Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wal Mart employee trampled to death during Christmas rush. I see the poor economy hasn’t reduced shopper’s insanity.

I am serious. There really isn’t any word other than “insane” to describe this.

NEW YORK - Police were reviewing video from surveillance cameras in an attempt to identify who trampled to death a Wal-Mart worker after a crowd of post-Thanksgiving shoppers burst through the doors at a suburban store and knocked him down.

Criminal charges were possible, but identifying individual shoppers in Friday's video may prove difficult, said Detective Lt. Michael Fleming, a Nassau County police spokesman.

Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers stepped over him and became irate when officials said the store was closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.

Police said about 2,000 people were gathered outside the Wal-Mart doors before its 5 a.m. opening at a mall about 20 miles east of Manhattan. The impatient crowd knocked the employee, identified by police as Jdimytai Damour, to the ground as he opened the doors, leaving a metal portion of the frame crumpled like an accordion.

"This crowd was out of control," Fleming said. He described the scene as "utter chaos," and said the store didn't have enough security.

Dozens of store employees trying to fight their way out to help Damour were also getting trampled by the crowd, Fleming said. Shoppers stepped over the man on the ground and streamed into the store.

Damour, 34, of Queens, was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead around 6 a.m., police said. The exact cause of death has not been determined.'

A 28-year-old pregnant woman was taken to a hospital, where she and the baby were reported to be OK, said police Sgt. Anthony Repalone.

Kimberly Cribbs, who witnessed the stampede, said shoppers were acting like "savages."

"When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling `I've been on line since yesterday morning,'" she said. "They kept shopping."

I read about these kinds of events every year. It happens with depressing regularity. And what’s really strange and unnerving about this is that you realize that a large majority of those early Christmas shoppers every year are women. These are women doing this, who I would like to imagine have a bit more humanity and compassion to them than men. That is a bit of a reverse-sexist opinion on my part, but that has how I have always thought of it. I find it very unnerving that rational thinking processes can be halted and raw emotion substituted by nothing more than a early Christmas sale at a place where you can buy all sorts of junk already at a very low price (which is the subject of a different post altogether).

The mob mentality is a really funny thing. You see it at political rallies and old Universal horror films where the townsfolk are whipped up into a frenzy and storm the castle with pitchforks and torches. But shopping? This is especially indefensible when you stop to think that the same items are going to be available for the next month. Yes, you might save a few bucks, but is that really worth all this? What I find even worse is that the shoppers became very angry and some refused to leave when they were asked to leave because of the death of the employee. That's doubly insane. Just think about that. This poor man isn't going home anymore. He went to work in what you would think is a very safe environment, and he ends up dead. I doubt his family understands. I certainly wouldn't.

I guess I am of the opinion that an event like this is really a peek inside the psyche of our society. It isn’t just a one-off “damn, who would have ever thought that?” kind of event. It is a demonstration of our base, primitive nature. If our society devolves, at some time in the future, to the point that food and water are scarce commodities, I will be very scared. Add angry men with abundant attitudes and guns to the mix and the situation described above, and it won’t be pretty.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Schadenfreuden, NBA style.

Well, I guess I can only get wring a dab of pleasure from seeing the news that the Seattle Supersonics, er, make that Oklahoma City “Thunder” (what a stupid name, sounds like something you would see in the Arena Football League, not the NBA) is something like 1-12 and have just fired their head coach. Aw, geez Loiuse. You wanted a GOOD team, then, one that might actually win some games? You should have gone out and raided some other city, like the LA Clippers. LA has two teams, and the Clippers seem to win a game now and then.

Clay Bennett is a major league asshole. Rich, but an asshole nontheless.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Anime review: Scrapped Princess (including a rather lengthy aside about Hayao Miyazaki)

Now, the first question that might pop in to someone who has looked in on this blog before is, what is a blog that has been almost exclusively about politics for the last eight months doing writing about a Japanese anime? Isn’t that sort of far-afield from politics, not to mention rather adolescent, especially for a blogger who posting name is “zeppo”, rather inferring someone in the 50+ age group (which would be a correct inference, but not by that much)?

Well, I do like to do a number of different things with this blog, for no other reason than to keep myself interested. Many well-established bloggers seem to do this as well. Steve Benen at Washington Monthly just posted this.

As you've probably noticed, plenty of political bloggers occasionally tackle unrelated subjects. Yglesias writes about basketball; Ezra writes about cooking; Drum writes about cats, football, and his unusual computer problems. And what do I do when I'm not obsessing over the political news of the day? I'm obsessing over the science fiction news of the day (TV, movies, comics, video games, you name it).

So, a post about a Japanese anime on what is primarily a political blog isn’t that unusual, really.

O.K, I am into anime. I admit it. At least, certain ones. Big deal. I like to try to keep myself from getting stale and try new things now and then. Plus, I have never really fully grown up anyway. And finally, I need some pure escapism in my life. Work isn’t doing it for me and the world situation is pretty depressing, when you get right down to it. I need a relief valve.

I really became aware of Japanese animation when I started watching the works of Hayao Miyazaki, the brilliant animator. His films are, in my estimation, vastly superior than anything Disney ever put out. The storylines and characters in his films are significantly more interesting than anything ever put out by Disney, including Pixar. The plots are complex, the characters are definitively not two-dimensional, and the soundtracks are incredible. Spirited Away remains one of my favorite films. Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso are also incredible films that I would recommend without a moment of hesitation. The imagination behind these films, and the amount of detail in the sets and characters are truly astounding. I would recommend anything by Miyazaki or his studio, Studio Ghibli. The DVD’s, although kind of pricey, would make a great Christmas gift for some family with kids. Yeah, the kids could be the excuse for the gift, but I bet the parents would be hooked as well.

Given my enthusiasm for Miyazaki, I suppose it wasn’t that much of a leap for me to start sampling Japanese anime, as well as some other feature length films. I am fortunate in that my television cable provider has a free On Demand section that is pretty well stocked. There are a couple of places that have anime content. I was just poking around one weekend and stumbled across them. I found a few that I liked, mostly for the off the wall humor. There are many others I have watched an episode or two that don’t interest me at all. Many anime series seem overly pretentious and very superficial. I think it is obvious who the target audience for those is. But then I found Scrapped Princess. Luckily, I caught the first episode before On Demand rotated it out for the next installments. (I am very glad that this On Demand section exists and most of this stuff is free. I certainly wouldn’t have spent a lot of money with this type of experimentation. If I don’t like something, the only thing I have lost is a few minutes of my life.)

I initially got hooked on Scrapped Princess because the quality of the artwork is fantastic. It’s not quite to the same level as Miyazaki, but it is very close. The amount of detail in the background scenery is fantastic, and some are only shown for several seconds before the story moves on. The voice actors for the English version are very good. The depth and range of emotion they exhibit really bring their animated characters to life. I found the second and third episodes were full of some very funny bits, which is always guaranteed to catch my attention. But by the time the story got really rolling, I was really taken by the incredibly interesting and compelling storyline and the depth of the characters. Now, for those who are not fans of anime, you might be saying, “Come on. Depth of characters in a cartoon?” Yeah, really, there is. Trust me on that one.

I am not going to say a lot about the actual anime itself. Here are some things Wiki has to say about it.

Scrapped Princess is notable for high quality animation, its music, which is composed by Masumi Itō, and its themes. It begins as high fantasy and then quickly mixes into varying degrees of post-apocalyptic and science fiction elements through the application of Clarke's third law. The atmosphere has undertones of sadness, though many of the characters and situations are superficially light-hearted.

The story takes place in a fantasy world and revolves around a 15-year-old girl, Pacifica Casull, who is a girl child born in a set of twins into the royal family of the kingdom Leinwan and then abandoned. The 5111th Grendel Prophecy predicts that she is the "poison that will destroy the world" before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday. As a consequence, she is dropped off a cliff as an infant. Believed to be dead, no one realizes her continued existence until after Pacifica is already 15 years old.

Pacifica is rescued by a court wizard and adopted by the commoner Casull family. Her foster siblings-Shannon, a loner swordsman, and Raquel, a motherly magician-became her protectors. Both siblings are extremely powerful, and more often than not they easily break out of whatever difficult situation they face.

Her siblings travel with her throughout most of the story, protecting her from the numerous attempts on her life by people who fear the outcome of the prophecy, should she survive. Both siblings' skills see constant use. By contrast, Pacifica is a mostly typical fifteen-year-old, and her inability to defend herself is a recurring source of self-doubt for her. As the series progresses, the truth about the prophecy slowly comes to light, and even as the more of the truth is revealed, more questions arise. Pacifica must discover her hidden destiny, even as powerful beings that are not human who are supposedly the gods of this world - continuously fight against each other, over her fate, seeking to either protect or destroy her. It turns out that Pacifica is not in fact "a poison who will destroy the world" in that sense...but in fact mankind's last hope, and all part of a plan. A plan that was set in motion a long, long time ago by not primitive humans but highly intelligent and advanced ones, at that. Can destiny be written beforehand? The answer lies deep in the past, five thousand years ago during the Genesis Wars...

I just found the character of Pacifica very sympathetic. It’s not every 15 year old that could put up with constantly being on the run from people trying to kill them, and being constantly told that they are an abomination and should have been destroyed at birth. That could do some pretty serious damage to a person’s psyche, for real. But throughout all, she remains an exuberant, moody, tempermental teenager. What started out to be a standard mythical kingdom “sword and sorcery” storyline has taken a decidedly interesting turn into the realm of futuristic, post-apocalyptic science fiction, where science, magic, technology and biology are not individual things but are all blended together. I also think some very interesting statements are being made about organized religion and the structure upon which societies are founded. There is a multi-layered plot with multi-dimensional characters.

Another thing I liked about this anime is something I find attractive in some of my favorite films. Unlike American cinema and television, Japanese cinema, and this anime in particular, doesn’t always spend a lot of time filling the audience in with the backstory and getting everyone up to speed before they feel they can go on with the current story. I can always tell the “exposition” part of any plot, and I find it rather annoying. This anime just jumps in with both feet what could have easily been the middle of the storyline. It tells the audience, “Here we go, and it’s your job to keep up with what is going on here.” Truthfully, I had to watch these episodes several times before I really understood all the underlying story lines and themes. I rather like that. It makes you use your imagination and thought processes to figure out what is going on. It involves the audience, rather than making them passive spectators.

I readily admit that, to really become a fan of anime, you really need to overcome a few obstacles. First, as I stated above, you really need to find the right one. All anime are not created equal. Then, there is this thing that Japanese have for their animated female characters to have really big, creepy eyes and overly large breasts. Some of the characters have really irritating voices, as you can tell they are adults speaking with children’s voices. Like I said, irritating. It actually took some time for me to get over those things. And finally, you need to be able to admit to yourself that animation can be interesting on a level at much higher levels than your average Bugs Bunny/Road Runner cartoon. Animation, both of the television series and feature films, can have very interesting, compelling storylines, if they are given a chance.

I would highly recommend Scrapped Princess to anyone already into anime, but also anyone who is interested in trying something new, or just looking for a good Christmas gift for that family with some older kids in it.

Photo from here.

UPDATE: I have finished watching the entire series of twenty-four episodes. I’m still taking it all in and trying to figure out a few things. I don’t want to insert any spoilers here, in case anyone reading this hasn’t seen or completely finished the anime.

The plot certainly had a fair share of twists and turns, many of which I didn’t see coming. It kept jumping around from a Medieval sword and sorcery yarn to a post-apocalyptic science fiction story, and then back again. One interesting thing about Japanese animation in general (at least as far as the ones I have seen) is that the bad guys are never truly evil and the good guys are not always knights in shining armor. The characters are usually multi-layered and are always conflicted as some point in time. That tendency certainly makes for a more interesting story, but it also can throw the viewer a curveball now and then. Characters you might have believed were part of the good guys turn out to do some pretty horrible things. Characters you are certain are evil turn out to have some really interesting reasons behind their actions. Some terrible things happened to some very nice people. The next to last episode really shocked me, actually. I was beginning to feel rather betrayed and upset that I had invested all this time in watching this series and then THAT happened. But everything changed, once again, in the last episode, and I ended up feeling better.

All in all, the story was very compelling but full of some pretty big holes, if you start to think about it. But then, this is an anime, after all. If you can’t use your artistic license in an anime, then you are never going to be able to use it. And Japanese animation certainly doesn’t use the standard Hollywood formulaic recipe for their stories. Even a film like Wall-E, which I enjoyed a great deal, turned out to be pretty predictable in the end. Wall-E wasn’t going to stay a vegetable robot without character forever. He was going to return to his usual loveable robotic self eventually. Wall-E and Eve were going to get together in the end. The humans were going to come back to Earth. The “evil” computer onboard the spaceship was not going to win out. It was a very nice, funny story that actually had a message contained in it. But I thought it was still rather formulaic and predictable. Scrapped Princess was anything but.

There was one very interesting animation technique that I noticed they used that I haven’t ever seen before. The animation is multi-level, of course, which gives the illusion of depth to an otherwise two-dimensional picture. But the director of Scrapped Princess chose to mimic an optical aspect of live action film. Because camera lenses cannot focus on every object in their field of view, the cameraperson has to chose what object he is focusing on during each shot. If he focuses on objects rather close to the camera, then objects in the background are going to be slightly out of focus. Likewise, if he chooses to focus on an object in the distance, objects closer to the camera will be slightly blurred. The animators of Scrapped Princess put that aspect of optics and lenses, which is actually not always that beneficial, into the animation. Additionally, the synthetic “focal length” is changed occasionally, such that the focus of the picture changes from a character speaking in the background to a character speaking in the foreground. I have never seen that in an animation before. It is just one more aspect of Scrapped Princess that makes it very interesting to watch.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Don’t the Christmas commercials seem particularly forced this year?

Several I have seen really are almost manic in the desire to impart that Christmas (read “shopping”) spirit. All you have to do is look at the retailers themselves and look at all the stores that are closing or corporations going out of business completely to see that things aren’t really that normal this year. Here is a list of some retailers whose Christmas (read “shopping”) season won’t save them.

- Circuit City stores... TBD

- Ann Taylor - 117 stores nationwide are to be shuttered

- Lane Bryant

- Fashion Bug

- Catherine's to close 150 store nationwide

- Eddie Bauer to close stores 27 stores and more after January

- Cache will close all stores

- Talbots closing down all stores

- J. Jill closing all stores

- GAP closing 85 stores

- Footlocker closing 140 stores more to close after January

- Wickes Furniture closing down

- Levitz closing down remaining stores

- Bombay closing remaining stores

- Zales closing down 82 stores and 105 after January

- Whitehall closing all stores

- Piercing Pagoda closing all stores

- Disney closing 98 stores and will close more after January.

- Home Depot closing 15 stores 1 in NJ (New Brunswick)

- Macys to close 9 stores after January

- Linens and Things closing all stores

- Movie Galley Closing all stores

- Pacific Sunware closing stores

- Pep Boys Closing 33 stores

- Sprint/ Nextel closing 133 stores

- JC Penney closing a number of stores after January

- Ethan Allen closing down 12 stores.

- Wilson Leather closing down all stores

- Sharper Image closing down all stores

- K B Toys closing 356 stores

- Lowes to close down some stores

- Dillard's to close some stores.

I guess the "Magic Kingdom" isn't totally insulated from reality... And those are only the retailers. This is hitting all aspects of the economy. Boeing recently announced they may be looking at layoffs next year, even though they have a huge backlog in the commercial airplane orders. DHL is closing down its U.S. operations. Washington Mutual, or what is left of what used to be WaMu, announced massive layoffs here in Washington state.

It’s really difficult to get that Christmas spirit (read “opening up your wallet and spending your hard earned cash) given this environment. If you are one of the unfortunate many that have lost or may lose your job in the near future, I wish you luck and I hope that you land on your feet soon. But I have seen some recent predictions that unemployment in the U.S. may hit 10%. That’s a number not seen since the 1930’s. And even if you aren’t in danger of being unemployed, you might not be too willing to be a huge spender and run up a large bill on your credit cards this year, like so many people used to do in the past, given that your 401K is worth about 50% less than it used to be.

This is looking like a very large downward spiral, with negative feedback that continually reinforces itself. I guess I never really realized how interdependent everything is on a large amount of people going out and buying stuff, much of it they may or may not need. It’s a consumer society indeed. It’s all a very elaborate house of cards that was wobbly to begin with. The fact that a large number of fat cats in the banking and house loan “industry” wanted to soak the consumers and make as large amount of money as they could, and the fact that they had willing marks on the consuming end who wanted stuff (like houses they couldn’t afford and SUV’s they had to refinance their existing house loans to buy) for pulling out those few cards on the corner that started this whole thing on its way to collapse.

Let’s hope that this plays itself out soon and there’s something left to salvage.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I find myself fascinated by the fracturing going on within the Republican Party.

It’s kind of like staring at a car crash sitting on the side of the road. You know you shouldn’t be gawking. There are some people there who are having a very bad day. But still, there is this morbid fascination with the very fact of a crash, with all the bent fenders, flashing lights on the police cars and maybe even an ambulance or two. You think to yourself, “Wow, how did that happen? That’s terrible! I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

That’s sort of how I feel about the beginnings of what looks to be a crack-up of the modern Republican Party. It’s kind of amazing to watch, especially since the Republican Party under the “leadership” of George Bush and Karl Rove looked to be zooming down the freeway, unimpeded, at 80 mph, passing everyone in sight.

O.K., that’s enough of my car crash and freeway metaphor. After a while, it just becomes too cumbersome to keep up.

There are many Conservatives who are being pretty blunt about this. Chuck Hagel, retiring Senator from Nebraska, really let his own party have it the other day. While he was at it, he took a pretty nice shot at Rush Limbaugh as well. David Frum and Kathleen Parker have been sharply critical as well. The one person I have been following that has been very up front and articulate about the current problems of the Republican Party is David Brooks of the NY Times. This guy drives me nuts. Quite often, he is a very good read. I thought he did a terrific job as election night analyst on PBS. Other times, man, his ideology jumps out and pokes him in the ribs, I guess, and he comes out with some really astounding rationalizations and flat out false statements when he is trying to make a point about how bad Democrats and liberals are. This tendency has been what has earned him the nickname of “Bobo” among the liberal blogosphere.

Here is part of one of his more lucid moments.

It's only been a week since the defeat, but the battle lines have already been drawn in the fight over the future of conservatism.

In one camp, there are the Traditionalists, the people who believe that conservatives have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed. George W. Bush was a big-government type who betrayed conservatism. John McCain was a Republican moderate, and his defeat discredits the moderate wing.

To regain power, the Traditionalists argue, the GOP should return to its core ideas: Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration. Rally behind Sarah Palin.

Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are the most prominent voices in the Traditionalist camp, but there is also the alliance of Old Guard institutions.

For example, a group of Traditionalists met in Virginia last weekend to plot strategy, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. According to reports, the attendees were pleased that the election wiped out some of the party's remaining moderates. "There's a sense that the Republicans on Capitol Hill are freer of wobbly-kneed Republicans than they were before the election," the writer R. Emmett Tyrrell told a reporter.

The other camp, the Reformers, argue that the old GOP priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized for new conditions. The reformers tend to believe that American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government. The Reformers propose new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety. They tend to take global warming seriously. They tend to be intrigued by the way David Cameron has modernized the British Conservative Party.

Moreover, the Reformers say, conservatives need to pay attention to the way the country has changed. Conservatives must appeal more to Hispanics, independents and younger voters. They cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West coasts.


The debate between the camps is heating up. Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the GOP. They are going to win, first, because congressional Republicans are predominantly Traditionalists. Republicans from the coasts and the Upper Midwest are largely gone. Among the remaining members, the popular view is that Republicans have been losing because they haven't been conservative enough.


Finally, Traditionalists own the conservative mythology. Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into the belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward and a sellout.

This narrative happens to be mostly bogus at this point. Most professional conservatives are lifelong Washingtonians who live comfortably as organization heads, lobbyists and publicists. Their supposed heroism consists of living inside the large conservative cocoon and telling each other things they already agree with.
But this embattled-movement mythology provides a rational for crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing doctrinal purity. It has allowed the old leaders to define who is a true conservative and who is not. It has enabled them to maintain control of (an ever more rigid) movement.

In short, the Republican Party will probably veer right in the years ahead, and suffer more defeats. Then, finally, some new Reformist donors and organizers will emerge. They will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again.

I left quite a bit of his original column intact, just because there are so many points in there that I think are quite valid. This really is an ideological battle for control of the Republican Party. But what I find amazing is Brooks’ statement, and I have seen this from many others as well, that the remaining core of what Brooks calls the Traditionalist camp feels they need to become more militant, more conservative, not less. As more and more of the less rigid ideologues of the Republicans are voted out of office or finally give up on their party and becomes independents or even moderate to right Democrats, the more the core of the Republican Party contracts. There is no “big tent” for the Republican Party. There isn’t even a “moderate to smallish-sized tent.” No, the Republican Party of the Traditionalists requires that all card-carrying members, without exception, hold to the edicts laid out. They must believe that abortion is the murder of innocent babies, brown people are scary and either want to blow you up, take your jobs or live off “the dole” here in the U.S., war is always preferable to any other option, that global warming is a myth and that Democrats are evil-incarnate and therefore cannot be correct about anything, ever. If anyone deviates from these stated principles, they are expelled from the Congregation of True Believers.

David Brooks says as much in his column. If this column and many others like it aren’t evidence of the coming crack-up, I don’t know what is. What I find fascinating about this, I guess, is that this is so self-inflicted. For a political party, this is very self-destructive behavior. This is not based on any rational logic, at all. It is tribalism at its worst, driven by raw emotion and hatred of anything new or different. The Traditionalists of the Republican Party seem bound and determine not to learn any lessons, at all, from the elections of 2006 and 2008. If any political party had experienced the worst back-to-back defeats since the 1930’s, I would assume that a little self-introspection would be called for, and sooner rather than later. But all this seems to have done is make the Traditionalists angrier and more determined to be “right.”

I, for one, cannot understand how any rational human being can listen to Sarah Palin, especially in her unrehearsed moments, and come to the conclusion that this person should be in charge of anything, much less this country. She comes across as a total doofus, someone you might see as someone’s ditzy neighbor in a bad 1970’s sitcom. Yet, in the Traditionalists view, she is the new leader, the standard bearer for the Republican Party. Talk about self-destructive behavior. If this last election should have taught them anything, it is that, not only does most of the country think that she is not qualified, they also think she is a joke, something to be parodied on Saturday Night Live. And yet, several weeks before the election, I heard one person, just dripping with so much certitude that it made his socks damp and gathered in puddles around his shoes where he was standing, state that he wished that he could vote for Palin for President, since she was “obviously the most qualified of the four candidates.” I could only shake my head.

I am not a psychologist or sociologist. I have no training that would help me identify such illogical behavior by so many supposedly intelligent people. The willingness to buy into self-delusion on a massive scale, however, does seem to be at the heart of the Traditionalists’ “World As They See It.” My only response is to shrug my shoulders and quote that most famous rational yet fictional character, Mr. Spock. “That is not logical.”

This behavior does reinforce the notion that I have had for quite some time, that self-preservation is not always the highest priority for individuals of our species. Self-destructive behavior can be seen all around in our society, such as that exhibited by alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, cheating husbands and wives, etc. I suppose we can now add the Traditionalists of the Republican Party to that list. They may be quite content with their ideology and hatred of everything “other”, but they are surely driving the current edition of the Republican Party to second-tier status as a purely regional political entity that has some very difficult litmus tests for their member to pass before they can be called one of the “true believers.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

I’ve decided to become a Minimalist Blogger.

Beyond the fact that “Minimalist Blogger” is a bit of an oxymoron, and therefore very humorous in an absurdist sort of way, I find the concept refreshing new and new; something that fits in exactly with the newly invigorated mood of this country. Blogging based on volume alone (either definition of “volume” will do, thank you very much) is very passé. That’s just not good enough anymore. A good blogger must show restraint coupled with just the right amount of subtlety, but still having the presence to make a dynamic statement when one is called for. This is not unlike a good jazz vibes player. A good vibes player selects his or her moments where the contribution to the overall artistic effort will be maximized. Vibes, even when played with gusto, are rather understated instruments. No loud, bellicose trumpet for me. I will strive to be the Lionel Hampton of blogs! Artistry will out!!

That said, boy, don’t those Seattle Seahawks suck canal water? Jeez.

Vibes photo from Wiki.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The economic crisis keeps gathering steam.

As I have said many times before, I have no training, or even understanding past the basics, of our economic system. But I do read a number of people who do. Paul Krugman of the NY Times just won a Nobel Prize for his work in economics, and he continues to be very concerned that the governments of the world are not adequately addressing this now global crisis. If he is worried, then I am worried.

The United States tried to do something several weeks ago with the $700 billion bailout package that was rushed through Congress. Oh, you certainly can’t fault anyone for not being enthusiastic enough in the response. There were a few words of caution put forward by politicians of both sides concerning this bailout package. Why this particular amount of money? Who was it to go to? What was the money to be used for, exactly? What kind of oversight was going to be provided? But the predictions were so dire that politicians gulped several times, crossed their fingers that they were doing the right thing, and pulled the trigger. The consequences of this action, both the good and the bad, are yet to be determined. All that seems apparent is that, even though $700 billion is a very large amount of money, it isn't going to be nearly enough.

What bothers me about this is not the fact that the government of the United States is rather embracing socialism, without ever saying so. Our society is based on many of institutions of this country, and it appeared to me that several of them were about to get their legs kicked out from under them by the fact that credit was drying up, quickly, on a global basis. Credit, whether we like it or not, is the grease that makes our economy grow. (It’s not really a coincidence that George Bush asked everyone to “go shopping” in response to the events of 9/11 and our subsequent invasion of Iraq.) No, I believe that we needed to do something. And something we did.

What is really under my skin is the continuing reports about how many people out there seem to think that this sudden influx of money, lots of money, is somehow a declaration of an open season for “getting as much as you can”, whether you deserve it or not. Reports of AIG executives having “retreats” at very posh vacation spots keep trickling out. Maybe, just maybe, one of these might be expected out of fat cats who think that “avarice” is synonymous with “good business practices”. But after they got toasted in front of a Congressional hearing, you would have thought that would have been an example to both AIG and the rest of the industry. No, reports, including those about more AIG executive outings, continue to leak out. The bailout money is reportedly being used by corporations to give their executives large bonuses, to pay stockholder dividends and, amazingly enough, to finance the purchase of other companies.

These people are the ones that really upset me. These are the people who are running our economy, and they are treating it like their private playground. They see no larger purpose in anything they do other than to continue to enrich themselves. Even being caught and castigated in public, by Congress, doesn’t really reach their stunted psyche. They have no understanding, no concept, that this is not about them. They fully believe that it is their right to grab as much as possible for their own. I actually think that they do no understand why anyone might be upset with this behavior, that’s how far gone they are.

In my mind, these are the monsters in our society. These are the villains. It isn’t the people who would like to marry other people of the same sex. It’s these assholes in charge of the corporations of America. Oh, yes. They do provide the cogs that run our economy and have given us our high standard of life here. But I believe that the “industrial magnates”, to use a term from the Gilded Age, only see this as a side benefit. Their main purpose is to continue to enrich themselves. We may not have the same high-profile robber-barons of that era, such as J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. But we certainly have the same mindset prevalent in leaders of today’s industry. Their mantra seems to be, “Get as much as you can, and it doesn’t really matter how you do it.”

I really don’t know how some people live with themselves.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The messages I am receiving from advertising on television.

I haven’t picked on television commercials for a while. That was somewhat of a staple of this blog when I first started. It’s an easy target, and I get so annoyed at the basic message being sent out. So, maybe to try to get back into doing something other than politics, I’ll give it a bit of a go here.

These are things that I have learned about our society from watching television commercials. Based on the regularity with which I am subjected to these nuggets of American Culture, I suppose these points are vitally important. I figured that I better write them all down before I forget them all. Then where would I be?

- When a person is drinking coffee, they must grasp the cup firmly with BOTH hands, tilt their head back with their eyes closed, and take a deep breath and sigh contentedly. I assume that this is a method of clearing clogged sinuses. When a person is drinking coffee with friends (usually three total), not only must everyone hold their cups firmly with both hands, they also must all hold the cups very close to their faces and all three must have their heads very close to each other. A group sinus clearing, I suppose.

- Many of the same things that apply to drinking coffee also apply to eating soup. When eating soup with friends or family, no one is allowed to set their bowl of soup on a table. No, the proper way to eat soup, apparently, is again to hold the bowl very close to one’s mouth (most soup eaters are excessively messy, as everyone knows) and keep their heads very close together. And everyone must smile a lot. That is a by-product of the large amounts of MSG consumed, I believe.

- If you are a male that has, shall we say, “performance issues”, there are several things you must do. The first is that you should be very proud of this and the fact you are relying on some pharmaceutical assist, so much so that you should get together with your over-50 buddies that play in your rock and roll garage band and play and sing songs about your drug-enhanced experience to the tune of old Elvis Presley songs, which may or may not be in the public domain. You should also schedule a vacation with your wife or girlfriend to a vacation resort that will let you move two “his and hers” bathtubs out on the beach, so both of you can sit out on the beach, in bathtubs, while watching the sun go down. Where the water comes from to fill these bathtubs out on the beach is unknown, as there may be no obvious source. It may be that you don’t really need water and you and your wife/significant other can just sit around in dry, empty bathtubs in your undies. And finally, if your “exuberance” lasts for more than four hours, you need to go find a doctor to schedule immediate emergency surgery.

- In order to buy really cool tires for your all-terrain vehicle (which probably doesn’t ever get more “off-road” than the local Food Mart parking lot) or hopped up muscle car, you must be really young, good looking and have rock and roll music blasting at full volume. Buying the right tires is obviously the most important, coolest thing any young person can ever do. It will get you dates with really hot chicks that have a thing for tires equipped with all-weather treads. Or it may be this is just some sort of very obscure metaphor for something else entirely. But, big tires obviously matter!

- Everyone, no matter his or her station in life, must have a broker or financial consultant. If you don’t have one, you desperately need to find one. If you already have one, you must be very dissatisfied with him. If you don’t have one and aren’t looking for one, then you must be a person who handles his or her investments without such such aid on the web, or with minimal help from consultants who are available to assist you 24 hours a day but otherwise let you do whatever you damned well please but won’t ever let you lose money, ever. You must spend a lot of time on this activity, and must never be satisfied, ever. If you don’t have large amounts of money in stocks, mutual funds, foreign currencies or other such investments, there is something seriously wrong with you and you will probably die penniless and alone, without anyone to take care of you.

- The smaller something is that you are eating, the more important it is to grab it with both hands and hide the fact exactly how small it actually might be. You don’t want people to see your really tiny chicken sandwich and start laughing at you.

- Speaking of which, it is always acceptable to demean and ridicule someone based on the fast food they are eating at lunch. Cheeseburgers and fries are very laughable items. Original recipe chicken strips are MUCH more honest, believable and grown-up.

- Drinking too much beer causes hallucinations, such as large horses playing football, talking Dalmatians and beautiful young women who desire to rip the clothes off any male found drinking, in large quantities, the correct brand of beer.

- And finally, only elitist rich a**holes drive Cadillacs, so you better go buy one right now so you can be an elitist rich a**hole too!!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

So, can we now discard this notion in this country that science is something not to be trusted?

I really want to blog about something other than politics. It was always my intention to have this blog be about a whole lot of different things, a place on the web that a few people might stumble upon once in a while and say, “Hey, that was kind of interesting. I wonder what else is on here?” Lately, though, unless something has just fallen in my lap, it has pretty much been exclusively about politics. I don’t suppose I can blame myself. It’s been a pretty brutal, thuggish, surreal and ultimately inspiring and history-making two years. I’m so tightly wound about the whole situation that it will probably take some time for me to unwind and be able to actually concentrate and write something worthwhile. Hopefully, I will get there.

One of the many things that I hope will change for the better in these United States is the view that science is suspect and not to be trusted. It seems as if the United States, as a whole, has come to the viewpoint that ignorance is not something to be ashamed of, but to actually be celebrated. It’s those pointy-headed intellectuals who are causing all the trouble, such as pointing out that the Earth, our Earth, is in trouble and the human race may suffer from our neglect of the only planet we have, or by observing that religious fundamentalists who insist on a 6000 year-old universe are at odds with every scientific conclusion in every realm of science (e.g., geology, cosmology, genetics, archeology, etc.) Somehow, the people who promote logical thinking based on scientific facts and reasoning have become “the enemy.” I find that beyond comprehension, and that must change if (in the short term) we want to remain competitive with the rest of the world and (in the longer term) want to survive as a species.

Knowledge, and the ability to act upon that knowledge, one of the few things that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Oh sure, opposable thumbs really helped. Willful ignorance, on the other hand, is likely to sentence us to irrelevance, if not total oblivion. I hope this distrust of science and the conclusions about the universe we inhabit that have been reached by using the scientific method is discarded as a primary motivation in our country.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Sitting in a hotel room on the evening after a historic election in America.

I’m in Ft. Worth, Texas, for a business meeting. I’m not really sure when I will have the opportunity to actually post this, as I am not equipped for wireless. “Where were you, granddad, when President Obama was elected?” “Ft. Worth, Texas, grandson. I remember it well, never forget it. I had the greasy pork chops.” You might guess that this is not the place I would have chosen to be during such an amazing evening. But, that is where I was. I could have been glued to the television all evening at home as well as here. My only real annoyance is that my hotel (in Texas, remember) did not have MSNBC. I ended up flipping between PBS and CNN. I really wanted to hear what Rachel had to say.

What an amazing thing we just saw. I was just in awe at some of the pictures that were shown and some of the numbers as they coming in. Obama won the District of Columbia something like 97% to 3%, and he carried some traditional “red” states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana. I am not black, so I know, without a doubt, that I don’t have any clue about the emotions that black people in America were feeling last night. I had some tears in my eyes when I saw pictures of black women, young and old, jumping up and down, hugging each other and crying. I had a broad smile that lasted for a long time when I saw pictures of people of all shapes, sizes and colors, celebrating their victory, our victory, or listening in rapt attention to President Elect Obama’s speech. The fact that he is a black man both did and did not matter, at the same time, which is quite an accomplishment on his part.

This is a historic moment in American history, and not too many people are trying to dismiss it as anything less than one of the more important events that have happened in this generation. I lived in Alabama and Mississippi during the 1970’s. There was a restaurant in my little town that still had “White Only” and “Black Only” signs over its outside service windows. White girls going out on a date with black boys at the high school in the town next to mine was a cause for not just concern, but out and out panic and a demand for immediate action. I missed the terrible events of Birmingham and Philadelphia, Mississippi by only a handful of years. So, I feel I have a little understanding about just how historic last night was.

We grew up a bit as a nation yesterday. Oh, I have no delusions about the sorry state of race relations in the country. However, this may go a long way to working those issues out. This is Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers raised to the nth power. Many people are saying much about what this means, and I am not going to pretend I am adding anything to that conversation. These are just my private thoughts. But watching the statements of both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, both Republicans, was quite amazing. They knew what this meant, and were not shy about saying it. I swear that Dr. Rice’s voice was quivering. (On a tangential thought, I am sure she will make a fine President of Football Operations for the San Francisco 49’ers. You go, girl!)

Here are some other random thoughts, in no particular order.

For all the joy and feelings of good will that was bouncing around last night, there are still some very unhappy people in this country. The person I rode into work with this morning is one of them. He was saying how upset he was and how stupid the people of this country are. He predicted “dire things” will happen, but never really specified what these might be. My only response was something along the lines of, “Hey, given how strong your feelings are about this, I am not about to change your mind in 30 seconds. But given what George Bush and the Republicans have done to this country in the last eight years, I would have thought that you might be happy with a change.” But some people are so set in their ways, all they can see is “socialist” or “tax and spend liberal”, or even “terrorist sympathizer.” I am very discouraged that there are so many people like that in this country. I feel sorry for them, really, which would no doubt really piss them off further. But really, how closed minded do you have to be to still think those things of the President Elect if you have ever watched a single speech or debate? Where are these outlandish opinions coming from? Well, I know where they come from, but why do people still feel that way after almost two years of campaigning?

Television coverage… Well, like I said, I really would have rather watched MSNBC. PBS was O.K. It certainly was more low key and less high tech than CNN. CNN, just like most of our society, seems to be all about splashy, attention demanding high tech glitzy… diversions. CNN is much too enamored of their cute graphics, touch screens, whizzing in-and-out captions (with very loud sound effects). That 3-D “holographic interview room” was just incredibly lame. Jeez. We want to know the details about the election, not how cute your graphics department boys can get. Wolf Blitzer really is a dope sometimes, and he doesn’t ad-lib very well at all. At one point, he got all excited with the next round of states where the polls had just closed, and he said something like “now here are the latest projections of our projections.” Yep, got a little tripped up there, Wolf. I was actually impressed that PBS had David Brooks of the NY Times on as the conservative analyst, opposite the liberal analyst Mark Shields, and “Bobo” Brooks was actually very good. He doesn’t have a very good reputation among the progressive bloggers, as he is known for putting forth some pretty specious arguments and for being, at times, very intellectually dishonest. But last night, he was great. He was very up-front about what a great night it was for Obama and the Democrats and how many problems that the Republican Party faces. I may have to reassess his columns in the NYT. At least, until he turns into a twat again. Then, I reserve the right to, once again, change my mind.

I thought the concession speech by John McCain was very gracious and sincere. Where has this guy been for the last eight months? I don’t believe that a gracious concession speech is enough to clear his name, after all the things he tried to fling at Obama in this campaign. I hope John McCain does some long, deep soul-searching in the next few months. Perhaps he might start asking himself questions like, how he ended up so far astray from the values that he says he cherishes. Even George Bush said some very nice things about the President Elect and his family. Again, that in no way excuses what he has subjected this country to, but it was nice to hear him say something gracious and not say something really stupid like “nook-you-lar” or “the Democrat Party.”

Here’s another off-the-top-of-my-head thought… If the networks are reporting that the wife of one of the two candidates in a presidential election are reporting was seen in tears a few hours before the first polls have closed, then perhaps it probably is going to be a long night for that particular candidate. Wife… tears… not a happy time. They probably weren’t arguing about whether John keeps forgetting to put the toilet seat down.

Here’s another one for you. I really, really, REALLY hope that Sarah Palin becomes the most visible face of the Republican Party. If she does, I think the party will fracture into two pieces. I don’t think the big business, small government types in the party are going to let the lunatics run the asylum. Oh, they’re fine to rile up when they need the “value voters” to come out in force on Election Day. But they really don’t want them to actually set the agenda for the party. If that happens, I think the Republican Party is doomed, as it currently exists. Now, I am of the opinion that this country needs two strong political parties, if for no other reason than to keep each other in check. A country with only a single strong party is just asking to become the next Soviet Union. But this concept really only works well if both parties really sort of play by some sort of established rules and don’t really try, like the Karl Rove-led Bushies did, to smash the Democrats and cast them into the political backwaters of this country for years to come. That ain’t kosher. But, it won’t bother me in the least if the current brand of Republicanism is totally discredited. Let them spend a generation in the hinterlands, a regional party made up of the old Confederacy and a few other sparsely populated Rocky Mountain states. They can be the Party That Says Not Only No, But Hell No!! Let’s see how that suits them for a while. Maybe they will eventgually get their act together and start acting in the best interests of this country, rather than to enrich themselves and to gain total political domination in perpetuity. Go, Sarah, go! See how much of an embarrassment you can actually be at the TOP of the ticket, instead of as number two!

Lastly, I am sooooo glad this election is finally over. I was so burned out, and yet, so scared at the same time. I just could not imagine what this country would be if McCain and Palin were in charge for four years. I am so relieved that it is over and the outcome has been all that I could have wished. Oh, there were several races that I sure wish had turned out differently (e.g., Michelle Bachman and James Inhofe), but for the most part, this was pretty good.

I am just wondering how Medgar Evers and Dr. King would have felt today. Pretty damn good, I would think.

I am very proud of this country today. I can actually believe that maybe, just maybe, brighter days really are ahead of us.