Friday, December 23, 2011

Paraíso Saved by Andrea Placeres

"Paraíso de Dios" is a very poor neighborhood in the rural town of Haina in the Dominican Republic. This Spanish name translates into "God's Paradise" but "Hell on Earth" would be a more accurate description. In 1997, a Not-For-Profit organization, "the Friends of Lead Free Children" (FLFC) sponsored a team of doctors that tested local residents for lead poisoning and found that about 90% of those tested had toxic levels in their blood. Lead poisoning is a serious health issue that has lifelong consequences. According to the Global Lead Network Website: “Globally, exposure to excessive levels of lead in the environment, the home, and the workplace impose immense costs, with many millions of adults and children suffering adverse health effects and impaired intellectual development.” It turns out that soon thereafter, Haina had the honor of being named the world's most lead contaminated site. The area's environmental pollution was attributed to a used car battery recycling plant that operated near the center of the town.

 For years, FLFC supported local residents in their struggle to shut down plant. The plant was eventually closed but the battle was far from won. Left behind was a plant with stockpiles of corroding batteries dumped and buried throughout the site. The lead dust continued to contaminate the surrounding town infiltrating the air, the water, everything and everyone. Health officials discovered that expectant mothers were passing the lead in their bodies to unborn fetuses during pregnancy and breast feeding. To address this immediate crisis, FLFC partnered up with a vitamin company to develop a prenatal supplement to prevent this deadly transmission from occurring. The supplement, which contains calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, B12, C and D, iron and folic acid was found to help prevent lead from passing from mother to unborn child.

I first became aware of FLFC's work as a volunteer for the organization in 2005. I participated that year in FLFC's annual Humanitarian Mission to the Dominican Republic which was sponsored by Health First, a New York community based insurance provider. Together with the FLFC team and a team of doctors affiliated with Health First, we traveled to Haina and other rural areas on the island, distributing prenatal supplements to clinics that service at-risk pregnant women. We were all inspired when we witnessed first-hand the fruits of our labor. We were literally saving these mothers and the children from the horrors of lead poisoning. Around us were children of all ages who clearly showed the effects of lead poisoning. We could not help them but we were preventing birth defects and learning disabilities for future generations. As we were guided through maternity wards, we could see healthy babies alongside babies that unfortunately had not received the necessary prenatal care. Seeing these young mothers smiling with their newborn babies in their arms was all I needed to convince me that our humanitarian work was important and that we needed do much more.

I was able to reach Steve Null, president of the Friends of Lead Free Children Non-Profit organization and conduct a telephone interview for this article. I had not spoken to him for about eight years but he sounded the same. He is a nonstop aggressive advocate for his organization. Steve even tried to recruit me back to FLFC to join him for his March 2012 mission to the Dominican Republic. He brought me up to speed on FLFC's activities over the past few years. There was a happy ending to the Haina story that I was unaware of. After thirteen years of pressuring local politicians and government health officials, FLFC and the local residents were able to get them to remove over 6,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil from the toxic site. This was done with the assistance of the Blacksmith Institute and Terragraphics, Inc. In 2010, the infamous site was officially inaugurated as a playground for the children of Haina. The playground has a mural of the community which advocates who fought long and hard for the playground.

For Steve, FLFC's work is far from over. He expressed concern about lead contaminants from other sources on this island nation. He emailed me numerous studies and resource materials that he thought might assist me with this article. The Global Lead Network also found: “Worldwide, six sources appear to cause the greatest lead exposures: gasoline additives; food can solder; lead-based paints; ceramic glazes; drinking water systems; and cosmetics and folk remedies. Other significant exposures result from inadequately controlled industrial emissions from such operations as lead smelters and battery recycling plants.”

Steve also reminded me that FLFC’s focus has always been on the importance of proper nutrition. Their "Nutrition for Life" program has expanded the delivery of prenatal supplements to the women in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. So far the FLFC has delivered 58 million supplements to 28 maternity hospitals. This coming March, FLFC plans to assist Clinica Altagracia, the largest maternity clinic in the Dominican Republic which has an average of 25,000 births a year.

Steve believes that his organization has been successful because they have focused their attention on one thing: insuring healthy babies. Many organizations take on too many issues and become overwhelmed. Since FLFC has very limited resources and receives no assistance from any government, they have to be very efficient. FLFC raises most of its funding to cover the expenses of manufacturing the prenatal supplements. They accomplish this by holding an annual Children's Health Festival in the Washington Heights Section of Manhattan. FLFC has no paid staff relying on a small but dedicated team of volunteers. After witnessing the difference that FLFC has made in Haina, I have decided to return as a volunteer.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Section 8

From depression to recession, the Section 8 housing program is a loophole filled world. For those gentle readers out there unfamiliar with it, Section 8 housing is more formally known as “Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937.” But fear not friends! I don’t plan on hurling legal lingo at you. Instead, I’d like to tell you a story of three different people who are trying to get by in this economic recession using loopholes in an old, often-amended program. 

Sadly, I’ll have to walk those of you unfamiliar with it through what exactly Section 8 is and how it functions. Put very simply, Section 8 is a federal subsidy program for low-income individuals. Even more simply: they help you pay your rent and utility bills. The Section 8 program is managed on a town-by-town basis; so for example, Boston has two organizations to deal with Section 8 applicants: the Boston Housing Authority and the Metropolitan Partnership Housing Authority.

Applying is pretty straightforward: you stop by one of the offices and allow these organizations to check out whether you have a criminal record, what your income is and what your general living situation is, like if you have children. That latter part is especially interesting because as recently as a year ago, the rules dictated that a single mother must be provided with a 2-bedroom apartment, the theory being that a room was necessary for the mother and the kid. The rules also told you that a child can share the bedroom with mom until they were 2½-3 years old. But boy, oh boy, have the rules changed: Section 8 now says that 1-bedroom apartments are decent enough, and that a child up to 12-years-old can share a bedroom with mom.

Anyhow, with all of us on the same page, I’d like to share with you those three stories of people getting through this nasty recession. To keep these people – and their landlords – from getting into trouble, I’ve given them pseudonyms. The first story features a woman I’ll call Grandma. She’s getting up there in years, so that’s reason for it.

Grandma came over from the Dominican Republic a while back. She rents a 1 bedroom apartment priced at $900 per month, but she only has to pay a tenth of that.

“I qualify because of my age and how much I earn,” her grand-nephew tells me. He acts as interpreter because Grandma’s English is a little poor. “She doesn’t pay that much rent,” he adds, “the city covers it.”

Now, as pleasant as it seems that Section 8 seems to be working, there’s the flipside to the coin: Grandma owns property back in the Dominican Republic. In fact, she earns an income by renting out that property that the Section 8 authorities don’t know about; it’s completely under the table. As an aside, too: Section 8 has certain rules about what applicants can and can’t do, one being that an applicant can’t live outside the unit being subsidized for a certain period of time. Meanwhile, Grandma likes to take a month or two to visit and live with family back in the Dominican Republic.

Now readers, it seems a fair time to ask whether you think this is a fair deal. Personally, I’ve been charmed by Grandma’s sunny disposition. When I stop by to fix a leak, she’ll treat me to a song whose lyrics I can’t understand. I watch Grandma’s cockatiel dance to the song and I can’t help but smile.

When asking what Grandma thinks of her sneaky dealings with Section 8, she told me, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The money is there and they help me.”

Let’s call the next tenant Number 42, or “no. 42” for short – think apartment number. Another immigrant story, no. 42 and her husband are originally from Cameroon. While her husband works full-time, she works part-time and qualifies for Section 8, which pays roughly $1,000 out of $1,250 for her 2 bedroom apartment. One of no. 42’s qualifications is that she applied as a single mother, though anyone who knows her husband knows that’s a huge stretch of the imagination. This way, no. 42 receives lots of help because of her son, and because they don’t count her husband’s considerable income.

As a tertiary source of income, no. 42 also cuts hair under the table. “I want to open a salon one day,” she told me, “I already have the chairs and equipment stored, I just need to find a place to open up.”

So readers, one wonders if no. 42 and her husband working the system are wrong. I think I’ll leave it up to you to decide because I think they’re good people. They tie their garbage before throwing it into the dumpster, so it can’t accidentally spill across the parking lot. They pick up bits of trash in the hallway that I’ve ignored. And they make me feel good when I help them install a bathroom shelf or some such, scolding their son to stop watching TV and be as hard-working as me.

Oh, gentle readers. If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to thank you. I wondered whether you’d enjoy my little stories. The final tenant I’ve got lined up for you to hear about isn’t actually on Section 8. I’ll call her Mom, because that’s what she is. And doesn’t it seem fitting to finish a story about those who hoodwink the government with someone who doesn’t want to?

Mom comes from Senegal and rents a 2 bedroom apartment for around $1,100 a month. She works in the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center labs doing blood work, and has a son who’s around 19 years old.

“You know, I like it here,” Mom tells me when I see her, “but one day I’ll go back to Senegal.”

When I ask Mom what she’s planning, she tells me, “I am sending money back to family. But I have to watch out, because you know, my family, it is big. So sometimes [the money’s] not all there, you know.”

I am using money from here to build a house in Senegal,” she continues, “because there are a lot of British there and they pay a lot for rent.”

When I prod Mom to see if she has any other plans, she goes on to describe her dream of starting up a wig-store. She tells me how hair extensions and wigs and similar items are popular where she’s from, at least with the women her age. And she knows someone who knows someone who buys from China, and they make cheap hair products.

“I can make lots of money,” Mom almost whispers to me, careful not to let any prying ears in on her get-rich-quick scheme.

And there you have it, readers. Three different examples of three different immigrants making it through the recession that’s hitting America. What do you make of them, I wonder. Examples of tenacious Americanism, working the system to get ahead, or felonious thieves, skulking about and siphoning money from the taxpayers. Personally, I couldn’t ever imagine Grandma skulking.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Importance of Being Ernest

By Nick DeLuca

Journalist. World War I hero. Consummate drinker. Bare-knuckle brawler. Safari voyager. Big game hunter. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author.

These are just a few broad descriptions that can be used when discussing the paramount author of the 20th century; however, he was more than just a handful of adjectives. He still is. His legacy survives as a literary icon, a master wordsmith with a knack for getting the most significance out of a sequence of words or phrases that seem to be of the least importance. He is an author by whom all other authors are measured. He is Ernest Hemingway.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois—a western suburb of Chicago—in 1901, Hemingway took to writing while in his junior year in high school. As part of a journalism class, students were required to submit articles to the school’s newspaper, The Trapeze. Upon graduation he had written and published articles for, as well as edited, The Trapeze and The Tabula—the school’s yearbook—and took a job reporting for The Kansas City Star. It was by taking this job that Hemingway would build the foundation of his famous writing style and come to revolutionize the literary world.

A five-year old Hemingway (far right)

There is a reason that Hemingway is taught in almost every college level English curriculum across the United States. Hemingway’s highly touted, and arguably greatest achievement was the novel The Sun Also Rises. In it he accurately and acutely describes the lifestyle of the 1920’s American expatriates living in Paris known as the “Lost Generation.” By describing the events and people surrounding him during his stays in Paris and Spain, Hemingway came to develop his famous tightly written prose and self-described “iceberg theory” where the facts float above water and the supporting structure and symbolism operate out of sight. His semi-autobiographical approach also helped to secure realism in his works, using this in The Sun Also Rises as well as many of his later acclaimed works such as his World War I love-tragedy, A Farewell to Arms; his Spanish Civil War based, For Whom the Bell Tolls; and his Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning novella, The Old Man and The Sea.

But Hemingway is able to transcend the ink, the page, and the classroom and touch his audience in a personal and inspiring way. Scottish immigrant and writer Andre Van Loon credits his inspiration to Papa. 

“My family moved to Scotland when I was fourteen. In order to learn English as fast as I could, I read as much as I could. I read all of Hemingway in a matter of months. Reading Hemingway made me want to be a writer. To write as purely and excitingly as Hemingway at his best is one of my longest lasting ideals.”

After the success of A Farewell to Arms made him financially independent as a writer, Hemingway often took safari trips to Africa, fishing trips to Cuba, and bullfighting trips to Spain as a spectator and keen enthusiast. During one of his safari excursions he was injured in two successive plane crashes, burnt in a brush fire, and drank enough to incur diabetes. He lived the remainder of his years in constant pain and irritation, eventually taking his own life by putting a 12-gauge shotgun to his head in 1961. But perhaps it was his ability to convey his suffering through his writing that made his most discouraged audience members, like Timothy Bernard, connect with him and deter themselves from the clutches of depression.

“I was in my late 30s and had recently had some major foot surgeries. I kept working a full schedule despite being on crutches. I became physically exhausted and soon I was emotionally exhausted too. I sunk into a deep depression the likes I had never experienced before or since. I picked up The Old Man and The Sea and it spoke to the joys and sorrows of life. There was such power in helplessness, such honesty in failure. It was as if each of Hemingway’s words were lifted high above the ground by a crane, then released with such precision and power that they were permanently planted on the page. I started reading more of his works and appreciated how he doesn’t back away from life…or death,” Barnard commented.

On Sunday December 13, editor Sandra Spanier and actor Corey Stoll—who plays the role of Hemingway in Woody Allen’s 2011 romantic comedy Midnight in Paris—among others, came to the JFK Library to present and discuss the recently published The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922. The letters give insight into the lesser-known early years of author, describing his various relationships with family members, his budding friendships, and his time abroad during the war.

Spanier said the letters go beneath the “very spared, disciplined, honed-down style of his published works and reveal a very chatty, gossipy, conversationalist. We get a very different picture of Hemingway than what we get from his published works or public persona.”

In 2002, Hemingway’s home in Cuba was opened to a team of American scholars including Spanier. Over 3,000 letters and personal correspondence were found in the home’s contents. Spanier is now embarked on a promotional tour with her book on the West Coast and Pacific Northwest. 

Hemingway is one of my personal heroes. His no-nonsense, straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is prose and persona are aspects that I strive for as an aspiring writer. His protagonists capture essence and direction of his moral compass, often emulating his masculine athleticism, resourceful intelligence, and stoicism under pressure. We are lucky to live in the post-Hemingway world; afforded the opportunity to indulge ourselves in his stories and escape from any weight or anxiety forced upon us from the stress of our lives. His works have effortlessly slipped the bonds of simple fiction into, and will forever hold their places in, the American canon. 

Here is a link to listen to Hemingway's Nobel Prize speech.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cutting the Cord: Wireless Power

Tesla tames the lightning; picture from here
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Nikola Tesla worked to broadcast electric power through the air, bypassing power lines and making it available to everybody within range of his transmitter.  He was largely ignored.  At the beginning of the 21st Century, the world still mostly made do with wires for transmissions. However, this changed quickly. For example, wireless routers, once a high-end item for hard-core techies, now can be found in living rooms across America.

Broadcasting encrypted data and sending power through the air are different goals, but there are signs that dependence on wires for the final leg of power transmission are crumbling, at least on the small scale. While nobody is currently working on the scale of Tesla, several companies are now offering commercial wireless electrical power solutions, with the clear potential for residential use in the relatively near future. None of them have the ability to keep a house on the grid without a wire, but two of them are able to reduce the proliferation of cords coming out of your wall.

WiTricity, based in Watertown, Massachusetts, uses resonant magnetic coupling to wirelessly send power through the air. MIT Professor Marin Soljačić thought about the idea late one night while his wife slept, her cell phone beeping its low-power warning. He asked himself why there wasn’t a way to tap into any of the electricity flowing through his house to simply recharge the phone without plugging it in. He worked out the math in the middle of the night, got a lab-full of people at MIT to help test the theory, and a short time later WiTricity was born.

TED Talk by Eric Giler, WiTricity CEO

The coupling works like this: a base station connects to a wall outlet, much like any other electrically-powered device. This station uses a small fraction of the power from the connection to generate a magnetic field oscillating at a particular magnetic frequency. The station sends power to receiver circuits, called “capture devices,” that resonate on the same magnetic frequency. The range of the transmission varies with the size of the circuit used in the base station, but a grid of receiver circuits, or spaced layers, can expand the range of transmission. The magnetic field is asymmetrical in shape, varying with the size and shape of the circuit. It can face interference from metal objects, but only if the metal can completely block the field. Because it is generated magnetically, instead of using broadcast energy, even a high-powered field is safer for human health than your average cell phone.

The base stations are not power sinks. They are designed to stay in a low-power ready state when no device needs to draw power--much like a modern computer or plasma TV--only typically with a lower power draw than either.

The WiTricity system is good at moving relatively large amounts of power. Current regulations cap the maximum power sent magnetically at 3.3 kilowatts, for safety purposes. While their power movement is good, and their maximum efficiency is 95% of moved power received, they do have a limiting factor of relatively low range, though it is much better than the traditional magnetic induction range measured in millimeters. Without a linked circuit extending the range, WiTricity electrical transfer has a practical limit of a few meters for large circuits and under a meter for small circuits. 

The company shows great potential. It is deep in talks with medical implant companies, looking at those whose devices are limited by a wired battery for recharging. Wires going into the body are an easy point of infection. Speaking at IDEAS Boston, CEO Eric Giler mentioned that infections enter the body through the entrance made by these wires, making wire-site infection the leading cause of death for people implanted with these otherwise-lifesaving devices; by eliminating the wire while allowing batteries to recharge, people whose lives have been saved by battery-powered medical implants should have an increased survival rate. 

Trickle-charging items from cell-phones to electric cars to medical devices can be done safely and securely, and the proper circuit can be added onto a battery. When I went to WiTricity's offices, marketing director Yinon Weiss showed how the receiver circuits can even be used to completely replace a battery. The wireless optical mouse felt much lighter without the batteries in it, but it worked just as well. To date, the main creative use of WiTricity has been for expansive lighting displays: some lighting designers decided that they could make wonderful displays and chandeliers even better by eliminating the wires used to power them. They are clearly on to something; I would enjoy a network that could charge my laptop and light my house.

Powercast is another company that sends out power without the need for wires between stations. Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this company’s technology is based on transmitting power via radio waves, using spectrum that is currently mostly unused in the US. Their system is straightforward: a base station draws power from the wall and broadcasts it in a 60º arc to receiver stations. The company has been working to expand the range and efficiency of their units. While right now the system can manage approximately a 13 meter range, the power conversion from radio waves to direct current is currently at a maximum of 70%. 
Powercast kit for wireless sensors, model number P2110-EVAL-01
The company’s largest limitation is a legal one as opposed to a technological one. The US and Canada, the only places where Powercast currently does business, has strict limits on how much power may be broadcast using radio waves. The legal limit is 4 watts; the company keeps its technology to 3 watts, likely to avoid accidentally hitting the limit. The actual transmitter only pulls 1.5 watts to broadcast 3.

Three watts might not seem like a lot of power; in truth, it isn’t. This company shines with low power applications, such as a sensor network. While a laptop or even a cell-phone draw more power than the Powercast system can easily recharge, a wide-range fire alarm system is ideal: it does not use very much power but does require a fair amount of maintenance. According to Vice President Harry Ostaffe, by installing an appropriate grid of RF transmitters and the company’s “Powerharvester Receivers,” a business could put up a full suite of low-power sensors without the need to pay for hardwiring, or paying the costs of relatively high-maintenance batteries. The system would not be suitable for a lighting system, even one with low-power LEDs, but it would work well for low-power trickle charging for items like a remote control. The company focuses on items which currently use battery power that lasts from weeks to years.

Powercast is not sitting on its laurels. It keeps plugging away to improve its technology and keep it simple. Ease of use is a very important part of the company’s vision, with deployable plug-and-play solutions that do not require a licensed engineer to figure out. While currently it is working on business and military applications, home solutions are not out of the question sometime in the future. I for one would love to have fire alarms that never beep due to low power ever again.

If any companies have the know-how to make the age-old dream into a reality for the common man, WiTricity and Powercast are those companies. While Nikola Tesla would likely shake his head at the current state of wireless power, he would be happy that at least some people are finally taking it seriously.

Movie Review: Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell

This movie, made by the fine folks who made the Toxic Avenger, takes place in the wasteland of Tromaville a couple of decades after nuclear annihilation wipes out most of the planet in a single day. The radiation kills most of the humans and mutates many of the survivors, but apparently plenty of them seem to be unaffected. The heroine, who was a very small girl when the world went up in flames, grows into a beautiful, sexually frustrated young woman who just wants to wash her clothes while wearing a bikini and not get raped while doing it. The film starts with a voice-over of a breathy young woman trying to display sex appeal in the middle of nuclear devastation without anything remotely sexy on the screen. I give her credit for trying, at least. No names are mentioned during the intro, or indeed at any point before the closing credits.

The first scene after the unconvincingly-dubbed introduction shows a young man named Marn. He’s the hero, because his face is conventionally attractive. He is hunting a Siberian Husky, presumably for food. When he fails to kill it with his crossbow, he chases after it and is promptly attacked by a enormous dinosaur-like worm with a mouth full of teeth. Despite the worm’s considerably greater mass, Marn is able to fight off the beast by hiding behind trees, a few weak-looking punches and kicks, and a couple of strikes with his trusty 6” hunting knife. The blend between live-action and special effects actually wasn’t all that bad, especially for such a low-budget film; but the weak acting and plot really hurt.

The second scene introduces the heroine into the action. Lea, the titular nymphoid barbarian, is dressed in what looks like a denim bikini that does not leave all that much to the imagination. For somebody who has no razor blades and no access to a Supercuts, let alone a real hair salon, her smooth skin is remarkably hairless while her lustrous head of hair always clean and nicely done up in a style popular in the 1980s, which is when the film was shot. Obviously, her beauty and general cleanliness must be her amazingly useful mutant power. She is, at least, convincingly muscled for everything she ends up doing in the film. Regardless of this, she is washing her clothes by the edge of a lake, enjoying the water, when three men sneak up, intent on kidnap and rape. She fends them off for a while, hitting fairly hard, but her assailants keep getting back up. Just as she’s about to have her clothes ripped off, Marn comes in and saves the day. The both of them fight off the three would-be assailants for long enough for a mutated croc to come out of the water, steal Lea’s long-johns out of her hand, then eat the hapless assailants. In fact, every single time Lea ever encounters a monster, if anybody else is around, the monster will attack the other guy instead of her. Clearly it is her other invisible, highly-useful mutant power.

At Marn and Lea’s camp, she tends to his wound and we get the first audible dialog of the film, some 15 minutes in. For a woman who is supposedly sexually frustrated and aggressive, she is remarkably patient, snuggly, and uninterested in anything remotely sexual. For anybody hoping for occasional nudity to go with the occasional gore in the film, you can forget about it.

The next day, Marn and Lea break camp and go off on a journey to find a better place, presumably someplace where she can wash her clothes in peace. They wander through a variety of landscapes that all feature remarkably unmutated plants and trees. They end up at the beach, where she playfully wrestles with him in the water. 

Cue the cut to the next scene to introduce... the bad guys. We have mutants looking for treasure on the same beach, playfully throwing rocks at each other until they get into a fight about all those painful rocks they’ve just thrown. The solemnity of the fight is undercut by the score, which plays a couple of bars from the theme song of the Three Stooges, specifically the Three Blind Mice part.  Several bars later, in strides their boss, Clon, interrupting the fight by hitting the combatants. He’s wearing soft leather armor, which looks interesting because it's all black -- plus there’s a skull on each shoulder and an obviously fake skull on the cowl. Yes, it is a cowl on armor. Please, don’t ask. His mutation is obviously his protruding teeth. He and his minions end up going off in search of Lea and Marn, who were there a short while ago and obviously need to suffer for not being as ugly as these freaks.

The rest of the film involves the couple getting split up, finding each other again, and losing each other again, all while encountering mutants of various stripes, finding occasional artifacts of the world before the disaster, being chased by Clon, and somehow not getting killed by a variety of hideous dinosaur-sized mutated animals. When Lea wanders off and finds ugly stone castles, the nasty-looking art -- monstrous faces, protruding giant ribs, an oversized human skull -- makes you wonder who the architect was and why they bothered. Then you have to ask how anybody was able to actually build these things after the apocalypse and why they’d listened to the architect. Throughout it all, the monsters never try to eat the heroine.  Clon, who beats up Marn routinely, inexplicably does considerably worse than Marn against apparently the same dinosaur-like worm despite stronger attacks and better hiding skills, going so far as to lose an arm.  Plus, the occasional giant mutated beast erupts from out of nowhere despite a clear lack of enough local food for it to survive long enough to wait for tasty humans.

The film ends with a climactic final battle, Lea and Marn versus Clon. When Lea tries shooting Clon with a gun at point-blank range in a narrow corridor, and successfully fires the thing while pointing in the right direction, she misses completely. Marn takes the gun away gently, presumably until she can get in some practice at the shooting range. The action moves outside of the castle they were fighting in, onto the cliff face right below. Right below the cliff is bubbly brown water containing what look like mutated rhino beetles, sensing the action up above and eagerly waiting for a snack to fall. Marn gets hurt, Lea gets winded, Clon (who has apparently grown his arm back) gets eaten by the beetles, and then there’s a couple of minutes of credits where the characters names are, as promised, finally presented.

The movie has uneven sound quality, very little talking, and a lot of beautiful landscapes that shouldn’t be anywhere that normal after a nuclear disaster that turns animals into giant beasts. It stinks. That said, it doesn’t stink in all ways: the special effects were actually reasonably good, even if sometimes poorly executed; some fights were decent, closer to realistic than cinematic and containing appropriate levels of gore, whether an ear is half-bitten off or an eye gets poked out; and most of the clothing was made appropriately scrap-like and tattered, or from skins that resembled something an animal might wear when it’s walking around.

To call this movie a turkey would be an insult to the fine bird I ate on Thanksgiving. I rate it three flaming bags of poo. Despite this, if somebody were to show a marathon of Tromaville movies and has a bunch of friends ready to give it a Mystery Science Theater 3000-style razzing, it could be good fun. Otherwise, do something more constructive, like playing Farmville. Don’t waste those 82 minutes of your life. I for one will never get them back, and I dearly wish I could.

Restaurant Review: Neighborhood Restaurant, Somerville MA

Walking up Bow St. from Union Square
Last month a friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in over a year called me up, looking for a chance to hang out with my household and catch up over a meal. After she suggested a place in Watertown for breakfast, relatively far from both of us, I asked, “Have you ever been to the Neighborhood Restaurant in Somerville?” That was where we ended up for a late breakfast.

When we arrived we had to sign a guest register to join the wait-list, as there was a short line outside waiting to get in. Next to the sign-in was an insulated coffee pot and some sliced sweet bread provided gratis by the restaurant, available for those hungry diners waiting for a spot. We arrived during a lull and had only one party ahead of us waiting for a seat. The line was longer when we left.

Cozy but comfortable
Inside the restaurant is fairly small, with every possible corner used to fit in diners while maintaining enough elbow room. After we took our seats, our server offered us a choice between a fresh fruit plate or cup of cream of wheat. Everybody chose the fruit plate, comprised of cantaloupe, a few pieces of pineapple and the occasional seedless red grape. Each diner was also served a small cup of orange juice and our choice of coffee, tea or hot chocolate -- all included.

My friend ordered one of the specials, the eggs Benedict, which she enjoyed. She agreed that the home-fries were some of the best she’s had around the Boston area. I ordered three eggs with toast and home-fries, asking for the eggs to be poached. While the eggs were not served on the toast -- which is made from the restaurant’s own homemade bread -- they were still firm enough to move to the toast while still having the properly runny yolks I expect in a poached egg.

The menu has plenty of breakfast items like pancakes, French toast, waffles and home-fries, all of which are served all day. They also have a number of fish and shellfish dishes for lunch, ranging from fish and chips to pork and clams in red wine to their seasonal broiled lobster. Carnivores will find slim pickings, but there are a few different options for pork, beef and chicken. New dishes are put on the menu on a regular basis, so be prepared for new options when you go in. Bring cash, though; they don’t accept credit cards, debit cards or checks.

Inside the arbor for warm weather dining
Service is always friendly in the Neighborhood, which is family-owned and operated. Despite the lines and the crowds, nobody there ever tried to hurry our meal or rush us out the door. During the summer months there is the option to dine outdoors on the patio, covered by the traditional Somerville grape arbor. Those grapes are used to make house grape jelly, which is delicious. Most everything is prepared fresh in-house, and special requests are honored as best as they can manage. Most breakfasts cost from $7-$9, and they are well worth paying a couple of dollars more than food at McDonald’s or a Burger King.

While other Somerville spots may get more buzz for breakfast and brunch, the Neighborhood Restaurant is my go-to place for a comfortable, tasty and affordable meal.

Neighborhood Restaurant
25 Bow Street, Somerville, MA (Union Square)
Open daily from 7AM to 4PM

drinks: $1.50-$4.00
breakfasts: $4.99-$12.99
entrees: $7.99-19.99

All pictures are originally from the website of the Neighborhood Restaurant

UMass Boston Veterans' Perspectives

“I just see, right now the military, and military families... it's not fair what they're going through, and I just feel like we have to come up with a whole new strategy.” -- Jon Stewart, 2011/06/30.

Veterans are a strong presence in UMB student life. The Student Veterans Center (SVC), located in the Student Life offices on the third floor of the Campus Center, is one of the most active student organizations on campus. Veterans serve in student government, work for the student newspaper, and generally maintain a strong campus presence. Still, while all veterans have served, their divergent personalities and experiences give each of them a different point of view.  Even serving in the same branch of the service can lead to vastly different perspectives.

Caleb Nelson, recently retired from the position of editor-in-chief of The Mass Media, served in the US Navy. Patriotism and a desire for free education were early motivators: he joined in 2004, when he was 18. He left in 2008 with partial deafness in his right ear, ready for the rest of his education. He is not sanguine about the Middle East. “I’m glad we’re out of Iraq,” he said thoughtfully. “The Afghanistan war is tough to be against, because from this ivory tower it looks pretty bad... But invading in the first place caused another problem: how do we leave gracefully? We're banging around out there like a drunk guy at his sister's wedding.” 

Caleb (left) on duty
Like Caleb, Caroline Necheles, former coordinator of the SVC and current speechwriter for the UMB Undergraduate Student Government (USG) executive branch, served in the Navy.  She had two stints, 1995-1998 and 2001-2008. In 2006, she was injured in a motorcycle accident while on break from active duty; she is still recovering. Even when her opinions disagreed with policy, she did her duty. “I loved what I did,” she explained. “Was it beneficial, I don't know. I served in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but... I knew we never belonged there to begin with.”

Caroline Necheles (right) with Elizabeth Warren at Commencement Day at UMB
Patrick Duff, former student senator and current SVC assistant coordinator, served in the Navy from 1999-2001. He was diagnosed with PTSD resulting from his service. His symptoms include “inhibited sleep patterns, fear of loud noises and crowds, impaired memory, and occasional disorientation.” His opinion of US military interventions in the Middle East? “[T]hey are a waste of lives on both sides, and were predicated on lies which so many brave men and women made the ultimate sacrifice for. I would like to see the full withdrawal of American military strength ASAP, and the prompt hand-over of the country to local officials.”

Patrick Duff
Their opinions about Veterans Day vary, but each has a message for civilians. 
Patrick: “I want civilians to think about veterans every day of the year, not just one day.” 
Caroline: “To the civilians that look from the outside and have no understanding of what we do: We are given orders; we follow those orders. I served because it is what I wanted to do.” 
Caleb: “Don't celebrate Veterans Day. Memorial Day matters much much more... [S]ave your attention for the people that are in the military now, or dead from it. What about the Peace Corps? Where's their holiday?”

“1% of the country is doing 100% of the fighting, taking 100% of the bullets, nothing gets asked of the rest of us.” -- Tom Brokaw, 2011/11/03.

Don’t wait for Veterans Day to learn about retired and active members of our military. Say hello, be polite--and above all else, respect their service.

The Reluctant Soldier

On June 30, 1950, barely five years after the end of WWII, President Truman sent the US Armed Forces back into war, committing them to the defense of South Korea after it had been invaded by communist North Korea. Defending South Korea was popular at the time, with a Gallup poll showing 78% approval at the time the US sent in its forces. Not everyone was sanguine about the conflict, however. One of those people was Eliot Sommer, a native of Brooklyn, New York and a religious Jew, the man who would become my father. He was all of 22 years old when he joined the National Guard in an attempt to avoid the draft. 

Eliot grew up during the uncertainty of the Great Depression and WWII. His grandfather moved from Germany to the US in the late 19th century. The family still had relatives back in the old country until the devastation of the Holocaust wiped out much of Europe’s Jewish population, including most German Jews. After the war, his family paid a great deal of attention to the formation of the modern state of Israel, and the defensive war it fought in 1948 just to survive. 

Fighting and war were not favored by Eliot. He knew it was dangerous in general, lethal in its particulars, and could be hazardous to his health if he got involved in conflict. He saw the effects of the wars overseas and the effects of fighting at home. When he was a child in Brooklyn, he was bullied for the social crime of being Jewish. His father told him, “Ignore the bullies. Eventually they’ll give up and go away.” He tried to do as his father suggested. Unfortunately, his father’s advice was unsound. It only led to escalation by his tormentors. Even so, fighting was something he did his best to avoid. 

He took the first good chance he could find to keep away from fighting. Eliot attended Queens College, working on a degree while serving in the National Guard. He was not pleased when his unit was called up for active service.  He ended up at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, with a new course of study.

“At the Army school I studied radar repair of the SCR 584 gun-laying radar system,” he said. Radar was still a very new technology back then. Great Britain had used it to mitigate the effects of German bombing runs against England and otherwise improve its aerial superiority. During and after the war, the US stepped up its investment in radar technology and equipment. By the time Eliot joined the National Guard, radar was, in many ways, at a similar point in development as the Internet was in the 1980s: the military applications were well understood, people who could work with it were well-paid, and it was still not generally available for public use. Experts could expect good working conditions and good pay.

While spending much of his time learning radar systems and marksmanship, keeping his nose to the grindstone and going where he was assigned, Eliot did his best to stay an observant Jew. While the military didn’t have Shabbat services on Saturdays for Jewish soldiers, it did have services on Friday nights. He made it a point to go to services whenever possible, even when stationed in Germany. 

However, even though the US Army wasn’t an overtly religious Christian organization, religious soldiers were predominantly Christian. Jews in the military were still uncertain about exercising their authority--and their religion--in an army that for the most part wasn’t Jewish.  One of Eliot’s superior officers, a Jewish lieutenant, tried to forbid him from going to Friday night services in an attempt to curry favor with his superiors by showing he could keep his team at work. Eliot went anyways. “I told him, ‘The walls of this kaserne [German for “barracks”] aren't high enough to keep me from going.‘ He said, ‘You'll be court martialed.’ So I replied, ‘Well, then I'll see you at my court martial.’”

He didn’t get a court martial, but he was determined to leave as soon as he could. After demonstrating excellent skills using, maintaining and repairing radar equipment, Eliot was given a special presentation. The military wanted him to be a team leader in charge of a squad of radar repairmen for the Army. They would promote him from sergeant to warrant officer, with the chance to get into the officer corps in time. The Army felt this was a good deal. For an NCO looking to advance, it was a very good deal. 

Eliot didn’t agree. At the end of the presentation he told the presenters exactly what he thought. “I don’t want to be in this army a second longer. I’m just a PFC, a poor fucking civilian.” Two and a half years after he joined the army, Sergeant Sommer received an honorable discharge. According to Paula Sommer, his wife of 47 years, he’d earned an Army of Occupation medal for time spent in Germany as well as a National Defense ribbon. Both were standard awards during his time in the service. He left as a certified marksman, and received a lump sum payment of $417.48, somewhere between six and eight weeks worth of pay.

Eliot used the skills he’d gained in the US Army to serve his country in a different way, working as an engineer for various defense contractors. He took breaks from that work to earn a bachelors degree from Columbia University in the early 1960s, where he met his wife-to-be Paula, and a master’s degree from Worcester State College in the early 1970s. His advice to people entering the military? “Get as much Army School training in your field of interest as you can. It can serve you well while in-service as well as when (and if) you return to civilian life. That's what worked for me.”

It worked very well for him. Eliot married Paula in December of 1963. Their daughter Deborah was born in 1967; I was born two years later, named for Paula's father who had passed away the year before. He worked primarily with defense firms until his retirement in 1988, working on systems that are still classified despite many being outmoded technology. He earned a good living as a civilian, supporting his family with the skills he learned in the military.

When asked about visiting communities of veterans, he wasn’t particularly interested. “I’m not much of a joiner,” he said with a shrug. “I never went to a VFW. I didn’t go to the Jewish War Veterans either.” He doesn’t talk about his military service often, only doing so if somebody asks him about it. While he is a veteran, he makes no special plans for Veterans Day. He spends most of his social time with friends from his local synagogue, people he knows through his extended Jewish community, and friends and relatives spread around the country. Clearly, being a veteran is not of major importance to Eliot. Still, his wife Paula said, “He knew just where to go to find [his] discharge papers.”

In late 1989, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the 1990 US military offensive against Iraq known as Operation Desert Shield. I considered joining the military at the time, but both of my parents discouraged me from joining. I never did join up, and have since become much more skeptical about war. For my father, who hasn’t yet seen a war he’s truly liked, this is a very good thing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hing Shing Pastry

In my search for good pastry and baked goods, I had more misses than hits. Even though I’m willing to pay $6-$7 for an item, all I get in return is either a sickly sweet slice of cake or crumbling cupcake. In the mist of these depressing experiences there will always be a place that I know I can turn to for a good bite. Located at the corner of Hudson Street and Beach Street in Chinatown is Hing Shing Pastry. From moon cake to roast pork buns, Hing Shing Pastry offers a wide variety of Chinese baked goods.

The glistening egg tart sitting in the display case calls for my attention. The flaky puff pastry tart shell is light and crispy, not at all affected by the sweet, creamy egg custard that could sometimes cause the tart shell to become gooey and mushy. The size is not too small, not too big, giving me a pastry satisfaction without feeling the sugary sickness.

While the egg tart was the perfect cure for my sweet tooth, the savory ham and egg bun was filling without giving me the feeling of being overstuffed. At first glance customers might not notice the ham and egg since it is wrapped up inside a light and fluffy bun, but the first bite will prove that you have not been ripped off. The best part about the ham and egg bun is that the egg is real. The egg is not a plastic yellow disk that makes me ask, “Would I die if I ate it?” Ham and egg bun is a good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s still good even after the first day, just toss it in the microwave for 30 seconds, and it seems like it was fresh baked.

Nothing beats the “bor lor bao”, or, direct translation, “pineapple bun.” When I was a child I always wondered why there aren’t real pineapples in it, but my mother explained that the name comes from the appearance of the bun which with its crisscross pattern resembles a pineapple. On top of the bun there is a thin layer of cookie crust made out of sugar, eggs, flour, and lard. After the baking process, the top has a crunchy, sweet crust that goes perfectly with the soft bun. To enhance the Hong Kong experience, go home and stick a pad of butter in the pineapple bun. It becomes a heavenly mix of the sweet and salty, satisfying both the sweet tooth and the salty craving.
                                          top: egg tart. bottom: pineapple bun

Most items at Hing Shing Pastry are less than $2, which makes them a great stop for a quick, cheap breakfast or lunch. Perhaps one downside to Hing Shing is their lack of drinks. Most Chinese bakeries also serve coffee or milk tea because they are a perfect companion to a bun or egg tart. Their lack of drinks could probably be explained by the size of their store. It’s quite small and there are not seats. Whatever you buy will have to be for take-out, but their food is good enough for me to take that extra trip to another store for a drink.

For those of you who don’t speak Chinese don’t worry, because next to each item is a tag with the name of the item in English. If the tag still doesn’t help you with ordering then the group of ladies behind the counter are always there to answer your questions.

Hing Shing Pastry
67 Beach Street
Boston, MA 02111-2130
(617) 451-1162

Price: $1.00-$2.00/item

Monday, December 12, 2011


High-end food for low-end prices…who doesn’t love that?  Rendezvous, a restaurant located in Central Square is usually an expensive restaurant. However, on Monday nights from 5pm-10pm they have a Tapas Menu with prices ranging from 4-7 dollars. This special menu is only served at the bar where “in the know” Foodies can sit, relax, and enjoy watching the bartenders muddle tasty concoctions.  Sena Kwasnik, a hostess at Rendezvous states, “The bar has a relaxing hip vibe to it. Monday nights are always full of different kinds of people. Business men, college students, and people on dates are all enjoying delectable tapas, and our tasty cocktails.”  Rendezvous differs from many other restaurants because they get the majority of their items from local markets and nearby fishermen.  They also grow many of their own herbs on their roof deck, making every dish as fresh as possible.

The Tapas Menu has an mouthwatering array of delicious dishes including: fried oysters, roasted baby brussel sprouts, Prince Edward Island mussels, and my personal favorite, spicy friend chick peas with kale.  These Tapas dishes are bursting with unique flavors and generous portions.  I went to Rendezvous with one other person; we both had empty stomachs and could not wait to devour our food.  I ordered the Mint Cucumber cocktail; I am usually not a gin drinker, but it was a heavenly libation.   The muddled fresh mint and cucumbers made the drink so refreshing and it went really well with our fish dishes.  My friend was not in the mood for an alcoholic beverage so she got the Gulab Sharbat, a delicious concoction of lemon, pomegranate, cardamom, soda water and the best part and most amazing ingredient-rose petals.  When putting the drink to your mouth your nose is filled with the sweet and delicate smell of roses.

We ordered fried oysters, baby brussel sprouts, spicy bluefish cakes, and the PEI mussels.  There was an abundant amount of fried oysters per serving, at least 8-10.  There were about twelve PEI mussels served with freshly baked bread from Iggy’s Bakery.  I began to feel full after these two dishes but we still had two more dishes to dig into.  The spicy bluefish cake was rich in flavor and had a zesty kick to it.  The brussel sprouts were steamed and had diced bacon bits sprinkled on top.

The diversity between dishes, mouthwatering tastes, and cheap prices can’t be beat.  When the bill came I was in shock that after all of that food and two drinks we only had to pay $32.00.  My Mint Cucumber cocktail was the most expensive item on our bill, priced at $12.00, and it was worth every penny.  So, if you’re looking to impress someone with your hipness or just want a taste of high quality food that won’t make a dent in your wallet, try Rendezvous on a Monday night.

502 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square in Cambridge
Tapas Menu $4-7
Cocktail Menu $4-12

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Local Cheap and Good Foods

Town Pizza of Norwood is the perfect place to go with friends or family if you are looking to find good food and drinks at a very low price. With all of the basic menu items of a pizza place and more, Town Pizza offers something for everyone’s taste buds.

Their appetizers and side orders are all between $3.00 and $7.75 and are highlighted by barbeque wings, garlic bread, and chicken fingers. One thing that I have great admiration for is the amount of effort that is put into making the chicken fingers from scratch. As most pizza places and cheap restaurants buy frozen chicken fingers, Town Pizza’s general manager James Adamos personally makes his own. “The most important thing for us as a business is to keep the customers happy,” James says, “Because there are so many other pizza places in this town, we are given the task of making sure our product is unique. If there is a pizza place on every corner, what is so good about ours?”

The process starts by taking fresh chicken breasts and beating them down. He then dips them in egg batter followed by a flour and bread crumb mix and then repeats the process. One can only imagine the amount of time that is spent on these chicken fingers alone.

All dinner plates are served with the choice of either rice of fries and a side salad. The plates are between $8.75 and $9.90 and include an amazing grilled steak tips, grilled chicken, and fresh fish. My personal favorite, the steak tips are marinated with a specialty house marinade for a full two days before serving, giving them a taste, texture, and quality that you will find at a Steakhouse restaurant.

Town Pizza’s sub menu has over 25 different and delicious combinations. The subs are served either small or large and are all between $4.45 and $6.90. My personal favorites include the gyro on a pita, a fresh mix of beef and lamb served on pita bread with tzaziki sauce, onion, and tomato, and the ham and egg sub, that is seasoned with a tasty, unique blend of Mediterranean spices.

Their refreshments include all of the Coca Cola products, vitamin waters, and various beers and wines. All non alcoholic beverages are between $1.25 and $3.00. All beers are $2.75 and all glasses of wine are $3.50. For desert, you have the option of various ice creams and frozen pies for $2.90 each.

Last weekend I chose to spend my Saturday watching college football on the big screen at Town Pizza. For less than $25 dollars I was able to order four beers, a dinner plate, and a desert. If you are looking for fresh, well prepared, and cheap foods, Town Pizza is a must try. Their gourmet twist on conventional pizza place food is what makes them unique. And let us not forget that any dining area with a big screen is a perfect place for cheap alcoholic drinks to be served.

Town Pizza
20 Broadway Street, Norwood Ma

Appetizers: $3.00-7.75
Dinner Plates: $8.75-9.90
Subs: $4.45-6.90
Drinks: $1.25-3.50