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Monday, February 28, 2011

Ready for award dinner

 I tried on several dresses at Lord and Taylor and found one I liked, but it was expensive and very long, so would have cost even more to be shortened.  Then I went to Macy's and got this one for under $30.
I got this tiara online, to put in my (planned) updo for a little "frosting"!

And the all-important shoes (cost much more than the dress!), but pretty comfortable - I walked around the store to be sure.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar telecast

Kind of a snooze.  Franco-Hathaway never really hit their stride as hosts, and despite a few cute moments, mostly just made the 3+ hour show seem even longer.  I especially wondered what the purpose of AH's song about Hugh Jackson was doing there, capped off by JF in drag.  Ugh, filler of the worst variety.  As usual, I didn't like the way the Best Song nominees were performed, but I complain when they do big production numbers and then I complain when, like this year, they do it in a more understated way - clearly there's no satisfying me!  Very few memorable presenters - Jude Law and Robert Downey may be the only ones who made any kind of impression.  And I think they need to change the envelopes, because more than one presenter seemed to be struggling to get the cards out of them

No surprises to speak of among the winners, except for Inception's win for Cinematography (no one I read had predicted them!)  I was also a bit surprised that Hooper won for The King's Speech - everything I read suggested it was pretty much a horse race between Fincher and Aronofsky (since Christopher Nolan was left out of that category). 

The King's Speech mostly swept the top awards, which is both the triumph of old fashioned movies (a good and a bad thing) and a clear indicator that it was a good year, but not a great year for movies.  I liked TKS a lot, but it certainly doesn't have the sweep or resonance of Crash, American Beauty, The English Patient, or GWTW, to name just a few examples.

Unlike most people, I really like the speeches, and am always alert for authentic emotion.  I thought Christian Bale and Aaron Sorkin were highlights - classy and (at least apparently) genuine.

Another random complaint - they cut to reaction shots of Mark Wahlberg rather more than seemed justified - I guess they had a camera planted there, and he's easy on the eyes.  But it almost seemed cruel, seeing as everyone in his film was nominated except him.  And there were plenty of other celebs I would have liked to see!
Lots of pretty dresses, in a wonderful array colors (including lots of red), but so many women looked emaciated, including Sandra Bullock, and especially Sharon Stone and Hillary Swank.  No real fashion disasters IMHO - I thought the bodice of Cate Blanchett's dress was a bit much, and Jennifer Hudson's was unflattering, and the waist accents of Nicole Kidman's dress ruined the line.  But mostly I thought everyone looked classy and lovely, especially Mila Kunis in lavendar, Scarlett Johanssen in purple, Jennifer Lawrence in red, Amy Adams in blue, Michelle Williams in white, Marisa Tomei in black, and Halle Berry in frothy cream.

As always, I did very poorly in the Oscar pool - out of 7 participants, only one person did worse than me - I only got 7 of the 14 categories; Suzanne, who won again, got 11/14.  Even if I hadn't abadoned Melissa, and if I'd gone with the crowd in the Costume category, I would have barely gotten into the middle of the pack.  Sad, really, especially since this year I actually did some research to see which films were favored beyond the major categories.  Fun though, and it forces me to pay attention when I might wander off to start a load of laundry instead.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Latest movies

Watched a bunch of movies, mostly on video, over the last week+

The Company Men - wonderful, moving and meaningful story of people losing their jobs; less whimsical than  Up in the Air, but with similar themes and authenticity; a great a movie for Larry to see right now and it lead to a important conversation with him.

A Fond Kiss - excellent movie by Ken Loach, surprisingly sexy and authentic; a Muslim Londoner falls for a teacher at his sister's Catholic school; a great romance with some excellent commentary about the role of religion in modern life.

Over Her Dead Body - with Eva Longoria, Lake Bell, and Paul Rudd.  I saw a bit of this on cable and decided to rent it so I could see the rest.  As a vehicle for EL, I think it was an abject failure, but Paul Rudd and the adorable Lake Bell were great together.  Lots of typical rom-com contrivances, but surprisingly sweet and genuinely funny in several scenes.

Coco Before Chanel - tour de fource by Audrey Tatou, gorgeously filmed; very interesting story, one I didn't know and was glad to have seen.

Knight and Day - not a bad movie at all; Tom Cruise is watchable, and I loved the twist at the end, where Cameron Diaz basically rescues him exactly the same way that he rescued her earlier in the movie.

Hachi: A Dogs Tale - based on a famous Japanese story, relocated to the US, with Richard Gere as a man who finds a lost Akita puppy; it publically mourns his passing for 10 years, patiently waiting for him to return to the train station, after he dies suddenly.  Both Alana and I cried hard; I think Larry and Cal were downright puzzled by our show of emotion.

A Dog Year - Jeff Bridges is terrific as a crotchety man who bonds with a difficult dog (based on a true story), but this is mostly forgettable family fare.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar box office

Suzanne said that this was the year of the "small" movie, which is reflected in the Oscar nominations.  I would have to agree.  Except for Inception, which, though intended to be a "blockbuster" didn't fit neatly into a genre, and Toy Story 3, which I don't really count, there wasn't anything in the 10 Best Picture slots that could be considered anything other than smallish.  Which is typical, of course.

What's fascinating is that several of these movies did much better commercially than the filmmakers had any reason to expect.  I heard Natalie Portman comment on this with regards to Black Swan.  That is certainly true of The Fighter, True Grit and especially The King's Speech - both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush have marveled at how much audiences have connected with a story that has none of the presumed qualities required for a blockbuster - no special effects, no sex, no explosions.

I got curious to see some evidence, so I checked BoxOfficeMojo.com.  Here's the reported budgets and reported worldwide box office for the Best Picture contenders:

The King's Speech    $15M    $250M
Black Swan              $13M    $225M
The Fighter               $25M   $110M
True Grit                   $38M    $214M
Social Network        $40M    $220M
127 Hours               $18M    $43M
Kids are Alright        $4M    $30M
Winter's Bone          $2M    $8M

Supposedly you can double the budget to account for marketing (to get a more accurate sense of what what a movie really "costs"), which is probably more true of some of the these than others.But even if you double them all, virtually all these movies were substantially in the black.  The Social Network was the most expensive, but it still made a very good profit.  Even Winter's Bone made an excellent return-on-investment, though not as spectacular as some.

As a person who bemoans the lack of middle budget movies (movies for "grown-ups"!) this financial success is very good news, because hopefully it will lead to greater support for these types of story- and character-driven movies.  They may not make the kind of money that Toy Story 3 and Avatar made, but they're a lot smaller risk as well.  And bonus - you might get a fancy award on top of your impressive balance sheet!

Maybe most gratifying this year - it's so much harder for the naysayers to assert that the Oscars are awards for movies "nobody sees"!!  Take that, fan boys!


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Artificial Intelligence

I ended up having an email debate with family members, when Dan sent an article about Watson, the IBM computer that beat 2 human contenders on "Jeopardy!" - a story I had been following with some interest.

I heard a scientist saying on NPR that a "thinking" computer is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, and I used his argument when I had a great conversation with Caleb about this, because he was all caught up in the idea of computers taking over, as is portrayed in so many movies (e.g., I Robot, Terminator, Eagle Eye).  I also emphasized to Caleb that those movie scenarios depend on computers making this huge leap from processing to considering and interpreting and deciding and choosing and judging, which they can't do now, and they aren't expected to do any time soon.

A great example comes from a mistake that Watson made during Jeopardy, when asked, "What do grasshoppers eat?" and it said "kosher." As noted by one of Watson's developers - grasshoppers are apparently a kosher food and Watson made connections between the two words without comprehending the real point of the question.

Via email, Lisa sent a link to the Time magazine article based largely on Kurzweil's theories - considered very "optimistic" regarding the potential of AI (I have it, but haven't read it yet).

Then I read the Atlantic cover story, an excerpt of Brian Christian's book The Most Human Human.  Here is a couple of key paragraphs from that story:

Who would have imagined that the computer’s earliest achievements would be in the domain of logical analysis, a capacity once held to be what made us most different from everything else on the planet? That it could fly a plane and guide a missile before it could ride a bike? That it could create plausible preludes in the style of Bach before it could make plausible small talk? That it could translate before it could paraphrase? That it could spin half-discernible essays on postmodern theory before it could be shown a chair and say, as most toddlers can, “chair”?

As computers have mastered rarefied domains once thought to be uniquely human, they simultaneously have failed to master the ground-floor basics of the human experience—spatial orientation, object recognition, natural language, adaptive goal-setting—and in so doing, have shown us how impressive, computationally and otherwise, such minute-to-minute fundamentals truly are.

Though I must say that the Turing test - a 5 minute typed exchange, the computer "passes" if 30% of judges can't tell whether they're conversing with a person or a computer - seems like an extremely low (and contrived) threshold for AI.  It's fun, but I don't think it captures what really makes us HUMAN, as Mr Christian discusses to some extent in his article (and what makes it so unlikely that computers will surpass us in the most important cognitive areas).

Computing quickly, even very very quickly, as Watson was able to do, is not the same as thinking.  Here is an excerpt of an essay that I think covers the distinction pretty well - I like the way that he repeatedly notes that since we currently don't really know what makes our brains work the way they do, it's going to be hard to make a computer that can do the same things.

How close does something like Watson bring us to the goal of creating true artificial intelligences? The longstanding benchmark for an AI to pass is the Turing test, meaning that the machine could not be distinguished as nonhuman from its replies.

Even those close to the Watson project dismiss the idea that the system represents a Turing-level intelligence. Eric Brown, for example, remarks that Watson might be indistinguishable from a human playing Jeopardy!, but it lacks any good capability for general conversation. Stephen Wolfram, the computer scientist behind Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, argues that Watson can only answer questions with objectively knowable facts and that it cannot offer a judgment.

. . . However, it is also surely true that the human brain does not think simply by hatching and evaluating thousands of possible responses to every situation in the way that Watson does. Machine intelligences certainly do not need to work the way our brains do. But if the goal is to create an artificial intelligence that can match a human one, science will also need to be alert to efficient alternatives in our neurosystems that can help machines scale up.

As effective a general savant as Watson is in the context of Jeopardy!, it is still a computer optimized to do one thing: play that game. A machine with exactly the same approach that could be equally versatile “in the wild” would need to be much, much more powerful. That sort of brute force approach might work; it is, after all, a big part of how Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in their chess tournament. But it is probably a wildly inefficient way to build a machine with human-level cognition. Computing power may indeed be increasing exponentially, but expanding the capabilities of something like Watson toward that end might involve a processing problem that escalates even faster.

. . . piling on computational resources without any clear regard for what might be a biologically guided way of deploying them makes it preposterous to think that anyone will bother with such a project. And because we currently have only the faintest glimmers about how such higher cognitive abilities emerge from our brains, the day when we can translate those mechanisms into something suitable for AI seems remote, too.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Democracy in action

Last night I went to a town hall meeting held by my newly-elected Republican Congresswoman, Ann Marie Buerkle. The room was packed; I found out later from the local newspaper report that about 300 people were there (close to my own estimate), and the fire marshall turned away another 50.

The audience was mixed (including some vocal Buerkle supporters), but most of the actual questions were asked by people challenging her positions, on healthcare, Planned Parenthood, and budget priorities, among other things. I mostly went to see how she presented herself (since I'm aware of her positions), and my opinion is that she's certainly no heavyweight - she used a lot of Republican boilerplate in her responses.

It was edifying, but also sort of discouraging. I feel like many voters are willing to buy any line that sounds good, especially about freedom, or some other elusive concept, but they are greatly lacking in understanding of even the most basic aspects of issues.

The most surreal moment for me was when she said "I think we can all agree that America is the greatest country in the history of the world" (or something along that line) and the room erupted into cheers. And I just thought, this is going to be our downfall - this denial and delusion prevents us from addressing the very real issues that threaten our health and safety as a nation.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Women in combat

Both NPR and CNN are reporting today on Congressional committee hearings on the subject of women in combat.  Of course this makes my blood boil, that 30 years later we are still talking about whether American women can "handle" combat, when they do, and they have since history began.  If men don't like to think about women menstruating or wiping themselves in the field (or whatever bothers them so much), that's on them.  I spent 12 years in the National Guard, and though I didn't serve in "combat," I trained in the field with my fellow soldiers, sleeping in tents, eating MREs, and carrying a weapon, etc etc.  I'm shocked that women continue to perform these jobs without full compensation or recognition.  Failure to officially recognize their contributions seems like nothing more than a blatant effort to cheat women out of promotions they've earned, undeer the guise of "protecting" them  Hmmm, doesn't that sound familiar???  They used the same argument when they "protected" women from voting for countless decades. The 2008 documentary Lioness does a terrific job of showing what female soldiers actually do in war zones, and how it affects them (and how the military benefits from their service without rewarding them appropriately).


Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Timecop" and women in action movies

I watched this 1994 movie with Caleb this weekend.  I saw it before, and I didn't remember the plot that much, and I didn't remember that the lovely Mia Sara co-starred (an imdb search shows that she still works regularly in television, I was glad to see). What I do remember is how much I liked the movie purely because it handled the female character in such a refreshing way.  In most action movies in the 1980s, and even 1990s (and even in some movies today), the female was murdered early on as a plot device, to justify the male lead's behavior as avenging angel.  The only other portrayal was what the Bond movies, and some others, did - where the hot woman of the day appeared briefly, had sex with the male lead, and disappeared.  If she reappeared, it was only to be justifyable dispatched is some gruesome way, ostensibly for her evil ways, but clearly just as much for her unapologetic sexuality.  See Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) for a particularly repulsive example of this.

In Timecop, the woman is murdered early on, as expected, but because of the time travel plotline, she reappears several times, is allowed a tiny bit of character development, and the male lead acts very tender and respectful toward her.  She is also featured in the final showdown/fight scene, in a surprisingly active role - she doesn't stand in the corner, biting her fist and screaming - she climbs over the roof in the pouring rain!  Quite exceptional for that time period.

Of course, the female lead in current action movies is slugging the bad guy and packing a weapon, but this is a quite recent (and welcome) development that I give Thelma and Louise (1991) at least some credit for - once women saw female characters sticking up for themselves, they were less willing to sit through a movie with their boyfriends and husbands watching women cower in the corner.  Of course, Alien (1979) gets a lot of credit too, as does the first Die Hard (1988), where Holly McClane (played by the magnificent Bonnie Bedelia) doesn't totally sit around waiting to be rescued.

I've actually discussed this with Caleb, not with this movie, but a movie we watched that was made in the 1960s, where the female lead literally just screams and screams every time they are threatened.  Having seen only Angelina Jolie-style female ass-kicking portrayals in film, even he noticed this passive and silly characterization (though no doubt he was also responding to comments I had made previously). 

I'm not necessarily in favor of women acting like male action stars and shooting anything that moves.  That's hardly my vision of a feminist paradise.  It's more the issue of agency - whether the female character is engaged in moving the plot forward, or if she's merely a device to facilitate and justify the male character's actions.  I'm quite happy to witness the death of that ubiquitous passive portrayal of women, and I'm especially happy that my children are generally not exposed to it.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Judges in PA take kickbacks to send kids to private juvenile detention

I just heard this story on CNN, though it came to light 2 years ago.  Disgusting on several levels, but probably the most telling is how it belies the ridiculous assertion that private enterprise is always better, more efficient, and more effective than government-run activites and services.  Oh yeah, and the mob was involved!

Prosecutors alleged that [former Judge] Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, and [former Judge] Ciavarella plotted to shut down the dilapidated county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arrange for the construction of the PA Child Care facility outside Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to the center and later to its sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments from Mericle, a prominent builder and close friend of Ciavarella, and Powell, a high-powered attorney.

Luzerne County paid Powell's company more than $30 million between 2003 and 2007 to house juveniles at PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care. The county could have built its own juvenile center for about $9 million, according to testimony.

. . . Ciavarella told jurors that he thought he was legally entitled to Mericle's money, calling it a "finder's fee" for introducing Mericle to Powell.

Ciavarella also denied that he extorted Powell, who had testified for the prosecution that he was forced to pay the judges nearly $600,000 after they agreed to send juvenile delinquents to his new lockup. The payments were disguised as rent on a Florida condominium owned by the judges' wives.

. . . Officials disclosed for the first time Friday that they were led to the judges by the reputed boss of a northeastern Pennsylvania Mafia family. William D'Elia — who regularly met for breakfast with Conahan — became a government informant after his 2006 arrest on charges of witness tampering and conspiracy to launder drug money.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Peter Beinart

Our Lunch and Learn discussion group read his bomb-throwing essay from last summer in the NY Review of Books.  In it, he suggests that the established Jewish organizations in America are making a grave mistake by uncritically supporting Israel, for two major reasons.  One is that Israel has changed significanly since its inception, and it no longer reflects "liberal democratic values."  For that reason and others, young American Jews feel a great deal less commitment and connection to Israel, compared to older generations.  Secondly, by ignoring the priorities of young Jews (most notably, social justice), the "establishment" is exacerbating their disconnect with Israel.

I'm sure Rabbi Fellman chose the article, which is 9 months old, because Beinart came to lecture at SU last night, which I attended (though he said almost nothing that wasn't in the article).  I bought one of his books, The Good Fight, mostly so that I could get an autograph.  I was very surprised how supportive the audience was - I had been expecting strong objections to be voiced.  But I suppose the attendees had self selected, and those who object to his premise were not present.

Of course, I kept thinking about the point-counterpoint event I attended shortly after I moved to Philadelphia, where a representative of a Zionist organization "debated" with a local college professor who expressed views slightly less dogmatic than the organizational rep, and was repeatedly booed by the audience of well dressed, middle aged Jews.  Quite an eye-opening experience for me.

My question to Beinart was - how do you have a conversation with this generation of Jews (like my mother-in-law) who completely reject the value of American Jews objecting to anything the Israeli government says or does.  The very next speaker, Syd, made my point perfectly, by expressing exactly that view.

Beinart was so calm and reasonable and well-informed (and ridiculously good looking, though I digress), I really admired him.  Though to be fair, he's apparently had lots of practice, including with his own family members (one aunt no longer speaks to him!)

As always, it's so soothing to me to hear well-spoken and intelligent people express views that match my own, because I'm so often made to feel like a freak for my passionate views on political issues (expressing passionate views about TV shows or sports teams is encouraged and supported, but passion over politics, culture and society is suspect at best and more often overtly belittled and denigrated).


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Obama budget

As usual, Digby over at Hullabaloo pretty much nails my attitude about the budget, which cuts lots of good programs, while leaving the wealthiest with their tax cuts and big industries like oil with their subsidies:

The government is not like a family figuring out how to cut back on expenses [she points this out a lot]. (If it is Dad is a real deadbeat because he decided to give up half his income last December to some rich frat boys.) And this isn't really about programs President Obama "cares about" or about how "tough" it is for him. President Obama will not have to personally worry about these things and neither will his children, so the idea that he "cares" is just a tiny bit abstract in this context. This is about actual human beings and their ability to survive now and build a decent future.

The main problem with all this, of course, is that he willingly signed a tax cut extension for the wealthiest people on the planet just two months ago even as they are making money hand over fist as it is, so any talk about "shared sacrifice" rings just a little bit hollow now. If he wants to be honest about this and admit that he's catering to spoiled plutocrats and Wall Street Demi-Gods because he truly believes that he needs to sacrifice ordinary Americans on the alter of their egos, that's one thing. But blowing smoke about how this hurts him just as much as the college kid who has to drop out in a terrible labor market --- but he's willing to make the sacrifice and so should we --- well, it is too cynically cheap for words.

Paul Krugman summarizes the public perception really well (and with some humor) in his NY Times column yesterday:

Republican leaders like to claim that the midterms gave them a mandate for sharp cuts in government spending. Some of us believe that the elections were less about spending than they were about persistent high unemployment, but whatever. The key point to understand is that while many voters say that they want lower spending, press the issue a bit further and it turns out that they only want to cut spending on other people.

That’s the lesson from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, in which Americans were asked whether they favored higher or lower spending in a variety of areas. It turns out that they want more, not less, spending on most things, including education and Medicare. They’re evenly divided about spending on aid to the unemployed and — surprise — defense.

The only thing they clearly want to cut is foreign aid, which most Americans believe, wrongly, accounts for a large share of the federal budget.

Pew also asked people how they would like to see states close their budget deficits. Do they favor cuts in either education or health care, the main expenses states face? No. Do they favor tax increases? No. The only deficit-reduction measure with significant support was cuts in public-employee pensions — and even there the public was evenly divided.

The moral is clear. Republicans don’t have a mandate to cut spending; they have a mandate to repeal the laws of arithmetic.

. . . [voters] don’t have the time or the incentive to study the federal budget, let alone state budgets (which are by and large incomprehensible). So they rely on what they hear from seemingly authoritative figures.

And what they’ve been hearing ever since Ronald Reagan is that their hard-earned dollars are going to waste, paying for vast armies of useless bureaucrats (payroll is only 5 percent of federal spending) and welfare queens driving Cadillacs. How can we expect voters to appreciate fiscal reality when politicians consistently misrepresent that reality?

Which brings me back to the Republican dilemma. The new House majority promised to deliver $100 billion in spending cuts — and its members face the prospect of Tea Party primary challenges if they fail to deliver big cuts. Yet the public opposes cuts in programs it likes — and it likes almost everything.


Monday, February 14, 2011

A different approach to interrogation

Listening to this guy on NPR - Fresh Air.  He's deep, and the stuff he's saying is so thought-provoking - he got a lot more useful information using his techniques than others got from torture, oh, I mean, enhanced interrogation.  His book, Kill or Capture, is a Must Read.  Below is from the NPR website:

Matthew Alexander led the interrogation team that tracked down al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

Alexander, a critic of the harsh techniques employed by the military during the administration of George W. Bush, says he used strategic, noncoercive methods of interrogation to find al-Zarqawi, which he wrote about in his book How to Break a Terrorist.

In his second book, Kill or Capture, Alexander — a pseudonym for the author — recounts how his team of interrogators tracked down and captured another wanted man: a Syrian named Zafar, the leader of al-Qaida in northern Iraq.

But finding Zafar was not easy. Alexander says he conducted hundreds of interrogations and supervised more than a thousand more while trying to track down a man who eluded security forces and had never once been photographed by U.S. forces.

In a conversation with Dave Davies on NPR's Fresh Air, Alexander details the interrogation tactics he used while conducting his kill-or-capture missions in the area of Iraq where Zafar was thought to be hiding.

"The first step of any interrogation is to understand your detainee, understand what uniquely motivates them as an individual," he explains. "[You have to understand] why they joined al-Qaida or another insurgent group, why they decided to pick up arms. And if you can analyze them and figure out those motivations, then you can craft an appropriate approach and incentive, but not until you've done that."

But Alexander says he couldn't always give the incentives he thought would provide the best response from his potential informants. For example, he was not allowed to offer money or visas to people who provided information about the location of senior al-Qaida members.

"That's a real change," he says. "In Vietnam, we had real incentives that interrogators could offer captured Vietcong members to get them to turn to our side. But we didn't do that in Iraq, and it wasn't until Gen. [David] Petraeus got there and offered the Sunni tribes money and weapons that they turned against al-Qaida."

To gain trust with the Sunni combatants he was interviewing, Alexander says, he would admit that the United States had made some strategic mistakes in its approach in Iraq.

"Almost every detainee that I admitted those mistakes to, they all were surprised that I was willing to admit that," he says. "And it moved many of them to hear that, because many of them had lost family members or friends because of these actions — because of allowing the Shia militias to run free. And so when they heard that apology followed by an offer to work together, it was very appealing."

More than anything, Alexander says, it was important for interrogators to understand the detainee and know exactly where they were coming from. Interrogators who believed in misguided stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs, he says, were the single most detrimental factor to undermining interrogations in Iraq.

"A common parlance that was said by some interrogators and analysts was 'Arabs grow up in a culture of violence, so they only understand violence.' We have that documented in an e-mail from a senior interrogator to his commander at one point in Iraq," he says. "And it was that type of stereotype of Arabs and of Muslims that was very counterproductive to try to get people to cooperate. ... Those prejudices worked directly in contrast to what we were trying to accomplish."
Matthew Alexander is an 18-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his achievements in Iraq and has contributed to both the Washington Post and The New York Times.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Grammy awards

I missed the award show, which sounds like it had some, er, interesting performances (Lady Gage emerging from an egg, Gwenth Paltrow singing "Forget You" with Cee Lo Green and some Muppets), but the awards themselves further affirm the Grammys irrelevance to the industry . . .

Best new artist was awarded to a jazz singer no one has heard of, Esperanza Spalding, instead of phenom Justin Bieber.

Album of the year went to an indie rock group no one has heard of, Arcade Fire, instead of Eminem.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Not very neighborly

Had such a discouraging experience in the grocery store today.

A woman pushed my cart out of the checkout line while I went to get something.  When I got back, like 2 minutes later, she said "Oh no, you get in the back of the line," and then said she didn't "see" my cart.

I wouldn't have gone if there wasn't plenty of time before I would be putting my items on the belt. And I said to the woman in front of me, "I'll be right back" (not that I would expect her to look out for me and save my place, but damn!) The woman who took my place hadn't even started unloading her cart yet. I wasn't too surprised that she took my place, but I was surprised that she was so nasty to me, and that she basically lied. If she had said "you weren't here, so I went ahead" that would have been quite reasonable and understandable. But she was super nasty about the whole thing, like the supermarket line is some life or death situation, like she's the Line Cop, making sure no one gets away with anything (because I didn't affect her at all - it's not like I tried to get in front of her when I got back!)

It's a neighborhood store, for crying out loud. For all she knows, I live on her block. How could someone treat their neighbor that way???  I think people were nicer in the big city where I used to live than they are here in the 'burbs, despite reputations to the contrary.

Kind of sucked the life out of me.  I'm feeling so stressed and have so much on my mind, and I was just so taken aback to be treated that way.  Why so mean?  How can that possibly be necessary?


I got screwed out of line again on Wednesday - I picked out a dress at Macy's, and went to the counter, but the clerk wasn't there.  I left the dress on the counter and stepped across the aisle to hang up the dress I wasn't getting.  As I walked back across the aisle, another woman hustled up to the counter, just as the clerk returned.  I was willing to wait rather than say something (my second mistake!), so I just reached around the woman to retrieve my dress (thinking, naively, that the clerk or the woman might acknowledge that I was obviously first).  The woman then required an obscene amount of time, checking on a discount and looking up her account information.  I finally gave up and left.  Super annoying, though no one was nasty to me this time!


Friday, February 11, 2011

Republican infighting

I know it's wrong, but how delightful is it to watch high profile Republicans savage each other . . . in this case, Sarah Palin, who drew comments for skipping the annual CPAC meeting (Conservative Political Action Conference) from, among others, Rick Santorum (one of my least favorite Republicans).  He said she only makes appearances she gets paid for.  She called him a "knuckle dragging Neaderthal."  Embarrassing for them and for the Party, and oh, so fun for us Dems.

Another delightful outcome - Ron Paul won the straw poll at CPAC (30%), and Donald Trump, who came to suck up to the attendees, stated quite unequivocally in his speech that Ron Paul could not win.  So there was more back and forth about who's the bigger jerk.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

More Senate retirements

On the heels of Lieberman's announcement, I was surprised to hear that Jim Webb (D-VA) is not running for a second term in the Senate (one of the very few principaled members of Congress and a loss, IMO, though his politics and positions are not always to my exact taste) and that Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is not running again, after 3 terms (not a loss at all, a demogogue and embarrassment, IMO).


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Latest movies

Gnomeo and Juliet.  Took the kids to see this; very cute and great use of Elton John music, but sort of forgettable (though that damn song is still stuck in my head 3 days later).  Note that Emily Blunt, voicing Juliet, plays a very similar character to the one she played in Gulliver's Travels.  Bonus - some great gags and Shakespeare references that the kids will miss completely.

Ponyo.  The kids and I watched this on Netflix Instant Play.  Very inventive and lovely, but kind of weird  - for example, how could a mother go off and leave her young son alone during a flood?  And was the "wizard" of the sea the bad guy or not?  But the kids really enjoyed it, and I'm glad I finally saw it.  Not going on my Top 10 of All Time list, though.

New in Town.  With Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr.  Not terrible, but not terribly funny, and not nearly enough romance (rather a waste of attractive and appealing leads). 

Gridiron Gang.  Caleb and I watched this, which is basically a remake of a documentary about a football program for LA kids in juvenile detention, with Dwayne Johnson.  Very good, though more violent than we were expecting (I think Cal was pretty disturbed by the murders portrayed at the beginning of the film).

The Other Guys.  Another one that Cal and I watched.  Funnier than I expected, and kind of weird and offbeat.  Like a lot of guy-oriented comedies, I think it needed an editor - they tend to throw in the kitchen sink, along with everything else they can think of - not every setup and punchline are equally worthy of inclusion.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011


Great quote from the Coffee Party website:  " . . . civility is about more than simply being nice. It’s about knowing how to talk so others will listen, hear your perspective, and learn."

I like to think I'm "civil" but I don't think I measure up very well to that standard.  Something to continue to work toward.


Monday, February 07, 2011

Latest on abortion

I really liked what Digby over at Hullabaloo said about outreach efforts on the part of the new Focus on the Family president, Jim Daly:

Women always have and always will have abortions. And even if birth control is offered as part of the school lunch program and free at the DMV, many will still get pregnant and go through whatever they need to do to get them. It's the nature of human sexuality that there will be more pregnancies, regardless of birth control, than women who are in a position to carry them to term. Access to birth control is essential, as pro-choice people have proselytizing for decades. But it will never completely eradicate the need for abortion. Indeed, there is some evidence that free access won't even result in a major reduction in abortion --- after all, birth control doesn't always work and the urge to have sex seems to be more powerful than reason at least some of the time. (Surprise!) So unless you consider bearing children a just punishment for "irresponsibility," you should reconsider this notion that once birth control is made more accessible then we can all agree that abortion can be banned --- which is the implicit deal in "common ground" politics. The only thing that will happen is that abortion will go back underground, although if you consider it a matter of personal responsibility alone, you will probably think the women who die from illegal abortions deserve it.

Pregnancy and childbirth is far more than just a nine month "inconvenience" or a temporary health complication, regardless of whether one raises the child. It affects one's entire lifetime. Control of one's reproduction is fundamental to liberty, which is one reason why women have historically been second class citizens whose lives have been circumscribed by biology. That is what Focus on the Family believes in, that's what the conservative zealots in congress are trying to do and that is what the Democrats who continue to enable this assault on women's rights are letting them do.


Friday, February 04, 2011

Planet gazing

I thought it was VENUS that I saw in the western sky tonight, but it turns out that it was JUPITER.  Hard to believe we can see a planet so far away with our naked eyes.  Cool.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Biopsy results

Getting the biopsy was one of the more unpleasant medical procedures I've had (though nothing compares to the root canal), but today I got the results - "no abnormal cells."  Are those not 3 of the most beautiful words in the English language?

Next is to get a appointment with a dermatologist to see what this nasty red lump on my nose is.  Betting odds - basal cell carcinoma.  But I'm not thinking about that right now.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Prayer should be private, IMO

I know I'm going to offend all kinds of people by asking this - but how is this even remotely appropriate?  I really don't need to know who the President is praying for or anything else about his "spiritual life" . .
President Obama tells lawmakers and religious leaders gathered at the National Prayer Breakfast that his faith sustains him during the trials of his job. He also offers prayers for the nation and the people of Egypt.


I heard Chris Matthews say something very similar to my remarks, so I'm not the only one!


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

"Kids today"

Al sent me an article from his local paper, written by someone who grew up around here, complaining about closing school for cold temperatures, called "Generation Namby Pamby."

But it occurs to me that it's her generation that now serves as legislators and school board members and school district superintendents who have instituted and enforced these rules. Apparently they took a different lesson from their experiences growing up than she did.

I hear these grumblings a lot, though I tend to think that these complaints represent a "vocal minority" because someone made these rules and others clearly supported them.