Friday, December 25, 2009

Day 25: A Christmas Story

When I conceived and started the 25 Days of Christmas blog series, I didn't know all the topics I would post about or the item I would feature on Christmas Day. I figured my bias would slant toward It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, because of their strong, emotional stories and staying power.

I knew I always liked A Christmas Story, but it wasn't until I started thinking about just how well the movie captured what it felt like to be nine years old during Christmas that I knew it would be my Day 25 choice.

When you're nine, there's that one gift you want for Christmas above all else that interjects so much high drama and gravitas to the Christmas season. You're so excited for Christmas that the days leading up to the holiday seem to go on forever and you wonder if Christmas will ever arrive. Though there's some anxiety that accompanies the wait for Santa and the uncertainty that you'll get that one gift you want, the relative slow-moving days actually make the season ironically more fun and memorable. Everything happens slowly, so you take in the days in big gulps and notice everything: the events at school, snowball fights, Christmas decorations, Christmas cards arriving in the mail, putting up the Christmas tree, and knowing you've almost made it when the calendar reaches December 22nd.

This is Ralphie's story, as it was mine and, I'd guess, millions of other boys across America.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Day 24: It's a Wonderful Life

At some point in It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey begins to resemble one of the many men Thoreau foresaw leading lives of "quiet desperation". There are so many reasons why this is a great Christmas movie, but what's always stood out for me is the honesty of George's desperation.

Many of us know what it's like to pine for better opportunities and are one medical illness away from financial ruin. What the movie does so well is remind us to keep perspective, and remember our family and friends and all the things we have instead of what we don't.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Day 23: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is of course one of the most celebrated and timeless Christmas stories of all time. The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge -- in both the original text and movie sources -- is one of those moments that transcends its material and is truly timeless.

Everybody has a favorite, of course, and I'm no different. I prefer reading the original Dickens novella and watching the 1984 George C. Scott film version. Every year I try and read the novella or watch the movie.

I love the story. It's a tale of hope with a stirring message that it's never too late to change. Perhaps Scrooge's nephew, Fred, says it best:
I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people . . . as if they were fellow-passengers. . . .

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Day 22: Do They Know It's Christmas?

Do They Know It's Christmas? is a song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984 to raise money for famine relief in Africa. Those of you who are my age surely remember this recording, when a young Bono and Sting sang side by side for a cause. Sadly, while it's now been 25 years since the original recording, we still have a long way to go to eradicate poverty, malnourishment, and disease.

If it's been a while since you've heard this, or if the song is new to you, have a listen:

Link to video on YouTube

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Day 21: Bad Santa

Now we're talking.

Bad Santa is crude, lewd, and utterly irreverent. But it's also hilarious and, in my opinion, the best Christmas comedy of them all.

This movie works and is funny in so many ways that a lesser film like Scrooged is not because it starts with a bad, drunken Santa (played by Billie Bob Thornton) premise and carries it through for the whole movie. It doesn't compromise or cheat to a happy ending. Yes, there is a lonely uncool kid who attaches himself to Santa. But instead of the redemption arc, where the kid helps the bad Santa become a better person, it's Santa who helps the kid become a little bad and less of a loser.

Of course this film isn't for everyone. My wife, for one, detests the movie, and refuses to watch it with me. But for people who know that sometimes a movie is very funny and "not about what it is about" [1] , Bad Santa is a holiday gem.

[1] Roger Ebert, Review of "Bad Santa"

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Day 20: Rob

Rob is a non-fiction column I wrote a few years ago in remembrance of my cousin.

Though in the strictest terms it's not a Christmas piece, I am inclined to include it here, as I invariably think of Rob during the holidays.

I've reproduced the piece in its entirety below and also linked to an audio clip that features me reading the column for a local radio station.


by Frank Gullo

Our current mythology views ghosts as wayward, incomplete, or even destructive spirits. Films and horror fiction typically depict ghosts as vengeful entities, lingering to haunt or mete punishment for forgotten victims and wrongs that have not been brought to justice. Often, ghosts characterized in this fashion act as they do because they cannot pass on to a higher state until some unfinished matter on the earthly plane is resolved.

Sometimes, though, ghosts are not apparitions that linger because they are trapped by their past earthly life. Instead, ghosts are more often memorials shading through our mind, that serve to remind us of fallen friends and kin, and that encourage us to treasure our life and make the best of it, and ask at the end of each day, "Was that all you wanted?" [1]

Such is the case with my cousin Rob. Rob Borman passed on August 2, 1999 from diabetic-related complications. At the time of his death, Rob was in his 20s and living in Arizona. Memorial services were held in Buffalo, NY, Rob's city of birth. As a member of Rob's extended family, I attended the memorial services. I remember at the time feeling chilled at the news of his death. Even though Rob and I were not that close and had not spoken for many years, I was struck that someone about the same age as me was gone. For so long, I had viewed life as an endless vista, boundless in possibility, and with time enough for everything. Rob's death suddenly and completely shattered that naive perspective. As I mourned with Rob's family and friends, I came to realize how precious and fragile life is, and that everyday is the rest of your life.

After the memorial service, the mourners went back to their lives; Rob's family left Buffalo and returned to their adopted states of residence out west. As a distant relative, I did not have much contact with Rob's family, other than the wedding of Rob's sister, Roseanne, and the occasional update passed on by an elder aunt.

However, Rob has remained very much in my memory and life. From time to time, I find myself remembering him and the meaning I tried to attribute to his passing. One evening, while I was driving back to Buffalo from a trip to Maine, I recalled moments from my boyhood, when Rob and I used to see each other at family gatherings. I remembered one such time when Rob's family hosted a party in their Orchard Park home. At some point during the party, Rob and I wandered about, and came to a desk, on which sat a strange machine with a screen. There was a note on the machine, drafted in the authoritarian hand of a parent that read "Do not touch", or something to that effect.

"What's that?" I asked Rob.

"It's a computer," he responded.

It was my first direct experience with a computer of any kind. The fact that I currently make my living working as an information technology consultant may be entirely coincidental to that first impression I had, but part of me believes that Rob has nudged me from time to time into a profession that suits me. At least that's how it felt during that drive back from Maine.

I also remember joking with Rob about his father Rick's occupation. No one in my immediate or extended family knew exactly where Rick worked or what he did, although it was assumed that he was very successful and made a handsome living.

"What does he do? Does he work for the FBI or the CIA?" I would ask.

"Just ask him," Rob would say.

Eventually, it became an inside joke among my cousins and I to speculate about Rick's occupation. Pilot, spy, member of the Free Masons - nothing was too outrageous to suggest. After Rob's passing, the memory served to reinforce the importance of family and personal meanings we build and share through stories, anecdotes, and tall tales.

Baseball caps also bring back Rob to me. I think it was Rick who first made mention of Rob's penchant for always wearing a baseball cap. To be honest, I don't remember how the association formed. What I do know is often when I head out, and don my 15-year old Notre Dame cap, I feel a sign from Rob, not unlike a nod or a two-finger sign from a baseball manager in the dugout.

Finally, I often remember Rob during the holidays. It's not often at a specific time, or on a specific day, but there's always a holiday visit, though Rob would not translate well as a traditional ghost. There are no rattling chains or drops in room temperature. There are no noises in the night and no barely perceived transparent figures walking the halls. Instead, there's simply Rob, the person he was and the life he lived. I am saddened by his visits because they remind me that his time with us was so short, but I am always benefited by his memory, for he has helped me remember to live deep and do the best I can so I can usually say at the end of every day, "Yes, that's all I wanted".

[1] Genne Lentine

Frank Gullo
December, 2004

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 19: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Of all the Christmas specials for children, in my opinion, A Charlie Brown Christmas is the best.

Funny and ultimately affirming for both kids and adults, A Charlie Brown Christmas achieves what few specials can match: it manages to keep a balanced perspective about Christmas, even admitting to the commercialism of the holiday with a healthy cynicism.

But as it teeters toward becoming something more jaded, the story turns and we learn that one of the reasons Christmas is so special is that it's one of the few days when people really come together, when your nemesis doesn't pull the football away before you can kick it, and when a little love and caring go a long way, to dress up a scraggly looking tree and to comfort and cheer each other.

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Day 18: When Santa Turned Green

When Santa Turned Green is a timely and urgent holiday story for children that begins with a drop of water falling on Santa's head and him realizing that the North Pole is melting. The book goes on to explain about global warming and introduces the notion of environmental awareness and little things we all can do that make a big difference.

My wife and I are committed to raising our daughter to respect and help preserve the planet, and though she's probably too young for this story this year, I thought it deserved a mention in this Christmas blog series.

One comment for any climate change deniers who may be tempted to impugn the idea of this book and challenge me for including it. Before commenting, first read this post by Scientific American and return only when you've provided peer reviewed evidence that proves that human interference is not impacting the Earth's climate.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Day 17: The Polar Express

The film version of The Polar Express deftly combines traditional Christmas elements in a fun, adventure story. This comes together as a young boy boards a train on Christmas Eve headed for the North Pole. On the trip, he encounters other children and sees many fascinating things, and ultimately receives a "gift" of Christmas.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Day 16: A Very Special Christmas

The original A Very Special Christmas album came out in 1989, when I was a senior in high school, and it always felt like my Christmas album. The interpretations were fresh, and the artists were varied and contemporary. Good stuff.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Book Review)

Set in Holland in the 1660s, Girl With a Pearl Earring is a novel about a young woman who inspired one of Vemeer's most famous paintings.

The novel is sensational. The writing is simple and elegant, and the words and pages disappear as the plot and historical landscape come alive.

Highly recommended.

Day 15: Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town

You don't often think of Santa Claus as a defiant Robin Hood outlaw constantly on the run from a mean-spirited despot. Or as a young man who falls in love.

In Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, though, we get the origin story of Santa Claus and learn how he came of age as Kris Kringle and how several Christmas traditions came to be.

I really enjoyed the special as a child, and always thought it felt unique as Santa-fare went. The Burgermeister and Sombertown, in particular, overlayed speculative and serious elements to traditional Christmas tropes that bolstered the story and Santa mythology. Santa as a merry toymaker who gives presents to boys and girls is one thing, but the legend looms even larger when we learn he grew into this role while resisting a dictator.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 14: Best TV Sitcom Christmas Episodes

As I began formulating this Christmas blog series, I quickly realized that I was interested in doing at least one post highlighting famous Christmas-themed sitcom episodes. At the time, I thought it would be easy to pick and prune from existing lists, but I didn't find as many out there as I thought.

So, I've cobbled together my own. Call it my seven favorite TV sitcom Christmas episodes.

Season 9 - December 12, 2002

In this episode, Chandler is miserably spending Christmas working in Tulsa, while the rest of the group is celebrating the holiday back in New York. The episode memorably ends with the gang in NY opening presents, when Chandler opens the door and announces he's quit his job.

I always liked the ending of this one, and its the one and only Friends Christmas episode I remember.

Season 3 - December 19, 1995

Determined to buy his son Frederick only high-end educational toys for Christmas, Frasier learns a Christmas lesson when he discovers that his son just wants a fun robot toy. Fortunately, Martin (Frasier's dad) anticipates this and ensures that the gift Frederick wanted is under the tree.

There have been a number of good Frasier Christmas episodes, but I remembered this one right away. I liked the point about sometimes letting kids be kids.

Season 1 - December 11, 2001

The birth of Jesus is the central allegory in this episode as the staff of Sacred Heart regain their Christmas faith when a pregnant woman gives birth on Christmas Eve.

This early Scrubs Christmas episode was really well done and showed the chops of the young cast.

Season 4 - December 16, 1992

This is the hilarious episode where Elaine accidentally sends out Christmas cards that show her nipple.

I suppose this was less Christmas-themed than some other episodes, but it was so funny that I had to mention it.

Season 2 - December 6, 2005

This very funny episode featured a "Secret Santa" gift exchange, where all the office staff trade gifts.

For my money, The Office's first Christmas episode is still the funniest.

Season 2 - December 17, 1974

In this episode, Richie discovers that Fonzie will be spending Christmas all alone and convinces his father to invite the Fonz over for Christmas.

I've probably only seen this once, when I was a kid, so this is going back thirty years now, easily. But there's something about this episode that's made me think of it periodically through the years. Perhaps it was the image of the tough hipster all alone eating raviolis out of a can on Christmas Eve. As cool as he was, the Fonz couldn't match what Richie had: a family who cared about him on Christmas.

Season 9, December 18, 1997

This is the classic episode that introduced and popularized Festivus, the alternative holiday to Christmas that includes a Festivus pole and practices such as the "Airing of Grievances" and "Feats of Strength".

Ah, a Festivus for the rest of us!

Other Christmas Sitcom Episodes

Beyond what I listed here, in my searching for Christmas-themed sitcom episodes, I came across these sites that listed additional shows, many that I've never seen:

The Best of Christmas Sitcom

Classic TV Sitcom Christmas Episodes

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 13: The 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time

Power blogger John Scalzi has compiled a list of the 10 worst holiday specials ever. This list is frighteningly funny, with doozies such as The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: “A Most Illogical Holiday”, A Muppet Christmas with Zbigniew Brzezinski, and The Village People in Can’t Stop the Christmas Music.

Link to Original Post

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Day 12: Frosty the Snowman

Frosty the Snowman is another one of those classic holiday TV specials from the 60s/70s that I loved as a kid.

What I always found interesting about the Frosty story (more so than other favorites like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town) was the emphasis on the seasons and cycles and the implication that you really need to appreciate things while they are here.

Frosty, after all, like Christmas, like Santa, and like winter, only comes around for a brief time each year. So, enjoy him and enjoy the moment when you can. Frosty vivimus, vivamus.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Day 11: Green Days of Christmas

Here's something different. Green Days of Christmas remasters signature Green Day numbers as Christmas songs.

I'm not sure about this. The transformed Green Day songs, recorded with Christmas sounds, feel too neutered and defanged. I suppose that's kind of the point, but I love the originals too much to hear them schmaltzed with jingle bells.

Your mileage may vary, though.

Link to video on YouTube

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Day 10: A Miracle on 34th Street

Today's Christmas post comes from my wife who, when I asked her for a contribution to this list, quickly came back with the original A Miracle on 34th Street.

As this is a Christmas film I've never seen in its entirety (something I hope to rectify this year), I was curious why she liked it so much.

She said, foremost, that it's a great story that not only connects with traditional Christmas themes but, in its own right, illustrates the power of hope and faith. Beyond that, my wife said that she thought the film was ahead of its time (it came out in 1947) and deserving of respect for featuring a divorced, single mother as the female lead.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Day 9: A Twisted Christmas

If, like me, you grew up during the 1980s, you remember the halcyon days of Heavy Metal, when bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, and Twisted Sister were all over MTV and selling out arenas nationwide.

For everyone who remembers the music or for anyone who just likes a hard-rocking rendition of a holiday classic, I think you'll enjoy Twisted Sister's "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", from their A Twisted Christmas album.

Link to video on YouTube

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Day 8: A Charlie Brown Christmas Performed by the Cast of Scrubs

At this point, the television show Scrubs is very much like one of my kids. It doesn't matter how bad the show gets, or how much it may have jumped the shark, or even who's starring in it anymore. I'll always watch it and will support until the end.

So, since its something of an ongoing Christmas Miracle that Scrubs is still on the air, I thought it fitting to reset this great video featuring the cast of Scrubs voicing and re-imagining the classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas". As the story goes, the cast made this video for a Christmas party and it has since found its way onto the web.

Link to video on YouTube

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Day 7: Christmas in Wartime

Since today (12/7) is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese aerial assault on Pearl Harbor, I thought it appropriate with this Christmas blog post to look back at Christmas during some of America's wars.

This photo collection from the U.S. Army of Military History includes Christmas photos from WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the story of Bastogne and the events of December 25, 1944, I encourage you to read about that Christmas 55 years ago:

Siege of Bastogne
December 1944 White Christmas Red Snow

Finally, back to Pearl Harbor, I found this link through a Google Archive to a story the Hawaii Star Bulletin ran some 10 years ago about Christmas in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor.

Thanks to all of our veterans for your sacrifice and service.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Day 6: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a Christmas classic, and, like millions of other children, I loved it when I was a child.

The story couldn't be more timeless: a misfit runs away after having been mocked mercilessly by his peers. After some time away and self-discovery, he returns and ultimately gains acceptance.

Watching it for the first time in years last week, I found that the story still resonated, though this time I was more attuned to how much of a jerk Santa was to Rudolph in the beginning. Credit the writers for imbuing Santa with some real failings. Still, Rudolph seemed a little too magnanimous when he returns. Yes, he gets to save the day, but it would have been fun if he pelted Fireball with some snowballs or made Santa grovel a little before he agreed to guide his sleigh.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Day 5: Zombies and Christmas

Zombies are all the rage these days.

They're in movies like Zombieland, in books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and in video games like Left 4 Dead 2.

Fortunately, this Christmas, thanks to author Michael P. Spradlin, you can also enjoy some zombie Christmas Carols in It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Day 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

My daughter has become a big fan of Dr. Seuss books, which sets the stage nicely for How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

This was always one of my favorites as a kid, and I still remember sympathizing with the poor Whos in Whoville and holding out hope that it wasn't too late for the Grinch.

This probably the second-best Christmas redemption arc ever. Great stuff.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Day 3: Science Fiction Pulps and Christmas

This website features a nice collection of old science fiction pulps with Christmas-themed covers:

A Science Fiction Christmas

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Day 2: The Star Wars Holiday Special

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, and sometimes the presents under the tree live up to or exceed the hype. Sometimes, though, a gift misses the mark. Such is the case with holiday specials. Perhaps the best example of a failed holiday special is the The Star Wars Holiday Special, which first aired in 1978 and is widely considered one of the worst holiday specials ever.

I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I have vague memories that make me believe that I watched part or all of it when it aired. I'm thinking that this year I find a copy online and watch it again (or, for the first time, if my memory is incorrect). Even with all the negative criticism, it can't be much worse than The Phantom Menace, could it?

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Day 1: Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

I sure loved this as a kid.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is a holiday special that imparts valuable lessons about life as Emmet Otter and his mom both try to win a cash prize in a Christmas musical talent contest. I first saw this when it was airing on HBO in the 1980s.

I can't wait until my daughter is old enough so I can watch this with her.

This is part of my 25 Days of Christmas blog series.

25 Days of Christmas

Just for kicks, this year I'll be writing a post each day until Christmas. These will mostly be quick hitters in which I highlight some of my favorite Christmas movies and television specials, although there will be some other stuff as well and even some surprises.

Day 1: Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
Day 2: The Star Wars Holiday Special
Day 3: Science Fiction Pulps and Christmas
Day 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Day 5: Zombies and Christmas 
Day 6: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Day 7: Christmas in Wartime
Day 8: A Charlie Brown Christmas Performed by the Cast of Scrubs 
Day 9: A Twisted Christmas
Day 10: A Miracle on 34th Street
Day 11: Green Days of Christmas
Day 12: Frosty the Snowman
Day 13: The 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time
Day 14: Best TV Sitcom Christmas Episodes 
Day 15: Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
Day 16: A Very Special Christmas
Day 17: The Polar Express
Day 18: When Santa Turned Green
Day 19: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Day 20: Rob
Day 21: Bad Santa
Day 22: Do They Know It's Christmas?
Day 23: A Christmas Carol
Day 24: It's a Wonderful Life
Day 25: A Christmas Story

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wonder Woman Now an Option in Superhero Survey

I've added Wonder Woman as one of the superheroes (along with Batman, Captain America, the Hulk, the Punisher, Spider-Man, Superman, and Wolverine) my Superhero Survey assesses and compares you against.

Wonder Woman

Are you a fellow wielder of the Lasso of Truth?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Scrubs Season 9

Here's the official poster for Season 9 (lifted from the Scrubs Facebook page).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Superhero Survey - Updated

I've updated the look and feel of my Superhero survey. Take a look.

Captain America
The Hulk
The Punisher

I'll also soon be adding a few more questions and two more superheroes to score against.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

My Wife's iPod

I've recently been borrowing my wife's iPod so I can listen to music during the day at work. (I need to get my own player, but I'm a procrastinator.)

While I was wary of some of the artists I might find on the player, I knew that my wife and I liked enough similar musicians (U2, Springsteen) that I'd have enough music I enjoyed to fill a workday.

What I didn't expect was that I'd discover a new artist who I'd really liked and end up listening to her songs over and over again. I'd heard of Pink before -- and even remember thinking "Stupid Girl" was interesting and clever -- but I had no idea Pink had released so many powerful and inventive pop songs.

Of the eight or ten songs on my wife's iPod, my favorites are "Don't Let Me Get Me", "Sober", and "Just Like a Pill", but I'm eager to listen to her other stuff.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Arthur Goldwag on 9/11

I previously reviewed Arthur Goldwag's Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies here. While I didn't love the book, I sure think the author was dead on in his message and nailed it in his post today at BoingBoing where he refuted key assertions of the 9/11 Truth movement.

Goldwag: Some thoughts about 9/11 Truth

Monday, November 02, 2009

New Dr. Sears Post Details Changes to MMR (No More Splitting)

Dr. Bob Sears is the author of The Vaccine Book, an excellent reference text focused on vaccination that provides a balanced view of the subject. While Dr. Sears is pro-vaccination and offers his reasons for that stance, he does recommend and provide an alternate vaccination schedule that differs from the CDC's formal recommendation.

Apparently, though, some alternate options originally offered by Dr. Sears are no longer available, specifically splitting the MMR into three separate shots, spread out over a few years. Dr. Sears details this change and the options for parents in a new blog post.

Separate Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccines No Longer Available?  What Can Parents Do?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Organic Consumers Association (Website Recommendation)

I've recently stumbled upon the Organic Consumers Association website, and I just love it. Just about everyday they link to articles from varied sources about food, climate and the environment, genetic engineering, Fair Trade, and other key topics.

In their own words they are "an online and grassroots non-profit 501(c)3 public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability."

Below are two stories they featured today that I found interesting and that demonstrate the type and caliber of content to which they regularly link:

Toxins Make Halloween Face Paints Scary
- sourced from HealthDay

Is organic food a consumer scam? *
- sourced from 

* This one deftly refutes some recent studies that claim that "Organic food is not nutritionally superior to conventional food."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blog Visitors

I've previously mentioned the recent redesign of this blog. Through that process, I also spent some time looking at visitor metrics and usage. I did this first out of curiosity, to see what visitors to this blog were looking at and what they weren't. Beyond that, I also wanted to double back to the original goals of the blog and guage if the site was serving its intended purpose.

Roughly stated, I conceived and maintain this blog for the following reasons:
  • to comment about books and movies, for my friends and anyone interested
  • to provide general commentary, for my friends and anyone interested 
  • to stay connected better with my friends
  • to write and generate content
  • self-expression and indulgence
Looking at the analytics from the last two years, I was struck by a few prominent leading indicators:

Most of the visitors (81%) to this site come from search engines

No big surprise here. I suspect this is the same with most blogs that have been on their feet for more than a few months.

Visitors aren't interested at all in posts about books or authors

This one surprised me a bit. No so much that there's less interest in books compared to other blog topics, but that visitors regularly access my other (non-book) posts, but almost never continue their site visit by checking out a book post.

Given that the majority of my posts have historically been about books, it was revealing to see only one book post score in my top ten of all-time most viewed posts.
Further, the lone book post seemed to attract visitors -- based on the referring keywords -- from searchers looking for information about the upcoming film adaptation of the text.

While of course many people are interested in books and authors, it appears that a lot of this traffic directs through Amazon and similar portal sites that for a long time now have featured reader reviews embedded with book listings.

Some of my posts score high on Google and bring in lots of visitors

This makes sense when you think through how Google is setup, but I found it pretty odd how some random, hastily authored posts brought the bulk of the visitors to the blog.

My ability to retain visitors is weak

This blog isn't a commercial venture, and I make no effort to guide visitors down some path for conversion. Still, it's clear that many first-time visitors hit my blog looking for specific information (e.g., about the HP Photosmart C4380), read what I wrote about the topic, and then leave and never come back.


I'm still assessing this data and am mulling making some further changes to this blog and what I post about.

While the blog is a success in some respects in that it allows me to connect with friends and express myself, the relative lack of visitor interaction dampens my ongoing motivation for continuing in the same fashion.

I'm unsure about the way forward. I might stop posting book reviews, or maybe I'll continue as I have.

International Domain Names

Updated (30 October 2009): ICANN Approves International Web Addresses

ICANN Bringing the Languages of the World to the Global Internet

Hebrew, Hindi, other scripts get Web address nod


It's been talked about for years, but it looks like all the hurdles have been passed and we may see web addresses written in languages other than English as early as next year.

This is very interesting and really cool, although I wonder about the implications for translating existing domains and for the many people without language packs on their machines. Will all addresses have an English base, so you get the specific domain name based on your regional language settings? Will organizations start migrating away from some of the country-specific domains, like .jp and .cn? Time will tell.
One of the key issues to be taken up by ICANN's board at this week's gathering is whether to allow for the first time entire Internet addresses to be in scripts that are not based on Latin letters. That could potentially open up the Web to more people around the world as addresses could be in characters as diverse as Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Greek, Hindi and Cyrillic — in which Russian is written.
Internet set for change with non-English addresses (Yahoo! Tech)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Walmart Family Moments

During today's Bills-Panthers football game on CBS, I noticed a number of Walmart spots highlighting "family" moments. Apparently, because you can save money at Walmart and buy more stuff, you're happier and consequently spend more time with your family. The commercials I saw featured family members happily and wholesomely playing video games.

The spots I did not see were of Walmart's own employees engaging with their families, happy and living better on a Walmart salary. I also didn't see any commercials revealing the family moments of Walmart's legion of overseas outsourced labor.

Maybe we'll see these spots during the holidays.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


As part of my blog redesign, I wanted to add utility links beneath my posts to allow visitors to share content easily. I'm on different computers throughout the week and like to use services like to bookmark and send links back and forth, so I appreciate it when sites provide these convenience links beneath posts.

After some research, I discovered AddThis, an awesome sharing tool that's easy to use and incorporate into websites and blogs.

I'm interested in what others think, first of utility links in general beneath blog posts. Are these becoming standard? Do you expect or want these links beneath news articles and blog posts? Regarding AddThis, has anyone else used this tool or anything similar?

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Blog Design

I'm in the process of updating the look and feel of this blog. It's not a drastic change, but things should look cleaner and tidier as I finish the update.

Credit to Deluxe Templates for the "Slidely" template which I am customizing for use here.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bill Simmons on Being a Parent of Young Kids

I don't read his column regularly, but I was browsing through ESPN.COM over the weekend and came across this gem from Bill Simmons. I don't think you have to be a parent to appreciate this, but it might help. My wife and I were rolling on the floor laughing!
Important note: Being a parent of young kids sucks. Don't let anyone tell you differently. About six months ago, I wanted to start a Twitter account of quotes my wife screamed in the heat of those my-kids-are-driving-me-crazy-moments such as these: "If you don't stop crying, I am going to stick you in the microwave!!!!" and "Fine, climb up the stairs again; I hope you fall down, I really do!" She wouldn't let me because she thought child services would arrest us. The truth is, every parent snaps from time to time. We can't help it. Our kids' job is to suck all forms of life from us, frighten us, embarrass us in public and prevent us from sleeping until they turn 4. We pretend it's not so bad when, really, it's mostly horrible and even somewhat indefensible. But -- and this is a big but -- they parcel out just enough, "Wow, I'm so glad I had kids" moments to make it all worth it. And that's what Halloween is: an entire "Wow, I'm so glad I had kids" day. At least until they eat too much chocolate and wake us up at 5 the next morning because they're Exorcist vomiting. But I digress.
Link to Full Column

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Can Luck Be Learned?

As someone who believes that effects in our lives are often due to unknown causes that make things seem like chance or luck, this article about behavior affecting luck rang true.

Be lucky - it's an easy skill to learn

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies by Arthur Goldwag (Book Review)

Sometimes I think an author has a great idea but misses on the execution, and that's my read on Arthur Goldwag's Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more.

While the author covers a full range of cults and conspiracies, including all the bigs ones -- like the Freemasons, Area 51 and Roswell, the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, and the 9/11 Truth Movement -- his propensity to provide the information in encyclopedic, itemized entries, even though he states that this is not his intent, detracts from any larger narrative and interconnections he could otherwise explore.

Bottom line: Interesting to peruse, especially for some of the esoteric entries, but also a missed opportunity to go deeper and tease out the sociological and cultural implications behind the desire and need to believe.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Snoop by Sam Gosling (Book Review)

Snoop is a fascinating and readable exploration of what personal items reveal about an individual's personality. Everything from what's on your iPod playlist to how your office is organized to how you dress for interviews illuminate who you are and how you behave.

The book emerged from serious academic study and experiments, but author Sam Gosling has massaged the material for a general audience. For the most part, he succeeds, and if you enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's books and Freakonomics, you'll probably like Snoop as well.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrel (Book Review)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a sad, eloquent novel about Iris Lockhart, a young Scottish woman who learns suddenly that she's been granted the power of attorney for a family relation she never knew existed -- a great aunt (Esme Lennox) who has been in a mental institution for the past 60 years.

With this solid nouveau-Gothic premise, the novel proceeds by switching back and forth in time and alternating narrative points of view, between Iris and Esme. The story of both women is thus gradually revealed, and the ending, whether or not the reader guesses at the big surprise, is dramatic and powerful.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford (Book Review)

Shop Class as Soulcraft explores the value of manual competence and the rewards of working in the trades versus working as a professional or knowedge worker. From this point of departure, author and motorcycle repair-shop owner Matthew B. Crawford tackles a number of thought-provoking and culturally immediate questions.

For example, is there a general under-estimation and under-appeciation of the intellectual rigor and challenges in the manual trades? Are some of the manual trades immune to outsourcing and should they be worthy of new consideration for otherwise college-eligible grads in the evolving world of outsourcing? Is there deeper personal and communal satisfaction in standards that -- in the trades -- are inherent in the work itself compared to more abstract measures of competence in other professional fields?

These are hard questions worthy of deep conversations and analysis. To that end, I'm very pleased that Crawford made the attempt.

As for the execution, though, I thought he hit it hard and long, but foul. The book was too uneven as the author traversed many different topics related to manual competence and the trades. In some cases, I wanted him to linger longer over a thread (as with trades and the new economy of outsourcing). In others, I felt he went into too much technical detail to fill in a chapter. Perhaps this is because the book was extended from an original essay. Finally, I think the ideas in this book would have appealed tremendously to a general audience, but for academic language and style that will surely turn some readers away.

Recommended for the trenchant ideas, but note the criticisms above, and definitely steer clear if you don't like academic prose.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Expandable Blog Posts in Blogger - Now Part of Blogger as Jump Breaks

I previously posted about how to implement expandable posts in Blogger -- that is a summary lead-in on the main page (instead of the whole post) and a link to the the rest of the post on a separate page.

Well, I guess enough people were interested in this functionality that Blogger decided to add it as a standard feature, called Jump Breaks:

With Jump Breaks you can show just a snippet of your post on your blog's index page. Blogger will insert a "Read more" link to the full post page where your readers can keep reading.

Check out the full post about Jump Breaks from the Blogger Buzz blog.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Big Necessity by Rose George (Book Review)

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters is all about human waste, but it's not a gross out or uncouth book. Instead, this is a very interesting and accessible survey of the state of human waste disposal across the world, with analysis of some of the long-standing social and environmental challenges that are involved.

One of the major points author Rose George emphasizes is that poor sanitation is a huge problem in many parts of the world. Simply, poor santiation leads to contaminated food and dirty drinking water that, in turns, leads to disease and the deaths of millions of people each year (many children, often from dysentery).

Friday, September 04, 2009

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (Book Review)

One of the advantages of having a wife pursue a graduate degree is that you can pick the interesting books to read from her pile of assigned books while bypassing the rest.

When I noticed my wife reading Fierce Conversations, I was immediately interested. The text purported to summarize author and seasoned facilitator Susan Scott's methods and best practices in helping communicate more effectively, including breaking through on tough, seemingly intractable issues. While Fierce Conversations has clearly been marketed as a business book for managers and executives, it seemed to me that at root it was about communication, and, if its message was sound, could be useful to anyone.

After reading the book, I would recommend it to anyone, or at least anyone wishing to communicate and listen better. Because, in essence, Fierce Conversations is about returning to authentic conversations and really listening and giving people your full attention while communicating. It seems so simple, but, as Scott demonstrates through numerous examples, many people struggle communicating: they talk over people, or they fear undiscussables, or they don't really listen.

Scott shows the way forward first by emphasizing the need to be in the conversation and listen fully. Then she demonstrates useful models to consider using, such as the Mineral Rights model that starts with an identification of the most pressing issue and ends with a commitment to action. She also provides many practical exercises to foster better conversations.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

This Land Is Their Land by Barbara Ehrenreich (Book Review)

This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation is a part-Swiftian and part-muckracking collection of vignettes about various specific topics affecting many Americans -- healthcare, inflation, unemployment, corporate greed and malfeasance -- that, in aggregate, all show how the gap is widening between the rich and the poor.

Of course, like many books that take a stand about political or social issues, many readers will come to it with strong opinions and those predisposed to agree with Ehrenreich will probably like and praise the book more than those who don't.

Political leanings aside, I thought the humor and angry in the book were well placed, and the pieces were deftly calibrated in length, tone, and to effect.

Overall it was good to read Ehrenreich back in full stride. Previously, I liked Nickel and Dimed a lot but was disappointed by Bait and Switch.

One caveat: the book was published in 2008 and feels just a little dated, in the wake of the recession and housing collapse. Not to say that the economic downturn has erased the gap between the rich and the poor, but I wonder if there's been any effect, especially among those whose fortunes depended on a robust housing bubble.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Wee Bit Computers

I don't usually makes plugs here, but I wanted to acknowledge the excellent service I received from Wee Bit Computers, a computer fix-it and software installation shop located just south of Buffalo, NY.

About a month ago, I was on my computer one night when I heard the tell-tale sign that one of my hard drives was failing. The next day I phoned Roger Carron, the owner of Wee Bit Computers, and after talking to him for just a little bit, I knew my computer would be in good hands.

The next day someone came to pick up my machine, and the faulty hardware was replaced and the machines was returned to me on the very same day. What's better, the price for the repair was entirely reasonable. I was very happy with the service.

I definitely recommend Wee Bit Computers to anyone in Buffalo or the surrounding area with computer needs. Thanks also to my friend Gary for recommending Roger.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Indignation by Philip Roth (Book Review)

Prior to reading Indignation, my only exposure to Philip Roth was his classic Portnoy's Complaint -- which I strongly disliked (although I conceded that the novel is distinguished in breaking new ground for confessional prose).

I ended up reading Indignation by accident. I belong to the Quality Paperback Book Club and the book came to me because I forgot to decline off one of those monthly e-cards where you receive the books if you don't tell them you don't want them.

As it turned out, I thought Indignation was a tight, readable literary novel. The text is narrated by a young man -- apparently from the afterlife -- who recounts his confrontational relationships with male figures (father, fellow students, teachers) and his sexual awakening at college. It was good, not great, and engaging enough to make me consider reading some of Roth's other books.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pictures from Japan -- One Year Later

A little over a year ago, I traveled to Japan and enjoyed my first ever visit to this remarkable country. I realized recently that I never shared any photos from that trip, and I wanted to rectify that omission.

This post mostly features pictures from my visit to Kamakura. I'll follow up with a second entry with pictures of my trip into Tokyo.

During my visit, I stayed in Yokahama. Here's a picture from our hotel.

Below are pictures from Kamakura, including many shots of the Great Buddha.