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...