Sunday, March 29, 2009

Movie Review: Monsters vs. Aliens

It's been a while since I've done a movie review. Well, it's been a while since I've seen a movie in theaters, so that helps explain it.... anyway, this weekend I saw Monsters vs. Aliens, and I figured it was worth reviewing, so here goes:

The worth of this movie can pretty much be summed up in one basic premise: If you're seeing it in 3D, it's totally worth it, otherwise... meh. The 3D experience of this film is simply amazing. We saw it on an IMAX 3D, which is apparently somehow different from regular 3D. I don't know if there's actually a difference, and if regular 3D is less impressive, but the effects we saw were spectacular. It starts off with a bang, flying through space, and the amazing physical depth of the film never stops.

The movie itself was entirely formulaic. There are some monsters, all spoofs of classic monsters (The Fly, The Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon & Mothra), and there's an alien, and they're pitted against each other. The main character is Susan, who, on her wedding day, gets hit by a meteor. The meteor turns her into a giant and, apparently, sucks her dry of all personality. Pixar excels at creating characters the audience has an emotional investment in, who are vulnerable and decidedly human, even when they're not. This is no Pixar film. Dreamworks does a decent job putting together a fun concept, but they don't really get us attached to the characters. We just don't share in their failures and triumphs the way you do with the characters in a good film.

The voice work is solid all around. I expected a little more from Stephen Colbert and Will Arnett, as the president and The Missing Link, and I got a little more than I expected from Seth Rogen, who was flawless as B.O.B. There were a handful of really fun gags that older audience will get, and some quality slapstick too. The plot itself was rather pedestrian, and rather than rooting for the heroes I found myself cheering for spectacular visuals, regardless of the outcome on the screen.

All in all, I'd recommend this movie, but only if you're seeing it in 3D. That experience is a ride I'd gladly duplicate. I just wouldn't ever feel a need to see this movie again.

Grade:
With 3D: B+
Without: B-

Well I saw the thing comin' out of the sky
It had the one long horn, one big eye

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday Funny

I'm thinking I might try to put something up here every Friday that is, as the title would imply, funny. This of course means I won't be generating my own material.

We'll see how long this lasts.

We'll kick it off with this video. The blog I saw this on used the headline, "Buckle up, we're goin' to awesometown". I think that's the only appropriate way to introduce this clip.



You've been hit by
You've been hit by a smooth criminal

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thoughts on the Economy

I haven't really shared too many of my thoughts on the recession and it's causes, so I'm putting up this post, just to give a little more of my take on it all. It might be a little rambling, but bear with me... If nothing else, jump to the end and read the last little bit. That's probably the best part...

Working at Legal Aid, I see a lot of people who have been most affected by the the situation, whether through loss of job, foreclosure, debts, or other hardship. It's a really tough, sad situation. I am frequently a last line of defense for people, and a lot of times there's just nothing that can be done to help. It's a frustrating thing, especially because so often the people who are coming in are really victims of the system. Sure, there are occasionally people who are spending beyond their means, and who have gotten into hard times as a result. But the vast majority are not in that situation. A lot of people were coerced into making bad deals.

The phrase "toxic asset" has been used a lot to describe the bad investments that are held by all of the financial companies. One of the things that I feel gets overlooked is what these toxic assets are: bad deals. These are loans that were made that buyers can no longer afford to pay on (or are predicted to default on, even if they're still paying). They were often loans made at ridiculous rates (10% or higher), with adjustable rates (that only adjusted up), large balloon payments and other mechanisms designed to strip equity from homes and ensure that buyers were paying out far more than they would normally have to. These were largely targeted to subprime buyers, but a lot of the same mechanisms made their way into prime mortgages too.

The thing is, these are loans that were sold. The banks were willing to lend money, and wanted to do so at the highest rates possible. To that end they designed a series of products that unfairly targeted buyers, that were designed to increase rates over time, and make sure buyers weren't paying off principle (and thus were paying even more interest). If you want to know more about these products, I could go into great detail. Basically though, they were very carefully constructed to confuse the heck out of people to make sure rates stayed as high as possible.

Further complicating the matter was that the banks that made the mortgage almost always immediately turned around and sold the ownership of that mortgage to a different bank. The selling bank was getting a good deal because they were getting paid upfront. Sure, it wasn't the entire value of the mortgage, if they stuck it out over the long term, but they were getting a big chunk, and none of the risk. So for the selling banks, volume was the key issue. The more of these mortgages they could make, the better off they were. So they sold and sold and sold, and did very little to make sure they were being smart about their sales, because they knew they wouldn't face any of the risk.

At the same time, the buying bank thought they were getting a good deal because this was a "secure" investment (they'd own the home if things fell through) paying off at a very good rate (10%+ is very good), and they usually had other protections (this is where we get into credit default swaps and the like, which I know less about). Another of the great things about being the purchasing bank is that you couldn't be held responsible for anything the selling bank did wrong. There are, in our laws, "safe harbor" provisions that provide that a purchaser for value (the second bank) can't be held responsible for the fraudulent acts of the seller (the first bank), unless they knew about the fraud. Those laws meant that purchasers didn't want to know anything about the riskiness of the mortgages they were purchasing, since if they did maybe they could be held responsible. So neither the first bank nor the second bank cared about the risks they were facing.

Making things even worse was that this whole system was greased by brokers, who connected the first banks and the home buyers. Brokers made all of their money by commission, so the more volume of mortgages they sold, the more they made. Plus they got paid kickbacks by the banks to make sure people took out higher rate loans. So if you could get an 8% loan, your broker would lie and tell you he could only get you a 10% loan, and then he'd get as much as half the difference (I think I remember seeing half... don't quote me on that. Whatever the amount, it was a big kickback).

Anyway, between the banks and the brokers, home buyers were sold heavily on these mortgages. People who already had homes were convinced to refinance, and often lost a lot of equity as a result. People who didn't have homes were put into mortgages much worse than they should have gotten. And people who had no business owning homes were coerced into making bad deals (often because brokers flat lied, both on the documents and to the buyers... I have so many stories... Yes, some people were willfully blind, but not the majority I've seen).

The point behind all of this is to look at what went into developing these toxic assets. They aren't just bad investments because the people who took out the loans can't and won't pay - they're bad investments because they were created for the wrong reasons. These were mortgages designed and sold in such a way that they couldn't be paid off. The point to selling these mortgages wasn't to make money in the long term, it was to make money in the short term. The vast majority of them couldn't even properly be called investments, since there was so little chance at long term payoff. We're seeing now that these are toxic assets, and that's causing banks and insurance companies all sorts of problems. But the reality is that these were created as toxic from the start.
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As far as "retaining top talent" goes, I don't have a lot of fear about losing it. I mean, if this situation is what the top talent got us into... I know that's a bit short-sighted, but I think the point is ultimately that we can't just trust that the people who have been identified as top talent truly are. Bonuses should be merited, not contractual. And when our top talent is letting us down, it's time to either retrain that top talent or replace it. Just because someone comes out of a premier business school or worked for a premier finance firm doesn't mean they've got a premier mind - it just means they were given a premier opportunity.
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One of the big concerns is how much our economy has "shrunk". My economics classes are well behind me, but I wonder if using that word is appropriate. It seems like so much of the wealth that has been lost was just paper wealth that didn't actually exist in any sense other than perceived worth. There's a certain temptation to fall to a different extreme, in which the only "real" wealth is thought to be tangible - almost a Marxist ideal of the worker being the only one who really produces anything of value. I reject that idea, and I think investment is a very good and necessary thing, but that doesn't mean there isn't something to be learned here.

It's much easier to appraise the value of work than it is of investment, because an investment really only is worth anything when it is cashed in, whereas work creates something new. I think the point that needs to be made is that we need to be more diligent in our appraisal of the worth of investments. When you've just got paper wealth, it's easily erased (and easily expanded, which is largely the problem). Is there some sort of external check that can be placed on the evaluation of investments?

Did this section make any sense? I don't quite know... it kind of does to me, but again, I'm a ways out from my econ classes.
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Finally, I think one of the biggest concerns is "where do we go from here". A lot of people are calling for all sorts of economic regulation. A lot of people are reacting very strongly against that call, and arguing against any regulation.

I think one of the important things to keep in mind is that ultimately this wasn't an economic failure so much as it was a moral failure. People were blinded by desire and induced by greed into unethical, impatient, and unwise decisions. Bad contracts were made, there was lots of fraud, people prized short-term gain over long-term growth, and any number of other problems. Some very specific regulations aimed at particular bad behaviors (like prohibitions on the yield spread premiums or specific types of fraudulent contracts) or trouble spots (like much more narrow safe harbor provisions) or designed to induce good behaviors (rewards for long-term investment, penalties for short term, etc.) could have a very positive effect.

I'm hopeful that targeting bad behaviors is something that a majority of people could get behind. We want to encourage people to approach our economy in thoughtful and creative ways, that see new options for growth. We just also need to make sure that responsibility, wisdom, patience, and ethics all play a bigger role in our economic life.

Now you, you'll graduate and you think you're going to move out now
I will congratulate you as soon as you pay your own way

Monday, March 23, 2009

5 Is Right Out

This story is all sorts of awesome.

"[A]fter nearly an hour of analysis bomb experts realised that the cause of the scare was in fact a copy of the 'Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch'".

You know, that scene is probably about an hour into that movie... some "analysis".

And for good measure, here you go:

Monday, March 16, 2009

XKCAwesome

I've linked to it before, and I'll link to it again, but today's XKCD is simply brilliant. I don't care what a certain other cartoonist says, good writing is good writing.

I'm Sancho! Yes, I'm Sancho!
I'll follow my master till the end.
I'll tell all the world proudly
I'm his squire! I'm his friend!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Christmas Pays Off

For Christmas this past year I got a bunch of fun kitchen gadgets from my in-laws. It was a really great gift, since I like to cook and play with gadgets. They included one little thing that wasn't explicitly a kitchen gadget: a really powerful magnet with a long, telescoping handle. That's been one of the more fun toys, since I use it to grab all sorts of stuff. Nothing practical, just fun.

Tonight that all changed. It got practical. I had just let myself into our building using the security fob they gave us to unlock the outer door, and was putting my keys back into my pocket as I stepped into the elevator. Only I missed my pocket and my keys fell to the ground, skidded across the floor, and down into the gap between the elevator and the floor.

I looked in the crack and could see all the way down to the bottom of the elevator shaft. Fortunately, my keys had gotten stuck just a foot or so down, and hadn't fallen all the way to the bottom. I quickly called my wife, and frantically told her to bring down "the magnet on a stick". She was down in a minute, and, viola! I had my keys.

So the hero of the night was my prescient in-laws, for foreseeing my plight, and providing me with the perfect tool for fixing the problem. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Livin' it up when I'm goin' down

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Few More Thoughts on Stem Cells

First off, an absolutely hilarious comment was added to my previous post (I added the word "absolutely" because I wasn't sure if "hilarious" should be preceded by "a" or "an". Can anyone help me out on that one?). It was all about how much money can be made on non embryonic stem cells. I think. It smacked of being written by a bot, or at least someone who flunked out of English. Anyway, it just solidified my view that this is really all about the money.

Also solidifying that view? Just about every article I've read since has at least mentioned the fact that on Obama's reversal of the policy shares of embryonic stem cell companies skyrocketed. Now that's to be expected of course, but it's really effective proof that there are just companies out there waiting to sell their product for federal money, and that we aren't really talking about advances in science here.
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One of the parallels I've been thinking about with embryonic stem cells is steak. Yup, steak. If there were a way for us to get steak without killing a cow, I think we'd probably all agree that it would be better to use that method, and spare the cow's life. Can we all agree on that? I mean, sure, it's just a cow. It's not as important as a person. It doesn't (and shouldn't) have rights. But all things being equal, it's a living being and that life has some value, right? So living-cow steak would be preferable to dead-cow steak.

The same is true with stem cells. Right now you've got your non-embryonic stem cells and your embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells require destroying the being to harvest the stem cells. Non-embryonic don't require any destruction. Embryonic are dead-cow steak, and non-embryonic are living-cow steak.

I know there are disputes about the value of an embryo, but two points need to be made. First, we're talking about a being that, if given the opportunity, would grow into a fully functioning unique individual human being. Certainly that's more valuable that a cow, right? Second, even if it isn't more valuable than a cow, wouldn't non-embryonic be preferable? I mean, it doesn't require destroying embryos. How is that not a no-brainer?
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One of the issues that came up a lot in my bioethics courses was Nazi medical experiments. A lot of "research" was done in concentration camps using involuntary human subjects that were essentially tortured to death "in the name of science". Truly repugnant stuff. In the process a lot was learned about people's tolerances to pain, what happens when they're subjected to certain situations, etc. After the war there was a big question whether or not we should even use this information, because it was so tainted. The question - thankfully - was largely answered that the information should be thrown out. It was simply wrong to use what the Nazi doctors had discovered because of their methods.

This situation is often used as a parallel in the embryonic stem cell debate. Now, as horrible as the destruction of embryos is, I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as what the Nazi's did. Not even close. But that doesn't mean the parallel itself doesn't have value. Because the question is the same: how much of a bad thing will we tolerate to get this good thing? If embryonic stem cells are a good thing, how much bad are we willing to accept to get them? What if instead of embryos it required us to kill infants? What about post-viability fetuses? What if we had to destroy billions of embryos to get just a little useful stem cell material? Where would we draw that line?

I wonder how many people have thought about this issue in these terms?
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Finally, one of the points that may be getting overlooked in the reversal on embryonic stem cells is that there are steps we can take to make using them less morally repugnant. After all, things can be more and less wrong.

First, it's important to acknowledge the moral imperative in trying to save lives. This is a point that's repeated quite often by supporters of embryonic stem cell use. Of course, they aren't the only ones who want to save lives, because people on both sides of the issue want cures to be discovered as a result of this research. I'll quote just one of the articles I read:

[Supporters of embryonic stem cells] "cannot claim a monopoly on being the Good Samaritan" by saying '[they] support embryonic stem cell research in order to help alleviate human suffering. Does that mean those who oppose embryonic stem cell research want to prolong human suffering?"

I think that makes the point pretty well. Still, it is important to note that good work is being done towards finding cures.

Second, it's important that stem cells only be culled from embryos that were slated for destruction anyway. After all, it's better to put to use the embryos that are already being destroyed than to create new ones just for the purpose of destroying them.

Third, we need to make sure that the parents' whose embryos are being used have given full informed consent, and that it is in no way coerced. Because we're talking about a big money issue here there's a very good chance that people would start selling embryos, or, even more disturbing, that doctors would start encouraging people to make more embryos than they'd need (for reproductive purposes mostly), and then would turn around and sell those extra embryos. This is not unfathomable. In fact, it's almost guaranteed. Just think Octo-mom.

Fourth, researchers should only be using embryonic stem cells when they can show that they need to be using them (as opposed to non-embryonic). Mind you, given the advances in the versatility of non-embryonic, this might be kind of hard to do. But that's just further evidence that we don't need embryonic stem cells.

Finally, we should continue to work to make non-embryonic stem cells more easily available and more obviously versatile, so that they can always be used instead of embryonic. Scientists shouldn't just be complacent and use embryonic now that Obama says they can. We should continue to strive for ethically superior option.

These steps will hopefully keep us on the right track. Because we're not looking at a done deal here. We can keep working our way to a better and better position - both ethically and scientifically.

Climb up to the roof so we can check out the view
I think somebody spoke but I didn't have a clue

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Road Drug

I spent a little time this morning in a large medical facility. I stepped into the elevator on my way out and was about to push the button for "1" when I noticed the "G" button, and the little sign next to it that said "Street". So I pushed that one instead. Then I noticed there was something else written underneath "Street", so I looked a little closer. It said "Pharmacy". Obviously the facility's pharmacy was on the ground level.

This of course meant that the sign hilariously read "Street Pharmacy".

Now I know where to go if I ever need a refill of peni'illin'.

Then one night in desperation
A young man breaks away

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Phickle Thoughts

My family visited last week. We had an excellent time with them. I've been pushing for them to come visit us for quite a while, so to finally have them out here was a blast.
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While doing our sightseeing we came across a movie being filmed. The movie was Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. We were able to stand there and watch them film for a little bit, and sure enough, we got to see Ms. Jolie. She was wearing a big coat, hat, and backpack for the scene, but she was still gorgeous. It was very cool. Next to seeing the Hippo at the zoo, it was one of the highlights of the trip.
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There was a pretty solid conversation in the comments of the last post. If you didn't check them out, I encourage you to do so.

One of the things that a lot of people might have missed was Rachel's comment that the clinic will be suspending their pre-implantation selection procedures.
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In a similar bioethics vein, Obama is going to be allowing unrestricted funding for research on embryonic stem cells. This is disturbing for two reasons: first, there are the ethical qualms regarding the destruction of embryos. Second, it strikes me that this is a policy that's really all about the money.

There are alternative stem cells (like adult stem cells and cord blood stem cells) that are not controversial. Over the past couple years non-embryonic stem cells have been shown to be almost exactly as useful as embryonic stem cells. There was a time when it was thought embryonic stem cells were superior, but the more scientists have worked with the alternatives, the more they've realized that they're just as versatile as embryonic stem cells. So, if there's a non-controversial option, why use embryonic stem cells?

It's because a lot of people have a lot of money invested in embryonic stem cell lines. See, the scientists that do the experiments on stem cells don't cull the cells themselves. They buy them, just like they buy their slides and petri dishes and everything else. Researchers get grants from the government, and they use that funding to buy their materials. The previous prohibitions meant they couldn't buy embryonic stem cells. That was bad for the people selling embryonic stem cells (and good for people who sold non-embryonic lines, and somewhat frustrating for scientists because they had limited sources of sellers and they had to be extra diligent to make sure they were complying with the regulations). Obama's reversal of this policy means scientists will now be able to buy embryonic stem cells (my understanding is that embryonic lines are easier to gather, and therefore are probably a little cheaper). This doesn't mean they'll be able to do more or different research. It doesn't mean there will be new breakthroughs. It just means money for the people who sell embryonic lines.
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And to contrast nicely with my criticism, I'll say that it makes me glad to see that the American public isn't buying what the Republicans are selling when it comes to the stimulus package. Republicans have been constantly preaching the "government is the problem not the solution" line, and thankfully the message doesn't seem to be taking. Because, much like Obama said in his inaugural address, it's time to move beyond the debate of whether the government is the solution or the problem, and time to look at where government is working and where it isn't. If people want to criticize the stimulus they should do so not on principle but on specific shortcomings.
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And now, to return to criticizing Democrats: the fact that Bush and the Republicans ran up a gigantic deficit doesn't mean it's "your turn" to do the same. Get over what happened the past 8 years, and get to work fixing things. Otherwise, you'll find yourself on the outs again real quickly.
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Finally, now that I'm done with the bar exam, I've started writing a little bit again. I'm working on a novel, and I'm part way through my third chapter. I'm not going to share any more about it here, I just wanted to say that it feels awful good to be done with the bar and back into working on fun stuff.

But I need some time off from that emotion
Time to pick my heart up off the floor

Monday, March 02, 2009

Now For Something Completely Disturbing

This is one of the single most worrisome developments in human history. Honestly. People choosing the traits of their children pre-birth is a horrifying proposition. I think it's disturbing to do genetic selection for health reasons (if you disagree, tell me how a person with a genetic disease is any less of a person than one without/describe how that life is not worth living), so it's extremely disturbing to see genetic selection on the basis of nothing more than cosmetic reasons.

So very very scary.

Here's another article on the same issue, from a UK perspective.

And if you ask for a nickel,
I'm gonna hand you a dime