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Category Archives: Personal Life

Matting down the grass

ImageI put on a stern voice every morning as I try to get my dog, Penny, to ‘go poop’ after her breakfast. She wanders about, obviously taking in something more than I can perceive. She circles a spot and smells intently making a slight move as if – no. That was the wrong place. She bounces away and starts mimicking a tracker again, following some invisible trail.

“Go Poop!”

I imagine that I am helping her.

Despite my frustration with the dog this morning, I start doing exactly the same thing later in the day. I just arrived at the library to do a bit of quick studying (for the Chem Praxis Exam), do some research (regarding a product I am consulting on), and check email before I head over to the Enterprise Center of Johnson County (ECJC) for a lunch seminar. Because I arrived just at opening, there is nothing but space here and only a very few people. Like my dog – or like Dr. Sheldon Cooper trying to find a good movie seat, I go through the same antics.

I’ve wandered around for a while looking, then tried a few possibilities, and even now I’m sitting at what is decidedly NOT the right place.

I need to get something (other than this) done, so I think I’ll try just one more place and get to work.

 

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2014 in Personal Life, Uncategorized

 

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Rambo

Forgive me. It’s between semesters and I haven’t been writing about biology much. However, I have been watching as many bad movies as possible…

rambo-560-4AMC was crazy about Rambo last month – which was perfect, because I love ‘First Blood.’ It’s 75% of a fantastic film. Then Col. Troutman shows up and the film sags under the weight of Richard Crenna’s “acting” and some pretty poor screenwriting. Whereas the beginning is bouoyed by Stallone’s tight-lipped grimness and because Dennehy actually can act.

This film was released in 1982. That’s just nine years after the US ended its involvement in Vietnam. And it’s a challenge to remember what it was like back when this war/ conflict was still a recent, palpable memory. The returning vets were having a hell of a time adjusting to and re-entering a society that opposed the war so vehemently that they eventually mixed up political opposition with personal rejection of its US victims, the Vets themselves. Contrast this to how WWII vets returned to a celebration of ticker-tape parades and the end of a nation that went to war with its soldiers, making sacrifices and experiencing the war at home just as it was on the fronts. WWII soldiers were heroes that America embraced and did all it could to bring back into American life. It was a war against evil, and America was in it 100%.

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Vietnam, on the other hand, was a war of ideas – abstract ideas – Capitalism vs Communism, fought on a real battlefield by pawns of their governments. At home, the war was being played on television and young people did not like what they were watching.

… And there was the draft. It was no fantasy for kids at home to imagine being in the jungle fighting a war they didn’t understand against enemies they knew nothing about. If nothing else, the draft brought the country together knowing that it could be anyone’s number up next. Fighting evil is one thing, fighting a difference in opinion about how to manage the financial resources of a country is another thing altogether.

With this in mind, the young people in the US rebelled: They protested, burned draft cards and wrote protest songs. Over time opposition to the war gained strength and lent legitimacy to the protester’s arguments and bred distrust of the government.

The effect this had on the veteran population is difficult to assess.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t officially recognized until 1980 and veteran suicide rates were not officially tracked prior to the Vietnam era.1 So there’s no data from WWII vets – which would have been a perfect control population of veterans who returned to a welcoming country.

In a study of Vietnam veterans vs veterans from the same era who did not serve in Vietnam, there was a significant increase in deaths due to ‘external causes’, meaning non-illness. This includes motor vehicle accidents, suicide and homicide. The greatest difference was found in the first five years after discharge (see below)

Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 8.44.30 AM

A United States Department of Veterans Affairs report estimates that 830,000 Vietnam War veterans suffer(ed) symptoms of PTSD compared with 207,161 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.2

All of this is just to provide some background into the psyche of veterans at the time. In First Blood, John Rambo is a returning green beret, war hero and congressional medal of honor winner with a body and mind ravaged by the war and the horrors of a POW experience. Sly Stallone does a great job with the role – he looks the part: muscular, downtrodden and sullen with bottled rage simmering under a façade of cool. John Dennehy is a bastard Sheriff for the small town in Hope, Washington (no message there) hell bent on keeping riff raff like Rambo out. He starts cruel and unsympathetic and then matures into downright vengeful and vindictive.

Despite only spending ten or fifteen minutes to develop characters, the audience gets the point quickly and can’t help rooting for Stallone right from the start. From that point in the movie on, we’re fed a constant stream of action in pure, pre-CGI style. Bones might break and crunch, but we’re not thrust into seeing every detail… which, by the way, is the entirety of the most recent Rambo film which was obviously thrown together just to take advantage of Stallone’s bulking up for Rocky Balboa.

I might poke fun, but I love the ride this film takes us on. We get to watch Rambo struggle and improvise in the forested mountains above town as he hides out and picks off his hunters one by one. I can’t help but think that this is exactly what MacGyver would have been like if he was a badass with PTSD.

Then, there’s an abrupt shift. As if the original writer was fired and a hack was brought in to tie things up with a series of big explosions and a final face-off between Rambo and the Sheriff. It’s crap. Not to mention that the total destruction of the town kind of makes you think that Dennehy was right to try to keep him out in the first place.

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst comes when Rambo breaks down sobbing to the ridiculously stilted acting of his former commander, Col. Troutman, the man who tells us that ‘God didn’t make Rambo, I did.’ I enjoy several of his scenes just because watching an accident is not something people can control, but it goes way, way, WAY too far. Something about Johnny not having legs… whatever. Too much story.

So, let’s sum it up…

First Blood is fun to watch. +1

You don’t need to feel compelled to watch the whole thing. +1

The setting is amazing, beautiful and as realistic a place as one could ever imagine this story taking place. +1

You might stop to think a bit about how we run our government, how we run our wars and how we treat our veterans.  +1

The acting is really hit or miss. +1/-1

There’s some truly awful screenwriting at times. -1

Overall, that comes to +3 by my account. Not bad.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder
  2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/04/iraq-afghanistan-war-veterans-combat-trauma_n_1645701.html
 
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Posted by on January 6, 2013 in Movies

 

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The Hobbit: An (Un)expected Disappointment

images-2A prequel trilogy seems to be a director’s opportunity to push CGI beyond its usefulness and try with all
their vast wealth to demonstrate that more is better- in every case, all the time. Regardless, the films make money providing the only feedback that matters to Hollywood. So we, the audience, ensure our future dissatisfaction.
I wanted to like The Hobbit- I really, really wanted to like The Hobbit. Despite the problems one might expect after hearing that this book was to be divided into three films, I still wanted to like it. And there were parts that I did enjoy tremendously. But, assuming I had the ability to make the film myself, I wouldn’t be expecting a good performance review or raise based on this effort.
Now (spoiler alert), I want to talk about what did and didn’t work specifically.
Beginning with the good…
I though that the film was paced very well from the start giving ample time for character development and slow immersion into the world of middle earth. Of course,the characters that were best introduced were Bilbo and Gandalf, both of whom we already knew from The Lord of the Rings.
Getting to know the dwarves was mixed, but overall quite good. The story paralleled the book well taking ample time to convince Bilbo to come along on the adventure of a lifetime, but it’s difficult to get to know thirteen dwarves no matter how long we take. I’m giving Jackson a pass here and will say that he did a very good job or balancing the dwarves’ gravity and lightheartedness and included the song of the dwarves to set the mood.
Although my wife and I have different opinions about it, I was happy with the backstory of the orcs to provide an antagonist to root against, fear and revile. (However, I would have gone with goblins to keep consistent with the book and get to see a new race of people)
Lastly, the scene with Gollum was easily as good as any he starred in previously and saved the movie in no small  manner. Gollum represents CGI at its finest, a triumph of technology.
Now the bad…
My wife argued that there was too much effort made to stretch things out to make a trilogy out of what should be one long movie. I didn’t find this to be a major fault, but I certainly saw her point.
My problems started with the rock/ mountain giants. I know they were in the book, but I think they were an easy thing to skip and a hard thing to do well. Jackson took the hard road and got a rather pointless CGI heavy scene that didn’t add anything to the film.
This was followed by our introduction to the goblins… I’m sorry, orcs. In my mind, the caverns of the goblins were cold and dark and populated by a rather simpleminded, but malevolent race. Never did I imagine wide open spaces laced with miles of timber (where did this all come from?) it was consistent with the LOTRs orcs’ cave, but does it give us anything? Perhaps just lots of room for a big, silly chance scene that reminded me of another big budget loser, The Temple of Doom. What filmmaker wouldn’t want their work to be compared to that?
Again, I’m just giving my two bits, but the last fight scene in the trees is a great opportunity to cut a few minutes as well. Less is more, right? Then, as if an echo of the Fellowship of the Ring, I would fade to credits with the eagles in the air.
I get it though, we need the tree fight to develop the relationship between Bilbo and Thorin… And then we have a resolution on the high rock promontory, but forget it – that’s not character development I needed. Bilbo is only just supposed to be showing his worth here, not becoming bestees with the dwarf.
Overall, I think it was about a 6 out of 10. I just wonder if Peter Jackson has gotten so big and respectable that no one says, “hell no, that sucks!” to him anymore. CGI, chase scenes and cultivated emotion aren’t what’s needed to make this a good film. I agree, if there’s no giant eagles in the world, you would have to use Special effects to show someone getting off of one. Or you could cut away and trust the viewers imagination.
I appreciate that you’ve grown up since Dead Alive, Peter (which was awesome, by the way). You don’t have to try very hard to make Tolkien a good story just don’t get in the way and you’ll have a winner.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2012 in Movies, Personal Life

 

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Listening to House of Dreams

Today the midwest got hit by its first winter storm. At least it was the first storm to hit the Kansas City area. It even had a name, Draco – I didn’t know storms like this were named. Because of this storm, I had a lot of time in the car going to Home Depot and back to pick up some building materials to repair the workshop (which looks like it has been neglected for a decade or more).

All this time in the car means a lot of podcast listening. We heard the latest Radiolab, which contained a great lead-in story about Aleksander Gamme’s solo walk to the South Pole and back.

But, the podcast that really touched me on a personal level was from Freakonomics. It was about a family home and how it can feel like another member of the family, a living part of your memories. This podcast took a turn to talk about how the host, Steven Dubner’s, home had gone from a family centerpiece to a swingers’ retreat. But that’s not what intrigued me.

Instead, I got to thinking about memories and the feeling of ‘family.’

When I was a kid, I had some wonderful ‘golden years.’ I don’t know how else to describe them. Our family was close – both geographically and emotionally. We celebrated holidays together, had group birthday parties (because otherwise there would be too many) and vacationed together. These vacations were all coordinated by my grandparents, who rented a beach house in Rehoboth, DE every summer and had everyone down.

We spent the days on the beach and the nights playing cards together around the dinner table. Playing cards was my favorite part. We mostly played a version of solitaire, which oxymoronically, combined the games of innumerable players into one raucous mess. We also played Hearts a lot and would delight in not just winning, but pounding one poor victim mercilessly through the night (usually a younger, weak player).

Then, in 1994, my grandmother died and shockwaves went through our family. I think we all knew that she was the one who coordinated things, but none of us knew just how central she was. When she was gone, the family fractured and drifted apart.

220px-Hermann_Hesse_2

Hermann Hesse

Years later, I think some things have improved, but we will never be the close unit we once were. Perhaps it was inevitable. As families grow, there are simply more people and the family unit refocuses. I’m reminded of the Hermann Hesse novel, The Journey to the East.

This novel has a story, but the story is not what is important. What is important is “The League’s” spiritual journey. From the Wiki page, “Although at first fun and enlightening, the Journey runs into a crisis in a deep mountain gorge called Morbio Inferiore when Leo, apparently a simple servant, disappears, causing the group to plummet into anxiety and argument.”

Leo, the servant was really the leader. Only no one knew this until he was gone.

I never thought of her as a servant, but I never knew how much a leader she was.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2012 in Personal Life

 

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Slightly Unhealthy Obsession

I read a post a week or so ago (I’ll look for a citation) on whether blogging was addictive. Every characteristic of an addicted blogger made by the writer was something that I think I had just done within the past five minutes: obsessive checking of the blog for comments and likes, convulsively watching my blog’s stats for activity and trolling of the blogosphere for similar blogs in order to like them so that they might come visit my page in return.

I admit it, I’m totally addicted. And I need your help.

Oh no, I don’t want to quit. I don’t really want to control it at all. What I’d prefer to have is some satisfying stats. So, to that end, could you please stop by my blog once in a while. Hit ‘like’ and maybe leave a comment. Perhaps subscribe… and then maybe get someone you know to come by and do all that again.

Right now I get a paltry handful of visits a day (I think my record was 41 – I wish I knew what I had done right that day). I’d like to see if I can get some decent numbers by the end of the summer. It would also be good for me because I know that I’ll write more (and better) if I knew there was someone out there reading.

I have two blogs, this one for DownHouse Software (although I drop anything that’s going on in my life here) and AppCampus, which is a little more serious. I’ve been trying to post some articles on technology in education. I’d also appreciate some article ideas if you have any.

So, if you can help my feed my addiction a little, thank you.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Personal Life

 

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Traveling again

Harry and I have set out traveling again.

This time we’re visiting family on the East coast. We flew out on Friday – after waiting more than five hours in the airport for a late arrival of the previous flight, then a maintenance problem, then a needed part and finally for an entirely new plane. 

Once that was through, we had not further problems and got to BWI quickly. I rented a car and took the little guy to visit his grandparents (my in-laws)  outside of Washington DC while I visited friends and family in the Philly area. I have to say, I miss him very much already. He’s become more than a very small child without opinions and observations of his own and I enjoy having conversation with him through the day.

That said, I will be going to fetch him and bring him up to see my family later in the week. I think he’ll especially enjoy seeing his newest cousin, Nora, whom I met for the first time just today. Like her older sister, she’s completely adorable.

Until I bring him up, I have nothing but time to work on programming, DownHouse or school prep. I’ll see if I can’t return to getting the Mastermind game moved onto the DHS website and maybe even make some progress in getting it re-worked for an app as well.Image

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2012 in Personal Life

 

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Felling a tree at 100 degrees F is insane…

but relying on a homemade surveying device and distant memories of trigonometry might take this over the edge.

Last year something has come through Kansas killing a ton of pine trees. Our problem is that one of these is pretty close to the house and the dead branches have begun to droop so low that they scrape the car when we drive under it. That’s a problem by itself, but then there’s the fact that the branches have become so brittle that I really worry about it toppling over onto us, our cars or the house.

With that in mind I decided that it had to come down. The strategy was to tackle the problem head-on first thing in the morning. I started by removing all the lower branches (I would have kept going, but I could feel the sway of the tree and I kept thinking…’brittle.’ So, I didn’t finish off the top.

Oh, right – I forgot to mention that a couple weeks ago someone broke into our garage/shop and stole my chainsaw, so this whole process is being undertaken with just an axe and bow – saw.

Once the lower branches were off, it was decision time. The last tree I took down I took off the branches and then the top of the tree before chopping down the trunk. It was a pretty scary process, because high in the tree I cut the top and despite all my efforts, the top came down in a way that hit both me and the ladder I was on pretty hard. This time around, I was remembering that clearly while deciding on my next step.

My solution was that I needed to get a good measurement of how tall the tree was to know if it was even safe to bring it down all in one piece or if I just needed to face the prospect of knocking myself off the tree or otherwise hurting myself. But how to measure this?

That’s where high school trig came to mind.

The tangent of an angle equals the opposite over the adjacent sides. So, if I could measure the angle to the top of the tree from any point a known distance away, then I could compute the opposite side (the height of the tree).

How do you measure angles? With a protractor – damn, I don’t have one…. but I can make one!!

Then I need to be able to sight my angle…how about using a straw as a sight?!? And from where on the tree am I measuring the height? I wanted to use a laser pointer, but that didn’t work, so I just sighted that as well.

Here’s the device I used in the hands of my helper:

The reading:

The answer:

tan 25 = tree height / 726″

tree height = about 9.5 yards

I worked for about three hours with a lot of breaks in the shade, but I’m still not finished. I hope it’s safe until tomorrow morning when it’s cool again.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2012 in Personal Life

 

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