Monday, December 22, 2008

The Perpetual Calendar

As you’ve probably already gathered from my previous postings, my brain doesn’t seem to function the same manner that most other people’s brains work. It tends to do things behind my back without telling me about what it’s up to. It is not unusual for me to wake up from a night’s tossing and turning to find out that I have something like all of the world capitals or the periodic table of the elements memorized. This is usually a total surprise to me since I typically can’t fall asleep unless I’m thinking about Russ Meyer films or Kung-Fu fights with intruders. Sometimes the information sticks with me, and sometimes it doesn’t. One item that I came about in a similar fashion has mostly stuck around, and since we will enter into a spanking new year on Thursday I think it is particularly pertinent. One morning a couple of years ago I woke up with the calendar memorized. I’m not saying I know what day Henry VIII was born on, but I did wake up with a way to determine what day every date falls on in a calendar year firmly planted in my skull. Don’t ask me how or why. I have no idea. Maybe since I stare at a calendar every day until I fall asleep at my desk my brain thought it was important. I don’t know. I’ll try to explain it below.

Let’s say we want to know what day July 4th, 2009 falls on without consulting a calendar. It’s pretty simple, actually. The idea is that you pick a single date each month that you can add to or subtract from in order to get to the date you want. It turns out there are some trends in the calendar that will help us out. The first thing to remember is that April 4 (4/4), June 6 (6/6), August 8 (8/8), October 10 (10/10), and December 12 (12/12) all fall on the same day of the week (and are all even). The months in between have related numbers as well. May 9 (5/9) and September 5 (9/5, think 9-to-5) are always on that day as well. Also July 7 (7/11, think seven-eleven) and November 7 (11/7) are the same. That gives us April through December already without much effort. The last day of February (the 28th or the 29th) is always this day. Since 28 is divisible by 7, that means that on most years (non-leap years) both the last day of January and March 7 fall on this day. On leap years the last day of January will be one day off, but all of the rest will be the same. O.K. So now we have a date that is tagged in each month: 1/31, 2/28 or 2/29, 3/7, 4/4, 5/9, 6/6, 7/11, 8/8, 9/5, 10/10, 11/7, and 12/12. In 2009 all of these days will fall on a Saturday.

Now all we have to do is add or subtract to get any day of the year. Let’s return to our July 4th example. We know that 7/11 is a Saturday so 11-4=7. That’s exactly one week so the 4th is on a Saturday as well. How about September 18th? Well, 9/5 is Saturday so 18-5=13. That’s one week and six days so the 18th is on Friday. April 2nd? 4/4 is a Saturday so 4-2=2. Two days before Saturday is Thursday. Not too confusing, right? The day that all of these dates fall on just makes one step up each year unless it’s a leap year. Last year (2008) it was Friday. Next year (2010) it will be Sunday. So conceivably, one could project these calculations any number of years ahead or back as long as you know which years are leap years. Let’s try it. I don’t know if this will work out so it could be interesting. What day was April 4th of 1973? 2009-1973=36. 36 divided by seven is five with one day left over. Every 4 years you need to skip a day…except on years divisible by 500. Aw, fuck it! It’s faster to look it up unless you are an idiot savant that spends your days rocking back and forth in front of your piano or you’re making the rounds on Oprah and Montel.

So next time you hear some jaggoff whipping days of dates off the top of his head don’t be so impressed. “Oh, January 10th is on Saturday, or May 11th falls on Monday.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know, Smartguy. Ask him what day July 9th,1501 fell on. If he throws out a day then kick him square in the sack. The Gregorian calendar (our current calendar) wasn’t created until 1583.

Have a great new year, Everybody!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

12 Days of Shite Movies

Since this is the heart of the Holiday season, and we’re all just about sick to death of being bombarded with grotesque caricatures of holiday cheer, I thought I’d help out a bit and put together a quick list of holiday movies to avoid. These are the worst kind of holiday drivel…the sort of movies that would never have been made if anyone had read the script before they started filming. It may seem strange that a fan of bad movies such as myself could complain about horrible movies, but these movies are so kitschy that everyone involved in their production should be hauled off to a maximum security quarry in the middle of Appalachia where they can bust rocks until they have learned their lessons. So here is my list of 12 holiday films that are so bad that your time would be better spent counting your hair or building a bust of Abe Lincoln out of used toothpicks. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

  1. Miracle on 34th Street – This is the 90’s remake. Why the people involved in this travesty decided to attempt to remake one of the best Christmas movies of all time is beyond be. And casting David Attenburough’s brother as Santy is just begging for it.
  1. Santa with Muscles – Who was the creative genius that came up with that title? Put a lot of thought into it, I see. About as much thought as the rest of the writing staff. Holy Baby Jesus is this one a stinker.
  1. How The Grinch Stole Christmas – The awful Jim Carey and Ron Howard remake. I must confess that I have never seen this movie. I simply refuse to watch any of the movies the are profiting from Dr. Seuss’ death. Makes me want to puke in my mouth a little bit.
  1. Jingle All the Way – Two words: Sinbad and Schwarzenegger. Enough said.
  1. Eight Crazy Nights – This is an animated disaster that you can see coming from the other side of the Menorah. You’d have to be a complete mashugana to sit through this one.
  1. Frosty the Snowman – The second one with John Goodman as the voice of Frosty. Why does there need to be a sequel? And why can’t they get it right? Good grief, this movie shouldn’t have even been made much less watched.
  1. Any movie starring Tim Allen. Who made The Tool Man the ambassador of all that is horrible in the Christmas season anyway? Well, I guess I shouldn’t complain too much. At least I know what movies to avoid in the future.
  1. A Very Brady Christmas – I think that speaks for itself.
  1. Jack Frost – The idiotic Michael Keaton movie where Batman gets turned into a snowman so he can go sledding with his son. If you happen across this one on TV accidentally, BE CAREFUL! You will be unable to look away from the gaping chasm of awfulness that will draw you into the depths of Christmas movie Hell. This is not to be confused with the commendable horror movie of the same name.
  1. Fred Claus – This one belongs in on the Island of Lost Toys with the Charlie-in-the-box. Oh my holy god is this movie lousy.
  1. The Home Alone Series…every one of them. I suppose I should give Macaulay Culkin some slack since his parents sold him to Michael Jackson for crack money, but I don’t have to like his movies. I’ll pass.
  1. How The Grinch Stole Christmas – again, the Jim Carey version. I hate the idea of this one so much that I put it on my list twice. If you don’t like it, then go scratch. It’s my list. Leave the good Dr. alone.

So there you have it, 12 horrible nights of holiday movie watching. Watch them at your own risk, and be sure there are no deadly weapons around or you are likely to go on a rampage from a overload of Christmas cheer. Speaking of Christmas rampages, I also put together a short list of the best holiday horror movie classics for the B-movie fans in the audience. These movies are true gems, must-sees for the aficionado (in no particular order): Two Front Teeth; Marcus; Silent Night, Deadly Night; Santa’s Slay; Santa Claws; Black Christmas; and Gremlins.

And let's not forget other genres of film. There are dozens of other cinematic Christmas-related gems that I haven't touched on yet, including: Here Cumz Santa; The Tits that Saved Christmas; A Christmas Orgy; Spreading Joy; Miracle on 69th Street; and (my personal favorite) All I Want for Christmas is a Gangbang. Talk about the Naughty List! Seriously, people...

And just so you don’t think I hate all holiday movies, here are some of my absolute favorite classic movies that no Christmas should be without: A Charlie Brown Christmas (brilliant non-commercial message); How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 original); A Christmas Story; and A Christmas Carol (the Mr. Magoo version, of course).

So which movies make your naughty and nice lists?

Have a Great Holiday Season, Everybody!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Bill

Tomorrow will be the 219th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights which is the first set of amendments to the United States Constitution. 219 years is a pretty good run considering that it was incredibly controversial at the time it was written. One major argument against the Bill was made by Alexander Hamilton who believed that listing certain rights in the constitution might imply that others that aren’t listed are not granted by law. It’s a valid point considering the huge legal battles that are fought daily in the courts regarding the few rights that are listed in the bill. This argument was the primary reason for the inclusion of the ninth amendment. The controversial nature of the Bill seems outdated, but I think it’s important to realize that not all states ratified it. Three of the original thirteen states - Connecticut, Georgia, and Massachusetts - didn’t ratify the Bill until 1939 citing Hamilton’s argument above. However, the majority of the first American government somehow knew that in the absence of such a bill future officials would claim the power to remove the rights that were not listed as law. The amount of foresight and wisdom of these men was absolutely amazing considering how government officials have attempted to erode those rights that are listed with fear-based legislation (Hatch Act, Smith Act, McCarran Act, and my favorite the Patriot Act). The intent of the Bill wasn’t just to enumerate some of the rights that were considered to be common law. The intent of the Bill was to protect the people from our own federal government. The Bill of Rights does not give anyone rights. We’ve always had those rights as American citizens (I would argue that any free person has these rights). It only protects the exercise of our rights.

The following is a transcript of the original version of the Bill of Rights as submitted to the people for ratification. Notice that the first two articles were not accepted by the states and were not ratified. The second article was in fact ratified two hundred years after it was proposed…that sounds like the government I know.

Begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday, the Fourth of March, One Thousand Seven Hundred Eighty-nine.

The Conventions of a Number of the States having at the Time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a Desire, in Order to prevent Misconstruction or Abuse of its Powers, that further declaratory and restrictive Clauses should be added: And as extending the Ground of public Confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent Ends of its Institution, RESOLVED, by the Senate, and House of Representatives, of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, Two Thirds of both Houses concurring, That the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States as Amendments to the Constitution of the United States: All, or any of, which Articles, when ratified by Three-Fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all Intents and Purposes as Part of the said Constitution, viz.

ARTICLES in Addition to, and Amendment of, the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the Fifth Article of the original Constitution.

Article the first [Not Ratified]
After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.

Article the second [27th Amendment - Ratified 1992]
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

Article the third [1st Amendment]
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Article the fourth [2nd Amendment]
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Article the fifth [3rd Amendment]
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Article the sixth [4th Amendment]
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Article the seventh [5th Amendment]
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Article the eighth [6th Amendment]
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Article the ninth [7th Amendment]
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Article the tenth [8th Amendment]
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Article the eleventh [9th Amendment]
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Article the twelfth [10th Amendment]
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Speaker of the House of Representatives
Vice-President of the United States, and President of the Senate
Attest, John Beckley,
Clerk of the House of Representatives
Sam. A. Otis,
Secretary of the Senate

Friday, December 5, 2008

What Goes Up...

It’s no secret that we are in a dip in the economic cycle right now. Some people call it an economic downturn or a market correction or rolling readjustment or (the dreaded word) recession. What exactly does that mean? How did we get here? You might be surprised to find out that although we live in a multi-trillion-dollar worldwide economy the economics gurus with their decades of experience and computer modeling and high falutin’ degrees can’t agree on a simple definition. The common definition of recession that gets batted around the media is a decline in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for two or more consecutive quarters. Pretty straightforward, but you know it can’t be that easy. A slightly more precise definition follows: A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion. Expansion is the normal state of the economy; most recessions are brief and they have been rare in recent decades.

Has anyone noticed that everybody cringes at calling the economic downturn a recession? I think it’s pretty obvious why the government doesn’t want to call it a recession – so they don’t get blamed. In the 19th century it was call an economic panic or a crisis. Well, these words were too inflammatory, so the government forbade them and came up with a new label – depression. That was all great until the 30’s came along and we had a Great Depression. After that everyone was a little shell-shocked (oops, sorry) everybody had post traumatic stress disorder so they didn’t like “depression” any more. What next? Recession. That sounds much better, doesn’t it? Kind of like my hairline or the tides. Seems like a natural occurrence. In fact in the 70’s the “Inflation Czar” of the Carter administration mentioned that we were running the risk of a deep economic depression. He was immediately reprimanded and told to never utter the “D” word again. So at the next press conference he mentioned that (and I am quoting here) “…we are at the risk of having the worst banana in 45 years…” Silly. But no more silly than changing words in order to attempt to prevent the inevitable. Words are not the cause of the problem.

Here’s a little simplification of how our economy works. When the economy is growing consumers feel confident in the future, so they buy more crap that they don’t need. In response to consumer demand, manufacturers hire more people and buy more raw materials. Increased employment means even more consumers can buy useless stuff. Investors believe the upward trend will continue, so the buy more stocks and the value of stocks increase. The stock market tends to rise upward and investments make money. Pretty simple, right? Well, it’s a little too simple. In fact it’s very fragile. When we reach a peak of the economy consumers get restless. They have some extra cash and they have bought all of the nonsense that they need to feel good, so they start to save. Then they start to worry about how long the economic good times will last, so they buy even less and start to pay down debt. People start to talk about bananas. In response to decreased demand, producers lay off people and decrease consumption of raw materials. Unemployed workers have less to spend, so demand decreases more. When a lot of people are unemployed and fight for the same jobs, companies don't have to pay as much to get someone to fill the position. People that have jobs fear they will loose their jobs, so they spend even less and save more. Investors fear the value in stocks will decrease, so they don’t invest in new companies. The stock market falls, and ba-da-bing – banana. Just take a look at the markets that are hardest hit in today’s recession. Manufacturing, construction and retail are all down in the last couple of months. They are all directly affected by consumer spending. Talk about recession and a recession you’ll get.

It is a natural cycle. You can see this trend pretty obviously if you look back at the past couple of decades. The National Bureau of Economic Research publishes data on economic trends. The high points of the economy in the recent past have occurred in 1980, 1981, 1990, and 2001. Guess when there have been recessions. Turn your monitor upside down and scroll to the bottom of the page for the answer. WAIT! Put that thing down, you’re making me dizzy. The recessions have followed immediately after in 1980, 1982, 1991, and 2001.

The worst recession in the last 60 years was from November 1973 to March 1975, where GDP fell by 4.9%. Right now unemployment is at about 6% and the GDP might drop by a couple of percent at most. For a reality check let’s look at how things were in the Great Depression. In the 30’s manufacturing declined by 47%, unemployment was at 25%, the GDP dropped by 30%, and around 6000 banks and loan companies ate shit. That won’t and can’t happen now. We live in a world economy that has an incredible number of buffers and safeguards. Look at it this way, in 1990 the market went down 9% (for the S&P 500) resulting in the recession in early ‘91, but those losses were followed by significant gains of more than 30% in the S&P 500 later in 1991. In 2002, stock market losses of 22% for the S&P 500 were followed by a 28% gain the next year. Keep your head up folks.

Why does it seem like everyone is freaking out this time? One word – Boomers. They are getting old…well, in fact they are old…old enough to start thinking about retirement. They are freaking out because the money they have squirreled into their 401k has gotten pissed away because their kids are paying off credit card debt instead of buying a singing Billy Bass to put above their mantle. I’ve lost ~30% of my 401k the last time I checked, but retirement is so far away to me that they might as well give me my statement with a picture of Alfred E. Newman on it. It’s an abstraction like “god” or “sex with a living human”. But the Boomers, the Boomers are sweating under their comb-overs because they are worried that they might have to work for an extra three years to make up losses.

So right now everyone is buzzing about how bad everything is, but the solution is simple. Buy more junk! That’s the beauty of a capitalist economy. If you buy more useless crap the economy will get better. Spend, spend, spend! Unfortunately it’s also the worst part of capitalism – mass consumption of nonsense. But I’ll leave that topic for another day when I don’t have to listen to some middle-aged whiner poo-pooing about the possibility that they might have to work for a living just a little bit longer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cash in Your 401K

Since Thursday was Thanksgiving and Friday was the official kick-off to the sickening holiday shopping season, I thought that I’d put together a shopping list for the people that don’t know what to do with their money. I should be honest with you and tell you right up front that I disagree entirely with the way the holidays have become this huge consumer feeding frenzy. People work all year so that they can save up enough money to buy some useless crap that they don’t need, but they feel like they need it since the marketing geniuses have been pushing their buttons all year. Do you sit in your trailer wearing sweats all day eating salty garbage, smoking and drinking corn syrup with caramel coloring? Well, my friend, you need a 42” plasma HDTV, then don’t you? Of course you do. Just put it on layaway. What’s another bill collector anyway? Worse yet are the folks that buy gifts for everyone, but are constantly stressed that they didn’t get enough. The fact that people actually believe that they need to buy all of this stuff in order to make people happy drives me batty. I don’t understand why we can’t take a step back and take a look at the season as it is now. Repeated trips to Hell on Earth (read: the mall) and stress about the perfect gift are not what the holidays are about…I should say that’s not what the holidays should be about. This time of year should be about spending time with the fam and promoting good will towards man. The spirit of giving isn’t the same as the spirit of getting. Volunteering at the soup kitchen or donating a truck load of your extra stuff to families that truly have nothing should be what we do instead of walking the endless aisles of Hell-Mart looking for the red Power Ranger with the spinning LEDs on his wrist. God forbid you only get the blue one. [/rant]

Anyway, since many of you will decide to engage in the above stated nonsense with the economy in the condition that it is right now your money may not go as far as you would like. Most people that I talk to that have money invested in their retirement have been watching with considerable agony as their hard-earned cash gets pissed down the drain by bullshit reactionary stockbrokers. So here’s a short list of the items that you can buy for the holidays if you were to cash in your 401K tomorrow, and you don't need to trample anyone to death to get any of the items on the list:

  1. A can of mystery food that is missing the label (Partially dented).
  2. A leaf.
  3. A nude picture of Ernest Borgnine.
  4. Half of a pack of chewing gum (Lightly chewed).
  5. Creed’s Greatest Hits (Volume 1 and 2).
  6. A satellite phone company.
  7. One fuzzy toilet seat cover (With only minor staining and odor).
  8. A used ashtray.
  9. A desktop computer (Commodore VIC20).
  10. One hand job (Hey, not everything on the list has to suck).
  11. An 8-cylinder SUV.
  12. A bag of hair.
  13. Front row seats to a Gun’s-n-Roses concert.
  14. One Jack-O-Lantern (Has soup-like consistency, more of a Jack-O-Mess really).
  15. Pocket lint (Pre-owned).
  16. 11 Legos (It just works out that way).
  17. Three unidentifiable roadkill carcasses.
  18. My soul (Gently used).
  19. Carpet stains (Must remove yourself).
  20. GM.
  21. 19 pairs of used men’s underwear with minor cigarette burns and blood stains (Like New!).
  22. The Neverending Story DVD Box Set.
  23. A ghost in a bottle (Honest, it’s in there).
  24. A placebo.
  25. 100,000 McCain / Palin yard signs (Thank god).

If you would like to purchase any of the above items just sign your 10-year ARM over to me, and I’m sure we can work something out. If you want to add anything to the list just post a of charge. Thanks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Day in Dealey

Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our 35th president of the United States of America. I am a bit of a conspiracy buff, so like many Americans I am somehow drawn to the events that lead up to and immediately followed that fateful event. However, unlike most conspiracy followers, I am also a skeptic, and I require a certain amount of due diligence and logic to be applied to any theory before it gets off of the ground.

There is a huge cottage industry that stems from the assassination because of the mystique and perceived mystery surrounding the events on that day 45 years ago. Several major motion pictures have been made including: JFK, Parallax View, Ruby, and Winter Kills. There are more documentaries that I can even begin to list. Hundreds of books have been written, each with a different angle on that day in Dealey Plaza. Titles like Six Seconds in Dallas, Assassination Science, Legacy of Secrecy, Falsely Accused, High Treason and the like all tout a different angle on the event. I have read many of them. You can even take an assassination bus tour of downtown Dallas. I’m not sure what would prompt someone to take a bus tour of Dallas regardless of who was shot there, but I’d love to go on one just to check out the knuckleheads that shelled out the dough. I’d be willing to bet that there would be a higher proportion of people wearing Packers and Vikings gear than anywhere else in Texas. Just a guess. I find it interesting that the plaza hasn’t changed at all in the past 45 years. You can’t say that about too many other urban centers. It’s almost as though it has been frozen in time - a weird kind of time capsule to commemorate a shockingly public murder.

I have watched the well known and publicized Zapruder film frame by frame. I have also seen the lesser known Paschall, Nix, Bronson, Bell, Hughes, Couch, Martin, and Daniel films. I’ve read the Warren Commission Report and the evidence that the Commission collected to back it up…nearly every page of it. It sucks, by the way. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to your book club - unless your book club is filled with masochistic insomniacs that have read all of the nonsense that Oprah thinks is necessary. The best I can say about the evidence behind the document is that it is woefully inadequate. I mean, although the Commission did provide in its report a dental chart made for Jack Ruby's mother 25 years before the assassination as well as a detailed physical analysis of three of Lee Harvey Oswald's pubic hairs, the X-Rays from the president’s autopsy weren’t included. Bit of an oversight there, don’t you think? None-the-less the report stands as the official government view.

Names like Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Jim Garret, Fidel Castro, Sam Giancana, Clay Bertrand, Oliver Stone, and even Marilyn Monroe have become part of the American JFK assassination lexicon, and it seems like everybody “knows” exactly what happened that day. Literally scores of differing theories abound pointing the finger at everyone from the CIA to the FBI to the KGB to Frank Sinatra. Oswald can be tied to all of the groups listed above in some way or another. He was a marine rifleman (arguably the best marksmen in the world) and worked as a radar operator for spy planes. Then he defected to the Soviet Union and married the niece of a KGB colonel. Then he came back to the US and started stumping for communist Cuba, working out of building he shared with an ex-FBI agent who was trying to overthrow Castro. He was an obsessive Sinatra fan, and it was later found out that he was wearing a pear of Frank’s underwear when he shot the president. O.K. that’s not true, but you can begin see what a tangled web of social connections the man had in his short and complicated life.

Some of my favorite theories on the assassination don’t involve Oswald at all. One theory claims that JFK was terminally ill with some disease so he put a hit out on himself. Seems reasonable. Why not get yourself whacked in a grossly public manner and traumatize the world rather than getting old? Oh, right, because it’s stupid. Another theory claims that bacteria have infested the brains of inner-city business moguls due to global warming, and JFK was an environmentalist. So in their own self-interest the microbes contracted the assassination through their businessmen hosts. Not impossible, I guess, but then again I have about the same probability of getting struck by lightning and a meteor at the same time as I was getting eaten by a shark that had the same birthday as me. Yet another theory posits that JFK wasn’t assassinated at all. His stand-in was murdered so he could rule the country from behind the scenes. Sucks to be the stand-in. I guess if you ignore all of the evidence this one isn’t too bad, since the president did use a stand in to model for the famous JFK 50¢ piece.

Of all of the theories and books supporting them that I have come across the one that sticks with me is the one that I find the most compelling at least on the surface. This idea was put forward by Howard Donahue, a ballistics expert that was called in to test weather a single marksman could make the shots that Oswald did accurately in the time allotted. The idea was put to paper by Bonar Menninger in the book Mortal Error. Maybe I just like the theory because his name is Bonar…heh, heh. Through exhaustive ballistics research and re-enactments, Donahue concluded that Oswald could indeed have fired the shots that killed the president, but that the head wound wasn’t consistent with the type of ammo that Oswald used. So there must have been another gun that fired frangible rounds in Dealey Plaza that day, which means another shooter. Who carried a weapon that fired disintegrating rounds? The bodyguards. The presidential bodyguards were located in the vehicle directly behind the president. Donahue claims that in the panic caused by Oswald’s shots hitting the president, the motorcade lurched, which threw one of the bodyguards off balance causing him to accidentally discharge one shot from his high-powered rifle loaded with frangible ammo into the president’s head. And you think you’ve had a bad day at work! This theory requires no conspiracy other than the understandable government cover-up for a horrible accident, and it follows Occam's razor which states that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the correct solution.

However, as Marcello Truzzi said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” None of the above theories can say that they can prove anything one way or another. After all of these years have passed, after all of the books, movies, and volumes of evidence have been amassed, only two things related to the assassination are known as fact: JFK was shot and killed in Dallas on November 22nd 1963, and Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby two days later. With the passage of time the trail of evidence gets thinner and thinner. Everybody loves a mystery, and, I believe that regardless of the plausibility of anyone’s pet theory, the truth behind this mystery will never be able to be fleshed out of all of the information that has been gathered and the emotional baggage that has been accumulated over the past 45 years. So grab your divining rods and develop your own conspiracy. It will have just as must merit as all of the rest.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Terror Firmer

What can I say about a critically acclaimed movie filmed on elaborate sets in exotic locations filled with stand-out performances by A-List actors? Well, I can start by saying that isn’t the kind of film I’m here to talk about today. Terror Firmer is Lloyd Kauffman and Troma, Inc. at their schlocky best. It is a film that will push every boundary that you have and leave you asking for more. It has everything a "B" movie fan could hope for in spades. Violence, full frontal nudity (male and female), gore, intentionally bad editing, pickles used as sex toys, more vomit than a Miss Bulimia USA pageant, poop eating, fat people, lesbians, and a life-affirming rape scene. I mean, before the beginning credits are over, a hot serial killer tears off someone’s leg and beats him to death with it. Then she proceeds to tear a fetus from an expecting mother’s stomach with her bare hands. The movie is relentlessly offensive and shockingly funny. I’m no psychologist, but I would be willing to wager a bet that if you are not offended while watching this movie then there is something very, very wrong with you.

The plot of the film follows the Troma cast and crew while filming on the set of Citizen Toxie, a sequel to the brilliant cult classic The Toxic Avenger. The ragtag group of miscreants on that makes up the crew is plagued by repeated assaults from a faceless killer and horrendously unfortunate accidents. All the while the blind director (yes, blind), Larry (played by Lloyd Kauffman himself), tries to keep his production on track through a series of horrible motivational speeches peppered with the threat of his eventual suicide if things don’t get better…and they most certainly do not get better. The film has cameo appearances by Lemmy of Motorhead, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Ron Jeremy, who has his tongue cut out and is forced to eat his own pickled penis…brilliant. Terror Firmer is Troma Stidios unapologetically satirizing itself and masterfully doing so.

Lloyd Kaufman started Troma Studios in the early 70’s which makes it the longest running independent film studio surviving today. His first film was a 15 minute movie of a pig getting slaughtered in Chad, Africa. After unleashing it on his friends and family, he saw the power that shocking your audience can have. Staying true to form for over 30 years, the studio has managed to stay afloat on the backs of amazing “B” movies such as Bloodsucking Freaks, Cannibal! The Musical, Surf Nazis Must Die, and Tromeo and Juliet. They host an annual film festival in Park City, Utah that is billed as a direct competitor to the Sundance Film Festival called the Tromadance Film Festival (which I hope to attend someday). Terror Firmer is undoubtedly one of the crown jewels in the studio’s long and storied history.

I look at this film a lot like LSD: it’s not something that I would recommend for just anyone, and if you think you are ready you are definitely not. I certainly wasn’t. It isn’t a date movie, unless your date is blind and deaf or inflatable. If you think you can make it through 114 minutes of genital stretching, head crushing, fart igniting, ventriloquist dummy crucifying irreverent humor and insanity then this is the perfect movie for you, you sick bastard. Terror Firmer will crawl under your flesh and make you laugh out loud seconds after you swallow your own vomit. Uncle Lloydie and the Troma team haven’t just raised the bar with this film. They have covered it in feces and set it on fire, setting a mark that I doubt any other film company will dare to attempt to surpass, but I would love to see them try.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Choroid Plexus Cysts

Although I may occasionally try to follow current events with the blog, I purposefully tried to stay out of the election fracas. I figure you got bombarded with enough info from other sources that you don’t need my opinion too, even though my opinion would have been the cherry on top. Besides, I would have gone through the trouble of doing weeks of footwork on each candidate to write a brilliant article about who is best for the country and the world in general, and then people would just vote for the guy making fart noises with his armpit because they think he’s funny. Well, it’s all over anyway, and the good guys won. I’m glad because I would have lost all faith in America, sunk into a cynical, misanthropic hole and emigrated to Canada if the other team had come out on top. Now we wait to see if anything will change for the better. So, anyway, that frees us up for a little marginally informative arcane bullshyte from Daniel P.

This week I wanted to touch on a subject that the wife and I had to deal with during the last pregnancy, and thousands of expecting parents deal with every year. At around mid-term there is a recommended ultrasound to check to see how the developing fetus is progressing. They check a whole bunch of things including head circumference, spine formation, hands feet, eyes, heartbeat, etc. They check the brain to see how that is developing as well, and this is where our topic for this week arises. During this routine ultrasound the radiologist noticed several dark spots in the fetus’ brain. I noticed them as well, and I immediately thought, “Brain cloud?” But the woman assured me that is was not, in fact, a brain cloud. However, the look on her face was disheartening to say the least. On a side note, if you haven’t been through the whole ultrasound thing, it’s a little creepy. You’re in a quiet, little dark room staring at a fuzzy black and white monitor trying to guess what the hell you’re looking at. The first time we had one for Jax I half-expected something to flash across the screen and start to tear its way through the wife’s guts. Too many horror movies, I guess. Anyway, I’m just saying it’s weird. So, back to the original story. We could tell she thought that there was something wrong, which made the wait for the doctor a real joy. When the doctor came in she explained in a somber voice that they had indeed found something on the ultrasound that was abnormal. I wasn’t too surprised. Since I don’t figure I’m terribly normal, my DNA shouldn’t be far off. Anyway, she told us that the spots on the brain were called choroid plexus cysts, and they could be an indicator that the pregnancy wasn’t going to last. Nice. One of the worst possible outcomes for the day, don’t you think?

The choroid plexus is an area of the brain that isn’t involved thought, personality, sensation, or motor control. Rather, the choroid plexus serves to make the fluid that protects and nourishes the brain and spinal cord. When a fluid-filled space is seen in the choroid plexus during an ultrasound, it is called a choroid plexus cyst (CPC). The CPCs can vary in size, shape and number and can be found either on one side of the brain (unilateral) or both sides (bilateral). CPCs are believed to be caused by abnormal folding of the epithelial lining of the choroid plexus which traps fluid and debris.

CPCs are not harmful to the fetus, but they are an indicator that something else may be wrong. That “something else” is usually trisomy 18, and it is nothing minor. Typical characteristics of trisomy 18 include: heart defects [VSD (Ventricular Septal Defect): a hole between the lower chambers, ASD (Atrial Septal Defect): a hole between the upper chambers, and coarctation of the aorta: a narrowing of the exit vessel from the heart], kidney problems, part of the intestinal tract is outside the stomach (omphalocele), the esophagus doesn’t connect to the stomach (esophageal artesia), excess amniotic fluid (polyhydramnios), clenched hands, rocker bottom feet, delayed growth, small jaw (mycrognathia), small head (microcephaly), low-set ears, strawberry-shaped head, severe developmental delays, and umbilical or inguinal hernia. More than 90% of fetuses with trisomy 18 have a heart defect. The condition is not compatible with life, and only 5% to 10 % of infants that are carried to term survive the first year after delivery. This is not something that you want to hear from the doctor.

After dropping the bomb she started to throw out some statistics. About 1% of the fetuses that have CPCs will have trisomy 18. There are certain factors that increase risk such as: the age of the mother and weather there have been other instances of this in earlier pregnancies. There are some non-invasive tests that the radiologist did to determine if there are other markers for the defect, such as: a malformed heart, head, hands or feet, and stunted growth of the baby. When no other abnormalities are found, the diagnosis is called an "isolated CPC." However, we were informed that amniocentesis is the only way to know for sure before birth that the baby does not have a genetic disease. Even though amnio can give definitive answers it carries its own risk. The doc said that 1% of women who get an amniocentesis test will spontaneously lose the baby.
At that point we were sent home to sort things out.

This, of course, is a hugely stressful time in any parent’s life, and the news that there may be dire complications with any pregnancy makes things exponentially worse. I immediately started to do a web troll to find information about CPCs and trisomy 18. The initial surface information seemed to support the doc’s stats, so we based our decision on those. So, basically our choices as presented to us were to do nothing or get an amnio test (which we considered to be foolish since we were told the risk of termination was the same as doing nothing). Since we didn’t fit the mold for other risk factors and all of the other fetal telemetry was normal, we decided to wait it out. Everything turned out for the best, but the stress that was dumped on us was something I could have done without. So now that I am removed from the situation I’d like to see if it was necessary at all.

After quite a bit of digging around, here is what I found. A meta-analysis of 33 different studies shows that over 50% of fetuses with trisomy 18 have CPCs. The opposite is not true. Most fetuses that have CPCs do not have trisomy. It turns out that the number that the doctor gave us about the percentage of fetuses with CPCs that will have the defect was correct. One percent will have the defect. This leaves us with another crucial piece of information that we need to be truly informed. What percentage of fetuses will show CPCs as a normal part of development? This number was a little harder to come by since some of the studies that I looked at involved high-risk pregnancies. However, a good average would be that about 1 out of every 122 fetuses will show CPCs (0.8%). That leaves us with this conclusion: 1% of 0.8% of all pregnancies will have the defect or 0.008%. You are twice as likely to die in a house fire. If you are not high-risk, and there are no other markers on the ultrasound then the odds are infinitesimal that the fetus will have trisomy 18.

Also, as the result of a very large study that included documentation of outcomes following mid-trimester amniocentesis, I tracked down some more-realistic numbers for the possible outcomes there. In this study, the spontaneous fetal loss rate at less than 24 weeks following amniocentesis was 1% compared to the background loss rate in the control group of 0.94%. Therefore, the added risk of the amniocentesis was calculated to be only 0.06% (1% minus 0.94%) making the risk of the amniocentesis approximately 1 in 1600 – way less than the 1% that we were quoted.

With these numbers being so low, why were we led to believe that the house of cards was falling down around us? I can only assume it is to avoid some sort of malpractice lawsuit. Also, fear sells. By keeping us in fear they can extract some more money from us in the form of extra testing. I don’t really understand, because we could have been given the information in a more positive light. Something like: “Hey, folks. Well, we found a little blip on that freaky ultrasound of yours. It’s nothing to worry about, since we did several other checks that didn’t show abnormalities. Kind of like a hangnail or an extra finger…” Guess that’s one reason I’m not an OBGYN…one of many, many reasons {shudder}.

So what’s the take-home message here? Regardless of their number, shape or size, choroid plexus cysts are not harmful to the fetus, and they nearly always go away by the third trimester of pregnancy. Any expecting parent that gets the unexpected diagnosis that the bun they are cooking has CPCs shouldn’t be too terribly concerned since over 99% of the time this is just a normal developmental process. As long as you don’t fit the bill for high-risk pregnancies and none of the other markers are found, you should probably consider it business as usual. The stress that an expecting mother feels in this type of situation is more dangerous to the developing fetus than the finding of CPCs. Just be sure to let your doctor know that you’ve decided to follow the sagely advise of an evil misanthropic genius without an MD, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night...