn't use the Internet himself and doesn't keep up well with the amateur press, which can ambush him. He waffled when questioned about the gay lifestyle.

ABC Nightline presented San Francisco bubble blogger Patrick Killilea, (link to his blog) with his doomsday scenarios for the real estate crash. He claims the stock market always outperforms real estate. Ask Donald Trump.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

CNBC: The Age of Wal-Mart


On Sunday, Oct. 14, 2007 CNBC presented a two-hour documentary “The Age of Wal-Mart” and presented a reasonably balanced picture of the retailing behemoth. As for what happens to home-grown small retailers when Wal-Mart comes to town, well, it’s a bit like Bambi meets Godzilla (there really was a short called that). The movie “Store Wars” back in 2000 examined this problem in Ashland, VA.

The movie interviews CEO Lee Scott and shows originator Sam Walton. The company started in 1962 as a kind of dime store, trying to bring lower prices of Sears and K-Mart to small towns, being headquartered in Bentonville, AK. In time, by emphasizing super-efficiency, they out-competed the older retailers. Now the company has 1.5 million employees.

The program shows Wal-Mart as being a rah-rah place to work (Barbara Ehrenreich had found that out in a trial as an employee while “paying her dues” when writing “Nickel and Dimed”). Managers, when traveling, are expected to share hotel rooms. I’ve heard about this practice before in other companies (the DuMuth v. Miller case back in the early 1990s mentioned that, where an accountant was fired from a small company for being gay). Now, when I travel for a company, I want my privacy when I sleep, and that wouldn’t fly. The CEO’s office, however, was not palatial.

Managers spend a lot of time on the road, visiting stores in districts and managing a complicated business. Manufacturers have to appease Wal-Mart to stay in business, as with the PillowTex case. The mechanized procedure for meeting Wal-Mart’s buyers was shown. The film also showed the robotics and logistics in the mammoth distribution centers, that seemed to come out of science fiction. The information systems and data center operations, that seem to be heavily IBM mainframe oriented and that process a fantastic volume of point-of-sale transactions, was shown/

In a company so large, there are bound to be controversies, with wages, with attempts to make employees (called “associates” – and early in the history the company offered them stock) pay for some health care (the company has improved prescription drugs recently). There have been disturbing (to say the least) reports of abuses, such as associates being locked in a store, being illegally forced to work off the clock, and allegations that cleaning contractors have hired illegal aliens. There was a segment showing Wal-Mart in China.

Picture: Will there be a Wal-Mart on Titan?

Thin (HBO), documentary on treatment for anorexia


Thin (2006, HBO Documentary Films, dir. Lauren Greenfield, 102 min, TV-MA corresponds to PG-13) covers the problem of anorexia nervosa, in a manner similar to HBO’s coverage of other medical issues like irreversible coma (covered in the June movie blog). The film traces four young female patients at the inpatient Renfrew (http://www.renfrewcenter.com/index.asp) treatment center in Conconut Creek, Florida.

The treatment is very intrusive, and patients are monitored all the time. There are no bathroom breaks during meals. Patients may not wear certain kinds of clothing that could hide food in the dining room.

Patients, however, often try to “break the rules,” sometimes smoking near vents in bathrooms. But there is a “smoke porch” where apparently smoking is permitted and some kinds of confidential discussions are permitted among patients.

There is, around the middle, a scene where a somewhat elderly male father talks to a young male counselor. The parent asks the center employee, "Do you have kids?" and the answer is, "No, but..."

Late in the film, one patient is told she will be discharged for breaking the rules. She calls her mother, and admits that she “lacks integrity.” The mother is on the speaker phone, and begs for her to be allowed to stay. The film shows her purging on camera. The mother cannot afford to pay for the treatment, and the father will not. Later she says she is 28 with no period, and her boy friend fears she will not be around in a few years.

This is a very difficult film to watch, and would probably be hard to work with in a theatrical, instead of cable TV, release. I tended to feel angry at the patients for their self-destruction, which seemed self-indulgent in the wake of so many other needs. But then I thought, maybe what these young women are really resisting is the their perception that they face future use as psychological "slaves" to men.

When I was growing up, I (as a male) had some of these preoccupations with “fat” and body image, and it got in the way of my social development, especially in the early to mid teen years; however my “symptoms” were nothing on the scale of the subjects in this film. During the six months at NIH (in 1962, when I was 19, an episode discussed elsewhere in the blogs), I recall other patients had some issues like this, and the staff was always concerned about the possibility of weight loss and they even wanted to “fatten me up.”

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bill Maher hosts lively guests on HBO, talks about international issues


On Wednesday, October 11, 2007 Bill Maher, known for claim of being "politically incorrect" and always an "adult" hosted some controversial guests on HBO (a talk show instead of movie) at 11 PM EDT.

Author and former CIA employee Michael Scheuer ("Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror" and "Through our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America", from Brassey's) characterizes bin Laden as an insurgent, not a terrorist in the classical sense, and claims the United States will never find him until he is regarded as such. He claims that Afghanistan is gradually reverting, from the south, into a kind of Talibanistan.

Maher talked to comic Janeane Garofalo, Indian-now-British novelist Salman Rushdie and musician Rob Thomas, much of it about the Patriot Act and Bush administration's wiretapping. Janeane said that she no longer uses email, so she can't be spied on. (What about phone calls?) The guests thought that political support of Israel was morally flawed and that the Palestinian people, as individuals, have legitimate gripes since their property was taken away by force at various times in history. There was general talk of taking back the war. Rushdie ("Midnight's Children" and "Satanic Verses") had created controversy by attracting threats to his home in Britain from extremists in Iran for his supposed "blasphemy."

Science columnist Bjorn Lonborg played devil's advocate with the usual arguments about global warming, mentioning that more people die of cold than from heat. One can look at his column "Too Late to Stop Global Warming" at Pacific Views, here.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

PBS Nature: The Andes: The Dragon's Back


This one hour documentary about the Andes in South America (shaped like a "dragon") focuses on the geology and biology of the region, but it is spectacular and would make a good subject for an IMAX 3-D film! It starts in Patagonia, which is about the same latitude as southern Europe (reflected over the equator) but colder because of an 8000 sq ft ice glacier in the southern Andes. That one point, though not harped on, makes the film important in the global warming debate: If that glacier were to melt rapidly (like Greenland) a tipping point in planetary warming could be triggered. (Of course, the other big factor is the Antarctic ice cap itself).

The Andes are still growing as a mountain range; a few volcanic regions added several hundred feet in recent years. This may be the only large mountain range in the world still increasing in elevation. This could mean even more disastrous earthquakes, and coastal landslides and tsunamis.

The film moves north to cover deserts where it has never rained in recorded history, and then reaches the Altiplano, with some salt plains and poisonous lakes with chemicals from volcanic magma. It touches lightly on the Titicaca region, and covers Inca civilization only very lightly. (On 200 Spaniards conquered the Incas.) In some areas of the equatorial altiplano (say over 14000 feet), the weather goes through all four seasons every day (rather like Clive Barker's The Thief of Always), ranging from 5 F to 85 F each day, with animals having bizarre adaptations for survival. (Some of the bizarre artifacts around Titicaca might be explained as native adaptations in agriculture to protect crops from nightly frosts; at over 13000 feet, snow can fall at the equator.)

The movie showed many unusual animals, including varieties of penguins, flamingos that ballet-dance, condors, cats, birds, foxes.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

PBS premiers Wired Science


Wednesday October 3, 2007 (8 PM EDT) PBS premiered a one-hour show “Wired Science” in conjunction with the Wired News magazine and website. The hosts were Chris Hardwick and Camilla Lopez. There were several interesting segments.

The last segment was the most benign. It showed the use of huge robotic machines to assist with coronary bypass surgery at UCLA Medical Center. The robots can thread and work within a smaller incision space (or improve upon laparoscopic surgery by extending planes of rotation of the tiny devices) but the machines themselves are huge and can hide the operating room “theater.” Surgeons still have to scrub. One patient had a mammary artery used as a bypass vessel, and I was not aware that this can be done (usually leg veins have been stripped out and used).

There was another segment on the demise of the chemistry set. In the Sputnik-driven 50s and 60s, these “toys” interested kids in science, and kids could take minor risks at home. There were even separate sets for boys and girls. Today, the companies have gutted the sets of any dangerous chemicals because of fear of liability, after various sensational media stories. However, hobbyists still mail-order chemicals like United Nuclear in New Mexico. The owners of this company have been fined at least once by the federal government. They even showed elementary uranium on the show, which looks almost black and is very dense.

Another segment involved a study at MIT of facial movements in order to help teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is concerned a kind of high-functioning autism (that seems like an oversimplification). The kids learn to read facial expressions and interpret the body language of others for the signals of social interaction. There is a review by me of a recent book on Asperger’s here.

There was a brief demonstration of a new 3-D pixilated graphics technique for the web, with St. Mark’s Square in Venice as the subject matter (the researcher was from Spain).

Wired News is not timid about delving into disturbing topics about computer security and legal risks (such as a 2002 article on a child pornography sting). The first segment was about the botnet attack against the websites of the Estonian government and press from Russian hackers, which infected computers around the world for a distributed denial of service attack, a crime well known since the late 1990s. This started when the government moved a statue with political significance to Russian natives. The show depicted scenes in Tallinn (the composer Eduard Tubin comes from Estonia), with reported Josh Davis interviewing geeks in Tallinn internet cafes, and security expert Bill Woodcock brought in to help the Estonian sites take themselves offline and then come back gradually. One interesting feature of the attack is that it called for non-existent pages (leading to 404 not found errors) but millions of these requests a second, with no actual page requests being satisfied. There is concern that Putin will inspire Russian hackers to disrupt the political campaign of Garry Kasparov.

Wired news has an important story about the “Storm” worm today, here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

NBC Today: Some straight single men have surgery to avoid having kids


On Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007, the NBC Today show, in both the first and fourth hours, presented a heterosexual single man, Toby Byrum, from Wyoming, now 30, who decided never to have his own children and to have a vasectomy at 28 in order to close off any possibility of pregnancy of any female partner. He was interviewed by Matt Lauer in the first hour, and therapist Laura Berman joined in the fourth hour. Toby admits that with some dates, his “admission” becomes a “deal breaker” (or means “incompatibility”). To paraphrase him, he said that society is changing from a paradigm of reproduction to one of self-expression, and he is entering the most productive part of his life. Matt, in the first hour, noted that he was the only male in the particular family that could carry on the family name, and that did not seem to be a sensitive matter in this individual’s family.

The show interviewed a urologist in Chicago, a surgeon who says he does around twelve of these elective operations in single men a month now. The show indicated that the emails it got after the first segment generally were supportive, including emails from women. The physician was supportive. The show indicates that the operation can be reversible up to eight years later, but for women it is almost never reversible.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to note that this sort of thing does hit at the culture wars. Some parents might resent male children who do this and might believe that they are “entitled” to biological legacy and grandchildren, in a manner similar to the problems that some parents have with accepting gay children. The best “insurance” for such parents seems to be to have (or adopt) enough children. As for wills, the issue has attracted the attention of Hollywood (the 1999 New Line film, “The Bachelor,” for example), perhaps impacting more in comic fiction than playing out in real life. Modern western society does not accept having children as a moral responsibility the way older societies or other cultures did, and it does not accept the Vatican’s moral demand for “openness to procreation.” Laws against contraception were struck down as far back as 1965 (Griswold v. Connecticut) (Cornell law school link. However, western societies do face demographic issues with fewer children and much longer lifespans, as Philip Longman discussed in his book “The Empty Cradle” (Basic Books, 2004). Russia has recently made a lot in public of it's "Conception Day" (Sept. 12). Demographics may force family responsibility on the childless and it may be hard to carry out when one has elected not to have one's own children.

NBC recently expanded the Today show to four hours, which gives the show the chance to followup on a story with audience response. NBC recently canceled "Passions", but "Ellen" in the "Passions" spot (that soap went to DirectTV) and extended the Today show by one hour. Many cities have local news in the original "Ellen" spot.