"Elephant" — A Disturbing Movie

I saw the movie “Elephant” on cable a few weeks ago. If you have not seen the movie and want to completely avoid spoilers then don’t read on, though at least finish this sentence: the movie is original, disturbing, and well worth viewing. There is no major spoiler in this review, but if you don’t know anything about what the movie is about, as was my situation when I saw it, it might heighten the experience a bit, possibly. The unique aspect of the movie is not the subject matter, but its point of view. I don’t mean the views of the director or producer or writer. I mean the actual point of view of the film. Let me explain. Books can be written from a first or third person point of view. First person point of view isn’t used very much, but in a sense it most closely replicates our own experiences. When we walk into a room we don’t know about the murderer hidden in the closet until he appears. The third person point of view is more the “god perspective.” The narrator tells what is happening, and knows things about the story that other characters don’t know. He describers the murderer hiding in the closet, the victim opening the door, and so forth. The narrator in this type of story is somewhat god-like, but is not himself (or herself) a character in the story. The second person is rarely used in narratives, being mostly confined to instruction manuals and such: “First you open the box. Then you remove the blender from the packing material. Etc.”

Movies usually take a third person point of view. We are seeing things from a point of view of none of the characters. This does a good job of telling the story, but it is an unnatural point of view. It doesn’t seem to bother people reading stories or watching movies, however.

Movies and stories tend to be linear in time, although I have read plenty of books in which simultaneous events are interleaved through alternating chapters. Movies do less of that, though some do play with time. An example is “Run Lola Run.” Another is “Elephant.”

“Elephant” has very little dialog. Most of the movie is long slow shots of kids in a high school. Early into the movie though you realize that movie time is non-linear. There is a scene that ends with the high school principal. A number of other scenes go by. Then you are back with the principal as if no time has passed. Kids talk and a girl runs down the hall. The scene is later replayed from the girl’s point of view. Essentially the movie takes a limited time period and expands it by reshowing the same scenes from different points of view. The result is a step beyond third person. The perspective is even more “god-like” than a typical third person narrative. You get to see the events from multiple points of view. The events, it turns out, are a school shooting almost exactly parallel to the Columbine shootings. This was jarring to me when I first saw the two kids with rifles appear in the movie. Most of the film up to the shootings seems banal and everyday. The events are transcribed on film, but despite the multiple viewpoints, there is still not answer given in the film for the senseless violence. We see it all, but we still don’t understand it. It is difficult to describe the effect of the movie in words, but there is no doubt the construction of this film amplifies the horror of the events more than a simple linear perspective would have. This effect is worth experiencing. Afterwards, you realize that some things we humans are capable of cannot be comprehended, only apprehended — which is perhaps the point of the movie.



"Little Miss Sunshine"

What a terrific movie! It certainly shows that strong, loving families come in all different shapes and sizes. This was funny and sweet with zero saccharine. As the title of this film otherwise suggests, this is not a “chick-flick” or some kind of feel-good drivel about a precocious, obnoxious or sickeningly sweet child. It’s a very real portrayal of very real people who have their own particular demons and joys – just like all of us – and manage to see life’s overall picture anyway.

Alan Arkin was terrific as the grandfather. Who wouldn’t like him in spite of his drug-snorting, crude-mouth ways? “So what? I’m old!”, he retorted when a family member spoke of his drug addiction. He had a point there and remained grounded in familial loyalty to his fellow characters.

Steve Carell was the funniest suicidal character I’ve ever seen portrayed in any fictional work. His character’s observation (while pushing to jump start a burnt out old van) that he’s the world’s premier Proust authority is hysterical and philosophical at the same time. For him, and for the viewers, it certainly puts the world into pragmatic and realistic focus.

Toni Colette was, as usual, very adept at her characterization of the mother. She was poignantly torn between being carried away with her husband’s delusionary enthusiasm and the plain easy-to-see facts that she was overworked, underpaid and just barely able to throw KFC on the table at the end of the day. Her family was having significant difficulties, but she saw the overall picture too.

Greg Kinnear could have been portrayed as a one-dimensional creepy character with all the “charm” of a revival meeting evangelist bilking people out of their money. His role as a motivational speaker was much more than that. Sure, he was driven by money to a certain extent; but he was a true believer in his “7-Step Plan”. Nevertheless, he was not so out of touch that he couldn’t come back to earth when it really mattered to his family.

Paul Dano was “Dwayne” and Abigail Hoover was “Olive”. Their names are a little dorky and so were they. Dwayne had refused to speak aloud until he achieved his dream of becoming a pilot. Dano played him well as a pasty-faced, adolescent, pain-in-the-butt who isolated himself in his room, reading and re-reading Nietzsche. Though Nietzsche saw nihilism as the outcome of repeated frustrations in the search for life’s meaning, Dwayne transcended (as opposed to “coming down to earth”) this depressing philosophy by making his own meaning. He too saw the overall picture. Olive was a little chubby girl whose enthusiastic optimism nearly crashed during the initial stages of the pathological beauty pageant for little girls. She was rescued by her family while she rescued them.

I had a marvelous time watching this film. It was well-acted, well-directed and well-scripted. There were no special effects – just great art. It’s a wonderful way to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” and to see how the characters discover the difference between the “small stuff” and what’s really precious in life.


Books Religion

"Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis

I just finished reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. While initially reading it, I felt quite disappointed in Lewis’ tortured logic, twisted metaphors, and simplistic deductions. There is really a spectacular dearth of reason. He dismisses virtually all but Christian belief (except non-Christian belief systems which share similarities with Christianity), and makes sweeping generalizations supported by non-sequitur examples of everyday life occurrences. He attempts to equate religious beliefs (via his “Law of Human Nature” doctrine) to testable scientific laws, but provides no basis for this assumption and finally succumbs to the “it must be so” argument. He states many “facts” without any apparent vetting.

I have to admit, though, that on finishing the book, I believe I was able to feel some of Lewis’ profound joy about his beliefs. He communicated this well in his last chapters. Not a believer myself, I think that Mr. Lewis was a sincere and moral individual who recognized some of the pitfalls of supernatural thinking (tribalism, superiority, suppression of others) and warned against them. His happiness in what he believes to be the supernatural cohesiveness and his understanding of the universe is palpable.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book for its poetic, but not intellectual value. I was also impressed that Mr. Lewis did not negate scientific inquiry even once in this book. On the contrary, he did not abandon his scholarly roots and even attempted (though failed) to show logic in a quasi-scientific fashion. He supported the fact of Darwinian evolution over “thousands of centuries”, so at least he wasn’t a new-earther. He even paid Darwin a splendid compliment by breathlessly hoping that a Christ-filled human could be our species’ next evolutionary step.


Computers & Software Electrophysiology

Sneak Preview — First Screenshots from EPSimulator

The new EP Studios project is a simulation of an EP recording system.  The program is loosely based on the CardioLab system I have used for years.  The program will be released under an open source license sometime (?) in 2007.


Computers & Software

Version Control with SVK Part I

I just want to put a good word in for the version control program SVK. First a word of warning. This is definitely a programmer’s topic and if you have been reading for the political opinions or entertainment, or even for EP opinions, you should skip this topic.

There, have all the non-programmers left? Ok. Well, if you are a programmer, or want to be one, you should realize that version control is not an option, it is a necessity. This is a fact that no serious programmer is ignorant of. If you are really not familiar with the concept of version control, it is, in a nutshell, the ability to store all previous versions of a file and go back and resurrect any previous version at any time. This allows a tremendous freedom and provides a great sense of security that you are not going to mess something up and not be able to retrace your steps and get back the version you had before you messed up. In other words, it is the ultimate Undo. It is not a matter of whether or not to use version control, but which version control software to use. Recently I became acquainted with SVK, a variation of the Subversion version control system, with a number of advantages over Subversion (aka SVN). SVK represents about my 3rd or 4th foray into version control. For EP Office I used a commercial version control system which was Windows based. As with every other proprietary windows software program, I felt locked into updating the software when updates were released. Of course this cost money, and upgrading is also painful because it invariably breaks something that used to work before just fine. Later I realized the more serious danger of being locked into a proprietary software system: what if the company folded and I was left with unsupported, undocumented software in binary form without source code? What had I entrusted my precious program code to? The situation brought to mind the backup copies I had made using magnetic tape years ago. Those tapes are now useless, as there is no longer any hardware or software available that can read that tape format. Likewise perhaps my carefully archived software would some day be lost because it was stored in a software format that would be be forgotten.

About this time I was switching over to Linux and Open Source software, so naturally I went to the gold standard of version control, CVS. I found that CVS is great for version control of individual files, but is awkward for tracking a large project. I still use CVS for version control on certain text documents, but I don’t think it is very good for development compared to what is now available. If you want to save the state of multiple files all at once, you need to “tag” them with CVS. Deleting and renaming files or directories can also cause major headaches. Moreover CVS does not handle binary files well, and its commands and logic can be obtuse. I still don’t quite understand “sticky tags,” for example.

Enter Subversion (SVN). SVN is directory based, not file based. So if you commit you are committing all the files in a directory, whether they changed or not. The whole directory and its files and subdirectories becomes version 101, for example. You don’t have a mixture of FileA at version and FileB at version, as you might have with CVS. If you delete a file, it just is gone in version 102 onwards, but you can always go back to version 101 to get it back if you want. And SVN handles diffs between binary files just fine. So what’s with SVK that makes it better? In Part II I will examine SVNs shortcomings and why SVK is, in computer geek terms, really neat.


New Wishy-Washy Sudden Cardiac Death Guidelines

The new ACC/AHA/ESC guidelines for ventricular arrhythmias and prevention of sudden death appeared in my online edition of Circulation this AM and I turned with some interest to the section on prophylactic implantable defibrillator criteria. The guidelines, scripted by a committee of international experts, are supposed to represent a distillation of the best available scientific evidence. Recommendations are rated from high to low (I, IIa, IIb, and III) and by level of evidence (level A evidence from randomized clinical trials, to level C, concensus of experts). This is one of a series of similar guidelines published over the years on a variety of problems in cardiology. These guidelines are always very definitive and up to date. Thus I was curious to see what they said about ICD indications.

I hadn’t read very far before I started coming across recommendations like this: “ICD therapy is recommend for primary prevention…in patients…[who] have an LVEF less than or equal to 30% to 40%” –What? What does this mean? Is it 30%, 40%, 35%?? Does this statement have any meaning even in a mathematical sense? If there are different cases to be made for less than 30% versus less than 40%, why isn’t this reflected in the normal way in the guidelines, such as making one cutoff a Class IIa recommendation, and the other a Class IIb?
Reading the fine print, the authors explain this essentially by admitting that they could not reach a consensus. The same data is interpreted differently on either side of the Atlantic apparently. They go on to state: “Guidelines are composed of recommendations on the basis of the best available medical science; however, implementation of these recommendations will be impacted by the financial, cultural, and societal differences among individual countries.” So, in other words, in the US, where Medicare CMS guidelines for primary prevention don’t include patients with LVEF > 35%, the cutoff must be 35%. In Europe, maybe it’s 40%. Or 30%. Depending on culture, money, and society presumably.

Great! So instead of the guidelines committee of experts coming up with actual guidelines, such as making the cutoff 40% and thumbing their collective noses at CMS and saying deal with it, they bow down to local custom and preserve political correctness at the expense of scientific rigor. Presumably if an ICD implanted in a European with an EF of 40% can save his life, it could also save the life of a Medicare recipient in the US.

So which is it, ACC/AHA Task Force and the ESC Committee for Practice Guidelines (Writing Committee to Develop Guidelines for Management of Patients With Ventricular Arrhythmias and the Prevention of Sudden Cardiac Death) Developed in Collaboration With the European Heart Rhythm Association and the Heart Rhythm Society: less than 30% or less than 40%??

(The article cited above is available at


Outdoors Needs A Non-Smoking Section

This is a pet peeve. Restaurants have smoking and nonsmoking sections — indoors. If you want to eat outdoors you have only one choice. Invariably as you are enjoying the sunshine, fresh air, and a nice meal, the inconsiderate clod at the table next to you lights up and starts polluting your air space. It seems that there is no obligation, legal or moral, for restaurants to provide a smoke-free area for seating outside the restaurant. This may not be true in every state, but it is true here in Kentucky. So the smokers get to enjoy eating outdoors while nonsmokers who want to do the same are forced to breathe in vile toxic clouds of smoke. So much for fresh air. This situation is outlawed inside the restaurant; it should be outlawed outside as well. For that matter why do we put up with being forced to walk past a crowd of smokers congregated outside the entrance to get into a building? We don’t allow cars belching smoke out their exhausts to drive around polluting the air we breathe. Why do we allow smokers to do the same thing?
It’s time to declare the great outdoors a smoke-free environment and ban public smoking.


If Immigrants Need To Learn English…

… then so should presidents. Brian Williams’ recent interview with the president was more fodder for the “Is the president an idiot?” camp. Bush stated he had recently read Camus, and “3 Shakespeares.” He then stated he was an “ecelectic” reader. This word sounded like a cross between eclectic and epileptic, and possibly reflects a subconscious truth about our president’s thought processes. As Joe Scarborough pointed out in a recent segment actually entitled “Is the president an ‘Idiot’?” there may be some charitable distinction between being stupid and having a learning disability or speech impairment, so that, although the president is intelligent, he has no conceivable way of demonstrating this through speech. This hypothesis could explain all the observed facts if it were not for Iraq, Katrina, the Dubai ports deal, and countless other indications that the president has a deeper thought disorder than just a speech impediment. Besides, invoking dyslexia to explain bad behavior seems like such a liberal maneuver, uncharacteristic of the conservative modus operandi.

Unfortunately it appears we are stuck with a stupid president for another 2 years, at a time in history when world affairs would challenge even the most adroit president. We cringe when we hear that the president of Iran challenged our president to a debate, because, of all our presidents in our history, this one who can’t string together a coherent sentence to save his life would undoubtedly lose such a debate. Such a sad state of affairs!


On 2001: A Space Odyssey

I just finished watching 2001 in high definition. I had forgotten how visually beautiful the film is, having seen it over the years in its VHS version, but seeing it in 1080i resolution on a wide screen LCD TV brings me back to my first viewing of the film, on a lovely summer day in the Washington DC of 1968, on a huge wide screen. In those days the theaters were pristine clean, and there really was an intermission in the middle of the film. As part of the price of admission we received a full color booklet on the film, which is probably a collector’s item now. I still remember the incredible sense of wonder inspired by the film. I couldn’t wait until the real 2001 arrived.

Among the things that strike me now watching the film 5 years after the year 2001 are how amazingly real the space special effects are, even by today’s standards, although in the final part, Beyond the Infinite, Kubrick is trying to do more than was possible in that era. Another strking characteristic of the film is its technological optimism, by far overestimating where we’d be in the real 2001, at least with regard to space exploration. It seems we have been frozen in time after the moon landings, still using the same space shuttle technology from the 1980’s into the 21st century. 2001 the movie came out a year before man landed on the moon. Now there are whole generations who were born after the last man set foot on the moon. When I was a boy landing on the moon was almost unimaginable, now it again seems unimaginable, but for different reasons.

The space program of the 1960’s was a wonderfully optimistic time, and 2001 captured that optimism. If the people of that time can be accused of being overly naive and guileless in their enthusiasm for space exploration, I believe people of our present time can be justly accused of being overly cynical and jaded. A lot has happened to change our country over the last 40 years, and the changes have not necessarily been all to our credit as a people. The saddest thing about watching the movie 2001 is comparing it to the events of the real 2001.

Computers & Software

Getting off the Microsoft carousel

Ten years ago, when EP Office (known as EP Database back then) first emerged from the primordial binary soup to crawl across the computer screens at the University of Colorado, the only platform I considered using was Microsoft. The database used was Microsoft Access 2.0. Over the years various features were added to the program, using other members of the Microsoft Office suite to provide features such as report generation (Word) and billing sheets (Excel). Meanwhile the Office suite mutated to Office 97, 2000, XP, and then its current iteration, Office 2003. Office 2007 is reportedly around the corner. Each update meant spending money to buy the new program, and then modifying my program to work with the new Office version. You see, each update to Office changed the format of the Access database file, and changed the syntax of Visual Basic for Applications, with the result that each Office update broke my program. The present version of EP Office works best with Office XP. It will also work with Office 2003, but certain security features added in 2003 cause some hiccups in the smooth functioning of EP Office. But I am sick of living or dying at the whim of Bill Gates and Company.

So, what is the answer? For the past several years I have been working with the Linux (perhaps more correctly GNU/Linux) operating system. Linux is fundamentally a clone of a very old, in computer years, operating system, Unix. Old Unix programs written 25 years ago still run on it. Backward compatibility is obviously a top priority. Moreover, Linux and its applications are open source, so that the source code is always available to the developer. Bugs in Microsoft programs are just tough luck, unless Microsoft decides to fix them. Bugs in open source programs are scrutinized by multiple developers and are fixed quickly.

I am thinking of releasing the source code of EP Office, making it open source. The problem with open source software is that it is difficult to generate much income from it. Anyone can download and make a copy for free. Nevertheless I am seriously thinking of doing this. It would certainly go against the grain of most medical software, which is generally prohibitively expensive. It would have the advantage of allowing others to adapt the program to the ever changing Microsoft Office suite, or allow the program to be cloned to a healthier platform, such as a web-based interface. We shall see…