Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy Birthdays to Mandy and D.K.!!! Helping Whales But Overlooking People?

Well, first of all, happy Friday to everyone!
In particular, though, I'd like to wish Mandy a happy birthday on Saturday and D.K. a happy birthday on Sunday!! Mandy has headed up to Boston to hang out with her friends Camille and Adam for the weekend (just in time for the Northeast to get hammered by winter storms). Not exactly sure what D.K. is up to for her birthday, but I'm trying to find out. Anyway, they're both really good friends of mine, and I hope that each of them has a really nice birthday!!

There's been a lot of controversy and hubbub surrounding the death of a trainer who was killed by a killer whale at a SeaWorld in Orlando this week. Apparently the trainer was working with the large, adult male, and was pulled into hsi tank and held underwater by the large animal. Now, I'm really not at all a fan of the idea of taking killer whales and putting them in small, concrete tanks to live out their days (in the wild, killer whales swim up to 100 miles a day, live in social groups that may contain up to 50 animals, and display incredibly complex hunting and problem solving behavior), but at the same time I'm sort of grossed out by the fact that PETA and other animal rights groups have seized upon this woman's tragic death as the perfect opportunity to make their case to the media about the ethical problems with keeping whales in captivity. Couldn't they have waited at least a few weeks before launching into their anti-SeaWorld, "they brought this on themselves" rants? Dawn Brancheau, the trainer who was killed, seems to have clearly been a woman who loved these animals and in all likelihood only wanted the best for them. Even if she was a bit misguided (which is still up for debate- there's an argument that humans learn a lot about whale behavior by interacting with the whales on this level, and that the whales receive sufficient mental and emotional stimulation by way of their interaction with trainers and the other whales that they live with), I just don't see why these animal rights groups couldn't have waited a short while before mounting their protests. It's not as though anyone would have fogotten about this incident if they had waited for a couple of weeks. If these groups want to promote a course of action that protects the safety, health, and dignity of animals, they might want to think about showing some regard for human dignity and well being first. What's happening right now feels like a political rally at an accident scene.
Maybe I just find it frustrating because I think I agree with these people about the captivity of these whales, but I find their manner of going about their business to be very counterproductive. I just don't see how there's going to be much consideration for animals if there's not consideration for people, too.

Well, that's about it for me today. Not really feeling it.

Happy birthday, D.K. and Mandy!!! You guys rock!!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Health Care Summit; Anvil

Hey!
Hope you guys are doing alright. Sunny, blue, beautiful skies in Austin today. It's really nice out there. Hard to believe it was snowing about 48 hours ago.
The White House is hosting a health care reform summit today in which Republican and Democrat leaders are sitting down to discuss health care reform. I don't really expect to see a bipartisan health care reform bill coming out of this thing, but it sounds like at least some amount of progress is taking place in terms of fostering civil discussion between Dems and Republicans on health care. It's kind of sad to have to say that we're making progress simply by having our leaders speak to each other in civil tones, but here we are...

What else? How many of you have seen this documentary called Anvil! The Story of Anvil? I saw it about a month or so back, actually, but I was talking to my friend Jennifer about it the other day, and now it's been on my mind a bit. Anvil is a hard rock/heavy metal band from the 1980's (maybe early 90's) that sort of started to make it big, but then sort of sputtered and faded away. The documentary is pretty fascinating and entertaining, even if you're not particularly into the style of music that Anvil plays (maybe especially if you're not into the style of music that Anvil plays). By the time this movie came out a couple of years ago, the guys from Anvil were in their fifties, working other jobs (catering and so forth), and raising families, but still pursuing their musical careers with dreams of once again working their way into the limelight and making it big.
The movie is really funny and poignant and something that all too many of us can relate to in one way or another. As an audience member, you sort of tend to shift back and forth between thinking that these guys are completely self deluded baffoons, inspired visionaries, or simply really nice guys in the pathetic pursuit of a dream that's never going to be realized. The answer probably includes all three. It's difficult to decide whether it's really impressive that these guys have managed to hang together for so long with so little success (while still maintaining the constant belief that success could be right around the corner at any moment), or whether the whole experience has just been a really tragic waste of time.
Having played music myself for many years with little or no commerical success to show for it, I felt like I could relate to the Anvil guys a little bit. The big difference, of course, is that I pretty much do music as a hobby have a career other than music that I've pretty much built my life around, but still... seeing these guys (who've played music together since they were kids) struggle with existential questions about whether their efforts have had any merit? That's something that I felt that I could relate to.
And I think the documentary does a pretty good job of answering those questions. It might sound trite, but in my experience the movie does a good of exploring this honest to god truth: if you want to make music or art of one kind or another, your first and foremost reason for doing it has to be the fact that you have a genuine love for the music itself. You've got to make music because you love to make music. If you're going to pursue this as a way of making a living, you have to do it because you can't imagine being happy any other way.
There's a line in the movie where one of the guys (I think Lips) says that the lack of fame and fortune that Anvil has experienced has been the price they've paid for living a life of doing what they love. I actually thought that was pretty profound. We tend to think about wealth in terms of money that we've accumulated and financial success and security, but some people spend that money before they ever make it- giving it up in exchange for a life of doing whatever it is that they really want to do. If they can pull that off and stay happy and healthy, more power to them. Morally, though, I think that lifestyle starts to become a little more suspect when people have to impose upon their friends and loved ones in order to keep things going (a line which Anvil come pretty close to crossing when they have to borrow money from their family in order to record an album. Hopefully Anvil eventually made enough money back to pay off that debt and repay the loved once who had helped to finance the pursuit of their artistic endeavors).
I'm guessing that Anvil probably found some renewed success after this movie came out, although it's kind of strange that the documentary itself probably helped to resolve some of the key issues that Anvil was struggling with while the documentary was being filmed (i.e., how much they should the band be willing to sacrifice in pursuit of their floundering musical dreams).
Anyway, if you haven't seen it, go check out Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Those guys are a little nutty, but at the end of the day they really do seem like some pretty good guys.

That's it for today. Peace!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

More Steans Dogs in the Snow!

Well, this is a video of Ryan and Jamie's dogs, Scout and Lucy, in the snow. It was Scout's first snow day ever. Gotta love those Steans family dogs!!! Great editing, Jamie!

Health Care and Reconciliation; Toyota Does the Apology Dance;

Hey there!

Watched Lost again last night. Still mysterious.

So now the Democrats are talking about using reconciliation to push their health care reform bill through congress with a simple majority. Republicans are screaming foul, saying that the Democrats are abusing the system (reconciliation was, after all, conceived as an extraordinary measure meant to push through legislation that was tied almost exclusively to the budget- it was never meant to be a measure that would push through legislation in general) and ignoring the will of the people.
Couple of responses to that. First of all, filibusters, the technique that the minority GOP keeps using to block legislation (about 80% of last year's proposed legislation), were themselves meant to be an extraordinary tool that should be rarely used. The Republicans have been using the filibuster to thwart the will of the elected majority for decades now (true, the Democrats have occasionally threatened a filibuster, but the overhwelming use of the technique has come from the GOP. Their use of the filibuster has been steadily on the rise since the 1970's, and has been pretty much standard operating procedure for the GOP since the Clinton years. Furthermore, the Republicans have aggressively punished GOP moderates who broke party ranks to end filibusters, running more conservative primary opponents against "backstabbing" Republicans who helped to get legislation passed). If anyone is ignoring the will of the people, it's the GOP, who for decades now have been heavily relying upon a political strategy which rails against and criticizes a government that can't get anything done while the GOP simultaneously uses filibusters and other obstructionist techniques to make sure that absolutely nothing will get accomplished (when the Democrats are in the majority, this is an exceptionally effective technique for the Republicans, as American voters tend to go to the voting booth and reflexively punish the party in charge when they feel that not enough progress is being made). So if anyone is ignoring the will of the American people, it's the Republicans, who have truly made an art form out of undermining the effectiveness of the elected majority that the American people voted into office.
Second of all, the Republicans have had absolutely no problem using reconciliation to serve their own ends when the Democrats have been in the minority. In fact, the Republicans have used reconciliation more often than the Democrats have in order to push through various legislative items while avoiding the possibility of an opposing filibuster. And while reconciliation is an unusual procedural device, its use is hardly unheard of. According to the CNN article, it's been used 21 times since 1981 to push through important pieces of legislation. I have no problem saying that health care reform is an important enough goal to justify its use.
Anyway, frankly I think we're way past due in terms of simply trying to push some kind of legislation through Congress. The Democrats are sort of screwed either way (the GOP will try to brand them as traitors to the popular will if they use reconciliation, and as ineffective, do-nothing policy eggheads if they don't), so the Democrats might as well try to just do the right thing and pass whatever legislation best serves the needs of the American people. In this case, that means getting health care reform passed. Take off the gloves, Democrats.
The problem, of course, is that reconciliation is apparently a fairly complex technique to pull off, procedurally, and its use is supposed to be tied to the budget. However, given the ever increasing amounts of money that we keep sinking into medicare and medicaid, though (which keep driving up the debt), and the overall impact that rising health care costs continue to have upon the American economy, I think that Democrats may be able to make a pretty sound case for addressing health care reform through reconciliation. Of course, already it sounds like some of the more conservative Democrats (especially those who've taken a bunch of money from the health care industry) may end up jumping ship if reconciliation is used. The fun just never ends...

And as I read headlines about Toyota President testifying before Congress and as I watch the Daily Show rake Toyota over the coals, I'm starting to question whether I was wrong to assume that Toyota was more of a victim of media hysteria than of their own dangerous products. But I still can't get past the fact that Consumer Reports and other automotive reviewers have been rating Toyotas as being high quality, reliable vehicles for decades, and that Toyotas have traditionally had really high customer satisfaction, with significantly high percentage of their customers returning to Toyota to buy subsequent vehicles (and most Toyota models have held their resale value very well). In addition to that, regulators say that the number of complaints regarding Toyotas hasn't been disproportionately high in comparison to other manufacturers. I don't know. It still seems like mostly a lot of hysteria to me, but I could just be totally wrong. To be honest, given the fact that the problems typically reported stem from spontaneous acceleration, part of me is also, frankly, sort of suspicious of drivers who may have done something wrong, but who would rather blame the vehicles as opposed to themselves (it's always going to be hard to know how many of these cases involve people who simply panicked and stomped down on the wrong pedal as opposed to people who had a legitimate problem with their cars). It's not that I don't think that some isolated spontaneous acceleration incidents might have occured, but I feel like once news gets out that these things have happened, every person who's had an accident in that sort of vehicle is suddenly going to want to pin it on the car instead of on their own driving.
Anyway, I'm pretty sure Toyota will ultimately survive this and go on to do fine (if Ford could survive the fact that it had made a decision to settle lawsuits resulting in the fiery death of its customers instead of issuing a recall after performing a cost-benefit analysis, I think Toyota can survive this deal). I definitely hope no one else gets hurt and that Toyota clears upo whatever problems it's having with its cars.

Ehhh... I don't have much else. Hope everyone is doing okay!!!

Journeys of The Admiral

My dad (aka, The Admiral) posted a comment yesterday on my "Cassidy in the snow" post letting us know that it wasn't snowing in Singapore. This comment probably makes more sense if I explain that The Admiral is currently on one of his globe-spanning business trips (for those who don't know him, he works for Cameron, and they're a big ol' international company that makes oil drilling systems). Anyway, The Admiral may be sipping on Singapore Slings and basking in the sun now, but he made his way to Singapore via Moscow (I'm not sure what other places he's visited while on this trip), and here's a little picture of what he saw while he was making his way through Russia....



Kind of lends a little perspective to the snowfall that we had in Austin yesterday, right?

Safe travels, Dad! Hope the trip is going well! Come on back home all safe and sound!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Blizzard of 2010


You know what I learned today? It's really hard to take pictures of snow falling. Or at least it is with my iPhone. For a while there was lots of snow coming down here in Austin. Lots and lots of big ol' white flakes (it wasn't accumulating on the ground all that much because the ground was too warm, but it was falling pretty hard), but when I would try to snap a picture it really didn't look like it was snowing at all. Just looked sort of grainy or misty. Must have something to do with the speed of the snow and the shutter speed, or something like that.
Anyway, I went home at lunch time. I let Cassidy out. She ran out into the back yard, squinted up at the falling snow, examined the cold stuff under her feat, and made a bee line right back for the house. I barely had a chance to even snap this picture. What a wimp! (of course, you don't see me standing out in it, either)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Wes Anderson Does Spider Man

Ryan sent this to me. It's pretty good (especially for you Wes Anderson fans).

Weekend Update; U.S. Hockey Victory; Shutter Island; Dumb Poll;

Well, I had a good weekend, but it went by way too quickly. In no particular order, I took Cassidy to the park, watched the U.S. beat the supposedly awesome Canadians in Olympic hockey, had band practice, went to see Shutter Island, and hung out at Steans Manor. Also played some guitar on my own and watched some TV. Like I said, it was a good weekend.

I'm not a huge hockey fan, in general, (there are some elements of lacrosse in there, but, in general, the whole ice skating thing just seems alien to me, and I tend to get sort of annoyed with the constant fighting and cheap fouls), but somehow in the context of the Olympics, the sport just seems to make more sense (I tend to appreciate the international rivalries, and I like the idea of spirited competition between players representing their countries). Anyway, the game between the U.S. and Canada last night was a hard fought, good game. The Canadians were apparently the big favorites, with many of their players coming over from their careers as veterans in the NHL to compete on behalf of Canada in the Olympics. The U.S. team, of course, had its share of NHL players as well, although the U.S. fielded a younger team that had less experience than the Canadians. Anyway, given the fact that the game was being played in Vancouver, the audience was largely filled with loyal Canadian hockey fans who really sort of expected to see their team win. The U.S. ended up winning by a five to three score, but the Canadians kept the pressure on the U.S. defense throughout the game, and closed the gap to a one point difference toward the latter part of the game, with the U.S. finally scoring another goal to seal the victory in the final minutes.
Cool win.

Shutter Island was pretty good, but it was, of course, also dark and depressing. (sort of mild, vague spoilers to follow) I mean, anyone who saw the previews for the thing new that it wasn't going to involve a lot of rainbows and giggles (given that the plot synopsis involves a federal marshall who's hunting for an escaped convict at an asylum for the criminally insane), but I guess the movie ended up being less scary than I thought and, instead, was a little more depressing and unsettling. Still, it was a pretty good movie.
Strangely enough, Shutter Island ended up reminding me not so much of a bunch of other movies as of a creepy videogame that I've played. I don't say this as a slight against Shutter Island, since the game that came to mind was particularly well conceived and well executed. The Suffering was a game on the ol' Playstation 2 console that involved an escaped convict on a prison island. The game was filled with dark, menacing atmosphere, a protagonist who wasn't sure about the nature of his crimes or his reason for being on the island, and lots of terrifying enemies- some of whom may or may not have been hallucinations. The Suffering was one of those rare games that I turned around and played a second time immediately after completing it the first time. I almost never do that.
Anyway, Shutter Island turned out to be more than a simple horror flick. I sort of figured out some of the puzzles of the movie long before the movie provided answers, but solving the riddles didn't really diminish my enjoyment. The movie is definitely about characters as much as it's about plot twists, and it has some genuine points to make. Also, I've come to realize over the years that sometimes Leonardo DiCaprio bugs me (e.g., Titanic, The Man in the Iron Mask, Romeo + Juliet), but sometimes not as much (e.g., Gangs of New York, Body of Lies, The Departed). I guess I was okay with him in this movie.
I'm definitely not saying it's the best movie ever, but it was good enough to keep me engaged and to keep me thinking about it after I had left the theater.

What else? Apparently there's a new CNN poll saying that 86% of Americans think that our government is broken. Wow. Looks like there's at least one bipartisan issue that everyone can agree on. I fail to see in any way that this is a surprise, though. It would be a lot more interesting to see follow up questions in the same poll about whether people would be willing to let their elected leaders pursue bipartisan efforts (i.e., negotiating with people who have opposing viewpoints) to get some things done without threatening to vote those officials out of office.
Frankly, I don't care all that much about what the public wants when they're just being asked to complain and bellyache without any sort of discussion about what sort of compromises or sacrifices that they're willing to accept in order to fix the problems. The fact that Americans are world class complainers is already well documented and firmly established. The bigger question is what they're willing to do or accept in terms of solutions. (Note: I'm not saying that the government isn't broken. I'm just saying that a big part of the reason why it's broken is because our politicians are beholden to a bitterly divided, uncompromising public who seem very willing to turn upon their elected officials if they cross party lines or make compromises. Everyone wants the problems fixed, but everyone wants them fixed by exclusively doing things their own way. Everyone hates the ineffectiveness of Congress, but everyone supports their own elected officials from their own districts. People are up in arms and want change, but no one wants to be grown up enough to engage in the sort of give and take compromise that's necessary in order to actually get things done.)
Anyway, it just struck me as sort of dumb that CNN has been making such a big deal out of this poll. It's easy and pointless to just stand there and complain. What would be far more important and meaningful would be some polls asking Americans what sort of things they would be willing to compromise on in order to get government moving again.

And last, but not least, in advance of a health care summit on Thursday which will be attended by top congressional leaders, President Obama has offered a health care reform bill which seeks to control premium hikes, insure coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, limit out-of-pocket expenses, lower premiums and provide subsidies for middle and working class families, and taxes expensive "Cadillac" health care plans in order to help defray the cost of coverage for everyone else. Obama's team is encouraging the GOP to come to Thursday's summit with a detailed plan of their own so that both sides can having valid starting points for negotiation.
I guess that in some ways I applaud Obama's effort to try to salvage this whole health care reform debacle, but I really don't see how a whole lot has changed with the presentation of this new bill. Republicans and some conservative Democrats still remain beholden to the health care industry, and I think the final objective for far too many of them is to simply prevent any sort of meaningful change from occurring at all. The GOP still sees the death of health care reform as a victory over the Democrats, and no matter what shape the reform bill takes, they're going to continue to try to hammer at it as being fiscally irresponsible, frivolous waste.
Personally, I think that health care reform is by no means frivolous, and I think that if it's done properly and responsibly, it can actually end up saving the U.S. some money in the long run (I say this because other countries already have systems which are rated as being more effective than the one in the U.S., and they're doing a much better job of controlling their costs).
Anyway, good luck to President Obama, but, once again, I wouldn't hold my breath on the whole bipartisanship thing. The only sort of reform that the Republicans really seem interested in are caps on medical malpractice suits- a reform which might be somewhat needed in some areas, but which doesn't come close to addressing the rising health care costs that we continue to see (but a viewpoint which continues to help the GOP continue to curry favor with a lawsuit wary health care industry).


Well, that's about it. They're predicting snow in Austin tomorrow. I've heard it all before, so I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but it would be fun to get some of that mysterious white stuff here in Austin!

Peace.

Best Commercial Ever

I don't know what else to say. A friend showed me this on YouTube this weekend, and I think it's probably gotta be the most honest commercial ever. Listen for the wildcat growl in the background. A magical touch.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Triviality of Joe Stack; Veterans' Courts in the Media

Hey! Happy Friday!

Well, the big news here in Austin is still that plane crash from yesterday. Sounds like one person was killed (in addition to the pilot) and another person still remains hospitalized. While it's tragic that even one person was killed in yesterday's act of terrorism, it's actually incredibly fortunate that more damage wasn't done. I believe that 200 or more people worked in the Echelon building, so things could have been much, much worse (it's not clear how further casualties were avoided, but I heard at least one witness on TV saying that some people may have seen the plane coming and warned people inside the building to move away from the area where the plane hit).
Anyway, I'm still pissed off at this Joe Stack guy who flew the plane. Although I frequently get annoyed by the ridiculous priorities of the American media, in this case I'm kind of glad the media seems to be already moving on to talk about Tiger Woods and his apology for sleeping with golf groupies instead of focusing on the crash coverage. It seems kind of a fitting ending for Stack's rampage to seize the headlines for less than a day, only to be supplanted by something as trivial as the illicit love life of a professional golfer. You're not a headline, Stack. You're a footnote.

What else? There's an article in Newsweek this week about the nationwide initiative to form special courts for veterans. I mention this primarily because I've recently been involved in the planning process for the formation of a veterans' treatment court here in Travis County. The first veterans' court in the country was established in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, by Judge Robert Russell (whom I had a chance to speak with when he visited Austin). The veterans' court, at least as we're envisioning it here in Austin, will be primarily intended to address mental health and addiction issues among veterans who are arrested on criminal charges and end up in the justice system.
As the article mentions, there have already been complaints and questions raised by groups like the ACLU, who see the formation of the veterans courts as the first step in the implementation of a separate justice system that provides special, favorable treatment to people on the basis of their status as veterans.
Well, I'm just down in the trenches (not really a policy maker), but it seems like a legitimate need exists for providing specialized treatment for veterans- particularly those who've served in combat or in hazardous duty areas- not simply because we're granting them a special legal status, but because some of them have developed some significant mental, physical, and emotional problems which can be directly attributed to experiences that occurred during their military service. We have large numbers of veterans who are returning from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post traumatic stress disorder, tramatic brain injuries, and other mental health problems, and the Veterans Administration is uniquely suited to address their ongoing issues (issues which, in a justic system context, have frequently contributed to their underlying criminal offenses). The veterans treatment court is supposed to be a sort of linking mechanism between the services provided by the VA and the justice system (providing treatment services that really aren't available to the larger, civilian population of criminal defendants). Without getting too touchie feelie about the whole thing, I really do see a legitimate reason to treat veterans a bit differently when their military service has contributed significantly to their personal problems and when VA providers are able and willing to help address some of these issues. If we're trying to curb recidivism as one of our major goals, it just seems to make sense to try to address some underlying issues so that we don't see these people again and again.
Also, I don't think it's really fair to say that the use of a veterans treatment court creates a separate justice system for veterans. At this point, our country is already employing a number of specialized treatment courts that address a number of different issues for a number of specialized caseloads. We have a special DWI court that provides specialized treatment for DWI defendants with serious alcohol issues, we have Project Recovery (a specialized docket that provides inpatient treamtent for alcoholics in the homeless population), and the felony courts have things like the SHORT program (a court program that provides treatment and supervision for drug users). So the use of treatment courts is by no means limited to the veteran population. The main difference with the veterans treatment court is that it's able to avail itself of some fairly high quality services that are provided by the VA.
Anyway, it's not as if we're flying into this whole process with blinders on. We (i.e., the prosecutors and judges) aren't going to give veterans a free pass, and we're not going to assume that every crime committed by a veteran necessarily took place simply because a person served in the military (obviously you can be the sort of person who commits crimes long before joining the military, and still be that kind of person after you have served). On the other hand, on appropriate cases the VA linkage will hopefully give us a whole array of treatments that wouldn't be available in their absence.
I'm really hoping it all turns out to be a good thing.

Well, I gotta run. Hope you guys have a great weekend!!!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Austin Plane Crash Attack

Hi.
Well, crap. Some jackass got mad at the IRS (and, apparently, the federal government in general) and crashed a plane into an Austin office building today that houses, among other things, an IRS office. What an asshole.
Looking out of the courthouse windows this morning we could see smoke rising from a location farther to our north. People had turned on televisions and were watching local coverage of the whole thing.
As soon as I heard that the struck building contained federal offices, I told a few people that I suspected an attack. I knew it wasn't Al Qaeda or Middle Eastern terrorists, but I immediately suspected that one of these angry, homegrown, anti-government people to be involved. Working at the courthouse, it's not all that uncommon to get some of these anti-government activists, and they're usually both very angry and looking to find a way to send a message. It may turn out that this guy was simply angry about having to pay his taxes, but in my experience, there are a whole group of people out there who are just filled with seething fury over anything that they perceive to be a government intrusion into their lives. These are the sorts of people who see demons and monsters behind the faces of every government employee that they encounter (while these employees, of course, are mostly just trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability while hoping to maybe have some kind of positive impact upon the city, county, state, and/or federal entity for whom they work).
Ugggh. People are stupid. Do the rules work perfectly all of the time? No. Of course not. It's a big society that we live in with lots of different types of conflicting ideals and points of view. Sometimes the rules are unfairly manipulated. Other times people simply don't get what they want because they live in a society where other people don't share their views.
We live in a society of majority rule, where certain rights of the minority are protected as civil liberties. Increasingly, though, it seems like a lot of people just expect to be able to live in a society full of other people (accepting all of the benefits of such a living arrangement), but then they get really angry and feel violated when they're expected to follow the rules that govern a civilized society.
I'm tired of the temper tantrums from a bunch of naricissistic, entitled, self important Americans who think that things like being asked to pay the same taxes as their neighbors somehow makes them an oppressed minority with no rights.
We have a legal system for addressing wrongs and grievances. We have media outlets and the internet and freedom of speech and artistic expression and the right to assemble in protest and a hundred other ways that people can legitimately express dissatisfaction and try to bring about change. (sometimes we just start blogs where we can pour out our frustrations onto our poor, loyal readers)
But when people resort to violence as their chosen means of self expression, they're just acting like spoiled children.
So now CNN and the other news organizations have this guy's rambling, self pitying, anti-government, anti-establishment suicide note up on the internet. I actually read the thing. The guy is fairly articulate and sounds sort of intelligent, but his logic is warped to the point of being nonsensical. He uses big words, but in the end, his general argument is that he doesn't like a particular set of laws, so he doesn't think he should have to obey them. He's really just throwing a temper tantrum because of taxes- a spoiled brat who decided to hurt a bunch of other people who were trying to collect taxes that this guy was refusing to pay.
So this guy launched an attack against the citizens of my fair city because of some kind of tax debt? (which, by all accounts, could have been easily payed off by selling the plane that the guy used to crash into this building)
Arrrgh! What a jackhole!!!!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sorry

Hey! Sorry that there's really no post today, but I've been pretty busy both last night and today. Although I truly appreciate my readers (you're small in number, but a mighty force), I do this thing in my free time, and sometimes there's just not all that much of it to be had (I've gotten to the point where I can crank out these posts fairly quickly, but even so, sometimes there's just not enough time).
Hope you guys are having a good day!
Talk to you later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Wolfman; Splittin' Atoms for Your iPod; Health Care Bill?

Hey. What's up?
Not too much here. Yesterday I had the day off for President's Day. One of my President's Day activities took me to the movie thater to see The Wolfman. It was... okay. I had read some reviews of it that panned it pretty harshly, and I didn't think it was as bad as all that, but, on the other hand, it wasn't exactly a really good movie either. The director did a good job of recreating a sort of gothic, classic horror movie feel for the whole thing, and the effects weren't bad (although the wolf man himself wasn't really as scary as I was expecting- he looked scarier while changing than he did once he was fully turned into wolf dude). Mostly, though, the characters just weren't all that impressive. I like Benicio Del Toro, but he just sort of wandered through scenes without displaying much emotion through most of the movie. Maybe he was going for depressed and despondent (which would have been appropriate for his character), but instead the performance just sort of came off as flat, and as a result I ended up having very little sympathy for or empathy with the character.
Anyway, it wasn't a bad movie, really, but it's not one that I'm really pushing my friends to go see.

What else? President Obama has approved a loan that would help to build two new nuclear reactors in Burke County, Georgia. Like a lot of people, I'm kind of wary of nuclear power. On the one hand, it seems like a good way to provide cost effective energy without releasing a bunch of CO2 and other harmful byrpoducts into our air and water. On the other hand, of course, there are the twin problems of nuclear waste disposal and the possibility of extremely harmful radiation contamination from a serious accident (or, frighteningly, possibly from an intentional attack upon a nuclear power plant).
But France has been using nuclear power since 1965 (providing around 78% of the country's electrical power), and they've suffered only a few minor accidents (none catastrophic- knock on wood) during that time. France is also one of the only countries in the world with an active nuclear reprocessing program- a program which recycles nuclear waste products to get the maximum possible use out of nuclear fuels before disposing of final waste products at a disposal facility.
The United States has had its own nuclear energy program since 1958, a program which produces almost 20% of the nation's electric power (or at least it did in 2008). The U.S. has had a few more accidents than the French (including the famous Three Mile Island incident in 1979) and more near misses, but, overall, the U.S. has maintained a pretty impressive safety record, and as of 2008 there were 104 nuclear power facilities operating in relative safety across the U.S..
Anyway, nuclear power isn't ideal, and it has to be handled extremely carefully, but it seems to present a viable alternative to fossil fuels and other energy sources that involve carbon emissions. And it may be a little twisted, but there's also something sort of appealing to me about dealing with an energy source that presents known, identifiable risks up front. People know that nuclear energy can be extremely dangerous, and they've been treating it with extraordinary caution since the initial days of its use. On the other hand, our carbon based energy sources have proven to be hazardous as well, but the slower, more subtle risks associated with fossil fuels have apparently fostered an attitude toward them which has not only made people cavalier about their risks, but which has apparently encouraged some people to remain in denial about their effects, even as the scientific community warns us of impending repercussions.
So I'm cautiously optimistic about the expansion of nuclear power. It's not going to replace oil anytime soon (or even coal in the immediate future), but it might be another step in the right direction.

What else? The White House is still claiming that the Dems are going to pass a health care bill. They're saying that they're going to post a merged version of a Senate-House compromise bill online, and when reporters asked if the White House would post its own version of a bill if an agreement could not be reached, press secretary Robert Gibbs responded by saying, "stay tuned".
Urrrgh. I just hope they pass something that can actually make some meaningful changes in the current system. To say that my hopes and expectations have been scaled back would be an understatement.

Well, that's it. I gotta run.
The sun's out.
Have a good one.

Monday, February 15, 2010

President's Day!

Happy President's Day! It's not a holiday that I would normally pay a lot of attention to, but they've given me the day off work for it (I'm at the dog park with Cassidy as I write this) so it must be worth celebrating! The weekend was pretty good. Valentine's Day was better than I expected.
Anyway, i'm gonna keep this pretty short since I'm writing it on my iPhone, but I just wanted to check in and say hello. Hope you guys start the week well.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Clinton OK; Broken Bells; Cuts for Mental Health Care

Hello! Happy Friday!
I don't know about all of you Adventurers, but I get a three day weekend, with President's Day falling on Monday. I'm not sure why they give us President's Day off from work, but I'll take it and run.
So what's up? Bill Clinton went to the hospital to have some stents put in to help alleviate some blockage in his arteries. By all accounts, President Clinton is doing fine. I'm very glad to hear it. Following the whole Monica Lewinsky debacle, I know that President Clinton is always going to be viewed as sort of a scoundrel by a lot of people, but I think he was a strong, effective president who was good at his job, and I think he's continuing to do a lot of good work, most recently with he Haiti relief effort, but his foundation also does work on everything from fighting global poverty and hunger to working to combat climate change. Anyway, Clinton has made some missteps, but he also seems interested in working really hard to bring positive change to people.

This just in! Jennifer has just pointed me to this new project called Broken Bells by James Mercer (of The Shins) and Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, The Grey Album). In advance of a new album, they've released a single called The High Road.


I like The Shins, I like Danger Mouse, and now I'm pretty sure I like this. Just for those of you who might be interested.

Changing topics, Texas Health and Human Services has been ordered to cut five percent from the budget of mental health hospitals in Texas, a directive which is going to result in the loss of 200 beds from four of 11 mental health hospitals in Texas.
I find this incredibly frustrating. Texas already ranks as one of the worst states in the country in terms of mental health services (the last numbers that I read put us at either last or second to last*), and at a time when things desperately need to be improved, they just keep getting worse. Hospital waits are extremely high, there are long wait lists for appointments to see doctors and other health care providers, and fewer and fewer caseworkers and other health care providers are available for field work.
At this point, our jails are doing the great majority of the treatment and crisis stablization work that occurs in Texas communities, but the jail is a place which is neither designed nor well suited for mental health treatment (not to mention the fact that a person has to be suffering a breakdown or crisis severe enough to get themself arrested before they can even access services through the jail). The general public just doesn't seem to understand how serious the situation is in terms of mental health care in Texas. People don't understand mental illness itself (that it's not a character defect or something that people can just "snap out of"), they don't understand how pervasive mental illness is, they don't understand how debilitating it can be, and they don't understand the impact that the community experiences when a bunch of untreated people with mental illness are left to wander the streets without treatment (i.e., quality of life in the community goes down when ill people are left untreated- panhandling goes up, petty theft goes up, criminal trespass goes up, and so on and so forth).
And mental health treatment is oftne the sort of thing that families can't deal with or afford to treat on their own. Insurance is pretty spotty about paying for treatment for a lot of mental health conditions, and even when insurance will pay for soem treatment, there's often some difficulty in getting them to pay for the ongoing, constant treatment which many serious mental illnesses require. Families often try to care for meentally ill family members on their own, but parents and siblings and children simply get worn down and exhausted by the high level of constant care and supervision that is often required. In my job I've seen a lot of families end up simply giving up on on the mentally ill members of their own family. They can't keep the ill person from wandering the street, engaging in disruptive behavior, and/or getting into trouble, and even though they may have a lot of love for the impaired person, eventually they become exhausted and just give up. Other times parents are simply worried because mentally ill children may require care and treatment throughout their entire lives (throughout their adult lives as well as childhood), and parents worry about what will happen to their children once the parents are no longer around to care for them. It's an awful situation.
Anyway, I think Texas needs to be spending considerably more money on mental health services- not less.
It's good to have a state with low business taxes and no state income tax, but only if we can take care of our citizens at the same time.

That's it for now. Have a good weekend!!

(* Texas ranks second to last in the country in terms of dollars spent per capita for mental health services)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Video Games; Dems Move to Curb Corporate Political Speech

Hi!
Well, not much to report on. I finally finished Mass Effect 2. You'll all be happy to know that, thanks to me, our galaxy remains safe.
In all seriousness, it was a really good, engaging game. One of the best ones I've played in a while, and that's saying something because video games, in general, have become very, very good over the last few years. People who haven't played one in a long time should consider picking up one of these new plot driven action adventure/role playing games. Even if you get frustrated with the actual gameplay itself, most of these games allow you to just set the game on an easy level so you can play through and enjoy the thing without having to restart sections over and over.
You know those cheesey action/adventure movies that we watched growing up? The ones that had pretty mediocre plots, but that were fun to watch because of all the special effects, fighting, and action sequences? Well, these new videogames are pretty much making those kinds of movies obsolete. Action is more fun when you're a part of it, and the visual effects and the plotlines involved in some of these games have gotten to the point where they rival, if not surpass, their Hollywood equivalents (I mean, the plots aren't exactly going to move these games into Academy Award territory, but by way of comparison to action/adventure popcorn flicks, they stack up pretty well).
So, try out Arkham Asylum (for Batman fans), the Grand Theft Auto games, Bioshock, Modern Warfare, Gears of War, Fallout 3, or Mass Effect. They're all cool games that manage to grab and keep my attention in a way that most television and a lot of movies fail to do.
I still want to play the new Assassin's Creed, and there's a new Bioshock game coming out as well (how can you argue with a game that has you running around and fighting bad guys in an undersea city that was founded upon the governing principles and philosophy of Ayn Rand?).

Congressional Democrats have unveiled proposed legislation which would help to put some limits on the rights of corporations to engage in free speech. The bill is clearly a move meant to limit the effects of a recent Supreme Court ruling which gave nearly unfettered ability to corporations in terms of allowing them to spend money for political ads and in support of political candidates. One direct impact of the bill would be to limit the ability of foreign owned corporations to spend money on political campaigns and political advertising. Also, the bill requires corporate leaders to appear in their political ads and affirm the fact that they stand behind the content of the ad.
It's probably not too surprising to most of you that I think this bill is a good thing. Corporations should never have been given the right to spend money in support of political candidates (or at least not to directly fund their political ads) in the first place. I've said it before, and I'll say it again- corporations don't deserve the protection of the First Amendment. I understand that there's a legal fiction which allows corporations to be considered persons for some purposes. Political speech should not be one of those purposes. I've written about this before, so I'm going to try to stop belaboring the point, but I think the Democrats are doing the right thing by trying to curtail some of the damaging effects of this erroneous ruling by the Supreme Court.

Well, I'm sort of swamped today. Hope you guys are having a good one. Everyone stay safe and warm.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Marvel v. The Tea Party

Hey! Man, I got nothing today. Really.

There was kind of an interesting story today on the Fox News site about Marvel Comics generating some controversy. Apparently a recent issue of Captain America had some references to the Tea Party- comments which real members of the Tea Party movement found offensive. Among the controversial comments were some statements which implied that the movement was made up of mostly angry white people. That sort of a deal.

Knowing that Ryan (my brother and comic book enthusiast extaordinaire) is really more suited to comment on this sort of thing, I contacted him, and this is what he had to say on the matter:

"Well, the article basically demonstrates that (a) Fox news has no concept of the creation process of a comic (the writer doesn't draw the page or letter the page), and (b) they cannot believe a writer could separate his personal life from his professional output.

And given some of the signs one sees at a protest, I can only roll my eyes at Fox's protest.

Brubaker is a smart guy, and I doubt he'd be rushing to irritate a paying audience. But his characters are also not a blank slate of lantern-jawed heroism that most people generically asign to comic characters, and, as the article indicates, get offended by any suggestion that super heroes don't reflect cut and dried views for kids.

Part of the shift from comics-are-for-kids to serving an adult audience is that lead protagonist characters in comics often come packaged with a strong ideology, and many would be surprised to find superheroes come from across the spectrum. Falcon has been characterized as an educated guy from New York City, and so, yes, he might find mid-Western Tea Party protestors a bit amusing or hold certain opinions of those stereotypes. I'm not saying Falcon couldn't be written differently, but he came out of Jack Kirby's 1970's exploration of the social issues of the day (although ham-handed by today's standards).

Crying fowl that a character portrayed as a hero has a negative opinion of a movement that Fox supports, is, at the end of the day, baiting Marvel and a bit of propaganda on Fox's part. And if they need to worry, Iron Man, Marvel's resident super-neo-con, is far more popular than Red Falcon.

I think it should be noted: Cap comics have long been used as a "Stranger in a Strange Land", showing Steve Rogers, who is a product of America's 20th Century Golden Age (he was raised during the Depression and fought in WWII) dealing with the political complexities of an America he barely recognizes. Tea Party protests are just reflective of that ongoing undercurrent in the Cap books.

I'm just saying."

ADDENDUM: Ryan sent this link to a comic blog in which a guy named Joe tries to explain how this whole issue arose in the first place.

So maybe this counts as cheating, but I'm counting this as my post for today (remember when I started out saying I couldn't come up with anything?). As I predicted, Ryan had some pretty strong points on the whole Marvel Comics versus the Tea Party thing.

Peace, guys!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lee!!!

It almost slipped past me, but I knew there was something familiar about this date. Many happy returns, Larry Lee! Hope you're having a great one!

Palin's Perplexing Palm; Mas Effect; Americans Still Interested in Health Care Reform

Hola!
Hope everyone is doing ok. I'm ok. Been having a hard time sleeping, though. Waking up and falling back to sleep and having weird dreams. I feel tired today.

Did everyone hear about this whole deal with Sarah Palin writing notes on her hand during her address at the Tea Party convention? Wow. Brings back memories of junior high class presentations, doesn't it? (But not high school presentations. Most people were smart enough to know that they'd be found out if they tried something like that in a setting as rarified as a high school classroom). Apparently she took some shots at Obama during her speech, chiding him for his use of a teleprompter, but photographers later managed to snap pictures of Palin's hand, and the words scrawled on it, apparently used as a memory aid during her speech. As humorous as the fact that she wrote on her hand were her choices of included phrases- things like "energy", "budget cuts" (which had been crossed out in favor of "tax cuts"), and "lift Americans' spirits". This woman is rapidly becoming the Dan Quayle of the Tea Party movement. Do we want a president who: 1) can't remember three main talking points, 2) is so unprepared for a major speaking engagement that she's making revisions to the notes on her hand the minute before she goes on stage, 3) needs to write down things like "lift Americans' spirits" (if she hadn't written that down in order to remember it, would she have been more likely to try to crush our spirits?), and 4) makes herself look like a hypocritical clown- deriding the president for his use of a teleprompter, knowing all the time that she has crib notes scribbled on her palm? This is what this much-hyped, populist, righteously indignant Tea Party has to offer this country?
Everyone go rent Idiocracy sometime in the next couple of nights. That sh*t is true, man.

Okay, I don't have much else to say today. I think I've played my way through the better part of Mass Effect 2, and it's been really entertaining. It's not quite as open ended or free flowing as Fallout 3 (another excellent role playing adventure game which relies on a variation of a first person shooter type of combat system), but Mass Effect 2 has good characters and a good plot and some very cool graphics. Part of the game involves running missions so that you can assemble your team (and additional missions so that you can earn the loyalty of the various team members), and the characters are interesting enough to make these missions pretty engaging.
Anyway, I've been enjoying the game. It's eaten up way too much of my time.

A new poll in the Washington Post continues to indicate that the majority of Americans would like to see Congress continue to move forward and pass some sort of substantial health care reform legislation. I don't know if this poll is accurate or not. I'm sure conservatives would say that the Post is just another newspaper with a liberal bias, and they wouldn't put much stock in their poll.
I hope Americans still understand the need for meaningful health care reform, though. I certainly still think we need it. We need to control costs, increase coverage, prevent disqualification for pre-existing conditions, and help sick Americans avoid medical bankruptcies. I still think these issues need to be addressed, even if we can't get a public option or some of the other outcomes that progressives have been looking for. Even if we aren't going to get exactly what we wanted, I still hope that progress can be made. I hope.

Well, that's all that I've got today.
Have a good one!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Weekend Update; Crazy Heart; Super Bowl

Hey! Hope everyone had a good weekend. Mine went pretty well. I went out for pizza with friends on Friday night. My parents were in town on Saturday, so I went to see Crazy Heart with them and did a small bit of shopping. Saturday evening the whole Steans clan got together at Gueros (with Ryan and Jamie, Susan and Ciera), and we had a nice dinner. Later that night I went to see Avatar (for a second time) with Reed and Chris. Sunday I had lunch with Ryan and Jamie, and Matt and Nicole came over for the Super Bowl.
It was a good weekend. Busy, but busy with good stuff.
I really liked Crazy Heart. Kind of a tough movie, in terms of having some depressing stuff in it (it's a movie, after all, about an alcoholic country singer who's struggling through both personal and professional failure in the latter part of his career), but it has some great acting, an authentic feel, it's well written (especially dialogue), and it has some good music. In particular, Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhall both put in really strong performances. That Jeff Bridges is a really good actor. He sinks right into the role of country singer Bad Blake in a way that might make a person think they had just typecast someone who really always talks and sounds like that- you might think that if you hadn't seen Bridges play other, utterly different roles just as convincingly and with the same amount of conviction that he brings to Bad Blake in Crazy Heart (I mean, the guy has been in everything from Starman to Iron Man to The Last Picture Show to The Fisher King to Tron to The Big Lebowski). Bridges is one of those actors who hasn't gotten all of the accolades that some of America's other top notch actors have gotten (he's been nominated for 5 Oscars, but has yet to win one), but I really do think that he's one of the better actors of his generation. Hopefully he'll finally get a Best Actor Oscar for his work in Crazy Heart (I guess he already won a Best Actor at the Golden Globes for the performance).

What else? The Super Bowl was actually a decent game. I'm glad the Saints won. I'm happy for the city of New Orleans, and I'm happy for Austin's hometown hero, Drew Brees. I gotta say that Brees looked pretty impressive. He wasn't afraid to take chances by throwing the ball as he marched his team down the field (well, I'm sure he wasn't calling the plays, but the coaches had faith in him, and he executed beautifully). I think I really enjoyed watching the Saints play because, unlike many teams, they seemed willing to take some pretty big chances, but had enough faith in their own ability to feel that either the chances would pay off, or that they could recover from them if they didn't. The Saints managed to pull off a two point play following a touchdown, they successfully executed an onside kick, and they had a drive where they opted to go for a touchdown instead of kicking an easy field goal (which ended up failing, although the offense quickly retook the filed and managed to get a field goal, anyway, before half time). You just don't see much of that sort of aggressive play calling these days. Coaches are too worried about being second guessed in the media coverage (and by team owners) after the fact. I think New Orleans new that they were facing a really good Colts team, though, and they new that they were likely to have a better chance if they took some risks as opposed to simply playing the game conservatively and safe.
Fortunately for them, those risks paid off. (If the onsides kick had failed, if the extra two point play hadn't worked, and if the Colts had managed to turn that failed touchdown attempt into an offensive drive that put points on the board, I probably wouldn't be writing this post).
But I think the Saints worked hard at perfecting some risky plays, and they came into the game expecting to take some chances. Good for them. They showed a lot of heart, and it paid off.

Well, that's it. Hope you guys have a good start to your week!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Toyota Recall; Super Bowl

Hey, guys! Happy Friday!
Not much news. I watched Fringe last night, and I thought it was a good episode. They actually caught me by surprise (this is a small touch of a spoiler, but they provided a genuinely surprising plot twist regarding the background of one of the main characters). That show has got some clunkiness to it (sometimes the dialogue is awkward, and sometimes the characters move in ways that don't make a lot of sense other than to advance the plot), but it has some cool ideas in it as well. Take the good and leave the bad. I guess I try to do that with a lot of shows.

First of all, before I write on this next point, let me make the disclosure that I own a small amount of Toyota stock. It's a very small amount, but I don't need one of my friends charging into the comments section to tar and feather me over an undisclosed conflict of interest (and yeah, I have a lot of friends who like to argue. Those are the kind of friends who keep things lively!).
The Toyota recall business goes on. Of course, it's not a good thing that Toyota has had to issue a recall after having problem with accelerators sticking, and it's going to look even worse (potentially quite a bit worse) if it turns out the company was covering up some significant issues on the brakes on the Prius line of cars. Those things having been said, Toyota is a company which has safely been manufacturing cars for decades with very little problem. Toyotas, for many years, have been consistently rated as producing very reliable cars that are a good buy for your money (by Consumer Reports and other critics of the automotive industry- in fact, Consumer Reports is still recommending Toyotas as good vehicles, even in the midst of this recall). Basically, the recent problems with Toyotas seem pretty few and far between (with accelerator problems, when they occur, typically coming on gradually so that owners have time to get the problem fixed before it becomes dangerous), and, on the whole, the company still has a reliablility and safety record which is up there among the best cars on the market. I guess I just figure that just about every car manufacturer that's on the market for long enough is going to eventually have one kind of problem or another (no manufacturers- not even even airplane manufacturers, have a perfect, 100% perfect record with their products). The best that you can hope for is that the problems are few and far between, and that the companies take quick, meaningful action to solve the problems.
But the media onslaught that's occurred in the face of these recalls has bordered on downright hysteria. To listen to the media tell it, you'd think that every Toyota on the road was a rolling death machine set to take out busloads of children and nuns.
Anyway, I'm keeping my little bit of Toyota stock. In fact, I should probably get some more. I still tend to think that Toyota has a bright future before it.

What else? The Super Bowl is this weekend. I haven't watched an NFL game all season, really (although, sort of sadly, I sat with Reed and watched the overtime part of the Minnesota/New Orleans game). Anyway, I'll still end up watching the Super Bowl. It's just sort of a tradition, I guess. I'd like to see the Saints bring a national championship back to their city. People are saying it's not going to happen, but it would be cool.

Well, I might write more later, but I don't have anything else right now, and today is busy.
Hope you guys have a good weekend! If you go out and party for the Super Bowl, be safe when you drive yourself home!!!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Lost Premier; Haitian Missionary Debacle

Hello.

Not too much to report. I watched the season premiere of Lost last night. It was okay. Not terrible, but not great. (spoilers to follow) So now they have split dimensions with two different versions of the cast running around and doing different things. Should have seen that coming (I can just imagine the writer's meeting- "Do we keep them trapped on the island or let them escape as though this whole thing never happened? I know- let's do BOTH!!!").
Lost is far from perfect, but I have to admit that it's thought provoking in a way that most shows never achieve. The plotline has been really long and complictaed, but the writers aren't afraid to suddenly tie in characters or plot details that we haven't seen for years. So, it keeps you on your toes.
That being said, I feel like the thinking that I do about Lost is more akin to trying to solve a puzzle or figure out some riddle than the sort of thinking that I usually do when I'm thinking about some sort of literary work. It's like some sort of game where you're only given little tidbits of clues at a time. I still have issues with some of the dialogue and some of the acting.
But there are so many plotlines. So many mysteries! It's hard not to get sucked in. Even when I get annoyed with the show, it manages to suck me back in.
But I think I'm glad that this is the last season. The whole, big multiple realities plotline illicited little more than a shrug out of me (well, actually I think I was too lazy to even shrug, but you get my point).
The writers of Lost have created a world where anything is possible. It's part of the magic of the show, but it's also one of the show's shortcomings. In a world where the audience can never really get a strong grasp of what the rules of the universe are (mostly because the true nature of whatever's actually going on remains constantly hidden), it's hard to make the audience feel surprised or awed after a while. The show relies upon the sort of amazement or surprise that people feel when they watch something which violates the normal rules of reality, but when it's impossible to really know those rules or be sure that they exist, it becomes harder to feel surprise. Lost has sort of, well... lost its ability to interest me with its supernatural happenings because for years I've been watching characters jump back and forth through time, return from the dead, talk to the dead, miraculously heal from crippling injury, and so on and so forth. All with little or no explanation given. Nothing to indicate to me that one thing should be possible and another thing shouldn't be. One plot point after another has been thrown at me which demonstrates that the events on the island are markedly different than what can occur in normal reality, until, eventually, I'm struck more by the question of what isn't possible on the island and why things can't happen as opposed to being surprised by the twists and turns that do happen. At some point, given the absence of rules that might tell us that something isn't possible, it just feels like maybe anything is possible, and all of the miraculous twists and turns on the show just don't feel all that miraculous anymore. Such is the risk of constantly playing hide the ball on a show which regularly deals with fantastic occurrences.
And, of course, referring more specifically to the season premier, sci fi fans will have seen this whole multiple reality thing quite a few times before. I think Star Trek alone has done this a number of times, in a number of different ways. Having seen the multiple reality thing before didn't detract from the experience too much, as Lost built up quite a significant storyline before offering an alternate version of it (which made it much more meaningful than it otherwise might have been), but still... we've seen the alternate reality thing before. Fringe has already been using it to drive their overarching plotline for the last two years.
Anyway, the season premier of Lost was decent, but I wouldn't call it super impressive.
I'm still interested in the whole Locke/Jacob storyline though, and trying to figure it all out (I commented on some of the religious symbolism that I saw in that plotline, along with my prediction that Jacob would return, in a post that I made at the end of last season). And, of course, I'm still waiting to see if they end up presenting a decent story about exactly what the island is and how it came into being. At this point we've already seen a lot of the details in terms of how it works and what it can do, but I still want the why. For a lot of people, I would imagine that the why is what's still keeping them watching (well, that and the fact that the people on this island are so darn pretty).
So, I'll keep watching Lost. It's wearing me out a bit, but I've made it this far. And it does keep a person guessing.

What else? Well, there's this whole crazy story with these missionaries who got arrested for kidnapping after they were caught trying to take 33 kids out of Haiti and into the Dominican Republic so that they could be cared for and raised in an orphanage there (the missionary trip was part of the disaster relief effort following the earthquake, I believe). Apparently the American missionaries lacked the proper authorization paperwork and clearances. Contributing to the confusion in the case is the fact that a number of these children may have still had family in Haiti, although it appears that some of these families may have willingly given up their children to the missionaries in the hopes that their children might be better cared for in Haiti.
My sympathies mostly lie with these missionaries, and I'm sure that they probably were quite convinced that they were doing the right thing by trying to help these kids.
There is a part of me that thinks these people were a little bit overzealous and ethnocentric in what they were doing though. If this had been a terrbile natural disaster in an American city, somehow I doubt that these missionaries would have thought that it was okay to just rush in, scoop up a bunch of children, and then relocate them to another country without getting proper clearances and authorization first. Haiti may be in a state of emergency (and, even before the quake, it was undoubtedly a country that was far more chaotic and underdeveloped than the U.S.), but that still doesn't give Americans the right to travel to foreign soil and then completely disregard the rules and laws. And while these people were probably just trying to help, I find it pretty understandbale that the people and government might want to be pretty strict about letting people simply flee the country with Haitian children- especially without authorization or clearance.
Anyway, I certainly don't think these people deserve severe punishment in any way, but it's probably good for people to see that international laws still need to be followed in a time of crisis, and that status, as either aid workers or Americans, doesn't give people a free pass to take whatever action they see fit. I mean, I know these people were trying to help, but you just can't grab kids and take them across the border without permission.
I guess, in short, I just respect the right of Haitians to be very protective of their children and to insist that Americans follow proper protocol when dealing with them.

That's it for now.
Peace.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Gays in the Military;

Hey! Well, I didn't get around to watching the new episode of Lost last night. I meant to. I started watching it, but then I decided to hold off and let it record on the DVR for awhile so I didn't have to watch the commercials. Then I got distracted with guitar playing and stuff and I never went back to it. Oh well. Should be on the DVR.
What else? Sounds like there's some movement on ending the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays and lesbians in the American military. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has voiced an opinion that he thinks the policy should probably be changed, as well as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Even though I know that this is going to probably be a sort of difficult step for the very traditional, conservative military, I think it's an important step and a good step. Gays are already allowed to serve in the military- they just aren't allowed to speak openly about their sexual orientation or identify themselves as gay. So, to me, from an operational standpoint, I don't think that a change in the rules is going to have a huge impact. I heard some guy, I think from the Marine Corps, talking on NPR yesterday about how this is going to significantly change the situation of the men and women who have to work closely and together as part of military life. But in the same way that heterosexuals are governed by rules regarding fraternization and sexual conduct, gays will continue to live and work under the rules that have always governed members of the military. Plus, of course, gays and lesbians have been serving in the military throughout the 17 years that "Don't ask, don't tell" has already been in existence (and surely long before that), and thus far it doesn't seem like the military's effectiveness has been significantly compromised (or I'm guessing that we would have heard about significant disruptions).
Anyway, I think Admiral Mullen summed up the argument that I find most compelling on this issue when he told the Senate Armed Service Committee, "No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens." And that's kind of the point. Our country seems perfectly willing to accept the help of these people when they're willing to put their lives on the line in defense of the country, so it just seems like we ought to at least allow them the opportunity to be honest about who they are.
Mullen testified that he had knowingly served with homosexuals in the military since graduating from the Naval Academy in 1968, and he thought it was wrong that they were required to hide their sexual orientation.
Anyway, the military can be slow to change, and I know they have a pretty conservative culture, but I think it's good to see military leaders like Gates and Mullen taking a stand for civil rights in this sort of way. Maybe if they're willing to speak out others in the military will start to realize that this sort of change is not only the right thing to do, but that it isn't going to mean gloom and doom for the U.S. armed forces.

What else? Oh, I don't know. I really didn't mean to make a whole post just about gays in the military, but I'm feeling a bit worn down today, so I'm going to leave it at that. Hope you guys are having a good Hump Day!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Oscar Nominations 2010

Hi!
Well, the Oscar nominations for 2009 are out. My brother really hates the Oscars because he feels like the award process is arbitrary (or maybe more based on politics and ticket sales than on the actual quality of the movies), but I typically don't really care enough about the Oscars to have a strong opinion one way or the other about their credibility as a benchmark for greatness. Just another award show, in my mind (and maybe part of me roughly equates them with the Grammys, which have failed to recognize so many classic performers over the years that they should have brought the entire thing to a close years ago).
Anyway, of the movies nominated for Best Picture, I've seen Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and District 9. I still want to see Precious and A Serious Man. The others are movies that other people keep telling me that I need to see, but that I don't really have a strong desire to watch (not because they're bad, but just because they don't really appeal to me all that much, personally).
First off, I can't believe that Avatar is nominated for Best Picture. I saw it and I liked it, but the movie didn't really have anything new or especially interesting to say (or, more correctly, nothing that we haven't seen a number of other movies and TV shows before). The special effects were undoubtedly awesome, and I'm all for giving Avatar an Oscar for best special effects, but if we're singling out a movie as being the best thing that came out during the year, it probably ought to have given us something new to think about, or at least framed some important issue in a way that maybe we hadn't thought about before. Avatar was a beautiful movie and an entertaining movie and it pushed the technical envelope in terms of what's possible in modern filmmaking, but it was Dances With Wolves in space (or maybe, as Ryan is fond of saying, Pocahantas with blue Native Americans).
The Hurt Locker was decent, but as I said in a recent post, I thought that it was more of an action movie than a profound war movie with a meaningful message. It was a good movie, but once again, I didn't think it was great a great film.
I also finally saw Inglourious Basterds. It wasn't my favorite movie ever, but it had its strong points. It had some good, strong, classic Tarantino dialogue, and the it was filled with metaphor about the power of film and the ability of the Jews to use it as a means of vengeance against the Nazis. It also had a sort of postmodern twist- being, in essence, more of a movie about the movies of World War II than a movie about World War II itself ([spoiler]a point made fairly clear when the film's protagonists manage to kill Hitler during the climax of the movie in a way that had absolutely no connection to historical reality).
All of this being said, I still think that both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs were better movies, and neither one of them won best picture, so if Inglourious Basterds wins this year I guess I'll just feel like this is either a "make up" award for not giving Tarantino's past work enough credit or that the movie won because this was a weak year, overall, for movies.
Of the movies nominated, I thought that District 9 was probably the most original and had the best points to make. I really liked this movie. It kind of shocks me to see it nominated for Best Picture because you really just don't see that many sci fi movies nominated for best movie of the year (and now we have two in one year- undoubtedly an occurrence resulting from the decision to have ten nominations this year instead of five). Anyway, I really liked it, and I definitely thought that it was one of those sneaky films that uses science fiction themes to say some pretty insightful things about human nature and the human condition.
In the area of movies that I think should have been nominated but didn't make the cut, I think it's a crime that Where the Wild Things Are didn't get a nomination. I think that movie had some of the most poignant, profound things to say about childhood of any movie that I've ever seen. Strange as it sounds, it was a movie about a boy's imaginary adventures with monsters that managed to provide an unsentimental, meaningful look at some of the important, but kind of difficult lessons that a child has to learn in order to become a responsible, caring adult (lessons which, unfortunately, some people never learn). Anyway, I really, really liked that movie (although I'm not sure I would watch it all the time, because it's not exactly depressing, but also not entirely uplifting). Maybe this is going to sound a bit arrogant, but I really just don't think that a lot of people really "got it". Maybe it's better that it didn't get the Oscar nod, though. I have a feeling that it be recognized as a classic which went unappreciated at the time when it came out. Until then it can just be one of those really cool movies that only a few people really respect and care about.
So.... on the whole, I think the Oscars may not always end up highlighting the movies that have the most merit from an artistic stnadpoint, but I think that they do a decent job of pointing out the sort of thing that Americans placed a lot of value on at a particualr point in time. If anything, that's about all you can get out of them.

I gotta run. Hope you guys are doing alright.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Bipartisanship and the Lion's Den

Hey! Kind of uneventful, but a pretty decent weekend. Joined Ryan, Jamie, Matt, Nicole, Julia, and Pat for dinner on Friday at Artz Ribhouse. The food was pretty good, but more importantly, it was just a good chance to hang out and catch up.
Saturday I had lunch did a little bit of shopping with Ryan and Jamie, and Saturday night I went to Maudie's with Ryan, Jamie, Matt, and Nicole. We had a good time, but man, that place gets crowded and noisy on a Saturday night.
Sunday I did a lot of bumming around, and had band practice in the evening. Well, actually, we were supposed to have band practice, but it fell apart. Reed and I played a little bit with just the two of us and just sort of hung out.
The weekend was also filled with a lot of Mass Effect 2. It's a really cool game, but it's long and complicated. I was trying to just sort of quickly show it to Reed last night, and I realized that although it has good graphics, the things that are really impressive about Mass Effect 2 aren't things that you can really show someone in 10 or 15 minutes. I mean, the graphics are good, but lots of games have some pretty impressive graphics these days. The things that are really impressive about Mass Effect 2 are things like how well the characters are developed, the complexity and richness of the storyline and the universe, the continuity that occurs between the first and second games, and so forth. You get to know characters and build a history and a sort of relationship with them in the game. Choices that you make help determine how other characters interact with you. As you help different people out and build alliances with them, you do favors for them and they return favors for you. So, although the artwork is pretty good, the storyline is probably actually the coolest thing about Mass Effect 2. But that's a hard thing to demonstrate to a friend by showing him the game for a few minutes before band practice. Instead, the game sort of rewards people who are willing to sit down and make the time commitment to play the thing through.
And the game can eat up a lot of your time. But it's fun.

I watched a good chunk of the video from President Obama's speech and question and answer session with Republicans on Friday. I had heard a great deal about this session (at a Republican retreat) before I actually saw any of it, with pundits and reporters talking about how the president had taken on a whole room full of high powered Republicans and come out on top- dominating them with his command of policy, public speaking ability, and Vulcan/ninja/Jedi debate skills. And, in fact, it seemed like the president handled himself quite well, and did, in fact, sort of come out on top in the whole exchange by virtue of not only his willingness to take part of this sort of thing in the first place (the media couldn't stop referring to the Republican gathering as the proverbial "lion's den") but also handling himself quite well during the question and answer portion.
In the end, though, I still couldn't help but wonder what the president realistically stands to gain from the whole thing. After this meeting at this retreat, it wasn't as if we immediately saw an outpouring of newfound bipartisanship and cooperation from the Republicans. Instead, they seemed to mostly be complaining about the format of the event (they were unhappy that the camera remained mostly fixed on the president without giving more camera time to the Republicans who were asking questions in the audience, and they were upset that there wasn't more opportunity for rebuttal and argument about the president's responses to questions). In short, the Republicans didn't seem to really listen to the president's message so much as they spent most of their time figuring out how they could tilt the battleground to their own advantage the next time one of these events occurred- which is a little ironic on an occasion when the president has elected to speak to the opposition party in the interest of fostering bipartisanship.
I respect the president's nobler instincts (I liked his recent quote about being more interested in being a good one term president as opposed to a mediocre two termer), and I think that he's probably really trying to do the right thing by seeking trying to foster greater bipartisanship (it's not only good for the country to see that it's leaders aren't at each other's throats, but, in a practical sense, maybe we could get more done with a little cooperation), but I'm still afraid that Obama may just be wasting time and effort by trying to get the Republicans to support things that are on the Democrat's agenda.
As the president keeps pointing out, there are certainly differences in viewpoints between the parties, but there are also many areas where the parties could find common ground (e.g., we don't agree about a public option for health care reform, but we might be able to come to agreement on the need to stop insurance companies for denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions). The president's thinking is that we could get some significant work done if we could just set aside the things where we differ and move forward in the areas where we find agreement, regardless of who sponsored the original legislation and regardless of who's in power at the time when the bill is moving through the legislature.
The problem is that this runs counter to Republican political strategy. For many years now the Republicans have relied upon a scorched earth, slash and burn approach. Their tactics seem to rely upon obstructing and opposing every Democratic proposal that comes up (while simultaneously riling up their base with propaganda implying that everything the Democrats do is evil), and then campaigning on the fact that the Democrats can't get anything done. And, unfortunately, this seems to have worked pretty well for them. Combine this set of campaign tactics with a fairly pervasive Republican belief that things can only get better when there's a Republican in office, and it starts to look like the president might be fighting a very strong uphill battle.
What the president needs to do is to focus his political speaking skills and powers of persuasion on the American public. The only way that the Republicans are going to change their attitudes is going to be if the voting public starts to put pressure on the GOP to change their ways and meet the Democrats halfway on some stuff. The president is probably never going to win over many converts from the hardcore conservative base, but he might be able to win over enough unaffiliated independents to start putting some real pressure on the Republicans. From what I've heard, most polling data suggests that independents are pretty fed up with the bickering between the two parties. They want to see more cooperation from their leaders. If Obama extends the olive branch and the GOP just slaps it away, their popularity among ind pendents may start to wane.
Undoubtedly, this is what the president wants. His meeting with Republicans was kind of a no brainer from a strategy standpoint. He goes into the thing asking for more cooperation. If the GOP ends up cooperating, Obama has made progress. If they don't agree to cooperate, hopefully they lose the support of independent voters who decide the outcome of elections in this country. So as long as Obama could hold his own and look like a reasonable man, this Republican retreat thing was a good idea for him. His target audience probably wasn't actually Republicans, but the independent voters out there who were watching the whole thing and waiting to see if both parties could play nice.
Personally, my thinking is a little more cynical. I think that the only thing that American voters really tend to understand, support, and care about is success. On things like health care, I tend to think that the Democrats might have been better off just going to the mat and pushing the thing through, even if they had to do so in a completely partisan way. The public might not be too happy about this initially, but once the public began to see positive changes in their health care system as a result of the bill, I think they would have come around to supporting it after the fact. People are almost always afraid of and against change until after they've seen it accomplished and realize that it actually really can benefit them (I see this at work all of the time. Everything from personnel changes to new computer programs to new buildings are always met with cries of horror, frustration, and gloom and doom wailing, but almost invariably, things don't fall apart once the changes are made, and usually people are happy with them once the changes have been made and people have had a short amount of time to adjust to them). So, I think that the president ought to consider, from time to time, simply pushing some things through and letting the chips fall where they may. If the programs are good, they will end up selling themselves. If the programs are bad.... well, you don't want to back bad programs, but the Democrats need to be exercising extreme caution in that regard, anyway (so as not to waste time, resources, and money).
Anyway, I think that the president might be better off just counting the Republicans out and just focusing on getting stuff done under Democratic power. That being said, it's undoubtedly a risky strategy. The Bush White House more or less went it alone for 8 years, but in the end they had a pretty crappy record to show for it and the ineffectiveness of their programs and their policies ended up costing the Republicans a lot of votes as Bush left office. Still, if the Democrats really believe in the policies and programs that they're pushing, they just might need to act first and worry about support later.

Hoo boy. I'm tired, I think I overblogged today.
Rap at ya later.

Cassidy Endorses Bill White