August 10, 2014

Who leaves a baby in a hot car? A stressed-out Pixar employee and other parents who make tragic mistakes

Following the smash critical and box-office success of Toy Story in 1995, Emeryville's Pixar was under intense pressure to make another artistically amazing, financially lucrative film. But the 1997 production for the sequel, Toy Story 2 1997 production was troubled for a number of reasons, and the creative staff found themselves putting in long hours under a highly compressed production schedule. 

A third of Toy Story 2's animators wound up suffering carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive stress injuries. But the gravest consequences occurred when an artist, in a mental haze, forgot to drop off his infant at daycare. Several hours later, he remembered that his baby was in the backseat of is car. 

Fortunately, rescue workers were able to "revive" the child, said Pixar President and founder Ed Catmull.

The Pixar chief, who is also president of Disney Animation Studios, recounted this near tragedy in an interview this week on KQED’s Forum. It was a show devoted to Catmull’s book Creativity Inc. and lessons Pixar learned over the years about how to nurture a creative, productive workforce.

His story about Pixar workers pushed themselves to states of physical and mental burn-out – with the life of an employee’s child put at risk – comes amid a summer of intense awareness around babies and young children dying in hot cars. 

A car's temperature can rise rapidly in the hot sun -- topping 120 degrees inside, on an 80-degree day. So far in the United States in 2014, at least 21 kids have died in hot-car related incidents, the Washington Post reported. 

Who leaves a child in a hot car, the story asks. "Parents on their way to work sometimes do it. So do parents who are rushing to the restroom or tackling odds and ends around the house. Sometimes, drowsy parents nod off; sometimes the parent (allegedly) smokes pot, eats pizza and watches HBO unaware of the looming tragedy."

In 2010, the Post won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for “Fatal Distraction,” a story that looks at how a host of factors are contributing to this deadly and particularly modern-day phenomenon.

Kids dying in hot cars was a relatively rare situation until the 1990s, writer Gene Weingarten reports. That’s when car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, so they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; “then, for even more safety for the very young,” baby seats were pivoted to face the rear.”

“If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them?” asked Weingarten. “What kind of person forgets a baby?

According to Weingarten, “death by hyperthermia,” the official designation for these sorts of cases, sometimes happens when an otherwise loving, attentive parent on day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and then just forgets the child is in the car. Weingarten reports that this situation happens in the United States 15 to 25 a year. 
Emerging research on how the brain keeps track of information shows how these attention lapses occur, Weingarten reports.
He interviewed David Diamond, a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida, who had this to say:

“In situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.”

Ordinarily, Diamond told Weingarten, this delegation of duty “works beautifully.” But sudden or chronic stress can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers. A certain combination of factors show up in cases of parents forgetting their children in cars: stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine.
“That’s when the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist,” Diamond said. “What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted—such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back — it can entirely disappear.”
Of course, not all cases of infant hyperthermia involve situations of “simple but bewildering lapses of memory,” Weingarten writes.
In other cases there is a history of prior neglect or substance abuse or when parents knowingly leave their children in the car. An Oakland woman is facing two misdemeanor child endangerment charges after leaving her two children, 2 and 3, strapped in their car safety seats in July, while she went into a Livermore casino to gamble, the Contra Costa Times reported.
Weingarten quotes a national childs’ safety advocacy group that in about 40 percent of cases of child hyperthermia, authorities determine that the child’s death was an accident. In the other 60 percent of cases, authorities decide that the negligence was so great that the parents should be aggressively prosecuted. 
High tech wants to come to the rescue to help harried, distracted parents remember their kids, inventing “smart car seats,” wireless monitors or sensors in cars that detect motion or levels of carbon dioxide. 

The National Highway Safety Administration offers these low-tech suggestions: Always check the front and back seats of the car before you lock it and leave and put your purse, briefcase or something else you need to take with you next to the car seat so you won’t forget to check.

Pixar’s near-tragedy during the Toy Story 2 production prompted the company to rethink its work processes, not so much out of concern over the unlikely scenario that another worker would forget her child in the Pixar parking lot, but just to take better care of its most valuable assets: their employees. “We realized we had let this go too far down the path,” Catmull said. “We had to change behavior. We had to train people to take care of themselves physically.”


August 3, 2014

Summer's indie hit "Chef": disturbingly sexist about men, women, their bodies and food

Chef is this summer’s movie darling for a certain demographic – people like me who believe they have discerning tastes, not just in film, but in contemporary culture, including, of course, food.

Maybe Chef is enjoying its long run in movie theaters because Woody Allen failed with Magic in the Moonlight to provide this summer’s elevated alternative to the usual blockbuster/superhero fare.

More likely, people have fallen for Chef director Jon Favreau’s trite and manipulative tale about a so-called creative genius chef who finds creative fulfillment on personal terms – and in ways that mean his schlubby, self-centered protagonist gets to gorge on food while the beautiful, busty-skinny women around him gaze on lovingly – without getting to eat themselves.

Yeah, I really didn't like Chef because it advocates a gusto for food and savoring the full flavor of life – but only if you’re male. 

If you’re a girl, you smile sweetly, make witty, cute and loving remarks, then pick at your salad and do your best to maintain a size 0, 36-D figure. 

The chef, Carl Casper, is having a midlife crisis and gets fired from a trendy LA restaurant but finds culinary salvation – and Twitter popularity – by: 1) going full food truck 2) male-bonding with his son 3) male-bonding with other guys who appreciate his ways up carving up and grilling big slabs of meat and 4) remaining the center of intrigue for gorgeous women played by Scarlett Johannson and Sofia Vergara.

Much has been made about how Favreau, who directed blockbusters Elf, Ironman and Ironman 2, made this movie to return to his independent, small-movie roots. But the filmmaking in Chef “couldn’t be more Hollywood-minded,” says Ben Sachs, a critic for the Chicago Reader. Chef is “thin and bland” with its “sentimental plot and sitcom-ready one-liners would be right at home in a Billy Crystal vehicle.”
I’d add that the plot is cynically manipulated to complete an easy checklist of pop culture touchstones, including: foodie chic and food truck chic, Cuban sandwiches, tweeting your life, selfies, social media marketing, the genius hero’s messy industrial-style apartment and anything New Orleans, Texas barbecue or Austin music scene. There is one amusing cultural faux pas, pointed out by the LA Weekly: how AOL becomes relevant enough for a plot point by paying $10 million to buy a food writer’s blog.
But let’s get to Favreau’s curious depiction of men and women and what’s socially acceptable in terms of their bodies, weight and food consumption.
One writer for the Los Angeles Times picked up on how the film’s relationship to food portrays an overt sexism, but called this sexism “a good thing.” From the moment Casper walks into that prissy (read: female) trendy restaurant with an enormous dressed hog and “begins to carve out huge pink tenderloins with his chef’s knife,” Chef announces itself as a movie about masculinity, Charlotte Allen says.

“It’s about a man becoming a man.” All the big hearty slabs of meat on display are “alpha male food,” the kind of food men love to cook and eat.
Yes, there are plenty of scenes of Caspar carving up meat, slicing off hunks of it, whipping up inspired combinations of ingredients and sharing food, good times and near religious culinary reverie with male co-workers, his father-in-law, his son and even the movie’s antagonist, the male food writer who blasted him for his trendy LA restaurant inauthenticity. Caspar and his dudes get to scarf down food, chomp it loudly and smack their lips, with meat juices dripping off their fingers and the confectioner’s sugar from French Quarter beignets falling from their lips and chins.

Scarlett Johansson plays the hostess at the LA restaurant who has some kind of on-again, off-again flirtation/relationship with Favreau’s character. Vergara plays Caspar's rich ex-wife and mother of his adorable but neglected son. These two women strut into scenes, high heels clicking, cleavage heaving and smiling with a mix of exasperation but admiration and love. 

They also don’t eat – not much anyway. In a scene in a Cuban restaurant in Miami, Casper and his father-in-law go to town on the thick pulled pork and cheesy sandwiches; Caspar will adapt the recipe and sell it in his food truck. At that meal, Vergara sits by sweetly, picking at something on a plate that looks like a salad.

Once Casper gets his food truck up and running, and takes it to Miami, New Orleans and Austin, we get to see scenes of women – including women in bikinis – lining up at his truck to buy sandwiches. 

But in this film with so much pleasure in the rituals of preparing and eating food, there is really only one notable scene where a woman gets to put anything reaching basic-daily caloric requirements into her mouth. 

That’s in a scene where Caspar, iffy about having sex with Johannson’s hostess, stalls by whipping her up a beautiful bowl of pasta. (Incidentally, he uses a simple recipe that appears to incorporate olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and Italian parsley – a recipe I myself have made).

Johannson is seeing writhing on the sofa as she accepts the bowl and takes a taste. But let’s consider the serving size he slips to her. It looks like a delicate forkful, probably a portion that’s no more than a half cup. It's a sensible and potentially calorie-reducing portion, depending on Johansson's daily caloric intake. 

And there is nothing wrong with portion control, right? But the film doesn't show Favreau applying anything so self-denying as portion control to his male characters, notably Caspar who's headed into obesity territory. If his Caspar was making that pasta for himself, I bet it would be a case of noodles runneth over, a heaping two cups with layers of olive oil and freshly shaved Parmesan melting in.

And, even after Caspar gets dissed by the food critic for gaining weight, the chef shows no signs throughout the movie of thinking – like the rest of us – well, OK, maybe I should cut back for my health or so that I’ll be more physically attractive the significant others in my life. In his case, these are the hot restaurant hostess and the still hot ex-wife.

In fact, he continues to eat and cook and eat and stay overweight – all while rocketing to new heights of artistic and professional success. And, he gets his beautiful ex-wife back.

Nothing wrong with a movie showing that physical beauty and BMI are trivial compared with other human qualities like kindness and integrity. But I doubt that any  movie – or any movie in Favreau's limited world view – could imagine such a story for a female character. 

Instead, Favreau's Caspar – unlike a female character – suffers absolutely no consequences for being overweight and unattractive or in displaying no self-control about how much food he consumes. 

I saw Chef shortly after watching the now famous episode of Louis CK’s FX series, in which he picks apart his own reluctance to go out on a date with a pretty, funny, vivacious woman who happens to be overweight. The episode juxtaposes overweight Louis ducking her flirtations with him binge eating with a male friend, the two shoveling in so much food that’s it’s sickening. But shovel they do, vowing the entire time they’ll hit the gym, lose weight and get in shape after this final food spree.

But they’re guys, and being overweight and ugly – like Favreau’s Caspar – shouldn’t hurt them in the getting-laid department, especially if they are rich and successful.

Louis CK has been paired with various skinny, attractive women on his show, but in this episode he seems to show an awareness – lacking in Favreau’s Chef – of the double-standard in the entertainment world and in society when it comes to women, food and body size.

And in this world, average or even below-average looking dudes get to hook up with skinny-busty model-esque women. And these women have to stay model-esque skinny by not eating the Cuban sandwiches, slabs of barbecue or delicate beignets that Chef Carl Caspar wouldn't bother to put in front of them in the first place. 

July 30, 2014

What homeowners should know about PG&E's rights, responsibilities regarding your trees

So, our neighbors will be happy to learn that the tree service is coming Monday to remove a collapse Monterey Pine and its wild tangle of branches and pine needles from our yard Monday.  It will have been a month, the tree is drying out, and we're all worried about the firestorm that could erupt if someone drops a lit cigarette near the tree.

We'll pay the $3,200 it will cost to remove the tree. It's upsetting that we have to come up with the money. There's no word yet whether the homeowners insurance will cover it.  What's even more upsetting has been digging through PGE regulations and learning that the utility may, indeed, bear some responsibility for the tree's collapse. But it will take work, time and money on our part to fight the case.

In my last post, I relied on regulations regarding its Vegetation Management program to raise the question of whether PGE is responsible. As I said, its department is required by state law to maintain clearances around high-voltage power lines.

PG&E doesn't have to get your permission to remove or prune the tree; it will "make every effort to notify you" after its inspection staff identifies work that needs to be done on your property. The contractor PGE hires to do the work doesn't need your permission to come on your property to remove the tree, according to the Tree Pruning FAQs page. 

Since I wrote that post, I found more detailed regulations regarding PGE's vegetation management policy.

This policy is focused on removing trees, rather than pruning them, because removal offers a better likelihood for "safety, service reliability and cost effectiveness."

Reading this, I wish PGE had removed the tree, rather than just pruning. Its own policies say that "hazard trees" should be removed immediately, and quotes  California Forest Practice Rules, which define a "hazard tree" as one that could damage utility facilities should it fall "where 1) the tree leans ... or where 2) the tree is defective because of any cause, such as heart rot, shallow roots, excavation ... or any other reason that could result in the tree or a main lateral of the tree falling."

Neighbors told us the pruning work by PGE's contractor made the tree appear unstable, and likely to fall into our house, our neighbor's house, or even into the street above which the power line runs.

An arborist we've hired to remove the tree saw it shortly after the pruning work, and believed the job made the tree unstable.

Regulations say "techniques of modern arboriculture" should be used when pruning to direct regrowth away from power lines and minimize adverse effects to tree health. To what extent did PGE's work adversely affect the tree's health and put our homes and its own transmission lines at risk?