Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hey Uncle Charlie, killed anyone lately?

Jamie likes to watch crime shows on television and she jokes that it prepares her to spot crimes happening around her. A few years ago she spotted a rolled-up piece of carpet someone had dumped on a grassy hillside on the way to church. What if there was a dead body rolled up in the carpet? That's just the kind of thing you'd see in a television police drama, after all. So for weeks, as we drove past that rolled-up carpet, she'd tell the kids she thought there might be a dead body in it. She asked them to go look many times - and they were very reluctant even though she offered them money! But what if you really suspected someone - say, a beloved family member - of being a murderer? That's the story in Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 classic "Shadow of a Doubt."

Shadow of a Doubt [VHS]Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is being followed by a couple of mysterious men so he decides to get away and visit his sister's family out west in Santa Rosa, California. His niece Charlotte Newton (Teresa Wright), who was named after "Uncle Charlie," is especially happy about his visit. But a couple of journalists who've picked the Newton family for a survey of the "average American family" seem to make Uncle Charlie nervous. One of them reveals to "young Charlie" that they're actually detectives who suspect her uncle of being the notorious "Merry Widow Murderer." Uncle Charlie's strange behavior makes young Charlie suspicious as well.

"Shadow of a Doubt" was nominated for an Academy Award and is considered to be one of Hitchcock's finest films (he said it was his favorite among his American films). According to biographer Patrick McGilligan, this is what Hitchcock called a "run for cover" film, like "North by Northwest," another of my favorites. The initial script was written by Thornton Wilder who wrote Our Town, lending not only an "American" flavor but also a touch of morbidity. But Hitchcock's scripts always went through multiple rewrites, almost always by him and his wife, Alma.

As I've been gradually watching Hitchcock's movies I'm always impressed by how skillfully he creates and heightens suspense through the story, and he sometimes adds subtle humor at the same time. In this one, young Charlie's father (Henry Travers, who later played Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life") shares a keen interest in crime stories with his neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn in his film debut). The two constantly discuss ways to commit the perfect crime - usually in front of Uncle Charlie - which is kind of funny and adds suspense since that's what he is suspected of doing. And when you watch it notice the chilling effect of the ominous black smoke that billows out of the train when Uncle Charlie arrives.

As for the suspicious rolled-up carpet, it turned out there was no body inside. But I hear it was quite funny watching the boys cautiously creep up to it, saying "you look," "no, you look."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just a few pictures from July

One place you can count on us going is the beach.

Taylor catching a wave.

Cousins at the 4th of July breakfast at church.

The boys and Tahoe waiting for the flag-raising ceremony.

Celebrating the 4th of July with a BBQ and pool party with friends.

Another thing you can count on us for: Harry Potter movies.  Since this was the last one we went to the midnight premier.

Of course, we ran into lots of friends.

It was a long wait but it was worth it (note to self: the mall floor isn't exactly clean at the end of the day!).

Sigh!  The big four-four.  Hurry and blow them out before the fire dept. shows up.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Our friend the atom

When do you think would have been the best time to have been a kid? I guess there's something to be said for the pioneer days when life was simpler and kids grew up on farms or in smaller communities. At least that's the feeling I got from reading The Great Brain books when I was a kid - although that was the late 1890s and not technically the "pioneer days" anymore. I grew up in the 1980s and I can think of lots of good things about that time - as well as a few 'not-so-good' things. But I'd probably say the 1950s and early 60s seem like a great time - at least as they're usually portrayed in movies and books. The War was past and the national mood was very optimistic. The economy was booming and scientific advances held great promise. The middle class was expanding and moving to the suburbs and it was all before the turmoil of the latter half of the Sixties. Everything just seemed so full of potential - although I guess there was the shadow of the Cold War looming.

CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles presents an interesting perspective on how the Cold War might have affected kids. It's 1962 and 11 year-old Franny Chapman’s best friend seems to be edging away from her, she's worried her older sister Jo Ellen might be a communist, and her perfect younger brother Drew is obsessed with being an astronaut and constantly reads his favorite book, "Our Friend the Atom." Her father is a pilot at Andrews Air Force Base, her mom is stressed out, and her Uncle Otts (who lives with them) is losing his mind. On top of all this are tensions between the USA and the USSR and the escalating Cuban Missile Crisis. With regular air raid drills and nuclear missiles aimed at the country, suddenly the atom doesn't seem so friendly anymore.

I love the format of this book which is interspersed with information from around 1962 such as advertisements for bomb shelters, Bert the Turtle "duck and cover" posters, b&w photos, news broadcasts, songs and speeches, and essays on notable people - adding a wonderful element of history to the narrative. Unfortunately, it's slow-starting which makes it hard to feel much of a connection with Franny and I wonder how many kids would have the patience to keep reading long enough to be drawn in, which is regrettable because the ending is actually kind of nice. (And I personally find the first-person present-tense narrative rather annoying.) But I think the book's strong points are that interesting format that provides a window into the culture and the great job it does of portraying the fear people felt at the Cuban Missile Crisis. And because of those things it's a book I can recommend to kids in the 9-12 age group. And maybe I'll stick with the 80s as being a better time to grow up. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Too many secrets

I used to be a fan of "The X-Files." Not that I believe 'conspiracy theories' in general, mind you, but it makes for pretty good entertainment (although I liked best the episodes that didn't deal with shadowy plots). Still... it makes you wonder sometimes, you know? So maybe I was already primed to enjoy Annie Jacobsen's new book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base.

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseFor the record let me state that I do not believe in UFOs or little green aliens from outer space. I would guess that most "sightings" were actually military aircraft. However, if there is intelligent life on other planets I think they would look just like us, based on what I've read in the scriptures (see Moses 1:33 and 2:27, Psalms 8:3-4, and Genesis 1:27). But really, it's not something I spend time thinking about. And that's just fine because for the most part, Annie Jacobsen doesn't write much about it either.

Area 51, she explains is a smaller part of the Nevada Test and Training Range in the desert north of Las Vegas. I think it's long been common knowledge that the government performed numerous nuclear bomb tests out there, many of which were of questionable value and very lax safety standards (I vaguely recall news of lawsuits against the government by "downwinders" when I was young). And I don't think it should surprise anyone that the government also tested top secret aircraft there - spy planes such as the U-2 and A-12 Oxcart (the forerunner of the famous SR-71 Blackbird). I remember a news story when the "Stealth Bomber" (B-2) and "Stealth Fighter" (F-117 Nighthawk) were revealed, that mentioned there had been many UFO reports in the area during the years they were being developed and tested in the Nevada desert. The book says there were lots of planes flown and tested at Area 51, like unmanned drones (such as the Predator and Reaper now being used in the Middle East) and Soviet MiGs, among others. I've also read enough to know that the US took great interest in the work of Nazi scientists and engineers, even putting many of them to work here after the war. And this is what most of the book is about; nothing that I found all that controversial or hard to believe, but all of which was surprisingly interesting. (And well over 100 pages of this book are devoted to references and citations.)

But that's not what most people think of when they hear "Area 51," and they usually tie it to a supposed UFO crash in Roswell, NM. And Mrs. Jacobsen doesn't skip over that, although she withholds most of it until the end. I won't spoil it except to say her explanation was interesting... as well as disturbing. Believable? Perhaps. Controversial?  Apparently yes.  But again, it's not something I spend much time worrying about. I just thought it was a fascinating bit of history.

An SR-71 Blackbird at the airshow at Edwards Air Force Base in 2009.

Looks like a UFO to me!  
A B-2 Stealth bomber flew around at the same airshow but they sure don't make it easy for you to get a good look at it.  It almost always came from behind where the large hangers were.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Notes from the garden

When we lived in Salt Lake I could always count on the KSL Greenhouse radio show each Saturday morning for expert local gardening advice (plus I learned a lot from my dad). But people in Los Angeles are more interested in the farmer's market than growing food themselves, so there's no radio programs with gardening advice and few people to ask. Yes, my wife's family are gardeners, but they're all about flowers and landscaping and not vegetables (except when it comes to cooking them).

We started a vegetable garden again last year which did okay but was too crowded, and I was determined to do better this year. And since we have mild winters I even tried a few vegetables in the colder months. Broccoli did well but that was about it. I think a combination of late planting (early December was about a month too late) and a cool winter sabotaged me. But when spring came I made a plan ahead of time and once it started to warm up I built a short raised bed. Unfortunately, that was the weekend (March 20) that we got 5" of rain in one day and I learned that the corner of the yard where my garden is located is also the lowest spot. Yep - it flooded.

I don't really care for tomatoes, but they're easy!

I thought I'd have to worry about Taylor's tortoise eating all our veggies, but the problem has been caterpillars.

Soooo... four weeks(!) later, after the ground finally dried out enough to dig again, I finally planted. All the root and salad veggies in the raised bed in the middle, and tomatoes on one side and beans on the other.
  • I planted 4 kinds of lettuce: green leaf, buttercrunch, romaine, and a mixed salad kind. All were slow and some grew better than others (some were seeds from last year) but we also had a plague of caterpillars!
  • The carrots were a miserable failure from the start (probably due to the poor soil) so I reseeded with beets ("Detroit Dark Red" because the greens are suposedly good in salads). I'm not exactly sure what to do with them (or if I even like them) but they're growing fairly well.
  • Spinach was a disappointment. The "Bloomdale Long-standing" variety is supposed to be good here, but it's done poorly in both cooler and warmer weather.
  • I also planted Swiss Chard "Bright Lights." I don't know if we'll like it but it's growing well and the caterpillars don't touch it (hmmm, should I take that as a hint?).
  • Beans ("Kentucky Blue") have also been disappointing. I planted them late and I used a seed packet left over from last year and got poor germination. Some have grown but I should probably try planting more seeds.
  • We planted 6 heirloom variety tomatoes. I'm not a big fan of tomatoes but Jamie is and when it comes right down to it - they're easy to grow. And although they've been slow (because of the cooler weather) they're big and have fruit on them. I'll update more on the tomatoes later.
  • We had a TON of raspberries and boysenberries from the plants we put in last year. Luckily, we even got some before the birds found them. Even the strawberries are doing fairly well.

I hope we like Swiss Chard, because it's growing.

This is what happens when you dump the jack-o-lanterns in the garden - and then I don't have the heart to pull all the seeds that sprout.

So, that's kind of a rundown of my garden so far. It's not in the sunniest spot but it was as good as we could do. And I never got around to planting zuchinni or crookneck squash, and I probably shouldn't have let pumpkin seeds from last year's jack-o-lanterns grow, but they're doing pretty well. I'll follow up with what I learn what's successful and what's not. Also, I really need to improve the soil, but I'll post later about what I'm doing for that.

The beans aren't doing so well, and now the caterpillars are in them.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Little Boy and The Gadget

Sixty-six years ago the world changed. On July 16, 1945 a plutonium bomb nicknamed "The Gadget" exploded atop a 100 foot tower at a site called Trinity in the New Mexico desert. The explosion was so bright that a legally blind woman 50 miles away saw the flash. It turned the sand to glass and scientists worried it could set the Earth's atmosphere on fire. It also signaled the end of World War II, and three weeks later a uranium bomb named "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima.

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima (P.S.)Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker takes us through those three weeks between the Trinity Test and Hiroshima and the debates at the time over the use of such destructive weapons. Some scientists who had assisted in the Manhattan Project doubted they would even work, and others came to oppose their use when they saw the results. Mr. Walker discusses the development of Little Boy, and tells of the discussions over how the bomb could be most effectively used, such as the choice of targets and calculating the optimal height for the explosion (it exploded 1,900 feet above ground, not on impact). Some scientists even suggested attaching sirens to cause people to look, thereby blinding more people and maximizing the effect - an idea that was fortunately rejected. He also explains why the Japanese didn't surrender immediately after Hiroshima; they weren't even sure what happened at first except that communication seemed to have stopped, and then unbelievable reports began to come out. It took another bomb - "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 - for them to fully understand the gravity and futility of their situation. Using personal interviews and extensive research, it is both an exciting ride and a heart-rending account of the victors and those who experienced its horrors firsthand on the ground. It made me feel like I was watching a car crash: you know what's coming but you can't take your eyes away.

My only complaint with the book is that often there seems to be a casual characterization of many of the people involved as unthinking, unfeeling, power-hungry, or as mere "tools" of their leaders. At the same time, those who opposed the use of the bomb were portrayed as insightful and open-minded. Yet, although the book sometimes seems more sympathetic to the Japanese, it also attempts to examine both sides of the debate fairly. Mr. Walker explains what other options were discussed, such as sharing the test results or a demonstration on an uninhabited island instead of a city, and why such ideas would have been impractical. He looks at estimates of how much longer the war would last if an invasion were necessary and projected casualties – both American and Japanese. He also explains that Japan wasn't the only nation the US wanted to send a message to with its new weapon; a new threat was quickly developing with the aggressive and opportunistic entrance of the Soviet Union into the Pacific conflict. In fact, one whole chapter was devoted to explaining why there really was no other choice, recognizing that there were many factors to consider and it wasn't a simple decision. Japan had vowed to fight to the death, and all indications (even after Hiroshima) were that the people were willing to do so. The book isn't perfect but was one of the better discussions I've seen. It explains the politics and challenges of the time but doesn't forget that those were men, women, and children under that mushroom cloud, and was certainly a great insight into the events that ended the war.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter and Philosophy

Many years ago (somewhere around the Cretaceous) when I was still earning my bachelor's degree I took a philosophy class. It was just one of those required fields of study, and I chose the business ethics class (which was required anyway but also met the philosophy requirement). We had a teacher who acted cool and insisted we call him "Joe." On the first day he passed out the syllabus and there was nothing about business or ethics. Instead, we would be discussing philosophical things like gun control, euthanasia, abortion... in other words, controversial stuff.

But what I remember most was his confident prediction that by the end of the semester many of us would question our religious beliefs. Yeah, that's what he said. I'm not sure why he thought he would be so persuasive that he'd make students doubt their convictions. And I don't think anyone had a crisis of faith over the class, but the school did not ask him back for another semester (I wonder if the teacher evaluations we filled out had anything to do with that?).

The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series)So, although I think and wonder about many things, I've never been much of a fan of Philosophy. But when you mix it in with Harry Potter it might be interesting enough to have a look, right? The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles is part of the Blackwell series of pop culture and philosophy. It's a series of essays written by different philosophical people that explore the ideas and themes of the books and how it relates to philosophical concepts. It might be fun... or at least interesting... right?

Unfortunately, things didn't start off well. Chapter 1 talks about the nature of the soul (bor-ing!, besides, I've got my own religious thoughts on that). Chapter 2 got worse by asking "is Sirius Black a man or a dog?" (who cares?). Chapter 3: destiny and prophecy (are you kidding me?). I was ready to quit, but then things got better. Chapter 4 talked about how powerful "love" is and how it relates to Severus Snape - and it was actually... interesting!

On the whole, the book is certainly uneven - a consequence of each chapter being written by different persons on different topics. I found some chapters interesting: love potions, patriotism, choices vs. abilities, memories, etc... and I skipped those that didn't catch my interest right away. And that was what I was looking for: short discussions with an intellectual viewpoint. Also, the level of content from the books varied - more connection was better, but some only used the books to illustrate points and ideas (which was boring). And I was surprised that none of the writers seemed to bash religion; some even quoted religious thinkers. It's probably not for everyone, but I thought it was kind of fun to read the thoughts of other HP fans. (If you look for it, be sure to get this one which goes through book 7. Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts was only written through book 5.)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Random quotes

Just a few good quotes I've run across lately:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
- Margaret Mead

"Reading without thinking is nothing, for a book is less important for what it says than for what it makes you think."
- Louis L'Amour

"I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind."
- Albus Dumbledore

"Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny."
- William James

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Father of The American Dream

Benjamin Franklin might be the second most well-known Founding Father after George Washington. But why? He wasn't a president. He wasn't a general. He didn't write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution (although he signed both). In fact, even though he was influential in so many ways he was also quite old by the time the American Revolution occurred. Gordon Wood explains that although Franklin passed in and out of public favor during and after his life, his enormous influence upon the nation and our ideals was far more than just political.

The Americanization of Benjamin FranklinAmerica has long been called the "land of opportunity" but Franklin is possibly the biggest reason behind the idea of the "American Dream." The nations of Europe in the 1700s were very class-conscious. You were either part of the wealthy gentry or you labored with your hands. To be certain, there were a few successful people - the "middling" classes - who were financially successful, but they were still looked down upon for having earned their fortunes by work. It sounds almost silly now, but work was seen as morally debasing and it was believed that only by being born into a state of not having to spend time and effort at work (particularly with your hands) could one's best traits be developed. Franklin was one of those who amassed immense wealth by his industry... but he also made a show of extolling the virtues of being a "self-made man," especially through his Autobiography which became immensely popular. Wood explains that Franklin was perhaps the single greatest influence in creating this idea that Americans had the opportunity to make something more of themselves than their birth might have implied. (I even worked for a company called Franklin that taught his ideas of self-improvement.)

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin generally follows a chronological format but isn't precisely a biography in the traditional sense (such as Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson). It focuses more on the important points of Franklin's life and the many and varied accomplishments for which he is remembered. Of course it details his achievements as a revolutionary, especially his influence in persuading the French to assist the American Revolution, but it also explains his very late conversion to the cause of the Revolution. In fact, Franklin was a very loyal "British" subject until he finally realized how futile his efforts were to persuade Parliament to treat Americans fairly. This caused many patriots to wrongly view his conversion with suspicion, and he wasn't as highly valued in America as he was abroad. Wood doesn't shy away from covering his shortcomings, but he rightly praises him for his many contributions.

And this really is a good book about one of the greatest Americans and his personality and character and the context of his time. As he became an American he also created the image of an American. And he might just be the biggest reason for our expectation that anyone can - through their own efforts and hard work - make of themselves whatever they chose. And if that isn't a true "Founding Father," I don't know what is.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"These are the times that try men's souls..."

As we celebrate Independence Day this year, I hope to spend a few minutes telling my kids (boring them, is probably more like it) about the year 1776. We remember that year for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but as you read more you learn that independence was still just a dream for the colonists and the war wouldn't be over for years.

1776David McCullough has written an excellent history of the year 1776 where he tells of the battles that were fought and the men who fought them. In spite of some successes in New England early in the year, things had not gone well for General Washington and the Continental Army. A string of bitter losses and defeats when defending New York left the army demoralized and in constant retreat. Washington had made some strategic blunders as well, which not only cost ground and men, but caused some of his closest advisors to doubt his abilities and gave added ammunition to the Loyalists and his enemies. The army was poorly trained and equipped and was plagued by desertions and defections, and most of their enlistments would expire at the end of the year. The situation rarely looked more bleak than at this time and it's no wonder that Thomas Paine wrote "these are the times that try men's souls..." But a couple of small and daring victories after Christmas gave the nation and its leaders cause for hope, and gave Washington and his generals the confidence to continue in the cause for liberty.

Maybe I've just become a fan of McCullough but I love this book. It's short in comparison with his other books and I like that he not only tells the account of what happened during 1776 but that he fills it out with deeper information on all the important players. He tells you about King George, influential members of the Parliament, and the British generals. He also highlights those on the American side, such as Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, etc., men who were essential to the cause of freedom but who are poorly remembered today. He even quotes liberally from the soldiers on both sides. Suddenly they become more than just names to cheer or sneer at - they become real people - and you better understand their motivations and better appreciate the sacrifices. You won't find much about the signing of the Declaration of Independence or what was happening in Philadelphia - you'll barely find those names mentioned here - but you'll gain a much greater appreciation for the "rabble in arms" who trusted in "Divine Providence" and were willing to lay down their lives in defense of freedom. You'll understand the great odds they really faced in daring to separate themselves from Great Britain and the courage necessary to take that step. It's a message that gets lost all too often today when we celebrate with fireworks and picnics and a day off, but hopefully my kids will have just a little better appreciation for it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Good advice for job seekers

I've never had much trouble putting together a great resume or doing well in an interview. Some things I learned in classes many years ago, and others just by going on interviews. But I've been out of school for a number of years and it's been a while since I changed jobs. And it's a very different economy and job hunting situation now. Not only are jobs more scarce but there's a lot more competition in this down economy. And while I've only been looking passively for a while now, I find it's not as easy to even get interviews as it once was.

Job hunting can also be more difficult in this highly computerized world. Resumes go into databases and may not even be reviewed by a person unless the computer selects them. Knock 'em Dead 2011: The Ultimate Job Search Guide by Martin Yate discusses ways to get your resume selected by using important keywords and how to figure out what they are - and his method will take some real effort. He talks about how to deal with the interview and difficult questions, and how to negotiate when an offer is coming. He also leans heavily upon the old practice of networking - something I've never been very good at but which has worked since the days of Benjamin Franklin! He even follows up with information on what employment areas are in demand right now.

While this is a very good update of an old standard, it's not perfect. The writing can feel a little dense at times and occasionally it seems like a topic is over-covered or gets repetitive. The approach might look similar to the "Idiot's Guides" or "... for Dummies" books, but this one is a lot more serious. It also took me a while before I realized I probably didn't need to read every single part of this book and it can be treated more as a reference. I also wish there had been a little more detail on the format of resumes or how to do a cover letter instead of having to consult the author's other publications.

But this is probably the very best place to start your job search, especially if it's been a while or if you're a recent graduate. I'm really not a fan of the "self-help" type of books, but I'll make an exception for this one - this one just might be essential. (I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers blogger program.)