Thursday, April 30, 2009

Heroes Finale, The Colbert Delusion, A Touch of the Swine Flu

Hey! S'up?
Not too much to report. My neighbor, Kate, had knee surgery this week, but apparently she's doing well. Best wishes for a quick recovery, Kate!!
Watched the Season Finale of Heroes last night. It was pretty good (not super awesome, but pretty good). There was at least one strange plot twist in there which I think must have been driven by the possibility that one of the actors may not be returning to the show next season (assuming the show isn't cancelled entirely). Brian Fuller wrote the last three episodes and then series creator Tim Kring wrote the final episode. Fuller is a better writer. If they don't bring him back next season they should just pack it in.
One of you Adventurers sent me a link (the contributor shall remain anonymous because he's often averse to getting caught up in political arguments) about a recent Ohio State University study which showed that most conservative viewers don't really seem to understand the fact that Stephen Colbert is joking and engaging in a sort of sarcasm when he puts on the appearance of a conservative talk show pundit (something like Bill O'Reilly) in order to host his show.
Uh........ what? Really?!
Honestly, I don't know what to say about that. Apparently, according to the study, conservative viewers tend to think that Colbert actually agrees with their views, but presents them in a funny way (tending to believe that he's genuinely laughing with them at the crazy liberals).
Even after this?!?!

(Colbert was kind of tough on ol' W, but then again, this was a form of roast, and the jokes seemed to do a lot less harm than W's policies....)
Anyway, this level of delusional thinking (significant enough to allow people to think that Colbert is championing conservative values instead of lampooning them) is pretty incredible. I'm not necessarily saying that liberals would fare any better if a conservative comedian were satirizing them (I think that part of the equation with Colbert is that he does such a good job of really selling his pseudo-conservative persona without ever breaking character). I'm just amazed at the human ability to perceive what it wants to perceive- to warp the world in a way that protects one's own opinions and viewpoints. True enough, Colbert's show looks a lot like some of the actual shows broadcast on Fox News, but I think that says a whole lot more about the over-the-top nature of Fox programming than it does about Colbert.
Needless to say, I'm pretty opinionated myself when it comes to politics. I try to stay aware of my own biases and how they color my view of the world, but it's pretty hard to remain consistently objective when you feel pretty strongly about things. But I try.
Hopefully if someone creates a TV news show (or network) that pretends to present news and analysis by way of a conservative presenter who's cloaked in the guise of a liberal or moderate talking head, I'll recognize such programming as a joke. Oh wait. Isn't that sort of how Fox News got started?
People are still freaking out a bit about the swine flu. I'm still not worried about it and am mostly annoyed by the hysteria. On the other hand, if they decide to close down our office for a week or two in order to avoid contamination, who am I to argue with policies that protect public safety? Also, I tend to be wrong about stuff a lot, so the fact that I keep joking about this probably means that we're headed for the apocalypse.
That's it for now.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obama's 1st 100 Days

Well, everything isn't perfect. Obama wasn't able to wave a magic wand and fix the economy, stop global warming, end our wars, provide universal health care, etc., etc. I do think that he's got things moving in the right direction, though, and I agree with the fact that he moved aggressively and boldly in his attempt to repair the nation's economy. There's still a whole lot of work to do, but I'm pretty happy with the effort that our president has put forward thus far, and even though I don't agree with him on every single point (I have still have some questions about our Iraq involvement, about torture investigations, and a few other things), but overall I think Obama has his heart in the right place, he's ambitious, and he's working his butt off.
I still strongly support the guy.

TVOTR, Lee Visits, A Whole Lotta Trek Geekery

So how's everyone doing? Okay? If you're not doing okay, maybe this video will help...

TV on the Radio singing about werewolves (which have become a recurring, recent theme of this blog). Hard to beat.

Had a visit in the last 24 hours from lifelong friend and college roommate, Lee Thweatt. Lee lives down in Houston with another one of my college friends, Sarah, and their three boys. He's an attorney, in practice with another one of my college friends, Joe Terry, doing civil plaintiff's work. It was good to have a chance to catch up with him!

The cover story in Newsweek this week was about Star Trek and about why it has had such a lasting, resounding image within American pop culture. I intentionally haven't read the article yet because I saw the story as a chance to write a bit about Trek, and I didn't want to just rehash the views of the authors (well, if my thoughts overlap with theirs, at least it won't be because I copied them).
Anyway, it's not always easy to be a Star Trek fan. Star Trek is a show that, on it's face, seems kind of crazy and silly an inaccessible to a lot of people (the show sort of expects viewers to have a cursory knowledge of the Trek universe, and often of the characters themselves). Admittedly, Star Trek isn't as "cool" as Star Wars or some other sci-fi works. Star Trek doesn't tend to have renegade bad boys like Han Solo who fly through space in their suped up, hotrod spaceships, shooting down bounty hunters with laser blasts from the hip. The characters on Star Trek are mostly members of a quasi military organization named Starfleet (which is structured very much in a classic naval traidition), and the characters seem to be largely devoid of serious weaknesses and flaws (for example, you don't really get a lot of drug or gambling addicts on Star Trek, and the Trekkian view of human sexual relationships is pretty G rated). And of course, the Star Trek fans (yes, the "Trekkies") don't always help either. Many a sci-fi geek has tried to immerse himself into the Star Trek universe, often in hope of escaping some of the more painful realities of the real world, and often to ludicrous effect.....

Anyway, Star Trek fans have taken a lot of heat for being geeks, dorks, and nerds over the years. Having actually once observed an entire hotel ballroom full of uniformed Trekkies who were chanting along, line for line, to some original Trek episodes, I can say that some of this reputation is probably richly deserved (no, I didn't go to a Trek convention, I went with my brother to a comic convention, but a Trek convention was going on next door).
[One quick note about the Trekkie phenomenon: Trekkies sort of originated the whole "hiding from reality by pretending to live in a fictional universe" thing, but it wasn't really a historical anomaly or a passing phase. Instead, fans of other movies, shows, and franchises have sort of adopted the same practices- sometimes fun, but no doubt ridiculous- in celebrating/ hiding out from reality in their own favorite movies and shows....

Annnnnyway..... I like Star Trek. I don't own a McCoy outfit or anything, but I like the show.

Star Trek presents an optimistic view of the future, involving a sort of dogged belief that with enough determination, human technology can achieve just about any physical feat that we can envision. The technology on Trek, with it's faster than light warp drives, transporter beams, and universal language translators, is endlessly fascinating and often drives the plotlines of the stories (e.g., warp drives at their upper limits are used for time travel, transporter malfunctions create clones of people, and hologram projectors malfunction, trapping people in simulated alternate realities), but my true affection for Trek stems from it's optimistic view of human nature.

Star Trek is a show which has always presented a promising future involving a sort of utopian depiction of man and his place in the universe- a universe in which man's better instincts have not only prevailed, but allowed him to thrive. The characters in Star Trek tend to approach the unknown with curiosity, wonder, and awe (as opposed to fear and aggression). Their first instinct is to try to understand new races and new people, no matter how strange they may seem, and to try to peacefully learn about them, cooperate with them, and coexist with them in mutually beneficial relationships. Many a Trek episode has dealt with alien encounters that initially seemed frightening, only to eventually involve revelations that the unknown aliens were actually benign and that the behavior perceived as disturbing was actually just misunderstood and misinterpreted. Of course, when things don't work out, our Starfleet officers always have the phaser weapons and photon torpedoes to fall back on, but those are seen as last options and are always used for defense rather than for conquering races or waging battles of aggression (and Star Trek has made it clear time and time again that Starfleet's preferred method for resolving almost any kind of dispute is to engage in diplomacy- war and violent conflict are seen as an option to be avoided at all costs).

The Star Trek universe is one where humans have learned from the mistakes of their barbaric past and established a leadership role within a Federation of Planets- a group of alien species allied for their common good and to help ensure peaceful coexistence (that's right, aliens from other planets are actually looking to us as leaders in an organization whose primary goal is the preservation of intergalactic peace). The characters of Star Trek labor not to acquire material possessions or out of a lust for power, but in order to fulfill their potential as human beings and to further the ends of human (and non-human) understanding and achievement. Material concerns really aren't much of an issue in Star Trek (technology exists which provides for almost any material need they could have), so people are really into this whole, crazy (clearly fictional?) notion of just dedicating themselves to becoming better people. Having worked together to make great strides forward in technological innovation, humans are no longer confined to lives where competition over resources is the defining struggle of their existence. Star Trek has the audacity to suggest that this type of seismic shift is not only possible, but more or less inevitable given a view of humanity which has survived long enough to unlock the secrets of intergalactic travel.

In short, Star Trek presents a message through metaphor about the way that we should be dealing with one another in our very own, very real world, right now here on Earth (yeah- not with aliens, but with other people. Met-a-phor).

So the vision of the world that Star Trek presents is clearly a utopian one, but that doesn't mean it's without conflict or adventure.

There are still some alien races which reject any overtures of peace, instead seeking conquest and domination (e.g., The Borg, for one), and there are apparently countless numbers of strange, otherworldly phenomena to deal with as one explores the universe (time/space vortexes, gravitational and spatial anomalies, and so forth and so on). In addition, just because your society as a whole has finally settles upon a peaceful set of guiding principles doesn't mean that certain troublemaking individuals can't occasionally go off the reservation and try to start wars, lead insurrections, etc. (e.g., Khan).

So you got your ship-to-ship torpedo battles and your hand held phaser firefights and even, occasionally, a good ol' fistfight- sometimes with an alien!! Good adventure stuff.

On a more personal level, I like Star Trek because I have good memories attached to it. Strangely, as a really young kid I didn't really like Star Trek that much, and I sort of remember being freaked out by the strangeness of it. It seemed sort of bizarre and a little scary. Later I developed a much greater appreciation for it. I have memories of going to see Trek in the theater and listening to the Trek fans cheer out loud during cool battles or when the characters uttered some amusing bit of dialogue, memories dating back to the sixth grade when Reed, Ryan and I sprawled out on the carpet watching Trek episodes in front of the tube, and fond memories of watching Trek with my dad and discussing the show as it unfolded (Dad was especially a Picard fan. There were a number of years there when I think he quoted Picard-style dialogue around the house when issuing commands to the family unit. "Make it so.") In college, Star Trek came up on a sort of semi-regular basis in some of my philosophy classes when discussing metaphysics or certain epistemological issues (I remember discussing identity issues and talking about transporter accidents in which duplicate copies of people were made, and I remember discussing issues related to knowledge of the external world by way of reference to Trek episodes where aliens fooled the Enterprise crew though illusion). Later, even as recently as a few years ago, Reed still dropped by my place to catch some episodes of Enterprise.

I've got some good memories of Trek, and many of those are tied to experiences shared with my close friends and family.

So that's it. That's what I've got. There's a new Trek movie coming out on My 8th which is directed by J.J. Abrams. I'm a little worried about it because I've read in a few interviews that Abrams isn't really a longtime Trek fan and that he's much more concerned about making a Star Trek movie for general movie fans as opposed to a movie that's truly geared toward the traditional Trek audience. But who knows? Maybe that's what the franchise needs. There's a lot of history involved in Star Trek and a lot of nostalgic baggage that goes with it, and maybe the franchise was just desperately in need of some new people who didn't feel quite so beholden to all of it's traditions (some respect for the history is a good thing, but getting bogged down in it can strangle and suffocate new ideas). Prior to the development of this movie, there were no remaining Star Trek shows in production, and the last one, Enterprise, was cancelled because of low ratings. Maybe the current generation of kids needs a new version of Star Trek that they can relate to more readily and which, hopefully, can rekindle some interest in some of the older shows. I've heard that some long time fans, former writers and producers, and even Leonard Nemoy are all pretty much giving this new movie their blessing, so that's pretty promising.

All I know for sure is that Abrams has decided to make use of the original characters from the first series, and if he's going to tread into that territory, he probably better be careful lest he raise the ire of a million furious Trekkies.

This has gone on too long. I hope this new Trek movie is a good one, but even if it's a total piece of crap, that still won't really diminish my enjoyment of old Trek.

Ya'll be good. (or dare I say it? Can't... help... self... "Live long and prosper.")

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

ACL Fest Lineup '09, Arlen Specter Mixes it Up

So the ACL Fest Lineup was announced today, and personally, I'm pretty happy with it. I know that bands can fall out and things can change (yes, I'm still pissed at you for cancelling in '07, White Stripes- Steanso knows how to hold a grudge), but right now things look pretty good. I'm as happy about the headliners as I have been for any lineup in a long time (Pearl Jam, The Beastie Boys, and Dave Matthews Band), and I'm excited about a number of the "second tier" acts as well: Thievery Corporation, Medeski, Martin, & Wood, Sonic Youth, The Decemberists, the B-52's, The Walkmen, Black Joe Lewis, Kings of Leon, Mos Def, Ben Harper, and more. I will even go see Girl Talk with Roundball if he actually gets himself a ticket, and the band I'm most excited about that I've never really heard of before is called Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band (their album, is called The Whole Fam Damnily and they have songs with titles like "Walmart Killed the Country Store" and "Your Cousin's on Cops"). Let me know if there are bands playing that I should be checking out but haven't listed. I'm always open to suggestions! Anyway, hopefully we'll also have some good weather with the festival pushed back into October. It's looking like it's going to be a good time. Get your tickets and keep your eyes peeled for the Crack flag!!!

And apparently Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter is switching parties and becoming a Democrat. Specter has long been one of the more moderate, thoughtful senators in the Republican party, and I've had some respect for the guy for a while now. Republicans are trying to claim that Specter is just jumping ship because he's facing a tough primary race in 2010, with Rep. Pat Toomey providing a formidable challenge to Specter because of Specter's "left wing voting record" (per GOP Party Chairman Michael Steele). When you think about it, though, if Specter really has a left wing voting record (read: moderate and willing to occasionally compromise in order to serve the greater good of the country), then he really is switching parties for ideological reasons and because the GOP is unwilling to tolerate any dissent (even from an experienced senator who is fairly conservative, although admittedly moderate).
Anyway, the Democrats will be extremely happy to have Specter, and I think that his views will be well respected within the party (even if they're a little more conservative than average).
Specter's switch, incidentally, moves the Democrats one vote closer to having a fillibuster proof 60 seat majority in the senate, a majority which is likely to be solidified if Al Franken's lead holds in the disputed Minnesota senate race (and can't they get that thing over with already? It's been how many months since the election?). I don't necessarily see the Democrats moving together on many issues in a 60 vote lockstep (the Republicans seem to be much more willing to fall in line than the Democrats), but it would be sort of interesting to know that it's a possibility (I'm really not advocating a position where Democrats run roughshod over the Republicans, but it's nice to have a trick in your back pocket that can help... encourage them to compromise).

What else?
I guess I don't have much more. More swine flu craziness/hysteria today, so if you need something to panic about, there's always that.
In other news, if you like to watch shows that will turn your brain inside out, watch The Mighty Boosh.
Peace out, kiddos!!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Weekend, Cabela's, Swine Flu

Hi. Hope ya'll had a good weekend.
Mine was pretty slow and uneventful for the most part, but still pretty satisfying just the same. I hung out with Ryan and Jamie quite a bit on Saturday (thanks for the enchiladas, Jamie!), and on Sunday we finally managed to scrape together a Mono Ensemble practice, although Jim was too sick to make it. It was good to get back together with the band and make some music. We were a little bit rusty, but it felt good.
On Saturday I went to Cabela's for the first time with Ryan and Jamie (we were dispatched to go and pick up an air mattress frame for Mom). That place is like some kind of giant, Taj Mahal-style monument to killing critters for entertainment. As hunters and fishermen will quickly point out, I'm not a vegetarian, so I'm a bit of a hypocrite, but the whole place just made me feel sort of uncomfortable. There's something about taking the act of killing and turning it into into an extremely commercialized, highly marketed entertainment activity that just bugs me. It's not like I didn't know what Cabela's was about before I went in, but I was just just kind of worn down and eventually dismayed by the sheer size of the place and the number of products out there which are gleefully, enthusiastically marketed toward an end which involves killing things.
True enough, I eat meat, but I already feel sort of bad about that, and if I had a stronger willpower, I'd give that up, too (I've recently been trying to eat more chicken in an attempt to at least ratchet down my mammal consumption- my qualms with hunting, I recognize, are driven at least by emotion as much as logic. I'm more bothered by the killing of animals that I see as more intelligent, and I'm bothered by the killing of animals by way of some sort of heirarchy- mammals seem most troublesome, then birds, then fish...). Cabela's is just chock full of killed, stuffed, mounted animals (there are museum of natural science style exhibits in the store with animals from areas as far ranging as Alaska to Africa), and I counted at least a couple of the displayed animals as belonging to species which are now endangered (they had a polar bear, an elephant, and probably hundreds of other species in the place).
Another thing that freaked me out was the amount of technology that's now brought to bear in the pursuit of killing these animals. I'm already suspicious of the tactic of hunting with deer stands (often killing the deer from an undetectable perch at a location where the deer are used to coming to feed), but now people employ infrared game cameras, camouflaged scent-masking clothing, specialized animal attraction pheremones, long range rifles with high powered scopes, all manner of decoys, special game call whistles, and even nightvision. Somehow it just doesn't seem... fair. To quote a phrase that's almost become a cliche... "They call it a sport, but your opponent doesn't even know he's playing."
Anyway, I guess that if people are going to hunt and fish, I'd just like to see a little more reverence for the lives that are taken, and Cabela's just isn't a place that operates in that sort of spirit (it seemed to be designed more with an eye toward turning hunting and fishing into some sort of an amusement park). Killing an animal for food or even to feel some connection to nature is one thing, but sitting up in your deer blind,drunk and chewing on Jeff Foxworthy brand beef jerky, watching your game cameras and your nightvision scope in order to shoot a deer that's coming to eat out of it's usual deer feeder with a long range, high powered rifle just doesn't seem like an activity that's connecting you to the natural world or demonstrating much respect for the creature that you're killing.
I know. I'm a lame-ass buzzkill.
So Cabela's wasn't my thing. They had some good camping gear, though!
And the news this weekend was filled with coverage of an outbreak of the swine flu. Apparently Mexico is reporting something like 1000 cases of the illness, with as many as 103 deaths resulting from it, and there have been something like 20 cases in the U.S., spread across a number of states.
I'm not getting too worked up about the swine flu just yet. The report I heard on TV last night said that none of the cases in the U.S. appeared to be very serious, and that only one or two out of the 20 people with the flu in the U.S. had required hospitalization. Of the 103 deaths blamed on the flu in Mexico, apparently less than 20 had actually been confirmed as being actually caused by the swine flu (and although there were about 1000 cases in Mexico, the fact that this outbreak occurred in Mexico City, a densely populated area containing more than 20 million people, and the flu didn't spread even faster makes it sound to me like the sickness should be somewhat containable).
The weird thing is the way that the cases are spread out. Cases in the U.S. are spread across New York, Kansas, Ohio, Texas, and California, and today Canada announced that it has seen at least 6 cases of the swine flu. Seems like a pretty strange cluster from an epidemiology standpoint. For an illness that supposedly spreads in a manner similar to the regular flu, it's not clear how this thing is bouncing around.
Anyway, people love a good panic. The European Union is advising against travel to the U.S. and Mexico, schools have been closed in Mexico City, New York, and Texas, and the media is already throwing arounds words like "pandemic". Granted, the situation in Mexico sounds worse than the small number of relatively mild cases that have appeared in the U.S., but irregardless, I think people just need to take a deep breath and relax a bit. The doctors that I saw on TV yesterday were saying that most cases of this thing won't be much worse than a traditional flu, and that the illness is best dealt with by isolating the infected and by following typical flu season precautions (like regularly washing your hands, getting lots of rest, avoiding excessively crowded public places, etc.).
Anyway, I'm not ready to work myself into a tizzy just yet.
So that's it. Hope you're having a good start to a good week.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

There's an article on the main page of the CNN site today about schizophrenia and about how it effects people's lives. In my job I deal with a lot of people who are struggling with this illness and who've been arrested for various things (oftentimes because of behavior that's tied to their symptoms). This article doesn't go into a lot of depth, but it does a pretty good job of just showing what it's like to live with the disease and/or what it's like to live with a loved one who's schizophrenic.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wacky Debt Collection, Iraq, and Venus Fixer

What's up?
Not too much over here. I read this Time Magazine article yesterday about a business practice in Spain where debt collection agencies have been sending out people in costumes to follow around people who have fallen behind on their debts and who aren't making payments (sort of relying on people's sense of embarrassment to shame them into paying). The Spanish parliament is apparently currently considering legislation which might regulate the debt collection industry more tightly, possibly putting an end to costumed debt collecting (which sprang up in the first place, apparently, because Spain's debt collection rules are somewhat favorable to debtors and didn't leave creditors with many options), but I think that ending the practice could be a shame. As a matter of fact, I think that this particular manner of debt collection should probably be exported to the United States. Americans, on the whole, have some pretty ridiculous borrowing habits, typically live well above their actual means, and when they default on their debts, tending to become embroiled in long, protracted legal battles which only amplify the expenses involved in collecting on the bad loans that they got involved in in the first place. Lawsuits and debt collection calls sort of suck, but if you really want to make people think twice before they spend a bunch of money on credit or take out loans they can't afford then I think it makes a terrific amount of sense to send people dressed in leprechaun outfits or giant pink bunny suits to offices or homes in order to remind them that they've fallen behind on their payments. The whole thing is bound to make people act a little more sensibly, and even more importantly, it's just hilarious. People might give a moment's pause when they consider the possible effects of a bad loan on their credit report, but I think people might be a lot more careful about their spending habits if they new that Zorro or a sumo wrestler or a giant Pikachu might be quietly following them around for an hour or two during their workday if they were to fall behind in repaying their debts.
Of course, this is America. We're a sort of shameless people (look at all of the people crawling all over one another for a chance to be portrayed as idiots on nationally broadcast reality television programs). Also, we're in the middle of a pretty bad recession. If we kicked this costumed debt collection thing into high gear anytime soon, our downtown business centers might start to look like something out a Tex Avery cartoon. The way things work in the U.S., people might just sort of embrace the whole thing, and pretty soon you might start seeing businessmen walking arm in arm down Wall Street with wookies and clowns.
Whatever. It would be entertaining.
More importantly, since our chronically overextended culture has already pretty much erased the traditional sense of shame that people used to feel at borrowing large sums of money from people without having any real plan for paying it back, at least the costumed characters might serve as a visual reminder that a person isn't living up to their obligations. Something needs to slow down the reckless borrowing (the current economic crisis has slowed things down for the moment because banks have tightened up on their lending practices, but we'll see whether or not this trend holds up over the long run).
And has anyone noticed the uptick in violence in Iraq over the last couple of days? Yesterday there were at least 80 people killed and 120 injured in a series of three suicide bombings, and today it sounds like 60 more have died in attacks in Baghdad with 125 wounded. There are worries that Baathist and jihadi insugents are trying to reexert some control over the country as U.S. troops begin to draw down in advance of the scheduled 2011 troop withdrawal.
It's almost as if these insurgents don't want us to leave. I sort of don't get it.
At any rate, I really do think that we need to extricate ourselves from Iraq. We need to get Iraqi security forces trained and equipped and in shape to take care of their own country, but then we need to get out. Maybe leave a small, strike force to help quell uprisings (which sounds like it's going to be part of Obama's plan- although he may want to leave more troops in place than what I would consider a small strike force), but get most of our troops out. I think that if we stay there en masse the Iraqis are just going to incorporate American troops into their overall strategy for stabilization, and we just can't (and shouldn't) be the basis for that kind of support over the long term.
Anyhoo, I don't have a whole lot more to report. I hung out a bit with my friend Eric from the Mono Ensemble last night, and he gave me a copy of some recordings (mostly live) that he's made with his new group, Venus Fixer. The new stuff sounds good. It's interesting to listen to. Venus Fixer is definitely more of a straight up "rock band" than The Mono Ensemble, and their songs are fast, pretty powerful, and have sort of an aggressive vibe that can almost border on sounding nasty and raucous. In other words, good music for a wild party.
All of this being said, Eric writes just about all of the music for Venus Fixer, and most of the music for Mono Ensemble, and both bands really reflect his personal musical style, although I think each represents a different side of his personality (Mono Ensemble can be pretty rockin', too, but we tend to spread out a bit more, pulling from different styles and genres, and we definitely have songs that are slower and a little more quiet than most of Venus Fixer's stuff.). Venus Fixer is pretty much about getting the juices flowing and getting the audience fired up, and I think they're pretty good at it. You should definitely click on the link and check out a few of their songs off the MySpace site if you have a minute or two. If you like what you hear, go check them out live.
Well, that's it.
Hope everyone has a good weekend!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hey. Not much time for posting today. You guys may have to content yourselves with catching up on old posts, or taking your normal Adventures time and using it to improve yourselves and your community (I recommend you put on a spontaneous dance performance for complete strangers, but feel free to use your imagination).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day, Spoon, and Clones

Hey. Happy Earth Day!!! Hope everyone is having a good day. Everyone walk somewhere they would usually drive or recycle some stuff or spend your evening tonight by candle light or something. Maybe just go to the park or take a walk or do something outside instead of watching TV. A little bit of nature can go a long way.
Supposed to get up to 95 degrees today. In April. This summer is gonna be brutal.

I went with Roundball to see Spoon last night at the Scoot Inn.
The show was pretty fun, but the band seemed to be having a few sound problems (which is a reoccurring problem with Spoon from the several times I've seen them live), and they were clearly playing the gig to work on some new material which hasn't even been released on an album yet (they've got Jazzfest and a few other bigger gigs coming up, so I think last night's show was mostly a chance to polish their live show). Mostly, Spoon just needed to quit worrying about having perfect sound and just rock out a little harder. Instead of looking like he was really into the music and enjoying himself, Britt Daniel spent a lot of the show messing with pedals and effects and swapping guitars in and out and tuning and yelling to the sound guys to turn stuff up or down. He would have been better off not worrying so much about the sound and effects (some of the on/off echo effects in the middle of songs were pretty distracting, anyway, plus people don't usually come out to hear live music expecting it to sound just like an album- especially not at the Scoot Inn). Instead, Spoon should have focused on spending more time just connecting with the audience and enjoying themselves (and I've noticed this phenomenon at previous shows with Spoon). Anyway, Britt and the boys finally seemed to settle in and relax a bit about halfway through the set, and overall the show was pretty decent. The new songs that they played, incidentally, sounded pretty good.
I think that in the end, Spoon just sort of feels like a band that's more comfortable in the studio than playing live on stage (which isn't that unusual - playing live and recording are two very different things which appeal very differently to different musicians). I was glad I saw them, enjoyed the music, and I had a good time, but they didn't exactly draw a huge amount of excitement from their audience, which was a shame because it was a sold out show in a small, cool venue in their hometown (don't get me wrong, people clapped and hooted and whatnot, but it just didn't seem like they were super into it. Does that make sense?).
But I'm probably being overly critical (it helps to be that way when you need something to write about). I really did have a good time, and, overall, I thought the show was pretty good. Thanks to Roundball for going out with me on a school night.

What else?
Apparently there's a doctor in England who's claiming that he's been cloning human embryos. He says that he cloned 14 embryos and transferred 11 of them into the wombs of women, but none of them survived long enough to become viable. So that's great. He says he's been doing this in order to help people with infertility issues.
I don't want to sound like some kind of biotechnology alarmist, but cloning humans has just got to be a bad idea, right? Am I the only one who watches the Sci Fi channel? Has no one else seen The 6th Day or The Island?
Hooo boy.
If it's okay to clone people because of infertility issues (which is a little annoying to me in the first place given how many kids around the world need to be adopted) then what's the next step? Is it okay for people to have themselves cloned for organ transplant purposes? Is it okay for families to clone family members who have been lost due to accidents or diseases?
And what do we do when tyrants build armies of clone soldiers and try to place the entire galaxy under martial law?

We gotta put a pretty firm stop to the human cloning right from the get go, I think. In any case, the idea that I could be cloned, but then Jason II might end up keeping himself in better shape, with some kind of better, more successful life and a mansion full of swimsuit models- well, that's the kind of thing that might keep a guy up at night with a lot of annoying "what if" questions. I like to think I've done a pretty good job with my life, and I would hate for some clone to come along and shatter that image. So no cloning.

Well, that's about it. Be good.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Torture, Searh & Seizure in Yo' Ride

Hi. Tuesday. Tuesdays can be a bit... unremarkable.
I'm kind of stumped for topics. Obama has now apparently left open the possibility of prosecuting some of the Bush party officials who drew up the legal documents allowing torture (these are the legal papers which others relied upon when confronted with questions about the legality of using "extreme interrogation techniques", i.e., torture). The media is all over this story, but I'm not getting too fired up about it because I don't think these prosecutions will ever happen. Obama has made it clear on numerous occasions that he thinks our best course of action is just to move forward and to put all of these concerns behind us. More recently he has stated that he thinks any investigation and prosecution relating to the torture issue would be extremely difficult to carry out because such actions would be seen as part of a partisan political agenda. The man simply isn't interested in stoking the flames of a controversy which is likely to end up causing further political division and infighting within our country. I think Obama only addressed the possibility of prosecution because of mounting political pressure from Democrats who are angry about his refusal to address this issue.
I respect the president's position, but at the same time it bothers me. If Obama doesn't take a stand on this issue now, the message that the Republicans are going to get (and for that matter some extremist Democrats) is that they can cover the tracks of wrongdoing by making it politically difficult to prosecute controversial crimes. Essentially, the message being conveyed is that people can get away with doing bad things so long as the sabre rattling, whining, and political inconvenience is great enough to cover one's tracks after the fact. By unequivocally declaring torture to be illegal and wrong (which it seems to be under both U.S. and international law), but then by refusing to prosecute it, Obama is sending a pretty dangerous mixed message about the way that America is going to deal with crimes that are perpetrated by people who hold positions of power.
I'm not necessarily saying that we need to be handing out life sentences, but it seems that if we're going to draw a line in the sand on the torture issue, we ought to be willing to prosecute and publicly punish people who violate that law. Without prosecutions we're sending the message to elected officials that they (and their subordinates) can do whatever they want with impunity while they're in office, reassured in the knowledge that no one will hold them accountable for any wrongs they may have committed during their tenure.
Wrong message. Bad idea.
Given the fact that presidential administrations have confidentiality and national security to hide behind, no one may fully understand what they were up to until they've left office, and I think the ability to prosecute wrongdoing after the fact provides an incredibly important deterrent to people in power who might be tempted to engage in illegal acts.
Of course, another reason Obama may be shying away from the torture issue (and it would make sense that he might not publicly discuss this reason) could be that it may turn out that the American people just aren't on his side. This is a post 9/11 era where we have terrorists beheading captives on Youtube and TV programs like 24 which repeatedly depict ticking clock life and death situations where torture is the only way to extract the information that agents need in order to protect our citizens. A torture trial (or series of them) that prosecutes American officials (each of whom will undoubtedly flood the airwaves with soliloquies about how much they love our country and how they would do anything to protect it) may lead to an end result where Republicans attempt to significantly rewrite our torture laws. Such "reforms" may receive a surprising amount of public support. If torture prosecutions were undertaken at the wrong time, even even convictions might leave Obama in a "won the battle but lost the war" situation. The President might not want to address the torture issue at this point because, essentially, if he takes it on right now he may end up in a worse position than where he started (or at least as soon as the Republicans have enough votes to push something through). If you thought the "tea party" rallies were interesting, wait until you see the pro-torture rallies. Imagine the fun. Take a day off work and bring the kids out to listen to the torture advocates!!!
Maybe we should just hand these officials over to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands or to the U.N. Security Council and let them decide guilt and punishment (yes, I know that's never going to really happen. We all know that the U.S. would never let itself be judged by the same standards that are applied to the rest of the international community- 40 countries have signed onto the I.C.C. treaty, but China, Russia, and The U.S. have all opted out).
Anyway, it's a lot to think about and involves some tough decisions. I support Obama, but I'm glad I'm not president.

And the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling today which sounds like it's really going to be a game changer in terms of how the courts deal with searches and seizures that take place in a person's vehicle. Prior cases have been seen as giving police broad, discretionary powers in searching a vehicle without a warrant, typically without much regard for the reason that the vehicle was initially stopped. This new ruling seems to indicate that officers will now be allowed to search a vehicle without a warrant only if a person is still within reach of a vehicle's passenger compartment (meaning weapons could be reached or evidence destroyed) or if there's a good possibility that evidence will be discovered pertaining to the offense that led to the traffic stop.
I'm still sort of having a hard time understanding exactly how this rule is going to play out in the real world. I think that fights over the interpretation of this case may ultimately end up proving as important as the case itself. Anyway, people could potentially end up seeing a little more privacy in their vehicles as a result of this ruling. (Of course, the police probably aren't very excited about it.)
I wonder if I can make a bunch of money coming up with some sort of iPhone application that allows officers to apply for warrants on site and receive acceptances or denials in real time. I could probably market that idea, and this whole "warrantless searches" question might become somewhat less critical (part of the justification for warrantless searches of automobiles has typically been the time sensitive nature of the situation when you have someone pulled over on the side of the road- it's traditionally been sort of hard to wait on a warrant when you're in that kind of situation, but with our current technology, times could be changing).
Well, I guess that's all that I've got, I guess.
You guys be cool.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Weekend Update, Movie Reviews, Some Ponderings on Columbine, and Get Well Stephen Hawking

Hey there. The weekend was pretty good.
Friday night I had Crack practice with Sigmund and Andy. It was a good practice. I played banjo, bass, and a little bit of guitar. We mixed things up a little, and we got some different, interesting sounding stuff as a result. Anyhoo, we did a pretty good job of working together and listening to each other and riding the Crackwave. It always feels good.
Saturday I went to see a matinee showing of State of Play over at the Drafthouse with Team Steans. It was pretty good. It's about a newspaper reporter (played by Russell Crower) who is friends with a U.S. Congressman (Ben Affleck), and it involves lots of political intrigue and courageous journalistic tomfoolery.
It's a pretty good story, sort of squarely rooted in the subgenre of classic reporter movies (like All the President's Men, Broadcast News, Salvador, Citizen Kane, The Killing Fields, The Wire, and even, more recently, Frost/Nixon). State of Play may not be the best reporter movie of all time (once I started typing up that list, I started to realize there are some good movies in there), but it's got a pretty well-executed, tight plot (although the plot twists ran the risk of feeling a little contrived at times), some interesting characters, and some pretty good acting (it's probably not cool to say this since he's so popular in the mainstream and can seem like a bit of a jerk in interviews, but Russell Crowe is a pretty solid actor). Anyway, I would probably recommend State of Play to most people. It's not exactly groundbreaking, but it was a fairly intelligent, entertaining movie.
Saturday night I went over to Mandy's place to join her and some friends for dinner. It was really nice. Good food, and it was good to just see everyone and hang out.
Lazy Sunday. Read a book in the backyard, and took Cassidy to the dog park. Watched In the Valley of Elah on cable. It was good, but depressing. It's about a father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who's investigating the death of his son, a soldier who has recently returned from Iraq. The movie has themes about post traumatic stress disorder and about the difficulties that some Iraq veterans have upon returning to the States (I've been hearing about these sorts of issues a lot at work lately because of a veterans support/advocacy group I've been working with), and it was mostly a pretty well written and well acted film. I would guess that most people's immediate reaction to the movie would be to say that it was an anti-war film, and while that may be true to some extent, I think it was really more about the neglect that some of our veterans are suffering in terms of having their traumatic mental injuries and adjustment disorders diagnosed and treated. The movie doesn't spend much time dwelling specifically on whether the Iraq War itself is worth fighting (it sort of takes a grunt's eye view of seeing the whole enterprise as "protecting Americans"). The film keeps the scope of its criticism squarely focused upon the effects of the war upon our returning soldiers (there's one scene where an Iraqi is being tortured, but the scene appears to be placed in the film with the intention of showing the dehumanizing effects of war on our troops rather than as a reflection upon the suffering that we were inflicting upon the Iraqis). At any rate, the effects of the war upon the film's returning soldiers are so devastating that you ultimately end up questioning whether the war is really worth the cost, but this question seems to be addressed pretty broadly, without taking particular issue with the Iraq War over any other particular conflict.
So, I guess, in one sense, this is an anti war movie. I don't know. It seemed like a sort of anti war movie that might appeal to a red state crowd (because the anti-war message of the film stems out of the harm that we're inflicting on our own troops instead of arising out of sympathy for the Iraqis or out of outrage toward the leaders who are making our policy decisions).
So it's not a bad movie, but it's not very happy go lucky.
And then last night I had dinner with Ryan and Jamie and hung out with them a bit.

There's an opinion column by Bob Greene on CNN's site today about the tenth anniversary of the Columbine killings and the effect that those killings have had upon the country. In his piece Greene touches upon the notion that almost our whole country seems to be suffering from some version of combat fatigue or post traumatic stress disorder or something of the kind. From a technical, clinical standpoint that wouldn't be correct. Post traumatic stress disorder, from what I understand, requires a person to personally witness or experience some severely traumatic event as a prerequisite to being diagnosed with the condition. Nonetheless, in this era of 24 hour news cycles, real time news coverage, live video feeds, real time reporting, and ubiquitous media coverage of almost every calamitous event that strikes the country, it may almost seem and feel to many people like they're actually personally witnessing many of the tragic events in the media as they unfold. We may not be experiencing true PTSD by watching all of these awful things occur (we're not actually there and we mostly don't really know the people involved), but the news coverage can make us feel like we're there, and there are a lot of these events for people to digest. Just off the top of my head, in relatively recent memory (since the time of Columbine, at any rate) we've had 9/11, Katrina, the Virginia Tech massacre, The Washington D.C. beltway sniper attacks, a whole host of awful events from Iraq (including beheadings and suicide bombings), the shooting rampage at the civic center in New York, a shooting spree at a church in Colorado, and so on and so forth in an almost endless procession of interminable coverage (and this doesn't count the international horror stories that also get coverage- things like the Madrid train bombings or the Mumbai terrorist attack). It may not be true PTSD, but then again I'd say that Greene may not be too far off the mark when he says that our entire country is slowly developing something akin to battle fatigue- a media induced version of the thousand yard stare that we used to primarily see in our combat veterans.
And I have to ask what the point is in covering all of this violence. The short answer, of course, is ratings. As desensitizing and as damaging as it may be to our psyches, people just can't seem to turn away from coverage of a disaster. I'm not sure why this occurs. Maybe the instinct goes back to the way that our minds evolved. It seems plausible that our minds would be naturally attuned to pay attention to danger, since that sort of thing would help us to survive, right? I hate to chalk to the whole thing up to schadenfreude because that seems to paint an especially bleak view of human nature and because, admittedly, I find myself often getting drawn into coverage of these awful events, but I honestly don't think I get any pleasure out of seeing people go through the tragedies. I just sort of watch and feel disturbed and fascinated at the same time.
Anyway, this is not really a new point that I'm making, but it seems almost nonsensical to expose people (often in excruciating detail) to every tragic event which occurs across the country (and the world). Most of the victims are people we don't know, and, sadly, human tragedy is the sort of thing that's going to remain with us for a long time, and is typically something which the average person can't really do anything about (Greene touches upon this "tragedy is nothing new" point in his column, reciting the story of a man who blew up a Michigan school and killed 44 people in 1927). There's an argument, I suppose, that media coverage of these shooting massacres might change people's attitudes on gun control or something, but I think that in truth people watch the coverage and just get sort of numb or desensitized to the violence. Most of the people who support gun rights see firearms as a way to protect themselves, so the same stories that drive gun control proponents to want to limit guns often produce an even greater conviction in the wisdom of owning firearms among gun rights supporters.
Anyway, my basic point is that I really do believe that some sort of psychological toll is starting to be exacted from the American people as they absorb and try to process the endless, pervasive media coverage of violence and tragedy. I'm not sure what should be done about it, and I'm not sure how much really can be done. Maybe the first step is to realize that consuming all of this news about tragedy really can have a damaging effect on a person, especially cumulatively and over the long run, and maybe people just need to be encouraged to remain aware of their own viewing/reading/listening habits and to make a conscious effort to consume all of this news about tragedy in moderation.
All of this to say that while Columbine was certainly not the first horrific tragedy to be covered extensively by the national media, it was certainly one of those stories that's become firmly ingrained in the public consciousness, and in ten years since its occurrence it feels like the number of tragedies which have been exhaustively covered, receiving "the Columbine treatment" has grown exponentially. I'm not sure whether there are just more of these events happening or whether the media is just covering a lot more of them in its endless pursuit of higher ratings. Either way, I tend to agree with Greene when he says that the constant coverage is beginning to take its toll upon the American psyche.
Wow. That went on a lot longer than I originally intended.
Oh well.
And I just read that apparently Stephen Hawking is gravely ill. I like the guy's stuff, and I wish him well. I've read his popular science book, A Brief History of Time at least twice, and although I don't understand all of it completely, I get enough of it to have my mind blown whenever I read it. I like the down-to-earth style which Hawkings uses as he patiently tries to explain some very complicated subject matter. That book, along with a few other similar books, really helped to change my view of the universe and how it works and about our tiny little place within it. Astronomy and modern physics can really change your perspective in a way that feels sort of magical and almost quasi religious. So Hawking helped to remind me how amazing this universe of ours really is.
Anyway, I wish him the best.
That's it for now. Sort of a long post, so sorry about that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

So what's up?
Not much to report from the home front. Sadly, Mr. Roboto, one of my two new goldfish, died yesterday. I guess he didn't adjust to life in his new home very well (or heck- maybe he was already sick or something when I took him home from the pet store- who knows?). So via con dios, Mr. Roboto. Hope you find yourself in that giant goldfish pond in the sky.
What else? The Obama administration released CIA memos yesterday that detailed some of the extreme interrogation/torture methods used by U.S. intelligence services while prosecuting the war on terror under the Bush administration. The release of the documents was immediately criticized by former Bush administration officials who claimed that the release of such documents would have a chilling effect on future intelligence gathering efforts and embolden America's enemies. Groups such as the ACLU and Amnesty International applauded the release of such information and demanded prosecution of intelligence operatives who participated in the use of interrogation techniques described in the memos.
To be honest, I'm not happy about all of the interrogation techniques outlined in the memo, but I guess things could have been worse. Most of the techniques involved psychological coercion and physical discomfort, but they didn't rise to a level where actual, lasting physical harm was being done (many of the techniques involved stress positions, isolation, and things like embarrassing nudity, but they also got a bit more disturbing with waterboarding, physical striking and slapping, and even, in one case, the use of scary looking insects to terrify one prisoner who was known to have a phobia of such things. Most of the techniques, however, had been used at one point or another on U.S. troops while training them in interrogation resistance techniques.). At any rate, the actions listed in the memo didn't involve cutting, burning, electric shocks, or many other things which might cause serious bodily injury, so things weren't as bad as what I had feared, frankly. At least officially.
But that's part of what still bothers me. There's a very real slippery slope problem, and the intelligence community being the secret, shadowy world that it is, I'm inclined to believe that for every action that we hear about, there are probably a bunch more, possibly more extreme, that never reach the public eye. And the more things that you make legally permissible, i.e., the farther the boundaries extend in terms of what we consider acceptable conduct, the farther intelligence operatives are probably inclined to go when conducting the sorts of activities that aren't going to ever make it into memos. (e.g., if we say, you can't torture at all, operatives might go ahead and secretly proceed with the sorts of activities detailed in these memos. Once they're given sanction to perform the actions listed in these memos, I think they're likely to secretly take things one step further, knowing that they're not straying too far beyond what is already permitted).
Other things that bother me include, of course, the simple use of any sort of torture techniques at all. I say this because I just think it's morally wrong to inflict suffering on people in order to gain information and because I think that the use of any sort of "extreme interrogation techniques" by the U.S. opens the door for more widespread use of all kinds of torture techniques worldwide, including on captured American troops A lot of countries aren't going to be splitting hairs in deciding one kind of torture is "acceptable" while other kinds are not. I think that from a standpoint of international law, once torture is deemed permissible, all bets are off.
I've also read time and again that torture is typically an extremely unreliable, inefficient way of gaining information. It typically doesn't make people tell you the truth- it just makes them say what they think you want to hear.
Anyway, I don't want to rehash my old "torture is bad" arguments, but I did sort of find the info in these memos interesting. I don't think that releasing these memos to the public is going to endanger America (we're letting America's enemies know that we can't keep a secret? Please! This country has more "national security secrets" than you can shake a stick at, and some of this stuff has been secret for decades.)
I think that maybe the people involved with this torture stuff should be bitching a lot less about the memos being released and be thanking Obama a lot more for refusing to allow the torturers to be prosecuted for war crimes under the Geneva Convention. Gotta admit, though, that I'm a little relieved to see that we weren't officially endorsing actions which would have caused serious bodily injury. Of course, I guess when we really felt a need to get into the real nasty stuff, maybe that's when we set up one of these rendition operations to remove our enemies to a foreign country where there might be a little less oversight (meaning you can get away with a lot more in terms of torture)? Ugggghhh.....

And has everyone heard about this new book which reimagines Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice? The new book, entitled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is a retelling of the classic Jane Austen novel, supposedly with up to 80% of the book including text from the original novel, but with attacking zombie hordes and Shaolin martial arts training incorporated as a pertinent background trait on the part of the Bennett sisters.
I gotta say, I've actually read Pride and Prejudice (it was part of a "favorite book" exchange with my friend Jennifer. I managed to read all of Pride and Prejudice before realizing that she hadn't even cracked open my copy of Frank Herbert's Dune and would probably never do so). And I would think that Pride and Prejudice can be nothing but benefited by the addition of zombie hordes. The characters of Pride and Prejudice can be put out of sorts by a minor turn of phrase or shift in a person's attention, so the idea of watching them deal with zombie attacks is sort of fascinating. Plus, the dramatic tension involved in surviving zombie attacks is something I can see myself getting into a lot easier than worries about whether some young woman is managing to efficiently navigate societal norms and find herself the right man. Is there anything that can't be made better by zombies? (Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a small zombie movie collection at my house, and I'm sort of a fan of zombie movies in general. One of the best moviegoing experiences of my life was an Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow out in Pflugerville with Jeff "Crackbass" Wilson and my friend "Jackbart" Mitchell where we sat in lawn chairs out in a field beside an abandoned farmhouse and watched Night of the Living Dead with George Romero in attendance. I tried to get Romero's autograph, but he got tired and took off when I was about two people away from him in line.)
So I need to read the book (although I have to admit- I'm not sure I'm ready reread up to 80% of the original Pride and Prejudice).
Anyway, I don't have much else.
I'm not sure if I'll post more or not, but if not, ya'll have a nice weekend!!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

So last night I had dinner with Jamie and watched a lot of TV. I watched 2 episodes of Fringe, an episode of Heroes, and the series finale of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I can't decide if Fringe is much of a show or not, but it's definitely becoming increasingly over the top (this is a bit of a spoiler, but this week's episode involved a giant, genetically mutated monster which was killing people). I also have to admit that I dig Anna Torv. Whether her show succeeds or not, Torv brings a good combination or intelligence, strength, and compassion to her character, Agent Olivia Dunham. Heroes has continued to get better since they brought back writer Bryan Fuller. The emphasis has been returned to the characters, and he's even introducing new characters that continue to drive the story. I like the direction he's taking the show in, but I'm not sure if he's supposed to be back next season or not.
And the season finale of Sarah Connor Chronicles was pretty good as well. I'm glad that it was good, because there are rumors that the show is going to be cancelled, but even if it doesn't come back, this season finale was a strong, respectable note to end on. Sarah Connor Chronicles is a good show, but I'm not too surprised that it never gathered strong ratings. The show is thought provoking and smart (which Lost often manages to be, although it continues to enjoy high ratings), but it's also very dark, involving characters who are not only constantly facing their own mortality (not in an exciting "trying to escape death" sort of way, but more often in a "you are destined to die and one of your tasks is to come to terms with that" sort of way), but who are also dealing with the knowledge that a nuclear global apocalypse is an almost certain part of their future (they struggle to stop it without really knowing whether such a victory is even possible). In this day and age, filled with global warming, recession, war, etc., I'm not surprised to see people looking more toward American Idol, Rock of Love, Dancing with the Stars, and other programs that serve as diversions from some of the more depressing aspects of our lives as opposed to a show that tries to explore some of the more troubling existential questions that life has to offer. Sarah Connor Chronicles really is an intelligent, well written show, though, and it would be great if the show could find a place to continue. (even in the finale this week, new points were made about the nature of the soul and its dependence upon the connection between mind and body- it was pointed out that the cyborg, John Henry, would have his "personality" altered if people were to start swapping out his hardware components, even though such components are supposedly interchangeable). I think it has a pretty small audience, but undoubtedly a loyal, cultish one who which might continue to grow if the show were able to find a way to stay on the air.
Anyway, the season finale was a good one and provided a satisfactory ending to the show if need be, but I hope that's not the case.
And apparently Governor Perry made comments yesterday during one of those well-publicized "tea parties" which alluded to possible secession on the part of Texas in response to federal spending policies in Washington. Surely, surely this was a joke, but it was sort of a dumb one, and, of course, Texas Democrats are all over him for it. You gotta love the irony- Bush comes out of Texas and goes to Washington for 8 years, runs up record debts, tanks the economy, gets us entangled in a pointless war, and gets the Republicans run out of office, and then when the Democrats come in and try to start working on fixing things, Texas Republicans throw a hissy fit and start throwing around ideas like dissolving the union. I would have absolutely loved watching John McCain or George Bush try to come up with a plan to improve our current economic situation. The Republican infighting would have absolutely torn that party apart (while the country's economy would have continued to decline in a dizzying nosedive- ok, I wouldn't really want to see that part of my hypothetical to play out). Instead, the Republicans keep making the messes and using the clean up crew as whipping boys. Par for the course.
Oh well. Sadly, I've come to expect it.
If Texas is going to secede, someone please just let me know ahead of time so I can get the hell out of here before this place goes Mad Max.
Hang in there, kids.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Paul Begala does a much better job at articulating some of the sentiments that I've been feeling about those "tea parties". In actuality, he seems a little more ticked off about them then I am. While I have to admit that I'm a little annoyed by all of these people who seem to think that whining about taxes and government spending is somehow patriotic, I'm a little sympathetic about the alarm that people are expressing about the huge amount of spending that the government is doing. To be honest, the truth of the matter is that very few of us really understand either the cause or the solution for this economic crisis (heck, even professional economists can't seem to reach agreement on a number of issues surrounding it), so when the government tells us that it needs to spend fantastic amounts of money to get us out of this downturn, most of us either have to accept that fact on faith or.... freak out and hold tea parties. I may be a liberal, but I usually like to understand the things that I support a whole lot more than I understand this economic recovery package (I'm a big believer in the "trust but verify" school of thought). I'll admit that I'm largely supporting this thing on faith (my understanding of the economic collapse being remedial at best). Anyway, whether you're supporting Democratic policies or Republican ones, supporting this sort of sacrifice on the basis of reassurances put forward by politicians is a sort of scary place to be. I like Obama, but he's still a politician.
Hola, amigos! Well, I hope everyone is doing okay.
Not a lot to report on.
Sounds like they're going to be naming an exercise treadmill on the International Space Station after Stephen Colbert. Colbert's supporters helped him to win a contest sponsored by NASA in which a new node (i.e., a section) of the space station was to be named by way of popular vote. Colbert's name actually came in first, but NASA, who had reserved the right to make a final decision in the naming, went with the second most popular name on the list, Tranquility, named after the Sea of Tranquility, the location where Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Colbert had previously vowed to "seize power as space's evil tyrant overlord" if NASA rejected democracy by not choosing the name with the most votes, but in the end he seemed fairly pleased with the honorary treadmill naming. ("I think a treadmill is better than a node ... because the node is just a box for the treadmill.")
First Colbert tried to file as a presidential candidate for the South Carolina primaries (both as a Democrat and a Republican), and now he's been trying to get his name attached to the International Space Station. Sooner or later this guy's going to accidentally get himself taken seriously, and he's going to get voted into office somewhere.
And there are "tea parties" being held across the country today, including here in Austin, which are supposed to be meant to protest government spending in Washington.
I understand that people are concerned about the massive government spending that's occurring right now (it's of pretty big concern to everyone), but I think these tea parties are a bit of a joke. Federal spending was already massively on the rise under Bush (mostly as a result of spending money on a war we didn't need- and his administration kept the costs of the war mostly out of the budget and, therefore, away from much of the public scrutiny that Obama's team is currently enjoying with their economic recovery efforts) and Bush and crew weren't even dealing with the financial crisis that we currently find ourselves in and which his deregulation policies contributed to. Also disturbing is the fact that these protesters don't seem to really have any viable alternatives for economic recovery- they just don't like the fact that the government is spending money (and no one likes to spend money- Obama himself has repeated on many occasions that he doesn't relish having to spend billions and billions of dollars, but his prominent economists are predicting that without spending this money the economy is likely to continue to decline and settle into a recession/depression which could last for a very long time). All of this, and so far Obama says he's still planning on making sure that taxes will not increase for 95% of American families (meaning only the top 5% of our population stand to pay higher taxes- a group which already had their taxes rolled back for the last 8 years under Bush). If Obama starts to break that promise and increase taxes across the board I might see a greater reason for protest, but mostly right now I just see him rolling back some of the massive gains that the wealthy benefited from under the Republicans. Basically, I feel like no one really likes spending the amounts of money that are involved in the stimulus package, but absent some better ideas, the Democrats are just trying to do what needs to be done to get us out of this mess as soon as possible. Conservatives are just sort of throwing a fit, but not offering much by way of solutions. Most of the opposing conservative viewpoints that I've heard (which typically involve doing nothing and letting the chips fall where they may) just sound like a fast track toward making us a third world country (with a wealthy upper class and a large, poorer working class, but almost no healthy middle class in between).
Anyway, I hope this tea party helps people blow off some steam, but I don't really see it as being very productive. It'll probably serve the same function that the anti-war protests served during the Bush years- it made me feel better to know there were a fair number of like-minded individuals out there who shared my concern, but I understood that our shouts were falling on deaf ears as far as the government was concerned. Obama might at least acknowledge and sympathize with people's frustrations a bit, which would be a lot more understanding than we ever got out of Bush in regard to his policies.
And in unrelated news, Freddie's, a restaurant, bar, and live music venue along South 1st Street, has cancelled all of their scheduled live music performances for the rest of the year because of an increase in APD enforcement of Austin's noise limit ordinance. The noise ordinance requires that live music not exceed 70 decibels for bands playing at places outside of downtown (a typical vacuum cleaner runs at about 70 decibels, with normal conversation coming in at around 50 to 65 decibels- downtown the noise limit runs at 85 decibels). Guero's Taco Bar, a nearby location on South Congress, reports that the normal crowd noise from their patio and garden area (their outdoor seating) already runs at about 70 decibels without live music. Enforcement of the ordinance involves a warning, then a $500 fine, and then a trip to jail. Freddie's has already received their warning, and after receiving it they cancelled their scheduled live music events for the rest of the year (83 acts scheduled thus far for 2009). Freddie Nelson, the owner of Freddie's, cited concerns about the potential arrest of his employees as the reason for his decision.
Look, I understand the need to balance the interests of the neighborhood residents against the interests of venue owners in providing live music, but 70 decibels sounds like an awfully low limit. I would also think that enforcing a noise curfew, where volume levels have to be drastically reduced after a certain time at night, would probably be a lot more important than a low, across the board decibel limit. I've said this enough times that it's starting to sound like a cliche, but if Austin wants to continue to brand itself as some kind of "live music capital", then it needs to find a way for neighborhoods and live music venues to peacefully coexist, and coexistence should not mean simply putting and end to live music in venues outside of downtown (and I have a feeling that if these live music ordinances were actually enforced during SXSW and messed with the profitability of that event in any way, the city council would change those ordinances so fast that it would make your head spin).
Anyway, I think the decibel limit needs to be raised a bit, at least up until 9:30 or 10:00 at night.
Well, that's all that I have for the moment.
Everyone play nice.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Well, I don't have much today, but I posted several things over the weekend, so think I should get bonus credit for that.

Watched 24 last night. That show is just getting kind of stupid. I keep watching it because it's like action television crack- it seems pretty exciting and fun if you just stay in the moment and follow the plot without thinking about it very much, but the minute you back up and begin to examine the big picture you begin to notice the gaping holes and spot the ridiculous turns of the plot. They keep trying to take twists and turns that are supposed to make the show unpredictable, but they've actually become pretty predictable in their own efforts to keep people guessing (who didn't see the death of Agent Moss coming? And does anyone really think that Jack Bauer is going to come to his final end flailing around and frothing at the mouth as the result of some terrorist virus?). More troubling is the fact that the constant efforts to take interesting twists and turns end up just making the show implausible and sort of ridiculous (Tony Almeida has been alternately good and bad and alive and dead so many different times that I've begun to lose count, and I think that they've almost run out of new ways to torment and torture Jack Bauer).

I still kind of enjoy watching the show, but my enjoyment has begun to slip toward a Mystery Science Theater type of pleasure in which I like watching the show just so I can mouth off at the characters on the screen. Anyway, I'm a sucker for action shows, especially in the spy thriller type of genre, so I'll probably keep watching 24 (at least for awhile), but I gotta say that the 24 of 2009 is a pretty pale imitation of the first season or two.

I don't have much else.
The Obamas finally got their dog. It's named Bo, and it's a Portuguese water dog. Dogs are supposed to help you relax and help lower your blood pressure. If that's true, maybe the president should let Bo hang out with him in the Oval Office. I guess they got the dog from Senator Ted Kennedy. Good luck, Bo. (p.s.- having just finished Sharp Teeth with its tales of werewolves/weredogs hiding among us, I think Tony Barlow could do some interesting things with Bo's scenario. Could make this picture even more interesting, no?)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Steanso Reviews Sharp Teeth

So I just finished reading this novel by Tony Barlow called Sharp Teeth. It's about werewolves (well, technically they may not be wolves- Barlow plays on the fact that these characters resemble dogs).

Werewolves tales have gotten kind of a strange treatment in literature over the years. While vampire stories have flourished, in terms of popular acceptance (e.g., the Twilight books, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Coppola's Dracula movie, etc.) and some critical support (most notably Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire), werewolf stories seem to have continued to be greeted with skepticism and a bit of derision, pre-judged as cheesy and silly in a way that their vampire counterparts have somehow managed to escape.

But I think that this has largely occurred because werewolf stories (technically considered stories of lycanthropy if you want to geek out and call the "werewolf condition" by its technical name) just haven't really gotten very good treatment. For some reason werewolves just haven't attracted the attention of good writers who are interested in telling exceptional stories the same way that vampires have (I say this knowing that there are some exceptions out there, but I guess my basic point is that werewolves just haven't managed to capture the imagination of the general public in the same way that vampires have, or at least not recently).

But I think the werewolf story has been given short shrift to some extent. I've read time and time again about how vampires resonate strongly within the collective consciousness because of the boundless capacity for metaphor involved with the characters, the idea being that humans in some way instinctively understand and are fascinated by the idea of a person who exists as an alluring, immortal, parasite, lover, and demon which feels its true power only at night. Surely, however, the capacity for metaphor in the werewolf tale is just as profound as that found in the vampire story, if not greater.

Who can't relate to the idea of a submerged beast within us? Who can't understand the conflict between human reason and our more animalistic impulses and instincts? And most of us can relate to the idea that when our more primal instincts take over, people can become pretty horrific in a hurry and bad things can happen. Of course, there's a sort of power and freedom in raw emotion and in allowing yourself to be governed by it, so there's something recognizable about the attraction to lycanthropy in the werewolf metaphor as a counterpoint to the horror and revulsion that a person feels at the transformation of man into beast and at the eventual carnage that almost inevitably results.

Anyway, my point is that werewolf stories don't have to be bad.

And Tony Barlow's Sharp Teeth is pretty good.

The novel is written in verse- nonrhyming but poetic phrases that sometimes form sentences, but sometimes do not. I wasn't sure what to make of the verse style at first (to be honest, when I first opened the book I thought it was going to end up being needlessly gimmicky), but on the whole I found that it ended up enhancing the book and contributing to its overall tone and mood rather than creating the distraction that it might have become in the hands of a less skilled writer.

The rhythm of the verse, in fact, sort of drives the whole tempo of the novel. Barlow writes in a cool, sardonic sort of style, effortlessly throwing out little bits of wisdom and insight in a way that conjures up an image of a mythical late night DJ, (the hippest cat to ever take the airwaves, with the perfect mind-catching turn of phrase to describe every situation and every perplexing event that life has ever had to offer).

The book takes place in L.A., and the werewolves described in it aren't monsters that roam the wilderness outside of medieval castles. The werewolves of Barlow's world are the dogs that live among us- the strays that we adopt from the pound and the large, lively dogs that we see at the park. His werewolves are lawyers and beach bums and gamblers and more. They request injunctions and harass cops and get themselves adopted at the local animal shelter when they need to crash in a friendly place for awhile.

But they're dogs, with pack mentalities and big, scary appetites.

It's hard to say too much about the book, plot wise, without giving too much away, but it focuses on a likable, down-on-his-luck guy named Anthony who reluctantly takes a job as a dogcatcher and who finds himself stumbling into an unexpected world. Dogcatcher. Werewolf book. You see where this is going...

Anyway, it's about time werewolves got their due, and this is a book about the subject which comes pretty darn close to crossing into the realm of actual literature rather than just being disposable pop cheese.

I think you should check it out and see what you think. Even if it's not entirely your favorite, I think most people would have to admit that Sharp Teeth an interesting read and worthy of discussion, and that's probably more than anyone's been able to say about a werewolf book in quite some time.

"Lark thinks to himself there are no rules anymore

there's only the ever constant

law of evolution

become what is or you will be

what is not.

And while you're at it

keep on living true to

the lines of the children's story,

that still echo in your memory.

Go dog go."

- Sharp Teeth, by Tony Barlow

weekend update, a look at a few albums, piracy and negotiation

Hello. I had a pretty good weekend. Friday night I went out to eat with Ryan and Jamie. We went to Hyde Park and then hung out a bit afterward (we watched an episode of The Wire and then Ryan and I, sadly enough, watched an episode of Rock of Love- and you people don't think I share my most shameful secrets on this blog). Saturday I ran some errands and took Cassidy for a walk and procured some fish friends for my new aquarium (it's a pretty small, simple affair, but I still think it qualifies as an aquarium because of the filter and pump and whatnot). Saturday night I went out to my parents house and we had an Easter/Ryan's birthday dinner with the family and some friends. It was a really nice dinner, and I think that everyone had a pretty good time. Thanks, Mom and Dad!! Easter Sunday we went to a nice, relaxed brunch (we being my family along with Jamie's folks) at El Arroyo. It was also pretty nice. Sunday afternoon I hung out with Ryan and Jamie. Ryan and I went down to Waterloo Records and then to Austin Books to do some recreational spending. We wrapped up Sunday evening with a trip to Brick Oven for some pizza, followed by a partial viewing of the traditional Easter classic, The Sound of Music (I took off halfway through it to go do laundry and take care of a couple of other things before having to kick off my week).
I've picked up three new albums in the past week. I got Fleet Foxes self-titled album, which I guess is pretty good, but not exactly my thing (or at least not really my thing right now- I've noticed that sometimes an album doesn't really appeal to me because I'm just not in the mood, and then a few weeks or a couple of months later I find myself more receptive to it). Anyway, the record has some decent songwriting and I especially think that the vocals are strong, but I think it was just a little too mellow and hippie dippy for me at the moment. Maybe I need to just come back to it when I'm in the mood for some more laid back music.
I also got a self titled album from a band out of New York called The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. That album rocks. Literally. It's kind of just a rock record (sort of melancholy alternative rock, but rock nonetheless), running the range from faster, more driving songs down to a few slower, more introspective songs, but I like it (some of the stuff is fairly pop-ish as well. This is a rock band more or less, but it ain't the Raconteurs). I like the lead singer's vocals, I like the music, and I like the songwriting. They're pretty darn cool.
The third album I picked up over the weekend was Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! by Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears. Black Joe and the boys are an Austin-based soul/funk/rock group that squarely falls into the rich tradition of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and some of the other classic funk/soul legends of the 60's and 70's. I saw them play at ACL Fest last year and enjoyed them, but this record kind of reinforces the whole deal. They've got their own thing going on, but they are clearly inspired by people like James Brown, which in my mind is a good thing. After losing James Brown a few years back, it's great to see someone pick up the torch for this style of music and carry it forward in an extremely well-executed, skilled, soulful way. Black Joe has a voice that's well suited for this kind of music, and a really strong feel for this particular style. His backing band, The Honeybears, belt out their songs with a skill and precision that immediately calls to mind some of the great backing bands that toured with James Brown (which is saying a lot, seeing as how some truly great musicians like Maceo Parker are alumni of Brown's band). The horns and the bass are especially cool. Anyway, Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears play the kind of music that just puts you in a good mood and that might even make you want to try out some of your funkiest James Brown dance moves.
Anyway, I think they're out touring around the country right now, but when they come back to Austin we should definitely go see them and welcome them back to the ATX (actually, they're playing outside at Emo's on May 8th. Advance tickets here for $12 plus service charge). Very cool stuff.
So that was the weekend.
Did anyone else follow that story where we (i.e., the U.S.) managed to free Captain Richard Phillips from captivity at the hands of Somali pirates? I'm really glad we got the captain back unharmed, and I know that our military was in a tough situation and did whatever they had to do to secure his safety, but is anyone else a little bothered by how this thing went down at the very end? I'm not really grieving for the pirates who were killed (you pretty much make your life forfeit once you start taking hostages), but I'm concerned about the fact that we seemed to really just use our hostage negotiator to maneuver these pirates into a position where they could be taken out by snipers. I know that we were in a tough position, but that just seems like a pretty questionable tactic in terms of long term policy ramifications for dealing with these situations. I saw an interview with one of the commanding officers from the rescue operation, and he said that the pirates had been pretty businesslike, fairly cooperative (up to a point, obviously), and open to negotiation. I think that when we used our negotiators to set these pirates up for an attack, we were simulataneously sending a message to all potential future pirates that U.S. forces and negotiators are not to be trusted and that there's no point in trying to negotiate with them in good faith because the U.S. is actually just trying to burn you at the first available opportunity. I'm not making this point because I think we owe a standard of fairness to hostage-taking pirates. I'm making this point because I think that we just sent a very dangerous message to anyone who takes Americans prisoners in the future (that message being that there's no point in even bothering to try to talk to American negotiators or in trying to peacefully work out a deal because the Americans are actually only interested in lying to you and actually plan to kill you at their first available opportunity). I think there's a strong possibility that the next pirates who take an American hostage (and yes, I think there will be more of these events) will be much more prone to panic and to hurt people because they're going to think that violence is, in actuality, their only real option (American negotiation efforts having apparently been little more than a ruse in this highly publicized case).
Anyway, I'm very happy that we have our captain back, and I think that our military members performed extremely admirably in this situation, but I think we might need a reexamination of policy.
Well, that's it.
Hope everyone had a good weekend, and that we all have a good week.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Roundball Day/Easter!!!!!

I already posted for Ryan's birthday on Friday, but I wanted to go ahead and wish him well today since it's his actual birthday. Many happy returns, Roundball! Also, happy easter to everyone!

New Housemates

The new housemates are named Mr. Roboto (all orange) and Slippery Pete (orange and white). Hope they're enjoying their new digs.