Surrounded by Celluloid

I’ve been to a couple of films at the San Francisco International Film Festival this week. This is their 50th year. I suppose it was a novel concept back in 1957, but film festivals are pretty common these days.
There will be over 600 film festivals in the United States this year. In fact, according to the Mercury News, there are (at least) 23 major film festivals scheduled in the Bay Area alone this year. To paraphrase Marc Twain, you can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting a projector.
I hope this means it’s easier for film makers to get their work screened. Some festival organizers are even complaining about competition between festivals. The big Tribeca Film Festival in New York is scheduled for the same time as SFIFF, and is pulling in a lot of good films.

Selected Bay Area film festivals this year:

  • San Francisco International Film Festival
  • May Day Labor Film Festival (Santa Cruz)
  • Frameline – the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival
  • Black LGBT Film Festival
  • San Francisco Black Film Festival
  • Asian American Film Festival
  • Latino Film Festival
  • San Jose Jewish Film Festival
  • Arab Film Festival
  • United Nations Association Film Festival
  • Berlin and Beyond Film Festival
  • Cinequest (San Jose)
  • ResFest
  • MadCat Women’s Festival
  • Hi/Lo Film Festiva
  • Irish Film Fest
  • IndieFest
  • Another Hole in the Head Film Festival
  • DocFest
  • Noir City
  • Green Screen Environmental Film Festival
  • Global Lens Film Festival
  • Mill Valley Film Festival

Proof that a diploma is not everything

In today’s “do as I say” news, MIT’s dean of admissions is resigning.
Dean at M.I.T. Resigns, Ending a 28-Year Lie – New York Times

Ms. Jones, 55, originally from Albany, had on various occasions represented herself as having degrees from three upstate New York institutions: Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, she had no degrees from any of those places, or anywhere else, M.I.T. officials said.

[Her popular book] “Less Stress, More Success” addresses not only the pressure to be perfect but also a need to live with integrity.
“Holding integrity is sometimes very hard to do because the temptation may be to cheat or cut corners,” it says. “But just remember that ‘what goes around comes around,’ meaning that life has a funny way of giving back what you put out.”

Do not pass go, do not collect $200

Back in the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote that when unbaptized babies die, they go straight to hell. Why? That pesky concept of original sin, dating back to Adam and Eve.
By the Middle Ages, Catholics had relented somewhat, and people came up with the concept of limbo. While never actually part of church dogma, popular belief was that unbaptized babies went to limbo, along with some philosophers and pre-Christian Jews.
This week, a Vatican committee published a report that rejects the concept of limbo. Not only that, but they suggest that unbaptized babies might, just might enter heaven directly. After spending years debating the issue, how did they come to this conclusion? Seems the 21st century God is a kindler, gentler one than back in the 12th century.

Limbo, the commission said, “reflects an unduly restrictive view of salvation.”
“Our conclusion,” the panel said in its 41-page report, is that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness.” The committee added that although this is not “sure knowledge,” it comes in the context of a loving and just God who “wants all human beings to be saved.”

Oh, and it’s also a way of competing with other faiths for the hearts and minds of believers.

The question of limbo had become a “matter of pastoral urgency” because of the growing number of babies who do not receive the baptismal rite. Especially in Africa and other parts of the world where Catholicism is growing but has competition from other faiths such as Islam, high infant mortality rates mean many families live with a church teaching them that their babies could not go to heaven.

Traditionalists are not happy with the report.

“It makes baptism a formality, a party, instead of a necessity,” Wolfe said. “There would be no reason for infant baptisms. It would put the Catholic Church on par with the Protestants.”

It would also deprive Catholic leaders of a tool in their fight against abortion, he added. Priests have long told women that their aborted fetuses cannot go to heaven, which in theory was another argument against ending pregnancy. Without limbo, those fetuses presumably would no longer be denied communion with God.

Living on borrowed shares

It amazes me when smart, capable business people lose track of their own personal finances. The charitable view is that they are too busy building a business to pay attention to their own investments. Besides, we pay someone to handle that for us, don’t we? The cynical view is that a lot of paper fortunes during the Dot-Com mania were just illusions anyway.

The New York Times has a cautionary tale on The Perils of Being Suddenly Rich.

“Part of the bizarre but interesting psychology of the tech boom was the sense of hubris people developed, thinking they were impregnable to losses and defeats,” said Joan DiFuria, a psychotherapist who is co-founder, with Stephen Goldbart, of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute in Kentfield, Calif., north of San Francisco. “They had a fantasy that things could only go up.” During the boom period, Ms. DiFuria and Mr. Goldbart coined the phrase “sudden wealth syndrome.”

“At what point does the person with the money have some responsibility to know something about what he’s doing?” Mr. Resnick asked. “If you’re smart enough to have made the money, you should be smart enough to figure out something to do with it.”

Eating disorders: cause and effect

Eating disorders are a big problem in our society, especially among young women. Recorded cases have doubled in the U.S. since the 1960s. A recent article in Scientific American, “Through a Glass, Darkly“, discusses some of the causes.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people suffer from eating disorders. The article claims about 4% of women will suffer from clinical anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa in their lifetime. Another 2 to 5% of Americans will have a binge-eating disorder in any 6 month period.

And what causes these problems? A lot of people rightly blame media for promoting malnourished waifs as the ideal body image. This sets impossible goals, for women to look like the thinnest 5% of society. Yet while many women are influenced by those external images, recent studies say that those who suffer from eating disorders are more affected by their own faulty self-image.

A faulty body image–rather than an exaggerated ideal–is crucial to the development of eating disorders.

What lies behind a distorted body image? To answer this question, Vocks’s team took photographs of 56 people suffering from eating disorders and 209 healthy subjects used as controls. The scientists then asked the test subjects to adjust their images on a computer screen until they “recognized” themselves. Additionally, they asked both groups to give their virtual “me” the figure that they wished they had.
Whereas all the respondents had similar notions of an “ideal” figure, the bulimics and anorexics all significantly overestimated their real body mass. In contrast, the subjects who were not suffering from eating disorders believed that they were slimmer than they actually were.

Another trigger for eating disorders is “frequent and extreme dieting”. This confuses the body’s “hunger-satiety system”, leading to faulty perceptions and behavior. Ironically, dieting is also the best predictor of future weight gain. Dieting is worse than useless.

A child’s upbringing can also increase risk. Eating disorders often occur in well-off, well educated families. Yet when parents set high standards, the children feel pressure to excel, to be “model students” and lead perfect lives as adults. That’s always an unattainable goal. Conversely, a good relationship between parents and children balances security and independence. This promotes a healthy self-image. Without that positive influence, children are at greater risk of eating disorders and drug addiction.

What’s the prognosis? Not so good. About 5% of anorexic women die from the disease. Fully one quarter remain chronic anorexics for the rest of their life. A third regain some weight, but continue to have badly distorted body self-images. Only about 30% of anorexic women recover fully.

The situation is a bit better for bulimics. Half of those who get treatment recover from the disease. The other half continue to binge and purge for the rest of their life, which often causes chemical imbalances, digestive tract damage, and increased risk of heart attacks.

Renting: I was just ahead of my time

The New York Times has an article about the relative merits of renting vs buying a house, now the the housing bubble has deflated. They also have a nifty web-based calculator to compare the alternatives. They conclude that today, renting is usually the better choice.

It’s now clear that people who chose renting over buying in the last two years made the right move. In much of the country, including large parts of the Northeast, California, Florida and the Southwest, recent home buyers have faced higher monthly costs than renters and have lost money on their investment in the meantime. It’s almost as if they have thrown money away, an insult once reserved for renters.

Buyers in many places are basically betting that home prices will rise smartly in the near future.

Over the next five years, which is about the average amount of time recent buyers have remained in their homes, prices in the Los Angeles area would have to rise more than 5 percent a year for a typical buyer there to do better than a renter. The same is true in Phoenix, Las Vegas, the New York region, Northern California and South Florida. In the Boston and Washington areas, the break-even point is about 4 percent.

Keep in mind that the 2000-5 boom was even bigger than the ’80s boom and that house prices on the coasts, according to the official numbers at least, have fallen only slightly so far. So it is hard to imagine that prices will rise 5 percent a year, or another 28 percent in all, over the next five years.

Dieting is worse than useless

We often hear that most people who diet eventually gain the weight back, (and then some). In fact, a new study from UCLA concludes that most people would be better off not dieting at all.

“Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back.”

People on diets typically lose 5 to 10 percent of their starting weight in the first six months, the researchers found. However, at least one-third to two-thirds of people on diets regain more weight than they lost within four or five years, and the true number may well be significantly higher, they said.

“Several studies indicate that dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain,” said Janet Tomiyama, a UCLA graduate student of psychology and co-author of the study. One study found that both men and women who participated in formal weight-loss programs gained significantly more weight over a two-year period than those who had not participated in a weight-loss program, she said.

So if dieting is counter-productive, what’s the alternative?

“Eating in moderation is a good idea for everybody, and so is regular exercise,” Mann said. “That is not what we looked at in this study. Exercise may well be the key factor leading to sustained weight loss. Studies consistently find that people who reported the most exercise also had the most weight loss.”

Update: A paper written by the UCLA researchers is available on their website: Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments.

Down in the Valley, middle class takes a hit

Middle Class Workers Feeling the Valley’s Squeeze

A report from Working Partnerships USA says that the median household income in Silicon Valley fell from $83,370 in 2000 to $74,293 in 2005, a drop of 10%. The poverty rate in the Valley also grew from 6.5% to 8.3%.

The Valley had 156,700 fewer jobs in Jan. 2007 than it did Jan. 2001, a 15.4 percent drop. The cost of living also increased substantially, as a family’s average cost for job-based health insurance doubled, the price of electricity grew 15 percent and the average cost for child care in Santa Clara County grew by 40 percent.

What engineer shortage?

Study: There Is No Shortage of U.S. Engineers from PhysOrg.com

A commonly heard defense in the arguments that surround U.S. companies that offshore high-tech and engineering jobs is that the U.S. math and science education system is not producing a sufficient number of engineers to fill a corporation’s needs.

However, a new study from Duke University calls this argument bunk, stating that there is no shortage of engineers in the United States, and that offshoring is all about cost savings.

“Respondents said the advantages of hiring U.S. engineers were strong communication skills, an understanding of U.S. industry, superior business acumen, strong education or training, strong technical skills, proximity to work centers, lack of cultural issues, and a sense of creativity and desire to challenge the status quo,” wrote Wadhwa in the 2007 report.

“The key advantage of hiring Chinese entry-level engineers was cost savings, whereas a few respondents cited strong education or training and a willingness to work long hours. Similarly, cost savings were cited as a major advantage of hiring Indian entry-level engineers, whereas other advantages were technical knowledge, English language skills, strong education or training, ability to learn quickly, and a strong work ethic.”

Duke’s 2005 study corrected a long-heard myth about India and China graduating 12 times as many engineers as the United States, finding instead that the United States graduates a comparable number.

However, Duke’s 2005 study reported serious problems with the quality of Indian and Chinese bachelor-level engineering graduates, and predicted both shortages in India and unemployment in China. The current report finds these predictions to be accurate, with China’s National Reform Commission reporting that the majority of its 2006 graduates will not find work.