Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit, Part II: Light My Fire

There might be spoilers ahead. I'm not sure; I haven't written it yet. I'm probably one of those reviewers that you should read after you've seen the movie. (And then you can say to yourself, 'this dude is full of it.')

Peter Jackson just cannot help himself. He is going to work a lengthy, physics-defying, CG-fueled carnival ride into his movies. Probably more than one. He's going to do it whether it serves the story or not. And at this point, there is nothing you or I can do to stop it. As it happens, these sequences are usually fairly entertaining as spectacle, but because they have no relationship to the laws of motion or to gravity as we know it, they tend to leave the viewer with a somewhat empty, unsatisfied feeling afterward. For better or worse, as a maker of blockbuster fantasy-action movies, this has become his style, his signature. So I just have to get over it: this is him, this is what he likes, and he made a gazillion dollars doing what he does; the chances that my complaints about it will be heard or heeded are exactly zero.

Last year I wrote a mostly positive review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Looking back, however, my review glosses over the film's shortcomings and emphasizes its strengths -- in short, it is a fan's review. Whatever, I guess: I make no apologies for being a Tolkien fanboy of the highest order, and I will always have a soft spot for PJ for having the vision and fortitude and audacity to make The Lord of the Rings. Many have said it before, but it bears repeating: it's easy to forget how big a risk that first trilogy was. So I approach his movies with gratitude.

All of this is prelude to discussing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I enjoyed the second installment of the Hobbit trilogy as an entertaining cinematic diversion. It's better than An Unexpected Journey: it opens briskly and sets a steady, uptempo pace that does not get bogged down with two opening sequences and endless exposition like the first film did. I left the theater well-pleased; I had a great time with the friends who joined me to see it. So that's a recommendation: it's a fun holiday movie for the gang.

But I suppose I should say more...

Once again, Jackson & Company teased out some interesting interpretations of the source material, and conjured a new character that fits pretty well into the narrative. But also once again, Jackson seems to believe that you can't have too much of a good thing. Insert witticisms about barrel-riding and ax-juggling and elf-assassins and molten-river-of-gold-boogie-boarding here. 

Jackson seems to have a lot of trouble translating Tolkien's antagonistic minor characters onto screen without turning them into villainous caricatures. In Return of the King, the noble but tragically flawed Denethor became a cartoonish bad guy. In Desolation of Smaug, Thranduil vamps his way through his scenes: he does not evoke an ancient and wise king who will join forces with the dwarves to put down the goblin army, nor hold Gollum captive, nor send his only son to represent the woodland realm later in the epic. He says, "a hundred years is nothing to an elf," but his arch, sullen countenance expresses anything but patience. I think Jackson would do well to study the antagonists in some of Hayao Miyazaki's films to discover subtlety for characters such as these. 

Another thing that bothers me is Jackson's camera work: he seems to be enamored of closeups shot with a wide angle lens, which leaves his subjects oddly misshapen and the screen cluttered. This might be right for orcs and goblins, but it just doesn't fit for Bilbo. It's too chaotic, and doesn't visually express the plain, sensible wisdom of Hobbit-folk.

When I first saw the trailer for Desolation, I was dumbstruck: the dragon looked bad. I thought, wtf, he looks no better than Draco, and Dragonheart is now seventeen years old. How could that happen? Hell, after that glimpse, I felt they might have given Vermithrax the nod in favor of what they came up with. Happily, my fears were unfounded. On screen, Smaug is fantastic; the cunning, terrible menace of the character absolutely dominates the last quarter of the film. And the decision to have the dwarves make a stand to reclaim their kingdom in an extended fight with the dragon was a smart one. It is the execution where this falls flat: once again, heavy reliance upon physics-free CG leaves the sequence light on dramatic heft.

In FotR, one of the reasons that the confrontation with the Balrog succeeds is that it is situated in a film that has plenty of set-pieces that do not rely solely on special effects. Here in Desolation, Gandalf's showdown with the Necromancer has no such grounding context; it's just another CG fireworks display, which significantly diminishes its impact. It's just more noise in a spectacle already turned up to 11.

After five movies, The Fellowship of the Ring remains PJ's strongest foray into Middle Earth. In FotR, I really felt transported -- New Zealand's primal beauty played a major part in establishing an otherworldly yet realistic setting. The subsequent films have slowly morphed Middle Earth into an almost wholly CG creation that might have been filmed anywhere. More's the pity.

What did you think?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

It's Just Contraception, Right?

Wrong! Here's why the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, the suit that challenges the provision of ACA mandating contraceptive care coverage, should concern you: in addition to being unreasonable and unfair on its face, it also further enshrines corporate personhood, and opens the door for any number of exceptions due to firmly held beliefs.

These aren't the droids we're looking for. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Katniss Everdeen: Feminist Icon, or Yet Another Sexist Stereotype?

Given how much has been written about how Katniss is a "strong female character," and given how invested a lot of women (both young and old) are invested in Suzanne Collins's trilogy, who am I to even ask this question? The idea that anyone could argue that The Hunger Games is a sexist fairy tale seems completely crazy. Katniss is the hero! But once I was presented with the evidence, I have found it difficult to unsee.

Let me back up: some time ago, I stumbled across a contrarian blog that has alternately challenged, maddened, and astonished me with its alien worldview. The writer's insights are always provocative and wildly defiant of expectations. And it was here that I discovered a lonely voice lamenting that, if the cause of feminism is being advanced by Collins's Hunger Games, then there has been no progress. Here is an extended excerpt from the essay to give you an idea of what this person could possibly be talking about.
[This is] a book about a post-apocalyptic killing game that spends zero pages describing how Katniss kills anyone but spends countless pages on how she is dressed, how everyone is dressed. What will she wear? What kind of jewelry? Hair up? Will the "sponsors" like her better this way or that? Her chief weapon isn't a bow, it's her appearance.

This is also a good place to observe that the real life, pre-and post movie release controversies about The Hunger Games have also been about physical appearances -- not just race, but is 'Jennifer Lawrence too tall? Hair too blonde?'

[Katniss] does not choose NOT to kill, she does not choose a pacifist position; she explicitly states in the book how much she wants to kill. But she never [premeditatedly kills anyone]. She tries to kill Cato at the end, twice, and fails. Only after he is torn to shreds by mutants does she perform a mercy killing on him, at his request. In other words, she doesn't choose to kill or not kill -- it doesn't come up.

Katniss is continuously saved by men -- Haymitch, Peeta, Thresh -- but you don't notice that she saves no one***, including herself; you think she saves herself all the time. You think this because of the first half of the movie told you she's a badass, so you don't realize that during the second half she shows less agency than Princess Jasmine...

Haymitch, played by a man, says this to a woman, played by Katniss:
You know how you stay alive?  You get people to like you. Oh, not what you were expecting?
No, unfortunately it's exactly what I was expecting.  Thanks Dad.

...This is bigger than Katniss, this is the state of human progress. If it helps, imagine you have a five year old daughter you have to raise in the midst of aspirational images with long legs and no power of agency, and your worry is no longer "will she grow up and find a job?" or even "will she grow up and get married?" but [instead, your worry is] "will she be so conflicted about herself that she is unable to choose a career or pick a nice man from the hundreds of options that present themselves to her because she is ever anxious that any choice is the wrong choice because she only gets conflicting messages from everyone on earth?"

That's the world I'm stuck in, and though I haven't burned a bra in years I do somewhat rely on feminists to nudge the bar consistently higher so my theoretical daughters don't have to rely on penis or Prozac to live happily ever after. So where my girls at? I found about a million fawning feminist reviews of The Hunger Games which all contain some version of this paragraph:
Katniss, in this season of woman-hating, is a stunning example of feminism at its finest hour. She is compassionate, yet strong. She deeply about her family. While she is tempted to run away with Gale, instead of leaving her sister and mother to fend for themselves, she stays to support them.
...None of those things are feminism, those aren't even praiseworthy.  Those are basic, ordinary, unremarkable characteristics of every reasonable human being for 6000 years, and all animals. But that's the bar the reviewer has set for Katniss, for feminism.  That's the fantasy world she'd like to see women eventually get to. So either a) she has an unconsciously cynical view of women in general; or b) she has been tricked by the system about what it is to advance as a woman, i.e she's in The Matrix... If I was a 15 year old girl, and I'm not saying I'm not, then what is being communicated to me by the feminist praise of this book is that my future expectations are low.
Full disclosure: I never read the books; I only saw the first film (and I do plan to see all of them). Before I saw this critical analysis, though, I was content to join the chorus of admirers who point to Collins's work as a satisfying development in the portrayal of gender roles in narrative fiction. But the universal, explicitly pro-woman praise of this work has a big hole in it, and The Last Psychiatrist is the only person I've seen to point it out.
Please, please, don't misunderstand me, I have nothing against The Hunger Games, it's an entertaining story, I am not criticizing the book... If it won an Oscar or the world declared this the next Star Wars and made action figures and lunchboxes I wouldn't say a bad word about it, what's it to me if it makes people happy?  Enjoy what you like, it doesn't have to have deep meaning to be worthwhile.

But what makes me reach for the now empty bottle is how women have convinced themselves and each other that this is a pro-feminist story.
Anyway, go read the whole thing (there are actually two essays, but I'm linking to the second one, because it's a little more direct), and tell me what you think. A final warning, though: the writer is pretty in-your-face. I deliberately removed some of the language that is hostile to the reader.

I'll have more to say about The Last Psychiatrist later.

***Update: I had a very lively discussion about this post and about TLP on social media. No one who commented bought this reading of the story, and all strenuously defended Katniss as a strong female hero. In the course of the discussion, one commenter pointed out that Katniss does indeed save Peeta by retrieving the medicine from Cornucopia. So at least on that point, TLP is incorrect (though maybe he or she had an explanation for ignoring or excluding that instance of Katniss' heroism). Also, I added an important passage that was missing from my original excerpt.

Update II: one commenter on the thread suggested that TLP is simply an anti-feminist troll. TLP may be a troll (and I plan on talking about that if I ever get around to finishing my next essay on TLP), but I have a hard time believing that TLP is anti-feminist: no anti-feminist I know of uses critical literary theory, refers to "partial objects," deconstructs porn (as the writer does elsewhere), and name-checks Lacan. That's pretty heady stuff. If TLP really is an "anti-feminist," it must be said that underneath the sodden, confrontational humor of the prose, he or she has a pretty deep knowledge of feminist thought. 

Update III: TLP has a new post about Hunger Games that came out a couple weeks back, but somehow I missed it. It's the shortest and sharpest yet. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Something About Onanism and Intercourse With The Horse Upon Which You Rode Into Town

Last night while driving to art class, I turned on the radio and I instantly replied out loud to the voice I heard: "Fuck. You."

The cause of my anger was hearing Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, the mercenary army that killed 17 civilians in 2007 and brought the war in Iraq to yet another new low, saying that his team of superheroes would have prevented the casualties at Benghazi:
I wish we had been doing diplomatic security in Benghazi. I can tell you that Benghazi would not have happened if Blackwater were on the job there.
Prince should be forever marked by his company's crimes and war-profiteering, and left to a life of quiet, metaphorical exile, permanently ostracized. He should not be trotted out on public radio to explain that the work that he and his band of gun-thugs did was actually quite beneficial. Especially not while I'm driving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fun With The Magic Twitter Machine

It seems like a lot of fun is to be had on Twitter when clueless corporate shills stick their toe into roiling waters of social media. Last month, it was the Fix The Debt campaign who found themselves on the business end of the Twitter-ball bat.

 And now, yesterday, it seems that J. P. Morgan thought that it would be a good idea to reach out to the social media community for a Q and A session with JPM Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee. Hilarity, it did ensue.

Perhaps one day I shall purify myself in the cleansing waters of Lake Twitter. Sadly, "Knight of Nothing" is already taken.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I Wish I Had Written That

Charles Pierce once again demonstrates the gulf between actual writers and amateurs such as myself:
Through a combination of corporate cowardice and corporate avarice, the long march of the "Liberal Media" hoax has resulted in an independent information economy totally devoted to weaponized bullshit.
Preach, brother. I'll be mouthing the words at the back of the choir.

The whole piece is worth a read. It ain't long. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

New Painting

Last week was hell. The shock is slowly wearing off, but a cloud of sadness and melancholy still hangs over our household. On top of Hercules' untimely death, a close friend lost his cat that he adopted from me almost 23 years ago. That cat lived an epic life, but it is still sad to see him go. I started a post with some more reflections on the nature of grief, but I think I need a diversion.

After the satisfaction of my initial success, I've been slowly making progress on a new oil painting. While I like the results so far, I'm struggling with it more than I'd care to admit, and I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew this time.

It's a large format piece (about 36"x20") on gesso board, which is a more challenging surface on which to paint than one might think. Its smoothness prevents the paint from adhering in the same way it does to canvas, and I'm constantly having to wipe off sections and doctor areas that have become too gummy with the walnut oil alkyd medium. Still, under the guidance of my outstanding teachers, I suppose that it will probably turn out just fine.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Goodbye, Little Friend

Hercules made me angry like only a family member could. He would start barking at five-thirty in the morning on days we wanted to sleep late. He'd sneak off to shit on the carpet just moments after coming inside from the yard. He'd steal chocolate bars from the table and scrambled eggs from the baby's plate and scraps out of the garbage and butter from the counter-top. He'd whine and whimper and complain about any little thing that wasn't just so.

He would constantly demand attention when we were busy with something or someone else - very literally nosing-in in order to have his head patted. On cold days, he'd try to hide when it was time for a walk. He had the most disgusting breath of any creature I've ever encountered. He had a knack for being underfoot at the most ill-conceived moments. He would spend hours flipping a blanket with his snout in order to arrange himself underneath it to his satisfaction. When we needed a break, we'd lock him in his kennel, but somehow he'd get it open and escape. One time, he actually got out of his kennel, climbed out of the locked garage through a window, opened the back door to the house, and went inside.

Christ, that dog drove me crazy.

Most aggravating of all, though, was that Hercules would run away. He ran away so often that it wasn't worrisome or alarming or even notable. It was only maddening (and occasionally embarrassing when neighbors had to bring him home). At my old house, he'd jump the four-foot high fence easy as kiss your hand (an amazing feat for such a tiny dog) and go on an all-day walkabout. He'd trot back hours later with a look on his face that said nothing so much as "whuuut?"

On Monday, he ran off and got hit by a car. He died instantly. He was thirteen.

Though I consider myself to be an animal lover, I am not much of a dog person. It is not for lack of trying: as an adult, I've actually owned four dogs. We got our first dog, a black lab, in 1993. He was spirited and entertaining, but he grew into a ninety-pound handful, and after the novelty wore off, it became a grind to care for him.

At the time, we ran a child care business, and when that lab started to bite other people's children, we were forced to get rid of him. I vowed I'd never have another dog. But I was eventually overruled, and in 2001, my family and I found ourselves with an Italian greyhound, a breed I had never encountered (or even heard of) before my then-wife and daughter came home with Frodo.

As fate would have it, not long afterward, a college kid moved in across the street with his own Italian greyhound. Most dogs are not well-suited to a college student's lifestyle, however, and soon Hercules was spending a lot of time with us. He was more delicate than Frodo, and also a good deal smarter. We ended up adopting him, and from then on we were a two-IG family. We eventually added a third dog, a Pomeranian. They were quite a trio.

Now as I've said, Hercules had always been a total jerk. But damn it if he wasn't the consummate charmer too: he loved children and he loved the daycare. He'd cuddle with whomever was willing to sit on the couch for more than thirty seconds (especially if you had a blanket). And boy, did he love cats. When one of our cats had kittens, he took pride in them and considered himself to be a co-parent. They were his kittens and he raised them. 

The years slipped by. In 2007 I divorced, and although I wanted exactly zero dogs, I ended up with the two greyhounds. Strange how that worked out. Anyway, Hercules and Frodo didn't love the life of a single dude nearly as much as family life, but the three of us adapted and soldiered on.

When I remarried in 2010, my wife brought her cat Levi into our home, and predictably, Hercules loved that cat too. Unfortunately, Levi didn't want much to do with Hercules; one might say that he was on to Hercules' charming bad-boy routine (Levi being cut from a similar cloth). Levi preferred Frodo's guileless company, which made Frodo quite nervous and Hercules even more determined to bond with him. 

Even though Hercules and Levi never really came to an understanding, the newly-remade household and the dynamic between the three of these animals revived Hercules' familial nature. At ten years old, he was as playful as a puppy. I think it was a heavy blow to Hercules when we had to put Levi down due to illness in January of 2012.

Hercules proved to have plenty more life in him, though. When our first (my third) child was born in 2012, Hercules formed an immediate bond with the baby. This was something new for Hercules: he had played nursemaid to kittens and to preschoolers, but he had never been around a newborn infant, and he took to our son Malcolm more effortlessly than I thought possible.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Hercules pretty much single-handedly taught our boy how to be gentle. While Malcolm was squeezing and pinching and prodding, he'd patiently stand there as if to say, "try again."

All of this happened right before our eyes, and while it pleased us, I don't think we appreciated it as fully as we should have. We were busy being harried, sleep-deprived new parents just trying to hold ourselves together. But the magic happened, again and again, and I'm glad we captured some of it.

Unfortunately, Hercules was still prone to all of his rude-boy habits. And Monday afternoon, he ran off after being let out to do his business. Now, he hated cold and rain, and Monday was just such a dreary day, so we thought nothing of it: he'd come back soon. He always did. But when an hour turned into two, and he still hadn't returned, we went out looking for him. Before we went out, I was still muttering and cursing about him running off on yet another of his little excursions. Sadly, we later learned that by the time we began our search, he was running around in a panicked state. He apparently became too scared to approach anyone by that point - a fact that still surprises and grieves me. Ignorant of this information, however, I kept up the search until after 11 PM. The cold night and the racoons I spotted in the neighborhood darkened our spirits.

On Tuesday we received quite a few calls from our searching and canvassing efforts. A lot of people had seen him Monday afternoon in his frenzied condition. But our hopes were short-lived: on a tip from one of the many flyers we posted, we found his body that afternoon by a busy highway about half a mile from our house. I went to collect his remains. He was almost unrecognizable. Poor, poor dog. We suppose that he was hit Monday evening right after dark.

There were no skid marks, and by the blood-streaked road, it was clear that he was dragged at least 50 feet, and probably more. I doubt the driver saw him, but I am not sure how the driver failed to feel the impact. I washed and saved his name-tag, and I let Frodo sniff his body so he'd know that Hercules wasn't coming back. Then we brought his remains to Minneapolis Animal Control.

I am sorry. It was my job to protect you, little dog. And I failed.

Our relationships with our pets are complicated: we form attachments and project our own hopes, fears, and foibles on to these creatures. They probably try harder to understand us than we credit. Science has learned much about the chemistry and the hormones that transform a small domesticated animal into a beloved family member. But there is no measuring instrument that can quite capture the regret I feel.

I always thought Hercules would outlive everyone. Though he certainly had a long and rich life, he didn't deserve to die so suddenly and violently. And even though he drove me crazy, I am sad that he's gone, and my complacent, annoyed attitude toward his escape on Monday gnaws at me. I'll miss him most for his kindness toward my youngest son - I am heartbroken that their relationship has been cut short. Rest in peace, Hercules.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Those Social Issues Are Not A Mask

I came across this explanation of conservatism a while back, and it has really stuck with me. I've been sitting on it for some time, trying to come up with some thoughtful commentary to accompany an excerpt, but it needs nothing from me. It stands very well on its own. 
"From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.

The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality...
More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.

The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation...

A main goal in life of all aristocrats... is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children." 
Speaking of Burke, one person has recently written a book in which he traces a line from Burke to Sarah Palin. It's on my reading list.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Strange, Capricious Eye Of The Internet

Before last year, two of the top three posts on this blog were my review of Beowulf (because it contained a link to a picture of Angelina Jolie's naked CG body) and a decidedly lowbrow one-off "nothing to talk about today" post (that featured a picture of a chimp groping a woman). Hmm... I guess maybe the internet's eye isn't so capricious after all.

At any rate, not exactly my best work.

That changed late last year. Thanks to the magic of social media, one of my posts on gay marriage in Minnesota went viral during election season, and from it, I got more traffic in that month than I had had in the previous five years of this blog. It was great! I got a lot of positive feedback from it, and there was even an honest and engaging debate in the comments as well. Good times.

I'm still pretty proud of that post, and here's why: right before the election, I saw it re-posted by a stranger. A blue-collar, salt-of-the Earth fellow from rural Minnesota shared a link to it with a challenge to read it and not be changed. As if that wasn't enough, even better was that beneath his post, there was a beautiful thank you message from his daughter. That was very humbling and it brought a tear to my eye. It still does.

Since then, my blog has mostly returned to its former modest traffic levels. But I'll keep writing, because it's good fun. And maybe someday I'll move someone again. I know that the effort is worth it.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Hammer Salesmen Keep Seeing Nails

It's not an exaggeration to say that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris changed my life. Before I read The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation, I was merely a lapsed Catholic. But reading these books gave me permission to openly self-identify as a secularist/atheist/agnostic. So I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for these authors. Unfortunately, I have to call them both out for being jackasses, because sometimes that's what one must do in order to be intellectually honest.

First, in a recent interview, Richard Dawkins tells some anecdotes in which he implies that he does not condemn sexual harassment or pederasty. Okay, I kinda-sorta get what he's saying, so it isn't completely incomprehensible. But for the love of FSM, is this what you think is important to say right now? Is this the highest moral purpose you aspire to in these times - to defend anonymous perps on the basis of "different standards"? Yeesh. You're trolling us, Richard.

Now, I see that Sam Harris has decided to make a meal out of Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girl who was shot for speaking out against the Taliban. Harris seems to be willing to sacrifice anyone and anything in the service of his rhetorical cause. I'm afraid that others who have criticized Harris for rigidity and absolutism are right. Dear Sam: you wrote a great book, and you make some interesting points. But when you appropriate the courageous work of a young Muslim girl in order to make your point that Islam is Evil, well... it might be time to put down the computer and go outside for a while.

Grow up, fellas. We need you. 

These days, I find James Carse more compelling.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Superhero Standard

Politicians like to imagine themselves as lone crusaders fighting against injustice and evil, and frame themselves as defenders of the "American People" and "the American Way of Life." In so many words, they are assuming the mantle of a superhero. Since politicians are wont to describe themselves in terms of superheroes, I think it is time to explore the full implications of their appropriation of popular culture.

So what is a superhero? In the comics and the movies, superheroes aren't simply beings with super-powers; they have a code of conduct that defines their person and sanctifies their mission. Here are two components of a superhero's makeup:
  • a strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one's own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward
  • a motivation, such as a sense of responsibility, a formal calling... or a strong belief in justice and humanitarian service
Emphasis mine. That's a pretty good start, and could be distilled into "service to humanity without reward." But I feel that there is more to it than this, and upon reflection, it occurs to me that the moral code and motivations of superheroes have their roots in chivalry. Below are some highlights from the chivalric code as recorded in Song of Roland, now almost a thousand years old:
  • To protect the weak and defenseless 
  • To give succor to widows and orphans 
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offense 
  • To despise pecuniary reward 
  • To fight for the welfare of all 
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit 
  • At all times to speak the truth 
Wow, now those are some standards! One can draw a pretty straight line from this list to the superhero's code. I think the world would be a better place if more politicians put the moral code and motivations of super-heroism into practice, rather than simply co-opting the imagery as a cheap rhetorical device.

So how does your favorite politician live up to the Superhero Standard?

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Myth of the Self-Made Man, Debunked Again

My Dad fled to Texas in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear. He washed dishes making 50 cents an hour to pay his way through the University of Texas, and to start a small business in the oil and gas industry...

Government is not the answer. You are not doing anyone a favor by creating dependency, destroying individual responsibility. 55 years ago, when my dad was a penniless teenage immigrant, thank God some well-meaning bureaucrat didn't put his arm around him and say let me take care of you. Let me give you a government check and make you dependent on government... That would have been the most destructive thing anyone could have done.
Ted Cruz tells the inspiring life story of his father that unfortunately elides some important information, and in so doing, draws the wrong conclusions. In other words, it's bullshit.

Fifty-five years ago, $100 would have paid a year's tuition at University of Texas. Fifty-five years ago, working at only fifty cents an hour,  Rafael Cruz could pay for a semester at UT in just two and a half weeks.

How? What? Well, it turns out that in 1960, eighty-five percent of the cost of higher education at UT was paid by the government. In other words, government was an essential part of Rafael Cruz's success story. And nowadays, most unfortunately, the government does not help with higher education like it did when Cruz's dad migrated to the United States - thanks largely to Republicans like Ted Cruz. Pulling up the ladder indeed.

At today's minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, it would take almost seven times longer to earn enough to pay for college than it took back in Rafael Cruz's day. If you wanted to earn your semester's tuition in the same amount of time it took Rafael Cruz, you'd have to make $50 an hour

If we re-wrote Rafael Cruz's story in terms of the cost of a year's tuition at UT in 2013, here's what it would sound like: Cruz's lawyer friend bribed an official to stamp Cruz's exit permit, he took a first class flight to Texas with a briefcase filled with $10,000 cash, and worked for $50 an hour as a consultant to pay for his college education.

You'd shrug your shoulders at such a story. Rich guy is rich.

Now, I happen to believe that Cruz's dad's story is genuinely inspirational, even if he is now an insufferable asshole: he was imprisoned and tortured before he escaped to the U.S., where, although poor, he worked hard and became wonderfully successful. Most of us can't imagine such hardship. But his "happily ever after" outcome was made possible by a well-funded government with a strong sense of community and shared responsibility. Again, Rafael Cruz's story is a lot less feasible today, not because the poor and immigrants are less capable, but because our nation has been crippled by anti-government zealots: these days, we lack the fundamental infrastructure than enables success.

Was there ever a myth more seductive and yet more deceptive and destructive than the myth of the self-made man?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Le Shutdown R├ępublicain

Though I have been reading about it obsessively, I haven't posted about the government shutdown. I guess I haven't felt like I have all that much to add to the discussion. It's pretty obvious that the Congressional House Republicans have caused this mess. How it ends is anyone's guess. I want to believe that we'll get through it relatively unscathed, but we're 10 days in and it's not looking so great.

Here's all the narrative you need to know about the current crisis.

1. Obama won in 2008.
2. PPACA/Obamacare passed in 2010.
3. Republicans won the House in 2010, make repealing Obamacare their only legislative priority, AND FAIL to achieve this goal.
4. In 2012, SCOTUS upheld PPACA as constitutional.
5. In 2012, Republicans ran against Obamacare at all levels of government AND LOST DECISIVELY.
6. By September 2013, House Republicans have tried AND FAILED forty-plus times to repeal Obamacare.

Instead of being chastened by this parade of failure, Republicans met in January of 2013 to plan the hostage situation that we are now in.

So whether you are for or against Obamacare, and whether or not you believe that closing the government is a good thing, and whether or not you think that hitting the debt ceiling is a problem, this is a Republican shutdown. Period.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Update: Here is an excellent explanation of the "debt ceiling" worth watching, and here is a list of three essential points to remember as this conflict drags on. Finally, there has been some noise that when it comes to the debt ceiling, "both sides do it!" This piece dispenses with that notion.

Monday, September 30, 2013

I Can't Make Sense Of It

When it comes right down to it, I don't understand the hostility to science that climate change deniers embrace. Even if the deniers are absolutely right, and the 97% of scientists who agree that anthropogenic climate change is real are completely wrong, only good things can come out of trying to do something about carbon dioxide emissions: a reduction in pollution, more sources of sustainable energy, a loss of political power for despots who control fossil fuels, etc.

Where is the effing down side to those things?

Conversely, if the 97% of climate scientists are right (and we have no credible reason to believe otherwise), the consequences of ignoring the threat of global warming are grave.

The basis of climate change denial seems to be only contrarianism and nihilism. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The World According To Larry

It's you fucking liberals that let this shit into our society, so who are the sick bastards. Islam is not the only threat to our society, liberals and progressives are right next to them.
In the beginning, Larry was a low-information voter with a chip on his shoulder. He took care of his family, worked hard, and paid his dues and his taxes. But he could not escape the idea that someone was getting a better deal than him, that other people were lazy and taking advantage of him, and that the people and places and things he cared about were under attack from forces he could not quite define or confront.

There isn't anything particularly remarkable about his story: lots of people from everywhere throughout history have lived their lives harboring some sort of hostile attitude toward others. But then, a late-twentieth century convergence of culture and technology brought talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet into being. And there the real trouble began.

These entities nurtured the chip on Larry's shoulder by peddling a toxic blend of fear-mongering, misinformation, distortions, and ginned-up controversies. They created virtual communities of like-minded misanthropes indulging in all manner of imaginary problems and non-existent enemies. The chip on his shoulder thus grew from a minor antagonism into a seething resentment, and finally blossomed into a frothing, impotent rage, completely untethered to the reality of Larry's comfortable existence.

Larry has been sending me email for over a year, spanning countless topics, purposefully trying to annoy me. Now, I don't even know the man. We have never met. He's just a relative's nutty acquaintance. But after an unguarded response to one of my relative's emails, I ended up on his radar. And so the stream of emails began, and they just keep on coming.

A few weeks back, I wrote an open response to him in an effort to stop the madness. Of course, the madness didn't end. Like a puppy or a toddler, Larry feeds on attention. So I went back and surveyed his messages, and found a pattern striking in its consistency:
1. Larry sends an outrageous or provocative story, most often in the form a forwarded email of dubious and/or unknown origin.

2. When I bother to answer, I reply with evidence and sources that call into question some or all of the claims made in these stories.

3. Larry responds to tell me I am wrong, or to go on a rant, or he simply changes the subject. Sometimes he does all three. But whatever his response, he carefully avoids addressing the evidence I present, and offers no counter-evidence to dispute the veracity of my claims.
Literally every one of our exchanges has followed this pattern. In other words, he is a classic troll, as predictable as a clock, and pretty boring, actually. (And all this time, I've been unwittingly feeding him! Score one for Larry.)

But the simplicity of Larry's story and the banality of our interactions don't do justice to the complicated, phantasmagorical view of the world he and his kind have developed and wholeheartedly adopted. His emails have given me a first-hand view through the looking glass and into the world of his wingnut bubble. What follows is a snapshot of this insane milieu.

In Larry's world, liberals are the real racists.
It's the left that keeps bringing up the race card and dividing this nation, and for some reason you can't see it... [Sylvia Thompson says that] the Democratic Party stands for liberalism, and liberalism at its core, is racist. And I guarantee, she is much smarter than you are. 
In Larry's world, scary Muslims are poised to conquer all. 
You act like Islam is a peaceful religion when reality would tell something different... I dare you to walk down the street in Dearborn, MI, where all of the Muslims live... and come back with a feeling that they are a peace loving People. You most likely will not get out unharmed or alive. Get on-line and find out what the Madrassas are teaching their young. The only thing [Muslims] understand is death and their 72 virgins. 
In Larry's world, progressives are destroying women's lives with porn.
I'm glad you brought up how Liberals and Progressives have changed women's lives. You can now go into any adult movie store and buy movies depicting men [censored] and [censored] on naked young girls.  Or watch a group of men gang banging and [censored] in a young girls face.  But I almost forgot, you can see much of this on TV today. Or maybe you are into men [censored] each other.  That is what your Liberals and Progressive movement has brought into the world for your children to watch. 
In Larry's world, the globe is cooling, and science that shows otherwise is just an opinion.
It is an agenda that's at stake... A friend once told me, "opinions and reports that fit your beliefs are like assholes", everyone has one.
In Larry's world, violence is always the best solution.
The only thing [Bush] didn't do was Nuke the bastard [Osama bin Laden]. That is what I would have done, and there would have been no invasion and no other country would have dared attack us again...  I hope [Obama] bombs the shit out of Syria.  Then the true patriots take over to get people back to work and get the 50% On the Government dole off their ass and back to work... Liberals have no idea how to start or end a confrontation with a shit little country and/or a shit little Tyrant.
At the center of Larry's world is Barack Hussein Obama. President Obama looms over all as a towering villain, almost a force of nature. In Larry's view, Obama presides malevolently and gleefully over the decline of America. Yet strangely, he is simultaneously an over-matched, bungling incompetent. And of course, he's Muslim.
Obama [is] responsible for Benghazi, nine mass murders, the IRS targeting of the Tea Party for political reasons...

The bottom line: Obama is making things worse. He is extending America’s suffering. No amount of government spending will help. In fact, it will make our future far worse than most average Americans can imagine...

Obama - Muslim; Ziyad Abid - Muslim from Saudi Arabia! Saudi Muslim killer released a few days after Obama’s visit to that little town!

Obama doesn't know shit. Obama and all of his cohorts, Pelosi, Reid, and so many others do not understand OBAMA CARE!  They all signed something they do not understand, not only what it is but what it does !
Finally, here's a selection of his thoughts concerning yours truly.
You blogger guys are all alike.  You live in your own little world of Internet bullshit, and have no idea what goes on in the real world. You only blog about shit that fits your perception of reality... I hope Obama Care takes care of you, because that is the only way you will ever see the truth.
I don't hate and I am not angry, in fact I am having fun getting to you... I enjoy seeing your blood pressure rise.
Well, there you have it. The biggest threats to the world aren't war, poverty, or environmental degradation. The biggest problem in the United States isn't capital fleeing the country, it isn't the shrinking middle class, or spiraling health care costs, or decaying infrastructure. Even actual problems like religious extremism are treated with such cartoonish bombast that reality bears no resemblance to its grotesque caricature in his world.

No, none of those are the real issues of the day. In Larry's world, the biggest threats are Muslims, the Affordable Care Act, bloggers, liberals & progressives, and the President of the United States.  Larry's view of the world is as self-sustaining and impenetrable as it is wrong, and no amount of empirical data or reason will change it. I despair of ever seeing this insane bubble popped.

Here's Larry at his most refined, after the last message I sent to him: 
Fuck off Bro!
Well, as you wish. 'Nuff said. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Teen Power!

Teens are smarter and tougher than adults often credit. But they face difficult questions and mixed messages, and going through adolescence is confusing and very hard on a person (and that's not to mention how tough it is for parents!).

A few years back, I wrote a post with some goals I would have liked to have achieved as a teen. It was a response to a friend's post on the same topic. In honor of the start of the 2013-14 school year, I thought I'd revise and consolidate these two posts into a single list. The best part about this advice is that it really doesn't have expiration date: it is good for all ages!
  • Stick up for someone. A lot of adults will tell you that the some of the deepest shames in life stem from failing to stick up for a weaker kid. Cowardice is a behavior, not a trait, and it can become habitual unless you find some courage in yourself for someone else's sake when it's called for. You can do it! And the alternative sucks.

  • Make art. Join the school theater, get into the choir, play a musical instrument, start a band, write a story, take a drawing or a painting class. And don't just make it - perform it, put it on display, integrate it into your social life. This involves some risk, which is part of the point. Honing a creative skill nurtures something inside of you that is very different than what is built from the raw competition of academia or athletics. But more immediately, it's fun as hell.

  • Exercise. No need to be a jock. But don't phone it in: move around with some purpose. Screw the dieting crap, just eat right and keep the junk food to a minimum. Walk a mile or ride your bike every day is all the exercise you need.

  • Learn a language. Sure, I studied Spanish in high school, Finnish in college, and dabbled in French as an adult. But I still haven't become fluent in any additional language to my satisfaction. I think my life is poorer because of it. When you can read in another tongue or converse comfortably with a native speaker, then you have opened up your world immeasurably. So really learn it - do extra credit, put in time at the language lab, go to a language camp, take that semester abroad, join a club - whatever it takes. This is on my list of things to do before I'm dead.

  • Get a job. Even if you don't need the money, having a part-time job is great life experience. When you are an adult, no one will care about how cute you were or how well you pranked the substitute teacher or bounced a basketball. Being part of an organization that measures your worth in what you can do for it and that is wholly dedicated to making money is good preparation for the "real world." 

  • Start a savings account. Did I really need to spend that money on the bullshit I bought? If I had saved just twenty bucks a week in my teen years, I would have had $5200 by the time I turned 18. That's enough for a real adventure abroad, a significant investment, or some other substantial purchase. To be able to plan and execute a long term goal, especially a financial one, is truly a life skill worth learning and having. I'm a lot better at this now, but it took me way too long to get here. Put some money away for something big. You won't regret it.

  • See how the other half lives. The city in which I live doesn't have a shanty town or even an above-average unemployment rate. Even so, there are homeless shelters and food shelves and people on the street. Go lend a hand. Poverty is experiential and even a trivial brush with it is transformative.

  • Don't worry about what you want to be. I'm 44 years old and I'm working my second career. I don't expect to stay in this career until I retire. Heck, when I was 15, the job I have now did not even exist. There are young people out there who have the singular drive and interest to pursue a particular career as teens, but in my experience most people are not like that. So don't worry about what you're going to be when you grow up! But...

  • Develop interests and skills. Find something you're passionate about and go for it. It doesn't matter what it is, it is likely to have dozens or even hundreds of facets to explore. The ability to find and develop an interest is itself a valuable skill. Just caring about something other than who kissed so-and-so and where the party is this weekend makes you a better person. It may even turn into something you could get paid to do.

  • Finish high school. There's no excuse for not finishing high school. In an information economy dropping out of high school pretty much dooms you to a life of poverty which means you're making your problems into society's problem. So be serious and finish high school.

  • Don't have a boy or girlfriend. If you're under 18, casual, low-stress social mingling is more fun, more instructive, and ultimately more fulfilling for you than intense relationships that you may not be emotionally ready for. If you go to a buffet do you fill up your plate with apple cobbler? Hellz no beotch! You sample lots of different things.

  • Break clique boundaries. Hang with the jocks. Hang with the clowns. Hang with the partiers. Hang with the nerds. Don't be hidebound by your "natural" peer group. Find interesting individuals, don't settle for a group in which you feel comfortable. Getting along with a variety of people isn't a life-skill, it's living.

(Hat tip to TK for granting permission to use his post. Thanks, amigo!)

Update: of all people, Kareem Abdul Jabar recently wrote a piece on the very same topic. His piece is titled "How to Become A Man," but most of his advice holds true for both boys and girls looking for an enlightened path into adulthood.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Open Letter In Which I Respond To An Angry Old White Man Abusing The Interwebs

I get it - you're angry. Really angry. Angry about immigrants. Angry that the economy isn't doing all that well. Angry about the Affordable Care Act. And most of all, angry that we have a brown president with a foreign-sounding name.

But that's kind of the point, isn't it?

You keep using the phrase "your world," as if you and I don't live in the same country, and as if your taxes don't go to the same government that mine do. Guess what? We live in the same country and pay for the same government, and we both get things that we want and things that we do not want. Learn to deal with it.

I suppose in a way, you're right: we don't live in the same world. I live in a world that I call "reality." It has verifiable facts, sources, evidence. It has nuance and subtlety, and one side is rarely one-hundred percent "right" about anything. From it I derive a sense of proportion about what is important.

Honest people may disagree with my conclusions. But you aren't honest: you live in a terrifying and mythological world of narcissism and wounded pride. If you weren't such an angry person, whose relentless stream of fact-free messages contain thinly-disguised race-baiting, a palpable hatred of strong women, and most of all, an unsavory thirst for belligerence and violence, I'd feel sorry for you.

You're not going to solve any problems. You're part of the plan and you're playing an essential role in perpetuating our nation's problems. For you and people like you, debating issues isn't the point, and facts don't matter. The hate and the fight are the only things. It's your side, the "real America," against "them," whoever "they" are.

I have my own criticisms of President Obama. Who knows, together we may have been able to find common ground. From this common ground, we might have presented a unified front to those in power and thus have some small influence on national policy. But as it stands, you've been completely co-opted by hate and anger, and as citizens, we are less able to make any changes to the status quo.

Keep hating - that's exactly what your puppet masters want. You're fighting for the wheel of the clown car *against yourself.*

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Holy Shit

I'd better get my act together - 
"I'm a good person, I just am making bad choices."  Wrong.  You're not a good person until you make good choices.  Until then you are chaos.

And you know it.
Cuts right to the bone, that.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I Can't Wake Up For This Bullsh*t

I've mostly been hitting the snooze bar on Benghazi, because it is exhausting to try and keep up with the shifting narrative - the "scandal" amounts to a tragedy from which House Republicans and other loonies hope to make political hay. Eight months of fucking that chicken and nothing to show for it. Give it a rest, fellas!

That said, this article actually did catch my eye, and it is worth a read for its clear-headed and sobering analysis of where the House of Representatives may well end up during Obama's second term.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Party of Fiscal Responsibility

Somehow I missed this story last July, but it is still relevant, as House Republicans are pushing to vote for the 37th time to repeal ACA. Fifty million dollars for absolutely nothing.

Reminder: these public tantrums cost money! I hasten to add that this enormous cost isn't at all surprising - anyone who works for a big company can tell you that meetings are expensive. And what is a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives if not one gigantic meeting?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Scaring the Nation With Their Guns And Ammunition

Gabrielle Giffords wrote a sharp and thoughtful essay on the Senate's failure to enact Manchin-Toomey. It is well worth a read. 

This is painful black humor that I must share:
No one in the Republican Party has the slightest fear that these [Manchin-Toomey votes] were risky votes going into 2014 or 2016... We may outnumber the opponents of expanded background checks 9-1, but they vastly outnumber us in the category of "People who'd crawl naked through ground glass to cast a one-issue vote based on gun policy."
Finally, the inimitable Charles Pierce has a great piece on the surreal relationship that Americans have with violence, and how that relationship manifested this week. Go read the whole thing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

200 Calories

I have been slow to write since the election. I could find plenty of excuses - the holidays, the weather, work. Especially work - I've been at it every day, nonstop for two months. But really, I just haven't had that much to say recently. Not sure that I do now, but I've been spotting some interesting links on the intarwebs this week, so for the next few posts, I'm going to use this space to share.

Here's an interesting and at times surprising visualization of the food we eat from a calorie counting perspective: this-is-what-200-calories-of-food-looks-like. I know it shouldn't be, but the peanut butter portion was an eye-opener.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fuck SharePoint

From the Microsoft Breeding Hostility Dept.:

Error was caused by trying to open a file on a SharePoint server. Of course, it let the file be created, it just can't be accessed. My favorite quote about SharePoint: "I used to find things. Then I found SharePoint."