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Stephen Pletko "Uncle Stevie" (London, Ontario, Canada)
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Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
DVD ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
Price: CDN$ 29.97
26 used & new from CDN$ 29.97

5.0 out of 5 stars "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Come with me...", April 25 2015
This review is from: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (DVD)
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"This [scientific] adventure is made possible by generations of searchers [who] strictly adhered to a simple set of rules:

[1] Test ideas by experiment and observation.
[2] Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail.
[3] Follow the evidence wherever it leads.
[4] Question everything.

Accept these [rules] and the cosmos [meaning `universe'] is yours."

The above is said by the host of this outstanding science documentary series, an update and follow-up to the 1980 original television series (entitled "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage") that was co-written by and hosted by astrophysicist, astrobiologist, astronomer, cosmologist Carl Sagan (1934 to 1996) on PBS and considered a milestone for science documentaries. (The words that title this review were said by Sagan at the beginning of the original series and are again said by him at the beginning of this updated series.)

This updated series was written by Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow and astrophysicist Steven Soter. (These two also helped Sagan write the original series.)

It is hosted by astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson who, as a 17-year old student, met for a day and was inspired by Sagan. (What a role model for the young Tyson!!)

Among this new series' executive producers are the multi-talented Seth MacFarlane whose financial investment was instrumental in bringing this show to television.

This series loosely follows the same 13-episode format and storytelling approach that the original series used, including the "Ship of the Imagination" and the "Cosmic Calender," but features information updated since the 1980 original series along with extensive and mesmerizing computer generated graphics and animation footage as well as fantastic background music augmenting Tyson's excellent narration.

Some of the voice actors for the animated characters include Seth MacFarlane, Kirsten Dunst, Cary Elwes, Richard Gere, Marlee Matlin, and Star Trek's Patrick Stewart.

Each of the four discs of this series has an extra. My favourite: "Celebrating Carl Sagan."

I enjoyed this new series immensely. It was through the extras that I learned about Anne Druyan, Neil Tyson, and Seth MacFarlane. I think, if Carl Sagan were still alive, he would have been quite impressed by his wife and the once 17-year-old student that looked up to him. Personally, I was deeply impressed by Seth MacFarlane who was only 7-years old when the original series was televised. I think Carl Sagan would have regarded MacFarlane as a good friend and science visionary considering his immense contributions to the series.

Finally, potential viewers be forewarned! This science documentary contains no hocus pocus, abracadabra, or the supernatural. It contains only evidence-based and observational science--science at its best.

In conclusion, this is an updated series of the original "Cosmos" series that was presented by the great science communicator Carl Sagan. I leave you with five simple rules that are presented at the end of this updated series and what every critically-thinking person should remember:

(1) Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so
(2) Think for yourself. Question yourself
(3) Don't believe anything just because you want too. Believing something doesn't make it so
(4) Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favourite idea fails a well-designed test, it's wrong.
(5) Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgement. Remember you could be wrong.

(2014; 580 min or 9hr 40 min; 13 episodes on 4 discs; wide screen)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation
by Bill Nye
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
45 used & new from CDN$ 16.64

4.0 out of 5 stars Evolution: an essential way to understand how nature works!!, April 18 2015
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"Creationism strikes me as an astonishing waste of time and energy. I would love to be able to ignore it and focus on the real science, but creationists work very hard to disrupt science education and force their weird worldview on our students.

So let's make the best of an unfortunate situation, and use the creationist attacks as a learning opportunity...

[When it comes to attacks on evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin], please: think BIG, and think CRITICALLY."

The above comes from this well-written book by Bill Nye. It was inspired by a debate that Nye had with creationist Ken Ham in February 2014.

Nye is an engineer, science educator, comedian, and inventor. He obtained his science degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University where he studied under the great Carl Sagan. He created and hosted the Emmy award-winning PBS/Discovery Channel show "Bill Nye, the Science Guy." Nye holds six Honorary Doctorate degrees.

For a book that explains evolution, this book is remarkably easy to read. As you would expect from Bill Nye, it is quite funny in spots. The science is well-explained. Even some essential history is included.

Creationism is mentioned only when it contradicts established evidence and facts.

This book explains such things as:

(1) Deep time
(2) Biodiversity
(3) Fossils
(4) Mass extinction
(5) Microevolution (change within a species) and macroevolution (new species formation)
(6) Altruism
(7) Genetically Modified Foods
(8) Human cloning (not cool)
(9) Race (why it really doesn't exist)
(10) The new search for alien life (including aliens right here on our planet)

Finally, the only problem I had with this book is that it has no notes and/or references. Nye does tell the reader in his acknowledgements section that he had a "fact checker" for parts of this book. However, I felt, for a book of this type, that notes and references are imperative.

In conclusion, Bill Nye empowers the reader to see the natural world as it is, not as some would wish it to be!!

(First published 2014; 37 "bite-size" chapters; main narrative 295 pages; acknowledgements; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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Scarface
Scarface
DVD ~ Paul Muni
Price: CDN$ 14.99
24 used & new from CDN$ 8.88

5.0 out of 5 stars The granddaddy of gangster movies, April 13 2015
This review is from: Scarface (DVD)
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"This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and liberty.

Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government:

`What are you going to do about it?'"

The above is printed on the screen at the beginning of this realistic movie based on Armitage Trail's 1929 novel "Scarface."

This movie is loosely based on the life of Al Capone (1899 to 1947) whose nickname was "Scarface." It was filmed during the "pre-code" era before censorship (even though there was attempted censorship that delayed this movie's release by almost a year.)

It stars Paul Muni (1895 to 1967) who gives an electrifying performance as well as George Raft (1901 to 1980). (This movie launched Raft's career as a leading man.) Even horror icon Boris Karloff (1887 to 1969) has a small role.

It was produced by billionaire Howard Hughes Jr. and the legendary Howard Hawks (who also directed).

The first Howard Hughes movie I ever saw was "Hell's Angels." I was surprisingly impressed by this movie and equally impressed by `Scarface."

Note that a version of the "St. Valentine's day massacre" (1929) is also shown in this movie.

Note also that an "X" motif is used throughout this film. It appears many times (but not all) when a death is portrayed.

In 1994, this movie was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

There are no blemishes or other distracted artifacts onscreen. In fact, this movie probably appears better than when it was first filmed!

Finally, the DVD itself (the one released in 2007) has two extras: an introduction and an alternate ending.

In conclusion, this movie is truly a ground breaking masterpiece that influenced all gangster films to follow!!

(1932; 90 min; full screen; black and white)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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The Mystery of Agatha Christie with David Suchet
The Mystery of Agatha Christie with David Suchet
Price: CDN$ 23.81
25 used & new from CDN$ 15.73

5.0 out of 5 stars So you think you know all about the bestselling murder mystery writer in history?? Think again!!, April 6 2015
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QUESTION: Who wrote this poem?

"There was once a little cowslip,
And a pretty flower, too,
But yet she cried and fretted,
All for a robe of blue,
Now a merry little fairy
Who loved a trick too play
Just changed into a nightshade
That flower without delay,
The silly little nightshade
Thought her life a dream of bliss
Yet she wondered why the butterfly
Came not to give his kiss."

ANSWER: Agatha Christie (nee Miller), age 10.

Yes, the subject of this extraordinary documentary is the "Queen of Crime" herself, Agatha Christie.

It is Hercule Poirot himself that guides us in unravelling Christie's life. Well, not quite. Actually, it is the actor who magnificently portrayed the Belgian detective, one of Christie's greatest literary creations, who guides us on our journey. And that actor is David Suchet (pronounced "Sue-shay").

In Suchet's own words:

"Hercule Poirot. I know this man. Agatha Christie's famous creation. I know him so well, I could take him shopping. But how well do I, David Suchet, know Poirot's creator?"

Suchet, just like his alter ego, does some great detective work. Some highlights of this documentary include seeing Christie's home movies, her early works (such as the poem reproduced above), talking with her biographer, hearing Christie's actual voice, seeing black and white photos, talking with historians, and viewing old newspaper articles concerning Christie.

Finally, there is one glaring error made. Suchet tells us that Christie was born in 1819. No. She was born in 1890.

In conclusion, this documentary is a treat for Agatha Christie fans. David Suchet explores the close links between Christie's fascinating life & her work and discovers just what it is about this woman that allowed her to become the bestselling murder mystery writer in history!!

(2013; 55 min, 30 sec excluding end credits; 7 chapters; wide screen; PBS)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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Phantom Of The Opera
Phantom Of The Opera
by Gaston Leroux
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.28
72 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Do you know the REAL story of the Phantom of the Opera??, March 29 2015
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(Note that this review is for the Harper-Perennial Library edition or mass market paperback)

"He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame. His eyes are so deep that he can that you can hardly see his fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man's skull.

His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can't see it side-face, and the absence of that nose is a horrible thing to look at.

All the hair he has is three or four long dark locks on his forehead and between his ears."

The above comes from the beginning of the first chapter of this mesmerizing novel by French writer Gaston Leroux (1868 to 1927). The above is an actual description of the "opera ghost," more commonly known as the "phantom of the opera."

This story was first published as a serialisation in a French daily newspaper in France from September 1909 to January 1910.

The genre of this novel is gothic. (That is, it combines fiction, horror, and Romanticism.) Its subjects are a unique combination of romance and mystery.

This story is a haunting and enduring tale that has fascinated readers for more than a century. Set in the Paris Opera House of 1881, it is a powerful story that pits the powers of:

(1) Evil and good
(2) Reality and illusion
(3) Sensuality and death.

Finally, the most notable performances based on this novel are the realistic 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney and the sanitized 1986 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In conclusion, this novel presents the wildest and most fantastic of tales, a tale that has endured for over a hundred years!!

(First published in English 1911; this Perennial Library edition published 1987; prologue; 26 chapters; epilogue; main narrative 350 pages; the Paris Opera House)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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Corner Gas: Season One
Corner Gas: Season One
DVD ~ Various
Offered by Supermart_DVD
Price: CDN$ 15.54
8 used & new from CDN$ 14.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Be sure to watch this comedy series, you jackass!!, March 21 2015
This review is from: Corner Gas: Season One (DVD)
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This is a Canadian T.V. sitcom created by Canadian comedian Brent Butt (Yes! That's his real name). The series ran for six seasons from Jan 22, 2004 to April 13, 2009 for a total of 107 episodes.

Deriving its name from the roadside gas station in the fictional small (very small!) town of Dog River, Saskatchewan, Canada, "Corner Gas" is the only gas station within 37 miles (60 km) in any direction.

The characters of this small town are quirky:

Brent Leroy (Brent Butt) is the proprietor of the gas station. His parents, Oscar (Eric Peterson) whose favorite word is "jackass" and Emma (Janet Wright) are life-time residents of Dog River.

Wanda Dollard (Nancy Robertson) works at the station's convenience store as a retail assistant.

An adjoining cafe, "The Ruby", is owned by Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller), who inherited it from her Aunt Ruby.

Dog River's Police Department (the "DRPD") consists entirely of veteran Davis Quinton (Lorne Cardinal) and rookie Karen Pelly (Tara Spencer-Nairn).

Brent's best friend, the perpetually unemployed Hank Yarbo (Fred Ewanuick), spends his time hanging out with Dog River residents or drinking coffee at the Ruby.

A number of notable Canadian celebrities and politicians appear as guest stars or have cameo roles in many episodes.

Most of the episodes are stand-alone and can be viewed in any order.

This very funny show, which was filmed entirely in Saskatchewan, became an instant hit, averaging a million viewers per episode. In Saskatchewan, April 13 is known as "Corner Gas Day." This show is presently televised in 26 countries.

I found that season one of Corner Gas retained its quirky characters and that all episodes retained the humour I've come to expect. In fact, most episodes are hilarious. The infamous politician Pamela Wallin has a small role in one of the episodes. (She wasn't infamous when this episode was broadcast.)

Finally, there are four extras with this DVD set (released in 2004): (1) cast biographies (2) show promos (3) behind the scenes (4) bloopers. As well, three of the episodes have commentaries, if desired.

In conclusion, the first season of the hit comedy "Corner Gas" presents episodes in the life of a small town where there's "not a lot goin' on."

Warning!! Once you become addicted to this series, you officially become a "Butt head."

(2004; 13 episodes on 2 discs; 22 min per episode; total time: 286 min or 4 hrs, 45 min; full screen)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London. Ontario, Canada>>

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Corner Gas: Season 6
Corner Gas: Season 6
DVD ~ Brent Butt
Price: CDN$ 19.99
24 used & new from CDN$ 16.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Be sure to watch this comedy series you jackass!!, March 14 2015
This review is from: Corner Gas: Season 6 (DVD)
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This is a Canadian T.V. sitcom created by Canadian comedian Brent Butt (Yes! That's his real name). The series ran for six seasons from Jan 22, 2004 to April 13, 2009 for a total of 107 episodes.

Deriving its name from the roadside gas station in the fictional small (very small!) town of Dog River, Saskatchewan, Canada, "Corner Gas" is the only gas station within 37 miles (60 km) in any direction.

The characters of this small town are quirky:

Brent Leroy (Brent Butt) is the proprietor of the gas station. His parents, Oscar (Eric Peterson) whose favorite word is "jackass" and Emma (Janet Wright) are life-time residents of Dog River.

Wanda Dollard (Nancy Robertson) works at the station's convenience store as a retail assistant.

An adjoining cafe, "The Ruby", is owned by Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller), who inherited it from her Aunt Ruby.

Dog River's Police Department (the "DRPD") consists entirely of veteran Davis Quinton (Lorne Cardinal) and rookie Karen Pelly (Tara Spencer-Nairn).

Brent's best friend, the perpetually unemployed Hank Yarbo (Fred Ewanuick) spends his time hanging out with Dog River residents or drinking coffee at the Ruby.

A number of notable Canadian celebrities and politicians appear as guest stars or have cameo roles in many episodes.

Most of the episodes are stand-alone and can be viewed in any order.

This very funny show, which was filmed entirely in Saskatchewan, became an instant hit, averaging a million viewers per episode. In Saskatchewan, April 13 is known as "Corner Gas Day." This show is presently televised in 26 countries.

I found that season six (the last season) of Corner Gas retained its quirky characters and all episodes retained the humour I've come to expect. Michael Buble has a small role in one of the episodes.

Finally, there are four extras with this DVD set (released in 2009): (1) final episode read-through (2) CTV special: it's been a gas (3) cast interviews (4) Craig Northey on the exceptional music. These are quite good.

In conclusion, the sixth season of the hit comedy "Corner Gas" presents more episodes in the life of a small town where there's "not a lot goin' on."

Warning!! Once you become addicted to this series, you officially become a "Butt head."

(2008-2009; 19 episodes on 3 discs; 22 min per episode; total time: 418 min or almost 7 hrs; wide screen)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London. Ontario, Canada>>

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Corner Gas: Season 4
Corner Gas: Season 4
DVD ~ Brent Butt
Price: CDN$ 17.64
24 used & new from CDN$ 13.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Be sure to watch this comedy series you jackass!, March 8 2015
This review is from: Corner Gas: Season 4 (DVD)
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This is a Canadian T.V. sitcom created by Canadian comedian Brent Butt (Yes! That's his real name). The series ran for six seasons from Jan 22, 2004 to April 13, 2009 for a total of 107 episodes.

Deriving its name from the roadside gas station in the fictional small (very small!) town of Dog River, Saskatchewan, Canada, "Corner Gas" is the only gas station within 37 miles (60 km) in any direction.

The characters of this small town are quirky:

Brent Leroy (Brent Butt) is the proprietor of the gas station. His parents, Oscar (Eric Peterson) whose favorite word is "jackass" and Emma (Janet Wright) are life-time residents of Dog River.

Wanda Dollard (Nancy Robertson) works at the station's convenience store as a retail assistant.

An adjoining cafe, The Ruby, is owned by Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller), who inherited it from her Aunt Ruby.

Dog River's Police Department (the "DRPD") consists entirely of veteran Davis Quinton (Lorne Cardinal) and rookie Karen Pelly (Tara Spencer-Nairn).

Brent's best friend, the perpetually unemployed Hank Yarbo (Fred Ewanuick) spends his time hanging out with Dog River residents or drinking coffee at the Ruby.

A number of notable Canadian celebrities and politicians appear as guest stars or have cameo roles in many episodes.

Most of the episodes are stand-alone and can be viewed in any order.

This very funny show, which was filmed entirely in Saskatchewan, became an instant hit, averaging a million viewers per episode. In Saskatchewan, April 13 is known as "Corner Gas Day." This show is presently televised in 26 countries.

I found that season four of Corner Gas retained its quirky characters but some episodes did not retain the humour I've come to expect. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a cameo in the very last episode of this season.

Finally there are two extras with this DVD set (released in 2007): (1) bloopers (2) "mobisodes." These are quite good.

In conclusion, the fourth season of the hit comedy "Corner Gas" presents more episodes in the life of a small town where there's "not a lot goin' on."

Warning!! Once you become addicted to this series, you officially become a "Butt head."

(2006-2007; 19 episodes on 3 discs; 22 min per episode; total time: 418 min or almost 7 hrs; wide screen)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London. Ontario, Canada>>

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Being Mortal
Being Mortal
by Atul Gawande
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 16.47
3 used & new from CDN$ 16.47

5.0 out of 5 stars "Only now did I begin to recognize how understanding the finitude of one's time could be a gift", Feb. 28 2015
This review is from: Being Mortal (Hardcover)
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"I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn't one of them...

This is a book about the modern experience of mortality--about what it's like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn't, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong. As I pass a decade in surgical practice and become middle-aged myself, I find that neither I nor my patients find our current state tolerable...

You don't have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help.

The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver's chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions--nursing homes and intensive care units--where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all things that matter to us in life...

Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.

I wrote this book in the hope of understanding what has happened...And [seeing] if there are better approaches."

The above comes from the introduction of this extremely well-written book by Atul Gawande. He is a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston as well as a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. Gawande has written three bestselling books and has won numerous awards for his writing.

This book is a personal meditation on how we can better live with age-related frailty, serious illness, and approaching death. It is also a call for a change in the philosophy of health care.

In the first part of this book, Gawande offers different models of senior living. In the latter part, which is shorter, he shifts rather abruptly to end-of-life medicine.

To get his points across, Gawande has plenty of absorbing and riveting true stories of his own patients. He also includes stories from his own family. I found his father's brave battle with his illness particularly engaging (and I can imagine that it was extremely difficult to write).

Finally, the only problem I had with this book is that it has no index. True this book is made up of true stories so perhaps it does not warrant an index. However, within the stories, are valuable pieces of information. This important information is not easy to access without an index.

In conclusion, this book is riveting, honest, humane, and I feel a valuable contribution to the growing literature on aging, dying, and death. It makes clear that the ultimate goal is not a good death but rather a good life--all the way to the very end.

(First published 2014; introduction; 8 chapters; epilogue; main narrative 265 pages; notes on sources; acknowledgements; about the author)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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Nova: Vaccines - Calling the Shots [Import]
Nova: Vaccines - Calling the Shots [Import]
Price: CDN$ 31.16
21 used & new from CDN$ 17.83

5.0 out of 5 stars Are vaccines safe and effective? You decide!!, Feb. 22 2015
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"Our lives are linked as never before, connected every day in a thousand unseen ways. But sometimes these connections can pose an invisible threat if the object we touch or the air we share carries a dangerous germ.

Diseases largely unseen for a generation are returning. Today, children are getting sick and dying from preventable diseases as nervous parents skip their children's shots. In a world of often conflicting information, parents are seeking what's best for their families while doctors worry about saving lives."

The above comes from the introduction of this exceptionally informative documentary.

The chapters for this program are:

(1) The invisible threat
(2) Measles outbreak
(3) History of vaccines
(4) Herd immunity
(5) Dravet syndrome
(6) Polio
(7) Science of autism
(8) HPV (human papilloma virus)
(9) Weighing risk

This documentary does a good job of explaining the science behind vaccines--why they work, how they work, and how we decide to vaccinate or not. What intrigued me is that it also examines the risks of vaccines and how they are blamed for causing harm when there's no scientific proof.

Brief comments are made by experts, parents, and even those seriously affected by vaccines. The experts come from such institutions as

(1) The Royal Children's Hospital
(2) New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
(3) London School of Medicine and Tropical Medicine
(4) Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
(5) University of Melbourne (which has a world-renowned immunologist on its faculty)
(6) Autism Science Foundation
(7) School of Medicine, UCLA

The only problem I had with this program is that it does not mention the ingredients (medicinal and non-medicinal) that compose vaccines generally.

Finally, the DVD itself (released in 2014) has three extras. I found them all interesting.

In conclusion, this is quite an informative documentary that explains a controversial topic--vaccinations.

(2014; 53 min excluding end credits; 9 chapters; wide screen; PBS-NOVA)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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