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Today I visited an agency in New York. We had a meeting in the 19th floor penthouse of their building. I looked out the window and saw this view.

On the left side is the newly completed “Freedom Tower” or One World Trade Center. With 1776 feet tall to the top of the antenna, it is now the highest building in the United States (and the 4th highest in the world).

To the right, in the same photograph, is the famous Woolworth building, which was  the world’s tallest building just 100 years ago in 1913 at 792 feet tall.

The top 30 floors of the Woolworth Building are currently being converted to luxury apartments. They will sell for an estimated $3000 per square foot when they are completed in 2015.

Here is an old picture showing an entirely different background.

Woolworth Building

[click for picture credit]

 

 

Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy, a physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School with a stellar reputation. The surgeon general has no influence at all over the regulation of guns. The job of the surgeon general is to educate the public about health issues by providing insightful information and to guide the federal government in its public health efforts. The regulation of guns falls exclusively under the already anemic and underfunded Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is in no way related to the surgeon general.

So why would the National Rifle Association be so opposed to a star physician’s nomination? Because Dr. Murthy supports stricter gun regulations. The gun lobby makes broad claims about gun ownership and how it helps the public health. Those claims don’t even hold up to the most trivial studies which clearly demonstrate that gun ownership leads to increased rates of injury and death by suicide and homicide, and has little impact on self-defense in general. In short, the NRA’s claims are bogus at best, and I personally would interpret them as fraudulent, deceptive and possibly even irresponsible. But that, of course, is only my opinion.

I have a general problem if a special interest group actively needs to block information from the public to uphold its argument or case. This is reminiscent of the 1970s, when big tobacco lobbied that smoking was not dangerous or addictive. They blocked or discredited valid studies by disinformation and a general campaign of dumbing down the public to keep their racket going as long as they could. Of course, eventually, the public figured it out and they had to concede.

The gun lobby has the same problem right now and they know it. This is the only reason I can think of why they would try to block Dr. Murthy’s nomination. They are afraid of a prominent physician doing his job and disseminating proper scientific and data-driven information to the public that would, of course, expose the gun lobby’s claims as bogus.

The NRA is blocking Dr. Murthy’s nomination because it is scared.

Recently there have been many headlines about problems with meat in China. While China has food safety rules, they are often not followed or companies don’t even know them. Wal-Mart buys a lot of meat products from China and has therefore suffered from some of these violations, both in China and the US. Some major restaurant chains have also been caught in the crossfire.

Examples cited are that DNA tests have shown that meat passed off as lamb contained fox or rat meat. Meat labeled as mutton was actually 95% duck. Wal-Mart in China had to recall donkey meat because it contained large quantities of fox and other animals. This is a frightening thought to me. And what’s up with donkey meat?

I have not eaten any red meat, venison, sausage, cold cuts, or processed meat of any type for over 30 years. The exceptions in my diet are: I eat chicken and turkey, usually in the native form where I recognize the actual animal. However, I have made exceptions when eating chicken strips or nuggets, or chicken in Chinese food. My only “processed meat” exception is pepperoni on pizza.

So, overall, this news about tainted meat from China does not affect me too much – but just writing this has made me think hard about chicken in Chinese food. How do I know that Chinese food chicken isn’t actually rat, fox, cat or dog?

I don’t!

Maybe it’s time for a change.

It’s tax day. Most Americans do not think of April 15 as a happy day.

taxdollars

nationalpriorities.org

The chart above shows where our tax dollars actually go. Note that Social Security and Medicare taxes are not included here. This just deals with the federal income taxes.

I am surprised how big a chunk the military and veterans benefits together make up. I am also surprised how large the healthcare slice is. Healthcare should be paid by the individuals and their insurance companies and funded by premiums. Why are we spending tax dollars on this?

I am also surprised how small the portions for science and education are. Really?

This chart shows in stark figures where our nation’s priorities lie – pun intended – I got this from nationalpriorities.org.

A nation’s values come alive when you examine what a nation spends its money on. Ours spends it on military, healthcare and interest on debt.

We are NOT spending it on education and science.

This will catch up with us, it’s just a matter of time.

わかりました

(Hai Wakarimashita – Yes, I understand.)

I find it disconcerting that a bird speaks better 日本語 (Nihongo – Japanese) than I do.

Savage HarvestThe subtitle of Savage Harvest is “A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.”

For me, reading Savage Harvest represented a vicarious journey into a world that is hard to believe still exists today in 2014, a journey into the stone age. It blew my mind wide open, and now has me pondering primitive art (I am going back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as soon as I can get back to New York City), cannibalism (and the fact that is most likely still exists in today’s world in remote places), and exotic travel.

Carl Hoffman, the author of Lunatic Express, which I reviewed here four years ago, has made several journeys to Papua New Guinea, investigating the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, who vanished in New Guinea in 1961 at the age of 23. Michael was the son of Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, soon to be Vice President of the United States, and one of the most powerful and definitely richest men in the world. He was interested in primitive art and was on a quest to bring some of it home to New York by immersing himself into the culture in Papua New Guinea with the Asmat people.

The photo below shows the young Rockefeller surrounded by Asmat villagers in what appears to be a jubilant dance.

Savage Harvest 1

Picture Credit National Geographic Magazine

On November 20, 1961, he disappeared without a trace. All the power of money and government swarmed down on New Guinea, yet nobody could find a clue. Michael Rockefeller had vanished.

Reminiscent of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Carl Hoffman meticulously retraced Rockefeller’s steps in New Guinea, searched records in the Netherlands and many other parts of the world, and unraveled the mystery of the disappearance one tedious step at a time. Since what happens amongst stone-age primitive people cannot be researched by reading archives, Carl immersed himself with the Asmat.

Savage Harvest 3

Picture Credit: The Washingtonian

Here is a picture of Carl with some of his Asmat friends when he lived with them while researching Savage Harvest.

What fascinated me about this book was that there were people in 1961 who were so untouched by the rest of the world, so remote, that most of them had never seen any white people, save a few forlorn missionaries. They were a very violent culture, practiced cannibalism as an accepted ritual as they had done for thousands of years. The Dutch and later Indonesian authorities and the Catholic Church worked on eradicating cannibalism with the Asmat. I can imagine that there are, today in 2014, still isolated tribes in the interior of New Guinea, and possibly other remote places in the world, that have not been touched by any civilization from the outside, save the contrails of modern jet travel, who still practice cannibalism today.

Savage Harvest delves deeply into the soul of the Asmat people, shows how they think, how their culture works, and why they might have practiced such a gruesome and repulsive practice, seemingly without any reservation. Their culture is so distant, so alien, so removed from anything we know in the modern world, we can’t even begin to understand. Here is a comment someone named “Scotty” wrote below the Smithsonian article with some interesting insight:

Savage Harvest 2

comment in Smithsonian article

I had started Twitter and email exchanges with the author after my review of Lunatic Express in 2010. Then, two years ago, I contributed to the author’s kickstarter project to fund his second trip to New Guinea, and in return I received my own hardcover signed copy. Thanks, Carl, for a great project completed. It lived up to all its promise and more. Savage Harvest 4 Rating: ****

[Click here to order this book from Amazon]

Movie Review: Noah

Noah1

I was looking forward to the movie Noah. The trailers looked like it would be a truly epic movie. Here is a post I wrote about the story of Noah and Ken Hams theme park.

Then I read Orson Scott Card’s extensive review. Here are a couple of leading paragraphs:

Even though Aronofsky is a self-proclaimed atheist, I find that Noah actually does a far better job of representing the Bible and Judeo-Christian teachings in general than most films by pious believers.

But first, and most important, it’s simply a powerful movie, well-invented, well-written, and well-acted. Set aside the fact that it’s based on a story from a work of scripture that is believed in by millions of people around the world, and it’s still a first-rate film.

Card is a devout Mormon. So it came as no surprise to me that he would not only review the movie, but delve into an extensive analysis of the movie versus scripture. Among other things, he says:

While Bible literalists are outraged by Noah, and writer/director Aronofsky is quick to tell people that he’s an atheist and Noah is the “least biblical” movie of a Bible story ever made, I have reached a very different conclusion.

I think Noah is not only the most faithful depiction of the story of Noah ever made, it also offers one of the most powerful expressions of Judeo-Christian values ever presented in film.

Clearly, Card liked this movie a lot, and since I often agree with Card’s reviews on other items, with the exception of Mormonism in general, I, the self-proclaimed atheist that I am, went to see the movie with Trisha yesterday.

When we walked out, she said:

That was a one and a half star movie. Say No to Noah. They were trying too hard and didn’t stay in the genre. If you want a biblical story, you have to stay within the parameter of biblical believability. If you are a Christian, you will likely be insulted by this movie. If you are an atheist, you’ll be confirmed.

To me, it wasn’t that simple. Too much in this movie seemed hokey. One of the central elements of the plot were the “Watchers.” I had never heard of Watchers before so I had to look it up afterwards. Here is what I found in Wikipedia:

In the Book of Enoch, the Watchers are angels dispatched to Earth to watch over the humans. They soon begin to lust for human women and, at the prodding of their leader Samyaza, defect en masse to illicitly instruct humanity and procreate among them. The offspring of these unions are the Nephilim, savage giants who pillage the earth and endanger humanity. Samyaza and his associates further taught their human charges arts and technologies such as weaponry, cosmetics, mirrors, sorcery, and other techniques that would otherwise be discovered gradually over time by humans, not foisted upon them all at once. Eventually God allows a Great Flood to rid the earth of the Nephilim, but first sends Uriel to warn Noah so as not to eradicate the human race. The Watchers are bound “in the valleys of the Earth” until Judgment Day. (Jude verse 6 says that these fallen angels are kept “in everlasting chains under darkness” until Judgment Day.)

from Wikipedia

So watchers are fallen angels that apparently were punished by God. They now served the descendants of Cain, the villains in this movie, but get turned around by Noah and serve the good cause.

The problem is: Watchers are giant lava-rock creatures, vaguely humanoid, but with many “arms” who talk English with a voice that you would expect from lava-rock creatures. Their eyes are glowing spots in the lava.

I have seen rock giants in movies before, more recently in the Hobbit:

HobbitRock500

[click for picture credit]

This looks like where Aronofsky got the idea for the lava-rock monsters, the Watchers, in Noah. The problem I had with the Watchers is twofold.

First, they were just hokey. CGI generated monsters out of rock reminded me of the old Godzilla movies of the 1960s, no better. Just ridiculous.

Second, these rock-monsters not only serve bad guys and then good guys. Later they are the main workers to build the ark; the rock monsters become woodworkers and carpenters. Finally, they are the warriors that hold off the evil, depraved hordes that want to enter the ark when the flood finally comes, and they slaughter humans like giants would slaughter ants, by crushing them, throwing them, tearing them apart.

Where did that come from? There is nothing in the story of Noah in the Bible about Watchers helping Noah, so all this stuff is made up.

Since I think of the Bible as a big book of made-up fables, I really don’t care of a movie follows the Bible, but sorry, I need to know WHAT I am supposed to follow when I watch something called Noah. I expected to get a biblical story, but this was not it. Was it science fiction like Starship Troupers? No. Was it fantasy like the Hobbit? No. What was it?

When I researched about biblical accuracy in Noah, I found articles by people much more learned than I am. Here is a good one that points out many facts or rather, discrepancies.

I felt disappointed about the depiction of the animals in the ark. I wanted more about the animals, entering the ark two by two. In this movie, the animals came in three waves: First came the birds, swarms of them. They flew into their cages and “passed out.” Then there were snakes by the gazillion, and insects. Finally came the mammals. I wanted to see some elephants, and tigers, and lambs, going in together. There was none of that. For a story where animals are essential, there were no animals in this movie. All the animals seemed to be totally hibernating for all the months of the journey. Very convenient. Then there was not a single shot of the animals coming out of the ark when the journey was over, going about their ways populating the earth again and multiplying.

I also found it difficult to believe how Noah obtained his mission. Here is a man who spends decades of his life building a big boat, and then many months floating on it, ready to kill even his own grandchildren, just because it was the will of God. But we never see how God communicated this stuff to him. We see a few repeated vignettes of dreams he has, where he is under water along with all manner of animals. That’s where he learned that God wanted to wipe out all humanity? It’s pretty far-fetched. I would have liked a more credible communication from God. Then, whenever doubt set in, Noah looked to the grey cloudy sky and pleaded with God to tell him what to do. And God treated Noah with nothing but grey sky. Nothing.

As a movie, I actually thought the acting was excellent. The characters interacted believably and there were many tear jerkers. I found myself emotionally engaged, and my eyes watery at times, not because of the story of Noah, but because the actors showed their pain, their passion and their love so very well.

So while I would rate the movie Noah about one and a half stars overall, I thought the acting was actually very good. Therefore:

Rating: **

I think churches should pay taxes like the rest of us, and our businesses. Churches are businesses, in my opinion.

In 2013, churches would have paid over $83 billion in taxes. Compare that to $76 billion we pay for food stamps for everone in the country authorized to receive them. This means if churches paid taxes, food stamps would be paid for. Don’t churches preach about feeding the hungry?

We would still have $7 billion left over. That would be enough to house all the homeless in the country.

But for some reason, churches don’t pay taxes.

Yet, when people go to church schools for “education” our government subsidizes them by paying for their childcare while they are “learning.” Check this article about Hasidic Jews in New York, which deals with exactly this subject.

Grand Budapest

If you liked Monty Python, (if you’re old enough to know Monty Python), you will like The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The movie tells of the adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel before World War II. He befriends a lobby boy who works for him, Zero Moustafa.

I honestly don’t know what to think of this movie, and how to write about it. It was basically worthless, a lot of money wasted on a film that really didn’t deserve to be made, about a story that’s not worth telling.

Yet, I laughed out loud at times, and chuckled often. I actually enjoyed this nonsense.

And look at the cast: Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, the list goes on. What possessed all these great actors to take parts in this movie?

Probably just to have fun. Like I did watching it.

Rating: **

And for a REAL REVIEW, check out Tim’s blog MORSECODE where he does a much better job telling out about the movie.

Illuminating the Store

 Check out the full article here.

 

Reminiscent of the Gremlin, which was popular in the late 1970s, or the AMC Pacer, or the Yugo, or the 2004 Pontiac Aztec (Walter White’s car in Breaking Bad), or the PT Cruiser, may I introduce to you the Fiat Multipla:

Fiat Multipla

Fiat Multipla

Click here for image credit.

To me, this car looks like a character out of the Simpsons. Who thinks of this stuff in car companies, and what do the committees say that approve these designs? Oh, a car that looks like Bart Simpson, great idea! It’ll be a best seller!

Book Thief

The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a twelve-year-old girl sent to live with a foster family in Germany during WWII. Her brother, who was sent with her, dies on the trip. Thus starts a long and desperate journey for the girl.

When she arrives at her foster family, she cannot even read. But her foster-father – papa – teaches her. She eventually reads what she can, and when she has no access to books, she does not shy away from stealing them.

Around her, the world is coming to pieces. The Nazis wreak havoc on their own citizens as much as they do on the neighboring countries. This makes this movie a good study of what life was like in Germany during the war, for the citizens – and the children – of the Germany.

However, the movie moved slowly, and the “book thief” theme didn’t make much sense to me. It seemed like the whole plot was just an excuse to show life in Nazi Germany. There are much better movies about that. I didn’t read the famous, acclaimed book, so I guess it must be a great story and a well structured novel. The film, while it engaged me generally, left me wanting for more – much more.

Rating: **

There are 124 golf courses in the Coachella Valley in California, and they consume roughly 17 percent of all water there. Roughly one percent of the water consumed in California is used to keep golf courses green. On average, a golf course in the desert uses nearly one million gallons of water a day due to the hot and dry climate. This is three to four times more water per day than the average American golf course.

 

Richest CountiesGoverning Magazine of April 2014, page 49, published the chart on the left. It lists America’s richest counties. The results are completely against what I would have intuitively guessed, with most counties on the list corresponding to the metropolitan areas of New York, Washington, DC, Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. I was very wrong.

Most of the counties on this list are in North Dakota.

North Dakota is one of only four states that I have never even visited (the others are Maine, West Virginia and Louisiana).

Looking down the list, there is clearly a swath across the Midwest plains, from North Dakota on down, that represents the oil and natural gas boom of the last few years.

I have also read that rents are correspondingly high in those places. Who would have thought that it takes thousands of dollars to rent a two-bedroom apartment in some small towns in North Dakota?

Young men looking for manual labor jobs with high pay don’t have to go to Alaska anymore (as they did when I was young). Apparently North Dakota is the place.

Now I want to go and check it out.

Coffee lovers often claim that their drink is so popular due to the influence of Pope Clement VIII (1596 – 1605). Some Catholics urged the pope to ban coffee, calling it “devil’s beverage.” They wanted him to call it the “bitter invention of Satan” since it was so popular with Muslims. After tasting it, the Pope is said to have remarked that the drink was “… so delicious that it would be a sin to let only misbelievers drink it.”

As it is with many “events” that are said to actually have happened hundreds of years before, not everyone agrees that this has actually happened this way – but it’s a cool story nonetheless.

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