Friday, April 30, 2010

Financial Sector Snapshot for Q1 2010

Fidelity posts an interesting summary.

A Letter of Recommendation

I recently spoke with a colleague about writing letters of recommendation that do not sound like generic form letters.  As an example, here is the a letter I wrote not too long ago.  The student's name and term have been changed.

Lane Community College
Mathematics Department
4000 East 30th Avenue
Eugene OR 97405

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to praise Cornelius Crabblefoot's studiousness during Math 20 during the Fall 2010 term. Not only did he earn an A in the class, but he did so in a remarkably mature manner.

The class involves a large number of topics of moderate difficulty. Earning an A is difficult (14% of my students did that term) because there are so many skills of which to keep track. Few students successfully monitor what they have mastered versus which skills need more practice.

Furthermore, attendance is optional. This policy, set by the department, is to provide flexibility to those few students who take the class as barely-needed review. More often the policy ensnares students to whom the material is not mere review, and who underestimate the importance of attendance.

Cornelius approached the class in an careful and mature manner. He began the term with perfect attendance and then after a few weeks began to skip some classes while earning an A. Moreover, he participated fully in the group project, turned in homework on time, and kept aware of exam days. In other words, he was respectful of the class and his classmates while budgeting his time wisely in tricky circumstances.

Cornelius earned an A overall but did not score an A on every exam. This makes his achievement more impressive by showing that the math skills were not breezy review for him: he did need effort both to learn the skills and to monitor which he had mastered. Not half a percent of my students can do this successfully. Thus in my one class Cornelius demonstrated the ability to successfully manage multiple demanding classes.

I have only one small complaint: Cornelius did not speak with me about an occasion when he chose chivalry over integrity. During one midterm, when I was out of the room, he whispered some hints to a damsel in distress beside him. It was not enough to aid her grade; I assume Cornelius was helping to avert tears, not alter assessment. Yet even if no harm was done, I would have appreciated if he mentioned it some days or weeks after the incident.Cornelius is a young man of maturity and ability who could aim beyond the kind and good to reach what is whole and best.


David L. Van Slyke

April Development

During the weekend of April 10th, Smiley developed a sense of drama. He suddenly wanted to act in big, loud, or startling ways. He did a lot more jumping indoors, crashing into our legs while saying "Ba!" or "Boo!", and wanting to play hide and seek.

During the past week this new sense of drama extended. Now doing story-telling with his duplo people and stuffed animals is the normal method of play, not something that happens comparatively rarely and only with my guidance.

Also, all sorts of things are funny. Most anything that seems wrong or out of place makes him laugh and say, "That's funny!" He even avoids boredom by creating funny moments and then declaring, "That's funny!" (This is not always helpful. Experimenting with how far he can put his hand in his mouth when I am reading a bedtime story was only entertaining for him, but I patiently waited until he was done).

On Wednesday he began using self-narration more when playing. He still only self-narrates when someone else is in the room. I expect that soon he will when alone. It is an interesting milestone I would not have guessed was related to the other aspects of drama.

Perhaps unrelated, yesterday he was really enjoying his three wood puzzles. For months they had sat unused. Perhaps he was simply pleased that his fine-motor coordination had developed so they were not physically challenging? It may be unrelated to the sense of drama.

I decided to rewrite a nursery rhyme to include the phrase "That's funny!", since I know from other 2-year-olds that this phase will last a while.
Silly Simon met a pie man walking down the street.
Said silly Simon to the pie man, "Please let me have a treat."
Said the pie man to silly Simon, "Please show me your money."
Silly Simon showed him a bear. The pie man said, "That's funny!"
(I usually change the object shown to the pie man, to fit what Smiley has been playing with or looking at.)

Tillamook and Brandon

Tillamook is an Oregon company that makes great cheese.

The company is boycotted by some people. When it bought out Bandon Cheese in 2000 it treated the town of Bandon roughly and outsourced the brand name.

The details are old and a bit unclear to me, for the internet is not great for researching ten year old news stories. For example, an online rumor claims that the town of Bandon, Ireland had to file a lawsuit to stop Tillamook from using lawsuits to lean on the many businesses in the town of Bandon, Oregon that used the word "Bandon" in their name. But apparently Tillamook had written inappropriate letters but never tried lawsuits, the mayor of Bandon, Ireland only made an appropriately wry comment, and the Bandon small businesses kept their names.

Furthermore, Tillamook is farmer-owned whereas Bandon Cheese was not an employee-owned business. In some sense the "scandal" is a story of employee empowerment growing even though regional job markets conflicted.

I have not been to Bandon, Oregon but know people who vacation there. The town seems to be struggling because it is a coastal tourist town during a recession, not because of its cheese history. (I'm sure certain locals would disagree for reasons of family history.)

Would my family boycott Tillamook? Not with what little we know. It is sad that a local big company shut down a small one after a buyout, but that happens all the time; anyone expecting differently during the deal would be unrealistic, since legal precautions against that fate were not implemented. We don't know any other companies that make cheese as yummy and inexpensive as Tillamook, and during the past ten years their cheese have made many customers happy. To summarize: apparently Tillamook does much more good than bad even if it does have a spot on its record.

Driving the Right Hook

Two days ago a friend whom Smiley knows as Dancing Nathen wrote about being hit by a car while biking. Everyone and both vehicles are okay.

I confess that I have a bad reason for being a wary driver who avoids the Right Hook.

Once, when living in a city with very few bicycle lanes, I was taught to hug the right curb when making a right turn so that no kids on bicycles could scoot in beside me while I was stopped and hide in the vehicle's blind spot. For years I drove that way.

In Eugene, with its many bicycle lanes, I of course cannot do that. But I still think about it, which has the beneficial side effect of keeping me alert about my right side when at a stoplight.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Exercise and Weight Loss

About a week ago Gluten Free Girl wrote a touching essay about some of her personal challenges during the past year.

She mentioned two things I want to cite here since they relate to a few Math 25 topics about health, exercise, and nutrition.
Sleep deprivation produces more cortisol, which makes more hunger and anxiety both.
I also noticed during weeks when Smiley does not sleep well that I replace sleep with food. I appreciate that by body allows me to make the substitution, but it does have its own problems.
I once told a friend of mine: "I've realized that happiness is movement in the body and stillness in the mind." I'm learning it once again.
Personally, I would extend this slightly: The body is fit when exercise produces more energy and the mind is fit when trying to quiet it produces more stillness.

But I'll also note that weight loss is discriminatory against women. Research clearly shows that most men can lose desired weight simply by exercising more, but most women also need to monitor their eating.

UPDATE: I realized that I had mentioned cortisol before: it is also the chemical that causes extended aerobic exercise to start burning muscle instead of fat.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Three Heschel Quotations

Abraham Heschel writes about paying attention to God with a sense of wonder in his book God in Search of Man. He describes how wonder is a form of thinking that can compliment logic and insight.

Here are three quotations from the first five chapters.
"The are three aspects of nature that command our attention: its grandeur, its beauty, and its power. Accordingly, there are three ways in which we may relate ourselves to the world: we may accept it in awe, enjoy it, or exploit it. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The modern man learns in order to use."
"The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind… Significantly, the theme of Biblical poetry is not the charm or beauty of nature; it is the grandeur, it is the sublime aspect of nature which Biblical poetry is trying to celebrate…Biblical man in sensing the sublime is carried away by his eagerness to exalt and to praise the Maker of the world…Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things… To the prophets wonder is a form of thinking. It is not the beginning of knowledge but an act that goes beyond knowledge…The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship."
"Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves… The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it… Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe…[Through awe we can] look at all things from the point of view of God, sympathy with the divine pathos, the identification of the will with the will of God… the principal religious virtue is yirah [awe]… Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith… In Biblical language the religious man is not called a 'believer' but yare hashem [one in awe of Adonai, often translated as a 'God-fearer']."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Greeting Homecoming Veterans

What are helpful tips for greeting a veteran who has just returned home?

Here are my paraphrases of some tips I have heard. For most ideas I have no original source. A few ideas came from former Sergeant Andi Westfall, who served with the National Guard as a medic during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Take initiative talking to them, then treat them like a typical friend. You want to spend time with them. Do not wait for them to start a conversation.

Remain active. Your interest is real. Do not let them deter you if they test the genuineness of your support.

In a general way ask them to talk about experiences. Listen and empathize. You want an honest answer. Do not analyze or judge.

Be prepared to feel emotional responses to what they say without reacting emotionally. You can demonstrate that they can fit in at home even after emotional events. Do not lose your calm.

Talk about how you have been enjoying the present moment and following short-term plans. Home is where the heart is. Do not fan the flames of the many worries and memories born away from home.

Only ask specific questions if you are sure the answer will make you both smile. To help start a friendship you will ignore your natural yet rude curiosity. Do not follow curiousity; follow empathy.

Avoid asking general questions. You trust their choices about what to talk about. Do not accidentally put them on the spot with a request to form a plan, judgment, or opinion--or put into words something newly discovered.

Avoid stealing ownership of their emotions. You respect their humanity. Do not help them put a name to a feeling or (even jokingly) suggest what they "should feel".

Soldiers' Homecoming

Tomorrow at 1:30pm is a Demobilization Ceremony at the Lane County Fairgrounds for 350 National Guard troops are returning from Afghanistan.

The public is invited to attend, to show appreciation for past bravery and service and support for being welcome home.

If it works with Smiley's nap schedule, we'll be there. He has no context to understand it but will probably enjoy it.

If I have time, I'll write a second blog post to pass along some advice I have heard about common spoken welcome home blunders (both obvious things to say that don't get said enough and things to avoid saying).


Every few months our supply of quarters in a little jar in the car glovebox runs low, as we pay for parking meters (usually on Tuesdays at the library). Today I got a roll of quarters at the bank.

Now Smiley and I have only one state quarter left to collect!

LCC Credit Money

I just blogged some about my earnings from LCC. The next question is how much money LCC gains from my employment.

My average class size is 28 students. Each student pays $81 per credit*, so $243 for 3-credit classes like Math 20 or Math 25. That makes $6,804 per class.

My take-home pay is about $700 per month, which is about 86% of by before-deduction pay. A term is 10 weeks. So my "salary" including deductions is close to $2,000 for the class.

So the cost of paying me is only about 30% of the money the college collects from the credit cost the students pay.**

I have heard in faculty discussions that a class with 12 students "breaks even "financially. This statistic may no longer be true. If it is, it means each class also costs the college about $900 per class for administration, utilities, maintenance, etc.

So after paying for me and those basic overhead expenses, the college still earns over $3,800 for every class I teach. Most math classes are similar: big class size, taught by part-time instructors, and no need for fancy equipment. (There are a few upper division math classes that typically have fewer than 12 students, but are taught anyway so that Math majors can finish their degree.)

This is a big advantage for the math department. Most departments have far more small classes with fewer than 12 students. In other departments many classes have a significant equipment cost (science, art, and especially medicine).

Lane County is currently low on nurses, so LCC recently expanded its nursing program. This is good for the community, and is something all that Math class income helps pay for. The math instructors do not mind. I wonder if our students realize how much of their money is going to this kind of good help?

*This cost is for Oregon residents, which most students are. Out-of-state students pay $213 per credit.

**There are also some small fees ($5 per credit plus an $83.25 flat fee) that students pay.

Teaching while Babysitting

This term and last term I taught two classes. Both are Tuesday-Thursday classes, to give my wife three normal workdays each week.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach from 8am to 10am, drive home and then drive my wife to her work, and spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon with Smiley. If not sick he starts his nap at about 2pm. A babysitter arrives at 3:30pm, and I depart to teach my second class 4pm to 6pm. I pick my wife up from work and we are home at 6:30pm.

Lately I wondered how much of my earnings for teaching that second class go to the babysitter. Here's the math...

Each class I teach pays me about $700 per month. (Both Math 20 and Math 25 are 3-credit classes. Instructors at LCC are paid by credit, based on seniority and qualifications.)

Babysitting during the afternoon class costs about $180 per month. So that is roughly 25% of my take-home pay. Keeping three-quarters of what I am otherwise paid is not so bad, especially during the rainy Winter/Spring months when Smiley really appreciates someone besides myself to play with.

In contrast, my paycheck deductions are 14% of my earnings. I do not participate in LCC's health insurance, since my wife's work already provides sufficient medical insurance. I pay LCC a minimal amount for the use of their Health Clinic and their Workers Compensation Fund. I unavoidably pay 2% of my income towards two kinds of union dues (LCCEA and OEA/NEA). There are Federal and State income tax withholdings (4.8%), and then Medicare and Social Security (6.7%).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

LCC Locavore Meal

I wrote about locavores back in September.

On Thursday, May 27th, LCC will be hosting a 100 Mile Meal as part of its culinary program's learning experiences. Tickets are $35 and on sale now. Featured farms include Boondockers Farm, Knee Deep Cattle Company, Laughing Stock, Sweet Briar Farms, Sweet Water Farm, and Oregon Jewel.

April Showers

I find it amazing that April is only two-thirds done.

I thought January and February were grueling. Nearly all my free time was spent making my Math 20 lectures slides the best I could do. But that difficulty, at least, was voluntarily self-inflicted.

The last time I really mentioned personal news was the end of March. What has happened since then?

During Spring Break week (starting March 21st) I did not relax but arranged extra play dates for Smiley and two trips to the shooting range with friends. I also helped my wife help host a baby shower for a coworker. That was a fun, busy week.

Then Spring Term started. I'm teaching Math 25 now, which takes little time. I hoped to have a comparatively relaxing couple months.

At the end of March Smiley was doing great but had just caught a cold. This cold went all around Eugene and was dreadful: a week of misery followed by a week of residual cough during which adults went back to work and shared it with others.

So the end of March was a tough week with Smiley, which also had taxes and starting up a new term. We had Pesach seders at home early in the week and I led a seder at The River the first Saturday of April. Fortunately I had requested to only lead the seder without helping with preparations: that evening was a relaxing escape from the house instead of a pile of work when I was already worn out.

The next week I planned Smiley's birthday party while taking care of my wife, who had caught the cold.

The day after the birthday party my wife left for a work trip in South Carolina. I spent the day finishing with taxes, going grocery shopping, playing with Smiley, and doing six loads of laundry (getting rid all of the cold germs: bed sheets, blankets, her clothes in two loads, a white load, and Smiley's daily cloth diaper load).

My wife had diligently researched gluten-free eating options near the conference hotel, but was too busy to make use of them. So on her four-day trip she woke at 4am to fly across the country, had two fourteen-hour workdays, and woke at 4am (1am our time) to fly home, with nothing to eat but hotel salads, the Larabars in her backpack, and one hotel risotto that gluten-ed her.

The next day was Smiley's two-year pediatrician visit. He was feeling much better. My wife was understandably zonked. I spent the first half of last week helping her recover. Wednesday she repaid me by being with Smiley in the evening so I could go to bed at 8:30pm.

The last few days have been busy as I catch up on gardening, laundry, e-mail, and a bunch of other little things. Whew!

Yesterday Smiley had a great morning and afternoon, and then came down with a fever and exhausted inconsolableness at 6pm. Fortunately there is no head congestion, so he is still eating and sleeping well. The pediatrician's office said nothing is going around town with only fever as a symptom, so he's fighting off a virus.

Two weeks ago I checked out three movies from the local library. They are due on Friday. I don't think I'm going to get to see them this time around. But I have been pleased with classes this term, enjoying nice weather for most of the past three weeks, and making progress on my RPG design.

Gluten Free Bulk

Those who have only dabbled at gluten-free baking might think it is very expensive. After all, pre-packaged gluten-free flours are almost always pricey. (Those that are not are primarily rice flour, which is barely nutritious.)

The solution is to buy in bulk and do a lot of flour grinding at home. It's time for our family's next order at Azure Standard, the food purchasing co-op we use.

Currently, the price per pound for items we buy there is:

Hazelnut Flour $6.78
Blanched Almond Meal $5.40
Brown Rice pasta $2.85
Quinoa (not flour) $2.21
Tapioca Flour $2.00
Amaranth (not flour) $1.86
Teff Flour $1.60
Brown Rice flour $1.50
Millet (not flour) $0.76

The quinoa, amaranth, and millet we grind into flour ourselves. Our normal flour mix (1 part quinoa, 2 parts amaranth, 3 parts millet) thus costs us $1.37 per pound. Not as inexpensive as bulk whole wheat flour, but reasonable for something that is healthier as well as safe for our family.

The brown rice pasta is more expensive for some kinds of pasta: the $2.85 price is for the shapes we buy most. (Trader Joe's has brown rice penne and fusilli for $1.99 per pound, but we get bored of only using those two shapes.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010


A few days ago I wrote about a using search engine other than Google.

Someone asked why some people are "trying to get off Google". To that question I have no good answer.

(I confess that I do not back up my Gmail very often, so if Google suddenly when out of business it would cause me difficulties. But that is my irresponsibility, not their issue. And it does not seem very likely.)

I know many people are worried about their privacy. I do little about it, because I know I actually have very little.

(I stopped using Tor, but am glad it helps others.)

For example, Zillow lets everyone see details about your home. CampaignMoney and NewsMeat let everyone see your political contributions. DomainTools and NetworkSolutions let everyone see your website registration whois information.

I try to keep my cell phone number easy to find and my house address off the internet. For the most part I am successful.

Today, thanks to an e-mail from my father, I found a site named Spokeo that had somehow gotten my house address. Does it have yours?
To remove yourself from Spokeo:
  1. Search for yourself, find yourself, and click on your name
  2. In the address bar, select and copy the URL for your listing
  3. Click on "privacy" at the very bottom of the page on the right side
  4. Paste the URL that you copied and follow the other directions
I found it interesting that anyone can remove any Spokeo listing. When I removed mine there was no effort to check that it was really me who made the request.

What other kinds of personal information are freely available online? I'm sure there is more that I do not know about. For example, Spokeo seemed to follow magazine subscriptions--did they pay for that information from magazines that sell subscription lists or simply look it up online from another source?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hero and House of Flying Daggers

I recently watched two films directed by Zhang Yimou. (Checked out from the local library.)

The first was Hero, which was an interesting Chinese tribute to the Japanese film Rashōmon. Gone were the vagueness and non-linearity. Instead each successive version of the story was slightly more truthful until the full truth became clear--a truth that shone out of the story to effect both the storyteller and his royal audience.

Hero seems to me to be pure spectacle. It had striking use of colors, amazing sets, nice music, careful use of sound, and not much else. The plot and characters were shallow and not engaging, but saying so is as petty as complaining that an oil painting's frame is bland compared to the painting itself.

The fight scenes were nearly all one-on-one duels that failed to grab me: the action moved too quickly for me to easily follow, all but one duel was between nearly evenly matched opponents so I could not appreciate mastery versus "normal" skill, and none featured fun exotic weapons.

The only philosophy discussed is the tension between two definitions of peace. The peace from wholeness and wellness (what I would call shalom) is very different than the peace from societal uniformity (what I would call the pax of Pax Romana). But this tension is barely explored. Only one character achieves personal shalom and even after he does he lives among vengeful and angry friends; a community with shalom is never presented as a viable possibility.

Apparently the film was very successful in trying to do what it attempted. Its spectacle is wondrous, and it earned a lot both in China and elsewhere.

I find that Hero has increasing rewatch appeal. Late at night, after Smiley is in bed, I am often in a mood conducive to pleasant spectacle. But I have not actually watched it again to test if the rewatch-value is real.

YouTube has my two favorite scenes: the duel at the go house and the storming the palace scene (start the latter at 4:28). Do you agree that the use of color, wonderful sets, and music and sound completely overshadow the fight choreography?

The second film was The House of Flying Daggers. It also uses color artfully. But it is a much different and more traditional martial arts film. The focus is not on the sets and spectacle, but the characters and metaphor. The action scenes are more interesting: slower, more varied, more intricate, more intense.

The metaphor behind the plot of The House of Flying Daggers is an standard issue in Chinese philosophy. Honor and duty are valued above passion and in some ways oppose passion, but to create art and beauty some passion is needed: how should duty and passion coexist?

The film's answer is thought provoking. It asserts that duty and passion should not compete to woo beauty. Beauty is too consuming: neither fit to judge between them nor safe to be grasped. When duty and passion cooperate in work they share skill and art; when they compete over beauty both suffer.

Most martial arts films that have a metaphor behind the plot end with most or all of the main characters dying. Notably, The House of Flying Daggers does not. The final scene (here on YouTube) is blatantly metaphorical as the two warriors fight from Autumn until Winter, ignoring their previous emotional bonds and physical wounds, with the duel ending not in a winner's victory but as the warriors stumble apart after a shared loss. Duty and passion do not kill each other, but are weakened as they try to claim beauty until they realize they cannot.

This film was also apparently successful at what it attempted. Many reviewers did not even look for, let alone appreciate, metaphor behind the story. But the other film's strengths were widely appreciated.

So far I have no desire to rewatch The House of Flying Daggers. I probably will later. Eventually I will yearn to revisit the elaborate dance and fight scenes.

Two-Year Checkup

Today Smiley had his two-year checkup. He has only grown a little since his 18 month checkup. Now he is 34 inches tall and he weighs 23.25 pounds. (This time I did not write down his head size or percentile information.)

Today he also said his longest sentence so far. He was playing with a ladybug in the back yard, putting it on his plastic slide. There is a crack between the plastic floor and the slide, into which the ladybug slid. But with his little fingers he could retrieve it. Smiley tried to express "The ladybug fell in a crack in the slide. I reached inside the crack and got it." What he actually said was "The ladybug, the ladybug hide in the slide. Me go inside the slide get ladybug."

Sunday, April 04, 2010


Back in September I tried the search engine Dogpile. It was okay, but its appeal wore off after a few days.

I still do not know if there more I need to do to avoid being tracked by Google besides using the Google advertising cookie opt-out plugin and having NoScript installed.

So I looked around for another search engine.

A blog post at Zenhabits introduced me to Ixquick, which even has an HTTPS version for my Firefox search bar.

Will it replace Google for me?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Setting Bluefish Background Color

Bluefish is a great text editor. I use it for all my web page creation.

Instructions for changing the background color with Linux are here. Reveal hidden files and then edit (or create) a file in the home directory called .gtkrc-2.0 containing
style "EditorStyle" {base[NORMAL]="#DADADA"}
class "GtkTextView" style "EditorStyle"
If you do not like the color I use above, change the hexidecimal value.

Ah, so much nicer.

Muppets on YouTube

The Muppets Studio shares on YouTube. Huzzah!

Watch out for Carl.

Also, Hippo and Dog (whom I have otherwise never heard of) sing The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Pig Videos

Okay, last of my posts to get YouTube animal videos out of my bookmarks.

A few weeks ago Smiley was in the mood for pigs. Here is a trained pig, and a cute one.

Gardening with Weapons

My boring weeding tool is missing.

I lent it to Smiley for digging. Then I went into the house, and when I came back to the yard he had put it somewhere.

Today had some nice sunshine. A bunch of dandelions were flowering, so I needed to do some weeding. What did I have in the garage that could function as a weeding tool? A screwdriver is too thin. A putty spreader is too flimsy.

All I could find was my set of Hibben Generation 2 throwing knives. They work great.

But I feel bad, because every time someone uses a weapon for gardening a ninja fairy dies.

Duck Vidoes

Continuing the animal videos, here are some duck videos that Smiley does not currently care about but I'll archive for when he regains interest in farm animals.

Ducklings in a bowl and bathroom, a duck family in a yard, and a duck with a dog or with a cat or with another duck.


Smiley has become fond of biplanes during the last few days, after seeing them in a library book.

I wrote in March about YouTube videos without changes of camera position about airplanes and helicopters. But none of those were biplanes. So the search resumed, and I found four nice videos.

Now Smiley can watch a red biplane, a yellow biplane, and two biplanes.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Transformers 1 and 2

A few months ago, a friend learned that I like superhero movies but seldom watch any of them. So he loaned me a bunch of DVDs.

As long as I'm enjoying watching these films, I might as well share my thoughts about them.

I'll start with Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (links go to trailers) because I just finished watching the second.

I suppose that strictly speaking the Transformers setting is not "superhero". But the Transformers cartoon that I grew up watching on Saturday mornings was nothing more than an animated comic book designed to teach young kids how to play with certain toys. All of the elements of a superhero comic were there, for better or worse.

The first Transformers movie was fun. Then I became really impressed after reading about it in Wikipedia.

The entire movie was stupid, but never quite crossed the line to stop making sense. As I watched it I gained a growing impression that the writers were purposefully dancing just on one side of that line. I wondered why would they carefully make a movie that was sensible but so stupid?

Reading online told me the answer: everything was supposed to be from the point of view of a young teenage boy playing with Transformer toys in his room.

Suddenly I understood why the soldiers were serious, the secret agents were wacky, the robots were chummy, the nerds were dweeby, the fight scenes were vague, and so forth. Moreover, the film included many complex things that were ludicrously oversimplified, and many simple things that were made absurdly complex--and now all of those made sense too. The plot and characters did all fit together nicely if viewed through the lens of how an 11-year-old boy might see (and misunderstand) the world.

Spielberg had that vision. DeSanto also valued sharing that young-kid sense of wonder. Collaboration with writers Orci and Kurtzman made it happen. Michael Bay did not want to direct a "stupid toy movie" and added his own flavor to the vision.

I'm very glad this was done. Too many recent action movies are copies of old formulas. Creating such a different and easily misunderstood film in 2007 was bravely done. I cannot think of any other "toy" movie that tried to create in elaborate special effects the kind of stupid story I imagined as a kid?

Sadly, the film has almost zero rewatch-value for me. The action scenes went too quickly for my taste, and I have minimal interest in remembering how clueless I was about the world as a young boy.

I had hoped the second movie would be like the first, only more enjoyable because I now knew from the beginning how to "decode" the purposeful stupidity.

Unfortunately, the sequel abandoned the original film's vision. The technical aspects were improved, but at the cost of abandoning recreating the imagination of an 11-year-old boy.

The fight scenes had a slower pace and involved the environment more, so I could actually see some tactics and combat styles. The characters were less exaggerated and funnier. The Transformers were given better animation, many more close-ups, and a lot more time on screen.

But it also has almost zero rewatch-value for me. There is too much low humor and too little suspense. (Notably, we see the Transformers using up energy, suffering damage, healing damage, and turning on alien machines, but the audience is never given any sense of how this works. For me this ruins any potential suspense: I know that a certain robot is about to be killed instead of merely beat up because the narrative flow demands it, not because of what I see in the CGI battle.)

My nostalgia would prefer that the Transformer films inject what Hasbro created into another generation of elementary school kids. I am saddened that the sequel's extensive low humor, use of stereotypes, and change of vision appear to be shifting the franchise towards a teenage audience.

However, I am still pleased to read that the sequel also did well financially. I expect that those responsible for the film purposefully changed its vision and consider it a successful endeavor. They continue to be big and daring when so many movies take no risks, and deserve their success.

Crocodile Videos

Fortunately, we have no crocodiles in our yard.

But they are frequent characters in children's picture books. I've found two nice YouTube videos so Smiley can see them in action.

While looking for these, I also found two intriguing videos about cobras. But Smiley does not watch those.

Opossum Videos

Spring is here, which means (among other things) that our live trap is catching opossums. We've caught two so far.

Smiley likes opossums, since they are cute characters in a few of his picture books.

I've found two cute YouTube videos of opossums for him.

It is nice that with video we don't smell the opossums!