Archive for December, 2009

“Avatar” is a movie (film review)

December 21, 2009

James Cameron’s Avatar has been described as a completely new type of filmmaking. Digital motion capture methods used in a three-dimensional format combine with expert story-telling and riveting action sequences to create a movie-going experience unlike anything ever seen before. So say most critics.  

This reviewer largely agrees, but believes several key points have been overlooked in the rush to praise.  

The film opens with lights dimming throughout the theatre and a murmur of expectation from audience members, all of whom are wearing plastic eyeglass appliances. Soon, a beam of light appears from high on a wall in the back of the room, and makes its way at hundreds of thousands of miles per second through the dusty air and onto a screen. Fortunately, the heavy maroon curtains had been opened several minutes earlier, so the images don’t appear as dark and muddy as they might otherwise be.  

Muted music accompanies the initial appearance of various letters of the English alphabet, assembled into small groupings and flashed onto the white vinyl. The word “by” makes several showings, as do what appear to be proper names. Past participles — indicating direction, production and something called “executive” production — seem to indicate that physical beings were involved in the assembly of the images.  

Soon we see colors and shapes moving in what at first appear to be random motion. Photons emitted from the projection room bounce off the vertical screen surface and reflect back to the audience, whose optic nerves fire reactively. Perceptions are cast into the prefrontal cortex of the brains in attendance, which then interpret the images and make them out to be some type of creatures. Most in attendance seem pleased at the moderate level of stimulation.  

Despite its pre-release buzz as an “action” picture, the light dances slowly at first across the towering white panel. Soon there are vocals, probably vertebrate in origin, that begin to be heard, and the shapes form into vaguely recognizable pictures. The voices speak softly at first, as a quiet setting is established to better contrast with the loud noises that will follow. More musical tones are clumped together in an arrangement at once both random and concerted.  

About a third of the way into the film, a man in a business suit appears just in front of the stage. He holds a small flashlight but is careful to keep it shining on the floor in front of him. This helps him ascend the steps without tripping. A foreshadowing sequence from earlier in the movie indicates that he may be looking for users of cell phones; not just those receiving calls but some who might be text-messaging or perhaps even attempting to record a “bootleg.” Viewers in attendance were told earlier to either set their phones on vibrate or turn them off entirely, so the suited man’s likelihood of success in finding a perpetrator is in doubt. Within a few minutes, he turns and leaves.  

Back on the screen, it’s becoming increasingly noticeable that there’s a small seam in the vinyl. It may be the beginning of a tear, or it may simply be the point at which two different parts of the plastic are connected. When the film shows representations of deep space, forested venues on the planet Panera, or Sigourney Weaver’s face, the ugly scar is not as obvious. But when bright sky or other light-colored likenesses are shown, the mark is distracting at best.  

About halfway through Avatar, there’s a prolonged scene where individuals are running around and making loud noises, while the music rises in accompaniment. This is exciting. Many of the shots are close-ups, while others are what’s known in the trade as “long shots.” The cinematographer frequently moves his camera at this point in the film, sometimes making a smooth “pan” while at other times simulating the anarchy of the moment by jiggling it up and down, to and fro.  

Just when the action seems to be approaching its climax, a fat lady decides she has to leave the auditorium, probably to purchase a concession from the stand outside or to relieve herself. (I fault the screenwriter for not making this more clear). I found this to be one of Cameron’s more lightweight portrayals, though the character did make quite an impression on the foot of the guy next to her. As her immense form moved across the screen in front of me, I could see that the director’s intent was to create an interruption, a distraction that would make the soon-to-arrive finale even more all-enveloping. Within minutes, the woman returned with a medium-sized popcorn. The audience quietly admired her resistance to the upsell she probably faced (only 25 cents more for a large). Yet in our row, it was just more annoyance that she had decided to return.  

Outside, the Earth continued to experience climate change — perhaps influenced by man, perhaps not — while farther out in the ether, galaxies spun at rates that could only be guessed at. Inside the cineplex, none of this mattered, as the audience continued to be tightly gripped into the 150th minute of the historic epic unfolding in front of them. The tall blue things, members of the Navaho clan, waged a do-or-die battle with the shorter beige things. Whether blue or beige, all involved seemed to be highly agitated.  

Finally, the broad beams of colored light changed to a simple white, and shaped themselves into “THE END.” Then, there are more letters and words rising from the bottom of the screen to the top, symbolizing how the lowly can overcome their pedestrian position and still rise up. At least in Hollywood, anyway.  

No animals were harmed in the production of this film.  

Patrons exit the theater, too numb from the experience to speak much, except for the occasional reference to how their back is killing them, or a reminder to throw the candy wrappers in the bins provided. The auteur behind such landmark works as Titanic, The Abyss and Terminator 2 has worked his magic again. An assistant manager sits quietly in a small room next to the box office, counting up how much was spent on tickets, and how much of that will be the cut of his franchise. (Not much, since most of their profit comes from concessions).  

Outside, people get into their cars and drive away, going on with their lives, yet eager to relive the experience tomorrow with friends and relatives who were going to a later show.  

A significant part of the movie "Avatar"

Revisited: More new ideas from 2008

December 20, 2009

This is the second installment looking at innovations of the past year that have both the potential to make all our lives more comfortable and, at the same time, illustrate why researchers and inventors typically live such lonely, pathetic existences.

The Dog-Poop DNA Bank – The mayor of a small city near Tel Aviv wanted a more effective way to enforce regulations requiring pet owners to clean up after their dogs have done their business. So he turned to the city’s director of veterinary services to come up with a system that could use DNA fingerprinting technology to attach (so to speak) unclaimed feces to specific dog owners. An army of 13-year-old volunteers recruited by the mayor’s office fanned out across the city, going door to door to collect samples of poop with which to create a DNA bank. Surprisingly, about 90 percent of city residents who had kids showing up on their doorstep asking for some shit complied with the request. Once the problem of random canine defecation is solved, scientists will then turn to less pressing issues like genetic research on dog diseases and returning strays to their owners.

Eat Kangaroos to Fight Global Warming – An official with Australia’s wildlife services, which you’d imagine is supposed to be protecting indigenous species, proposes that raising and eating kangaroos instead of sheep and beef could cut methane emissions by as much as three percent. Unlike the ruminants we’re used to slaughtering and devouring, kangaroos have a different stomach structure with different organisms to digest their food — probably something to do with the pouch. Already considered a specialty meat that’s (not surprisingly) a bit gamy in taste, the hoppers-cum-whoppers sustained native Australians for 40,000 years before Europeans arrived with their stupid cows. Reaction in the land Down Under has not been especially positive: the official can’t find any funding to further his study, plus he’s battling newspaper headlines that read “Skippy on the Menu!”

Scrupulosity Disorder – Researchers from Brigham Young University suggest that as many as a million Americans suffer from this disorder defined as “obsessive doubt about moral behavior often resulting in compulsive religious observance.” Not to be confused with your standard evangelicals, sufferers worry about thinking bad thoughts, whether or not these thoughts are acted on in the physical world. An omniscient God, after all, sees past the bumper stickers on your SUV and into your heart, where you may be doing things like being aware of curse words. Though possibly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, there can be a fine line for chronic hand-washers like certain sects who observe such a ritual as part of ordinary religious observance. Treatment is thus problematic but another researcher says once patients are released from the crippling doubt about their own virtue, they can emerge with a new sense of faith, even if it means slightly more soiled hands.

The Spray-On Condom – The idea with this device is not so much the convenience of application but with the way it can made to fit a variety of sizes. Rather than asking retailers to stock a quantity of as many as 30 or so sizes, the spray-on condom can be customized to each man. The inventor, a German entrepreneur, got the idea in an automated car wash – not in the back seat while canoodling but while observing that the car was being inserted into a tube-like structure and then sprayed with latex from all sides. (Oh, baby). The only drawbacks reported in real-life testing were that the spray was a little cold and that the latex would take up to two minutes to dry. That, and the fact that the European Union’s strict product standards will make it difficult to bring to market, means the condom won’t be commercially available any time soon. I guess if you can wait two minutes, you can wait two years.

Vending Machine for Crows – An NYU graduate student (probably a marketing major) put coins and peanuts into a dish attached to a vending machine he created. The crows arrived and picked out all the peanuts, leaving only the coins. As they pushed the coins out of the way while looking for more peanuts, the coins were dropped into a slot which then dispensed more peanuts. When the crows figured out the equation that coins plus slot equaled more nuts, the more entrepreneurial birds starting looking for loose change on the ground to put into the slot. Realizing that the flock was quickly becoming his intellectual match, the grad student brought in a few more researchers to help him figure what all this might mean. Rather than arriving at the obvious answer (a fleet of trained ravens who could steal cash from the pockets of pedestrians, thereby giving the students the power to ultimately rule the world), they’re trying to do something positive. “Why not see if they can do something useful for us, so we can all live in close proximity?” they asked. They’re now busy trying to apply their techniques to train rats to sort garbage for us, instead of imagining a future in which they could practically bathe in dimes.

Revisited: New ideas from 2008

December 19, 2009

The New York Times recently ran a feature in their Sunday magazine profiling what they called the “Year in Ideas.” They examined several dozen new concepts floated in 2008 that “helped make the previous 12 months, for better or worse, what they were” – an introduction that belied their alleged astonishment at the unlimited nature of the inventive mind.

I’ll admit that all the ideas are extremely imaginative, but that doesn’t mean that some of them can’t also be extremely bizarre. Today and tomorrow, we’ll look at a few examples:

Air Bags for the Elderly – In light of the fact that falls are the leading cause of death among people 65 and older, a Japanese company has begun selling a wearable set of airbags. Describing the device as looking “something like a fishing vest with a fanny pack attached,” it contains motion sensors that will inflate two airbags – one around the hips and the other around the neck – when a fall is detected. “Instant Michelin Man,” notes the Times. This innovation updates an earlier attempt to reduce injuries, the foam hip pads. Both the low-tech hip pads and the high-tech air bags could be a success from a bioengineering and cost standpoint and yet still fall victim to the elderly’s penchant for wanting to be fashionable. “One of the reasons people shy away from these is that they don’t want to make their hips look larger,” said one independent researcher. “These air bags look kind of parachute-y.”

The Biomechanical Energy Harvester – A knee-brace-like contraption has been developed by a Canadian scientist that reportedly can harness the power of your walk and turn it into something your cell phone and other small electronics can run on. Strapped to the back of your leg, the device taps the power of your muscles with each stride without making walking feel any more difficult. At less than three pounds, it’s small enough to fit under your pants (or, less subtly, just below the hemline of your skirt), which is a significant improvement on version 1.0 – a backpack that made its own electricity from the subtle bouncing of your walk but, unfortunately, weighed in at 80 pounds.

Bubble Wrap that Never Ends – Again it’s the Japanese leading the way to a better future. They’ve created a battery-powered keychain with a panel of eight buttons that simulate the tactile joy of bubble-package destruction. Roughly translated as “Infinite Pop Pop,” the company has already sold a million of the gadgets in its first two months of release, and it’s reportedly now available at American outlets such as Target and Wal-Mart. Makers of the real thing, the Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey, acknowledge the tension-relieving properties inherent in ruining their product, yet they won’t admit to feeling the stress of potential competition from the Far East. (Probably the same way GM felt when that first Toyota rolled onto the docks of California.) No word yet on whether the Biomechanical Energy Harvester could be used to power the “Pop Pop” keychain.

Carbon Penance – To assuage the guilt many of us feel about our contributions to climate change, a Swiss-born inventor (again with the foreigners) has built a leg band that monitors how much power you’re consuming. When levels have exceeded a certain threshold, the techno-garter slowly drives six steel thorns into the meat of your leg. The concept came to the inventor, who not surprisingly also refers to herself as an artist, while designing a device that punishes the wearer who doesn’t spend enough time talking to their houseplants. The leg band is apparently not quite ready for full-scale development and distribution because of a slight flaw: when the spikes dig in, they don’t hurt that much.

The Cloth Car – This is a concept car developed in Germany that substitutes fabric for the more conventional (and you’d think safer) hardened plastic and aluminum auto body. The shell, made of polyurethane-coated Lycra, is stretched over a car’s frame in four separate pieces. It creases when the door opens, can be unsealed if work needs to be done on the engine, and contains eye-shaped slits so the headlights can shine through. The interior is similarly flexible, featuring a steering wheel and dashboard that collapse to lie flat and create more interior space. Perhaps the seatbelt and upholstery will be made of steel.

Tomorrow: eatings kangaroos and a vending machine for crows

Website Review: Billy Graham Library

December 18, 2009

The death Wednesday of televangelist Oral Roberts leaves behind only one other elder statesman of Christianity, if you don’t count God. The Rev. Billy Graham has spent much of his 91 years ministering not only to his Southern Baptist base but to presidents, world leaders and millions of participants in his crusades around the globe. He even found time during the turbulent 1960s to run the Fillmore music venue in San Francisco, introducing the nation to seminal bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

No, wait — that was Bill Graham, promoter and rock impresario.

See, I could keep these two straight if only I’d visit the Billy Graham Library, a Charlotte, N.C. site that houses memorabilia from the famous minister’s life. Built in 2007, the 40,000-square-foot “experience” allows visitors to discover the life and legacy of America’s pastor. The 20 landscaped acres include the “barn-shaped” library itself, a multimedia presentation about his dynamic journey from farm boy to international ambassador of God’s love, a prayer garden and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar, featuring sandwiches, salads, cookies and ice cream (as it is in Heaven, no outside food allowed).

Billboards throughout the Carolinas promote the library with the tag line “No Books to Check Out … Just His Story,” lest potential visitors be scared off by the prospect of having to read something. However, the advertising is probably intended more for those who are just passing through, as those of us who live here are already well aware of the now-retired reverend’s impact on the area. Visitors to Charlotte are still alarmed to find that, in order to drive to the airport, you have to “take Billy Graham,” the parkway named in his honor, not the actual man, who is too frail to do much air travel these days. Locals take the influence for granted.

Now I’m not about to start making fun of an elderly, gentle man of God, even though he may have made some questionable political choices during his career. Despite early associations with right-wing nutcase Bob Jones and a well-known chumminess with Nixon, Reagan and assorted Bushes, Graham did oppose segregation in the South, even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail at one point. So while I may be willing to give him a pass, I reserve no such restraint for the website promoting his library, which is the subject of this week’s Website Review.

The home page includes some basic information about the library (obvious things like closed Sunday, no firearms or pets permitted, MasterCard and Visa accepted at the gift shop) and an overview of key features. There are re-creations of historic moments in Graham’s life, “amazing” films and more than 350 photographs, and an opportunity to “submerse yourself” in a special room dedicated to his late wife, Ruth. There’s also a brief video, slickly produced but a little lacking in audio quality, in particular the introduction that at first listen sounds like “experience the journey of one simple mind that impacted millions.” And there’s a description of the site’s centerpiece, the restored Graham Family Homeplace, which was rebuilt using 80 percent of the original materials and, presumably, 20 percent of stuff from Lowe’s.

The home page also includes news releases and testimonials about the power of God as exercised through Rev. Graham. There’s a statement in reaction to Oral Roberts’ death — Graham “loved him as a brother” and “looks forward to seeing him in Heaven” — and one from Billy’s son Franklin, who has taken over much of the day-to-day operations of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin, naturally, had spoken to Roberts’ son Richard, and judiciously avoided saying anything about how his father could now beat up Richard’s father.

The testimonials are mostly from average Christians who have visited the library recently. “I can’t think of a better place to spend my birthday other than Heaven,” notes Chrissy from Louisburg, N.C. “I lived across the street from the Smithsonian in Washington for many years and it has nothing on this library,” says Fred from Lexington, S.C. “My son is addicted to meth and was ready to commit suicide,” writes one father, a bit off-topic.

There’s also a long piece from a former atheist and alcoholic (there’s a difference?) who came to Christ after being told by her bartender she should attend the local crusade, then showing up and hyperventilating among 65,000 Christians, then fleeing to the sidewalk outside to catch her breath, then becoming “completely transformed” because the sermon could still be heard in the parking lot. Now she has a radio show and is available through the Captivating Women Speaker Bureau.

There’s a Reservations pulldown encouraging advance arrangements for parties larger than 15 people, so theoretically Jesus’ 12 disciples could just show up unannounced but will be advised to wear comfortable shoes, allow at least two hours for the visit, and need to provide their own strollers and wheelchairs. A Get Involved section solicits volunteer library workers who have prayerfully considered their ability to stand on their feet for four hours at a stretch (no mention of requiring familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system).

The Special Events area describes two recent happenings, a Teddy Bear Tea Party and something called “Bikers with Boxes,” and promotes the currently running “Christmas at the Library” festivities. The latter actually sounds like fun, with a live nativity, horse-drawn carriage rides through a beautiful lights display, strolling carolers and holiday goodies. If you can nudge the Joseph actor to break character and burst into a giggling fit, you might even qualify for a free plate of Mother Graham’s poundcake and hot apple cider, though that’s unlikely since I just made it up.

There’s an extensive Books and Gifts section with some great ideas for holiday giving, such as DVDs, festive cards and the library barn Christmas ornament. A daily prayer journal with insights from Billy Graham will help you keep track of which requests God has already granted and which are on back-order. And there’s a whole collection of resources “equipping tweens to live for Christ” called the “Dare to be a Daniel” series. I checked with my son, who is an actual Daniel,  and he hopes there’d be minimal emphasis on being eaten by a lion and more about going out to movies and Taco Bell with friends.

The pulldown about “Billy Graham, The Man,” is one I will respectfully decline to deride, other than to note that his answer to the question he hears everywhere he goes is that hope in the future is possible “through Jesus Christ,” and that he looks ridiculous in his white wedding  tuxedo.

Finally, I’ll mention a Special Announcement that will be of interest to anyone who plans to visit the library soon. It will be closed. Despite being in business for only two years since its construction, the facility will shut down for several months of extensive upgrades and improvements beginning Jan. 11 and continuing until spring 2010. Local news reports at the time of the announcement indicated that there are significant issues with acoustics in many of the exhibits, allowing sound from adjacent rooms to bleed through the walls. So, for example, during quiet reflection in a chapel you may suddenly hear what seems to be the Lord Almighty ordering a tuna salad sandwich and a chocolate milkshake but is in fact bleed-through from bustle in the Dairy Bar.

But the website will continue to remain in service during construction, so you can virtually enjoy the glory of God as reflected in his humble servant Billy Graham from the comfort of your own personal family homeplace or barn.

Team-building breaks out at climate conference

December 17, 2009

I heard a news item on the radio the other day reporting that delegates at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen were dividing into “breakout” sessions. I immediately recalled way too many days during my corporate career spent in seminars listening to motivational, team and quality trainers spouting endless tripe while waving their markers in the air and pawing at their overhead projections.

At some point during these affairs, participants are inevitably broken up into smaller groups and given childish assignments that, if nothing else, wake them up. These “games trainers play” give the presenters a chance to go on the internet and look for a better job while their hapless audience makes paper airplanes and/or a beeline for the emergency exit.

Perhaps not the “breakout” organizers were intending but still a chance for team members to get creative and think outside the box or, in many cases, outside the local Hilton.

As a former corporate trainer myself, I wanted to find out more about these sessions. I wanted to sympathize with the government officials from around the world who not only had to endure a mind-numbing symposium but also Scandinavian winter and Danish food which, as I understand it, is woefully short of actual Danish. However, when I searched online for “climate change breakout,” all I could find were stories about the violence that had broken out among the thousands of protestors in attendance outside.

So I decided to dig out a manual from my old training days to figure what they might be up to in Denmark. “Team Workout” describes itself as a trainer’s sourcebook of team-building games and activities. It contains 50 recipes for getting seminar attendees on their feet and involved in activity — “icebreaking,” as it was called in those days before global warming, when such a thing was necessary.

The following are a few of the exercises that could play a role in saving our precious planet from greenhouse gas emissions which might otherwise doom us all:

Activity 6: Creating a Team Logo — The purpose of this activity is to initiate a discussion of team purpose and values employing an easel, flipchart, markers and push pins. At the end of the 45-minute session, the team presents its logo along with its rationale to the larger group. Other teams can ask questions for clarification, such as “what were you thinking?” and “can you believe they’re making us do this?” The book says “the team may elect to take the logo back to the workplace and use it in some fashion,” but that hardly seems likely unless there’s some type of spill that needs to be cleaned up. Variations include creating a team slogan, song or name, or selecting a well-known song, movie or television show that reflects the team’s values. I might suggest “Lost” or “So You Think You Can Team-Build?”

Activity 14: Get SMART — Six to eight people sit around a rectangular table learning the SMART protocol for preparing team goals. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Individuals suggest goals for the group, then 7 minutes is spent reaching a consensus. (Plenty of time to figure out how to undo a century of environmental abuse). A sample goal that meets all five criteria is “by the end of the third quarter, 90 percent of all requests from customers will be handled within 48 hours.” A goal that might not be exact enough could be something like “try not to die.”

Activity 16: How’s Your Team’s Vision? — This one gives employees the opportunity to learn about the “strategic planning process,” from “visioning” and “culture alignment” to “planning a plan” and “gap analysis.” A monster of an endeavor clocking in at 4 hours, this workout ends with the team evaluating how close they are to realizing their vision: on a scale of one to ten, one means “we are nowhere,” five means “we are halfway there,” and ten means “we are there.” Or, the facilitator can simply choose one of the listed variations — “have the team members evaluate their effectiveness in advance” — but then the lunch break would come at 10 a.m. and the boxed sandwiches and stale cookies won’t be arriving till 11:30 at the earliest.

Activity 26: Rhyme Time — This game provides an opportunity for the team to work together on a joint task while sitting in a cluster of chairs. A deck of cards is prepared in advance, containing questions that will have a pair of rhyming words as the answer. The rules are that “there are no rules,” except of the course that the answers contain two words which rhyme. For example, a cause-and-effect diagram prepared by a team of well-to-do members is a “hightone fishbone.” An informal recognition given as a natural part of the regular work day is an “herbal verbal.” An ironic acknowledgement a team can give a manager who shows little interest in them is a “bored award.” You get the idea.

Activity 36: Tell-a-Story Teaming — This activity helps team members enhance their creative-thinking skills, works well with large groups and introduces the concept of 5×7 index cards. The facilitator instructs the group to develop a short story that includes eight suggested topics — a person, place, object, animal, activity, food, occupation and mood. “Some dude went to the store wearing a mask and carrying his cat. He stole some Slim Jims from the clerk, and felt good about it. The end.” In the debriefing portion of the session, the team is asked how this activity will help them back on the job. This is when team members really get the chance to be creative.

Activity 50: Yea, Team! — I think this is supposed to be pronounced “yay, team,” but the sarcastic inflection (as in “yea, right”) is probably more accurate. This “energizing” activity requires a minimum of 20 people unfamiliar with each other and, perhaps not surprisingly, “a large enough room to allow participants to move around.” Prior to the session, the organizer has to learn information about people in the group — hobbies, interests, past experiences or unusual facts. There’s an elaborate description of the process for this activity, but it seems to boil down to having people mill about, eventually standing on large grid squares containing a trait that applies to them. Examples given include “likes to tie flies,” “survived an earthquake” and “has a rich fantasy life.” Every time you encounter someone who shares this characteristic with you, you write the letters T, E, A or M on a smaller paper grid, and at some point, somebody yells out “yea, team” and is declared the winner, usually of a t-shirt or hat with corporate logo. Variations include having a cow plop on the winning square, having Bob Barker serve as master of ceremonies, or having Bob Barker plop on a square.

…and this last bullet point proves I’m an idiot

Getting into the Christmas spirit

December 16, 2009

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I’m definitely starting to get into the Christmas spirit. But if being joyful and merry means I have to start being nice to people, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to make that commitment.    

See, I have a problem with goodwill toward men. I’m usually too impatient going about my daily activities to take the time to stop, chat, and have something akin to normal social relationships. It seems that if you took every opportunity during the course of a day to “chew the fat” with every acquaintance you met, your arteries would be hopelessly clogged and you’d never get anything done, except perhaps an emergency balloon angioplasty, and you’d have to squeeze that in.    

Take, for example, my almost-daily stop at a cafe near my house, where I’m working right now. There are several regulars that join me each afternoon, and by “join” I mean that we share approximately the same coordinates on the face of the globe. (Once, we shared exactly the same coordinates, but that’s only because they didn’t look behind themselves before sitting down).    

I’ll exchange at most a nod with these folks, because I’ve seen what happens when you do anything more. This one guy in particular …    

Yes, I'm talking about you

… is also working on his blog, as well as a book about why African-Americans should be flocking to the Republican Party (talk about a Christmas miracle). I’m not sure how he gets any work done, as he’s constantly shooting the breeze with baristas, cashiers, and anybody else that comes within a six-foot radius. “Are you on Facebook?” he asks the blood-spattered EMT tech who stopped for a quick double espresso. “What’s your email address again?” he inquires of a passing toddler. The other day he sighed loudly and said, to no one in particular, “I’m so glad I’m almost finished writing this book.”    

“Oh, you’re working on a book?” the friendly man sitting behind him might ask, though it’d probably be the last thing he says for the next half-hour.    

I am not that friendly man. I’m the bitter curmudgeon who responds in one of two ways when I see a familiar face enter the store — I switch to the other side of the table to put my back toward the door, or I’m suddenly transported into ultra-focused concentration on my work, internally debating the merits of comma or semicolon, dashes or parenthetical aside, new paragraph or yet another run-on. (Oh, damn, here he comes anyway.)    

However, it’s Christmastime, and even I am experiencing a buoyant spirit that pushes me beyond my normal inhibitions. I want to do something to reach out to others and share in the seasonal cheer, but I don’t want it to be mistaken for anything more than a limited-time offer. Don’t expect this kind of amity when January rolls around, because I’ve got the whole month penciled in for being dour.    

Maybe I could just hand out twenty-dollar bills. I tried that once with the homeless guy off the interstate exit ramp, however I ended up beaten in a culvert three states over.    

What I’m considering now is, for me, a radical step. I’m thinking of attending a holiday church service. This would allow me to kill two birds with one stone: devote a concentrated period to fellowship then get on with my life, and also soak up a little of the yuletide pageantry that I seem to be lacking in the broken 1989 Mannheim Steamroller cassette that continuously loops through the same song and a half. Three birds, actually, if you count saving my soul from eternal damnation.    

I come from a Christian family tradition, and regularly attended church as a youth, until I was confirmed at age 15 and promptly found better things to do. I have extremely fond memories of those times, as they’ve now become a colorful blur that fortunately excludes those excruciating sermons about how it’s good to be good, and bad to be bad. The music and decorations and family warmth, though, were wonderful.    

So I made a tentative recon sortie this past weekend, attending a “cookie walk” at the local Methodist church. Not exactly a formal date on the liturgical calendar, the annual sweets sale on the second weekend of December does provide a great opportunity to get a quick taste of the season with minimal human interaction. For $6, you get a small box from a friendly-but-distracted church lady, then walk down a row of decorated tables, pointing at the baked goods you want to be stuffed into your box. It’s a little like communion, only these dispensers handle the goods with sanitary gloves and don’t mumble quite as much.     

I made my way down the aisle with limited conversation, mostly a mix of “that one,” “this looks good” and “those are chocolate chips or raisins, right?” I was friendly without being grating, sincere without being affected, and completely superficial, just as I like it. When my box was full, I headed to a cake table where another slightly more eager Methodist stood watch. As I admired the Amish friendship bread, I heard the question I feared:    

“What church do you attend?”    

“Uh, none locally,” I stammered, hoping she’d think I was from a land far away.    

But now, I’m thinking I might be ready for a deeper experience that centers more on my eternal soul and less on my weakness for red-sprinkled shortbreads shaped like Santa. I’m looking at the church directory in our local newspaper for a house of worship that might possibly accommodate my belief that it’s possible a single small South Carolina parish is not the only group to have cornered the market on everlasting life.    

As you might imagine, there are many that don’t look particularly hopeful: the Real Life Assembly of God, the New Vision Freewill Baptist Church and the Calvary Ultimate Life Shield of Faith Evangelical Ministry, to mention a few. These don’t sound especially flexible in their theology (though I bet all the jumping up and down they do makes them quite agile physically), so I harken back to my Lutheran heritage. There’s a Missouri Synod branch called Epiphany Lutheran, though I believe I read that this synod maintains a strict belief in bad pro football teams (the Kansas City Chiefs, the St. Louis Rams, etc., hardly what you’d call solid rocks on which to build a church, especially their offensive lines). There’s Emmanuel Lutheran on Main Street, probably the town’s old-school congregation with old-school parishioners.    

I think I’m going to choose Grace Lutheran, not far from the local college. It offers both traditional and contemporary services and has a pastor named E. Ray Mohrmann, a great name for a Lutheran. They do claim to have communion at all services, not something I’d necessarily brag about but not a deal-breaker for me. Maybe there will also be communion in a larger sense, and I’ll get the chance to fraternize with cheerful, Christmas-addled types and consume wheat-based foodstuffs at the same time.    

 “Take and eat, for this is the Body of Christ,” I imagine E. Ray will ask me. And I’ll be ready to respond: “Thanks for the snack. Hope you’re ready for the holidays. Have you gotten all your shopping done? I can’t believe those lines at the post office. I hear we might get some snow next week. Give my best to your family.”

Fake News: Palin, like, likes Obama

December 15, 2009

Sarah Palin responded yesterday to criticism from fellow Republicans following reports that she “liked” President Obama’s pro-war speech while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I didn’t, like, like like it,” said the former Alaska governor. “I just thought it was cute. I think the president and I can be friends. No, not, like, boyfriend/girlfriend. Gah, you are so immature.”

Some conservatives were quick to criticize Palin for speaking positively about the president, even after he told an Oslo audience that the U.S. had a right to pursue a “just war” against those who would threaten Americans.

“Sarah likes Barack, Sarah likes Barack,” said former Rep. Newt Gingrich, a possible challenger to Palin for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. “She’s totally hot for him. Her friends told me all about it.”

Gingrich said the conflict in Afghanistan isn’t “just war,” it’s “a really cool war, with Predator drones and cave explosions and mountains with lots of snow, which means awesome snowboarding.”

Meanwhile, 2008 presidential contender Mitt Romney characterized Palin’s approval of Obama’s address as “yet another indication of how much she loves him, and I don’t mean love like you might love french fries, I mean love like you’d love a dude.”

Romney said he was privy to classified communications between Palin and Obama, including a text message the former vice-presidential candidate allegedly sent to the president. Romney said Palin’s “BFF” showed him the message, which had a photograph of a muskrat attached.

“The message was all, like, ‘check out my muskrat,'” Romney said. “She better be careful — that kind of thing could end up on the internet.”

Another potential candidate in the 2012 race, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, has a state right across the hall from Palin’s, and reportedly told friends that he saw a picture of the president hanging inside her locker, and heard Palin giggle to a classmate that she was going to “totally” get a tattoo of the commander-in-chief on her lower back.

“She said her brother knew a guy that could make it kinda look like (Palin’s husband) Todd when she was standing up straight, but it would morph into more of an Obama likeness when she bent over to pick up her pencil, which she planned to drop in front of him during fourth period,” Pawlenty said. “Talk about Sluts-sylvania.”

Palin defended herself against the salvo of attacks, saying there was “no way” she was about to give the president credit for a well-reasoned defense of American foreign policy “when the guy’s got nerd-ears out to here.”

“I’m not an all-inclusive loser, you know,” she said. “Well, technically, I guess I was a loser (in 2008), but the eleventh-grade me is way cooler than I was last year.”

Palin said the complete transcript of her telephone interview with USA Today would exonerate her of the “liking” charges. That transcript reads as follows:

“I liked what he said. In fact, I thumbed through my book this morning to say, wow, that that really sounded familiar, because I talked too in my book about the fallen nature of man and why war is necessary at times. And history’s lessons when it comes to knowing when it is that we engage in warfare, and a couple of the other things he said were I thought, wow, good, those are nice, a broad message, so broad that I just wrote about those and a lot of Americans are getting to read. Also, my take on when war is necessary.”

“Well, then, I take it all back,” Gingrich said after reading the transcript. “Obviously, the chick is not a ditz.”

Some questions for Monday

December 14, 2009

This is a sign. Read it.

The computer-generated sign on the door inside the YMCA was short and to the point.    

“The bikes are in here,” read the 72-point type. “Thank you.”    

And sure enough, I could see them through the large glass window of the converted classroom — about a dozen stationary exercise bikes, packed tightly together and ready for spin class.    

I’m not sure why the sign was there, other than the fact that the staff had access to basic word-processing functions and could create and print any message they wanted. The proliferation of computers has made sign-printing so simple that anyone can do it, for even the most superfluous of reasons. The folks at the Y seemed to relish this power to visually communicate, almost to the point of annoyance.    

There’s another sign that appeared recently in the men’s locker room that has generated some controversy among the mostly older patrons. It reads: “Swimsuits are required in sauna, spa, steamroom and pool.”    

Most of the retired guys there during the hours I exercise complain bitterly about the restriction, even though everyone ignores it and no one enforces it. They seem to relish splaying themselves au naturel across the wooden planks while they talk about how things aren’t like they used to be.    

“Next thing you know, they’ll make us wear clothes in the shower,” observed one.    

I could see his point (though it was a bit shriveled). If you can’t be naked in public at a fine Christian institution like the Y, where can you be naked in public?    

One of the few professionally created signs in the locker room is on the door, warning against the use of cellphones and their cameras. After release of provocative photos of celebrities in various stages of undress at their health clubs, the Y posted this sign. Not that we have patrons anyone would be interested in seeing nude online. I guess that’s why this one, too, is ignored, particularly in the photo below.    

Don't take a picture of this

Can I go here?

Are there regulations that exist to enforce the use of handicapped bathroom stalls by handicapped people only? Or is there an assumption that people of goodwill and compassion will act responsibly, avoiding the lavishly spacious facilities so the differently-abled will have a commode at the ready when they need it?   

Because I don’t think the latter is working, if my own behavior is any indicator.   

I’m all in favor of a smallish government that focuses on basic services and minimal law-enforcement, so I wouldn’t advocate a sub-cabinet-level division to impose a national regulation on the subject. No one wants to see federal marshals patrolling the men’s rooms of our nation, peeking under the barriers in search of lawbreakers, except maybe certain former senators.   

But I’m not sure that self-policing works either. If you considered using a handicapped parking space, there’d be both the law and the general public to dissuade you. In the privacy of a restroom, neither of these sanctions exist, so for me the temptation to splurge is too much to resist. If there’s a handicapped stall being used by a handicapped person, I won’t go so far as to order them out. If it’s already empty when I arrive, though, I’ll go ahead and use it.   

If a law were to come to pass, I think I’m ready (not to comply, but to circumvent). My grandfather left me a bizarre antique cane, the bottom of which is a deer foreleg and hoof, that I could start carrying into the stall with me. If having one regular human leg and one deer leg doesn’t qualify me as handicapped, I’m not sure what does.   

You call this acting?

I watched a great documentary on the Discovery Channel the other day about the life of early man. It was called “Before We Ruled the Earth: How We Hunted” and showed what it was like to be a proto-human hundreds of thousands of years ago.    

As you might imagine, life was tough. But it couldn’t have been much worse than what the actors who participated in numerous re-enactments had to endure while preparing for these roles. The hours of makeup required to protrude the brow, harden the jaw and apply matted wigs to make the modern actor look prehistoric had to be nearly interminable. And the costuming sessions must’ve been equally difficult. The only effortless planning was probably the dialogue, since script-writers were generally limited to groans and murmurs.    

I imagine that, considering how difficult it is to break into the acting game, these roles were relatively prized among those who were cast. (Probably almost as valuable as the scavenged rib proudly waved about by “Cro-Magnon #2” in one scene.) At least you’re working in a paid position, even if you can’t gather your relatives around the premier showing and brag about how much the director admired your nuanced style.    

It also had to serve as a good stepping stone to future gigs. All of the speaking, er, grunting roles were credited at the end, so you would be able to list the effort on your resume. It might just be enough to make James Cameron think of your name next time he makes a movie, assuming you can wait ten years.    

When the credits rolled at the end of the broadcast, I learned that among the characters wandering the snowy landscape of Neanderthal Europe were Aak, Gaag, Do’og, Gnok, Kul and Bjor. Gnok had a particularly touching scene when one of his fellow hunters died in a cave, just as the others were noticing ancient drawings of elk on the wall, and wordlessly postulating who had been there before them. Turns out modern man and his antler-tipped spear was just around the corner, rendering the soon-to-be-extinct Gnok to a sad fate, not unlike that of those who used to work in American manufacturing.    

At least I think that was Gnok. It was hard to be sure, since I was under the impression everybody in this particular tribe was named “Unngghh.”    

Headgear for cavemen?

Speaking of which, can anybody tell me if Neanderthals wore hats?    

My wife and I were out in the cold last night when she suggested I could use a good knit hat. She repeated the theory that seventy percent of body heat was lost through the top of the head. I said I thought that had been debunked, and re-stated my aversion to hats on the principle that my head already looks too big.    

“Even the Neanderthals wore hats,” she said.    

I didn’t think they did, having just watched the above-mentioned documentary. They may have wrapped moss around their heads, or perhaps donned the carcass of an otter after it had been gutted of meat, but it was hard to imagine anything approximating a “hat.” With the tremendous size of those primordial brows, how could any conventional hat possibly fit?    

I googled “Neanderthal hat” when we got home, and got mostly hits that described primitive images designed into home-knitted headgear. I could find no archaeological record that milliners were at work so early in our history.    

If anybody reading can cite any evidence one way or the other on this issue, please let me know.

Revisited: Giving til it bleeds

December 13, 2009

There was a lot of negative talk out there after my recent post claiming that gift-receiving was so much better than gift-giving The Internet was absolutely abuzz, if you count the guy who said I was a “seflish idoit” and the email I got from my mom asking if that’s the way she raised me.

To prove the point that I can also be a very caring individual who feels deeply the importance of giving back to his community, I’ll be hauling a load of stuff over to Goodwill at the end of the tax year on Wednesday. I also went to the bloodmobile Saturday to give the gift of life.

Talk about giving of yourself, this is the most selfless contribution one can make short of a lung. My wife and I have been giving this annual donation right around Christmas for the past five years or so. She’s actually way ahead of me in the quantity given, having started in college. I was only introduced to the concept when the local Starbucks began sponsoring the event with the incentives of free coffee and a baked good for all donors. I also wanted to see if it was true that you’d get drunker on a couple of beers after your body had been sapped of almost a quarter of its life-force.

We arrived early enough to be first on the list of those signing up. While the rest of the nearly overflowing coffee shop was lounging around concerned only about number one (that coffee goes right through you), Beth and I read through the pre-donation materials to be sure we were still eligible. Easily clearing the requirement that I was at least 17, weighed at least 110 pounds and had at least one arm, I signed where they told me and soon was called out to the parking lot where the bloodmobile was parked.

I was directed to the tiny interview room by a middle-aged South Asian woman. This was a good start: my past experience with the workers who staff these events was that they tended to be either young Hispanic- or African-American women who were fast on the uptake but still required several jabs to hit the right spot, or else they were older Southern white women who were equally jab-happy but much slower about it. I’ve seen enough cardiologist ads in the paper to recognize that Indians make great healthcare professionals. In addition, when it was discovered the scanner connection to the laptop wasn’t working properly, she was able to troubleshoot that without calling home.

We huddled together in a space about the size of an airliner bathroom while she ran through the extremely personal health history questions she kept assuring me she was required to ask. Was I a hemophiliac? No. Have I had an organ transplant in the last 60 days? I don’t recall one. Have I ever had sex with another man? No. Have I ever had sex with a hemophiliac or transplant recipient who was a man? Have I ever been in prison? Have I ever been to Africa? Have I ever killed and consumed the flesh of another person? If so, did that person have hepatitis? Was I bitten by a crazy cow in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996? No, no, no, no, and no, that unfortunate cow encounter was in 1997.

Finally cleared to proceed, I walked out to the main aisle of the mobile. My interviewer asked which arm I wanted to use, and here’s where I must admit I puffed up a little with pride. If you read my previous posting about selling my body to a company that was doing shingles research, you might remember how exceptional the main vein in my right arm is. The inside of that elbow has been widely admired for the way in which the blue vessel protrudes in a come-hither fashion just below the thinnest layer of skin. Since the right-armed donation loungers were all full, I was asked if I wanted to offer my left arm instead. But when I showed the admiring circle of blood ladies my right vein, they all agreed I should wait. One of them marked the vein with a pen, then posed next to it for a photo to show her family. I took a seat to wait my turn.

After about ten minutes, Beth finished her session and I was able to take her spot. The needle went in effortlessly and soon the blood was flowing. I sat back and relaxed as much as I could while workers scurried perilously close to my connection and the intercom played Christmas songs. And, wouldn’t you know it, two of them were from my “Worst Christmas Songs of All Time” list and a third was Bob Seger’s boozy rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” (I don’t know if I was starting to get a little light-headed or what, but the line “the ox and lamb kept time” struck me as absolutely hilarious.)

My languor was soon interrupted when one of the workers reported that an “overflow situation” was developing somewhere in my vicinity. I tried to look behind me where my bag hung to see if the room was starting to look like a Quentin Tarantino film and I was preparing to bleed out. Apparently it was only a minor overflow so I was able to avoid infecting the whole bus with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or whatever it was that wacky British cow gave me.

I was disconnected from the tubing, had a gauze bandage affixed to my magnificent vein and was told to raise my arm high in the air. After a minute or so, a role of colored tape was brought out and a length was cut off and wrapped around my arm. Everyone else who’d been through this step in the process was asked what color tape they wanted, so I already had my eye on a nice pale green that would contrast nicely with my hazel eyes. But I was assigned the blue with no questions asked in what would turn out to be the only disappointment of the experience.

As Beth and I headed back into Starbucks to collect our premiums, I began thinking what kind of bakery item I’d be selecting for my freebie. When I placed my order at the counter for a tall-low-fat-mocha-no-whip and a slice of coffee cake, I flashed my bandaged arm at the barista and told her I’d just given blood. The point was to communicate that I shouldn’t be charged for my order but apparently the counter people hadn’t been told how this worked so she rang me up for $5.57. I got the confusion straightened out easily enough, but the embarrassment I endured for those few seconds when she thought I was just showing off my bandage to impress her lingered longer than it should have.

Now if I could’ve shown her my vein, that would’ve been a different story.

Revisited: Playing the corporate game

December 12, 2009

As I’ve written before, I’ve been involved in a lot of game-playing during my corporate career. I’m not talking about the politics and back-biting that make the corporate life so much fun. I’m referring to the all-too-occasional exercises in what’s generally called “career development,” where a group of employees sit around a table (or a bush or an abandoned fire training tower) and get run through a series of humiliations and/or life-threatening workouts. If you’re lucky, you only feel stupid; otherwise, you end up “developed,” a painful condition where you exhibit a positive attitude all out of proportion to your circumstances.

Generally, these outings are designed to promote creativity and build camaraderie among the troops. You’re taken out of your normal cubicle environment and put in a setting where you are encouraged to think outside the box, dare to be great, or push the envelope of your normal comfort zone. I happen to believe that thinking outside the box is over-rated, and remind my cat of this every time he strays over the edge of his litter container.

Nevertheless, I try to be a good boy and play along. The first couple times, I genuinely tried to improve myself and my value to the company. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a lot more jaded, as you’re about to read.

One fairly common method to get group members to open up and talk freely is to mentally transport them to a different place in time. Here, they can talk about their aspirations or ramble nostalgically about the past. In one session I went through in the early ‘90s, staged for what were (wrongly as it turned out) perceived to be future leaders, we were told to draw a picture of where we saw ourselves in ten years. The only thing the 15 people had in common was that they imagined a future somewhere very far away from the company they were supposed to be leading. I remember that my picture had me sitting on a dock next to a huge satellite dish that retrieved documents from outer space that I would then proofread while my son sat next to me fishing. (I wasn’t exactly prescient about the coming rise of the Internet.) Poor artist that I am, my group’s facilitator interpreted the scene as someone working at NASA directing the first mission to Mars, with my son playing the part of a tethered robot. Close enough, I figured.

A similar exercise was done with another group a few years later: they were told to think exactly ten years into the past. Headlines of the exact day were read aloud and a hit song from the period was played to tickle everyone’s memory. We heard funny tales from high school, a story about a surprise birthday party and, from one young woman who could barely hold back her tears, a recounting of the day after her mother was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. The brainstorming was not especially inspired after that.

Another common activity is to break the group into smaller teams who are then given an assignment that requires them to work together to accomplish a goal. Once, we had to use tape, pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks to create a contraption that could cushion an egg from a six-foot fall. Another time we had to reach consensus on the best way to fold a sheet of paper into an airplane, then test our designs with a farthest-flight competition in the parking lot. My prototype was damaged when it was run over during flight testing; I wanted to ball up the remains and wrap them around a rock, which I was convinced I could throw way farther than anyone’s aircraft was going to go. Apparently, this was not the paradigm shift my trainer had in mind. Maybe I’d do better if a coloring or finger-paint session was next on the schedule.

I also had an opportunity to work on the other side of the equation when I spent a few years as an excellence trainer. (Note that I said “excellence,” not “excellent.”) During each day-long quality awareness session, we played what was called the JIT game, which was meant to demonstrate just-in-time production techniques. Each six-person team was given a collection of interlocking blocks and asked to set up a line that could produce exact replicas of a certain configuration. They were required to re-engineer their process several times – with blatant hints from the trainers – to achieve more and better widgets crafted each time with fewer and fewer people. At the end, they could do their very best work with only two people instead of six. Inevitably, some participant would learn the wrong lesson and ask what would happen to the four people who no longer had jobs. The trainers were told to make some vague hint about how maybe they could work in marketing instead.

The most enjoyable game I can recall from my quarter-century experience with this garbage was the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. What I liked best was that this was something you could do largely in the privacy of your own personal space, without having to “team-build” with your half-witted coworkers. You’d answer a battery of questions about your preferences – there were no right or wrong choices – and then you’d be put into one of 16 categories that labeled you as an extrovert, a thinker, a perceiver, an innovator, a molester, an invertebrate, etc. The only group participation required was at the end when you were given your results and told to go to a part of the room where you’d join up with others of your monstrous ilk and compare notes.

One thing I have learned from all these corporate games is how to game the system. Since no judgments are made, no answers are wrong and no ideas are too ridiculous, you can offer up the most absurd input and enjoy watching your guide squirm as they validate your responses. “Yes, Davis, your idea about twirling on our tippy-toes while talking to clients on the phone is a very innovative one,” the trainer says. “Let’s write that up on the whiteboard.” Until they wise up and put your manager behind a two-way mirror with your personnel file, your pay grade and a taser at the ready, these learning opportunities can actually be rewarding. Just not how they were intended.