Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It is that time already?

Being mostly stuck at home this summer, I've been watching a lot of television; too much, probably.

Well, watching is probably not the right word. Let's say that they TV has been on a lot. Much of the time it has been functioning as background noise while I do other things. But I do glance up at it from time to time as I go about my daily activities. In the past couple of weeks, I've noticed something...the Back to School ads are in full swing and have been for a couple of weeks now.

That has made me take a look at the calendar, because it has seemed awfully early for that. Summer is just over a third gone. As I write this, it's just the last day of July. Isn't it a little early for thinking about school?

But then I looked at the calendar and realized that it really is almost time for school to start. The local community colleges here start back on August 12, and the K - 12 schools in the local district go back on August 19. That really isn't very long. Only a week and a half for the community colleges and two and half weeks for the elementary school, middle school, and high school kids. I had been wondering what those sighs of relief I've been hearing from around town were; it's all the parents glad that summer vacation is almost over and the kids will be gone most of the day every day.

This still seems odd to me, though. Back in the day when I was in school, at this point in the year, it was still over a month until the beginning of the school year.

Where I grew up, we got a full three months of summer vacation. Here, now, the kids get just two months. We got out around June 15 every year and went back on the Monday closest to September 15. And that, I guess, is how my internal clock is still set. It just isn't right that the kids are going back to school before my birthday, which is toward the end of August.

That was always the time I started getting excited about going back to school. Yes, I said excited. Up until I was about halfway through junior high, I loved school. And, even when I was past being enthusiastic about the practical realities of school, I was still glad to be going back after being out for the summer.

Right about that time, about three weeks out from the first day of school, we would start back to school shopping. First would be clothes shopping. Not my favorite part of the process. I've never been that fashion conscious. Note that this is a huge understatement. I like comfy clothes, and from the time I started kindergarten through the end of seventh grade, school clothes were never, ever comfy clothes. That was long enough ago that my district's dress code said that girls had to wear dresses to school. No trousers, and especially no shorts. Dresses. Always. So, shopping for school clothes was something I participated in only reluctantly.

Shopping for school supplies was another story. I loved shopping for notebooks and pens and pencils and all the rest of it. And I got a new notebook every year, and a new lunchbox for the days I took my lunch to school (up through elementary school; after that, taking a lunch was Just Not Done). Through elementary school there was never a real need for paper and writing implements; in those days school budgets were such that in elementary school, things like paper and pencils (no ink allowed) and crayons and erasers were furnished by the school. That part of the shopping process became much more fun starting in junior high, when we started having to bring our own stuff, even though that was more of chore because those were the days before carrying a backpack was the thing to do. To this day, I still love a visit to the local office supply store. Some people like hardware stores and some like fabric stores; I can browse for hours in Office Depot or Office Max. Back when I was in school, the hardest thing about acquiring school supplies was keeping from using them until school actually started.

The shopping was always done by about a week before school started, which mostly had to do with my parents wanting to avoid the last-minute crowds. That was also the time when the class-list watch began. This was especially true the three years when we lived right around the corner from the elementary school I attended. Even though I knew that the class-lists wouldn't be posted on the front doors of the main building until a day or two before school was scheduled to start, I'd look every time we'd drive by. And then, starting on the Friday before school started, I'd ride my bike over to the school every couple of hours to see if the lists were up yet, even though they rarely posted the lists before midday on Saturday.

Finally, on one of those drive-bys or bike-bys, the lists would be up. It was always the most excruciating thing if I saw them as my mom and/or dad and I were on our way out somewhere, because the rule was that I couldn't stop and look until we were done with our errands and were on the way home. Often, in fact, we would go back home and then I would have to walk or ride over to the school to see the lists which listed, for each classroom, who was teaching that class and which students were in the class. When it would happen that way, I wouldn't even go in the house when we got home; I'd just take off up the street to check the lists.

After the lists were out, all that was left was to wait for Monday and the first day of class.

All these years later, I still miss all of that. And all these years later, it still feels wrong to me that the kids around here are going back to school in the middle of summer. The only good thing about the schedule, here and now, is that the break is only two months long. As much as I always was looking forward to summer vacation (because as much as I liked school, I also liked time off without tests and homework), three months seemed like an awfully long time, even though during my elementary school years we were always away from home for at least half of that time.

So, I'm feeling a little nostalgic right now, seeing all those back-to-school ads. I don't miss the tests and I don't miss the homework. And I don't miss the shopping for clothes. But I sure do miss the anticipation of waiting for the first day of school.

Which is just another indication of the depth of my geekiness, I suppose.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

We're all equal...right? Right?

With the economy being what it is these days, there is a lot of talk about what is fair and what isn't. Everyone from President Obama on down are addressing the issues of income and jobs. A particularly interesting aspect of this discussion is the subject of income equality. I was looking at an article posted on CNN's website today that talks about the idea of whether income inequality is moral or not.

There isn't much questions that incomes in the United States are becoming more and more unequal. The CNN article quotes Mr. Obama, from a speech the other day, where he said that the "average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 400 percent since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999." Of course, the Republicans are going to argue with the President's numbers, but I'm not about to. From the things I saw when I was writing finance news for several online sites based in the UK (a job which I lost, not so coincidentally, due to the crappy economy), the numbers sound about right to me.

These would be the same Republicans, I should add, who have in the past and are still arguing that the minimum wage should be abolished so that businesses can pay whatever they want to their employees - and I can pretty much guarantee that "what they want" would not be higher than the federal minimum wage now, which is $7.25 per hour. That's $15,080 per year before taxes, assuming working a 40 hour week all 52 weeks in a year, with no vacations and no holiday pay. Assuming Mitt Romney's 13 percent tax rate (quite an assumption), that would mean that take-home, not including other deductions, would be around $12,818 take-home. Being as there are, of course deductions for things like Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance, the employee making federal minimum wage would probably actually be taking home more on the order or somewhere between $10,000 and $11,000 per year. For an individual, that is slightly below the poverty line as defined in 2012. For a family of four that is substantially below the poverty level.

So, basically, these particular Republican politicians are arguing that it is fair, or moral, for people working full time to still be living in poverty while other people, who don't work any harder than those folks, make many times more simply because their jobs are seen as more "prestigious". They would argue, I would bet (because some of them have done so and continue to do so), that it's really the fault of the people who don't earn much, because they just haven't shown sufficient ambition, and that if they want to earn more, they should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get with the program.

Which brings me back to the CNN article. One of the most interesting arguments about income inequality that the author of the article writes about is the argument that income inequality is moral so long as opportunity is equal. The problem with that, as is pointed out in the article, is that opportunity isn't equal, and never has been. Not even here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In fact, I would argue that in some ways opportunity is less equal, at least for some people, than it has been in quite a while. This is because it isn't just that people from the lower-middle and working classes have less opportunity open to them for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post and that, as much as we would like to think that it isn't so, that opportunities for people of color are still not as great as those for whites. Those are serious problems, clearly. But today, you also have the very shallow requirement that you have to have the right "look" in order for certain opportunities to be available.

By "look", I'm not just talking about wearing clean clothes and combing one's hair and brushing one's teeth. No, today your opportunities are limited if you weigh more than society likes, if your teeth aren't white enough and straight enough to be perceived as attractive, if you can't afford clothes that look expensive, if you have any gray hair, or if you don't have the smooth skin of a 25-year-old. If you don't look young and thin and prosperous, there are just some (make that quite a few) opportunities that are not open to you. If you can do the job, it seems in many cases, is irrelevant if you don't have the right look.

And then there's education. Of course education is important. The problem is that opportunities for education are also constrained depending on a number of factors. Not the least of these are moves by some in Congress to reduce or eliminate grants for those who cannot afford school past high school and attempts to raise interest rates on student loans. And, even if the student from the lower economic rungs can get to college, every time the economy suffers, the first thing that happens is that public colleges and universities cut class offerings and limit the number of students they accept into school. There are, of course, private schools that can sometimes avoid these cuts, but those schools are much more expensive to attend. The biggest issue here is that, despite testimonials that this or that person barely graduated high school but still made millions, having a two or four year college degree is what having a high-school diploma was a generation or two ago. No, seriously - there were stories in the media just a little while back about fast-food restaurants (in New York City, I think, but I could be misremembering) that had made a college degree a requirement to be hired to flip burgers.

The point of all this, I guess, is that I'm really starting to resent those who complain about "takers" as opposed to "makers", and yet do all they can to keep both incomes and opportunity unequal in this country. I know too many competent people who really want to work but who can't find a job for reasons that are completely irrelevant to whether or not they can do the job. Of course, the politicians who argue to eliminate minimum wage, to cut or eliminate financial aid for students, continue to take money from the corporations who won't hire based not on ability but on whether people present the proper "corporate image" and vote for laws that work, in practice, to keep their contributors wealthy at the expense of those who actually work for a living, are the same ones who don't seem to have any trouble insulting as "lazy" and "stupid" the same people their policies would hurt the most.

There is a lot more to the article I linked to at the beginning of the post. Go read all of it. And, understand - I'm not arguing that everyone should make exactly the same amount of money, no matter what job they do. All I'm saying is that there is something wrong with a society in which advocates for the richest people in the society work actively to cut the pay to and further limit the opportunities available to the poorest people in the society. Which seems to be where were are in this country today.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Movie Monday: The "See a Sixties Movie" Edition

I've been sitting here for awhile trying to figure out what to write about for this week's Movie Monday post. The problem is, I haven't seen many movies lately, certainly no new films, and nothing I have seen has really been worth writing home - or anywhere else - about.

But then, while I was looking at the onscreen cable guide during a break for ads in the "Criminal Minds" marathon I was watching (I've been watching a lot of "Criminal Minds" lately; good show), I saw that "Cactus Flower" was going to be on Turner Classic Movies in about half an hour. It took no time at all to decide that the "Criminal Minds" marathon could go on without me for a couple of hours.

I first saw "Cactus Flower" when it was originally released in 1969. I loved it then and I've loved it ever since. It is a flat-out funny movie, for all that it starts with Goldie Hawn's character attempting suicide by turning on the gas in her kitchen. Her neighbor quickly smells the gas, however, and puts a stop to the attempt by kicking out the window and coming to the rescue with a little mouth-to-mouth (this is where the comedy begins). Talk about a "meet cute" beginning; this is definitely an unexpected twist on that tired old concept.

It turns out that Hawn's character was trying to kill herself because her boyfriend, a womanizing dentist, won't leave his wife to marry her. The boyfriend (portrayed by Walter Matthau), as it turns out, isn't even really married; that's only what he tells the girls he dates so that he won't have to get seriously involved with them. Hawn's character gets the idea that the only reason he won't leave the (nonexistent) wife is for the sake of their (equally nonexistent) children. So, the girlfriend insists on meeting the wife. The dentist enlists his assistant/receptionist (portrayed by Ingrid Bergman) to pose as his wife, and she in turn borrows her nephews so that it will appear that they have children. The receptionist enjoys the role; it turns out she has been nurturing on the dentist for some time. Lie builds on hilarious lie until things get quite out of control.

I'll admit that "Cactus Flower" is a film of its time, being made as it was when the world was quite a bit different than it is today. I still find it very, very funny. And it is notable for a couple of reasons. First of all, this was Ingrid Bergman's first Hollywood role in twenty years (she'd been, in effect, banished from Hollywood in the late 1940s for having had a child out of wedlock, something that one just didn't admit back then, even in Hollywood - maybe especially in the Hollywood of the time), and she is wonderful as the receptionist. Additionally, it was Goldie Hawn's first real role in a film (she'd been in one film previously, but only as a chorus dancer in a Disney film), having previously been known only for her featured role as a ditzy blonde in the sketch comedy series "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" on television. It was an impressive performance, winning her an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress her first time out.

Here is the original trailer for the film, from 1969:

Well, I'm going to finish watching the movie now.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Music Sunday: The "Early Beatles" Edition...

I'm in a Beatles mood today. And so, without much chit-chat at all, here is some Beatles Music.

And, from the same era, "I Saw Her Standing There". This was my favorite song when I was in the second grade:

From the film "A Hard Day's Night", "And I Love Her", another one of my favorites:

The Beatles' second film, "Help!" also contained some great music, but "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is probably my favorite. Here it is as it appears in the film, with some bonus footage after the song:

Here is a performance of the title song, "Help", but not from the film but instead in a live performance. I've sort of always thought that this song could have been subtitled "John starts getting real", and is sort of a hint of things to come from not only John Lennon, but from the entire group, a turn away from the purely pop song. Just a beginning, but then every journey starts with the first step:

A bigger turn, on the next album, "Rubber Soul", is "Norwegian Wood". An altogether darker Beatles:

I think six songs from the pre-Sgt. Pepper's Beatles is good enough to show the direction the band was going. By this time, they weren't the "four lads from Liverpool" that had emerged into the American consciousness in February 1964 on "The Ed Sullivan Show". The amazing thing is, it was actually only two years from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", released in December 1963, to "Norwegian Wood", which was released on "Rubber Soul" in December 1965. It would only be another year until the band started recording "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in December, 1966, although it wasn't released until June 1, 1967.

And that's when things really started changing, although some people probably took the clue when "Yesterday and Today" was released in June of 1966, originally with controversial album art depicting the band with raw meat and mutilated, bloody baby dolls, known as the "butcher cover". That cover was, of course, quickly recalled and papered over with something much more benign. Still, with that cover it was pretty clear that The Beatles were ready to walk away from their earlier more innocent and family-friendly image.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Step AWAY from the reality show trap...

Amazing, the things you find on the Internet.

I just read a small blurb about the latest high-IQ child invited to join Mensa. She's Anala Beevers, a 4-year-old from New Orleans. We don't know exactly what her IQ is, but the criteria to join Mensa is to score in the 98th percentile or higher on an IQ test that the organization approves. In other words, you have to be smarter than all but 2 percent of the people in the world. So, in Anala's own words, she's "really smart."

No problem there. Being really smart should be considered a good thing. It isn't always, but it should be.

Where the problem comes in is in what her father is quoted as saying: "She needs a reality show."

Yeah, no. What she most definitely does NOT need is a reality show. What she needs is a normal childhood, nurturing in whatever she decides to do with her clearly formidable intellect, and a lot of understanding. She needs to be encouraged to develop whatever intellectual gifts she has, but she also needs to be given enough slack to fail at things, that the world isn't going to fall apart if she gets less than A grades in every subject in school. She also, however, needs to learn that her high IQ and a couple of bucks will get her a cup of coffee and little else in the real world, and to learn that there will be people who will dislike her and belittle her for no other reason than that she has that IQ. She needs to know that having an IQ does not mean that every subject in school will necessarily be easy for her.

Some of that might sound harsh, but I'm speaking from experience.

No, no, no. I'm probably not as smart as Anala is. I don't have any clue whether or not I'd be welcome in Mensa, and I really don't care. I've never had aspirations to find out. I don't know exactly what my IQ is; the authorities at school would never even tell my parents exactly what it was when I was tested in elementary school. However, I do know that when I was in school, I was invited into an MGM (Mentally Gifted Minors) program in my school district that, I later found out, quite by accident, had as a minimum entrance requirement a minimum measured IQ of 140. I also know that when I took my SAT and ACT tests in preparation to apply to colleges, I scored in the top 1 percent of the population on every section of those tests except the math portion, at least according to the college counselor who I spoke to when I first enrolled in college. We won't talk about how I did on the math portion; let's just say that I either did not get the math gene or I don't have the patience to put in the time I need to in order to "get" higher math.

Anyway...let's just say that I know what kind of hell the "smart" kid can go through, in school and in life, especially when he or she doesn't keep his or her head down and attract as little attention as possible. Kids, as everyone who has ever been one knows, can be incredibly cruel to anyone who doesn't fit in, and because of the values of US society, anyone who is perceived as being "too smart" often has a difficult time fitting in. I did learn to keep my head down and draw as little attention as possible and I still didn't fit. God forbid what would have happened if they had had reality shows back then and I had found my way into one.

So, basically what Anala needs the most is for someone to sit her father down and explain to him a few of the realities of life, including the fact that while his family, including his daughter, might make a bunch of money from a reality show, that is probably the only benefit his daughter would get from it. She does not need that kind of attention. Her life is likely going to be difficult enough without it.

And it isn't just the kids who are going to make this child's life difficult. There are going to be the adults who are threatened by her intelligence, and who may very well make her life hell because of that. There are going to be the teachers who will assume that she doesn't need any help with any of her studies. No, really. This happened to me. When I was taking geometry in high school (the first time), I just didn't get it. I tried and tried and tried. And when all of my trying didn't get me anywhere, I tried asking questions in class. The response from the teacher was always, "I'm not going to answer your question. I've seen your records. You're smart enough to figure it out yourself." Except that I had tried to figure it out; I hated asking for help enough that I would never, ever had asked if I could figure it our for myself.

The other thing is, as hard as it is being perceived as the smart kid in school, it doesn't get any better when you grow up and go out into the world. It doesn't even take anyone knowing where you test out on the IQ scale. You just have to appear to have interests (interests that aren't sports or pop culture) outside your immediate field in the working world. That alone is enough to label you as "too smart for your own good." And the thing is, bosses usually don't want anyone working for them who they think are any smarter than they are. They don't have to know for sure; they just have to suspect.

Now, I haven't written any of this so you'll think, "Oh, the poor smart girl, she has it so hard." Aside from not being able to find work presently, which I've written about before and which is extremely frustrating, I'm more or less okay. It's just that, from years of experience, I have a realistic view of how it is to be seen as the "smart one" in the real world, and I really don't want Anala Beevers, or anyone else, to have to go through some of the crap I had to, especially up through high school.

But really, Mr. Beevers...Just say no to the reality show.

Friday, July 26, 2013

I think I'm having one of those days...

I've got a bit of a dilemma going here, and I'm not quite sure what to do about it.

During the month I did not have a way to access the Internet at home, there were all kinds of things going in the world that I really wanted to write about. Important things. Things that have the capacity to impact the lives of everyone who lives in the United States and, often, even the lives of people elsewhere in the world.

Things like the Zimmerman trial, which turned out to be more along the lines of putting the live of Trayvon Martin, who is no longer here to defend himself, on trial. I also wanted to write about the related issue of how Rachel Jeantel, a witness in the trial, got raked over the coals and pretty much put on trial herself in the media, not so much for what she said as how she said it and what she looked like.

I wanted to write about the Supreme Court. One day they gutted a major provision of the Voting Rights Act 0f 1965, opening the door for outrageous abuses from the far reaches of the Republican party that could make it much easier to carry out their voter suppression schemes by enacting legislation in the states that could make it much harder for groups (the poor, college students, the elderly) that traditionally are more likely to vote Democratic, to exercise their right to vote. Then, the next day, the Court turned around and got it right for once, gutting the Defense of Marriage Act and throwing out California's Proposition 8, allowing same-sex couples, in California at least, to marry legally again after Prop. 8 had overturned that right, which had been granted by the California Supreme Court.

I wanted to write about the ongoing war against women in some state legislatures and even in Congress, where ultra-conservatives have been showing their willingness to sneak around and break the rules in order to try to pass restrictive legislation that limits women's right to abortion, sometimes their right to access birth control, and so forth. I also wanted to write about ancillary issues to this, such as the remarks in Texas, by a woman (a state legislator, if I recall correctly), who made comments indicating that pregnancy caused by rape shouldn't be an issue in relation to abortion because, she said, rape kits take care of that kind of thing, when in fact all a rape kit does is gather physical evidence that a rape has taken place. And, I wanted to write about Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator whose filibuster (the old-fashioned kind) kept one attempt at passing restrictive abortion legislation in Texas from succeeding, not to mention the continuing willingness of the governor of Texas (that would be Rick Perry, in case you'd forgotten) to expose himself as the horse's rear-end that he so obviously is in his comments regarding Senator Davis.

I wanted to write about the continued foot-dragging and, this week's knuckle-dragging (I'm looking at you, Representative Steve King of Iowa), surrounding the effort to pass a bill on immigration reform. King's comments implying that all but a very few illegal immigrants are drug mules, thankfully, even earned him condemnation from members of his own party, but just the fact that he felt comfortable making those comments is, well, dismaying to say the least.

There was so much that I wanted to write about all of that and more, so much that needs to be said, still. But most of it is so upsetting and depressing that I don't want to even think about any of it, much less write about it. Even the one hopeful thing in all that , the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, managed to bring out the troglodytes who want to not just prevent same-sex couples from marrying but also want to regulate everyone's behavior in the bedroom, even that of straight married couples. Yes. You read that right. Virginia Attorney General and candidate for Governor of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli thinks it is a good idea to make pretty much any sex act that is not of the penis-in-vagina type a felony. This, from a member of the Republican party, members of which seem to always be crowing about how they belong to the party that wants to get government out of people's lives. As far as I can see, there isn't anything more intrusive in people's lives than wanting to police the intimate lives of consenting adults.

I feel like I should be writing about all of these issues, but every time I sit down to write about any of them in detail, I just...can't. I either get angry and start ranting (and if you read this blog with any regularity, you know I can get a pretty good rant going), or break into tears because it feels like I'm just pounding my head against a brick wall. So, instead, I end up posting video clips of prehistoric fish, like I did yesterday. Because, you know, I'd really rather be writing about cool stuff. Fun stuff. Stuff like prehistoric fish, like exploring our plant and the universe, like good books I've read and good movies I've seen and music I like. I'm having trouble finding a balance right now, and I'm finding that frustrating.

This will all work itself out and I'll find my direction - and a reasonable balance between writing about the things I want to write about and the things that I feel like I should write about. I'll find a way to articulate my thoughts about things going on in the world without ranting and without making myself crazy, and I'll find the time and space to write about the better stuff, too.

Until then, I'll try to make it interesting around here. For me, and for all of you, too.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Here, have a fish...

I've been busy today, with meetings and preparing for a presentation that I have to give next week at CVP.

But, I'm also reading a book about the coelacanth right now. I've been sort of obsessed with this particular fish since I first saw one preserved at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History when I was in about the third or fourth grade. They are fascinating creatures, two species of fish - one living in the West Indian Ocean off the coast of southern Africa and one living in the waters around Indonesia - that were thought to have been extinct since around the time the dinosaurs died out until one species was discovered in the take from a fishing vessel off the east coast of South Africa in 1938. Until this discovery, the coelecanth was known only from the fossil record. The Indonesian species was scientifically unknown until 1999.

These species are very old, with biologists suspecting that they have evolved very little in the past 400 million years or so. Because they are so rare, and because they remain in very deep waters during the day and in fact live most of the time in caves deep in the ocean, very little is known about how they live or how long the individuals of the species live. It has been discovered that the female of the species retain the eggs of their young in their bodies rather than laying them and that it takes them about a year to gestate, after which they hatch within the mother and then the mother gives live birth to them.

The photos in the book I'm reading are not the best, clearest that they could be, so I took some time to look around YouTube to see if anyone had any footage of the fish live and in the wild. And, indeed, there is some footage, which I thought I'd share with you:

Yeah, I know. I get enthusiasms for some unusual things. It keeps life interesting, in a good way.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Another anniversary: the return of Apollo 11

Saturday, I wrote about it being the 44th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing. That day 44 years ago is something that most people who were alive and conscious of world events at the time remember.

But today is the anniversary of a day in the US space program that is at least as important but which rarely gets recognized. It is the 44th anniversary, today, of the return of the crew of Apollo 11 from the Moon, and it is the fulfillment of the second part of the goal set by John Kennedy of sending men to the Moon and returning them safely. Kennedy also said on the day in 1962 that he set this goal that we, as a society, chose to do that not because it was easy, but because it was difficult.

And it was difficult, and was done with, it is said, significantly less computing power than is contained in the low-end laptop I'm writing this on right now. The landing was, of course, important. But so many things could have gone wrong to strand the astronauts on the moon, or strand them orbiting the moon, or send them careening out into the solar system with no way to get back...and those are only a few of the things that could have gone wrong.

So, I think it is important to also mark the day that Apollo 11 and its astronauts made it back home safely.

Not that there wasn't at least one hiccup in the landing procedure. When the command module splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, it landed upside down and stayed that way until the astronauts activated flotation devices that righted it. I suspect that at least a few folks at NASA flashed back to the splashdown in July of 1961 of Liberty Bell 7 after a suborbital flight, part of the Mercury program, when Gus Grissom nearly drowned after the capsule's hatch blew unexpectedly, sending the capsule to the bottom of the ocean and nearly drowning Grissom. But, all was well and the three astronauts were picked up and deposited on the ship that had come to meet them.

Even that was not the end of the mission, however. Once on the ship, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were decontaminated and put in quarantine for three weeks just in case they had brought any bad bugs back from the moon. Still, this is a day to remember. We not only sent men to the moon, we managed to bring them back alive and in one piece each.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How much is too much?

I'm trying to think of something good to say about all the press coverage surrounding the birth of the child of the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, and I really, well, can't.

Now, I'm not saying anything uncomplimentary about the Prince and the Duchess and the new prince; I saw the tape of their emergence from the hospital with the new baby and I think they handled the moment very well, considering all the publicity surrounding her pregnancy and the birth. It isn't their fault that the press has been covering this obsessively pretty much since the two of them got married and the speculation started regarding how soon she would get pregnant.

And I'm not saying that the Duchess's pregnancy and the birth of their child should have been ignored by the media. William is going to be king someday, and the baby after him. This demands that the boy's birth be noted.

But Geez the American media really have to devote hours of coverage when there are much more important things going on in the world?

Of course, I'm not a big fan of wall-to-wall coverage of most news events. There are a few instances when it is appropriate, but those are few and far between. The recent crash/hard-landing of the Asiana Airlines plane at San Francisco International Airport, for example. Yes, it was a very bad thing, but after it happened at a bit before noon local time in the morning, did the cable news networks really need to be still going wall-to-wall that night, hours after it was clear that all the passengers were accounted for? I realize that it was a weekend, and weekend days are traditionally slow news days, but still.

I'm ambivalent about the coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. On the one hand, there were and are serious issues surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin - and, yes, I realize that by using that emotionally charged word I am exposing my own biases regarding the case - and there was a certain value in broadcasting the trial as it happened. And, some of the many extra hours of commentary broadcast outside of the trial itself made points that needed to be made. But the trial and its aftermath lasted weeks (and is still going on), and there was a lot of the same people saying the same things over and over and over again. The fact that I agreed with some of the things that were being said repeatedly does not alter my feeling that the coverage reached the point of being way too much in the way of saturation coverage well before the jury reached their verdict.

Well, at least the birth of the new prince is good news. Mother and baby appear to be doing well, and that's nice. But it would be even nicer if the media would report the news when it happens - not for hours, days, weeks, sometimes months before anything really happens - and the move on to the next thing.

Which brings up a point. Have you noticed how much of news reports these days has become reporting on things that are scheduled to happen, or expected to happen, or feared to happen, rather than waiting for something to happen and then reporting it? That was very much what happened today with the coverage of the happy family leaving the hospital in London, to the point of giving updates on the latest the reporters had heard about what time the departure was going to occur, complete with a camera focused on the door the Prince, the Duchess, and the new prince were expected to emerge from. It became news when they did, indeed, come through the door. Until then, it was just a really boring picture of a door with a reporter's voice droning on over the picture.

Really, I'm not trying to be obnoxiously critical. Maybe I'm just sensitive to this because I've been stuck at home this summer and watching much too much television...and way, way too much news. On the other hand, I think there were some things that have gone on this summer that got skipped over all too quickly in favor of "flavor of the week" stories that deserved to be reported but not in the obsessive detail that we were treated to.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Movie Monday: The I Try to Make a "Desert Island Movie Discs" List Edition

Some people count sheep when they can't sleep. Some people take sleeping pills. Or drink warm milk...or something a little stronger.

I make lists. That usually works.

However, one night last week when I couldn't sleep, I started trying to put together a list of which ten movies I would take along if I was going to be stranded somewhere for a considerable length of time and could only take a limited number with me. It's sort of a variation on "Desert Island Discs". I do the same sometimes with songs, albums, books, author's collections, that kind of thing.

That usually works.

However, with the movie list, I started arguing with myself mentally and ended up laying there at least another hour and a half before I could make my mind shut up enough so that I could go to sleep, having come to the conclusion that a list of ten was impossible.

It started out easily enough, with three irreplaceable films: "A Hard Day's Night" (1964), "The Right Stuff" (1983), and "The Day The Earth Stood Still" (the original, from 1951; I haven't seen the new version). And then there is the original, Boris Karloff, version of "The Mummy" (1932), which has, as I'm sure I've said here before, has been a favorite since I first saw it when I was all of five years old.

So far, so good, right?

Well, yes. But things started going downhill from there.

I decided that there had to be a Steve McQueen film on the list. "Bullitt" (1968) came to mind. Wonderful movie, great chase scene. But then I thought about "The Thomas Crown Affair" (also 1968, as it turns out). I love that movie, too. And then there's "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965). Also very good. But then there's "Junior Bonner" (1972), starring McQueen, Robert Preston, and Ida Lupino, and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It's one of the most underrated films of the Seventies, in my opinion, and I've loved it ever since I first saw it in the theater when it was first released.

Okay. I couldn't pick, so I set that aside for awhile and attacked the list from another direction.

Silent movies. I really would want to have one of those along, and there are some silents that I've really enjoyed. I've written here before about "The Unknown" (1927), starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford, and directed by Tod Browning. It's an amazing little (it only runs 50 minutes or so) horror film. But then there is "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928), and of course "Phantom of the Opera" (1925), also starring Chaney. Carl Theodor Dreyer made "Vampyr" in 1932 and it isn't really a silent film, but it was Dreyer's first and contains little dialogue, and so I always think of it as a silent. And then "Metropolis (1927) comes to mind. Again, how to choose?


I like musicals, which those of you who read here regularly probably already know. There would need to be at least one of those on the list. "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) is a favorite. So, God help me, is "Mary Poppins" (1964). But, so is "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (1970) and "Funny Girl" (1968), both Barbra Streisand films. Another Julie Andrews musical, "Victor Victoria" (1982), is also definitely on the list of possibilities. Less traditionally, among the alternatives for a place on the list would have to be "Tommy" (1975) and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (also 1975).

It went on like this, with different categories of films. Dramas. Comedies. Westerns. Science fiction. Well, there is already one science fiction film on the list, but there are so many more good science fiction films that I could potentially want on the list as well. You can probably see why I gave up. And I won't go on with more examples of my thinking that night, because this is already getting to be a longish post.

But I do have a question for all of you. If you were making a list of the ten (or fifteen, or twenty) films you would want with you if you were going to be stranded somewhere for awhile, which ones would you take? Leave your list in the comments.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Music Sunday: The Boss Radio Edition

I've been waiting until about the time I went on hiatus here to write this Music Sunday blog post.

Unless you grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s, you might not have any idea about what I want to share today and why I'm so happy about it. It could be a matter of "you had to be there" to really appreciate it. Nevertheless, I'm going to share anyway.

A few weeks ago, having nothing better to do with my time (or, at least, being bored with the things I should have been doing), I sat down to see what was on the radio. Except for one FM oldies station and the local NPR outlet, I've sort of given up on radio the past few years because the stations we have around here are pretty drab. I don't like the formats of the FM stations, or they just play music that I'm not particularly enthusiastic about, and all I can find on AM has been right-wing talk radio and sports-talk stations. So I'd just gotten to where I don't even go there anymore.

However, on this particular evening, looking on the AM dial, I discovered that my town has a station that has reinstituted the "Boss Radio" AM Top 40 format that was so popular around the time I was first getting into music in the Sixties. I say "reinstituted" because the station, KYNO, was apparently one of the first stations to adopt the format back in the day. Another of the first stations to adopt the format was KHJ in Los Angeles, the station I grew up listening to before FM radio was a thing. Sadly, the station I discovered is not really true Boss Radio because it isn't really local, but more a syndicated robo-station. But it still plays the old music, tunes you aren't likely to run into on most classic rock stations. Oh, they play the Beatles and the Stones and so forth, but they also play the songs that are, perhaps, a little too much of their time to have remained as popular as the classics.

For example, there is "Love is Blue", from 1968 and a French bandleader named Paul Mauriat. This is an instrumental that is one of my favorite pieces of music from the time. Apparently there were also versions with lyrics, but I like this, as I first heard it, just fine:

And then there's this, from 1964 - The Dave Clark Five and "Glad All Over":

It's kind of funny to me that in the comments section where I found this clip on YouTube, there's an argument over whether this kind of music, and this song in particular is good or "crap", or whether what is crap is what passes for pop music now. While I will admit that I'm more in the corner of 60s pop over some of the music that is more current, I've never really understood why people will argue over this sort of thing. I don't see music, most of the time, as bad or good, but rather in terms of whether or not I like it personally. The same thing was true back in the day, and there were arguments like this then, as well. Probably will be, as long as music exists, and while I generally tend to share the music that I like here, I'm never going to insist that everyone should like it or that people who don't like the same kind of music I like are wrong.

But, I digress.

And, anyway, music in the Sixties wasn't just mindless pop. Some songs were topical, and some were fairly controversial. There was, for example, "Love Child", by Diana Ross (although the song was billed as by Diana Ross and the Supremes, session singers rather than the other members of the group sang the background vocals). In 1968, when this song came out, it was still not considered polite to discuss the subject of children born out of wedlock, no matter which side of the argument was being aired. But, it was and is a great song:

Another song, not especially controversial in itself, although it takes on fairly gritty subject matter, but which became an anthem for US forces fighting in Vietnam, was "We Gotta Get Out of This Place", by Eric Burdon and the Animals. This live performance of the song is from the Richmond Jazz Festival in England in 1965:

But, the truth is that the Sixties were also the time of "bubblegum" pop, and one wonders how songs like this one, "Simple Simon Says", by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, ever reached the charts, much less hit #4 in the US and #2 in the UK and sold five million copies after it was released in 1967:

I guess a catchy tune will get you a long way, and I kind of think of this as the Sixties version of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go", which also has a catchy tune and pretty much no substance to it.

But, like I said, for me music comes in two flavors, music I like and music I don't like as much, and I really do like a lot of 60s pop and rock, and it is fun hearing some of these songs again. Even the ones, like "Simple Simon Says" and "Elenor", by the Turtles (who seem to have had a talent for taking just about any song and making it silly - not necessarily a criticism, but just an observation):

Saturday, July 20, 2013

It's Moon Day...

While I've been away from blogging, there have been a bunch (that's a technical term) of things I've wanted to blog about. Most of them are not happy topics, but sometimes it is necessary to think and write about them. But before I wade back into all of that, I really feel the need to point out that today is the 44th anniversary of possibly the best thing humans have ever done.

Forty-four years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on and then later in the day walked on the Moon to become the first humans to set foot on a celestial body other than the Earth. Maybe you had to be there to witness the landing to really understand how big a deal it was. And billions of us did witness it, via a television broadcast of the event, which in itself was a very big deal at a time when we weren't used to instant broadcasts from remote locations as a daily occurrence. The pictures from the Moon that day were a bit murky - resolution was kind of low and contrast was high - but, still, we got to see the "giant leap for mankind" in the time it took to relay the pictures from the Moon to a satellite dish in Australia and then around the world.

It was pretty damn cool.

I've written here before about watching the landing and the Moon walk with my father, who was thrilled beyond words about the whole thing, so I won't go over that ground here again right now.

What I want to address is the amount of imagination that it took to put together the program that sent Armstrong, Aldrin and ten other men (and only men) to walk on the Moon - and, lest we forget, a number of others who orbited but did not set foot on the Moon. Yes, it took a lot of money to go to the moon. But it took even more imagination. The first moon landing took place a little short of twelve years before the Russians put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in orbit around the earth on October 4, 1957 and a little over 8 years after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space (and to orbit the earth) on April 12, 1961. A few weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. An American didn't orbit the earth until John Glenn did so on February 20, 1962.

From those first manned flights to the first moon landing was an incredibly quick progression. That landing humans on the Moon was accomplished at all, let alone in such a short period of time from the inception of the efforts to put humans in space, took great imagination and great determination. Granted, at least some of that impetus came as a result of the Cold War and American determination that the Soviets wouldn't "get" the Moon. I don't believe, however, that was the whole of the program to go to the Moon. It also had to do with the essential human urge to explore.

I wonder, sometimes, what has happened to that urge, because there doesn't seem to be much of a desire on the part of most people to move on and push the frontier of exploration farther, or even to hold the frontier at the Moon. Whenever it is proposed that we return to the Moon, all sorts of objections are raised. It's too expensive. It's too dangerous. We don't need to go. Plans to go to Mars are met with similar objections. When George H. W. Bush was president, he proposed sending a manned mission to Mars. It was shelved because it was seen as being too expensive. Barack Obama has also called for a mission to Mars by the 2030s, but there is as yet no budget for the effort.

When I was a child and the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were progressing, there was a huge excitement about the space program. Now, it seems, very few people care. Very few people seem willing to even look up and see the planets and stars in the universe, much less take any more tentative steps to visit even the closest of those celestial bodies. They seem to want to cling to the planet we were all born and are so far confined to. True, there is a more or less permanent human presence in space, on the International Space Station. But that is a tenuous presence and limited to a few people at a time, with a maximum permanent occupancy of six. It has been continuously occupied for almost thirteen years, but the ISS will not last forever. The United States, since the end of the Space Shuttle program, has no means to send crew members to the ISS and depends on Russian launches to get its astronauts and supplies to the station.

So, I want to take advantage of the anniversary of the first human walk on another planetary body to say that we need to rediscover that ambition, that imagination, that determination to reach beyond this rock we live on and reach out, first to our immediate neighborhood and then, perhaps, to the rest of the universe. Just imagine what we might learn...what me might find.

Friday, July 19, 2013

I'm back...and I read some books while I wasn't here

So, I'm back.

It's been a month, exactly, as it turns out. A month without Internet access. A month of mostly really hot weather here. A month of rarely going anywhere except to go to CVP to do volunteer work or to the grocery store. A very rare early morning or late evening walk over to 7-11, because it's been too hot the rest of the time. That's about it.

So, what have I been doing?

I've been reading. A lot. Fourteen books in the month. 5,638 pages.

I haven't gone on a reading binge like this in ages. As much as I love to read, I'm sort of selective about what I read (although you probably wouldn't think so by the list of things I've been reading), and many times I can't manage to find anything I really want to read in that quick a succession. I think I've only started one book that I didn't finish in the month, and it really must have not made much of an impression because, sitting here, I can't recall what it was.

These are the books I've read while I've been away from here:

1) On the Trail of the Assassin, by Jim Garrison (1988; 406 pages) NF - purportedly
2) Private Eyes, by Jonathan Kellerman (1992; 525 pages) F
3) The Hard Way, by Lee Child (2006; 477 pages) F
4) Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s, by William L. O'Neill (1971; 442 pages) NF
5) Terminal Freeze, by Lincoln Child (2009: 429 pages) F
6) Bare Bones, by Kathy Reichs (2003; 383 pages) F
7) The Family, by Ed Sanders (1971; 323 pages) NF
8) Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974; 502 pages) NF
9) Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg (2006; 242 pages) NF
10) A Wanted Man, by Lee Child (2012; 405 pages) F
11) Anarchy Evolution, by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson (2010; 290 pages) NF
12) Deception, by Jonathan Kellerman (2010; 332 pages) F
13) Lies (And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them), by Al Franken (2003; 379 pages) NF
14) Danse Macabre, by Stephen King (1983; 437 pages) NF

I call Garrison's book "purportedly" non-fiction because it presents one particular conspiracy theory about John F. Kennedy's assassination, the one championed by Garrison himself. He presents it as the truth, but it is not widely accepted as fact, not least because by the end of it he manages to throw in just about everything but the kitchen sink. It is an interesting book, however, even if one does not accept the theory he outlines. It was one of the main sources for Oliver Stone's film "JFK", which in itself makes it an interesting book. It is probably so much hokum, but I'm not sorry I read it.

I'm not sorry I read any of these books, and I'm really glad that I discovered a couple of them. Some were re-reads, although at least one of them - Deception - was not a deliberate re-read; I realized about a third of the way through that I had read it before. Another of the re-reads - Helter Skelter - was a re-re-re-re-re-read. It's a book I've read every two or three years since I first read it in 1976. Scariest book I've ever read, honestly, because of my proximity to the Spahn Ranch when Charlie Manson was living there and sending out his killing parties (I was in junior high at the time, and lived 7.8 miles - according to Google Maps - from Spahn).

Probably the most surprising book, and maybe my favorite discovery of the summer, was Anarchy Evolution. Greg Graffin is the founder of a punk band, Bad Religion, as well as a PhD in zoology who has taught at UCLA and Cornell University. It's an interesting combination, and he has some interesting things to say. I have to admit that I'm not familiar with his music, since I haven't ever been much of a punk fan. But if his music is as interesting as his writing is, I'm going to have to do some exploring, I think.

A couple of the books I read have to do with history and politics in the US. Coming Apart looks at the United States in the 1960s, and the thing that makes it interesting is that it was written shortly after the Sixties ended. I found it fascinating to contrast the writer's outlook on the Sixties with the conventional wisdom about that era today. Also interesting for approximately the same reason is Al Franken's book, which was written after 9/11 but before the end of George W. Bush's first term in office as President of the United States. The first thing that is interesting to me is that he was writing the book from outside the political establishment in Washington, but he is now a US senator from Minnesota. He's part of the system now. Also interesting are his takes on some issues and people in light of the events that have occurred since the book was published. The book is also fun simply because before he was a politician, Franken was a comic, and some of his commentary in the book is very, very funny even as it is relevant to the time it was written.

I don't have that much to say about the fiction I've been reading. Kellerman and his Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis novels are old friends. On the other hand, I've just discovered Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. I wasn't sure I would like his writing when I started reading The Hard Way, but within just a few pages I was hooked. On the other hand Terminal Freeze, by Lincoln Child (no relation to Lee, as far as I know), was my least favorite of the books I've read in the past month. I'm not saying that it was not a good book, or that it was a bad book. It was a little more predictable than I would have liked. But I finished it, and I'm not accustomed to reading through entire books that don't engage me by, say, page fifty or so.

Danse Macabre was another re-read. This is another book I re-read every few years or so. I think Stephen King is a terrific writer, for all the fact that I don't read all of his fiction and that I think he could do with an assertive editor from time to time (certainly not always, however). I like the way that reading his writing is almost always like sitting and having a conversation, and this comes through most strongly in his non-fiction. This book is a discussion of all things horror in the years 1950 through 1980 (although he takes a few detours further back in the history of the genre). He knows his subject well, and he writes about it a thoroughly engaging way (although he would probably disagree with my use of the word "thoroughly"; he writes in another of his non-fiction books, On Writing, that "ly" words are not the writer's friend). I've learned a lot about writing from reading Danse Macabre, and also from reading On Writing, although I haven't quite absorbed his advice about those "ly" adverbs just yet.

So. As I said, I'm back, and Internet gods willing and the creek don't rise, I'm back on a regular basis. It's been difficult not being able to blog in the past month. So much has been going on in the world. I might still write about some of those going forward; some of those situations are ongoing and even some of those that aren't are probably still worth kicking around a little bit.