Watching Pandemics—in Film

(Additional updates on January 31, 2021)

One of the things we’re doing to pass the time is winding down the day with a “good” pandemic flick. So far, we’re only gotten through two. I’ll update this post as we get through more. Spoiler alert: I’ll be careful not to give too much away, but can’t guarantee a no-spoiler review.

First up was The Andromeda Strain (1971, IMDB score: 7.2). Two films and one miniseries have been based on this early novel by Michael Crichton, and this is generally considered the best of them. If nothing else, it’s the one that adheres closest to the book.

In today’s every-film-is-a-blockbuster world, one tends to forget that, due to technical, economic, and other constraints, films were often extremely poorly paced, chaotic, and somewhat boring. There’s almost no background score for the film, and what’s there is entirely forgettable. Though the sterile technique is relatively good in this, it’s far from perfect; science is only so-so. Performances are decent, and one item of note is that this is probably the last time in film that a supermodel prototype was not used for a female scientist. It also reminded us that people used to smoke.

Outbreak (1995, IMDB score: 6.6) Horrible sterile technique, mostly poor science (although some good basic virology) and an entire military branch that refuses to obey orders. Excellent makeup for disease effects. (Bonus: Ebola-type viruses cause one’s hair to lose its curl as the disease progresses. Who knew?) Dustin Hoffman and cast provide credible performances while behaving incredibly, although the basic scenario is plausible. There’s a conspiracy-driven sub plot that doesn’t quite fit. Hoffman seems schizoid when it comes to protecting the world from an Ebola-type outbreak. He’s determined to cure it, but becomes positively reckless in his investigation.

We then tackled The Hot Zone, a National Geographic miniseries based on Richard Preston’s excellent account of the same name. (2019, IMDB score: 7.3). This was an only-moderately dramatized version of real events, with which I was familiar from reading Preston’s book. This scored extremely well on the science, and captures the horror of viral hemorrhagic fevers. The world can be very grateful that this strain only affected monkeys.

(Updated on January 31, 2021.) It took us a while, but we finally returned to another pandemic film: Contagion (2011, IMDB score: 6.7). This film deals with a global pandemic of a mutated zoonotic virus with a rapid, 25% mortality rate and an R0 of 4, a true “doomsday scenario.” What’s impressive is how much of the societal effects this film gets right, as we now have a case study of a pandemic with a mostly low but widely varied mortality rate (highly affected by age) and an R0 that ranges from 1.4 to 3.9 (according to Medscape). There are food shortages and hoarding, social media propagators of disinformation, and a CDC sometimes hamstrung by politics. The scenes of empty stores, shopping malls, and gyms were particularly poignant. The precautions taken by scientists are sound, and feel very real, and the science is pretty good, if slightly vague, until the end, where a single act becomes a deus ex machina. Our own experiences have made this film seem far more authentic than we would have realized; I don’t think we would have appreciated it as much in 2011.

Mom’s Official (Boring) Obituary

(Read the better one, here: “90 Years in 900-ish Words“)

Rachel "Addie" Wilcox, September 5, 1926 to July 26, 2017
Rachel “Addie” Wilcox, September 5, 1926 to July 26, 2017

Wilcox, Rachel A. 90 of Beverly Hills, Fl. entered into rest on July 26, 2017. Rachel was born on September 5, 1926 in New Bedford, Ma the daughter of Joseph Sampson and Rachel Chace Sampson.

She married Paul John Wilcox on April 1, 1945. In addition to raising their own children, she fostered numerous infants. They moved to Beverly Hills, Fl. in 1986. They spent the first years of their retirement helping build Heritage Baptist Church. Paul Wilcox died in December 2003. In
June of 2007, she married George Fortini, her next door neighbor and they had four and a half wonderful years together.

Rachel leaves behind her loving family 4 daughters Frances and her husband Chet Matheson of Waxhaw, NC, Cynthia Roberts of Huntington, MA, Joyce Thorne of Bridgewater, MA and Martha and her husband Richard Gracia of Raynham, MA, 3 sons Douglas Wilcox and his wife Sarah of Nashua, NH, Paul Wilcox of Homosassa and Aaron Wilcox of Inverness, 13 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. She was a light of Christian faith shining in a dark world.

Friends are asked to visit at the Wilder Funeral Home 4890 South Suncoast Blvd, Homosassa, Fl. 34446 on Saturday July 29, 2017 from 12:00 to 1:00 PM. A celebration of life service will be held at 1:00 PM at the funeral home. Interment will be at Fountains Memorial Gardens, Homosassa.
In lieu of flowers memorial donations may be made to Hospice of Citrus and the Nature Coast P.O. Box 641270 Beverly Hills, Fl. 34464 or Cornerstone Baptist Church, Hills Campus 2 Civic Circle, Beverly Hills, Fl. 34465 or Precious Paws Rescue, Inc. 7358 S. Florida Ave, Floral City, Fl. 34436.

Arrangements are under the direction of Wilder Funeral Home, Homosassa, Fl.

Published in Citrus County Chronicle on July 28, 2017.

Racism: Things Really Have Changed

Racism has always shocked me. When I was 7 I was astounded to hear a neighbor declare, “Randy’s father doesn’t like black people.” I can’t remember how old I was before I understood what the “N word” employed as a quotation in a comic book adaptation of The Cross and the Switchblade meant, because I had never heard the word. In my family, thanks to my parents, racism simply wasn’t employed, ever.

One of the things I am proud of with my own children is that they don’t “get” racism. I tried watching one of the few sports films I like—Remember the Titans—with them a few years ago, and it was meaningless. The main point of the drama’s racial tension went completely over their heads, as they had no context for it.

It is very rare now for racism to intrude on my life, and it still surprises me. In Florida, I overheard someone claim that a recent increase in drug problems in the local area were all due to blacks. I laughed, though, when, the next morning, a photo of the two major drug dealers in the town was on the front page after a sting operation had gone down: They were both most certainly Caucasian.

Over time, though, with so few reminders of our country’s very racist past, I’ve tended to minimize it, much like Louis CK explains in his appearance with Jay Leno.

Then I read this week’s “Honorary Unsubscribe” in the “This Is True” newsletter to which I subscribe. It tells the story of Lee Lorch, who passed away last week. Give it a read.

Due to his stand for equality, Lorch, a Jewish mathematician:

  • He was fired from his teaching position at City College of New York
  • He was fired from Pennsylvania State University
  • While at Fisk University (a historically black school), he argued (but failed) to prevent a meeting of the Mathematical Association of America from being, as per policy, “Whites only”
  • He was ordered to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he directly denied being a Communist, and then refused to answer questions about his politics, citing the First (not Fifth) Amendment to the Constitution. This got him indicted, and tried (but acquitted) for contempt of Congress, and then fired from Fisk.
  • While at a Black College in Little Rock, he and his wife volunteered to help escort the Little Rock Nine to school, earning them numerous death threats, and leading them to move to Canada.

This is greatness. Not winning an Oscar, not being elected to office, not amassing wealth …

May I be so determined to fight, and live, for what is right.

9/11: An Eyewitness Account

Originally published on September 11, 2003. Republishing for the 10th anniversary of this terrible, world-changing event.

Personal background: Michael Frenchman is my “not-father” (an interesting title that I coined with a history of accusation, assumption, adoption, and eventual DNA test), a dear-but-distant friend to our family, and a videographer/producer/diver/etc. He and his wife, Karen, reside on West 27th Street, in New York City. Coincidence brought him very close to the tragedy, and his well-written perspective goes well beyond the sound bites we (especially today) are accustomed to hearing from NYC residents.

From: Michael Frenchman
Sent: Thursday, September 13, 2001 13:23
Subject: Where were you…

Sorry to have been out of touch in the last few days. We still can’t get long distance service and even email is sporadic.

Karen and I arose early on Tuesday morning, preparing to drive to the Staten Island car-ferry and another day working on our rental apartments there. We were running late and began to think we would miss the 8:45 boat. Our best route was straight down 7th Ave. to Vesey St. and then right a block to take the West Side Highway a few blocks further downtown to the ferry entrance at South Ferry. I suppose we turned onto Vesey Street at about 8:44 and onto the West Side Hwy at about 8:45. That corner is the northern base of the World Trade Center. We had the radio on. As we pulled into the ferry area, I heard one brief report that there had been an explosion at the WTC. Looking nearly straight up, we saw smoke and clouds of paper flying towards the east, to Brooklyn.

As soon as our car was loaded on board the ferry, we scrambled to the rear upper deck and watched in amazement as nasty gray-white smoke poured from the northwestern tower looming above us. Someone said they’d just heard that a twin-engine plane had hit the tower. Karen thought it might have been an accident—a small-plane pilot having a heart attack or some such and losing control. But I was convinced it was a deliberate act, by whom, I could only begin to guess.

A few other passengers joined us on that rear deck as the ferry pulled away from the terminal. The skies were crystal clear and blue. A foreign couple gazed in shocked amazement and tried to get a better look through the 25-cent binoculars. They offered us a peek. But the unaided view was clear enough from our close south side vantagepoint. We could see numerous plumes of smoke and tongues of flame pouring from broken out windows. We could not, of course, see the huge and gaping diagonal slash on the opposite north side of the building where the first plane had hit.

The ferry was perhaps a half-mile from the towers when we saw a silver and blue two-engine jetliner flying unusually low and slow up the harbor in-between us and the Statue of Liberty, passing less than a thousand feet to the west of our boat. People who often land at LaGuardia Airport know that the pilots frequently treat the passengers to a run up the Hudson River for a spectacular view of the city. The sentence was only half formed in my mind that the pilot of this jet must have been trying to see and show what was going on at the Trade Center when the actual trajectory of his course became frighteningly clear. As the plane banked slightly to its right, I said aloud “He’s going to hit it!” We stood fixed in horror for the 5 to 10 seconds it took for my prediction to be realized. Set against a perfectly clear and blue sky, our reality transformed into a wide screen movie as each frame presented a new millisecond of action: the jet angling for its final alignment, the glide of the now-irrevocable projectile, the counterclockwise-tilted plane disappearing into the building, a fractional moment of black gashed wall instantanously billowing out one-two-three conjoined black and orange balls of fire and debris, the slap of thunder three or four seconds after the impact.

“We’re under attack,” I said twice.

We watched as long as we could from the open deck until two police officers on board ushered everyone inside, I don’t know why except for some irrational and false sense of control in the midst of the surreal. We watched through the windows as all the other passengers gathered, some crying, some staring in disbelief, some talking excitedly on cell phones, many still all but oblivious to the event and unwitting as to it’s meaning. Karen and I touched the arm of a nearly frantic woman crying on her cell phone as if she were in communication with someone in the doomed buildings. There was nothing for us to say or comprehend.

Once off the ferry, we drove half wild to our apartments and sat with one of our tenants to watch the terrible drama unfold on TV just like the rest of the world. We are now somewhat like those hundreds of people who were in Daley Plaza in Dallas and had a glimpse of the Kennedy motorcade and those awful moments and who then watched that eternal frame replayed and replayed for the past forty years. Our actual memory: the sights, the unwarned, unformed reactions, the smells of the harbor, the brush of the breeze, the heat of the early morning sun, the murmur of the other passengers, the rumble of the ferry engines, the hand of Karen in mine, the raw surprise as the world tipped on a new and unexpected pathway. All this will now blend and merge into the TV images of others’ amateur video, of traffic-helicopter cameras and sky cams on network TV buildings uptown.

I remember that in the plaza in front of where the towers stood was/is a sculpture depicting two pyramids—an allusion to the notion that these structures would last as long as their antecedents at Giza. Like you, we watched them melt to the ground and blow like so much desert dust.

So that is where I was and what I saw on one of those days which we will all always remember. “Where were you when ….?”

Karen and I spent the rest of Tuesday alternating between the TV and our chores at the apartment. What else could we do? We spent the night with friends on Staten Island, obviously unable to return to a besieged and cut-off Manhattan.

By late afternoon yesterday (Weds.), enough access had opened into the City that we were able to wend our way across the Verrazano Bridge, up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, past the prohibited Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridge entrances, onto the Long Island Expressway, past the “show your driver’s license” check point at the Midtown Tunnel and back into a quiet and subdued city. We have traveled a lot this summer. No time away has seemed as long as these 36 hours.

Thanks to everyone who called to see how we were. We were never in any real danger except during the moments we were driving below the base of the now-disappeared twin towers. We’ll never know what flaming debris may have fallen to the street yards behind our passing car. But our personal story is so many orders of magnitude less significant than that of the thousands dead and injured and directly traumatized and so picayune compared to the onrushing and unpredictable consequences of this ugly act that I even hesitate to retell it.

We hope you are all well and that some good ultimately comes out of this tragedy.

Love and peace,
Michael and Karen

Santa’s Dirty Secret: An Analysis of How Santa Really Supports His Operation


Theories abound about how he finances and operates his North Pole operation.

A number of people believe Santa is a Communist. Others believe that Santa’s elves are slave laborers being exploited by the big red taskmaster.

Neither of these theories stands up to examination. The suggestion of Communism is just silly. We know from certain documentaries that Santa’s operation runs all year; that the elves who manufacture the toys are unionized and follow an apprenticeship-to-mastery program. It seems that the elves are humanoid enough to expect reasonable compensation for their work. Further, even if the elves were enslaved, vast quantities of materials and significant manufacturing infrastructure would need to be paid for. It is estimated that the retail value of Santa’s products is over $23 billion in the U.S. alone.

So how does Santa finance this massive operation?

Let’s take a look at two things we know about Santa’s abilities: (1) He can travel virtually instantaneously (650 miles per second) anywhere in the world; (2) he can enter any building, no matter how secure, with complete impunity.

Given these abilities, isn’t it more reasonable to conclude that Santa is, indeed, using them all year? He needs a vast quantity of cash to pay the elves, purchase raw materials, cover utilities, finance his public relations and legal departments, and upgrade manufacturing capabilities each year. Bearer bonds, gold bullion, gems, and good old Greenbacks and Euros are easily gathered by one with his abilities.

In a vicious cycle, our dear Santa “Sticky Fingers” Claus spends the year financing his operation via ill-gotten gains. Psychologically, this has to take its toll—Santa is certainly not a psychopathic personality, but he each December 25 he can assuage his guilt by delivering free toys and materialistic joy the world over.

Tangential factors further support this theory. We note that these toy deliveries appear to be unequally distributed throughout the planet, with the children of First World countries receiving far more than their fair share. Would it not be reasonable for Santa to compensate the children in wealthier countries more than elsewhere in regard to the unequal drain he would have had on their particular, more wealthy, economies?

And think about the infamous “naughty list.” Is there any evidence for anyone, no matter how naughty, ever being denied a gift from Santa? Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Kenneth Lay, Michael Jackson, Kim Jong Il, or the children for whom the “Parents, there is no candy in this aisle,” supermarket program was developed … Santa never delivers the threatened coal.

Like most people given super powers, Santa could not resist the temptation to use them for doing wrong. In time, the need to compensate for that wrongdoing led to the gift distribution system we enjoy today. And, the day after Christmas, the cycle begins again.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus … and he’s a thief.

Videos of Note: Perspectives

Okay, I’m being lazy today … so much I ought to write about, but I’ll just post “‘Me, too!’ like some brain-dead AOL-er.”

Perspective via a sort of palindrome. (Brought to my attention by Paul Weston.)

Homeschoolers versus the Home-Schooled.

The Known Universe: In Persepctive.

Wanted: 597 Ghanian Cedis ($409)

Originally Posted on August 31, 2009:

Quite some time ago, I started corresponding electronically with a young man in Tamale, Ghana, who wanted to expand his horizons and get to know people from around the world. This was possible via a computer center that the local embassy provides.

A high school graduate with decent grades, Amin desperately wanted to attend university. However, financially, this was out of the question for his family. A less attractive but still reasonable option was the Tamale Polytechnic school. Several months after we’d started communicating, he asked if I could help pay the tuition for the polytechnic, which costs about $650 for the three-year program. Tuition has to be paid up front.

Amin Issah, Ghana
Amin Issah, Ghana

There are a couple of things to bear in mind here: Americans have the reputation for being extremely wealthy the world over. In Mexico, for example, we are often stereotyped as having montañas de oro (mountains of gold). The other thing to remember is that Ghana is well known as one of the centers of internet fraud, especially so called “friendship” scams. I did a lot of investigation to see if everything was on the up-and-up, which is difficult in a developing country. I quickly came to learn how much I depend on the Internet for verifying just about everything, and this was impossible for much of Ghana’s infrastructure. I even called to see if I could pay the school directly, and it cannot be done.

But, other than due diligence, I had no reason to distrust Amin, and his work for the past six months has completely borne out my trust. I also felt this would be a good way to show the love of Christ in an unexpected and unanticipated way.sowever, I simply couldn’t afford to help him out completely. But he did have an uncle who was willing to foot half the bill, and I had some extra cash I could put into the second half. Amin has completed one semester at T’Poly, as it’s sometimes called, and managed to get all As and Bs. (I told him I expected As next semester.) Partway through I sent enough cash to cover a bicycle so he could get to the school and back for early classes (hitchhiking was unreliable, and the school is about 20km from his house). However, his grades were good enough for him to get chosen for a short, special field program in Navrongo, about 5 hours away by bus.

View Larger Map

His work in the field program was evaluated well enough, and he has been offered an entry into the Land Management and Real Estate baccalaureate program at the University for Development Studies in Tamale.

To do this, he needs 597 GHC (Ghanian Cedis), about $409 by September 1. This isn’t that much money, except when compared to what I actually have at the moment.

Until now, I haven’t even told people about this unusual missions project, opting to see quietly and unobtrusively how God would work. Now I believe it is time to project this to a larger audience, who also might be able to help.

Update (September 3, 2009):

I was finally able to get through by phone to the University office in Tamale … and they confirmed that Amin was on the acceptance list as a Freshman student in the program. (I already had scans of his acceptance letter, so this was just a formality.)

I’ve received a couple of generous donations from our at-work small group Bible study that helped immensely with the money I sent to Amin mid-day yesterday. Ghana is on GMT, so it was nearly closing time when he got to the bank. There were many students there trying to do the same thing … so he was able to get the Western Union transfer and have the bank keep it to avoid carrying around such a large sum of money, but he wasn’t able to pay his tuition until this morning.

Payment Receipt for Amin's Tuition

Amin wanted me to pass this along to you all: GOD help them tooo when they in a bondage like how i was and u all came together and resqued me through the powers of GOD. (His spelling is usually excellent; he obviously in a hurry.)

Amin leaves on Saturday to take up residence at the university in the city of Wa. He’ll complete the on-site admissions process on Monday. After that, he will need to pay his residence fees and medical fees, about another $175.

He is very excited and very grateful for our help.

I am grateful as well—the contributions made so far are a big difference for me. (Of course, I’ll be happy to accept further donations.)

You Can’t Touch This

This comes from deacon Greg Jones …

Darth Vader: World's Greatest Dad
And ol’ Gungan buddy Mark Sohmer let me know about this gem today. Head over to and pick up one. (Better yet, send one to me.)