Friday, May 30, 2008

It is only a movie

The new Indiana Jones movie hit the movie theaters last week. People who knew me in high school know I have a long history of being a movie nerd so it would not shock them I went to the midnight showing. People who have known me only over the last few years would be shocked because sleep is now the most coveted thing in my life.
It was a fun movie and I would recommend it. That is I would recommend it unless you are a card carrying Russian communist. They seem annoyed.
This is yet another example of people have entirely too much time on their hands if they can complain about what the Russian Communist Party is complaining about. They are calling for a nationwide boycott of the movie (in Russia, I’m not in trouble for seeing it in Kansas). According to CNN’s website the group says the film “aims to undermines communist ideology and distort history.”
This is why as a political party the communists are as viable as the Whigs. They actually believe the aim of a Hollywood movie is to do anything other than make more money than can fit into Lenin’s tomb, Stalin’s moustache, Khrushchev’s shoes and blanket the whole of Siberia in stacks of thousand ruble notes.
Accusing an Indiana Jones movie of distorting history is like accusing water of being wet, accusing Yao Ming of being tall, or accusing Immanuel Kant of stating that our understanding of the external world has its foundations in both experience and a priori concepts offering a non-empiricist critique of rationalist philosophy. Well, duh.
If the communists think the general public is going to movies to get accurate history than all Americans must believe communist women in 1957 had Thelma Brooks 1920’s hairdos, carried rapiers and had accents which were Russian sometimes but not throughout all their dialogue. We must also believe that a man with a bullwhip can defeat a platoon of machine gun toting soldiers and the Ark of the Covenant is sitting in a warehouse in Nevada because if it was on display at the Smithsonian the government’s insurance premiums would go through the roof because so many patrons’ faces melted off when they looked at it.
It’s a movie for goodness sake, not a doctoral thesis. Sit back and enjoy the snappy dialogue, the action sequences, and the computer generated ants.
Hollywood can’t win. It doesn’t matter who the bad guy is there will be some group organizing a boycott or picketing the theaters. I am glad I grew up in a time when people were not as touchy. A time when people had a clue and did not believe everything in the movies was real. A time when people could relax and allow themselves to be entertained without worrying about hurting the feelings of any and every subgroup of the world’s population.
Twenty years ago the movie “A Cry in the Dark” with Meryl Streep and Sam Neill was in theaters. It was based on a true story about a mother put on trial for the murder of her child. She claimed the child had been spirited off by wild dogs during a camping trip in the outback of Australia. Neither the restaurant chain nor any group of Dingo Anti-Defamation lawyers got mad.
In 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” was on screens throughout the country. For those of you unfamiliar with the film it follows a group of not dead people being menaced by undead people. There was one instance in San Francisco of a group of decomposing people from the group Z.O.N.K. (Zombies Only Need Kindness) picketing a theater in the Haight Ashbury district, but since they moved so slowly and their chanting was completely unintelligible no one really cared.
In 1968 “Rosemary’s Baby” came out. I was only six at the time so I did not see it, nor did I pay a lot of attention to news reports, but I am willing to bet there was no petition drive by Satan-worshipping New York apartment dwellers asking Paramount Pictures to soften up their portrayal.
So to those Russian Communists complaining about Mr. Spielberg’s latest film I say chill out. Take a lesson from the League of Bald-Headed Megalomaniacs who resisted the temptation to picket Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Marathon Man, Apocalypse Now, Flash Gordon, Superman (I and II), Austin Powers (I, II, and III) or Iron Man. It would have been exhausting.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Nothing like that summertime feeling

Graduation exercises have been completed. The last day of school for the 2007 – 2008 school year was this week. Can you remember that feeling of release when you were 9 years old and you walked out of the classroom in late May? You knew you had nearly three months free. Free from math homework. Free from book reports. Free from sitting next to that guy who thinks it is brilliant comedy to burp the theme to Gilligan’s Island, frequently.
With the fragmentation of society the school experience is one of the few things shared by most everyone. Not that everyone’s experience is the same. As long as there have been schools, there have been outcasts and cool people, brains and “academically challenged”, as well as athletes and picked-on-by-athletes.
I have this vision of Athens in 400 BC. Socrates is sitting with a bunch of young, Greek, would-be philosophers. He asks the students to work through a logic problem. If all Greeks wear togas and togas are a sign of high intellect then..?
Brain: All Greeks are intelligent.
Academically Challenged: The Aegean Sea…no, wait… twelve!
Cool Guy: Want to come over and see my Grecian urns?
Jock: I hold the Athenian records for discus, javelin and an Oracle of Delphi defying long jump.
Anti-Jock: My toga chafes something awful.
Outcast: Greeks are stupid, togas are stupid, and you’re stupid. I’m moving to Persia and raising cats.
I am willing to bet not only do all readers recognize the types mentioned above, but most can put actual names from his/her school days with each bit of dialogue.
As a student, a teacher, and an administrator I have spent more than thirty-five years in schools and classrooms. (Suddenly, I feel the need to weep, but at least I can diagram that sentence.) Schools in America are truly one of the last places on earth where all different kinds of people mix together. Sure there are cliques of people who gravitate towards each other in school, but when we get out into the world it is much easier to get more and more insulated within certain types and groups. When was the last time you spent quality moments with a person with whom you would have shared, giving or receiving, a wedgie? I’m not talking about the incredibly annoying guy at the convenience store checkout buying eight different varieties of lottery tickets and changing his mind between the cheapest brand of cigarettes and the next to cheapest brand. It would be so very satisfying to reach over and grab a fistful of the Fruit of the Loom waistband easily accessible because the pants he’s wearing are sagging well below the equator exposing the prime meridian. This is not quality time. It’s just a chance encounter slowing you down as you dig a few Kruggerands from your safety deposit box to buy enough gas to get to Cimarron.
Schools are not just places for cliques and stereotypes. They are so much more, but since I write a humor column I am going to talk about things which make me giggle.
As is often the case with school these days we have some big banners in the hallways with words of wisdom for the kids. My personal favorite reads: “Stand up for what is right even if you stand alone.” That by itself is a fine sentiment. The funny bit is instead of being attributed to some philosopher or world leader it is simply attributed to “Anonymous”. It is hard to take the guy seriously about standing alone if he won’t even own up to the quote.
There is another banner which just makes me shake my head and smirk at the irony. It reads: Character is what you do when no one else is watching. It is the only banner in the building which has been vandalized.
I was walking down the hall the other day looking at a bunch of cool posters created by students. They were all showing images and explaining things about American history. One poster also showed the importance of proof-reading. The title emblazoned across the top was: The French and Idian War. This brings to mind a bunch of French soldiers fighting tooth and nail with a group of people in strict Freudian analysis attempting to get a handle on their most instinctual and base urges. The French are left wondering exactly how to combat the Idians who are either stuck to the couch describing Salvador Dali-esque dreams or eating massive quantities of doughnuts looking at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Few vs. The Many

Anyone who has been forced to sit through a committee meeting will agree the decision making process can slow to the pace of a snail, a snail who was just run over by a minivan carrying five sumo wrestlers, when you open the process to multiple people. Recently I learned about some things which seem to contradict this.
Let’s look to the world of nature. The lowly ant can create feats of engineering which make the builders of the New York City subway system look like a three-year-old with a plastic shovel. The problem is the individual ant does not have the intellect of the three-year-old. The ant doesn’t even have the intellect of the shovel. Yet, they “know” what to do and how to do it when you get them all together.
Since people give human qualities to everything under the sun, we think some ant must be the boss. Wrongo! Nobody is the boss. You look at any one individual ant and you see brain power only slightly greater than the twig the insect is carrying. These hexapods are stupid. But, when you go to the big picture you find “intelligence” surpassing what is possible for any other living thing.
As research into how the brain works keeps finding more and more specifics, it is looking like the ant model may be a decent analogy. Each individual neuron has a very limited range of function, a.k.a. the IQ of a plastic shovel. But, when a whole bunch of those little synapse start synapping (not a term recognized by the American Medical Association) amazing things happen.
One little group of neurons has the capacity to recognize color, another group sees shape, another size, another smell and so on and so on. When all these little groups start chirping you have something like an orchestra. Each individual instrument may sound weak or dissonant, but put them all together you have harmonies and melodies and all the stuff which creates Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli.
For example, one set of neurons starts firing because they are programmed to see green, another group reports round, and so on. When all are “playing” at the same time your brain “hears” Rachmaninoff’s Variations on an Apple of Granny Smith.
Now let’s look at groups of people. There was this guy who was a very big elitist. He really thought the only people who should vote, own land or even have children should be educated upper class people. One day in 1906 he is visiting a fair of some sort. There is a man selling guesses at what a large ox weighs. The people who get closest win prizes. No one guesses the exact weight, but lots of people guess. This elitist guy asks the guy running the contest if he can have all the slips of paper with the guesses.
Sir Francis Galton, the snobby British scientist, expects to prove that all these uneducated, common people would make horrendously absurd and wrong guesses. So, he totals them up and then divides by the 700 or so guesses to find the average. The average of all the guesses turns out to be literally one pound less than the actual weight of the ox. They whole group of people had a better “intelligence” than any of the individuals.
Lots of scientists have done similar experiments. Place a jar of jelly beans in front of a large group of people, and ask them to guess how many. The average of all is quite frequently better than any single guess.
The natural extrapolation of all this information leads me to think the collective intelligence of the population is actually smarter than each individual. Then I look at the things which are truly driven by large numbers of people. The internet makes it possible for millions of people to see such intellectually tantalizing material as kittens sitting on computer keyboards and fifteen-year-old boys re-creating wrestling moves requiring immediate medical attention. Television makes it possible to choose which karaoke yokel will become a household name and then join Taylor Hicks in the “where are they now” file. Or the crème de la crème - general elections. Aack!
What all this boils down to is, if we want to select a president, fix health care, improve the environment, or even select ABC’s fall schedule we may want to consider limiting the people involved in deciding. But, if I need to know how many Reese’s Pieces it takes to fill Charles Barkley the general public would come in handy.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Truly Useless Bits of Information

Recently, I learned about a rather odd animal, a fainting goat. These animals are perfectly named. When they become startled their muscles freeze for about ten seconds. Typically this means they stiffen and fall over on their sides. Older fainting goats have learned to position themselves against something so when they are startled they lean rather than fall. Obviously, the last thing these older, more sophisticated, fainting goats want is to be featured in one of those annoying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercials.
These goats are domesticated. This cannot be a shock, because animals that stiffen and fall over at the first sign of danger aren’t exactly perfectly designed for flourishing in the wild. Their peculiarity explains the chief purpose for owning fainting goats. They hang out with your flock of sheep. A coyote comes by and starts stalking your investment. There is no sheep dog like the one in the old Chuck Jones cartoons clocking in to make sure the coyote (who also punched in on the time clock affixed to a random tree) does not eat the sheep.
Boo! The coyote jumps out from behind a tree. The sheep shriek and the goats faint. The coyote is then faced with choosing between sprinting after an adrenaline charged ovine or strolling up to the hors d’oeuvres table full of very still goats. Mr. Darwin did not discuss “Survival of the Stiffest” so evolution is not a fainting goat’s friend.
Even if you don’t own flocks of sheep, fainting goats might be fun to have around. You could set a couple dozen of them side by side in the back yard. Then you go up to the one at the end of the line and whisper in his ear, “I just saw a wolf.” He falls over. When he falls over he bumps the next one in line who is startled by his neighbor suddenly falling into him. This continues through the whole line of goats. You have now created bovid dominoes, great for children’s birthday parties and Fourth of July Barbecues.
This brings us to a strange chapter from the history of the state of Kansas. In 1918 John R. Brinkley first started his medical career. He had not graduated from any medical school, but he didn’t let that little hurdle stop him from opening a practice in Milford. He had previously worked at a meatpacking plant and observed the high level of amorous activity carried on by the goats. So when a patient went to him with a complaint about his own lagging amorous activity, “Dr.” Brinkley decided to surgically implant goat glands into the man.
Brinkley became quite rich and famous performing his operations which had no effect on patients. Well, let’s say the promised results were bogus, but the occasion death was a truly nasty side effect. He started the very first radio station in the state. He used it to advertise his medical miracle cure.
Eventually the proper people realized what was going on and revoked his broadcasting and medical practice rights. So, Brinkley did the only thing a reasonable man would do when faced with the destruction of his livelihood. He mounted a massive write-in campaign for governor. That’s what was so great about the kinder, gentler days of the previous century. The candidates for major political offices were much more open about being megalomaniacal whack jobs. He received 29.5% of the vote. There’s another reason to wax rhapsodic about the good old days. The general populace was more than willing to vote for bald-faced megalomaniacal whack jobs.
Just think about how the state of Kansas might have gone down a whole different path if Doc Brinkley had become governor. Instead of huge beef packing plants in Dodge City, we might have gigantic goat feed yards. The state motto could have been changed to “Ad Capra per Aspera”, to the goat through difficulty. Brinkley’s radio station (KFKB) could have become the cornerstone for a media empire like the one Ted Turner started in Atlanta giving us GNN, the Goat News Network with the catch phrase, “We report the news good and baaaad, no ifs, ands, or butts.”
Be sure to tune in next week for the next episode of Wild Kingdom (arcane information about something in the animal world) Meets Your Are There (semi-worthless historical information).
Oh, one more thing, I had a joke about Doc Brinkley trying to restore a man’s virility with goat parts combined with the information about fainting goats, but decided to err on the side of good taste. If you want to know what it was, e-mail me at the address given to the left of this column.

Here is the less tasteful joke for my blogging friends:
You may ask why I talked about fainting goats for the first half of the column and Doc Brinkley for the second half. Well, there is a missed by that much connection. Doc Brinkley may have been closer to the truth than even he thought. He had the right animal just the wrong species. If he had used special parts of the myotonia congenita goats and implanted them in men to enhance their amorous abilities he might have truly had the first Viagra. All you have to do is yell Boo!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

iPod, therefore I am (sorry Mr. Descartes)

Lately I’ve been going through a phase of listening to a bunch of podcasts. What is a podcast? Those of you in the iPod generation (which I am in simply by proxy, because I am a parent and have to keep up with certain technological upgrades or be mercilessly made fun of by my children) already know. Podcasts are radio. Woohoo technology is amazing, someone re-invented radio. I hope Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy are on next.
Okay, that is not quite the extent of it. Podcasts are MP3 programs (don’t ask me what MP3 means, as I said, I am only allowed into the club by proxy) created by anyone from respected journalists like Bill Moyers to Ignatz and Jughead hanging out in their basement broadcasting their most recent arguments as to who would win a battle between Spiderman and Yoda. This is not a paid advertisement for any Apple product but I must say there is a huge selection on iTunes of podcasts and many of them are educated, erudite, funny and thought-provoking. Just because this is not a paid endorsement of Apple I am not above accepting a gratuity from Mr. Jobs or Mr. Wozniak. I’d love one of those really skinny MacBook Airs. They are so cool…end of shameless begging.
I have on my iPod a variety of things: interviews with writers Michael Chabon, Aaron Sorkin, and Dave Barry (not all at once), a PBS program entitled Taxing the Poor, a short funny story told by Malcom Gladwell, The Bugle – hilarious fake news broadcasts from two British guys, and even old radio shows like The Shadow. My favorite one right now is a series from WNYC, public radio from New York, titled Radio Lab. This show looks at science and explains the inner workings of normal everyday things as well as things which sound like whacked out science fiction.
The one I was listening to as I walked to work recently (I’m walking to work in an effort to do my bit for the environment, to save money, and to improve my health, not because I want to) was discussing the idea of genes and what bioengineers are able to do. The mainstream news spends more time with the scary bits of bioengineering, like cloning human beings which could lead to such horrible things as more than one Oprah (shudder). Remember when a group of Scottish scientists cloned a sheep? Nobody talked about the most shocking aspect of that event. There are Scottish scientists?! Other than Montgomery Scott the chief engineer on the Starship Enterprise always ranting about not having enough power, I had no idea Scotland was a treasure trove of scientific minds.
Not all bioengineering is Frankenstinian horror of scientists tinkering with things best left to higher powers (powers like Mr. Jobs and Mr. Wozniak, I’d still like that MacBook if you’re not too busy). A group of undergraduates at M.I.T. had to work with e. coli bacteria in their lab. E. coli smells awful. So they took a gene from a petunia and spliced it with the e. coli genes and made e. coli that smelled like wintergreen mints. I did not make that up.
The marketing people should get to work trying to take the fear factor out of bioengineering with ads touting “Bioengineers – Making the World Smell Better, One Highly Deadly Bacteria at a Time.” Maybe these brainiacs should get to work on things which will make day-to-day life easier. It would be simpler for every day folks to see the benefits of grass which stays green and only grows to one and half inches so you never have to cut it, than to try to explain the concept of splicing genes so we no longer have terrible issues with disease and people who seem compelled to buy non-Apple computer products (ahem, remember that MacBook, ‘kay?)
Here are some other suggestions to make people more forgiving of tinkering with DNA. I’d like a shih tzu with genes from an electric eel – a burglar laughs at the little lap dog patrolling the grounds until he gets 500 volts shot into his ankle by little Bitsy-Poo. How about someone makes cauliflower which doesn’t taste like paper-mache paste? Or maybe just a simple herb that gives me the power of twenty atom bombs for twenty seconds (250 bonus points if you can tell me what cartoon that came from).