Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dr. Horrible is Dr. Awesome

Joss Whedon does it again—his 45 minute musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog is hilarious. Not only is the entire idea to make a modern musical intriguing, it's also quite clever and Neil Patrick Harris' vlogs have pitch perfect comic timing... when Dr. Horrible adjusted his goggles toward the off-center video camera, I just about peed myself.

If you don't want to buy it from iTunes for $3.99 (which I did), then check it out here, courtesy of Hulu:

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Subsidizing a Healthier Nation

If you've been around long enough, you know I feel strongly about how bad America is about handling its waistline. My conservative readers are quick to remind me that we live in a free country with freedom of choice, that the citizenry always knows best how to manage their own life, and that government has no place in telling its citizens what to do.

And sure, that's a great theory, and true for a lot of things. Yet for weight control, I categorically disagree. Based on results—i.e., our shameful epidemic of obesity—Americans do not know how to manage their own weight. Yes, it's a free society and people are welcome to shoot themselves in the head if they really want to... just don't expect me to pay for the gun.

The problem with obesity is the suffocating health care costs which follow it. Obviously, obesity is not the singular cause for diabetes, but it is a disproportionately large factor in causing diabetes. If you smoke, eat high cholesterol foods, and are overweight... your chances of getting cancer, a heart attack, or diabetes goes off the charts. So these factors, together, are contributing causes to higher health costs. Which means taxpayers are subsidizing suicidal lifestyle choices by its citizens. When did this start becoming acceptable???

If you have private health care, and your poor lifestyle choices land you in the hospital with million dollar health care fees, game on—I have no problem with that. But the moment you ask me to start paying for your lung cancer operation because you smoked 2 packs a day for 30 years, or your quadruple bypass operation from a lifetime of eating red meat, or your stomach-stapling operation to manage your diabetes because you've been guzzling 40 oz. tubs of diet coke... yeah, shocker: I've got a huuuuuge problem with that. Conservatives who scream about lower government spending should be ahead of me in line about this injustice... yet they harp instead about "freedom of choice". Well, we tried freedom of choice for food and look where that got us—an obesity epidemic.

Nobody likes being told what to do. I don't think a government program telling people what to eat or when to work out would ever work. However, I do think circumstances can be shaped to give people sharper motivations to make better choices. My personal favorite has been a tax on fatty foods, the revenue of which would subsidize healthier foods: Big Macs get more expensive and healthy sandwiches get rock bottom cheap (that way the poor aren't punished because they can still eat cheaply, albeit better). Another option is giving tax credits to companies offering fitness programs to their employees—the payoff is a healthier and happier workforce who live longer (read: pay more taxes) and become more productive.

Still not convinced something like that would be financially viable? One company in Nebraska has been doing it for 16 years, and with impressive results. Their program sponsors a fitness program, including massages, pre-shift stretching, and quarterly checkups measuring weight, body fat, and flexibility. The prize is a 3 day company-paid trip to climb a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado. Of the 565 employees, 103 have qualified, more than ever before. Not only are the employees more fit, but the company pays about half the regional average in health-care costs, which is a savings of $2 million.

Morale of the story? It's cheaper to have healthier employees. Wow. What a concept. Imagine if we grafted that mindset onto an entire nation? How much money do you think we might save? More importantly, how much healthier, and how much happier, would we all be?

'Wellness' a healthy investment for company
LINCOLN, Nebraska (CNN) -- Lincoln Industries looks like a typical blue-collar plant -- workers cutting, bending, plating and polishing steel for products such as motorcycle tailpipes and truck exhausts amid the din of machinery.

But the 565-employee Nebraska company is different.

Lincoln Industries has three full-time employees devoted to "wellness," and offers on-site massages and pre-shift stretching.

Most unusual of all: The company requires all employees to undergo quarterly checkups measuring weight, body fat and flexibility. It also conducts annual blood, vision and hearing tests.

"When you get the encouragement from somebody to help you with nutrition and to help with a more active lifestyle, it makes it easier to be able to attain a lifestyle that most people want to attain anyway," says Hank Orme, president of Lincoln Industries.

The program has been in place 16 years.

The company ranks workers on their fitness, from platinum, gold and silver down to "non-medal." To achieve platinum, they must reach fitness goals and be nonsmokers -- and the company offers smoking cessation classes.

For employees, reaching platinum means a three-day, company-paid trip each summer to climb a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado. This year, 103 qualified, the most ever. And 70 made the climb.

For the company, the payoff is significantly lower health-care costs. The company pays less than $4,000 per employee, about half the regional average and a savings of more than $2 million. That makes the $400,000 Lincoln Industries spends each year on wellness a bargain.

"The return on investment is extraordinary," Orme says.

The investment in "wellness" pays other dividends, according to Orme. He says fitter workers are more productive, have better morale and are safer. As evidence, he points to worker's compensation claims. Ongoing safety training and an increasingly fit workforce have pushed worker's comp costs down from $500,000 five years ago to less than $10,000 so far this year.

Seven years ago, shift leader Howard Tegtmeier was in the non-medal category. The 49-year-old smoked, drank, was overweight and took 12 pills a day to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

"I just made the decision it was time to change my life, and the wellness program showed me ways to do that," Tegtmeier says.

Tegtmeier says he no longer smokes or drinks. His weight is down from 230 to 180, thanks to diet and exercise. His cholesterol and blood pressure are also down, and he says he no longer needs medication.

Tonya Vyhlidal, Wellness and Life Enhancement director, says Lincoln Industries doesn't pressure workers who don't want to participate. But sooner or later, she says, the company's "culture" attracts most employees to live healthier lives.

The company sponsors races, helps with gym memberships or exercise equipment, offers healthy choices in the vending machines and hosts classes on health and nutrition.

"There's a way to engage everyone. Even those that are really resistant," Vyhlidal says, adding that she'll offer employees suggestions based on what makes them feel fulfilled: "Do you like to ride a bike? Ride a bike. Do you like to cook? You may need a different cookbook."

This month, Tegtmeier and 69 co-workers climbed Mount Bierstadt, a 14,060-foot mountain. All of them reached the summit. It was Tegtmeier's fourth climb with the company.

"The view up here is wonderful," he said. Link.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Happiest Moments

Two of the most moving videos I've seen in a long time. The first is the story of Aron Ralston, whom you may remember was a rock climber who cut off his own arm to escape a rock that had pinned him in an isolated area. The story is told by Ralston himself, standing in the original location, and he's clearly reliving the incident as he tells it. While obviously tragic, it is still amazing to hear Ralston's final perspective.

And to offset the macabre tone, here is a rare video of the birth of a baby elephant. The baby drops about three and a half minutes in. WARNING: This video is not for the faint of heart!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Archiving for 3008

The map before me was unlike any other—it detailed the locations of various sunken ships around the island of Bermuda. All sizes and ages of ship were there: modern ships along with old cuttys and Man O' Wars. It was a divers' map, but also a testament to how the oceans function as a de facto archive for sea vessels. Were it not for those horrific marine catastrophes, these vessels—including precious insights into each ship's respective civilization—would have remained a black hole in our memory.

The Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks, the Macedonians, the Mayans... how much of all of these civilizations still endure to modern scholars? How much has been lost to the unrelenting storms of time? How much been saved?

Hans told me once of a devastating storm in Nepal. The building preserving Nepal's historic documents was breached and priceless national treasures were strewn about like forgotten plastic grocery bags. Some poor government official was left running around snatching up whatever documents he could find, surely in denial that his country's priceless records were irreparably damaged.

"Can you imagine that?" Hans asked me. "Picking up a piece of paper like that off the ground... and the ground must have been wet from the rain. For that Nepalese government official, it would have been like us trying to rescue our Declaration of Independence."

I heard a story once of this group of U.S. filmmakers filming in Russia with a part-Russian crew. At the first meeting, the director stood up and said, "We should all feel honored to be a part of this production. In this very location, Sergei Eistenstein filmed Battleship Potempkin—", and then one of the Russian crew members muttered, "And probably with the same equipment."


The Economist had an article once about a videotape which had been discovered in 1992 containing footage of Senator George McGovern during his campaign against Richard Nixon in 1972. McGovern lost to Nixon's landslide vote, so the footage had a unique historical value.

But they couldn't play the tape.

The video was in a format no longer playable by existing video players. There were only two functional video players still able to play the tape, and the plan was to transfer that videotape to some other format for long-term archiving. The machines were very fragile, reserved for only the highest priority projects. One of the machines was owned, quite rightly, by the Library of Congress, and they rejected a request to use the Library's machine. The other machine—wait for it—was owned by the Nixon Preservation Society. (The name of the group is different, but the gist is the same.) Naturally, they said no, as well.

This videotape found in 1992, only 30 years after it had been created, was effectively garbage. Maybe one day someone will have created a new technology to read the data on the tape, but maybe not.

Even film on celluloid, while it has more longevity over videotape (i.e., you can still shoot film on a 50 year old film camera, and play 50 year old film on a 50 year old film projector), decays over time, as the restored prints for Star Wars: A New Hope have illustrated. For instance, the Sistine Chapel has collected so much residue that the original image is barely even visible. If paintings don't even last well over time, what long-term hope is there for digital entertainment? Stone tablets are the only proven vestiges to last thousands of years, so all audiovisual content—TV, movies, documentaries, news... in short, everything we've come to know as defining the modern age—seems fated to perish.

And even the value of preserving our audiovisual history can be seen as a luxury when compared to our very survival. How would we cope if something like Waterworld happened where the entire earth is flooded and all structures built below 44 meters (a skyscraper's 17 stories) would be underwater? All the earth's archives would be in jeopardy. Technological advancement would grind to a halt and, eventually, recede. So how would we pass the earth's knowledge to descendants 500–5,000 years into this aquatic future? All DVDs and CDs would be useless: in a moist future, CD and DVD players' moving parts would stop working after half a century, if not sooner. All film projectors would stop working after two centuries. Stone tablets would sink to the bottom of the ocean. All paper dropped in the water would eventually disintegrate.

Yeah, I'm afraid the future is plastics... buoyant plastics. I'm no expert, but it seems to me that a floating, durable plastic or composite is about the only thing which would last 500 to 5,000 years. Thus, if you really wanted to offset another dark age by preserving the world's essential knowledge for future generations (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), then you should:
  1. Compile as much knowledge as you can into one book printed on buoyant plastic. (Or make the pages from etched stone tablets, and securely attach them to a floatable plastic.)
  2. Assume the book will wear down over time—print the type deeply into the page.
  3. Assume most languages will degrade—include a language primer with intuitive icons on every page.
  4. Assume many of these books will perish—print a million of them and position them around the world.
  5. Assume some pages will decay or be lost over time—make the information redundant across many pages.

And movies? In the harshest of long-term futures, barring some technological advance where media players upgrade despite the fall of civilizations, we should assume no digital content will last more than 200–300 years. Even so, the Ancient Mayans told stories with graphic pictures and their carved stone panels still exist today... so we could simply "paint" pictures in our floating plastic books with a Wall Street Journal-type pointillism. No media player needed to see that.

And besides, graphic novels never really get old, do they?

Jibjab: satire done well

I love Jibjab—they realize poking fun at everyone is the best way to not appear partisan:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oh YEAH?? Well, I did THIS!!

Dishwasher soap and dishwasher detergent are not the same thing.

Now I know.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Who Killed The Electric Car?

Instead of getting this from your local library to watch for free, why not just watch this documentary here?

O blog! I still love thee!

My poor business partners. I don't think they had any idea what they were in for when they asked a writer to help found a film company... because dude, have my digits been churning out the words!

I also noticed that my blog posts have been dropped substantially, and that's a direct result of spending time starting up a company. All my mental energies have been redirected towards hammering out our business plan and although my inclination is to discuss each step of the plan which would be immensely educational to all, I simply can't; there are too many sensitive issues being discussed. To riff off Maximus, once you post something online, it "echoes throughout eternity".

My emails between my partners have been long, numerous, and thoughtful... perhaps one day when the business is more mature, I'll come back and publish them. The most useful thing I've found in this process is that a lengthy discussion with one's business partners (whether it be verbal or virtual) is surprisingly useful in clarifying a company's goals. Anyone can say, "let's start a film company." But the when, where, how, how much, and why are deceptively difficult to define

What I can tell you about the company is in the broadest of strokes:
1) We are assembling a slate of many narrative feature projects.
2) On average, each film will have a 7 figure budget.
3) Each film will include named talent.
4) Some, if not all, of the projects will have award potential in U.S. and foreign markets.

The most exciting stuff, however, is in developing a competitive distribution plan amid global movie piracy. There are several interesting ideas we're experimenting with... and I'm sitting on my hands not to tell everyone about them all.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

You had a bad day

Humans in furry suits. Oh, the joy is limitless.

The Poetry of Fear

Hollywood big budget films are at a disadvantage in making horror films. Here's why:

Big movies demand big explanations, which are usually tiresome, and big backstories, which are usually cumbersome. If a studio is going to spend $80 or $100 million in hopes of making $300 or $400 million more, they feel a need to shove WHAT IT ALL MEANS down the audience's throat. Is there a serial killer? Then his mommy didn't love him (insert flashback). A monster from outer space? Its planet exploded, of course (and the poor misunderstood thing probably needs a juicy Earth woman to make sexy with). But nightmares exist outside of logic, and there's little fun to be had in explanations; they're antithetical to the poetry of fear. Link.

There's consensus among Ron Moore and the Battlestar Galactica writing staff that the most terrifying episode of the BSG series was "33" in which the cylons keep reappearing every 33 minutes without any explanation. We don't know how the cylons know where the fleet is, and since they obviously do know, why wouldn't they jump sooner? 33 minutes feels eerily related to the cylons being machines, not humans. So neither the characters, nor the audience, know anything about the cylons—a mammoth question mark hovers over their relentless attacks.

And whenever there's a huge void like that, the brain works double overtime to fill it with every type of childhood fear possible. I'm certain this is why films like The Blair Witch Project, whose miniscule budgets don't pressure the filmmakers to leave the viewer with an adequate explanation, are so wildly popular.

(Thanks to Alex for the link.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

26 Words... and Counting

Not including any sign language she's picked up, my daughter has amassed an impressive vocabulary thus far. We can't be sure, but "Uh-oh" may have been the first word she ever learned. That must mean something, although I'm not sure what, and I'm even less sure I want to know.

We're also pretty sure she learned "elbow" last night... but then she points to the cat and says "elbow", so who knows.

  1. Mama
  2. Dada
  3. Baba (bottle)
  4. Up
  5. Dau (down)
  6. Thath (that)
  7. Thith (this)
  8. Papa (i.e., Grandpapa)
  9. Puppy
  10. Rara (Raja, our cat)
  11. Sta (Star)
  12. Baa (Bear)
  13. Truck
  14. Caa (Car)
  15. Hi
  16. Bye
  17. Wawa (Water)
  18. Babth (Bath)
  19. Bau (Ball)
  20. Books
  21. Wow
  22. Ow
  23. Rath (Rat, her stuffed animal)
  24. Yeth (Yes)
  25. Wak (Walk)
  26. Uh-oh