Monday, August 31, 2009

Weekend Update, Kings of Leon, Cheney Chatter

Hey! Hope you guys had a nice weekend. Mine was pretty good. I didn't do much Friday night. I came home from work with the intention of possibly getting together with friends or family or both or doing something, but I sacked out on the bed with Cassidy to watch some TV, and I fell aslepp and woke up at like 8:30, meaning I had pretty much missed out on going to dinner or doing anything interesting (which ended up being fine). Saturday I ran some errands and went to Barton Springs. (I actually swam some laps and got some exercise). Saturday night I went out to dinner with Ryan and Jamie. Sunday I took Cassidy down to Barton Creek and had band practice witht he Mono Ensemble. While we were down at Barton Springs I saw a dog who looked just like Spuds MacKenzie. (Does anyone else remember Spuds MacKenzie? For the love of God, can someone explain to me why I have difficulty remembering the names of some of the members of my extended family, but I have immediate recall of a dog from beer commericals in the late 80's?!) Anyway, squeezed into the weekend activities was a bunch of tomfoolery involving guitar playing and bad television. Yes, I both DVR'ed and watched Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. What can I say? Lots of people, including 80's pop star Debbie Gibson, worked on this movie, so I just thought someone should watch it. Here's my favorite scene....

Now that's television, Adventurers!

I also got the latest (although not new) Kings of Leon album, Only by the Night. I'm not entirely sold on the Kings of Leon, but I thought that this was some of the best stuff that I've heard out of these guys. It has a big, arena rock sort of sound, with shades of lots of other rock bands mixed in there (I hear touches of everything from Flaming Lips type sounds to U2). I'm still suspicious of the Kings in terms of the fact that they still seem a bit just like pretty boy rockers, and they seem to be more interested in just combining cool elements of other bands as opposed to coming up with anything especially new and fresh, but at least they're deriving their music from other cool acts with cool sounds (and it's hard to make this criticism, anyway. Most all bands these days are combinbing sounds they've picked up from somewhere else. Some bands, though end up with a finished product that sounds more distinct and original than others- TV on the Radio did a good job of this, and, of course, Radiohead is often imitated but never duplicated). Anyway, I like the new Kings album. It's got some cool tunes that are well executed, and I like the singer's voice. This is good news for me because it'll give me at least one option for something to watch on Friday night at ACL Fest.
I also watched some of the Ted Kennedy funeral coverage on Saturday. The whole country is really going to miss that man, but the Democrats in particular. He was a leader with a tremendous amount of credibility, strength, skill, and charisma. He had the ability to aggressively champion legislation that he believed in while still managing to retain the respect and admiration (sometimes grudging) of not only fellow Democrats, but of Republicans as well. Kennedy's absence is definitely going to create a leadership vacuum for Democrats in the Senate. He's going to be missed on both an emotional and a very pragmatic level.

And, not surprisingly, Cheney has once again taken to the airwaves to complain about the Justice Department's investigation into CIA interrogation practices involving terrorist suspects and combat-related detainees (using pre-taped interviews on Fox News). This really isn't a big surprise, given the fact that Cheney had been crying about a witch hunt since before the investigation was even announced. Cheney, of course, has fallen back once again on his argument that the U.S. would have been rendered a charred, irradiated, diseased wasteland if not for the courageous work of intelligence officials who engaged in these sorts of practices (presumably under directives issued by the White House). I was watching CNN's State of the Union when Washington's Senator Maria Cantwell spoke up in defense of the Justice Department, pointing out that Cheney repeatedly invokes the need to defend the nation from terrorist threats (most of which he claims, are classified and can't be revealed to the general public), but that Cheney rarely, if ever, actually addresses the question of whether or not these interrogation tactics were actually legally permissible under federal law and the U.S. Constitution. She went on to point out that the Justice Department's job is simply to investigate violations of the law, and that if the law was, in fact, violated in these cases, that the investigation into these interrogations was entirely proper. Apparently John Kerry made similar statements on ABC's This Week.
Here's the thing. I fully understand and believe that Cheney thought he was doing the right thing and that he was actually acting in the best interests of the country. But I think he was terribly misguided and wrong. I think his own self righteousness and disregard for the law led him to engage in and promote activites which were clearly illegal and wrong. Furthermore, I think that the laws against torture are there for a reason (including the preservation of our ability to righteously reprimand, sanction, and even wage war against groups or nations who do such things to Americans), and even more importantly, I think it's important that other nations know that America is a nation governed strictly by the rule of law and that we expect and demand that our leaders follow the law (I know we run into problems with this in practice, but it's important that we are at least striving to meet these ideals).
Anyway, Cheney's whining has already almost just become background static for me. I really think that Attorney General Eric Holder wasn't just trying to score political points when he ordered these investigations. In fact, Obama seemed pretty eager to put this whole mess behind him when he came into office (and made some public statements about changing policies, but not going back to reexamine activities of past administrations), so it's not even clear that Holder has scored any major political points with this course of action. I really just think that the man is trying to investigate activities which may have been criminal. And that's his job.
Also, I know that eventually this investigation is going to end up running into a wall of "executive privilege" and "national security" confidentiality, so the whole thing is likely to go nowhere, anyway. They'll interview and interrogate field operatives, who in turn will point to orders they received from farther up the chain of command, until eventually they get to a high enough level where people start hiding behind executive branch confidentiality rules. Before this is over, we'll have Dick Cheney sitting in the witness chair, screaming to Eric Holder, "You can't handle the truth!!"
In the end, the people on the right will remain secure in their conviction that they're the ones who've really kept the country safe, while people on the left will be unable to shake off the suspicion that the biggest threat we've faced may have come from people who wanted to use terrorist attacks to leverage themselves some paranoid, xenophobic, amoral, human rights violatin' policies in the name of national security.
All I know is that when you create laws pertaining to things like torture, it's best to make those decisions in calm, rational times, because once the sh*t hits the fan (like right after 9/11), people become very emotional and are likely to respond with fear and anger rather than rational thought. But I think that's one reason we have laws- so our behavior can follow certain rational rules, even in times of great stress. Cheney wants to turn this equation on its head and claim that times of great fear and anger are the best times for effective policy making. I just can't really get behind that line of thinking. I think that the rule of law is more important than ever when people are at their most agitated and excited.
Oh well. I'm sure we'll hear much more grumbling from Cheney before this investigation is over.

That's it for now. Hope this is the start of a good week for everyone!!

Friday, August 28, 2009

IT Crowd; Steanso Isn't Sure Whether He's an Inglorious Basterd

Hey! Not too much to report. Jamie made a nice fish dinner last night, and Cassidy got to play with Scout and Lucy. We watched a couple episodes of a British show called The IT Crowd. It's a comedy about some folks who work for the IT department of some large company. It had some funny stuff in it, but on the whole, I'm not entirely sure it's up my alley. Ryan says this might be because I don't really work around computers as much as he does. He might be right. Anyway, it's got a couple of the guys from The Mighty Boosh in it (Richard Ayoade and Noel Fielding), and, maybe not surprisingly, I thought they were the funniest parts of the show (even though, initially I didn't even recognize Richard Ayoade from Boosh). Anyway, I probably ought to give it another shot at some point.

And can I just go ahead and tell everyone that I'm sort of conflicted about Inglorious Basterds? The first reviews of the movie that I read weren't all that positive (there was one that was just downright negative), but now the thing has like an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anyway, even the positive reviews that I've read have all gone out of their way to talk about how violent the movie is and about how Tarantino's answer to the Holocaust is to turn his Jewish protagonists into a bunch of thugs who are just as sadistic and depraved as the Nazis. I'm just not sure that I'm going to want to sit through a movie like that.
As I told Reed when we were talking the other day, it's not so much that I mind violence in movies per say (I loved District 9, and there was violence o' plenty in that), but there's just something about having to watch violence inflicted upon helpless people, whether they be Jews, Nazis, or whomever, that I just have a hard time watching.
Also, frankly, I just find it a little juvenile and ridiculous that Tarantino's response to the horrors of Nazi Germany is to try to outdo the Nazis in their level of violence and general awfulness (seems like there's some kind of an old parable about an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind... well, what happens when we take turns torturing one another to death?). Anyway, this is in addition to my annoyance with the general Hollywoodification of the Jewish experience during World War II. I read in an article, I think in Newsweek, that Tarantino said that he made this movie because he was tired of seeing the Jews portrayed as victims in movies about World War II. Well, uh, aside from a few, small exceptions, the Jews pretty much were victims in World War II. This isn't because of any sort of collective character defect on the part of European Jews during that time period- it's because the Nazis were pretty sneaky about what was actually going on (many people just thought the Jews were being "relocated"- which was very bad but not nearly as horrifying as what was really going on), and because the Jews just didn't have the training, equipment, support, and/or experience to mount any real sort of effective resistance (they didn't exactly have big stockpiles of weapons laying around). It strikes me as classic American arrogance (and naivete, in a way) to just reject the idea that a people could be systematically victimized by another group of people just because we find such a thought distasteful. The truth is that in the face of overwhelming military superiority that people sometimes don't have much choice other than to comply with orders from the people who would otherwise annhilate them. When your only choice is to do something that you don't like (i.e., get on a Nazi train or go to a camp or whatever) or else face immediate execution, people will take whatever course of action allows them to survive a little longer in the hopes that they will be able to later change their situation or that some external force will change it for them. Americans have a hard time accepting the truth that this sort of thing could potentially happen to any given group of people once another powerful group has demonized and dehumanized them enough to begin committing atrocities against them (hell, it has happened over and over- even in recent memory we've seen genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, etc.) . Americans sit in their houses polishing our guns and convincing ourselves that such things are beyond the realm of possibility for us, in a country where people fashion themselves as having a John Wayne style indepence and an unmatched ability to defend ourselves. Well, if soldiers rolled up on our streets in large numbers with military grade weapons, armor, training, and tactics, the people who chose to resist with the guns that they bought at Walmart probably wouldn't buy themselves much other than the privilege of being killed first. So I think Tarantino's film also just sort of annoys me in terms of it's "this is how American Jews woulda stuck it to the Nazis" theme. In my mind, the actual, real world way of fighting the kind of atrocities inflicted by the Nazis is to be intolerant of political movements, leaders, or groups which demonstrate intolerance and xenophobia, to reject groups and ideologies which would dehumanize or denigrate other groups of people, and to promote and vigorously defend the idea of basic, international human rights and civil liberties.
All of that being said, Tarantino has long ago proven that he's capable of writing some really interesting characters, and some cool dialogue. I'm sure there are things in the movie that I would really like. I'm just not sure I feel like sitting through scenes of people getting their heads bashed in and/or being burned alive in order to try to enjoy myself.

Well, I guess that's it for now. Maybe more later. I'm looking forward to the weekend. Hope you guys are, too.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Will Ferrell as Bush

Hello. Hope all's well.
Last night I finally watched Will Ferrell: You're Welcome America - A Final Night with George W Bush. This was Will Ferrell's one man broadway show (well, basically one man- there were a few other people with bit parts involved) in which he played George W. Bush giving a farewell address as he left office. The show was pretty funny, and Ferrell did a really good job of playing Bush (well, he's parodying him, I guess, but man, I swear that if you squint just a bit you could mistake Ferrell for the actual president). Anyway, the show had a lot of goofy, random Will Ferrell type of humor, but it had some points to make as well. Being more than half a year into the Obama presidency, some of the craziness of the Bush years had already started to fade a bit from my mind. Listening to Ferrell rattle off his list of Bush's "accomplishments" (e.g., the Iraq War and all the lies and distortions that led up to it, implementation of torture, the simple fact that Bush spent at least 40% of his time at his ranch or on vacation while in office, the whole fiasco involving the Katrina response, etc., etc.), however, sort of brought all of the insanity back to mind and made me wonder again, in amazement, at how we ever made it through those eight years.
The weird thing, and Ferrell sort of seizes on this, is that it's hard to not find George W. amusing and kind of likeable on some sort of level. Unfortunately, Bush was sort of likeable in the way that you might enjoy some fun-loving, but not-too-bright guy that you know from school or work. Good for a drinking buddy- the kind of guy who could sort of make you laugh, but do so while walking that thin line between laughing with him and laughing at him. Not the best guy to be the leader of the free world.
Arrgh. I've got quite a bit going on, and not much to say, so I'm going to actually shut up for once.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Happy Birthday, Kim Bloom!!! R.I.P., Senator Kennedy; Synechdoche, New York; The Admiral in Lagos

First off, happy birthday to Kim Bloom!!!! I'm really not even sure how old Kim is, but at some point it becomes a bit irrelevant, anyway. This next trip around the sun ought to be an interesting one for Kim, as she and Sigmund prepare to welcome a kiddo this winter. So.... last birthday before you're a mom, Kim! Enjoy yourself!!

So Senator Edward Kennedy passed away late last night after fighting brain cancer. Ted Kennedy has been a prominent, forceful, charismatic, effective senator since before I was born, and has been championing causes which have helped to benefit the American people for much longer than I can remember. He played a big part in passing pieces of legislation that have helped to shape the social fabric of our modern, American lives, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. Although a staunch Democrat and a liberal, Ted Kennedy was well known for being able to muster bipartisan support for many of his initiatives, and he had many friends in Washington from both sides of the aisle.
Ted Kennedy just seems like a larger than life figure for me from an era when politics were more civil, less acrimonious, and in the end, more effective. It's hard for me to even imagine a politician being able to accomplish the sort of things today that Kennedy accomplished during his lifetime in our modern context. With the scorched earth tactics and the bitterly divisive gamesmanship that seems to have become the norm in Washington in recent years, it's just hard to imagine our leaders being able to work together well enough to pass major pieces of legislation that would have the same sort of impact upon American society that some of Kennedy's bills have had (well, the general paranoia from conservatives about any sort of government programs doesn't help much, either).
Kennedy's presence will be missed immensely in the Senate, I would imagine, and it's not clear who, if anyone, will be able to step forward to fill the leadership vacuum that's been left in Kennedy's absence. It's not going to be easy to find someone who's willing or able to stand up and be as forceful and stalwart in their defense of progressive principles as Kennedy.
He really will be sorely missed.

Not too much else going on. I had dinner last night with Ryan, Nicole, Jamie, and Matt at Suzi's. It was good to hang out with everyone. While we were at dinner a storm blew in. It was brief, but intense. When I got home I found out that a big tree had fallen on my neighbor's house. Too bad, because it was a nice tree. I think the lack of rain recently has probably been drying these trees out and making them sort of brittle.

I also finished watching Synechdoche, New York last night. I thought it was an extremely smart, intelligent film that had a lot to say (much of it quite profound), but I still found the whole thing a little hard to watch. The film is, in broad strokes, about a theater director and his life and his relationships. It's also about his ambition and the value of his life's work, about the nature and meaning of theater itself, about how his work in the theater and his personal life intersect and overlap, about his relationships, and about his struggle to find meaning in life. The movie raises interesting questions, engages in some really fascinating uses of symbolism and metaphor, and has some really well written characters.
All of that being said, at times it felt sort of taxing to watch this sort of morose guy struggle through all of this stuff (i.e., romantic relationship problems, struggles with depression and existential anxieties about his life's meaning, family problems, etc.- Caden Cotard, the film's protagonist, seems like he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown through large parts of the movie) and to still really be able to walk away from the thing saying you thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Still, I think the movie was extremely original, in some ways quite brilliant, and sometimes even really funny.
Anyway, I think that writer/director Charlie Kaufman really is a great artist. It's just that this movie, like other meaningful art, sort of plays on themes and conveys messages which aren't always fun to digest. I don't know. Maybe there were aspects of Caden Cotard that I actually identified with to the point that it bothered me. These sorts of things don't make the art less impressive, but they can sort of make it harder to enjoy.
I'd recommend Synechdoche, but with the warning that it's a sort of strange, surreal movie that's actually going to make its audience work a little.

My dad (aka, The Admiral) is in Africa. Lagos, Nigeria, actually. My dad travels quite a bit for work (he works for Cameron, which makes oil and gas drilling and pipeline equipment), and I think he's maybe even been to Africa before, but it's certainly not a place he's been to more than a couple of times (and not for a while, I think). He seemed pretty interested to go on this trip and see a different place. He said that he's travelling with an armed escort and locals who help him navigate the city (which, he reports, is pretty chaotic and largely devoid of traffic laws). Anyway, it sounds like an interesting trip. Dad has become quite the international businessman over the years, and he's become a lot more comfortable travelling around the world and working with lots of different people from lots of different places and from a variety of different cultures. Pretty cool. On the whole, I'm sort of a homebody, so I'm pretty happy to have a job which doesn't put me on the road a bunch, but I still sort of envy Dad's opportunities to see the world (I like to travel, but on my own initiative and schedule). I still plan on doing more travelling, but, of course, it would be nice to do it on someone else's dime (plus, I think working in a place probably gives you opportunities to interact with local people in a way that simple tourist travel sometimes lacks).

Well, I guess that's about all that I have.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

MSNBC is Lame, Too; Democrats Weak on Health Care Reform; Torture Investigation Backlash

Hello, Adventurers! What's up?
I don't have too much to report. Last night I watched half of Synecdoche, New York. It's an interesting movie, but it was just too much to take in one sitting. I'll hold off on reviewing it until I've finished it, I guess.

I also watched a bit of MSNBC last night. Here's the thing about MSNBC, I've decided: it's decided to brand itself as "the liberal news network" (sort of a counterweight to conservative TV networks like Fox News), which means that I should be right in their target audience, but I don't really like MSNBC coverage because, as with Fox, I feel like I'm not necessarily getting the full picture. Last night they were talking about health care reform, and although I thought they were rightly criticizing some of the lies, distortions, and twisted propaganda of health care reform opponents, the analysts and anchors on the shows that I was watching (Ed Schultz from The Ed Show comes to mind) seemed unwilling to admit that some legitimate concerns and issues actually exist in the health care debate, and that people have a legitimate worries that need to be addressed (the extent of taxation to support the program and the reluctance of the federal government to control healthcare costs by further regulating frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits may be among these concerns).
Anyway, I just don't want my newscasters to be cheerleaders, regardless of which side they're pulling for. Just give me the facts. Or when an issue has two legitimate sides to it, cover both of them, but don't treat opposing arguments as equally cogent when, in truth, one side or the other makes little or no sense. I'm a progressive, and I'm a Democrat, but I just want to know the actual facts so I can tell whether or not I think our leaders are doing the right thing. I'm a lot less interested in distortions or omissions of the facts that are meant to make our leaders look like they're doing the right things.
The media is frustrating. I think CNN is my favorite at the moment, but they sort of hang out there in a ratings limbo. Fox and MSNBC's ratings seem to swing up and down in keeping with political shifts- whichever side (conservative or progressive) happens to be in opposition to the government at a particular time seems to draw higher ratings as people seek out reassuring voices from likeminded TV people who are willing to watchdog the government and lend voice to the frustration and confusion that their politically charged audience is feeling. People watch these news channels in order to be comforted and have their feelings normalized. CNN, still mostly attempting to remain neutral, tends to voice too many contrary opinions to keep either side entirely happy.
The press is supposed to be the traditional watchdog of government, but it seems like lately there's been an awful lot of collusion going on from both sides of the aisle. And I'm not sure what to do about it. The free market seems like it should support the media (because of, yeah, the whole watchdog thing), but it also seems like the American audience that makes up the free market is much more interested in just watching and supporting TV networks that support their political points of view than in watching networks who have objective reporting of the truth as their first priority (and I know I'm opening a whole line of argument here for people who would argue that I'm being naive and that there really is now way to objectively report the truth, but I still think that there's a way to at least attempt to do so for people who are willing to make journalistic integrity a much higher priority than their political beliefs).
I'm just really worried about the direction that American journalism seems to be headed.

I also have to admit that I find all of the debate over health care reform a bit exhausting. In the end, the general population isn't going to vote on the thing, and we all really know that the Republicans are going to use every single vote that they have to vote against it, so really I think this is a matter of getting the Democrats in a room and sorting things out. And yeah, I think the White House might need to twist a few arms. When Blue Dogs stand up and say that they don't support health care reform, I would tell them that they're totally entitled to their opinion and can vote against the bill- but they better give back all of the health care industry dollars they've collected before they cast that vote. If not, I think the White House and the Democrats ought to be endorsing and supporting primary opponents against these people in the next election and torpedoing every piece of legislation that smells anything like pork for these people's constituencies. It's time the president encouraged a little discipline within his own party. The internal discipline of the Republicans has allowed them to "accomplish" an awful lot over the years while the Democrats squabble and bicker and waste their opportunities.
This thing isn't over yet, but Obama needs to start stepping up (he needs to go on the offensive in this healthcare thing- do a much better job of pointing out the bureacracy and costs in the current system, remind people that they can't quit their jobs or move because of the current system, point out that reform opponents are trying to take away people's choices by shooting down the public option, etc.) and he needs to get the Democrats organized, on message, and in line. It's the only way major changes are going to happen. The Democrats have really disappointed me in their handling of this reform debate. More swiftboating. And this time we knew it was coming.

Also, apparently a bunch of Republicans are stating that they will formally protest the investigation of CIA personnel who interrogated and tortured prisoners in U.S. custody. Keep in mind that we haven't even come close to seeing any indictments and we're only looking into the matter at this point. I'm not sure what the hoopla is. We have laws, we have people designed to investigate and prosecute those laws, and being an intelligence agent in no way puts you above the law. Let the Justice Department do its job. If no laws were broken, there should be nothing to fear, right? Right??

Monday, August 24, 2009

Weekend Update; Timecrimes; Turbulence 3; Whale Wars; Justice Department and Torture

Well, I had a really lazy weekend. Lots of guitar playing, a couple of trips down to Barton Creek with Cassidy, some movies, some games, and a bit of reading.
One of the movies I watched was Timecrimes. Timecrimes was a pretty low budget Spanish movie about a guy who blunders his way into a time travel experiment (I can't really explain how without giving away some plot points) at a labaratory near the secluded country house that he shares with his wife. I don't want to give away the plot, but once he jumps through time, things get very complicated for him very quickly.
I had read a few positive reviews of Timecrimes before seeing it, and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. It's a small movie, with a small cast and pretty low fi special effects, but it has a sort of interesting (if kind of contrived) plot, and an almost Hitchcockian feel (in the sense that our protagonist quickly gets yanked out of his pleasant, but mundane life and thrust into a complicated, mysterious situation that he must quickly learn to navigate in order to survive). It sort of recalls some of the better episodes of the old Twilight Zone show or The Outer Limits.
It was a pretty good movie, but I think that some of the critical acclaim that I've seen attached to it (it's Rotten Tomatoes critics poll was 80 something percent when I last checked) probably resulted as much from its foreign origin and indie feel as much as anything else. I mean, it was a clever movie, but if some low budget movie studio in the U.S. had cranked this thing out, it probably would have gone straight to video witout receiving so much as a nod from the critics. I'm not really saying this so much as a complaint against Timecrimes as an observation about the way that our critics approach movies. I just think that small budget movies with clever ideas are sometimes overlooked in the U.S., while we tend to be more accepting of them (if not downright excited about them) when they arrive from overseas. (of course, there are so many straight to video, low budget movies being released here in the U.S. that it's sort of hard to sort through the garbage- and there's a lot of garbage- to find the stuff worth watching)
Also, I'm much less happy to announce that Sunday night I watched, in its entirety, a feature film called Turbulence 3: Heavy Metal. It was ridiculously awful, but in a sort of fascinating way. Even the basic premise of the thing- a heavy metal band broadcasts a concert from aboard a jetliner and the whole operation gets hijacked- really made absolutely no sense. But the movie was so bad that I just couldn't look away. It was a script that seemed like it had not only been written by a 7th grade boy, but by a 7th grade boy who had spent most of his time hiding in his room and dreaming up bizarre, heavy metal rock star fantasies instead of actually interacting with the outside world. Every character was a bad stereotype. Every line was dialogue that had to be painful for the actors to deliver.
It was nuts. Admittedly, I've never seen Turbulence 1 or 2 (those must be the classics), but Turbulence 3 just felt like maybe some writer got assigned the task of writing a movie about an airplane disaster movie and, refusing to abandon the heavy metal band script he had been working on, decided to fuse the two.
I don't know what the deal was. I really don't. It was one of those movies where you just stare at it and wonder how they got through filming without people walking off the set of the movie because it was so frakkin' stupid. The crazy thing is that Rutger Hauer, Joe Montegna, and Gabrielle Anwar were all in this movie (ok, they may not be super A listers, but it still seems like those folks would have better options).
Anyway, Turbulence 3. I don't even know what to say about it. I certainly would never recommend it. But still, if you ever stumble upon it on cable, it's almost worth watching for a few moments just to bask in the inanity of it.
Also, this Friday was the season finale of Whale Wars. Things didn't go so well for the Sea Shepherds this season. The Japanese whaling fleet managed to successfully utilize new equipment (i.e., netting to prevent the Shepherds from boarding Japanese vessels and Long Range Acoustic Devices, normally used for crowd control, to try to drive the Shepherds away) and engaged in new tactics (it seems like the Japanese finally decided to just go ahead and enage in active whaling, even when protesters were present). In combination, the new Japanese tactics and equipment rendered most of the Sea Shepherds anti-whaling activities ineffective. For the first time, whales were killed this season while the Sea Shepherds looked on, all but powerless to stop the killing and processing of the whales.
Eventually, almost predictably, the frustration and desperation took their toll, and Paul Watson, captain of the Steve Erwin, ended up crashing his ship into one of the Japanese harpoon boats while attempting to prevent the ship from loading a dead whale onto a processing ship.
So the last thing we saw on the show was the Australian police showing up to investigate and detain the Sea Shepherds who were on board the Steve Erwin during this last trip (the Steve Erwin sails under the Dutch flag, but out of an Australian port as it makes its way to Atarctic waters). So after the "we're so angry that we're going to run two ships into each other maneuver" it's not clear whether the Sea Shepherds are going to have an Australian port to use as home base for their operation next year, or whether they'll still have a country's flag to sail under. Kind of another example of the Sea Shepherds not really thinking things through before acting.
Even with what seemed like a dismal performance this season, the Sea Shepherds reported that the Japanese whalers came in about 300+ whales under quota, so perhaps the Shepherds continue to exert financial pressure on the Japanese whaling fleet.
Anyway, I just don't see the need for people to continue to engage in whaling. I feel like we should be killing as few animals as possible, and I find it even more disturbing to think about the slaughter of animals that seem to be as intelligent and socially developed as whales.
That being said, I'm not sure that I agree with the way that The Sea Shepherds are going about doing things. The Sea Shepherds seem untrained, sort of incompetent, poorly equipped, and they seem to constantly be putting not only their own lives at risk (often sort of recklessly and needlessly), but also risking harm to the Japanese whalers.
Anyway, if the Sea Shepherds can't find a better way to go about their business than using the tactics from this season, the fight is all but over, anyhow.
But even when I question the methods used by the Sea Shepherds, I find myself sucked in. I sympathize with their cause more than enough to think that their hearts are in the right place, and it's kind of inspiring to see people dedicating themselves with such commitment to trying to make the world a better place. Oftentimes I think their ends would be better served through better preparation, different tactics, and sounder strategy, but you can't deny the passion and enthusiasm.

In the news, it sounds like the Justice Department wants to go forward with reopening investigations related to about a dozen prioner abuse cases involving terrorism suspects. Allegations involve prisoners who died in American custody, threats to prisoners involving guns and power tools, mock executions, and other harsh mental and physical interrogation tactics**.
I've said this before, but I think that these events definitely do warrant careful investigation and possible prosecution.
We shouldn't be torturing people. We shouldn't have pseudo legalistic bureaucracy in place that even makes this legally possible for people in the field. Honestly, I think that torture is such an important decision that the only person who should really be authorizing it should be the president himself (or one of his closest subordinates in the event that the president can't weigh in for some reason). I know that requiring presidential authorization would make it extremely difficult to use these interrogation techniques on someone, but that's sort of my point. That's how important it to restrict this sort of activity, and that's how infrequently we should be considering torturing people.
Anyway, if we don't investigate and prosecute these incidents of torture (which, frankly, I still consider to be war crimes under international treaty and law), then it's going to feel a whole lot easier for our forces to torture prisoners the next time they want information, and before we know it we're going to find ourselves sliding down a slippery slope where greater numbers of prisoners are tortured for a much wider variety of reasons. The only way to deter people from engaging in torture (especially during times when our leaders seem willing to violate U.S. and international law) is to make it clear that people can and will be held accountable and be prosecuted after the fact for engaging in this sort of behavior.
I can't tolerate the idea of giving my tax money to a government that tortures people in any kind of systematic way (like I said, I can imagine the ticking time bomb scenario popping up once every 5 ro 10 years or something, but as I said, that should be the extremely rare exception).

Well, that's all I've got. Hope you guys are having a good start to your week.

(** later I read that Americans had also been threatening to harm the families of these prisoners)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lazy Sunday at the Spillover

Happy Cassidy rides shotgun on the way to Zilker Park.

Random people cool off while people in Barton Springs watch through the fence.

"Jason, why can't we do this every day?"

Friday, August 21, 2009

Big Happy Birthday Wishes to The Admiral and Jackbart!!!!

Happy birthday, Dad!!! I hope you're having a really good one!
We've already done some fun stuff this year (hanging out and having people over at the new house, the London trip, etc.), and I've really enjoyed hanging out with you! Have a safe trip to Africa this upcoming week, and we'll hang out some more when you get back!! (I'm pretty sure you guys are going to be here for Labor Day weekend)
Happy birthday wishes to Jackbart, too!! We also need to be hanging out soon! Jackbart gets special kudos today because I just realized that he mentions both Jeff and me (well, specifically, the names Steans and Wilson) in his new comic, the second issue of Poe (which is really cool). I really wish Jackbart had warned me that he was going to be using my name to boost his sales, though.
Happy birthday to both of you action heroes!!!!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Compassion for Mass Murderers; Healthcare Reform and the Death of Facts

Hey! Hope everyone's doing okay.
Last night I went to Jackbart's book signing over at Austin Books. It was cool. In addition to, of course, getting some issues of Poe that were signed by Jackbart, I also picked up the first issue of John Constantine: Hellblazer, a comic which I've really enjoyed over the years (even after they made that watered down, lamer movie version of the book starring Keanu Reeves). So, anyway, the signing was pretty cool.

Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the terrorist who killed 270 people when he blew up Pan Am flight 103, was released from prison in Scotland today because he's dying of terminal prostrate cancer and the Scottish justice system decided he should be able to die at home.
Steanso is pretty liberal about a lot of things, Adventurers, but this really pisses him off. This guy blew 270 people into little pieces (many of whom were Americans), and Scotland is worried about showing him compassion? Maybe the Texan in me is finally coming out, but honestly, I feel like he was shown compassion when he wasn't immediately executed for his crime (I really pretty much hate the whole idea of torture, but this is one of those guys that I really wouldn't have lost a lot of sleep over if I heard that they were doing some nasty things to him).
Anyway, send doctors into the jail, get the guy some medical treatment, etc., but no frakkin' way should he be going home under any circumstances. Even allowing the man to die with some semblance of dignity in jail shows much more compassion than he ever attempted to show for his victims. I know that the Scots think they're just doing the proper, civil thing by releasing this guy, and I can respect their desire to be compassionate people, but I think that this decision was an affront to the victims of this crime and their families, and that, frankly, it was a decision that was simply unjust. When you slaughter 270 innocent people you have proven yourself unworthy and undeserving of mercy and compassion. This ruling by Scottland strikes me as a decision that wasn't so much about justice as it was about a government and judiciary which felt like it wanted to make a display of its own benevolence and mercy. The focus seems like it shifted away from the actual crime and its victims and at some point moved to Scotland's ability to send a political message regarding its ability to rise above the desire for simple revenge. Well, I really do think that making this man die in prison would have satisfied justice, not revenge. Already there have been claims by some observers that the real motivation behind this Scottish decision stemmed from a desire by leaders in the U.K. and the U.S. to shore up relations with Libya in order to facilitate the purchase of oil from that country. Also worth noting is the fact the U.S. was supposedly assured by Scottish authorities at the time of trial that the bomber would serve out his full prison sentence in Scotland without being returned to Libya if he were tried in Scottish courts and never extradicted to the United States. Now the bomber is headed home to say his final goodbyes and spend the final months of his life in peace.
If he wanted to say goodbyes, they should have been said from the confines of a Scottish prison. Grrrrr....
The people making the decisions in this case ought to be truly, deeply ashamed of themselves.

What else is in the news? CNN reports that debunked rumors continue to influence the health care deabte. Well, no shi*t. Really? That's a headline? Still just figuring that out? What strikes me as even more annoying is the fact that CNN and other news outlets keep acting as though all of these health care protesters who are disrupting meetings and spreading misinformation are just poor, hapless dupes who are victims of a disinformation campaign by the health care lobby and right wing organizers. Here's the thing: most (or at least many) of these people either know that the soundbites and talking points that they're spouting (or yelling) are bullsh*t, or else they just don't care about whether they're true.
They don't really understand what healthcare reform involves or how it will effect them, but they know that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Sean Hannity are against it, so by God, they're against it, too. It doesn't matter if it will ultimately keep more people healthy or help to keep down healthcare costs- healthcare reform is a plan that Democrats are advocating, so it must be evil, it's undoubtedly ruining our country, and it must be opposed by any means necessary (well, to be fair, they haven't actually killed anyone yet, but they've started carrying guns to rallies, so we'll just keep an eye on that statistic for a while and see what develops) . CNN and other news outlets don't want to offend any potential members of their audience (can't afford to lose a single viewer, you know), so they won't just admit that by now this thing is way beyond facts, figures, and things that make logical sense. We're way into the "us against them" phase, and I tend to think that a significant number of health care reform opponents see facts as just suspicious tools that those sneaky Democrats somehow always find a way to use against them. Facts being so rarely helpful to the sort of conservatives who enter into shouting matches and propaganda wars like this one (can we all fondly remember the beautiful simplicity of the swiftboating campaign against John Kerry?), many of those on the right have now decided to reject facts entirely and to fabricate reality out of whole cloth in order to create a fictional world which better suits their sensibilities.

Working on the mental health docket I deal with delusional thinking on a daily basis, and I'm going to just go ahead and say that I've begun to see signs of it again and again in these town hall meetings. The biggest weaknesses in a democratic governmental system are ignorance and unthinking, emotional reactions within the populace, and the legacy of Karl Rove is a whole new methodology (through new ways of manipulating the mass media and new organizational structures that are used to "control the message") that exploit exactly those weaknesses. Deny facts. Disseminate misinformation. Stoke fealings of fear and anger. Develop an "us against them" worldview, and present your party as a safe haven for the "real Americans". It's not a methodology based on logic or facts at all. And many of the people consuming it have gone so far down the rabbit hole that they no longer have any deisre to seek out information. They just want the soundbites and propaganda that's fed to them through certain, approved channels (specially designed to reinforce their worldview).

CNN is wrong. The reform opponents aren't concerned with facts. They simply don't trust them. They've been taught for decades now not to trust any piece of information that comes from anything other than an approved, conservative source (and Fox News, who's still telling people not to trust the "mainstream media"- which has long been described by the right as liberally biased- now has more than twice as many viewers as CNN and MSNBC combined, and recently came in as number one across a ratings comparison of all TV news programs. So now that Fox is mainstream, shouldn't they be distrusted too? Or shouldn't people be at least be cross checking their Fox data against less "mainstream" sources?). We have networks and news shows which freely admit to having a progressive agenda these days (i.e., the anti-Fox people at MSNBC and Air America, for example), but the conservatives continue to lump in any news outlet that doesn't have a conservative agenda as "liberal". They won't even allow for the possibility of objective, fact-based journalism.

Anyway, it's nice to think that people are coming to town halls and shouting down leaders simply because they've become fearful after becoming rattled by disinformation, but the truth is that lots and lots of people just don't want to look at real facts, and Fox is perfectly willing to step in and fill the void with propaganda that fits neatly into the hole in people's lives that used to be filled by actual reporting.

The irony is that there really probably are some very legitimate reasons for people to be concerned about health care reform (How will we pay for it? How will it effect the availability of specialists and elective procedures? What kind of wait times will we be talking about in order to get in to see a doctor? Will subsidization of a government option really drive private providers out of business, in trun limiting our choices? etc.,), but the tradgedy is that if health care reform were to fail in a vote tomorrow, it probably wouldn't be because of anything resembling a legitimate reason. Instead, it would fail because of opposition garnered through scare tactics, fearmongering, and simple, visceral animosity toward "the other side" (death panels, a communist/Nazi takeover, direct government access to our bank accounts, etc.).

There's a very real, very intelligent public debate out there to be had about health care, but industry lobbyists, political leaders (some conservative and some just in the pockets of the health care lobby), and even the public seem to afraid to address the real issues. Maybe they're afraid that a lot of the fears surrounding legitimate issues can be allayed, so instead they're clinging to lies, distortions, and emotion in their desire to "win" (another irony, I think, is that a lot of the people who are protesting at these town hall meetings are going to be the same people who will be suffering in the coming years if health care reform doesn't pass).

Our health care system just isn't all that good. By almost any measure and in almost any poll that you see, we're lagging behind many other countries in the industrialized world. People who work hard every day in our country can't afford health care. And most every prediction says that things will get worse if changes aren't made.

Anyway, I keep promising myself I won't get sucked farther into this healthcare tomfoolery, but obviously it's not working. I'm going to go surf the internet and look for cute, soothing pictures of puppies, dolphins, and penguins now.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jackbart at Austin Books Today!! Back to Iraq?

Hi. Hope you guys are having a good day.

Hope everyone is planning to come out to Jackbart's book signing at Austin Books today!
Austin Books is at 5002 North Lamar, and if you show up, Jackbart will regale you with tales of his adventures and share his ten step program to perfect coolness with you. Also, he might sign a copy of his comic, Poe, for you (which is really good). In addition to have the opporunity to gaze upon Jackbart and listen to his witty banter, you will have the opportunity to wander around Austin Books, which is almost certainly the best comic store in Austin, and probably the best in the state (and among the best in the country).
So that's my plug, but it's a heartfelt one (I really do like the comic or I just wouldn't bother to mention all of this stuff).

Last night Jamie made some good chicken and we got the dogs together again. They seem to get along very well, which is good because going over to Ryan and Jamie's house is one of Cassidy's favorite things in the world.

There were a string of bombing attacks in Iraq today that killed at least 95 people and injured 563 more. That's awful. I just read an article recently about increasing violence against Shiite Muslims in Iraq, and about how the Shiites were making a conscious effort to remain peaceful and not retaliate against the Sunnis because they knew that the terrorists were just trying to drag the country back down into sectarian conflict and bloodshed (the Shiites outnumber the Sunnis and in the new Iraqi government they've seized a lot of the political control that used to be held by the Sunni minority under the old regime. The theory is that Sunnis are now trying to destabilize the country in order to create a chaotic situation where they can once again wrestle political control away from the Shiites). So the Shiites have been trying to take the high road, attempting to use the new political system in their favor, but it's not really clear how much they'll actually be willing to tolerate before they start retaliating against the Sunnis and the whole country descends into fighting and possible civil war. And, of course, it seems like the Iraqi security forces (military and police) that the U.S. has been training seem like they're doing a wholly inadequate job of protecting the Iraqi people and containing the violence. So much for the theory that the Iraqis are now trained and ready to effectively handle the country's problems on their own.
There's nothing more disconcerting than seeing terrorist attakcs simply ratcheted up in intensity and number when they're initially met with passive, peaceful resistance (and it's very hard to sit back and tell the Shiites to avoid retaliation and put up with this sort of thing when their people are getting blown up).
As much as I wanted our troops out of Iraq (and never wanted them there in the first place), this is the sort of thing that makes me think maybe we need to have a security force permanently in place (I guess we already have a small one- I'm not sure what the numbers are, though). I was pretty much totally against going to war in Iraq, but now that we've sort of bombed the place back to the stone ages and took their corrupt and awful, but relatively stable government out of commission (which managed to keep the country from imploding for decades), I sort of think we have to operate by the "you broke it, you bought it" school of thought and make sure that the country doesn't just descend into civil war and ethnic strife. I really, really don't want to keep troops over there, but U.S. is largely responsible for creating the current situation in Iraq, so now it doesn't really seem fair to leave the Iraqi civilians in a worse position than they were in before we arrived. I don't want to be in Iraq any longer, but it might be the right thing to do.
Maybe I'm wrong about this. Actually, I hope I'm wrong about this. The problem is that I can sort of foresee some pretty bad stuff going down over in Iraq, and as bad as we want out of that country, it will be an even worse tradgedy if Iraq turns into a total quagmire of violence and oppression in the wake of U.S. military occupation (and let's be honest- occupation is really what we were doing).
Hopefully the recent bombings in Iraq are just an aberration and not the beginning of an ongoing campaign meant to challenge the new government and destabilize the country. Or hopefully the Iraqi security forces can get their act together, protect the Iraqi people, and curtail terrorist activity. Hopefully.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Jackbart's Booksigning for Poe; Cassidy Meets Cousindog Scout; Favre's Back

First off, I've been quite negligent in failing to mention that my friend Jack "Jackbart" Mitchell is going to be doing a comic book signing tomorrow night at Austin Books for his new comic called Poe. It's sort of a work of historical fiction (well, it's got some fantasy in there, too, so I'm not sure historical fiction is the right word) about Edgar Allen Poe, and it's a really entertaining, engaging read with good art (and yes, Jackbart, Ryan finally got me the first issue, which I immediately read). I believe the book signing is from 4:30 until 7:00 at Austin Books at 5002 North Lamar, so everyone should go over there and get Jackbart to sign a copy of his book!

What else? I took Cassidy over to Steans Manor last night to meet Scout for the first time. Things went pretty smoothly, and all three dogs got along relatively well (which was a relief- Scout and Lucy seem to get along pretty well now, but there was a bit of growling and snarling when Ryan and Jamie first brought Scout home). You can tell that there's still a little tension as they try to sort out the dynamics of the new pack, but they played together a bit and generally seemed okay with one another. I think they're all going to settle in and get along really well in the end.

Favre's back. Playing with the Minnesota Vikings. I'm really not into professional football much these days, so it doesn't effect me a whole lot. Should provide for some interesting matchups against the Packers this year, though. I can see the guy falling apart with injuries and general age related problems, or I could see him deciding that he has something to prove and leading the team to a Superbowl game. History has taught me that all things are possible when Favre is involved (the man throws touchdowns and interceptions, but he always tries to make things happen). But all of his retirement/ no retirement bullsh*t continues to annoy me, and I still don't blame the Packers for eventually getting tired of it and jettisoning him so they could have a chance to rebuild. He's been retired and unretired so many times now that I've lost count, and injuries continue to plague him (arthroscopic surgery during the off season for a partially torn right bicep muscle). But the man has an incredible amount of willpower, a great understanding of the game, and strong leadership skills. I just hope he doesn't get seriously injured before he finally decides to walk away from competing professionally (I mostly say this just because it seems like he's not going to be willing to retire for any other reason). Anyway, from one longtime Favre fan to the Minnesota fans who are getting ready to start supporting him- you've got a wild ride ahead of you, guys. You're not getting a quarterback who always does the right thing, but you are getting a guy who really, really loves to win. Favre will give you moments to make you cheer like crazy, but he can break your heart a bit, too. Good luck!! (except when you play the Packers)

Monday, August 17, 2009

One Love

This is another song from the group Playing For Change, an organization which seeks to spread worldwide messages of peace and unity through music. They work in a number of different formats and styles, but this song (and a number of others) are recorded by a number of different musicians in different parts of the world and then mixed together into one song by the producers and engineers of Playing For Change.

In a little side note, when I was in Paris I met a woman from California who was the neice of one of the producers who heads up this project. Also perhaps of note is the fact that I saw a whole bunch of different street musicians while wandering around London (both on the street and on The Underground) and it seemed like at least half of them were playing Bob Marley music.

Weekend Update; Health Care Reform and the Public Option

Hey! The weekend was pretty good, if not overly eventful. Friday night I went and had Chinese food with Ryan and Jamie and then watched some TV at the crib (I got Ryan to watch a new episode of The Colony with me). Saturday I got up and took Cassidy to the pet store for food, followed by a trip down to the Barton Springs spillover, where we got in some sun and splashing. Saturday afternoon I went and saw District 9 with Team Steans (review here). The movie was especially crowded, and I ended up not even being able to sit with Ryan and Jamie, but it was good. Saturday night I went out to Don and Jajuan Wilson's house for a wedding shower for Andy and Rami. It was nice, and the food was really good. Sunday I got up and went and had brunch with the family at the Iron Cactus down on 6th Street (my parents were in town, so we celebrated my dad's birthday, even though it's really not until next Friday). The Iron Cactus has a really good brunch on Sundays. I piddled away much of the afternoon on Sunday( a little reading, little guitar, little nap), and went out to dinner with Matt, Nicole, Ryan, and Jamie at Maudie's on Sunday night. It was good to see Matt and Nicole.
So it was a good weekend. Lots of good meals and good company. I ate too much.

And the New York Times ran a front page article saying that the "public option" may be dropped from the health care reform legislation. This means that there wouldn't be a government run health insurance program to compete with private insurance providers and drive costs down. I think I'm pretty strongly in favor of the inclusion of a public option. Private insurance companies and health care providers are claiming that such a program would be subsidized by tax dollars, would compete unfairly, and would drive private insurance companies out of business. On the contrary, I think that a big part of the problem with our current health care system is that the companies involved with health care have allowed prices to become unnecessarily inflated (I think there's just a lot of waste and inefficiency built into the system, and, of course, the goal of the health care companies, like any other business, is to maximize profits rather than always providing patients the best treatment possible at the lowest price). I think that if the legislation is written to keep subsidization of the public option to a minimum, and if private health care providers operate their businesses fairly and honestly, there's no reason private companies can't be very competitive and continue to make money (we have companies like Fed Ex and UPS competing very successfully against the government-run U.S. Post Office, and the private companies seem to be the ones who are thriving while the postal service sort of struggles).
There's a big part of me that thinks a government option is probably the only way to keep private industry honest within the health care industry. People will continue to buy private insurance if the prices are competitive and if private industry can provide extra services or a quality of service that the public option cannot. On the other hand, if private insurance continues to grow increasingly, ridiculously expensive, people will have a public option to turn to if they are otherwise unable to afford coverage.
All of that being said, I recently watched a piece on CNN that discussed health care reforms that were implemented about 3 years ago in The Netherlands, and it seems like they've managed to effectively implement a system that's devoid of a "public option", but which instead has a heavily regulated system of private health care providers. Dutch citizens are now required to have health insurance, and they receive government subsidies to help with it when they can't afford it. Anyway, according to the CNN story, this Dutch system is much less expensive than the American system (the average amount spent per patient per year was almost half of that in the U.S.), many more people are covered (theoretically, the coverage is almost 100%), the ratio of doctors to patients throughout the country is much higher, and the life expectancy of Dutch citizens is about a year to two years longer than in the U.S.. So even though there's not a public option in The Netherlands, they seem to have found a health care model that's working more effectively than ours.
All of this to say that maybe the death of the "public option" isn't necessarily the end of the world in the health care debate.
Mainly, though, I worry about whether or not we can effectively regulate the health care industry and control costs here in the U.S.. The minute we pass new regulations I'm afraid that the health care industry will hire armies of lawyers and lobbyists to find loopholes and create end runs around cost control legislation. I'm not sure.
Anyway, ideally I'd like to see a public option in the health care reform package, but if we don't get it, maybe we can still make some positive changes, anyway.
Off and on for a while now the White House and top Democrats have periodically raised the possibility of private, possibly non-profit insurance cooperatives and other options that might help to quell right wing worries about the public option and its potential for turning into a single payer, government run health care system (leaving the public with few if any alternative choices).
Frankly, if the end result is effective health care at lower costs for more people, I'm not really that concerned about how we get there. As we've seen before, I think Obama is a fairly pragmatic president, so I doubt that he's inclined to get hung up on ideology if he thinks that he can accomplish the same goals by different, less controversial means. It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Steanso Watches District 9

I went and saw District 9 on Saturday afternoon. [spoilers] Distric 9 is a sci fi movie about a segregated district that is set up as a sort of alien ghetto or slum after an alien spaceship becomes stranded on Earth (floating above Johannesburg, South Africa, actually). As one might expect, human reaction to the arrival of aliens is sharply divided, with some people demanding that the aliens receive the same civil rights and privileges as the human population, while another, more xenophobic segment of the human population resents the expenditure of resources upon the aliens, distrusts their motivations (though few humans have direct contact with the aliens, so few people really know them), and generally wants to see them leave (which the aliens apparently can't do), or at least see them remain as far away from the human population as possible.
I thought District 9 was a really good movie. It had a lot to say about human nature and about the way that we treat other people that we see as different from us (many of the humans in this movie see the aliens as utterly different than humans, but as the film gives you a closer look at the aliens, it becomes clear that many of their instincts and motivations, in fact, have a lot in common with their human counterparts. And, of course, given the way we've seen mankind demonstrate inhumanity towards other humans over the course of history, it doesn't take a huge leap of logic to assume that large numbers of humans might have little difficulty exhibiting brutality toward beings who were actually from another world).
The movie is thick with metaphor, and it's really one of those movies that shows us what good science fiction can be. Although the movie deals with aliens and their arrival on earth, the main messages and questions that the movie presents are clearly the kind of thing that actually address human nature and the human condition. The movie isn't just about funny space men. There are themes in the movie that easily recall real world- historical events such as apartheid, the medical experiments carried out by the Nazis, concentration camps, etc.. Equally important, the movie asks what kind of characteristics a person has to have in order to deserve equal rights (should we base such decisions upon the way that a person looks? upon their habits and customs? Upon their point of origin? Shouldn't the ability to reason and think be enough?)
The film does a good job of carrying out the clever task of introducing aliens who look scary and inhuman (i.e., they look a lot different than us), before revealing that the humans in this movie are the real monsters. This might sound like a bit of a cliche (certainly not the first time we've seen that theme in sci fi), but the movie also takes pains to show that not all of these aliens are just a bunch of warm and fuzzy, E.T.-like aliens who are simply being chased by mad, bad scientists. The movie goes out of its way to show that there are aliens who are carrying out crimes and otherwise reacting poorly to the stresses of ghetto life and oppression, and there are some human political groups- though we see little of them- who are applying political pressure in order to try to safeguard the rights and the safety of the aliens (not all of the humans are necessarily bad- in fact, on the whole, the movie makes it appear as if there might be both malicious and well-intentioned people in both the alien and human populations). In keeping with the theme of discrimination and segregation, the movie takes pains to show that some of the aliens occasionally engage in bad behavior, and as in real life, the people who oppose alien rights and support segregation exploit these alien crimes to build distrust and spread fear of the aliens within the human populace.
Anyway, the movie isn't flawless (e.g., I thought there were a few issues in terms of pacing and the development of supporting characters- which can be difficult to overcome in a 2 hour movie), but I thought that it was quite good. They even managed to squeeze in some good action sequences and big explosions (now that I think about it, there were a lot of big explosions).
It's probably been my favorite movie of the summer (well, I still liked Star Trek, but that came out in May, so it's barely a summer movie). It kind of made a lot of the other sci fi that's come out lately (the new Terminator, Transformers 2, etc.) look even stupider than they already did (which was pretty freaking stupid).
So Steanso gives District 9 a hearty thumbs up. As a word of warning, there's definitely some pretty graphic violence in it, but it's a good flick.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Bands I've Been In

This isn't a regular post. I wrote it a while back, mostly for my own benefit, but I'm going to post it to put it on the record.

So here it is. A brief history, somewhat incomplete, of the musical career of Steanso. I'm not sure why I decided to create this list, except that I realized I'd been playing with different people for years and had never compiled such a list. Looking back at the list, I can honestly say that I really enjoyed playing with every one of these bands and every person who was in them, and that's pretty incredible (there have, of course, been a few bumpy moments here and there, but nothing that couldn't be ironed out. When playing music with people I've always tried to stick to the philosophy that so long as the argument is about how to make the music better, you should try to never take disagreements personally).
Anyway, there have been other informal get togethers, groups of people that I've played with from time to time, and even a few aborted attempts at launching different projects (Jeff Peek, DK, and I were going to start a project once that never got off the ground, to name one), but these are the bands that actually lasted long enough and had enough solidity to their rosters for me to consider them actual bands...

Nameless Band (we really had no name): Austin, Texas, Circa, 1990. Members: Corbin Supak (guitar and keyboards), Reed Shaw (drums), Rob Hall (guitar), and me (bass). Venues played: a bunch of practices and one party, I think.

This was the high school band I joined with Reed right after I got a bass guitar. I was learning to play my bass in order to play the songs. We played only covers, and played songs by Agent Orange, The Doors, Living Colour, and others. We had a lot of fun, and without this band my bass might have just gone into my closet without me really ever learning to play it. Corbin yelled at me a bit until I learned the notes on my bass.

Loggerhead: Houston, Texas, Circa 1992. Members: Scott Garrison (lead vocals and guitar), Bob Popinski (trumpet), Jake P-? (Plummer? Something like that- sorry, Jake) (drums), Chris Godby (keyboard, guitar, backing vocals), and me (bass). Venues played: Catal Huyuk (the old Axiom), Zelda's (downstairs Fitzgerald's- the band played upstairs, too, but I was gone back to Trinity by then), the Iguana (or something like that- I can't remember the name, really), and probably a few I'm forgetting. Trivia: We used to loan recording equipment to a sort of popular Houston band called De Schmog, and they would let us open for them in exchange).

This was a sort of pop/folk band that comprised by a bunch of guys just out of high school. The music was simple, but catchy and fun. The lead singer and the drummer used to argue a lot. This was the first band I ever played real gigs with. It was an interesting experience. Houston is a huge town, but the music scene at the time was pretty small, and our band got a pretty good write up in the local independent newspaper after only playing a few times.

The Stray Toasters: San Antonio, 1991-94. Members: Nathan Cone (guitar), Frank Birchak (guitar), Brian Cox (drums), Nick Sokol (lead vocals), and me (bass). Venues played: Cameo Club, a couple of different icehouses, Sonny's (an old bar and burger place by the park), a couple of places on St. Mary's Street, the Trinity University student union, some coffeehouse downtown, and other places I'm probably forgetting.
We had some talented musicians within the ranks of The Stray Toasters (Nathan and Frank had both been in band and knew a lot about music- Frank used to teach guitar lessons, and Brian had been playing the drums since he was pretty young), but mostly this band was about kind of pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to an audience. There was a whole lot of feedback, noise, and strange sounds. We used to do a sort of psychedelic punk version of With or Without You that would just about make the sorority girls cry. Later, toward my latter days with The Toasters, the band started getting into more jazz and other stuff. We played with a trumpet player from the Trinity jazz band named Steve Gotts, and he got us into playing some Herbie Hancock and stuff like that. I dropped out of the band around my senior year (I had less important stuff to do), but I kept going to listen to them and enjoying the music.

The Benjamins: 1992-94, San Antonio; Henry Benjamin (lead guitar), Mike Jones (rhythm guitar), Lee Thweatt (vocals), Brian Cox (drums), and me (bass). Venues played: a number of parties (Greek and other), coffeeshops, Sonny's by the Park, and at least one private party at the Cameo Club.
This was a band that seemed mostly just interested in playing music people would like for parties and stuff. Henry wrote us some original material (I still remember a cool song he wrote about Santa Clause, but I don't have a recording), and we played some poppy/alternative covers (I remember Just Like Heaven by The Cure and Scarred But Smarter by Drivin and Cryin). When the band started I think most of us lived in the dorms, so we had a hard time finding places to practice. We used to have sort of guerrilla rehearsals in study lounges, parking garages, and dorm rooms (while constantly dodging noise complaints and visits from campus security). It was a fun band to play in, but it never seemed like this band was really a priority for any of the people who were in it, and we were really disorganized. The band sort of just fell apart, especially after Henry started playing with another Trinity band called Uncle Bud. Still, we had a good time.

The Mono Ensemble: 1997-???, Austin; Eric Gottula (guitar, vocals, keyboard), Reed Shaw (drums), Frank Skowronski (guitar), Jim Gillespie (saxophone and bass), and me (bass and guitar). Venues: lots of parties, Carousel Lounge, Club DeVille, a fundraiser at Alligator Grill, some kind of music festival, South by South First at Bella Blue, and surely other places I'm not thinking of.
Mother's Monkey went on hiatus way back around circa '96 or '97, and reformed as this band (with me sliding into the mix somehow after playing separately with Reed). I've been playing with Mono Ensemble for a long time now and still really enjoy it. We try to practice once a week (whether we have upcoming gigs or not), although it's sometimes difficult to accomodate everyone's schedules. Everyone in the band just really loves music, and that's why we keep playing, regardless of whether or not we have gig on the calendar. Some days are better than others, but on the whole I really think we're a pretty strong band. We've played all different kinds of stuff over the years, and Eric writes some great original material, so it's always a pleasure to play with Mono E.

Crack: 2005- ???; Austin; Andy Sensat (keyboard, occasional drums, vocals, trombone- whatever), Sigmund Bloom (trombone, percussion, guitar, vocals, etc.), Jeff Wilson (former bass player- he'll always be in the band in a sense), and me (mostly drums, occasional banjo, guitar, bass, etc.). Special friend- Gary Meyer (guitar). Venues: Ruta Maya, Carousel Lounge, South by South First at Bella Blue, parties.
Crack basically formed sometime back around 1995 because my neighbor, Jeff Wilson, wanted to buy a bass and start a band. Crack knew very little about their instruments or making any kind of traditional, conventional music at our inception, and things haven't changed much (musically) since that time. Crack's main goals are to be fearless, play whatever makes us feel good, and to never give any consideration to what any potential audience might think of us as we make our music (first rule of Crack: the audience is always expendable). Despite our lack of technical skill (which, in spite of ourselves, has slowly, incrementally increased over the years), the guys in the band are huge music fans and have a good feel for what sounds interesting and/or good (and sometimes we can actually make our instruments produce those sounds). Andy sometimes comes up with narratives to explain our musical journeys.
Anyway, Crack is a blast to play with, and I hope we can continue to make music for a long time. On any given occasion when Crack gets together to play music you never really know what we're going to sound like, but it's almost always intriguing and often quite cool to listen to.

So that's my musical history (as of right now- I'm always wanting to make more, ya know). There were plenty of other late night jams and other times when I hung out and played with friends (like Richard Warneke helping me learn to play the guitar back when I was in college- we spent a lot of nights in the dorm with our acoustic guitars and some beers), but as I said before, these are the bands that I actually played various types of gigs with.

Judge Aguilar's Farewell; Steanso Hears Voices; Goodbye, Les Paul

I went to a kind of memorial party that was thrown in Judge Aguilar's honor last night at Matt's El Rancho. It was a really nice event. Ray Esperson got up and said some really nice things about the judge, and then one of the judge's sons got up and spoke a bit as well. I thought the judge's son said some really great things. He spoke about how the judge had gone through some really hard, low times in his life (in particular while struggling with alcohol problems), and that his friends from the courthouse had helped support the judge as he fought through those problems. He also said that the judge had learned things during some of these struggles that he had shared with his son in order to help his son through some of his own serious problems, so now he believed that even his father's dark times had occurred for a purpose and had meaning.
He really did his dad proud.
It was also one of those nights that just sort of reminded me how closely knit our Travis County courthouse can be. There's something about practicing law, I'm convinced, especially in the friendly but contentious atmosphere of the Travis County criminal courts, that really makes people get to know one another and understand each other a bit. I looked around the crowded room and I just saw a whole lot of big personalities (there are all kinds of personalities at the courthouse, but given the sort of extroverted nature of attorneys, it just feels like the volume is turned up a bit on our interactions).
Anyway, it really does feel like a big, crazy family on one level (I guess because even when we aren't particularly thrilled with each other, we all know that we need to find a way to live with each other). When a person who really feels like part of the community goes away, it really does resonate. There's definitely a certan oral history of the courthouse, and even as we remembered Judge Aguilar other lawyers were mentioned who have passed on, but who are stilled talked about in stories and anecdotes retold at the courthouse (Thad Son jumps to mind).
So we'll all miss Judge Aguilar. He was a nice guy, an entertaining, interesting guy to talk to, and a good lawyer who did good work representing his clients (as an advocate, litigator, and in terms of listening and giving advice). He'll be missed.

Changing the topic, I know I rarely talk about the day to day specifics of my job on here, but on Wednesday I went to a mental health seminar that was pretty interesting. The program was designed by a woman who had, I believe, some sort of graduate degree in psychology, but who also had schizophrenia. The seminar was about understanding and empathizing with symptomology, and it was pretty interesting. Part of the program involved all of the participants (like me) wearing walkman type CD players (with headphones) and listening to voices which were meant to mimic the internal voices that many people with schizophrenia hear as part of their day to day life. When I first started the exercise and heard the voices, I thought that they were sort of vaguely troubling, but not that big of a deal because I thought that I could more or less ignore them. The exercise, however, had us also performing simulated, day to day sorts of tasks (going to a doctor's appointment, answering questions about an article we had read, etc.), and it quickly became clear to me that even fairly simple tasks were becoming much more difficult to complete with the voices speaking to me. My focus, concentration, and ability to recall things went right out the window.
Anyway, it was a really interesting experience which shed a bit of light upon some of the activities of defendants (including their interactions with police officers and other members of the community) that I end up hearing about on my caseload. And, of course, as distracting as the voices were on our headphones, they probably pale in comparison to the effects of true schizophrenia, where delusions sometimes come into play and where people here these voices fairly constantly for years and years.
It was a good seminar.

Also, I guess electric guitar innovator and musician Les Paul died Wednesday at the age of 94. Les Paul was not only a widely respected guitarist, but he created things which are considered music industry standards today- like innovations that led to multi-track recording and some of the modern versions of solid body electric guitars. In addition to all of that, he always seemed like a really nice guy when I saw him on interviews. He was still playing guitar and performing music publicly into his 90s.
So via con dios to a guy who gave a lot of joy to music lovers. He's something of a legend.

I don't have a whole lot else. Looking forward to the weekend. Hope you guys are doing well.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

That Ain't a Post!!

Hey. I didn't have time to write today, and I never wrote anything ahead of time last night, so.... sorry. You'll probably get over it. If not, I send my deepest apologies and beg forgiveness.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What are People Really Mad About?;

Hey! How are you guys? (Maybe no one will read this today except me, in which case, I'm only greeting myself. It's ok. I still appreciate it.)
After writing about The Daily Show yesterday, I watched it last night. There was an interesting bit on there by Larry Wilmore (who I really like) about the possibility that some of the outrage being expressed at these town hall meetings on health care reform isn't really anger about the health care reform plan, in particular (he argued that there isn't even a finished version of the legislation, so it's not clear what all these protesters are specifically angry about in that regard). Wilmore sort of posited the theory that much of the frustration and anxiety at these meetings comes from the general cultural shift that's been occurring in this country as white Americans have begun to realize that they're living in a country which is increasingly populated by blacks, latinos, and other people of color (who are mostly living in an urban environment and who have priorities which might be different than their white, more suburban and rural contemporaries) and that these minority leaders are rapidly becoming a major political and economic force in this country.
Wilmore made jokes about the whole thing (what did you expect when you invited the world to send America its "tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free"? The Irish aren't the only ones who meet those criteria. And "when you create a mixing pot, the whole mix is gonna get darker"), but as usual, he also has a very real point to make.
Over and over again we've seen clips where Americans, almost exclusively white, have appeared at these town hall meetings and vocally cried out for leaders to restore "their America" or " give back the America that I grew up in". (Wilmore, of course, responds by telling all of these white people to go cry to the Native Americans about losing "their America". He also points out that no one ever gives any kind of America to anyone. One group takes America from another group, and then they hold onto it as long as they can until another group comes along and takes it away.) The voices of protest have alternately tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, a foreigner, a socialist, and at times even a terrorist sympathizer, but ultimately, at the end of the day it's hard to get over the suspicion that for a lot of people the real "us against them" mentality comes from the fact that Obama is black. People keep trying to point to Obama as a socialist because of the TARP money (how come no one said the same thing about Bush when he started bailing otu businesses?) and because of public money being used to finance health care (how come no one complains about the post office being a socialist institution?), but it really seems that many of these attempts to label Obama are just artifical ways of trying to separate him from "regular folks" and brand him as an outsider, when the real reason that so many "regualr folks" won't give him a fair shake is because he's black (although no one will admit to that reasoning).

Wilmore makes light of the whole thing (you've had a good run, white folks, but your time is over), but the truth is that America is a country that's undergoing a major demographic shift, with a minority population that really is projected to overtake the white population within a generation or two. And more to the point, this really does make a lot of white people nervous. America is going to look like a much different place 50 or 100 years down the line, and Obama's presidency has finally brought this into focus for a lot of people, many of whom are unsettled by this revelation.
Anyway, yes, I think that there are legitimate philosophical reasons why some conservatives might oppose the health care plan (yeah, I get the argument that the government just takes our money and screws everything up), but it just seems like we're seeing a whole lot of protest and opposition from people who don't really have a whole lot of specific objections to health care reform so much as the fact that they just "don't like the direction this country is heading" or they claim to want to return to the America that they grew up in. Some of this sounds a little suspicious. You don't like the way the country is heading? In what way? It's not exactly as if we grew up in an America that was devoid of government programs or Democratic leadership. As for being more like the country you gre up in, well, for the white people who grew up in middle class to affluent white suburbs or rural towns that might sound great. To the people who grew up suffering discrimination and racism, that idea probably sounds a lot less appealing.
See, Larry Wilmore made this whole discussion a lot funnier. That's why The Daily Show is awesome.

I recently read that IGN, XBox Magazine, and Spike TV all gave Fallout 3 various awards for being one of the best videogames of 2008, so now I've found myself playing that game again and trying to complete it. It's a long, complicated game with a lot of ground to cover and a fairly rich, complicated plot (at least in videogame terms). I've been enjoying it, but it's sort of the equivalent of reading a long, epic novel that you're not sure you can ever finish (or at least that's the way I've been playing it. Maybe there are faster methods, but I haven't figured them out, and really, there's just so much stuff in the game that you would miss a ton of it if you rushed through the thing). It's a rewarding game, though. Given the combination of character design and development along with the open ended game play, you could play this game dozens of times and have a different experience each time. And the thing is constructed well enough to provide some real suspense.
Anyway, I thought I had given up on Fallout 3, but it's sucked me back in.

That's about it.

Hope ya'll are enjoying yourselves.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Steanso Hearts The Daily Show

After watching it last night, I just want to say a word or two about The Daily Show and Jon Stewart. It's not exactly a secret that Steanso considers himself progressive, liberal, or whatever you want to call it (although I think of myself as a fairly moderate liberal- I feel strongly about my political beliefs, but on most things I don't think my beliefs fall extremely far to the left). Like many Democrats and progressives, I'm a big fan of the Daily Show. (For those of you who've never seen it- and it's a crying shame if you haven't- the Daily Show is a comedy news show which provides satirical coverage of politics and other big stories in the news. They also do interviews of politicians, authors, etc., and their "reporters" present funny, fake news coverage and interviews.) I've been watching it since way back when Craig Kilborn was the host, and I've followed their coverage through the course of numerous elections, political battles, 9/11, a couple of wars, and even when there wasn't all that much going on in the news.
Anyway, as I was watching The Daily Show coverage of the health care debates and the various protests that have been surrounding it, I realized that I not only really like the Daily Show, but that I almost need it. I mean, I really do think the show is good for my attitude and my overall mental health. Whenever I get really pissed off, bent out of shape, and/or depressed about something that I've seen in the news (as recently happened as I read about disruptions and vitriol at these recent town hall meetings on health care reform, or before that as I followed coverage of an endless multitude of infuriating events during the Bush administration), I can usually watch the Daily Show to help make sense of things, put things in a more humorous light, and remind me not to take all of this stuff so seriously. I think the show physically lowers my blood pressure.
Jon Stewart and the writers and reporters from the Daily Show are there to reaffirm the fact that, yes, much of the stuff going on out there really is madness and makes not a lick of sense, and that no, I'm not insane- the positions advocated by some of the leaders, polticians, and activists in our country really don't have any logical weight (other than to make the rich richer, further entrench the powerful, and advance the agenda of special interests). In a day and age when our major media outlets have decided to define "objectivity" and bipartisan reporting as providing coverage of "both sides" of an issue with equal weight and gravitas, even when one side's argument makes no logical sense, has no evidence, and essentially amounts to the presentation of a bunch of misinformation, propaganda, and lies, it's refreshing to have a show that will just stand up and call something bullsh*t when it really has no merit. (The media should be objectively weighing evidence, fact checking, and presenting the truth- not allowing people on either side to present false information or unsubstantiated propaganda and then declaring the whole enterprise to be "objective".) It's sort of sad when a comedy show has become one of the only outlets out there that's willing to speak up when the emperor has no clothes.
But willingness to tell the truth isn't the only reason I like The Daily Show. It's not even the main reason. More importantly, I like The Daily Show because, as I said, it almost always manages to help put things in perspective, restores my sense of humor, and lends an almost Zen-like view to the absurdity and chaos of the political and social battles that go on in our country and in the world. And Jon Stewart and the writers and correspondents from the Daily Show are just funny! You can get mad at Sarah Palin for saying Barack Obama is trying to kill old people and sick kids, or you can laugh at the ridiculousness of her statements. You can get depressed about the rabid anti-health care reform protesters who are fighting with cops, or you can chuckle aloud as you wonder whether their insurance is going to cover the bruises and scrapes that they sustain in the melee (I don't think anyone got seriously hurt or I wouldn't be making light).
And as I was watching last night it sort of occurred to me that people will one day look back upon some of these Daily Show years as true classics. The show has really had a revolutionary way of combining news, analysis, commentary, and extremely funny humor in a format that presents a sort of cohesive worldview night after night. Stewart and his reporters can sometimes get angry, sarcastic, and biting, but on the whole the show has a really good attitude and tends toward being smart assed and funny rather than being harsh and meanspirited.
Anyway, The Daily Show and Jon Stewart have become a sort of institution for people from the left to the middle of the political spectrum in this country. We need to put someone in training now, because someday Jon Stewart is going to want to retire, and I'm here to say that the world will be a much sadder, more frustrating, and more confusing place in his absence. Like I said, The Daily Show has become an institution. We need it to continue even after Stewart and his current crew of writers and correspondents move on- not because we don't love them, but because the show just fills an important space in our lives. Or at least it does for me.
Let's hope it just keeps plugging on forever.