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Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Nobody understands debt"

Paul Krugman wrote a terrific essay about the US debt - short and plain spoken and illuminating.  In it, he says national debt is NOT like personal debt - much of the debt is money we owe ourselves (that is, taxpayers), and while we do owe money to other nations, they also owe money to us. Furthermore, economic growth makes debt less burdensome; case in point - we never paid back the money we borrowed to fight WWII, but that debt doesn't really affect us anymore. Here's the last couple of paragraphs:

. . . the fact that federal debt isn’t at all like a mortgage on America’s future doesn’t mean that the debt is harmless. Taxes must be levied to pay the interest, and you don’t have to be a right-wing ideologue to concede that taxes impose some cost on the economy, if nothing else by causing a diversion of resources away from productive activities into tax avoidance and evasion. But these costs are a lot less dramatic than the analogy with an overindebted family might suggest.

And that’s why nations with stable, responsible governments — that is, governments that are willing to impose modestly higher taxes when the situation warrants it — have historically been able to live with much higher levels of debt than today’s conventional wisdom would lead you to believe.

. . . Of course, America, with its rabidly antitax conservative movement, may not have a government that is responsible in this sense. But in that case the fault lies not in our debt, but in ourselves.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Handedness still a mystery

NPR had this fun story - hand preference is yet another human mystery that we haven't solved yet!  Here's my favorite paragraph:

While science was quick to condemn left-handers — though those theories are now discredited — it has been less quick to come up with an explanation for the phenomenon. Smits says hand preference isn't inherited the way other traits like eye and hair color are, and no one's really sure why it arose in the first place. 


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Annual book goal

For the last 2 years at the goodreads.com website, I've set a goal of reading 50 books.  At the site, I appear to have exceeded my goal this year, but that's before deleting books that I didn't finish and kids' books, which I don't want to count in my total (though I want to track them in my account). After the deletions, I've gotten very close to 50, but didn't quite make it - I've finished 46 books.  I'm reading 2 right now, one on paper and an audiobook that I'm about 2/3 done with.  I'm trying to finish both, but I've only got 3 days left.

Even if I don't get to 50, I've done much better than I did in 2010 - I only read 38 books last year.

Even though I didn't set a goal before last year, you can really see the improvement since I started posting books to the site: in 2009, I read 22 books, and in 2008, I read just 18 books. Joining the book club has helped me stay motivated, and just devoting a bit more time and energy to reading has really paid off.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pioneer in marketing research for film dies

Joseph Farrell died this week.  He introduced marketing research to the film industry; most famously, he suggested changing the ending of Fatal Attraction (Glenn Close's character was originally seen committing suicide):  “They [the audience] didn’t want to see her do herself in, they wanted to see her done in.”

It's hard not to have a gut-level negative reaction to this guy's influence.  On the other hand, I was struck by his quote:

Mr. Farrell defended his work. “The film is the athlete; I just give it every training tip I know. Filmmaking is a creative pursuit but must ultimately go commercial. Market research, a town meeting of sorts, lets the filmmaker know if he’s communicating effectively with the public.” 

It depends on what you're trying to accomplish with your film, I guess.  Some films are trying to be commercially successful, and his approach would be helpful. 

But for a lot of filmmakers, this probably feels like tyranny.  Ron Shelton is quoted in the obit also:  “I want to confound expectations in my movies, not cater to them.” 

And Farrell's method was hardly foolproof.  He famously thought Ghost would flop.  And many films which did not seem commercially oriented, like Dances with Wolves, connected with audiences way beyond expectations.

Still, his influence is undeniable, for good or ill, or both.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Weekend movies

The Descendants - I was released early from work on Friday and couldn't think of any better use for my found time than to see a movie (though I missed my chiropractor appt to do it).  I was a bit disappointed in this.  It was good, but not amazing. Maybe too much hype (including several friends who liked it very much) - I expected to be blown away and I wasn't. Charming little movie, but not as much "there" there as I wanted.  It introduces a bunch of interesting themes and characters, but doesn't do much with them, especially the descendant angle of the title, and it ties up all this messiness way too easily and tidily. I might want to read the novel, just to get a better sense of what the filmmaker saw in the source material that maybe didn't make it to the screen.

We Bought a Zoo - I thought Alana would really enjoy this (on Christmas day), but it suffers a little from the Marley and Me effect, in that the preview emphasizes the animal hijinks, but the film is much more about the adult human character.  I enjoyed it a lot, but I was very conscious that it was not completely enthralling to her.  Side note: I was interested enough to look up Benjamin Mee, and there is a lot that the movie changes from his story, including that his wife, Katherine, died after they bought the zoo, and that his mother (who is not a character in the movie) and brother (who is) were (and are) co-owners. In addition, the son was not a teenager when the zoo was purchased, he was 7, about the age of the younger daughter in the movie.  And the zoo, renamed Rosemoor in the film, is really Dartmoor, in England! (The kids' names were also changed.)  I would have loved to attend writers' meetings, to hear why all these changes were considered necessary.

Chipwrecked - I tried to avoid taking Alana to see this sequel of Alvin and the Chipmunks, but Larry took Cal to a double feature (The Darkest Hour and Sherlock Holmes), so I ran out of excuses.  It wasn't as bad as I expected, with the usual message of "be yourself" and some added love and forgiveness that was very sweet.  The music wasn't completely repulsive either.

On video:

Happily Ever Afters (2009) - silly British rom-com with very little romance and typical British comedy (apparently they find suicide attempts to be hilarious).  Charming leads (Sally Hawkins, Tom Riley), and a (standard) precocious pre-teen make this almost watchable, but certainly not memorable.

Soul Surfer (2011) - I was doing stuff around the house while I was watching this, so I missed a few scenes, but I got the gist; pretty good story, pretty well made - great casting and wonderful surfing (much of it is footage of the real Bethany Hamilton); I had been concerned that the religious message would be pushed too hard, but Jesus is definitely a secondary character in this story of the triumph of the spirit.

Captain America (2011) - I had not seen this, and Caleb wanted to watch it again.  It was okay, pretty much what I expected, except that I liked the kick ass female lead (Agent Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell), who actually gets to do more than stand around being rescued while she screams.

Clash of the Titans (2010) - Ditto; and ditto - pretty much what I expected, which wasn't much; again, they managed to include a female character (Io, played by the gorgeous Gemma Atherton) who occasionally gets to hold her own; my only real complaint is the way they muddled the mythology - I couldn't even follow it - I spent half the movie reading entries on Wikipedia. Side note: the sequel, Wrath of the Titans, is being promoted now (with Rosamund Pike taking on the role of Andromeda because the original actress wasn't available - I would consider watching it just for her).


Saturday, December 24, 2011

This covers it!


Friday, December 23, 2011

True meaning of Christmas

I was really moved by this essay about Christmas. Of course Jesus's values, expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, are Jewish values as well, and this author's call to follow those values year around certainly apply to Jews as well!

. . . every year I hear about some Christians who interpret the "Happy Holidays" greeting given to them at stores to mean that there is a full-on, multi-front war against their faith. I find it ironic that the person checking out their big screen TV on Black Friday somehow is thought to have some power to destroy Christmas. But even so, some Christians are absolutely livid about the fact that we no longer keep Christ in Christmas, and (in their perception anyway) no longer keep Christmas at center stage this time of year.
What they fail to understand is that culture didn't remove Christ from Christmas. We Christians did. We accepted the transformation of Advent, the period from late November until December 24th, from a time of holy watching and waiting to one of hyper-consumerism and cultural observances. So much so that when we go to a big box store and don't hear "Merry Christmas" we see it as an attack on our faith instead of the rightful separation of the commercial from the spiritual.
But there are still those who believe Christmas is under attack. I think they're right. But I don't think stores who have "holiday sales" are the attackers. I don't think it's towns that remove Nativity scenes from parks. I don't believe it's public schools that insist that Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist kids not be asked to sing songs affirming a faith different from their own.
I believe the greatest attack on Christmas has come from within. It has come from those of us who claim our greatest hope comes from the fact that God became a person of goodness, kindness, justice, and love. And who then act nothing like that person did.
And so here is my suggestion to Christians about how to keep Christ in Christmas: this season, worry less about the holiday policies of non-religious institutions, and worry more about whether we are actually listening to, and then doing, what Christ told us to do. In short, keep Christ in Christmas by acting like Christians.
I've always found the Beatitudes a good place to start. When Jesus called his followers up to a hill and preached to them, he told them who the "blessed" were; the ones whom God has looked with favor upon and will grant joy. The ones Christ calls blessed are often the same ones we as a culture are the quickest to condemn or criticize. We blame them for their own situation, and we refuse to help them. We somehow forget that when God became incarnate and preached a sermon about who was most blessed by God, these are the ones who were named: the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the peacemakers, the merciful, the mourners, the pure in heart, the gentle. If Christmas is about the incarnation of God, and this is what God incarnate saw fit to tell us, then this is the ultimate Christmas message.
But over the last year, how many examples have there been of Christians who could care less who God has called blessed? How many times has a Christian told a hungry man to get a job? How many times has one told a poor woman that she just needs to work harder? How many times has a Christian ridiculed the gentle or the merciful? Called the ethical naive? Mocked the peacemaker or the one who calls for justice?
How many times have we told God by our actions that we could care less what Christmas means? Because if we don't take seriously the words of the man that that baby born on Christmas came to be, we have no idea what it means to keep Christ in Christmas.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Managing the holiday season

I'm always wrong about the Lunch and Learn discussion - the articles I think will create interesting and lively discussions never seem to elicit them, and the ones I think will be dull, inevitably are the most interesting and lively.  Case in point is the last 2 months - the November discussion, about Gilad Shalit and life in Israel, never really got off the ground, but this month, about Hanukkah and Christmas, was excellent, despite my dour expectations.

I liked the article, from a book about Hanukkah ("A family guide to spiritual celebration"), the section called "The December Dilemma," which recommended a middle ground regarding Christmas participation, and offered this excellent advice: if you participate in Jewish celebrations all year long (e.g., Passover, Purim, Tu B'shevat, Simchat Torah), it matters less that our winter holiday is less elaborate than Christmas.

One exchange especially struck me, when one of the rabbis pointed out that the miracle of the oil was added to the Macabee story centuries later, to increase the spiritual content of the holiday and decrease the emphasis on rebellion - one of the group members got a bit incensed, suggesting that our celebrations are based on "lies."  Several people in the group, including me, said that they're not lies, they're myths and legends and allegories that give meaning to our activities.  I also pointed out that these stories have many parallels in other cultures - virgin births and resurrections and miraculous lights that burn when they shouldn't. He dismissed this - "does that mean that it doesn't matter which tradition you follow?"  But that's not my interpretation at all.  The strikingly common themes only demonstrate how connected we really are, and how our understanding and experience of the divine is shared throughout humanity.

Rabbi Pepperstone talked briefly about his recent readings on science and the bible (e.g., Nahum Sarna's Understanding Genesis, 1996), and I found myself thinking about how interesting and important I find such scholarly works, and how much more connected I feel to Judaism when I understand its roots and its evolution - it makes it seem bigger and more powerful, rather than diminished by losing its magic and mysticism.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Eye problem

Friday night, on my way to bed, I noticed in the mirror that I had a little flaw in my eye:

I thought I had scratched my cornea, rubbing my eye.  But over the weekend, it didn't really change much, except that the blood spots disappeared and then reappeared.
So Tuesday I went to see an opthamologist.  He said it's an inflammation of the lymphatics, which he sees it regularly, often among women my age - he thinks it may be related to hormone changes.  He recommended lancing it, and gave me some steroid drops to use for a week.  After the lancing:

He said there's a small chance it could reappear, and if it does, he would cauterize it (not a comforting thought).  I have to admit to being a bit freaked out.  I trust this doctor, but it's a bit disturbing to be told you have something with no known cause and a rather random treatment.  And I googled "lymphatics" and could find absolutely nothing online about such a condition in the eye.  It's a little bit scary.  And it makes me feel old too.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Manipulated photo

I'm completely taken aback by this story - I saw the Time cover, and thought the "protester" they were acknowledging were those who participated in Arab spring.  I'm quite surprised to discover that this picture is a stylized version of a photo of an OWS protester named Sarah Mason (created by the artist who made the famous Obama Hope poster, Shephard Fairey).  Here is a comment from the RSN website that says it better than I can:

With the enhancement of 'Middle Eastern eyes' effect and the color and other changes making her hat and hankie look more like a hijab against the hell red background, you've added a nice note of fear and hatred. Nice propaganda job there. OWS as Arab terrorists...sigh.
And this one:

Sanitized ? It looks like the 1% did a hatchet job on this photo.

This young woman's physical coloring, and even that of her clothing is purposely darkened and cast in spooky shadows for the cover art in an effort to make The Protestor appear as sinister as it is possible to make a 25-year-old woman look.

If people weren't so impressed with the implicit recognition involved in a Time cover, they would be up in arms over the *blatant* "doctoring" and manipulation of this photo to make this young woman look more like a threat than like what she actually is ..... a young woman exercising her Constitutionally Guaranteed Right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and her obligation to petition her government for redress of grievances.

This cover is not a compliment of any sort. If that were my daughter, I would be outraged.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Latest movies

New Year's Eve (2011) - pretty disappointing; they tried to cram way too much into the movie, and it lacks any emotional resonance at all; but I laughed out loud a few times, and the cast is certainly comprised of lots of appealing people; not a waste of time but definitely a wasted opportunity

Ironclad (2011) - under the radar historical fiction of the story of King John (the one most famous for a cameo appearance at the end of many, many Robin Hood movies) after he returns from the Crusades in the early 13th century and tries to suppress a rebellion among his own nobles; great cast (including Paul Giamatti and Brian Cox) and a few fine moments, but super gory and apparently misrepresents several important facts

Love Wedding Marriage (2011) - uneven rom-com with the delicious Kellan Lutz (apparently his contract required him to film several scenes with his shirt off) and the adorable Mandy Moore, as a marriage counselor who almost torpedoes her own marriage when she tries to salvage her parents floundering relationship; not as appealing as it could have been - Jane Seymour and James Brolin, as the parents, fall pretty flat (Brolin's ham-handed attempt to portray a Jew is particularly unfortunate - his wife should have coached him better); the highlight of the movie is Jessica Szohr as Mandy's lively sister


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ayn Rand's philosophy

Interesting essay about Ayn Rand's persistent influence, by psychologist Bruce Levine, sent to me by my friend Janet.  He begins with a quote from Gore Vidal, and includes a summary of the main pillars of her philosophy.  The following is only an excerpt:

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. . . . To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961 

[Ayn Rand summarized her philosophy thusly]: “Metaphysics — objective reality. Epistemology — reason. Ethics — self-interest. Politics — capitalism.” How did that philosophy capture young minds?

Politics — capitalism. While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S. corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate individualism, freedom, or courage. Rand was clever and hypocritical enough to know that you don’t get rich in the United States talking about compliance and conformity within corporate America. Rather, Rand gave lectures titled: “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” So, young careerist corporatists could embrace Rand’s self-styled “radical capitalism” and feel radical — radical without risk.

Ethics — self-interest. For Rand, all altruists were manipulators. What could be more seductive to kids who discerned the motives of martyr parents, Christian missionaries and U.S. foreign aiders? Her champions, Nathaniel Branden still among them, feel that Rand’s view of “self-interest” has been horribly misrepresented. For them, self-interest is her hero architect Howard Roark turning down a commission because he couldn’t do it exactly his way. Some of Rand’s novel heroes did have integrity, however, for Rand there is no struggle to discover the distinction between true integrity and childish vanity. Rand’s integrity was her vanity, and it consisted of getting as much money and control as possible, copulating with whomever she wanted regardless of who would get hurt, and her always being right. To equate one’s selfishness, vanity, and egotism with one’s integrity liberates young people from the struggle to distinguish integrity from selfishness, vanity, and egotism.

Epistemology — reason. Rand’s kind of reason was a “cool-tool” to control the universe. Rand demonized Plato, and her youthful Collective members were taught to despise him. If Rand really believed that the Socratic Method described by Plato of discovering accurate definitions and clear thinking did not qualify as “reason,” why then did she regularly attempt it with her Collective? Also oddly, while Rand mocked dark moods and despair, her “reasoning” directed that Collective members should admire Dostoyevsky, whose novels are filled with dark moods and despair. A demagogue, in addition to hypnotic glibness, must also be intellectually inconsistent, sometimes boldly so. This eliminates challenges to authority by weeding out clear-thinking young people from the flock.

Metaphysics — objective reality. Rand offered a narcotic for confused young people: complete certainty and a relief from their anxiety. Rand believed that an “objective reality” existed, and she knew exactly what that objective reality was. It included skyscrapers, industries, railroads, and ideas — at least her ideas. Rand’s objective reality did not include anxiety or sadness. Nor did it include much humor, at least the kind where one pokes fun at oneself. Rand assured her Collective that objective reality did not include Beethoven’s, Rembrandt’s, and Shakespeare’s realities — they were too gloomy and too tragic, basically buzzkillers. Rand preferred Mickey Spillane and, towards the end of her life, “Charlie's Angels.”


Friday, December 16, 2011

Post Secret classic


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Golden Globe nominations

Announced this morning - the full list is here, the awards show is Sunday, January 15.  I haven't seen hardly any of this stuff - movies or TV. Kinda sad. Though I hope to see several of these movies and performances in the next few weeks.  (Weirdest thing is that I've seen more movies in the comedy category than the drama category - WTF!)One thing I noticed is Keira Knightley is not nominated for A Dangerous Method and Ryan Gosling was nominated in both comedy (Crazy Stupid Love) and drama (Ides of March)!  So much for over-exposure - didn't seem to hurt him.

In this brief commentary, at E online, they refer to "the big-boy awards" - that must be why women never get nominated in those categories (basically Best Director and Best Picture)!

This from the NY Times:

. . . Golden Globe voters did little to clear up a blurry awards picture in Hollywood early Thursday, giving multiple films – “The Help,” “The Descendants” and “The Artist” — roughly the same number of nominations.

But it was the snubs that will get Hollywood buzzing. Perhaps most notable was the complete shutout of a perceived Oscar front-runner, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” a post-9/11 drama from Stephen Daldry and the producer Scott Rudin. Steven Spielberg also fared poorly, with his old-fashioned “War Horse” only picking up only a pair of nominations and Mr. Spielberg missing from the best director category.

The Golden Globes are not taken seriously as artistic milestones and have a history of voting idiosyncrasies; “True Grit” received no Globe nominationslast year, for instance, but went on to garner 10 nominations at the Academy Awards (albeit winning nothing). Studios have long complained that the group tends to nominate based on star wattage instead of performance in an effort to orchestrate a red-carpet spectacle. Evidence of that this year: multiple nominations for Madonna and her critically drubbed directing debut “W.E.”

Still, the Globes are picked over for clues about the Oscar race. The best picture Oscar has mirrored the association’s choice for best drama or best comedy-musical about two-thirds of the time over the last two decades. (Last year’s big winner at both the Globes and the Oscars was “The King’s Speech.”)

Studios also rely on Globe nominations to fuel ticket sales and lift movies out of the year-end multiplex pile-up. This year pictures like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “War Horse,” “The Adventures of Tintin” and “The Iron Lady” are all set for release in the days around Christmas.

. . . About 17 million people watched the live Globes telecast last year, on par with the year before. The British comedian Ricky Gervais will return for the third year as host of the show, scheduled for Jan. 15 on NBC. Last year, Mr. Gervais overshadowed the ceremony with a series of barbed remarks about attending celebrities like Robert Downey Jr. and the association itself.

Here is the key categories:



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"If I was a poor black kid"

The interwebs are ablaze today with reactions to Gene Marks essay posted at Forbes.com.  The original post is interesting, but what's riveting are the amazing essays that have been written in response.  I can't decide which I like best.

I almost cried when I read Cord Jefferson:

. . . You find this sort of thing a lot among the white, moneyed, conservative set: "If only blacks and Latinos would work harder, they'd be fine." I don't think Marks and people who think like that are malicious, but I'd love to ask them how best to focus on your studies when all you can think about is the very real possibility that your mother is being assaulted in the bedroom where you're supposed to find sanctuary at night. How best to prioritize learning to read rigorously over scheming to get home and be the man of the house in the stead of the father who left? How best to find joy in school with so much hate and bitterness poisoning the rest of your life?

There's a lot wrong with "If I Was a Poor Black Kid," not the least of which is the grammar in the title. But the biggest issue with the piece and everything like it is that it assumes being poor and black are the only two things on poor black kids' plates. Content to generalize based on simplistic depictions of black poverty from TV and film, Marks believes that the only thing low-income minorities have to overcome is terrible teachers and a lack of technological knowledge; the rest of their problems stem from outright laziness. "If I was a poor black kid," writes Marks, "I’d become expert at Google Scholar." I'm not sure a more tone-deaf sentence has ever appeared in Forbes. To Marks, poor children exist in a vacuum where their only problem is poverty. In real life, poverty is a cloud that darkens every facet of a child's life, from his academic career to how he sleeps at night knowing his home is a brothel.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates almost had me cheering - his essay is extremely brave and thought-provoking:

When I read this piece I was immediately called back, as I so often am, to my days at Howard and the courses I took looking at slavery. Whenever we discussed the back-breaking conditions, the labor, the sale of family members etc., there was always someone who asserted, roughly, "I couldn't been no slave. They'd a had to kill me!" I occasionally see a similar response here where someone will assert, with less ego, "Why didn't the slaves rebel?" More commonly you get people presiding from on high insisting that if they had lived in the antebellum South, they would have freed all of their slaves.

What all these responses have in common is a kind benevolent, and admittedly unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn't a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation which offends our modern morals.

. . . It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings -- to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass . . .

Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, but on the whole, mediocre.

This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't and then ask "Why?"

This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking "Why?" The fact that we -- and I mean all of us, black and white -- are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying -- give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to our present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can't be surmounted by an advice column.

. . . The answers are out there. But they will not improve your self-esteem.

Kelly Virella tells it like it is too:

. . . Marks’ argument is essentially a kindler-gentler version of this post-Civil War rhetoric, spruced up with a tip of the hat to the wonders of the white man’s technology. So naturally, I detest it. I know my history and I know when someone is trying offer me the same okie-doke they offered my ancestors. They put up with it, because they were afraid and had few choices. But this is not 1865. “Equality of opportunity” was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now. So my advice is quit bringing it up, because we’re not having it.

The reason so many Americans are talking about inequality, is because we intend to actually drastically reduce or eliminate it. I am not opposed to working hard. But I am opposed to participating in an economy in which people like Marks A) unilaterally set the rules and B) stack the deck against my community and pretend that the real problem is our “ignorance” of opportunities.

I see no reason why my progeny should have to be any more special than Marks’ to succeed. But more importantly, I see no reason to tolerate the persistence of policies designed to restrict the number of black children who can succeed. If I were the middle class white guy Gene Marks, I’d see the handwriting on the wall and start acquiescing to some wealth redistribution, while the messenger is still a nice middle class black lady like me.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Glee Christmas Show

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I liked the message of the show, about the true meaning of Christmas, though it was heavy-handed and super cliche. The show overall was pretty dull. Not up to Glee's standards at all.

The black and white 60's-style TV show segment was sort of clever, but who was that for? Not the core audience, that's for sure. I found it kinda silly and boring, and the laugh track was excruciating (and it never could have been done for the $800 budget Artie was given!) "Bachelor pad" - please - I guess they were being ironic, but I thought that was sort of offensive.

And while we're on that topic, having Blaine and Rachel sing "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" together was bizarre - why hetero-ize the show that way? That's not what we want or expect from Glee! There's so many ways that number could have been staged, including having each of their boyfriends involved, or just having one of the couples singing it.  The Kurt-Blaine duet of "Let It Snow" sort of counter-balanced the earlier number, but was too little, too late (and couldn't hold a candle to their flirty duet last year of "Baby It's Cold Outside").

In general, I thought there were too many songs packed into the episode (9!), including "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, which didn't fit and should have been cut, along with at least one other.  Many of the numbers were just a person singing, including "Blue Christmas" (Rory) and "River" (Rachel), which gave the show a very inert feeling. The only number with any energy was the Brittney-lead "Christmas Wrapping."
Worst of all, two of the major characters (Puck and Rachel) are Jewish, and the word "Hanukkah" wasn't even mentioned, though it would have been very easy to slip it in somewhere. Rachel begging Finn for Christmas presents was obnoxious, but more so, knowing that she was Jewish.  While we're on the topic - lots of Jews work at homeless shelters and soup kitchens on Christmas (like my family!), though you wouldn't know it from this program, which sets the final scene there without any acknowledgement of Jewish involvement. Thanks for contributing to the invisibility of our people and our holiday!

All around very disappointing! The first season's Christmas show was the best, but even last year's was so much better than this.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Best protest signs of 2011

Amen brother - Cornel West at Occupy Wall St in New York.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Best protest signs of 2011

From gay pride march in Texas.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Best protest signs of 2011

Julie Summers at Slut Walk in LA.


Friday, December 09, 2011

Best protest signs of 2011

From Zuccotti Park in New York.  This actually brought tears to my eyes. (See entry on November 18.)


Thursday, December 08, 2011

Best protest signs of 2011

From a Planned Parenthood rally in Austin.  This sums up the political situation quite succinctly.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Obama's speech

Hoorah!  He came out swinging - the speech that woke us up and made us pay attention.  Here's just a few of the quotable sections:

. . . this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.

Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.

I am here to say they are wrong. I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.

. . . Theodore Roosevelt . . . was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.

But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can. He understood the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest. And so he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for consumers with better services and better prices. And today, they still must. He fought to make sure businesses couldn’t profit by exploiting children or selling food or medicine that wasn’t safe. And today, they still can’t.

And in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt came here to Osawatomie and he laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism. “Our country,” he said, “… means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.”

Now, for this, Roosevelt was called a radical. He was called a socialist—even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women—insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.

. . . Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.

Now, this kind of inequality—a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression—hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.

But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake. This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try. We tell people—we tell our kids—that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class. We tell them that your children will have a chance to do even better than you do. That’s why immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores.

. . . I think about a company based in Warroad, Minnesota. It’s called Marvin Windows and Doors. During the recession, Marvin’s competitors closed dozens of plants, let hundreds of workers go. But Marvin’s did not lay off a single one of their 4,000 or so employees—not one. In fact, they’ve only laid off workers once in over a hundred years. Mr. Marvin’s grandfather even kept his eight employees during the Great Depression.

Now, at Marvin’s when times get tough, the workers agree to give up some perks and some pay, and so do the owners. As one owner said, “You can’t grow if you’re cutting your lifeblood—and that’s the skills and experience your workforce delivers.” For the CEO of Marvin’s, it’s about the community. He said, “These are people we went to school with. We go to church with them. We see them in the same restaurants. Indeed, a lot of us have married local girls and boys. We could be anywhere, but we are in Warroad.”

That’s how America was built. That’s why we’re the greatest nation on Earth. That’s what our greatest companies understand. Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It’s about building a nation where we’re all better off. We pull together. We pitch in. We do our part. We believe that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, and that our children will inherit a nation where those values live on.

. . . And well into our third century as a nation, we have grown and we’ve changed in many ways since Roosevelt’s time. The world is faster and the playing field is larger and the challenges are more complex. But what hasn’t changed—what can never change—are the values that got us this far. We still have a stake in each other’s success. We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, “The fundamental rule of our national life,” he said, “the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.”


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tammy Baldwin's speech

Following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Warren, who made a speech in favor of progressive values that went viral and then some, we now have Tammy Baldwin, a Congressional representative from Wisconsin who's running for the open Senate in that state (against former and very popular governor, Tommy Thompson; she would be the first open lesbian to hold a Senate seat in the state).  She made this terrific speech at the National Institute's annual dinner that is being quoted by all my favorite liberals:

“It’s not that we’ve forgotten how to create wealth in this country. It’s that we have allowed that wealth to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. And as the distance between top and bottom has widened, the bonds between us have stretched — and broken. Progressives want to restore those bonds.

. . . Wisconsin was one of the first states to guarantee access to a free public education," she said. "We were the first state to ratify the 19th amendment allowing women the right to vote. We were the first to protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination. Wisconsin was the first state to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees. We invented workers' compensation. We invented unemployment insurance. But recently, that progressive tradition has come under attack by extremists."

. . . It must be our fight -- for an economy and a government that works for the 99 percent. A fight that says we're all in this together. A fight that declares we have an obligation to each other. An obligation to be fair and just. And where there are wrongs, an obligation to change it. Believing in that -- that's what it means to be a progressive."


Monday, December 05, 2011

Progressive values

One of my heroes, George Lakoff, wrote a great piece on HuffingtonPost about the use of language around the Occupy movement and the upcoming election. Toward the end, he summarized what we (progressives) should be emphasizing, and he just completely captures my personal political values.  This should be required reading for everyone, not just progressives, so that everyone in America will understand what we (progressives) are fighting for:

"Progressives have a basic morality, which is largely unspoken. It has to be spoken, over and over, in every corner of our country. Progressives need to be both thinking and talking about their view of a moral democracy, about how a robust public is necessary for private success, about the benefits of health, about regulation as protection, about revenue and investment, about corporations that keep wages low when profits are high, about how most of the rich earn a lot of their money without making anything or serving anyone, about how corporations govern your life for their profit not yours . . ."


Sunday, December 04, 2011

More discussion of Israel

We didn't have any guests this time, and the group was missing several members, but we stayed on the same theme - that the Palestinians have no legitimate claim to the land, and generally they suck.  This time we began by focusing our attention on an extremist religious sect of Jews who live in Israel, but don't recognize the government, because Israel can only be re-established as the homeland of the Jews when God arranges it, so the current political entity has no authority as far as they're concerned.  We apparently agree that we "despise" this group because they've been used as "pawns" by anti-semites.  However, our own arguments regarding the Palestinians play into the hands of our enemies as well.  The assertion that "we were there first" isn't considered credible on playgrounds, but we still want to use it in this conversation.  The fact that it's not true - read the book of Numbers* - doesn't bother us in the least. Similarly, the argument that we've made the land "thrive" more than any other group that's been in control of it (most specifically, the Palestinians) implies that they don't deserve it as much as we do.  Which is exactly the sort of reasoning that leads to the UN calling Zionism "racist."

The whole conversation makes me ill.  Why are we so unable to make the case for our legitimate claim to the land without dismissing the other people who also feel connected to it?  Indigeous people have always been ignored when lands are conquered - apparently it's a natural human tendency.  But that doesn't mean we have to succumb to it, let alone make it the cornerstone of our argument.  I don't think American Jews realize just how incredibly unpopular Israel has become after 60+ years of this untenable arrangement.  Our arrogant and narrow-minded, and frankly inhumane, approach to it is not helping Israel, America, or the situation in general.

*Numbers 13:28 - "The people who live there are strong, the cities are fortified and large. . . "
Numbers 13:29 - "Amalek is living in the land of the Negev, and the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Amorites are living in the hill country, and the Canaanites are living by the sea and the side of the Jordan."
Numbers 14:9 - "They shall be our prey . . . do not fear them."


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Hilary Swank scandal

I missed this story completely this fall when it happened. She says she didn't know that the event was a birthday party for a Chechen political figure with a less-than-stellar reputation, but the fact that her PR firm and management team quit after the kerfluffle makes that hard to swallow.  The stories I read about this suggest that stars are lured to these events by really big money and may not care that much what's involved.

Hilary Swank has already paid a public price for appearing at a Chechen gala — for a fee — that ended up celebrating the birthday of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-back president who’s been suspected of human-rights violations. She subsequently parted ways with her management and publicity teams after her appearance became public, and Swank offered a public mea culpa on The Tonight Show

In the most recent issue of Gotham magazine, Swank opted to tell her side of the story to actress and guest-journalist Mariska Hargitay.

MARISKA HARGITAY: I want to ask you about something more serious concerning your travels. Much has been said about your recent trip to Chechnya. Can you share what happened?

HILARY SWANK: Invitations to make appearances come up all the time. In this case, a Turkish real estate company invited me to help promote peace by celebrating the rebuilding of a war-torn city and meeting people who were rebuilding their lives. That’s how it was presented to me, and I thought, Absolutely, yes. When I was there, I was asked to wish the president a happy birthday, and I did. Shame on me for not having researched the trip more fully, but I didn’t know President Kadyrov’s record. Human rights organizations had tried to warn me, but those warnings weren’t shared with me. The things that have been written about me in the press are totally contradictory to who I am. It’s on me for having gone, and I regret it. Believe me, I’m never again accepting an invitation before I have all the information I need.


Voyager probes approach solar system edge

Super cool space news!  (Compare this artist's rendering with my entry on December 20, 2007.)  I know it's dopey, but when the Voyager probes are in the news, I always think of the first Star Trek movie, which imagined a Voyager probe that returns, still seeking information.

Voyager on the cusp of entering interstellar space

Plowing through the solar system's unexplored frontier, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has entered a region of stagnant solar wind and magnetic pressure and is on the precipice of crossing over into interstellar spaceBut estimates for when the nuclear-powered probe will break through are not precise. Ed Stone, Voyager's project scientist, said it could be any time between a few months and a few years from now.

"I can almost assure you that will be confused when this first happens because this will not be simple," Stone said. "Nature tends to be much more creative than our own minds."

Moving around the perimeter of the Milky Way galaxy, the sun generates a wind of charged particles moving out in all directions. Ahead of the sun, the solar wind is compressed like the waves in front of a moving ship by a steady flow of plasma emanating from outside the solar system. The solar particles are mostly diverted down and up, then behind the sun like a ship's wake or a comet's tail.

The region of the sun's influence, in which the solar wind is dominant, is called the heliosphere. The heliopause is the boundary between the heliosphere and interstellar space.

No spacecraft has ever left the solar system before, so Voyager 1 is flying through an uncharted void between the influence of the sun and the interstellar wind, which blows waves of plasma and charged particles at a clip of up to 15 miles per second.

"That transition may not be instantaneous," Stone said. "It may take us months to get through a rather messy interface between these two winds."


Friday, December 02, 2011

Gay penguins

What an adorable and fascinating story.  A third "gay" penguin couple in the news - this one in China, were given a chick to raise.  The couple in Toronto were separated for mating season, provoking a huge outcry.  The first couple, who raised a chick in the New York Central Park zoo, were celebrated in the children's book, And Tango Makes Three.

The following story from HuffingtonPost includes a video of the Chinese couple:

Just weeks after the planned separation of two Toronto-based "gay" penguins for mating purposes sparked a global outcry, another same-sex avian couple is in the news -- ironically for chick-rearing reasons once again.

As Metro is reporting, two "gay" penguins at Harbin Polar Land in northern China have been given a baby chick to care for, in an effort to help a struggling penguin mother who recently hatched twins.

Despite being "gay," the penguin couple -- whose union was even celebrated in a 2009 "wedding" -- will be naturally suited for raising chicks. Male penguins share the duty of incubating unhatched eggs with females in the wild, and this pair has become notorious for trying to steal eggs during the hatching season.

Undoubtedly, the Chinese penguins' case is similar to that of Roy and Silo, the two "gay" penguins at New York's Central Park Zoo who were eventually given a rejected egg after attempting to hatch a rock. Their story was also the basis for the controversial children's book "And Tango Makes Three."

Perhaps Buddy and Pedro, the Canadian male penguin couple, could learn a thing or two from their Chinese and American counterparts when they reunite after mating season.


Thursday, December 01, 2011

More exciting space news

NASA Confirms Discovery of the most Earth-like Planet Yet

Earth-like planet discovered in neighboring solar system! (I mentioned, not by name, the announcement regarding Kepler 21b in an entry on September 29, 2010.)

It may have a radius about 2.4 times that of our home planet, but NASA scientists have confirmed that Kepler-22b is the first planet we've ever confirmed orbits within the so-called "habitable zone" of a Sun-like star, making it the most Earth-like planet we've yet discovered.

In astronomy, the habitable zone (also known as the "Goldilocks zone") is the region surrounding a star in which an orbiting planet could maintain liquid water (and, by extension,life) on its surface. And as the "Goldilocks" moniker implies, whether or not a planet resides inside a habitable zone has everything to do with whether the planet is a little too cold, a little too hot, or just right, temperature-wise.

Take Kepler-21b, for example, whose discovery was announced last week by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Kepler-21b is even closer to the size of Earth than Kepler-22b, but it orbits far too close to its sun to sustain any form of life we're familiar with; surface temperatures on the planet are estimated to reach as much as 3000-degrees Fahrenheit — that's hot enough to melt iron, not to mention any hope of us ever calling K-21b "Earth 2.0."

But Kepler-22b is a different story. Sure, the planet orbits about 15% closer to its star than Earth does to the Sun, but its star is also significantly cooler, dimmer, and smaller than ours. And while scientists have yet to determine K-22b's composition — be it rocky, gaseous or liquid — they estimate that surface temperatures on K-22b average a very Earth-like 72-degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA's Kepler mission (which is charged with identifying Earth-like planets throughout the Milky Way galaxy) has certainly turned up habitable zone planet candidates in the past, but Kepler 22-b is the first of these candidates to be officially confirmed.

And it certainly won't be the last. In fact, the confirmation was made on top of another announcement: that the Kepler mission has now discovered 1,094 additional potential planets (many of which could very well be Earth-like), bringing the total number of planet candidates discovered to date to 2,326.

Let's pause and consider that number for a moment. The Kepler space telescope has been in operation for less than three years, and already its findings stand to quadruplethe number of worlds known to exist beyond our solar system. If the rate of discovery continues on its present course, the identification of more and more Earth-like planets stands to ramp up in a big way.

"The tremendous growth in the number of Earth-size candidates tells us that we're honing in on the planets Kepler was designed to detect: those that are not only Earth-size, but also are potentially habitable," explains Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead at San Jose State University. "The more data we collect, the keener our eye for finding the smallest planets out at longer orbital periods. We are really zeroing in on the true Earth-sized habitable planets."

In other words, we're getting closer and closer to finding Earth's twin — and that's assuming we haven't found something incredibly close already. All that's left now is coming up with a way to make the 600-light-year trip to Kepler-22b and we can set up camp.