Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Anywhere there's water

OK, here's a word association game. I say "U.S. Coast Guard" and you say...

North Dakota?

It may come as a surprise to many but the USCG is actively participating in efforts to cope with the flooding of the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota, a fact noted in President Obama's weekly address. People tend to think of the USCG as a salt water operation, cruising along our coasts, dealing with lighthouses, intercepting smugglers, rescuing mariners from storms, etc., but in truth, the USCG operates virtually anywhere there's water - rivers, the Great Lakes, and overseas. As a lifelong sailor, I've thankfully never had to call on the USCG for help but it makes me feel a lot better when I'm on the water knowing that they're out there if I ever needed them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Because we should only listen to people who think the same way we do

I've been a bit perplexed by the uproar among some people that President Obama accepted University of Notre Dame's invitation to speak at its upcoming commencement festivities. I understand that some Catholics are upset by his pro-choice stand and recent changes in support of government funding of stem cell research. But getting 210,000+ people to sign an online petition to force the school to rescind the invitation? Isn't that a bit excessive? After all, isn't a university exactly the place to have reasoned discussions about differences in opinion?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The soft #1 finally falls

I'm not a devotee of college basketball though I enjoy it more than the pro game. Even so, I could see that Pittsburgh had to be one of the softest number 1 seeds in recent years and I don't think I'm the only one. After Providence College wiped the floor with them in late February, I found it hard to believe that Pitt would actually be a 1 Seed but there they were, standing atop the East Bracket as March Madness started. Still, every time I saw them, they never seemed to dominate their lower seeded opponents like a Number 1 should. The challengers stayed close and while Pitt won, they never seemed to operate in that killer league that UConn, UNC, and Louisville occupy. That's why it came as no shock that they lost to Villanova tonight, losing to Villanova 78-76. If a Number 1 was going to fall, it only made sense it was the softie of the bunch.

Friday, March 27, 2009

So, did they come through the Panama Canal?

When I was younger, I was pretty sure I was going to be a marine biologist and was certain I was going to spend my time studying whales and sharks. I even went to sea to do science as well as sailing. While my career path took a slightly different course, my fascination for things aquatic has never wavered and that's one of the reasons this story caught me by surprise. Of all the creatures in the sea, the ones I'd like to see up close and personal most would be Orcas, aka "killer whales", the world's largest dolphin. I've read about them, seen film of them, bought books about them, and in all that time, never knew that they could be found in the Gulf of Mexico. That must have been one hell of a trip for the crew and charter passengers of the 60-foot fishing boat Shady Lady, suddenly finding themselves among as many as 200 killer whales swimming about in pursuit of tuna.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Catch a falling star

A fan of many things cosmic, I am fascinated by this story about scientists who tracked an incoming asteroid, watched it break up in the atmosphere, and then tracked down the small fragments in the middle of the desert so they could study them. We always look to the heavens and for most of humanity, seeing rocks like this in museums and the news is as close as we'll ever get. I know many people would just say ehhh, it's just a rock, but to me, it's a window into a place I can only dream about visiting.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Take me out to the ballgame (and bring a barf bag)

It's almost baseball season and that means that in most cases, you can prepare for either really expensive mediocre food, expensive decent food, or on those rare occasions (like at Newport Gulls games) affordable tasty food. However, the Single A West Michigan White Caps of my wife's hometown Grand Rapids, Michigan, are shooting for the new extreme with this culinary offering. Heaven help the people who are sitting in the rows in front of the person eating this. Can a game be called on account of gluttony?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Growth industry

For those who may be having some concerns about gainful long-term employment, the Huffington Post ran an article about an industry that's seeing booming growth despite (or because of) these recessionary times. Of course, it's not a job for just anyone.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mixed messages, happily

Well, despite the concerns of doctors and nurses, contrary to the evidence of lab tests, and ignoring what most people had come to expect, my grandmother seems to have rallied. She ate three whole meals today, laughed and joked with the nurses and family, wnet to social events at the great facility where she lives, and generally did her best to prove she's not ready to go.

Good for her. As a close family friend said following this latest "get ready, Babci might not have much time left" moment, apparently my grandmother has nude photos of the Grim Reaper and she's not afraid to resort to a little blackmail.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Preparing to Sleep

My maternal grandmother is 93 and we're now facing the fact that she'll most likely be leaving us soon, probably in the next week or so. According to my father-in-law, a physician with extensive experience with the elderly and end of life situations, the process that Babci is now following is one that will be painless for her. For us, as with anyone losing a central pillar in their lives, I expect that it will be anything but.

We have time to prepare, which is a good thing I suppose. But knowing it's going to happen and actually being ready for it, accepting it when it occurs, are very different things. It's been a few years since we lost my paternal grandmother and more than 8 since my paternal grandfather passed away. I barely knew my mother's dad. He died when I was 5 and Babci (Polish for grandmother) has been a significant part of my life ever since.

She was sleeping soundly today as I sat by her bedside reading my book and talking with family members. Tiny now with slender wrists and not much strength, she still summoned enough to wake up, smile, and reach out to touch my 6-month old niece, blowing her a kiss and asking in a whisper about Amelia's older sister who was home with a fever. I wish she had a bit more strength...she always loved college basketball and watched the games of March Madness, especially her beloved UConn Huskies, with a passion. However, she wasn't up for watching games today and instead rested quietly, safe and warm under her bright white and blue Huskies fleece blanket, dreaming perhaps of my grandfather or perhaps not at all. It was a relief to see her like that, even though I know that it means that soon the dreaming will be left up to us.

Dynamic Earth

An undersea volcano recently began erupting off the coast of Tonga and was large and shallow enough that the eruption was rather dramatically visible. This is incredibly cool video but I'm not sure I would have been out there on that boat. At the end of the video, I think the people out there were starting to agree with me. A bit of a visible reminder why volcano monitoring isn't necessarily a bad thing, huh?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The never-ending fairy tale

I guess it was too much to hope that the Bushies would leave us in peace following Barack Obama's Inauguration. Sadly, they're still lurking and pushing fairy tales as energetically as possible. My favorite so far is former spokesman Ari Fleischer reminding everyone that our attack on Iraq was necessary because "how could we take a chance that Saddam Hussein might not strike again?" I'm sorry...did I miss something? I'm pretty sure it was convincing proven years ago that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Of course, I don't live in the twisted fantasy world of Dick Cheney and his happy non-warriors. Of course, it's even better when Fleischer takes umbrage at Chris Matthew's statement that the 9/11 attacks happened on the Bush Administration's watch. These people are shameless.

Taking the plunge

How on earth did this guy not die when he went over Niagara Falls all by his lonesome, without even a barrel. Not only did he come away from the plunge over Horseshoe Falls but he surfaced where rescuers could see and reach him, avoided freezing to death during 40 minutes in the late winter waters, and came away with only a few broken ribs and bruised back. Efforts to save him were no less heroic than Clark Kent's.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Benedict vs. the Rubber

Someone needs to tell the Pope that he should keep his 19th century mind off 21st century medicine and scientific thinking. If he wants to campaign against condoms for moral and spiritual reasons, fine, but he clearly crossed the line in declaring that condoms not only don't help against AIDS in Africa but that they are actually increasing the problem of this pandemic. Yes, let's just throw out the fact that condoms help stem the spread of the virus, even if they aren't always 100% effective (usually due to operator error). Haven't we learned anything from 8 failed years of George W. Bush-promoted abstinence education? It doesn't work! People are going to have sex and since they are, then it's time to teach them to protect themselves and others. Simply wishing for a moral attitude isn't going to do anything.

R.I.P. Natasha R.

It was rather shocking to hear that Natasha Richardson died this evening. She was only 45 and had suffered a nasty crash on a beginner ski slope but afterwards, initially felt fine. Classy and the loveliest of the Redgrave clan, she was a joy to watch on screen, even in lightweight roles like the mom, Elizabeth James, in the remake of The Parent Trap. It's actually an amusing movie and worth watching just for Richardson's face as she drinks some vile concoction to relieve a hangover followed by the immortal line, "I think I just drank tar." Condolences to husband Liam Neeson, their two sons now deprived of a mother far too early, and the rest of her family.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spin, Dora, spin!

Damn, I wish I'd taken "Under 6 Days" in the "When will Nickelodeon and Mattel cave" office pool.

As I noted last Wednesday, news was zooming through the preschoolosphere about how Dora the Explorer was scheduled for an overhaul, scrapping the elements that kids like my niece have grown to love. The response to the plan and the silhouettes of the new Dora were, well, not very well received.

And now, in a feat of PR spin only a centrifuge could love, it turns out that despite prior news reports, product announcements, etc., the new Dora is actually just an extension of the product line aimed at older kids with the silhouettes representative of a new interactive doll. Really, nobody is messing with classic Dora. Oops!


In all honesty, I don't think this was a complete reversal like Tropicana and its juice cartons or New Coke. I expect that this was probably the original plan. However, speaking as a marketing and PR person, someone really dropped the ball here in getting the message out effectively -- failing to explain that the silhouettes were those of a doll, stressing even more emphatically that classic Dora wasn't changing, etc. -- thereby running the risk of damaging a billion dollar brand. Instead they've caused an uproar and have to go out to the public to do damage control. On the other hand, their PR efforts got people talking about Dora and people like me, who really don't care about the character, to write about it and you know what they say about publicity, good or bad.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Home Grown

Two big thumbs-up to General Manager Theo Epstein and the management of the Red Sox for some great long-term moves in the last few weeks. Locking up reigning MVP Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and lefty Jon Lester -- all products of the Red Sox farm system -- for multi-year deals at reasonable money gives the team a fantastic core of young talent for the next 4-6 years. Filling in the gaps as necessary with free agents and new players coming up through the ranks, Theo and his compadres have the Red Sox looking very good for years to come.

Less than 1 months until the season starts. Can't wait!

My favorite new word

"Oversharing", successor to "TMI" and a perfect definition for the excessive use of social networking. See "Doonesbury, Mike".

Your tax dollars at work...

Apparently Kansans are tired of seeing the Jayhawks stumble year after year as they enter March Madness and so to stop the carnage, the Kansas State Senate adopted a resolution today stating that the Jayhawks should no longer play teams that begin with the letter "B" in March.

Excellent, 25 more letters and the Jayhawks will be guaranteed an undefeated season!

Oh, and on an unrelated note, did you see that the U.S. House of Representatives declared that March 14 (3.14) should be designated "National Pi Day"? As corny as it sounds, the gist of the resolution -- calling for expanded teaching of math and science in our schools -- makes sense. But it still sounds corny.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Knowing what's "real"

When I was growing up, National Geographic magazine was a staple in our household. We pored over the photos of the Mount St. Helens eruption, flights of the space shuttle, the discovery of the Titanic. But even today, I clearly remember the sense of surprise I experienced when I heard that the magazine had fudged a photo of camels and the pyramids to make it fit the cover better. That couldn't be right...National Geographic was supposed to show what is, not what isn't. But indeed, it was right. The image had been altered and the photographer wasn't happy so the news came out.

How things have changed. Photo retouching is ubiquitous. Of course it's been around almost since photography got it's start. You only have to look at political images through history – Stalin repeatedly removed people from photos once they pissed him off. You just don't realize how dramatic it can be. We're not just talking about smoothing pores, removing wrinkles or zapping zips. (Check out this site for a quick overview of photo tampering through history.)

Watchers of the re-release of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" noticed that the shotguns held by police officers in the climatic bicycle/car chase had been removed in favor of walkie-talkies (so much for the whole message of how hard the adult world can be...). Paul McCartney is holding a cigarette in the iconic Abbey Road photo but you won't see it in any American posters. George Lucas has released God only knows how many different versions of Star Wars as he digitally fiddled with it over the years (and not always for the better, in my opinion). However, that's entertainment, I guess. The blending of real and CGI is only getting more seamless.

Last year, the New Yorker ran a fascinating profile of Pascal Dangin, perhaps the most in-demand photo retouching expert in the fashion world. Sadly the online version doesn't include the before and after versions of a black and white photo of a reclining nude woman. In truth, you wouldn't recognize them as the same photo. Maybe taken during the same sitting but not the same image. This went beyond cleaning it up. Instead the hand and arm were in a different position, her face was turned more, and the list of changes went on and on. It was like a creepy version of those "spot the differences" cartoons for kids. The problem was that if you'd only shown me the "after" version, I would have had no way of knowing that it wasn't real. After seeing it, I wondered if photographer Patrick Demarchelier actually deserved credit because the end result was certainly not the photo he took.

And access to such alteration is no longer limited to fashion plates. The New York Times ran a great piece late last year called "I was there. Just ask Photoshop" about the growing use of digital tools to fundamentally alter our own personal records of the past. For example...have a great vacation photo but it includes your ex? Not a problem!

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a fascinating, brief video opinion piece by Jesse Epstein entitled "Sex, Lies, and Photoshop". It looks the presentation of a retouched photo ideal contributing to negative body image, the process of retouching, and how efforts are being made to regulate the process, perhaps by forcing magazines to publish the unretouched photos, identify the retouching artist with the same credit as the photographer, or listing what specifically was retouched.

In truth, I'm honestly not worked up into too much of a twist when it comes to entertainment. These people are paid to peddle fantasy. Even the supposedly natural photos like the real women series by Dove were significantly retouched by Dangin. Do I believe that the fashion model on the cover of a glossy magazine looks like that? Nope, in the same way I don't believe that a man with a big "S" on his chest can fly (though that would be really cool).

However, it gets harder to accept when retouched materials are presented as fact. I think that's why the "camels and pyramid" image resonated for me as a kid. Now, I guess what I find most amazing is how accepted this practice has become and how we apparently can't live without it. What once tainted the National Geographic with scandal is now largely ignored when Martha Stewart is released from prison and her head is put onto a thinner body by Newsweek to go along with the idea that she's lost weight while behind bars.

Sometimes the fraud gets called out (anyone remember the clumsy "fourth missile" image released by Iran?) and sometimes the faked photo still ends up in the public consciousness and becomes "real" to the detriment of the photo's target. Nevertheless, we trust that the news we see on TV and in the papers is real. We hope that it is, even in aftermath of a deliberately perpetrated hoax on the American people and our allies about the existence of WMDs in Iraq, complete with photos and PowerPoint slides.

I suppose one view of this is that we're gullible. Another is that we hold out a certain sense of optimism and hope that people won't lie to us about the important stuff. And then of course, there's a third possibility -- most people just don't realize how much retouching is done and how dramatic it can be. We've been trained to accept the false as reality. I work in a marketing department and we can't live without Adobe Photoshop. It's a powerful and useful tool. However, I'd like to keep it out of my news reporting. I'll pay extra to go to the movies to see the fantasy.

And just for the record, the photo of my in my profile here is unashamedly unretouched. Yes, I did take that pie to the face, thank you very much and there's no need to make it any prettier.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Twelve Angry Men...every two years

For some reason, I'm very popular with the State of Rhode Island and its court system. They just can't enough of me as every two years, like clockwork, I receive a summons to join a group of my peers for jury duty. I've never quite understood this. I was under the impression that selection for jury duty is based on a random selection of eligible voters. Apparently, I'm just tremendously lucky in this regard or I'm being stalked by someone in Superior Court or U.S. District Court.

In Newport County, where I used to live, you were called for 1 day and you were empanelled or you were not. Thankfully I didn't live in the jurisdiction of the Providence courts years ago when you'd be summoned for jury duty and then have to report every day for two straight weeks on the off-chance that a jury was needed. God help you if you were selected for a jury on your last day! Blessedly, the courts in Providence County finally smartened up and shifted to the "get called for 1 day" approach.

Now, I have no problem doing my civic duty and serving on a jury. I just don't understand why I have this biennial duty showered upon me. I have friends and family who have lived in this state for 30+ years and they've never been called for jury duty. Not once. For some reason, I appear to be the sacrificial lamb, taking that jury duty bullet so other people don't.

And so it's with dread that I look toward January and February of odd numbered years, when I will almost certainly receive that envelope from the courts with the ever-so-polite invitation to come join the fun at the J. Joseph Garrahy Judicial Center or face a $100 fine and three days in jail. I must have missed the first one this year -- the "tell us about you so we know where to find you...again" -- mailing. Apparently, they already knew because the second one -- the "cancel your plans, put your life on hold, and come join us" letter -- arrived today. I guess I know where I'll be on April 7th. Gee...I can't wait.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yeah but will my niece recognize her?

For those of you who are parents of young kids, I expect I'm probably a little late to this particular dance but I heard today that Dora the Explorer is getting a makeover. Nickelodeon, together with Hasbro, are overhauling the look of the backpack-wearing, bilingual explorer and making her...well...girly, based on the two silhouettes have been released:

This is apparently intended to extend Dora's appeal beyond kids like my 3-year old niece and into the 9-11 year old crowd. Gone, it seems, are the backpack, the practical sneakers, the shorts that are perfect for climbing on rocks, the functional haircut, and the chubby body of a little kid in favor of what look like ballet slippers with bows, a skirt, long hair, Barbie legs, and middle school.

This strikes me as wrong on so many levels. Are they just doing this to sell more t-shirts and dolls and backpacks, like an NFL team changing its logo? Do they really think that a 10-year old is going to latch on to this new Dora? And seriously, what's wrong with presenting an image of a girl who wears shorts and plays baseball and soccer? And what about Dora's real fan base...is my niece going to recognize her?

Do these people have no understanding of branding? Didn't they learn anything from New Coke or the Tropicana orange juice debacle that recently ended with a humbled return to the old box? Any bets on the over/under until Nickelodeon and Mattel turn on the way-back machine and bring back original Dora?

If they want to reach an older crowd, just give Dora an older sister for crying out loud. Ladies and gentlemen...Nora the Superficial Bratz Knockoff.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Va-va-va-voom Barbie!

I think my sister had a Barbie when she was growing up. I do seem to recall zooming the Barbie Corvette across the kitchen floor at high speeds and watching it carom off the chairs (Demolition Derby Barbie, new from Mattel!). However, I don't think Barbie was ever a major part of the household and so, with Barbie's 50th birthday coming up, it's not resonating very much. Nevertheless, the coverage is everywhere, inescapable, which is how I came across this hilarious commentary on the darker side of Barbie.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Come Give Granny A Ride On Your Hog

With all the depressing news out there, this one was a welcome relief when I read it. Certainly it wins the award for best combination of 84-year year old retirees, creative birthday gifts, Harley Davidsons, and Craigslist.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I think DeMint may be demented

Alright, just so I have this straight...
  1. Republican Senator Jim DeMint wants to ban abortion.

  2. He wants fewer unplanned pregnancies.

  3. And he wants to make contraception more expensive on college campuses, the exact location where women often don't have funds to spare, aren't always fully insured, and are often most likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy that results in them making the decision to have an abortion.
Can someone please tell me how that makes sense?

Here's the deal -- the 2009 Appropriations Bill that passed the House and is hung up in the Senate includes a provision to restore college health centers and other health clinics (including many Planned Parenthood offices) to the discount drug pricing program. It doesn't cost the government ANYTHING. It's not a spending provision. It simply undoes a move by the Bush administration two years ago to exclude college health centers from the program. Conveniently for "Abstinence Only George", contraceptives are the #1 drug dispensed in those clinic. As a result, prescriptions jumped from $5 to $50 per month since the exclusion took place.

Now, Jim "Don't ask me to make sense" DeMint wants to strip the restorative language from the bill and keep the costs high, thereby increasing the risks of unplanned pregnancies, and increasing the potential for the abortions he loathes so much.

Take two minutes to find out more and call or e-mail your congressmen and women to tell them to stuff DeMint's Amendment 649 to the 2009 Appropriations Bill where it belongs. I'm all for bipartisanship but the Democrats won and they don't need to roll over for crap like this.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rant of the Week

Big thumbs up to The Daily Show, which achieved new heights of pomposity-skewering brilliance when CNBC blundered into its sights:

30-day summary

When I first started reading the New Yorker when I was in college, among my favorite items was Elizabeth Drew's "Letter from Washington" column. Sadly, Ms. drew didn't survive the onslaught of Tina Brown when she took over the venerable publication in 1992. (Thankfully, Ms. Brown didn't survive her own onslaught either and moved on in 1998.)

Anyhow, Ms. Drew continues to write insightful political commentary, the most recent of which is her outstanding summary of the first 30 days of the Obama Administration in The New York Review of Books. I heartily recommend it.


Despite hearing Bobby Jindal scoff at investing stimulus funding in the area of "volcano monitoring", I'm a big fan of keeping an eye on natural phenomena that might kill me. Now I'm wondering if any of that stimulus money is going to the expansion of NASA's near-Earth object tracking (aka "asteroid monitoring"). After reading this news yesterday, I think it might be a worthwhile investment.

If you want to know more about the Siberian incident, check this out. Of course, you can always just watch "Armageddon" if you want a cooler version.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spineless Old Party

Yet another Republican "leader" has prostrated himself before the altar of Rush as RNC Chairman Michael "Hip Hop Off the Hook" Steele ate his words and groveled for forgiveness following his recent comments that Rush Limbaugh was merely an entertainer and that Steele was the true head of the Republican party. Steele did his best to spin it (“I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking") but he should have just gone to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's new online "I'm Sorry, Rush" tool.

Ugh. The whiplash caused by the 180-degree reversals of Republicans like Steele and Phil Gingrey is just more evidence that the Grand Old Party has been castrated by this bombastic blowhard.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bang on!

I've loved Celtic music since I was a kid and now have a pretty decent collection of it but I have no skill or patience for playing it. As a result, I'm left with my jaw agape after the latest "oh I'll just bang something out" performance by my brother, an immensely talented natural musician, with the Irish bodhran he got for Christmas. Damn, I wish I could do that:

It takes some skill to play this and play it well. In some Irish pubs, they don't allow bodhran players because they can drown out all of the other instruments. An Irish musician of our acquaintance told us a joke once -- a guy walks into a bar with a satchel and the bartender, looking alarmed, cries out "Hey is that a bomb?" "Yes," replies the man with the satchel. "Oh good," says the bartender. "I thought it might have been a bodhran."