Saturday, February 28, 2004

Movieblogging: Volunteers
Yet another bad 80s flick that fell through the cracks: Volunteers (1985). Best remembered today as the movie that marked the first collaboration between Tom Hanks and his future (and still current) wife Rita Wilson. I've seen just about every Tom Hanks movie that's been made, though I occasionally miss his goofy comedic roles. Don't get me wrong--his modern work is outstanding, but part of you is always waiting for that bit of Bachelor Party or Big to come through.

This was also a vehicle for the late, great John Candy, who had co-starred with Hanks the year before in Splash. Candy was a unique actor, and modern imitators like Horatio Sanz don't really measure up. It's truly amazing how much the world of American comedy owes to Canadian actors: John Candy, Phil Hartman, Lorne Michaels, Mike Myers, Dan Ackroyd, Tommy Chong, Jim Carrey, Leslie Nielsen... The list goes on, and those are just the comic actors.

Volunteers features some other great character actors: the always enjoyable Gedde Watanabe (playing a Thai here) and everyone's favorite intellectual who will star in anything, George Plimpton. The movie concerns a rich ne'er-do-well who has to run away with the Peace Corps to Thailand to avoid a gambling debt. The plot pretty much writes itself from there, but it does have its enjoyable bits. I had a girlfriend years ago who suggested that we both join the Peace Corps. I didn't have much interest, but humored her and looked up some information about it. I found a snag pretty early on, and pointed it out to her. "Uh, we'd have to be married to be posted to the same village, much less the same country." Her response: "I knew that! I want us to go to different places!" This is one of the many points in my life when I'd like to go back in time with and beat myself repeatedly with a cluestick.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Movieblogging: Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star
This week has just sucked. Hard. Freshly off work after a 60-hour week, I'm settling back with the only entertainment my brain can handle at the moment: Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003).

I've actually been wanting to see this since it came out. I genuinely enjoyed Joe Dirt, and felt it was an amazing solo effort for David Spade after the death of the Oliver Hardy to his Stanley Laurel, Chris Farley. This movie obviously deals with a fake former child star (played by Spade), struggling to survive as a thirty-something adult. It's alternately interesting and sad to see all of the various child stars in the movie. Since I have a bit of rum in me, I'll lean towards "interesting". Plenty of other Hollywood cameos, which will keep this as a quasi-cult flick for years to come. You get enough actors in the same movie, and all of the freaks who have to see every movie starring "X" will end up adoring it.

It's a little too much of a kids movie in places, but I still think that it's worth seeing overall.
Japanese Death Penalty
The Japanese government has handed down a death sentence for Shoko Asahara, former leader of the Aum doomsday cult responsible for acts of terrorism in Japan. (There were even rumors that the group detonated an atomic device in the Australian Outback, but I don't buy it.) I have no love for the guy, but the Japanese death penalty is pretty weird.

The government hardly ever uses it, but after the final sentencing, things get strange. Essentially the condemned is never given any clue as to when he will be executed until the morning of the chosen day. So every day the prisoner wakes up, and has to face the fact that this day might be his last. When it's finally performed, it is done through hanging, and the family is notified after the fact. Basically the prisoner disappears from society for a few years, and the news is quietly announced afterwards. While I admire the creativity, it's an odd way of handling the situation, and I'm more of the opinion that if you're going to have the death penalty, it ought to be quick and relatively painless, much like how stray dogs are put down. Lethal injection seems to be the smartest way to do it--I think the gas chamber and electric chair are more complicated than necessary, and pose a definite danger to the guards and attendants.

Again, the death penalty's not something that I tend to get emotional about one way or the other. I'm mostly happy with our country's state-by-state approach to the issue, but I wouldn't mind if it disappeared entirely. I don't think it's used enough to be an effective deterrent, and I don't want to see us start going into Saudi Arabia-style numbers, purely because of the lack of faith I have in the government not to screw things up. (OK, so that just means that we triple- and quadruple-check everything before the execution, right? Well, that gets damned expensive, and it would be a lot cheaper just to feed the guy bread and water for 40-odd years.)
An American Soldier in Mongolia
I'm close to purchasing a dead-tree subscription to The Atlantic Monthly. I love their articles online, though often some of the best are only available in the printed version. Fortunately the following one was recently posted: "The Man Who Would Be Khan". It's a profile of Colonel Tom Wilhelm, who represents American military interests in Mongolia. What interests would those be? Well, Mongolia's eastern border is only 500 miles from North Korea...

The article details the present day work building a political and military relationship with Mongolia (their soldiers have served alongside us in Iraq, with many wry acknowledgments of their return after 750 years). It keeps cutting back to highlights of Wilhelm's military service, which is the really incredible story.

Check out this excerpt:
During his time in Alaska, Wilhelm patrolled the Aleutian Islands with Eskimo scouts, occasionally spotting signs of SPETSNAZ (Soviet special forces) units that infiltrated remote parts of Alaska--a little-known aspect of the Cold War. The Arctic demanded a unique set of infantry skills. "When the temperature is forty below," Wilhelm said, "you can't afford to break a sweat, because once you stop sweating, you'll turn into a Popsicle. You've got to stay dry, even when you're pulling a sled loaded down with gear. Therefore, everything has to be planned and carried out far more methodically than in temperate climates. It was the best job of my life." Wilhelm describes all of the jobs he's had in the Army that way.
Seriously, every part of this guy's career sounds like he stepped right out of a Tom Clancy novel.
In case anyone was losing sleep over this, writer/director Louis C.K. explains Pootie Tang to The Onion A.V. Club. I haven't blogged this movie, but I've seen it dozens of times. It's nice to know the strange backstory behind it and how the movie got made.
DVD Collection Update
I'm not posting this as an addendum to the prior post on the subject, since I have a bit more to say on the subject.

Here's my DVD List at DVD Aficionado. Go ahead, laugh, giggle, or simply be disappointed. The vast majority of these are guilty pleasures, the kind of thing I can pop in the player when I get home from work and sort of let my brain hang in neutral.

I filled out most of the catalog online before getting home--I filled out 50 of the 60 from pure memory, which is better than I expected. However, there are a bunch of threads and connections between a lot of my movies, which is how I tend to organize the boxes. Taking a cue from High Fidelity, I acknowledge that there are many ways in which they can be arranged. Because of that, I probably won't be organizing the above list into separate subfolders. I'll give an example of the way I arrange my DVDs on my real life shelf: there's a snippet that goes Almost Famous, Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity. Thus the two disc "Cameron Crowe" subset overlaps the three disc "John Cusack" subset.

Generally speaking, they're arranged by genre, and then grouped by common elements (director, actor, theme), and within those groups, chronological. (The remaining oddballs are grouped together near the top.) At no point is anything arranged alphabetically, unless by random chance. But it's nice to have the alphabetical list online.

Alas, I'm constrained by the inherent 1-dimensional nature of book-style shelving. (Yes, there are multiple levels on a vertical axis, but a book or disc can't really have any direct connection to the item directly above or below it.) At some point I'll figure out how to do this properly on the computer, taking advantage of all of the possible meaningful connections between the various items. I'm thinking of a network style map with nodes and spokes. That raises other problems, though, because I'd like to be able to categorize a single movie as being a comedy and an 80s movie... (Obviously I can do this with a database and do searches by various attributes, but I want some way to graphically display the relationships. Unfortunately, I think it would require more dimensions than can be easily shown on screen, and I don't know how useful or interesting it would be for anyone else.)
Site Update
I just ditched the last angry post on gay marriage. Mainly I got tired of seeing it on the site, and while my convictions stand, my particular choice of language was bothering me. I'll post more later on the subject--suffice it to say that I'm 99% sure I'll be voting Libertarian this fall, and I don't think that the Democrats will take a strong enough stand to make me overlook their many other failings.

I did learn something from the posting marathon on Tuesday, and it's "Don't blog angry", which I can add to the following actions that don't go well with anger: driving, drinking, handling sharp objects, polishing glass, working on delicate equipment, talking on the phone, talking to your boss, attending a feminist-themed movie, etc.

However, I've taken the past few days to review the issue from all possible angles, and to read the opinions of people on all sides of the debate. I'll try to condense it into a coherent post next week.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Thank God, A Campaign I Can Really Get Behind
Ban Comic Sans. Sweet Jesus, I hate that font.
Cool New Word
In a Snopes debunking of a fake Rumsfeld quote, I came across this interesting bit of vocabulary:
In some of our other pages we make reference to the concept of treppenwitz, defined as "the wit of the stairway" � a perfect comeback dreamed up only after the moment for uttering it has passed. The frustration of coming up with a brilliant rejoinder too late to deliver it is a phenomenon most of us have experienced, hence the coining of terms such as treppenwitz or l'espirit de l'escalier to describe it.

DVD Collector's Resource
A wonderful, free, online database for keeping track of your DVD collection: DVD Aficionado. I heard about it in an article in the New York Times about people with massive collections of DVDs, thanks to ease of availability and low price. Expect that link to die in a few days, but check out this excerpt:
How can one person accumulate such quantities? Kyle Schember knows. A recording engineer by trade, he spent two years collecting DVD's for a wealthy Los Angeles businessman.

"He had just built a theater in his house with projectors and seats for 20 people," Mr. Schember said of his client. "He wasn't the type to get in his car and go shopping, so he said to me: 'I want to build a big collection. Would you be interested?' Twice a week I worked on it - one day was for shopping, the other for arranging."


By 2002, the collection consisted of about 2,400 movies and had cost the client roughly $60,000, not including Mr. Schember's hourly wages, which, he says, were enough to pay his rent.

I don't have anywhere near that many. I think it's around fifty, but I haven't counted them in a while. I've recently discovered the joy of picking up used copies at Blockbuster for around $10, as well as waiting until a year or so after release, and finding new copies for $10-15. My collection is large enough that I enjoy keeping a list handy, and had been using the IMDB "My Movies" function because I liked having the links to the IMDB cast info handy. That was not an ideal solution, as it was worthless for the TV shows like The Simpsons separate season collections. (IMDB does have loads of TV information, but I could only list The Simpsons once, when I have three sets now.) However, I've been happy with DVD Aficionado for the hour or so that I've used it. I'm entering a few things by memory, and when browsing your collections, it provides the relevant IMBD links, so I think I'm sold.

Once I get caught up, I'll post a link. The collections are openly viewable by the public. Some may get worried at privacy concerns, but as I'm using an alias, I'm not to worried, and if marketing droids mine that data to sell more of the kinds of DVDs I like, then I'm a happy lad.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Bill Maher on Gay Marriage
I don't have a link for this--I found it on a long forum that I can't directly link--so I'll post it in its entirety. But this is the Bill Maher speech on gay marriage:
NEW RULE: You can't claim you're the party of smaller government, and then clamor to make laws about love. If there's one area I don't want the US government to add to its list of screw-ups, it's love.

On the occasion of this Valentine's Day, let's stop and ask ourselves: What business is it of the state how consenting adults choose to pair off, share expenses, and eventually stop having sex with each other?

And why does the Bush administration want a constitutional amendment about weddings? Hey, birthdays are important, too - why not include them in the great document? Let's make a law that gay people can have birthdays, but straight people get more cake -- you know, to send the right message to kids.

Republicans are always saying we should privatize things, like schools, prison, Social Security -- OK, so how about we privatize privacy? If the government forbids gay men from tying the knot, what's their alternative? They can't all marry Liza Minnelli.

Republicans used to be the party that opposed social engineering, but now they push programs to outlaw marriage for some people, and encourage it for others. If you're straight, there's a billion-five in the budget to encourage and promote marriage -- including seed money to pay an old Jewish woman to call up people at random and say "So why aren't you married, Mr. Big Shot?"

But when it comes to homosexuals, Republicans sing "I Love You Just the Way You Oughta Be." They oppose gay marriage because it threatens or mocks -- or does something -- to the "sanctity of marriage," as if anything you can do drunk out of your mind in front of an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas could be considered sacred. Half the people who pledge eternal love are doing it because one of them is either knocked-up, rich or desperate, but in George Bush's mind, marriage is only a beautiful lifetime bond of love and sharing -- kind of like what his Dad has with the Saudis.

But at least the right wing aren't hypocrites on this issue - they really believe that homosexuality, because it says so in the Bible, is an "abomination" and a "dysfunction" that's "curable": they believe that if a gay man just devotes his life to Jesus, he'll stop being gay -- because the theory worked out so well with the Catholic priests.

But the greater shame in this story goes to the Democrats, because they don't believe homosexuality is an "abomination," and therefore their refusal to endorse gay marriage is a hypocrisy. The right are true believers, but the Democrats are merely pretending that they believe gays are not entitled to the same state-sanctioned misery as the rest of us. The Democrats' position doesn't come from the Bible, it's ripped right from the latest poll, which says that most Americans are against gay marriage.

Well, you know what: Sometimes "most Americans" are wrong. Where's the Democrat who will stand up and go beyond the half measures of "civil union" and "hate the sin, love the sinner," and say loud and clear: `There IS no sin, and homosexuality is NOT an abomination' -- although that Boy George musical Rosie O'Donnell put on comes close. The only thing abominable about being gay is the amount of time you have to put in at the gym.

But that aside, the law in this country should reflect that some people are just born 100 percent outrageously, fabulously, undeniably Fire Island gay, and that they don't need re-programming. They need a man with a slow hand.

Happy Valentine's Day everybody!

The Economics of Mozart
One of the guys at 2 Blowhards takes a look at the Economics of Mozart and the patronage system of old Vienna.
Election 2004: Anti-Bush Backlash

(Note: I'll update this as I find more links)

Asparagirl joins me in her announcement...

Andrew Sullivan, predictably, has much to say on this issue, and also posts excerpts from e-mails he has received...
Election 2004: Don't Touch the Constitution
A day after my post on religious conservatives possibly flocking to third parties, Bush decides to swing rightward and support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Let's not forget that only two amendments to the constitution have ever limited the rights of citizens: the 16th (income tax) and the 18th (Prohibition, repealed by the 21st). This is one that, if passed, would almost certainly be repealed within a generation. Let's face it--young people today, be they conservative or liberal, don't tend to lay awake at night trembling in fear of the nonexistant homosexual threat to civilization.

I'm actually in favor of the civil disobedience going on in California right now. Let's face it--like it or not, this is a civil rights issue. All religious arguments fall apart under logical scrutiny, and frankly have no place in establishing new laws these days. (Are we going to get a law against adultery? Why can two convicted murderers of opposite sexes marry each other? Why should infertile people be allowed to marry?) Weirdly, Republicans now champion their party's participation in the African-American civil rights struggles of the 60s, forgetting that conservative and liberal didn't exactly mean the same thing at the time, nor did were they split amongst the two parties like they are now. Most of the dissenting Southern Democrats (and their states) became Republican within a generation, and now hold most of the power in the Republican party. And let's not forget that "New England Republican" has become something of an oxymoron.

Unlike the struggles of the 60s, gays tend to be middle class or higher on the socioeconomic scale, not to mention well-educated. That's not a stereotype, but without a bunch of bloodsucking children to deal with, you can become reasonably wealthy on your own. Plus, they can blend into modern society fairly well. They're just asking for a few pesky antiquated restrictions to be removed, and are forcing the issue through calculated, intelligent strategy, rather than having to wait for a group of well-meaning northerners to come to their aid.

This isn't something that I'm going to be waving signs about outside the courthouse, but that's mainly because I always have better things to do with my time than protest anything I care strongly about. This issue doesn't impact me directly--I have zero desire to get married. I'd like the option of a civil union (in addition to extending marriage rights to gays), namely because under a civil union your partner isn't entitled to half or more of your assets if she changes her mind and cheats on you.

However, it has made me think differently about the upcoming election.

If Bush had just said he disagreed with gay marriage, or if regular court action and constitutional scrutiny were applied (in which the equal protection clause would almost certainly prevail in favor of gay marriage), I wouldn't be pissed off. If some states banned it and a few allowed it, I'd be positively ecstatic (I do think it's a states rights issue as well). But Bush, with the apparent backing of the power brokers in the Senate and House, has decided to try to change the Constitution. Wrong move.

This could be just another of his weird proclamations without substance (cf. manned mission to Mars, steel tarrifs and the subsequent backpedaling), which is, I suppose, the best case scenario now. But I'll say this here: as of now, I will vote straight Libertarian in November. If the Federal Marriage Amendment makes it through Congress and moves to the state legislatures*, I'll vote a straight line Democratic ticket, and will write letters to every single Republican candidate on that ballot explaining precisely why I'm voting that way. If the damned thing actually gets passed, I'll start to actively campaign for its repeal as well as actively campaigning against Republican politicians that support it. Frankly this party has decided to be both strongly socially conservative and fairly fiscally liberal, and I don't think I can hold my nose and vote for another one again.

*A 3/4 majority of the state legislatures is required to pass a Constitutional amendment. Bush won 2/3 of the states in the 2000 election, though I'm not sure how the state legislatures are made up around the country, party-wise. That's a lot closer than it looks--depending on how you round, it's roughly 37 vs 34 states.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Here's a stat that I keep meaning to make note of... Because of the extensive gerrymandering that's been done in the US in the past few decades only about 5% of House races are competitive. I'll post more sources later if I find them, but I've come across this kind of stat before. This is especially true with the Congressional Black Caucus, as often they represent districts that are effectively "ghettoized", and I don't mean that as a slur. They've been separated off as to not have any impact on the three or four surrounding districts. Both parties do this constantly, and the current party in power gets the power to draw the lines, hardly an impartial group.

I don't know what the ideal solution is, but the current system tends to keep incumbents and maintain a status quo outside of the actual will of the population. Don't let the link above fool you; although the guy is a die-hard, Bush-hating Democrat, this is an issue that transcends political parties and occurs largely unnoticed by the public.
Election 2004: Third Parties
With Nader announcing his run for the presidency this past weekend, a lot of attention is being directed towards third parties and how they'll affect the election this November, despite the fact that Nader isn't running with a party this time. In fact, for that very reason, I don't think Nader will have much impact--it's difficult to get on the ballot in all 50 states without a party apparatus to help you. Ditto for his campaign and advertising. There are plenty of people that will still vote for him, but last time his strategy was to target swing states in order to really stick it to the Democrats. He might get a pretty strong backlash if he tries that this year. (I can imagine the Democrats stopping him at the border of Florida and refusing to even let him step foot in the state.)

Loosely speaking, the left is fairly unified behind Kerry right now, though an Edwards nomination would probably bring back some of the excitement and vigor that was a trademark of the Dean and Clark campaigns. In reading the posts on Democratic Underground and a few other places, I get the feeling that despite grumblings right now about the potential nominee, everyone on the left is willing to hold their noses and pick ABB, or Anyone But Bush. (This has also been written as ADD: Any Damned Democrat.) The Green Party hasn't announced a candidate yet, but some signs point to Peter Camejo, who ran on the Green ticket for the California gubernatorial recall election. It's hard to say how much influence they'll have on splitting the left's vote this year.

Let's take a look at threats to the Republicans from third parties. The Libertarian Party has already demonstrated its ability to impact elections. By their own admission, they point out (unapologetically, as they should) that the number of votes for Libertarian candidates was larger than the margin of victory in a few races in 2002, namely the gubernatorial races in Oregon and Wisconsin, and the Senate race in South Dakota. Depending on how they advertise, and which states they choose to fight in, the Libertarian Party could provide a haven for a lot of irritated Republicans with libertarian leanings, namely those voters angry with the increased spending and threats to amend the Constitution over something as minor as gay marriage.

Then there's the Constitution Party, which is a weird fusion of some libertarian principles with a heavy dose of fundamentalist Christianity. Read their basic philosophy as I ram my head into the desk at the obvious logical contradiction: "Join the Constitution Party in its work to restore our government to its Constitutional limits and our law to its Biblical foundation." Or how about a bit more:
The Constitution Party is the only party which is completely pro-life, anti-homosexual rights, pro-American sovereignty, anti-globalist, anti-free trade, anti-deindustrialization, anti-unchecked immigration, pro-second amendment, and against the constantly increasing expansion of unlawful police laws, in favor of a strong national defense and opposed to unconstitutional interventionism.
Rumors on the left and right hint that notorious Alabama Judge Roy Moore might run for president on the Constitution Party ticket. I think this party could actually damage Bush's chances in the South, maybe in Georgia or Alabama. There's a lot of religious conservatives who are irritated at the Bush administration's position on many issues, or its waffling/inaction on issues like gay marriage, abortion, etc. These voters may feel discouraged enough to stay home or vote for a Constitution Party candidate. (Particularly with Bush drifting left towards the center--witness the massive increases in education and arts spending among others. Clinton did the same thing with a drift to the right in order to pick up the moderate vote.)

With the Reform Party, it depends on the candidate. Basically if they pick an already famous candidate (like Jesse Ventura, though I doubt he'd run), then they can grab a lot of votes. The Reform Party has had a lot of infighting and schisms in recent elections, and have lost a lot of their former notoriety. They're probably the only party that I think would pull from Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal numbers. Think relatively conservative union members and you've got a rough approximation of the Reform Party. Looking at their platform, they look like the only real compromise party that's out there, though I wouldn't vote Reform for most of their economic positions. Because of that, I think their impact will hit both parties equally, and thus not make a huge difference.

Lastly we've got the Natural Law Party. Might siphon a few votes from the left, but it's hard to say. They're a lot like the Greens, except that the Natural Law folks are happy hippies rather than angry hippies. Probably more pleasant to be with at a dinner party, but of marginal importance in an election. (I only include them because after the Natural Law Party, all other third parties are statistically insignificant.)

Again, I think that this race is going to be as close as the previous one, though it's hard to give any solid predictions (fun oxymoron there...) until we figure out who the Democratic nominee is. I still think third parties could have a serious impact again this year. Probably not another Perot-style blowout, but I'm thinking the Libertarian and Constitutional parties might swing two or three states in the South and Midwest.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

From Science Fiction to Science Fact
The AP reports on the use of specialized lingo amongst the guys running the NASA Mars missions:
"MER-A ratted Adirondack yestersol while solar groovy, even though it was high tau in Gusev."

Rendered in plain English, the sentence would read:

"Spirit, the first Mars exploration rover, used its rock abrasion tool to grind into a rock nicknamed for an Eastern mountain range one Mars day ago while receiving adequate power from its solar panels, even though there was a large amount of dust suspended in the martian atmosphere above its landing site, named after a 19th century Russian astronomer."
All I can think of is, "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is."

Another sci-fi connection pops up later in the article, when they quote Gentry Lee, chief engineer of the Mars program at JPL. Lee has written several wonderful science fiction novels, including a few co-authored with Arthur C. Clarke.

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