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July 30, 2013

NY Times coverage of the Farm Bill

On the New York Times's National News page today, these two headlines appear right next to each other:

NY Times on the Farm Bill

That's 5 million people that would lose food stamp benefits if the House version of the Farm Bill passed. (The food stamps budget is still part of the Farm Bill.)

Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture sent out over $10 million in subsidies to 1,000 farmers that had been dead for over a year, and $22 million in crop insurance payments to 3,400 people who had been dead for over two years. In order to deal with this, the Government Accountability Office suggests the USDA runs its list of farmers through the wonderfully diabolical-sounding "Death Master File" before it gives more public money to dead people.

Help poor people get enough food, or subsidize dead farmers to grow commodity corn that gets turned into high fructose corn syrup. Gee, Congress, quite the political conundrum you've got there.

July 15, 2013

Spitzer changes his mind

Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, unlikely political candidates

Many thoughts spring to mind about Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer entering this year's NYC elections. Can a politician come back after resigning in shame? And do voters even care about embarrassing sex scandals? (In the case of Mark Sanford, I guess not.)

What's also springing to mind are the icky details and images we all have of these guys' gross, inappropriate, and/or illegal sex lives, unavoidably returning to our consciousness. I never wanted to think about, for example, black socks in relation to Eliot Spitzer again, for example, but there they are, rising from the dark corner where I had mostly repressed it. (Even if that detail turned out not to be true.)

I've also been thinking about a really good interview from Spitzer in Vanity Fair from 2009, just over a year after the scandal and resignation. In conversation with John Heilpern, he reveals a surprising level of sincerity and regret about his actions and how he betrayed his family and the public. When I first read it, I actually felt a little sorry for the guy:

"I make no excuses," he emphasized, staring at me earnestly. His contrition was palpable. He explained that he tried to do good as governor and before that as attorney general. "Then I sinned and created trauma."

"You knew the risks. Either you felt you were above the law or you had some kind of death wish."

His response was that neither was the case. "It's a story that has been repeated since our earliest days as a species. It's both obvious and not susceptible to an answer," he insisted. "Nonetheless, we are led down a certain path. It wasn't hubris or a death wish--but frailty, temptation, and common miscalculation."

...

"Do you think the scandal will ever go away?," I asked.

"No. My obituary's written," he replied with shocking finality. "And that is a very hard thing to live with." When he turned away, I could see he was in tears.

When asked if he'd ever return to politics, he said, "I've a hard time seeing politics as a career. I wouldn’t want to put my family through the agony." Well, his family's agony must be less of a concern these days, because I'm sure they've had a horrible week since he announced he was running for office again.

Spitzer's name recognition alone is probably what landed him at the top of a recent poll, though he does have certain qualities that would make him a perfect candidate for the job. He's not afraid to stand up to powerful corporate interests in protection of the public good, which these days is so unusual that it's automatically appealing. But he went about his vigilance against wrongdoing in a hyper-aggressive, asshole-ish kind of way, making the entire financial sector hate his guts. I half love this about him and half think it shows a stunning lack of judgment. When it turned out he was hiring hookers while fighting publicly against sex trafficking, the "asshole with bad judgment" characterization got a lot of extra points.

Given the uninspiring list of candidates we're looking at for major offices, Spitzer's immoral/criminal past alone might not be enough for him to lose the primary, but the entire financial sector gleefully mobilizing their resources to bring him down probably is. A Crain's article about corporate bigwigs responding to the Spitzer (and Weiner) candidacy shows a fascinating combination of nervousness and salivation. "This is very serious business," one business leader said last week. "The mayor is a very serious thing. Comptroller is very serious. And they have a big impact on the economy and quality of life. So the question is, do either of these guys deserve to do that, or would they be good at it?" "Neither one of these guys has any friends in the business they were in," said one business leader. "That's part of the reason they fell so hard," he happily recalled.

I doubt these guys could care less about the prostitution scandal, but they'll use it however they can to remind voters about those black socks.

April 4, 2013

Catholic Church shifts gay

Cardinal Dolan loves gay people

(I've fallen behind lately, so now I'm catching up on stuff from the past few weeks.)

We've all been hearing how our nation's recent pro-gay shift is one of the fastest cultural swings anyone can remember. Just a few years ago, most Americans were against same-sex marriage and most of the red states were busily amending their constitutions to ban it forever. Now the majority is pro-marriage equality, it's legal in more states, the Supreme Court is hearing important cases, Bill Clinton apologized for DOMA, and a few Republicans might even be starting a cute but probably doomed flirtation with equal rights (when it benefits them and their immediate families, of course.)

But the biggest surprise for me has been seeing some evidence that the Catholic Church might be reconsidering. This is an institution was still doing Mass in Latin in the mid-60's. But did you see the Times' article from a few weeks ago about Pope Francis and his behind-the-scenes attempt to get the church to support same-sex civil unions in 2010? Apparently while debates were going on in Argentina, where he was Cardinal, most bishops were flat-out against gay marriage. The Cardinal was publicly against it, too. But in private, the future Pope was trying to change the church's opinion--if the church still wouldn't perform same-sex marriages, what's the harm in supporting the government doing civil unions?

Anyway, he was voted down, gay marriage went through, and now it's legal. The Catholic Church lost, but Francis showed that he considers human rights and political realities in his doctrinal thinking. It will be interesting to see what he says now that he's Pope.

A few days ago, New York's Cardinal Dolan also spoke about marriage equality on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. It sounds like he was going for an approachable, humanist tone, but he came off with a standard "hate the sin, love the sinner" message that's more about being nice to gay people than making sure everyone has equal rights.

"We've got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people," he said. "And I admit, we haven't been too good at that. We try our darnedest to make sure we're not an anti-anybody."

[That "try our darnedest" stuff is exactly what he really sounds like--I happened to hear him speak at a marriage prep class, and he's full-on small town Midwest gee whiz. I can't tell how much of an affectation it is.]

He went on to say that gay people are entitled to happiness and "friendship", but they're disobeying God if they want to get married.

These aren't radical shifts, but with Cardinal Dolan happily proclaiming on national TV that he loves gay people and joyfully hoisting his disco stick (above) the new Pope's history of advocating for equal rights, it's going to be interesting time ahead.

March 13, 2013

Soda: sugar, water, and a ton of money

Beyonce's Pepsi campaign

There's a great article in the Times today, one of many they've done about the failed soda size limit law in NYC, about the relationship between the soda industry and civil rights groups that spoke out against the policy. It isn't exactly news that companies like Coke and Pepsi are big supporters of the NAACP, the Hispanic Federation, National Council of La Raza, and the US Hispanic Leadership Institute, and in some cases have been for decades.

What's so great about today's article are the quotes from leaders at these organizations, and spokespeople from soda companies, expressing their shock and outrage that anyone could think that there's any connection between a company giving money to an organization, and that organization's public support of the company's political agenda.

Check this out:

  • "We never ask our foundation or community relations partners to engage in public policy issues on our behalf," said Jeff Dahncke, a spokesman for PepsiCo. "The nature of these relationships is focused on diversity and inclusion."
  • Katelyn Jackson, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said in an e-mail, "The suggestion that our community philanthropic efforts are motivated by something other than good will is grossly inaccurate and ignores our history of true partnership for well over a century."
  • "We don't support soda taxes and things like that, any kind of grocery taxes, because we think they hurt our community more than helping," said Christina M. Martinez, spokeswoman for the US Hispanic Leadership Institute. "We have a great partnership with PepsiCo."
  • Coke and Pepsi have given over $10 million to La Raza, and executives from each company serve on La Raza's board. And guess who La Raza's anti-obesity program's sponsor is? Pepsi! "They are a company that produces some very healthy products," says their Senior VP for Programs.

I don't blame these organizations for taking corporate money--they have programs to run and are doing important work. But to suggest that there's no connection between the source of an organization's revenue and the policies they support or oppose is incredibly naive and delusional. My point is that soda companies have essentially bought themselves credibility by funding civil rights organizations that represent diverse communities, who then speak publicly in support of soda companies's political goals. These companies have been doing this forever, starting when Coke wanted to shed its image as a racist company back in the mid-20th century.

Of course, soda companies also spend a fortune on marketing, a financial bludgeon that overwhelms relatively tiny investments in research on the effects of soda on public health, and the budgets of nonprofits trying to educate people in their communities about what happens to you if you drink loads of soda.

Then there's Beyoncé. She's gotten a lot of flak for her $50 million deal with Pepsi, especially since she also served as a spokesperson/danceperson for Michelle Obama's Let's Move anti-obesity campaign. But let's be honest: Beyoncé has endorsed Pepsi for many years. And McDonald's. She obviously has no problem shilling for unhealthy crap. Maybe she wasn't a very wise choice for a White House campaign promoting healthy food.

But the point is, soda companies don't do this stuff by accident. Their product is basically sugar, water, and food coloring, so they have extensive profits to spend on making people want to drink their stuff, and co-opting the respectability of popular celebrities and admired civil rights groups.

I pretty much agree with Justice Tingling who ruled against the soda size limit. And I love his wonderful name. Bloomberg's proposal was capricious, legally nonsensical, and doomed to fail--there's no legal category of "sugary drinks" that includes things like soda, but not things like chocolate milk. Our government doesn't regulate sugar like it regulates tobacco and alcohol, and until it does, it's going to be hard for cities or states to make laws limiting public consumption of sugar. Until the ATF becomes the ATFS (maybe change it to FATS?) they might not get anywhere. It also might help if organizations that speak for disenfranchised people stopped pretending that money doesn't affect what they say and do.

December 19, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty: this is America

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

It already feels like the debate over Kathryn Bigelow's new movie Zero Dark Thirty has been going on forever, and it just opened in theaters today. I watched it last night and was totally knocked out. It's one of the best of the year: powerful, tense, complicated, heart-breaking--everything you want in a great movie. Plus, it shows how freaky Mark Strong looks with hair.

But the debate hasn't been about the movie itself; it seems to be about the access to classified information the filmmakers may or may not have had, and most of all, the morality and tactical utility of torture. Is the torture of our enemies ever OK? What constitutes torture? And does it work?

These are all the wrong questions, in my opinion, at least when talking about Zero Dark Thirty. The movie isn't asking any of these questions. Torture happened in our name, whether we like it or not. So did a lot of other things in our country's effort to avenge 9/11, kill bin Laden, and thwart terrorism: bribes, bombings, occupation of sovereign nations, many thousands of military and civilian deaths, and lots and lots and lots of public money spent on wars. These are all things our country did, and does.

The real question here, from the movie's perspective, is: was it worth it? After all that, did we get what we wanted? There isn't a clear answer in the movie, but those questions are a lot more interesting, and maybe scarier, than a rehashed debate over the effectiveness of torture. And for the record, no useful information is extracted during a torture scene in this movie. It's Jessica Chastain and her brain that find bin Laden, not waterboarding.

As technically amazing as it is, I found it hard to get inside the movie at first, because I wasn't feeling emotionally involved in the characters or the story. That all changed by the end, but the chilly, detached style of the movie and the characters is one of the filmmakers' strengths. Just like in The Hurt Locker, we see war and intelligence through the eyes of people who aren't ideologues or deciders. They're hunting terrorists or defusing bombs because it's their job, and they're good at it. It's a procedural about our national desire for revenge, as performed by the people who fight our wars and avenge our deaths for us. It's a view of who we are as a country that we don't often get to see, and it's not comforting. The Hurt Locker is about a guy happily doing the incredibly dangerous job he was born to do, but Zero Dark Thirty barely has any of that triumphant spirit. It all ends in tears.

This movie is going to win Best Picture, isn't it? That's gonna be one bleak clip montage.

Also, it generated my favorite movie poster of the year. The redacted one. So great.

November 6, 2012

Working Families Party, moving up in the world

Working Families Party NY State ballot

It's Election Day! And in New York State, that means millions of people are mourning the loss of the old draw-the-curtain, flip-the-thingies, pull-the-lever system that was so mechanically gratifying for all those years. Now we've got illegibly tiny fonts on a piece of paper and broken down scanners. We're bravely entering the world of mid-1990's office technology over here (assuming your polling place is lucky enough to have power.)

But one new development looks promising: the Working Families Party line has moved up, from the last column (E) to the next-to-last column (D)! Every year, more people have voted on the Working Families Party line, and all this voter action propelled the WFP to pole vault over the freaky old Independence Party and wedge itself in next to the creepy old Conservative Party. It's not the greatest neighborhood, but it's a nice progressive spot on an otherwise grim stretch of right-wingness.

Voting for Obama on the Working Families line counts just the same as a vote on the Democratic line, but it speaks more forcefully about wanting a president who sticks up for the interests of regular people.

Google has a helpful map service that finds your polling place, which is nice, but because of storm fallout, this year New York residents can vote ANYWHERE.

Cool! Could this vastly improved change of protocol convince the Board of Elections that we should all be able to go to a website, plug in our address, generate a ballot, and vote for our respective local candidates without having to go to a designated school cafeteria, wait in various lines for an hour while people flip through giant notebooks and figure out which other line we should be standing in, then enter your votes using a freaking scanner? Yeah, probably not.

August 21, 2012

GOP quietly thanks Todd Akin, gets back to business

Men and Women in Congress

While the world gets enraged about insufficiently horrific characterizations of rape and made-up biological claims, do you see what the GOP is doing over there? Party leaders get to join the firestorm and sternly condemn Todd "legitimate rape" Akin, even though he's just repeating the same argument against access to abortion for rape victims that other members of his party have been using for decades. And then they go right ahead and add a plank to the party platform which exactly represents what Akin was talking about all along: a call for a constitutional ban on abortion that makes no allowance for rape.

That's what this is about: making abortion illegal in all circumstances. Something that no one with a credible understanding of our legislative process actually thinks will ever happen -- but it sure is effective at getting the base fired up! God help the Republican party if abortion ever really does become illegal in this country and they lose one of their most sure-fire hot buttons to push every four years.

Here's an interesting theory about how voters might respond to the Republican shift to the right on this issue, which was written even before Akin articulated the GOP platform on abortion and the GOP pretended to reject it. Democrats will likely attract a lot more moderate voters, who are learning with surprise how non-moderate the GOP's attitude toward women has gotten.

April 18, 2012

Why we love eating crap

Junk food in grocery stores

It's become very fashionable to talk about the concept of "food deserts" as an explanation for why so many Americans, especially poor Americans, don't eat healthy food and are overweight. The thinking goes, if poor people had access to fresh produce and other healthy food, they would eat better, and be less fat. But they don't have access, so they eat Ding Dongs and pork rinds and whatever you can get at a liquor store snack rack.

Personally, I think this line of thinking is garbage, which is why I'm so psyched about an article in today's Times about the myth of the food desert and access/inaccess to healthy food as a predictor of weight problems. Two new studies basically debunk two big ideas that went into the "food desert" myth: that poor urban neighborhoods don't have grocery stores, and that living close to a grocery store makes it less likely that you'll be overweight.

Turns out there are just as many grocery stores in poor neighborhoods as in rich ones, and proximity to a grocery store has no bearing on thinness or fatness. The scientists involved didn't propose an explanation for this, but I have a few of my own. First, EVERYBODY LOVES TO EAT CRAP. Also, JUNK FOOD COMPANIES SPEND BILLIONS ON ADVERTISING.

It really bugs me when people in positions of power talk about how to change poor people's eating habits, as though poor people are powerless to make good decisions about what they want, and if a kind benefactor just paid for a bunch of green carts selling fruits and vegetables (like we have all over NYC now) poor people will gratefully enrich their diets with wholesome produce and stop having diabetes and heart disease.

Look at rich people, who supposedly have ample access to fruits and vegetables and pretty much anything else they want! Have you seen a menu at a fancy restaurant lately? With all the expensive and totally unhealthy pork belly hash and the duck fat tater tots and dates wrapped in bacon and peanut butter and, God help us, fried pizza?

The fact is, whether we have nice produce at our grocery stores or not, and whether we shop at Whole Foods or at a corner store, we as humans still love to eat greasy, fatty, sugary garbage. We can't help it. As Cintra Wilson once wrote, left to our own devices, people would consume nothing but bacon, cans of whipped cream, and Starburst.

The other problem is grocery stores themselves--even in rich neighborhoods in New York, I see anemic looking pink tomatoes and gnarly wilted lettuce and shriveled green beans all the time. Gristede's sucks whether it's in Washington Heights or the West Village. It's not like "nice neighborhood" or "grocery store" means "decent produce" in this city. And you can bet every store's shelves are well stocked with an impressive selection of Pringles™.

But changing people's behavior is a whole lot harder than just installing some green carts, if you're concerned about healthy eating. Plus it might mean looking critically at how rich people behave, which I seriously doubt is any better than poor people in terms of Cheetos™ consumption. Maybe the only thing that unites Americans now is potato chips.

March 5, 2012

The Russian political machine

Putin crying at victory speech

Surprise! Putin won Russia's presidential election over the weekend with 64% of the vote, which would be impressive if you believed those results were credible in any way. As it is, Putin used government funds to pay for his campaign, business managers pressured their employees to vote for Putin and collected their ballots, there was "statistically improbable" high turnout in the North Caucasus area (all for Putin), and the new webcams that were installed to ensure proper voting were turned off when it came time to count the ballots.

My favorite bizarre example of Russian electoral reform is either a punny attempt at political humor, or a smugly literal interpretation of democratic concepts: the election commission installed glass ballot boxes to demonstrate the "transparency" of their process. Hilarious!

Another strange moment was Sunday night when Putin started weeping on stage while Medvedev was introducing him (above). It was an uncharacteristic display of emotion for Putin, who seems to be more comfortable in the "Action Man" role of Judo master, scuba archeologist, biker, or wildman hunter.

The on-stage tears could have been a perfect opportunity for Putin to show his humanity and relate to his supporters and opponents on a more emotional level. But no! He wasn't crying, "it was just the wind," Putin claimed. He continued, "I am totalitarian KGB robot. Robot not crying. Robot crush frying pan. And justice."

Other former KGB officers want nothing to do with Putin and his presumed next six years in office. One voter on Sunday was Sergei Tanikov, a retired lieutenant colonel in the KGB:

"Today nothing will be decided," Mr. Tanikov said outside a polling station in Moscow, where he planned to vote for [Putin opponent] Mr. Zyuganov. "I have never participated in a protest, but tomorrow I will go out because I can no longer tolerate this fascist regime."

The Times is keeping up with today's protest in Moscow, where opposition leader Alexey Navalny was among those arrested. He's been tweeting from police custody--gutsy!

February 17, 2012

More from the Linky

Jeremy Lin Hey Girl

The Robot Linky over there on the right of the screen is still having technical problems (how 'bout supporting an RSS feed for Plus, huh, Google?) so here are a few things from the past few days:

  • Inevitable: Jeremy Lin Hey Girl Tumblr.
  • A good piece about the ongoing battle between Presbyterian minister Jane Spahr (an old family friend of mine) and her church. Spahr was the first out lesbian minister leading a congregation and has been marrying same-sex couples within the church for years. She's an inspiring crusader for gay rights in a religious context, and has always spoken about marrying same-sex couples within the church as her spiritual calling, which pretty much means the Presbyterian church is arguing that God is wrong.
  • Nicolas Cage has been talking for years about his innovative acting technique he calls "nouveau-shamanic" and the rest of us would probably call "mental", but now he's comparing his inexplicable career choices to Led Zeppelin, which I hope means he's going to play a Norse hermit blues guitarist wizard soon.
  • Ken Jennings' response to yesterday's "aspirin between the knees" attempt at folksy contraception humor by Foster Friess that became an instant self-parody:

    I call b.s., BOTH my kids have been conceived with an aspirin between my knees. (Long story, pharmacy-themed roleplay.)

[tx, Cushie!]

February 15, 2012

Britney is indestructible

Britney in Chaotic

The Robot Linky feed isn't working today, so here are a few little things about politics and Factory Records and Britney Spears:

  • Over at the AV Club, Nathan Rabin continues his "My World of Flops" series with a look at the brief, unwatchable reality TV show that Britney Spears created during her ill-fated romance with Kevin Federline, "Chaotic". This "Flops" series is a continuation of Rabin's "My Year of Flops" in which he takes a fresh look at a movie (or TV show, or album) that was a commercial and critical failure, and considers why it flopped. Sometimes he finds heretofore unacknowledged value in the flops, which is not the case with his review of "Chaotic", possibly the worst TV show ever made.

    Rabin comes away hating Kevin Federline with such intensity and venomous rage it's almost worth reading just for that. But his analysis of the disaster that Britney was unwittingly getting herself into, in the form of a marriage and subsequent breakup that was so awful it made her literally insane and probably almost killed her, is the interesting part. If Britney could survive being married to someone as horrible and parasitic as Kevin Federline, he argues, she can survive anything.

    Here's an excerpt:

    [The show] captures the bizarre, counterintuitive power imbalance at the heart of Spears and Federline's relationship. Spears may be the world-famous, multi-millionaire sex symbol ogled and desired by tens of millions, but Federline is the one with all the power in the relationship. In "Chaotic", Spears looks to Federline for the approval, validation, and affection she gets constantly from the entire world, but he's able to control and manipulate her by strategically withholding them. In her mind, she's the lucky one. She's the one dating an older, wiser, more sophisticated man who's kind enough to let her experience the benefit of his wisdom.
  • In excavating the old bank that will be the site of his new restaurant in Manchester, Jamie Oliver stumbled on some Joy Division master tapes in a safety deposit box. [!?!?] Whoa! What's on them? Are there any new songs? Covers of "Louie, Louie"? Was it Factory Records founder Tony Wilson's safety deposit box? I worry we'll never get the follow-up this story deserves.
  • With the camps pretty much over, the Occupy movement is looking at one-day protests and actions, which I think is great--this has to be about something more than camping in public spaces. But a story today reports a planned event for February 29th: "Shut Down the Corporations Day". Um. I want to get behind this movement, but moronic non-strategies like this make it hard.
  • Kraftwerk is coming to MoMA! Ralf is going to do a series of 8 shows, one for each of their albums. Cool.
  • And if you didn't find Romney's insistence that he is "severely conservative" creepy enough, how about this: he mistreats dogs. Dogs Against Romney is doing two protests this week. If it takes stories about dog abuse for people to think twice about voting for Romney instead of his policy ideas, that's fine by me.

January 5, 2012

Myanmar gets its own manufactured girl group

Me N Ma Girls and The Runaways

If one requirement of a country's membership in modern, industrial society is its construction of a pop group whose youthful members were recruited and assembled by a group of producers and financiers, then welcome to the club, Myanmar! Cherie Currie and Baby Spice will show you around.

The Times has a feature on synthetic pop girl-group Me N Ma Girls (get it?), made up of five young women who were identified through a series of ads looking for girls with "energy and magnetic attraction," according to their manager Nicole May, an Australian dancer and graphic designer.

They seem to be the country's very first girl group, and though they haven't had real financial success yet, they have big dreams:

"I want this band to be famous and globally recognized. I want this band to hit Hollywood!" said Su Pyae Mhu Eain, a band member who studied zoology, specifically fish and shrimp, for her bachelor's degree. Her stage name is Cha Cha.

Cha Cha isn't the only member of Me N Ma Girls with an education to fall back on in case Hollywood doesn't work out. All five members have gone to college, with degrees in chemistry, math, Russian, and computer science. They might have easier post-pop careers than The Runaways (above), who were recruited by manager Kim Fowley before they'd had a chance to graduate from high school (and were, incidentally, huge in Asia.)

You can listen to their songs on Soundcloud, which are blandly produced, but offer the chance to hear young women rapping in Burmese, something you don't hear everyday. Like a lot of pop groups from non-Anglophone countries, they also sing in English, including lines from one of their catchiest songs, "Festival": "Hey you! Are you happy? You want some?" Here's the video, featuring the girls ecstatically partying down at an outdoor festival and lounging around a swimming pool while wearing the kind of long, demure sundresses that I think you'd only see in a girl-group video produced within an oppressive military regime.

November 8, 2011

Ai Weiwei and Chinese philanthropy

Ai Weiwei

There's been a great story developing for the past few days about everyone's favorite dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who was detained for three months earlier this year for "tax evasion", and now isn't allowed to leave Beijing.

Now 20,000 of his supporters in China have been sending him money. A lot of money: over $900,000 so far. The cover story is that people want to help Ai pay his $2.4 million tax bill, but since everyone knows the reason the Chinese government is watching him has nothing to do with taxes, and since he claims he has plenty of money and doesn't need the donations, it's really a big spontaneous diss to the government.

The state of philanthropy in China is weird. The country has plenty of rich people, and increasingly a lot of charitable rich people, but there's historically been a lot of suspicion about giving money to nonprofit organizations that are essentially controlled by the government, and could be shut down if they take a critical stance. Or setting up a foundation that might be private in name, but is ultimately controlled by the government. And I'm pretty sure there aren't tax benefits for donating money in China.

Which is why I love that so many people are going straight to Ai Weiwei's house and literally wrapping money around pieces of fruit, or folding it into paper airplanes, and throwing it into his yard. They're also wiring him cash. One donor said he sent money because it's "a rare opportunity to support what I believe. I will keep my receipt of the postal order forever, because it is my first real vote."

Here's a bit about the government response to the public outpouring of support for him:

In a commentary Monday, the state-run Global Times cited unnamed experts as saying Ai could be suspected of "illegal fundraising." It also said the movement did not represent the larger Chinese population. "It is absolutely normal for a certain number of people to show their support for him with donations. But these people are an extremely small number when compared with China's total population."

"Illegal fundraising"?! Regular Chinese people are throwing their money at this man's house. Ai hasn't decided if he'll pay his tax bill or not, because it would imply his arrest was justified.

But regardless of whether he sucks it up and pays the bill or not, people are using their money and philanthropy to make themselves heard. Ai says, "The government hates this the most."

October 10, 2011

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you

Take Shelter

Remember two years ago when Up In the Air came out, and people said it was the perfect movie for our times because it was about layoffs? How simple life was back in 2009. Here in 2011, Take Shelter is the perfect movie for our times, because it takes every paranoid thought you've ever had about our unhealthy, unfair, and dangerous world and how it's going to ruin your life and/or kill you, then shows that those thoughts are 100% correct.

Michael Shannon plays a regular Midwestern family man who slowly becomes consumed by paranoid delusions about violent storms, attack dogs, shadowy evil figures and other nightmarish stuff. His delusions create all kinds of problems for his confused family and co-workers who pretty much think he's nuts. He figures he must be nuts, too: his mother is schizophrenic, and he assumes he must be going down the same path.

Except here's what makes this movie so great, and so important to watch if you've ever felt overwhelmed by the terrifying realities of our world and tried to convince yourself that you're just over-reacting. YOU'RE NOT. Look around! If you watch the news, you know the terror is real. Masses of birds really do fall dead from the sky. Tornadoes destroy towns and kill hundreds of innocent people. Tsunamis and earthquakes level cities. Unethical banks have ruined our economy. It's enough to make a sane person become unglued. If this world doesn't sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy, you're probably not paying attention.

Take Shelter might be the greatest vindication for rational paranoia I've ever seen. It's like if Signs and Don DeLillo's "White Noise" both represented logical responses to everyday life. Michael Shannon has made a career out of playing unhinged people, from a wild-eyed, contamination-obsessed maniac in Bug to the truth-speaking institutionalized neighbor in Revolution Road. No one's better at making insanity look both agonizing and like a perfectly reasonable response to being alive. Ebert describes him as "an actor of uncommon force." This guy's gonna to win himself an Oscar some day soon.

August 31, 2011

Paul Dano as Karl Rove, conniving nerd

Karl Rove in college

Richard Linklater has chosen his star for the upcoming College Republicans, his movie about young Karl Rove when he was campaigning for Nixon and running for chairman of the national College Republicans. Rove's political talent emerged early: he worked on many local and national campaigns, and toured the country training campus conservatives in tactics he'd engaged in, like going through his opponent's garbage to look for dirt. At age 19 while campaigning for the Republican candidate for Treasurer of Illinois, he stole his Democratic opponent's letterhead and made fake rally flyers advertising "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing." A corrupt little strategic genius.

He was also, in his own words, a complete nerd. In an interview with a youthful Dan Rather on CBS News in 1972, he already wore his full head of hair in a comb over [video]. You can see 21 year-old Karl Rove talking to Dan Rather starting at 4:00--it's so freaking creepy to hear that familiar voice coming out of such a skinny little kid.

Anyway, Paul Dano is going to play college-age Rove in the Linklater movie. I'm not the biggest Paul Dano fan, but he was convincingly earnest and self-righteous in There Will Be Blood and believably lily-livered in Meek's Cutoff, so he'll probably do OK. Plus, he often wears his hair in a 70's Rovian sweep. Add the sideburns and those hipster glasses, and he'll either look like young Karl Rove or a member of Animal Collective.

A couple things I just learned about Karl Rove: he was student council president his junior and senior years of high school, he never finished college, his mother committed suicide when he was 31, and his stepfather was gay.

I'm sure Linklater will do a good job with Rove and his Republican activist friends, but I wonder if he'll be able to resist filling up the supporting roles with dozens of bohemian stoner types who dominated campuses in the early 70's. And oh, please God, let Matthew McConaughey play an acidhead adjunct sociology professor and part-time bassist for Iron Butterfly.

June 27, 2011

John Wayne's America

Kicking off a bountiful campaign season of unintentional political comedy, Michele Bachmann announced her presidential candidacy today in Waterloo, Iowa, her hometown, and proudly drew a comparison between herself and another famous Waterlooian, John Wayne:

"John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That's the kind of spirit that I have, too." [video]

Except the John Wayne from Waterloo is John Wayne Gacy, a child molester and murderer who was convicted of killing 33 young men and teenage boys. Gacy lived in Waterloo with his wife in the late 1960's, which was where he was first arrested for abusing boys.

I thought I'd share my favorite photo of the John Wayne that Bachmann meant to reference, in espadrilles, which I remember seeing in Spy Magazine in its mid-90's heyday:

John Wayne in breezy ensemble

I believe the Spy caption read: "John Wayne in a breezy summer ensemble." Nice legs, Duke!

June 15, 2011

Get creative, Democrats

Joe Biden lasciviously eats an ice cream cone

Democratic leaders are getting increasingly impatient with bad boy texter and proud chest-shaver Anthony Weiner and his apparent refusal to resign. It's been over a week since his press conference confessional. He's in some kind of de rigueur rehab right now, but so far, he's not stepping down.

What are the Dems to do? So far, they're just repeating, over and over, that they think he should resign. Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan said, "I think we should send a strong message to him that he should resign, and let's see what happens. The more of us who say it, the more telling it will be."

So far, that message doesn't seem to be strong enough. Personally, I think Weiner's continued service in the House is a matter between him and the people who hired him, the constituents of New York's 9th congressional district. But if Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues really want to get him out (due to sheer political terror, I guess) they need to try a different tactic.

Here's what I can come up with: go for some retributive justice. Let the punishment fit the crime.

He wants to send sexy texts and photos? OK. Congress should start inundating Weiner's phone and Facebook with suggestive text messages and lascivious photos from our playboy partier of a VP, Joe Biden. A few hours of nonstop invitations to an evening of salacious hot tubbing and Jager shots with Joe Biden, combined with crotch bulge photos and a few strategically-angled shots of Biden washing his Trans Am in cutoffs, and Weiner will be a cowering, pleading mess of tears and regret.

It's time to bring out the big guns.

UPDATE (6/16): Looks like Biden got the job done. Weiner will resign later today. He blew it, and his party really threw him under the bus.

June 7, 2011

Should have seen it coming, Weiner

Anthony Weiner comes clean

Today's coverage of Anthony Weiner's confession about his enthusiasm for online dirty chatting has quickly moved from reactions to yesterday's announcement to broader discussions of the issues the matter most to each media outlet. The Post has offered the most consistently explicit use of original source material, while the Times has provided analysis of the political fallout and the weird ongoing involvement of blogger and "perpetually sweating conservative trickster" Andrew Breitbart, who isn't really part of the story anymore.

But the most interesting related story I've seen is an unbelievably prophetic interview that the NY Times conducted with Weiner less than three weeks ago, which specifically addresses his fast and loose approach to Twitter. Even before we knew he was contacting his female followers with jockey bulge photos, he had a reputation for being candid and sometimes flippant in his tweets. So the Times asked him about the risks he was taking.

Here are some actual quotes from Anthony Weiner about his Twitter use:

"I know the risk. I've seen enough stories about the risk, and I've kind of kicked the line of the risk a couple of times."

"There's a certain amount of risk that you take. And I kind of forget them as I write them," meaning the Twitter posts, "but if I saw all of them lined up, I'm sure I could probably point to one or two and say, 'Oh that got a little bit close there.' But they're mostly pretty playful."

The interviewer asked him if he had any safeguards in place, like having a staff member read over his Twitter posts before he sent them out. "The answer is no. Maybe I should." He laughed and then added: "Point taken."

He then made a comment about the waitresses at Coffee Shop, where the interview was conducted, and how attractive they are. Watching one waitress walk by, he turned around "in an exaggerated pantomime" to eye her.

It's almost too on the nose. If the Anthony Weiner scandal was a movie, I'd criticize the interview scene as obvious, clumsy foreshadowing.

The scandal itself doesn't surprise me, I guess, but I am surprised that a politician as openly ambitious as Anthony Weiner would engage in such high-risk behavior that, if he got caught, would ultimately ruin his political aspirations. He did, and it did.

May 18, 2011

Some guys just have the knack

Officer Moreno, charged with rape     Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged with rape

New York has a couple of high-profile alleged rapists in the news: Officer Kenneth Moreno, accused of raping a drunk woman in her apartment, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of attacking and raping a maid in his hotel room.

Let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that Moreno and Strauss-Kahn did in fact rape their respective victims. Both of these guys are opportunist rapists: I don't think either attack was premeditated, but when they realized they'd encountered vulnerable women they thought they could take advantage of, they went for it.

But one of these guys could teach the other a thing or two about how to commit rape if you want to get away with it:

First, pick a woman who is totally wasted. That makes it harder for her to defend herself, and makes it easier to discredit her in court. Officer Moreno is a real pro at this one, with the added bonus of being an alcoholic himself, so he could tell a story to the jury about how he empathized with his victim and spent those four visits to her apartment counseling her through her addiction, spooning in her bed, and singing "Livin' On a Prayer" to her.

Strauss-Kahn, on the other hand, selected a sober, able-bodied woman for his attack, and while he apparently was able to ejaculate somewhere during the assault (EWW EWW EWW), she eventually fought him off and got away.

Second, wear a condom. That way, there's less chance of physical evidence. Officer Moreno confessed to his victim, who was wearing a wire, that he used a condom when he raped her (and has subsequently gone through all kinds of bizarre logistical contortions to explain that one.) But he successfully avoided leaving any trace of his bodily fluids in the apartment or on his victim, while Strauss-Kahn's genetic material is being extracted from the Sofitel carpet and analyzed as we speak.

And we have the NY Post to thank for this additional piece of advice: you should wear a condom in case the woman you rape is HIV+.

We'll know in the next day or two if Officer Moreno gets away with it or not. I think it's going to be a lot harder to get to a guilty verdict for him than it will be for Strauss-Kahn, if he ever goes to trial. He may be a brilliant economist, but he's one sloppy rapist.

I hope they both get locked up forever.

April 19, 2011

Oil spill victims

Victims of the BP oil spill in Mathews, LA

This is my favorite photo related to the BP oil spill. It was taken at a meeting about compensation claims. I love these guys. All the anger, desperation, and weary determination that people in the Gulf Coast have been experiencing for the last year is all over their faces.

The photo is part of an article about the anger people in the region have for Ken Feinberg and the shoddy treatment they're getting in the compensation claims process. By many accounts, the process has been inconsistent, opaque, slow, and generally ineffective in helping people affected by the spill. Feinberg's law firm has been running the victims' fund since July, and in that time have given out less than 20% of the total fund. And they recently got a raise from BP. It seems like whatever hatred people had for BP when it all started a year ago has now been transferred to Feinberg.

In response to complaints that the claims system doesn't work, the article says that Feinberg admitted "there may be inconsistencies. But I think those inconsistencies are relatively rare."

I'd like to see him stand in front of these guys from Mathews, Louisiana and say that to their faces.

There's a really good series of short articles about different people affected by the oil spill in the Times, including a restaurant owner, a shrimper, and a Vietnamese shipyard worker.

April 18, 2011

Hey everybody, it's TAX DAY!

Tax forms

There are a few different approaches you can take to paying your taxes:

  • Protest large corporations that rake in billions in profits yet somehow don't pay any taxes at all (e.g. MoveOn.org's protests at Bank of America and Boeing.)
  • Protest the very existence of a federal government and its tendency to spend money on things (e.g. the Tea Party's "out of control spending" rallies.)
  • Feel mild resentment about the things you don't support that you know your taxes are helping to pay for (wars, high fructose corn syrup) but pay anyway because it's the right thing to do, plus you have to.
  • Refuse to pay your taxes for 10 years due to a belief that law enforcement and the IRS are part of the "Zionist Illuminati", stockpile weapons, and end in an 8-month standoff with US marshals, like Ed and Elaine Brown of Plainfield, NH.
  • Derive a certain dorky satisfaction from doing your civic duty and making sure that you and the government and your fellow citizens are square. In more ways than one.

Related to that last approach (where I ended up this year) I really like what David Foster Wallace has said about taxes. In 2005, he wrote a letter while researching The Pale King, saying, "I have a vague, hard-to-explain interest in accounting and tax policy (utterly divorced from my own taxes, which I pay promptly and fully like an Eagle Scout)."

He's a little self-deprecating about his dutiful approach to taxes, but he's more profound in his essay about grammar, "Authority and American Usage", which appears in Consider the Lobster. In a discussion of politically correct language, he ends up comparing right and left ideological arguments about redistributing wealth through taxes, pointing out a huge mistake by the left in framing taxes as some sort of charity:

Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people's sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people.

Along the same lines of paying taxes as a form of self-improvement, there's a great short essay on leftist fiscal policy website Our Fiscal Security called "Giving Meaning to Taxes". Here's an excerpt:

Most other things that require effort and sacrifice--family, service, charity, and volunteerism--have virtuous, or at least redeeming, meaning associated with them ... The stories we tell about tax day reflect a chronic disconnection from our role as citizens; they are devoid of civic meaning. Taxes pay for the things that underpin our public life and connect us to one another through our communities, our states and our country. When we lose sight of this, taxes are seen as merely depriving us of our individual property. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as stewards of a common good, as citizen managers of public systems and structures that secure the city, state and country we live in, then taxes are our contribution to something important that is bigger than we are.

Let's thank our grandparents and great-grandparents for building the highway system, Social Security, and public universities, and pay our taxes with a cheerful, Eagle Scout smile.

March 29, 2011

John Roberts: women's rights crusader?

John Roberts wearing his NOW pin

The Supreme Court heard arguments today for the Wal-Mart class-action gender discrimination suit. Some of the justices were questioning whether the women in the suit, Wal-Mart employees who say they've been underpaid and passed over for promotions in favor of their male co-workers, have enough in common with each other to all be part of the same suit. It's a reasonable question: there are many thousands of women in the suit, a few hundred of whom are the store managers who would have made the decision to underpay their female employees.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the case shines a light on the recalcitrant issue of equal pay for equal work, a central issue in women's organizations and labor groups for many decades.

But at today's hearing, a surprise supporter of pay equality may have stepped into the spotlight: Chief Justice John Roberts.

In looking at statistics about men's and women's pay at Wal-Mart, and men's and women's pay nationwide, Roberts asked, "Is it true that the Wal-Mart pay disparity across the company is less than in the nation?"

The lawyer for the plaintiffs replied that comparing Wal-Mart pay statistics to national statistics wasn't relevant, which I think is code for "Wal-Mart's pay gap is actually smallerthan the rest of the country's."

But did you see what Justice Roberts did there? By asking that question, he might have made the case for the Wal-Mart employees just a little bit harder, but he's really saying this: "Hey, look, people, the real question here isn't why is Wal-Mart, the world's largest employer, underpaying its female workers. It's this: why are women EVERYWHERE making 77 cents on the male dollar? Why do men get paid more than women even within female-dominated occupations? Equality now, my sisters! Bring the justice!"

Senator Hillary Clinton re-introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2007; it's been brought up year after year with no success. Going after Wal-Mart and other discriminatory employers is important, but it's going to be a lot easier to do that when the laws are better.

March 9, 2011

NPR and our screwed up news industry

Vivian Schiller from NPR, on Fox News

If I don't think about it too hard, I can almost understand today's ouster of Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR. Even if she wasn't the one who got suckered by a team of fake donors and made negative comments about the Tea Party, Republicans, and, awkwardly, the Jewish-controlled media, (though there's "not too much Jewish influence at NPR",) and even if the person who did make those comments made it clear that he was voicing his own opinions and not those of NPR, she's still the boss, so she's ultimately responsible for how NPR is perceived.

But at the same time, it makes me want to bang my head against a wall. This is in part because I personally agree with some of what Ron Schiller said while he was secretly recorded by con artists--the Republican party really has been hijacked by some extremists, and a lot of those extremists really do seem to be xenophobic.

It's also because members of the right-wing media loudly announce their irrational negative beliefs about Democrats and the left all the time. Roger Ailes can say that NPR is run by Nazis, and hosts of Fox News programs can call the Wisconsin pro-union demonstrators "union thugs" spewing "vitriol and violent rhetoric".

What makes Vivian Schiller's ouster sort of understandable is that NPR gets public funding, and Fox doesn't. OK. But that funding is only 1% of NPR's budget, and 9% of member stations' budgets. And the guy who made the questionable statements isn't a journalist or involved in news in any way; he's a fundraiser who's on his way out to his next job, and, frankly, he's probably already sort of mentally checked out.

In my opinion, NPR does real, thoughtful, high-quality reporting, without any identifiable political agenda. In my opinion, Fox News often falls far short of that. But Fox also seems to understand that there really isn't any such thing as pure, unbiased reporting. There never has been. The wealthy classes have always controlled major media in this country, and business interests are always central to news agency operations. I sometimes admire that outlets like Fox can so wholeheartedly embrace this, and not even try to pretend they're impartial.

But NPR and other public news services seem to strive for a noble, if ultimately illusory, concept of neutrality in reporting. I guess that's why Schiller had to resign: any evidence of bias in reporting lessens your credibility, if you believe that reporting can ever be free from bias.

What I really wish had happened is this: if all that separates Fox News and NPR and the standards we apply in the personal opinions their staff are allowed to voice is the little bit of public funding that NPR gets, I wish Vivian Schiller had stepped up and said that NPR was returning all the public funding it's received this year, and would no longer accept public funds. Let the public funds go only to local nonprofit stations, not to NPR itself. Yeah, it would be financially difficult, member stations would suffer, and her board would hate it. But if that financial freedom allows NPR to do its good work without getting harassed by a Congress that doesn't see the value of real reporting, it's worth it.

February 1, 2011

Those adorable Egyptians!

Egyptian protester

Now that the military has sided with the protesters and the whole world is watching with excitement as a quarter of a million Egyptians demand the overthrow of their government, it looks like it's all over for Mubarak. He'll be out in the next day or two, don't you think?

In our own country, it seems like we're sharing in the Egyptian enthusiasm. There's a bunch of photos today on the newswires featuring lots of happy, smiling, adorable Egyptian protesters (like my poster girl of the revolution, above) including several small patriotic children fighting for Democracy with their parents, or waving flags atop the tanks.

Egyptian protester kid,

Egyptian girls on a tank

Egyptian protesters, girl and her dad

All this cuteness suggests something I've been thinking about for a few days. Maybe I'm being wildly optimistic, but the recent protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen might help mainstream American sentiments about the Muslim world get a little bit better. In many ways, the protests embody ideals we think of as our own: freedom, democracy, wanting a better life. If Americans look at what's happening in Egypt and see people fighting so passionately for things we believe in, too, maybe we'll stop feeling like Muslims are the enemy.

Well. One can dream.

Of course, if these protests are going to change American minds, we might not want to look too closely at some of their more unsavory aspects. Like this:

Two dummies representing Mubarak dangled from traffic lights. On their chests was written: 'We want to put the murderous president on trial.' Their faces were scrawled with the Star of David, an allusion to many protesters' feeling that Mubarak is a friend of Israel, still seen by most Egyptians as their country's archenemy more than 30 years after the two nations signed a peace treaty.

The other problem: though all kinds of Egyptians agree that Mubarak has got to go, there's zero agreement on what should happen next. The US government just signaled we want Mubarak out, too, so pretty soon we're going to have to figure out who to throw our support behind, i.e. send billions of dollars to.

January 31, 2011

Women and Wikipedia

Women pay gap

Wikipedia has determined that only 13% of its contributors are women. The site's usefulness depends on all kinds of people sharing knowledge about subjects they're interested in. Everybody benefits when the knowledge of a vast number of individual people is centralized in one place, and Wikipedia has done a fantastic job at collecting individual knowledge -- of guys in their mid-20's.

The Times article about the low contribution rates of women includes surprised speculation from people in media and computer studies about why this might be. I don't want to be cynical, but do these people live in the same world I live in?

Let's look at some major areas of public life:

Sensing a trend?

Of course there's a big difference between becoming a Senator or a CEO of a big company and contributing to a Wikipedia article. ANYONE can write something on Wikipedia. You still don't have to register with the site to add some verifiable facts to an existing article, and there's a help page for new contributors.

Since women's knowledge is so radically underrepresented in Wikipedia, we're all losing out. I don't know about you, but I probably look something up on Wikipedia every day. I don't want to only find what dudes are interested in up there.

Two examples in the Times article: "Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in The Simpsons?" "The entry on Sex and the City includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on The Sopranos includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode."

Sure, it's just pop culture, but this is part of what happens when women are in so few visible leadership positions. As Catherine Orenstein, founder of The OpEd Project says in the Times piece, "When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies." Fewer women in media, business, and government seems to also mean fewer women and girls sharing a bit of knowledge in an online article about TV shows, authors, historical figures, cities, bands, or artists they like and know something about.

Contributing to Wikipedia doesn't require leadership or ambition, but it does require women and girls to think, "I have something to say", and with few exceptions, that's not happening. Boys and men obviously think they have plenty to say, and they're already saying it awfully loudly and in painstaking detail. Ladies: please speak up, I can't hear you.

In thinking about the small numbers of women in leadership positions in business, I realized that at every single job I've had since college, the person at the top has been a woman. This now seems incredibly statistically improbable, and I feel really lucky.

[Note: a reader points out that Wikipedia is intended to be a repository of known facts, not personal analysis or research, as described in the No Original Research entry. My point remains that contributors reflect their own personal interests by adding facts to an entry, making the whole of Wikipedia a sum total of the interests of its contributors, so if those contributors are 87% dudes, well, you get a lot of stuff about Matchbox cars and Civil War Reenactments.]

January 26, 2011

Mark Bittman gets political

Mark Bittman, The Minimalist

Today Mark Bittman announced that he's ending The Minimalist cooking column in the NY Times after 13 years. He's had a great run of making cooking at home feel accessible, smart, and fun.

I don't know if Mark Bittman and I just naturally have similar approaches to cooking and food, but after reading his columns and cookbooks (How To Cook Everything, regular and vegetarian editions) over the years, I often find myself thinking "What Would Mark Bittman Do?" when faced with an unexpected shortage of a key ingredient or a dish that isn't coming together quite as I'd hoped.

Bittman makes me feel like I can cook anything I want to, and that once I've messed around with a type of dish or ingredient, I can and should improvise and trust my instincts. Plus, he's really funny. I flip through sections of his cookbook that I'll probably never use (e.g. meat, sauces, cauliflower) just because he's such a hilarious guy who clearly has fun in the kitchen. As he says in his departing column, "I never maintained that my way of cooking was the 'best' way to cook, only that it's a practical way to cook. (I'm lazy, I'm rushed, and I'm not all that skillful, and many people share those qualities.)"

He's a guy who has no problem with shortcuts that makes sense, like sauce in a jar or the most versatile and delicious of all condiments, ketchup ("I mean, why not?"). But he's driven up the wall by how expensive and cruddy packaged salad dressing is when it's ridiculously easy and cheap to make fresh yourself.

So now that he's not The Minimalist anymore, he's going to start another Times blog about food and politics, which is a direction he's been moving toward for a while now. He did a fantastic talk at TED in 2008 about food and what's wrong with what we eat. This talk, in conjunction with Food, Inc., changed the way I think about the food industry forever. I especially like the kind but blunt way he talks about the food his own mother served at a time when eating in America was mostly about meat, thrift, and convenience, and seemed to involve a lot of canned pineapple.

"What I see as the continuing attack on good, sound eating and traditional farming in the United States is a political issue," he writes, introducing the new blog that will launch next week. Over the years, he's turned into an eloquent food crusader speaking out against meat-heavy diets and processed crap, and now he'll get a dedicated space to rail against Big Food. I'm psyched.

Here's a collection of his best cooking videos, including the outstanding Kitchen Starter Kit one, and here's a collection of all his columns, dating back to 1997.

January 20, 2011

Why Vanity Fair is the best magazine, even with covers like this

Justin Bieber cover of Vanity Fair, Feb 2011

Of all the magazines I subscribe to, Vanity Fair is consistently the best, the one I'm most likely to read cover to cover. Sometimes carrying my copy around with me and reading it in public or on the subway can be a little embarrassing, due to covers like the one on the current issue (February).

I don't know if the general public understands that, yes, I'm reading a magazine with Justin Bieber on the cover, but the article that I'm reading at this moment is about how J.D. Salinger's experiences on the beaches of Normandy influenced the development of the Holden Caulfield character, or about the history and culture of The Guardian newspaper and how that determined its rocky partnership with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Or maybe I am, at this moment, reading the Justin Bieber article. But this is what really makes Vanity Fair great: I would guess that it's the best Justin Bieber article yet written, anywhere. I'm not completely kidding, here. In this article, we learn that Justin understands that more guys might start coming to his concerts after he turns 18; that he can solve a Rubik's Cube in 2 minutes; that Kanye's remix of one of his songs features Raekwon; and that his mom is younger than I am. (I know!)

Most of the reason this Justin Bieber article is so good and relevant to a non-tween audience is the author, Lisa Robinson. She's interviewed Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson (many times) and Kanye, and written articles about pop stars that reach beyond the existing fans. Which brings us to her Justin Bieber article, which I have to say is a really good read.

Just about all the celebrity stuff in Vanity Fair is good, even after losing the beloved Dominick Dunne (especially the features on dead movie stars and the making of classic movies by Sam Kashner.) The political stuff is good, the analysis of the financial crisis was probably the best anywhere, and the random pieces on the world's greatest surfers or a Florida private investigator that caught a serial killer are unexpected and consistently great.

My only complaints: too much stuff about the Kennedys, and the occasional piece that is so exclusively targeted to the extremely rich or people who wish they were extremely rich that I can't get myself to read it. I'll read an article about what kind of psychology/pathology inspires a person to spend $80 million on a yacht, but I don't much care about the yachts themselves.

December 7, 2010

How have the Democrats caved today?

Obama caves on taxes

Today's "deal" between Obama and Republican members of Congress is yet another example of Democratic insecurity and timidity that is starting to border on some kind of pathological political personal disorder. OK, Obama felt like it was more important to get extended unemployment benefits than to go to the mat over the Bush tax cut issue, and everybody seems to like the payroll tax cut (even though it doesn't help poor people in any particular way.)

But also lowering the estate tax for multi-million dollar inheritances?! As the Times wrote in an editorial, "That is not compromise. It is capitulation."

Here's a perfect illustration of how desperate the Democratic self-esteem problem has gotten. On NPR this morning, former Democratic representative and current political commentator Martin Frost said, "The worst thing that can happen for Democrats right now would be to block anyone from getting a tax cut because we're mad about the wealthy getting tax cuts, and then have the economy continue to deteriorate – then we'd be in real trouble."

But, Morning Edition asks, wouldn't the Republicans actually be blamed for refusing to compromise and raising taxes for the middle class?

Martin Frost replied, "You're asking me why the Democratic Party isn't very good at messaging right now? I don't have an answer for that."

That's it right there: even when the Republicans make it glaringly obvious how little they care about anybody but rich people, the Democrats still willingly take the blame for bad policies and a bad economy.

Democrats need to stop being so weak and start feeling strong and powerful. This party needs a hot bath, a cute new outfit, lots of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and some inspirational posters with unicorns on them to hang up around the congressional chambers.

Believe in Yourself poster

December 6, 2010

Four Lions: suicide bomber slapstick

Four Lions

Four Lions

You know this new movie, Four Lions, the terrorism satire? Just by being a terrorism satire, it's shocking. It's always going to be too soon for some people to handle this movie, and there are a couple of moments that made even a hardened cynic like me gasp. It's the blackest movie I've seen in years, but it's also a light and occasionally sweet comedy about some very humanized jihadists in the UK.

Watching this movie in the theater is an especially strange experience because of all the weird times that the audience laughs. Sure, everybody laughed at the funny costumes and the scene of the terrorist rapping on one of his video messages (above) but what about during the suicide bombing sequences, which got more than one weirdly shrill giggle from the audience? Are suicide bombs funny? Not usually, but apparently sometimes, yes, they are.

Let's remember that the UK suffered a more recent lethal terrorist attack than we did, so it's arguably too soon for them to be laughing about this stuff, too. The director, Chris Morris, is probably best known in the US as the guy who plays the over-confident boss man on the show "The IT Crowd", which has been on IFC lately (video). He also anchored an early TV news spoof called "The Day Today", which was on in the UK in 1994 and also featured Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, who went on to do In the Loop.

Four Lions and In the Loop would be good to watch together: they're both about the War on Terror and the useless morons on either side who are fighting it. The same two guys, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell, wrote both movies. In the Loop has a purely cynical view of the incompetent and selfish idiots who started the war in Iraq, but Four Lions is a little more complicated. Its characters are nicer and goofier than the In the Loop guys, so they're less odious on the surface. But their goals are much worse. As lovably inept as they are, they still want to kill people. As Chris Morris says, "Terrorism is about ideology, but it's also about doofuses."

A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert both liked the movie a lot, which isn't surprising, but conservative talk radio star Michael Medved LOVES it. Medved interviewed Morris on his show a few weeks ago. Maybe we'd be better off if we all start thinking of terrorists, in Morris's words, as scary but also ridiculous.

Here's the trailer.

November 30, 2010

Mark Ruffalo, our fracking hero

Mark Ruffalo, anti-fracker

Big thanks to Mark Ruffalo, swarthily irresistible actor and political agitator, for New York State's last-minute decision to ban the gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracture drilling, or fracking. He's a resident of Sullivan County, a rural area in the Catskills, and been fighting loudly against gas companies fracking up our state.

Last night at 1:00 AM, the state Assembly voted to ban fracking at least until May; the law had already passed in the Senate over the summer.

To celebrate our environmental victory and the handsomely rumpled political activism of Mark Ruffalo, let's have a brief, Ruffalicious photo retrospective. He's playing a cop in each of these, which might explain where his sense of justice comes from, or it could just mean that he looks great with guns and facial hair: Shutter Island, Zodiac, and In the Cut.

Mark Ruffalo in Shutter Island

Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac

Mark Ruffalo in In the Cut

Here's a video of Ruffalo with Pete Seeger at a protest in Albany this past summer. Seeger sings a new song about God and fracking.

Also, Ruffalo has been added to Pennsylvania's terror alert watch list for his anti-fracking activities. Probably because he causes a sex riot every time he shows up at rallies.

There's a great HBO documentary about why fracking is bad called "Gasland", and another one about fracking in the Rockies called "Split Estate".

November 17, 2010

Airport scanners and civil rights

Airport Scanner at O'Hare

OK, I understand about the need to uphold civil liberties and the slippery slope that leads to sentencing people to labor camps because of a Twitter post. But can I just say that I am not really all that bothered by the naked full-body x-ray airport scanner. For some people this is a much bigger deal, I get it.

I don't want any NSA ghoul wiretapping my phone or reading my email or financial and medical records, but if someone in a room at an airport sees a hazy outline of my body for 1.5 seconds, big whoop. Much worse things are happening to us all the time, they just don't make us feel as icky and naked. Our government now has the right to invade your space in all kinds of nasty ways, for any reason, in the name of security. That kind of invasiveness just doesn't happen to involve walking through a giant machine and lifting your arms while it radiates you.

As for health concern for frequent flyers, that's another story. Roger Ebert's looking at the important issues on his Twitter page: "Does the government know the long-term effects of full body scans on frequent fliers, like airline crew or George Clooney?"

The TSA says the radiation you're exposed to by going through a full-body scanner is less than you experience by actually being on an airplane, and it's apparently also less than the radiation generated by cellphones, and we walk around all day pressing those against our skulls. But just because the TSA says they're safe doesn't make it so, as an American Airlines pilot said, "All they're telling the public is that it's fine. We're looking for some science."

Now it's going to be National Opt Out Day the day before Thanksgiving, and there will be delays and loud complaints if enough people really do start to push back on this one. While you're at it, opt-outers, could you please organize a national uprising against the Patriot Act?

November 10, 2010

The way NYC does business

Cathie Black, new NYC Chancellor

Yesterday when we heard that Joel Klein was resigning as Chancellor of New York City schools, I thought for one brief moment that maybe he was ousted so that controversial reformer superstar Michelle Rhee, who just resigned from the same job in DC, could come in. Michelle Rhee didn't make a lot of friends during her time in Washington, but she started the ball rolling in fixing one of the most horrifically mismanaged and unsuccessful public school systems in the country.

That didn't happen. Joel Klein is happily returning to the milky teat of corporate America at News Corp, which makes me totally re-evaluate everything I ever thought about that guy. Can I retract all the positive things I've said about him now? And Michelle Rhee is still floating around in the ether, writing about Klein's departure on her blog, and might one day wind up at some prominent rabble-rousing advocacy organization or become a full-time documentary film star.

We also found out about NYC's new Chancellor: Cathie "don't call me Cathy" Black. She just landed one of the hardest government jobs on the planet. Here's what we know about her:

  • She's a media executive who's never worked in education or for any kind of youth or public service organization.
  • She also has never attended a public school.
  • Her children go to private schools in Connecticut.
  • She's married to a major Republican donor.
  • And she gets pissed off when people misspell her name, although she herself changed it so that no one would spell it right.

Great.

But she's one fantastic corporate manager! I guess I should be used to this by now, but it's getting a little tiring seeing people who have been successful in the corporate world believe that they know how to solve the world's problems, and assume that running a company is the same as managing a gigantic public service system. Bloomberg believes that management is management, and has obvious biases favoring corporate experience over nonprofit or public sector experience.

He didn't have any governing experience when he ran for mayor, either, and he's had some pretty successful terms. But this overriding belief that the only people who know how to get things done are corporate executives, and that selling magazines is essentially the same as educating kids, really reeks of hubris.

In an interview in the Daily News about Black's new position, they asked her old boss at USA Today about her qualifications to be Chancellor: "Asked if not having a background in education might hinder her, Nueharth punted. 'I'm not qualified to make that judgment,' he said. 'I really don't know what the chancellor does.' "

I wonder if she does, either.

November 3, 2010

What we can learn from the election

Maybe exit polling and statistical analysis has gotten a lot sharper in the last few years: yesterday's election went pretty much as everyone expected, i.e. Republicans took more House seats from Democrats than ever before, and probably the only reason we didn't lose the Senate as well is that only 1/3 of it was up for vote.

The American political system is designed to be in a constant state of rebalancing, allowing voters to move in one direction, then make incremental corrections to head back in the other direction. But in this graphic in today's Times, it looks like these incremental corrections have turned into an electroencephalogram of insane, reactionary panic:

NY Times graphic of the House majority party

We've gone nuts. Our country has decided that it doesn't trust anybody anymore, so rather than allowing our government to try new policies and create change over time, we're just blindly hurling ourselves to one extreme, freaking out, then hurling ourselves back the other way.

This is not the way to get anything done. Our system of allowing an infinite number of two-year terms for House members only encourages this kind of wild overcompensation that looks like a 16 year-old's car fishtailing out of control down an icy highway. Voters clearly aren't handling it well.

But here's what I've learned: voters are probably going to keep zig-zagging all over the place every two years, so a) nothing is forever, and b) whichever party is in power has to do whatever it takes to push their policies through, because they're going to be kicked out soon.

Here's another thing: The maniacal ad that played in West Virginia featuring a Senate candidate shooting a piece of paper labeled "Cap and Trade Bill" with a rifle was actually by a DEMOCRAT. Joe Manchin. He won. Guess I should have read the press about him more closely. Anyway, ads like this and people like Joe Manchin remind me that party affiliation isn't everything: this guy is a Democrat, and Olympia Snowe is a Republican.

One more thing: While watching the results scrolling along the bottom of the screen last night, I noticed the results of the Idaho governor's race, which was won by a man named Butch Otter. Who has just become my favorite governor in Idaho's history.

November 2, 2010

Vote with Matt Damon

Matt Damon Working Families Party video

You can tell this year's Election Day is going to be weird. Voter enthusiasm is a lot lower than it was two years ago. With the notable exception of old white guys, that is, who could end up dancing in the streets tonight while the rest of us sit there wistfully remembering where we were that magical far-away night in 2008, then suddenly feeling very tired.

But most important: hardly any celebrities have urged me to vote this election. Without Christina Aguilera and Jonah Hill telling me to make my voice heard, why should I give a shit about politics?

At least we've still got good old Matt Damon, who is such a incredibly politically engaged celebrity that not only will he do a Get Out the Vote video in a midterm year, but he made a video on behalf of one of New York State's third parties, the Working Families Party. You could almost forgive him for the turgid-looking Hereafter and his psychic glowing right eye in the trailer.

Actually, he made two videos: one where he explains how voting for candidates on the Working Families line shows that you support the kinds of things that Democrats have historically stood for, like living-wage jobs and education and health care, and not so much the things that a lot of Democrats stand for now, like starting wars and selling out.

And another video about how to actually fill out the paper ballot, telling us to only fill in the dots in Row E, the Working Families party line, and not to fill in both the Democrat dots and the WFP dots. Would someone actually do that? I guess we need to assume that voters are complete morons.

Clearly these videos were produced by a tiny underfunded third-party that only exists in one state, and not Rock the Vote or Funny or Die, because Matt Damon is really poorly lit and looks all puffy-faced and tired and possibly stoned (see above).

Is that a fleece vest he's wearing? Yeah! We're not about slick Washington lobbyists and marketing firms! We're the REAL America!

Keep hope alive, everyone.

September 28, 2010

The non-political implications of guns at UT

Police clear students out of UT after shooting

Today's shooting at University of Texas today might be most distinguished from other campus shootings because the ski mask-wearing gunman didn't actually shoot anyone besides himself. After running down the street carrying an AK-47 and terrifying students and professors, the 19 year-old Colton Tooley went to the 6th floor of the library, opened fire, missed everybody, then shot himself.

Cushie sent me a blog post from the Austin paper the Statesman about a reading that had been scheduled for tonight by John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, a sentiment that after today's events could be viewed as more reasonable than ever or morbidly perverse, depending on what you think about guns.

Anyway, Lott was brought to campus by a student group called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. The best part of the post is a quote from the president of Students for Concealed Carry on the reading's postponement due to an armed student opening fire on campus: "I don’t want to comment on any political aspects of this."

I know I'm a Democrat from the Northeast so am fundamentally unable to understand nuanced concealed-carry arguments, but seriously, more guns?!

Here's a great article from Harper's from a month or two ago, "Happiness in a Worn Gun", in which a liberal pro-gun guy in Colorado tries carrying his gun around for a few weeks to see how it feels. His conclusion: not so great.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on Charles Whitman, who killed his mother and wife, then went on a shooting spree at the University of Texas in 1966.

August 31, 2010

FDA knows all about the cough syrup, kids

cough syrup

The FDA has noticed that kids everywhere are chugging cough syrup because they're making themselves sick: 8,000 kids ended up in the emergency room due to cough syrup abuse in 2008, which is up 70% from 2004. There's some talk of regulating the world's easiest drug for a high school kid to get, though making cough syrup prescription-only would be incredibly irritating during cold season. It might end up behind the counter, which would mean that you'd have to be 18 to buy it and would significantly compromise the offerings at many a drama club cast party.

In reading about kids drinking cough syrup, I found a wonderful Wikipedia entry, "Recreational use of dextromethorphan", the dissociative drug in many cough syrups, which is the last thing you should let any 16 year-old read if you're trying to prevent them from ladling this stuff onto their Cheerios.

A few excerpts from the various stages of intoxication one experiences on too much cough syrup:

* First plateau: effects include a sensation of alertness, stimulant effects such as restlessness, intensification of emotions, general euphoria, and euphoria linked to music.

* Second plateau: effects include entering a dreamlike state of consciousness, a heavier "stoned" feeling than with first plateau, and/or closed-eye hallucinations.

* Third plateau: effects include dreamlike vision, inability to comprehend language, abstract hallucinations, feelings of peace and quiet, and/or feelings of rebirth.

* Fourth plateau: an individual may experience a perceived loss of contact and control with their own body, out-of-body experiences, perceptions of contact with "superior," supernatural, or other archetypal beings (e.g. gods, aliens, vampires, etc.)

* Plateau Sigma: users have reported encounters with aliens and gods.

Maybe those last ones are only when you're on Ayahuasca-flavored Robitussen.

One clarification: the regular robo-tripping cough syrup that the FDA is concerned about is not the same as the stuff that southern rappers drink. That's drank. Sizzurp. Promethazine-codeine. Wikipedia has an extensive entry for that, too, with examples of about 35 different guys (and Nicki Minaj) who have referenced it in their songs. To be honest, prescription cough syrup doesn't sound nearly as crazy as the regular stuff, even if it can kill you: Wikipedia describes the high as "extreme somnolence" rather than vampire hallucinations.

No one seems to write songs about over-the-counter cough syrup, probably because its fans are mostly suburban 9th graders.

August 6, 2010

Who's not supporting Wyclef for President

Wyclef Jean performing at Haiti benefit

Wyclef Jean says he didn't so much decide to run for president of Haiti, but that a groundswell of his fellow Haitians are demanding that he become their new leader. "People say, 'Are you running for president?' I say no, I am naturally being drafted by my country to serve my country," he told the Daily News.

Let's look at the response to his presidential draft:

Pras, ex-Fugee and Wyclef's estranged cousin, says he's supporting Michel Martelly instead of Wyclef because "he is the most competent candidate for the job." Martelly is also a Haitian musician who performs under the name "Sweet Micky". From Sweet Micky's Wikipedia page: "Outlandish and outspoken, Martelly has been known to drink publicly while performing in wigs, costumes, diapers, and Scottish kilts, and occasionally remove his own attire while performing." He's also friends with current president Rene Preval. Here's his MySpace page.

If Sweet Micky is the most competent candidate, it's going to be an entertaining few years for people who don't have to live in Haiti.

Also not a Wyclef supporter: Sean Penn. Last night on CNN he called Wyclef a "non-presence" in Haiti since the earthquake and says that for the next president, "I want to see someone who is really willing to sacrifice for their country and not just someone who I personally saw with a vulgar entourage of vehicles that demonstrated a wealth in Haiti that -- in context, I felt a very obscene demonstration."

Sean Penn's views on Haitian politics are actually more relevant that you might think: he's spent most of his time since the earthquake managing relief services for 50,000 people at a camp he co-founded, the J/P Haitian Relief Organization.

The Daily News interviewed some Haitians living in Brooklyn for their thoughts on Clef. A shipping company manager in Flatbush says, "Wyclef is a musician. He's not fit for the job."

But the Times found at least one Haitian who's enthusiastic about his candidacy:

Sitting on a cracked stoop in a battered neighborhood called Bas Peu des Choses, Linda Joseph, 36, clapped her hands in delight and said she probably would not have bothered to vote if Mr. Jean had not decided to run.

"Other people make promises and don't deliver, but Wyclef has heart," she said. "If he says he'll do something, we'll trust him. And besides, he already has all the money he needs. So he won't steal from us like the others.”

Oh, really, Linda? Clef's financial track record has more in common with other recent Haitian leaders than you might like.

He owes over $2 million to the IRS, which he talks about like it's a good thing: "owing $2.1 million to the IRS shows you how much money Wyclef Jean makes a year," he says, demurely referring to himself in the third person. And as we all heard about in January, he used his foundation, Yele Haiti Foundation, to pay himself and his other businesses, which is illegal. It also turns out that he's 40, not 37 as he used to claim.

At least now that Wyclef's in the race, everyone will pay attention to Haiti again for a few minutes. I hope his debates with Sweet Micky are televised.

June 23, 2010

McChrystal: the Stillwater of the U.S. Military

General McChrystal looking sad

Tough break, General McChrystal. Yammering to Rolling Stone about your ineffectual boss was a terrible idea, but it really seems like he lost sight of how his words would sound outside of the Paris bars where he hung out out with journalist Michael Hastings.

The issue of Rolling Stone won't hit the stands until Friday, and it's already the most significant/disastrous article of the year. It's worth reading. We already know about all the disses on Obama and no-nonsense military tough-talk, but there's some funny and surprising stuff in there, too. McChrystal sounds like a guy who's serious about his job, totally dedicated to his soldiers, misguidedly wedded to his counterinsurgency fantasy, and almost superhumanly disciplined. With the notable exception of his tendency to mouth off to reporters.

A couple of interesting bits:

  • McChrystal allegedly eats only once a day, and in the month (!) that Michael Hastings spent around him, he witnessed him eating exactly one time
  • His staff refers to themselves as "Team America", referencing the movie by the South Park guys in a way that causes me a lot of confusion about their degree of self-awareness
  • He's tighter with Karzai than the US ambassador or any other civilian government reps
  • He was personally involved in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by a fellow soldier in Afghanistan, one of the darker moments of this war
  • He wrote 7 short stories for the West Point literary journal while he was there

Michael Hastings did a short interview with Newsweek (his former employer) over the turmoil his piece has created, and discusses why McChrystal was so open with him. Specifically: he has no idea.

He's still in Afghanistan now, and says that he doesn't know why McChrystal agreed to talk to him in the first place. But it does seem like a lot of the more candid (aka ill-advised) stuff might have come out because a) they were in Paris and Berlin for some of the time, rather than in Afghanistan, and b) what was supposed to be two days of interviews turned into a month because of the the Icelandic ash cloud.

So I guess things got a little looser as time went on, and McChrystal and his staff probably stopped thinking of Hastings as a journalist. It happened in Almost Famous, when Stillwater got a little too cozy with their 15 year-old Rolling Stone reporter, and I guess it happened in real life, too.

One other interesting thing about Michael Hastings: he's also the guy whose girlfriend visited him while he was working for Newsweek in Baghdad as part of her job with a political nonprofit, and while she was there got killed in a Sunni ambush. He wrote a book about it.

June 15, 2010

Shinnecock tribe promises new world of casinos and cheap cigarettes

Smoking at the slot machines

Today the Bureau of Indian Affairs formally created a new tribe: the Shinnecock, who live on the east end of Long Island on a small reservation, but hadn't yet been federally recognized. An exciting day for native people! Tribal trustee Lance Gumbs said in an AP interview, "This is the most historic moment in Shinnecock history. Any discussion of a casino is a secondary thought."

Obviously, the rest of the article, and all the other press I've seen, is about a casino. Look, New York, it's the dawning of a brand new day! With a shiny new casino and as many tax-free cigarettes as you can cram into your car!

The Shinnecock people wanted to build a casino on their reservation right in the middle of the Hamptons in 2003. It was the resulting uproar from local rich people, not keen on the idea of the Hamptons being turned into a giant parking lot for the unwashed gambling addicts of Long Island, that led the tribe to seek federal recognition.

Now that they've got it, it seems that they're authorized to fill up their land with video slots, but they can't open a casino with table games. New York State and the federal government have to agree to the larger kind of casino, but if they do, the tribe could open it on any public trust land, not necessarily on their own reservation. Apparently they're considering Belmont Park, Nassau Coliseum, or maybe if we're extra lucky, somewhere within the 5 boroughs of New York City!

Let's build a casino in the middle of Gramercy Park.

May 18, 2010

Cuddle up a little closer, big oil

Bigs from BP at a Senate hearing

Today's Senate hearings about the BP oil well blowout featured Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who got all kinds of accusations about the "coziness" in the relationship between oil companies and the government regulators that are supposed to keep things like this from happening. Salazar admitted that his department had gotten lax, saying "there's obviously things that are inappropriate" going on at Minerals Management Service, the agency in question, and that we need to "clean up that house."

Let's remember the subtext of what Salazar is talking about here. Aside from MMS not being very good regulators, there have also been all kinds of corrupt shenanigans going on there for years now. A report by the Department of the Interior from a year and a half ago found that government regulators were literally in bed with the oil companies they were supposedly regulating.

Some MMS staffers were having sex with their oil reps, while others were accepting the usual illegal free stuff like ski trips, football games, and Toby Keith concerts, as well as smoking pot and using cocaine at oil industry parties. That's on top of more run-of-the-mill corruption like funneling oil contract money to friends and letting oil companies underpay on their contracts.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said at the hearing, "It is long past time to drain the safety and environmental swamp that is MMS. This agency has been in denial about safety problems for years." The problems probably started during the boozy golf outing days of the Bush administration, when the guy in charge of the MMS royalties program was sleeping with his secretary and buying cocaine from her boyfriend. But the people running the show there now should have gotten their act together.

April 29, 2010

Tanning is a bigger deal than I thought

Kardashian with tanlines

When the healthcare reform bill finally passed, one of the odd things to get thrown in at the last minute was a 10% tax on tanning salon sessions. In an earlier version of the bill, it was only a 5% tax on tanning, with another 5% tax on cosmetic surgery. But in the end, they kept facelifts tax-free and doubled the tanning tax for an estimated 30 million people per year.

This decision made more sense today after I read about a recent, crazy study that Sloan-Kettering did on tanning, which suggests that something like 20% of college students surveyed are actually addicted to tanning. Over half of the kids surveyed have done indoor tanning. Even if you look only at the ones who have tanned, 40% of them are out-of-control tanners.

Somehow I'd never noticed this, but tanning is hugely popular. So clearly, this 10% tax was a wise legislative move. If you tax the hell out of cigarettes and alcohol, and we all keep paying higher and higher prices for them, why not tax something else people are powerless to resist?

Salon owners in the $6 billion industry aren't happy about the tax, of course. Sessions only cost about $7 on average, and I can't see a hardcore tanning addict fussing over 70 cents.

Rick Kueber, founder of Indiana salon Sun Tan City, explains why he thinks the tax is unfair because of its disproportionate effect on one segment of the population: white ladies. "Let's call this what it is. It's a tax on working, white women," he says. He points out that wealthy people enjoy their plastic surgery tax-free, and I think is also strangely implying that those lucky Americans with naturally non-pasty skin are getting a free ride through some sort of melanin tax shelter.

I don't understand tanning at all, but apparently there are other studies out there that suggest the UV rays give tanners an endorphin boost, so maybe the appeal is more psychological than aesthetic. I used to work with a woman who displayed a weird tanning obsession, calling furtively to book sessions whenever she was having a bad day, and she really loved tanning even though her 26 year-old skin had all the suppleness of a Slim Jim.

March 22, 2010

"All this euphoria going on"

Obama and Biden and lots of happy staffers

There are lots of photos out there of various Democrats celebrating last night's passage of the health care reform bill in the House. Everything that could possibly be said about health care in this country has already been said over and over for the past year. (I mean, 90 years.) I'm not wild about this particular bill because I don't think it goes nearly far enough in ensuring that everyone gets the health care they need, but what can you do. It's a start.

But after all the anger and fighting and accusations, these photos of happy Democrats are sort of cute. John McCain went on Good Morning America today to grouse about the positive feeling in Washington as a result of the bill's passage, and harumphed that he was repulsed by "all this euphoria going on."

Yeah, you tell 'em, McCain. Support the American people's hatred of euphoria.

Here's Nancy Pelosi with Reps. Steny Hoyer, George Miller, James Clyburn and John Larson:

Happy Democrat representatives

Happy supporters of the bill outside the Capitol last night:

Happy partying Democrat supporters

And Pelosi and Clyburn with lots of happy staffers who have all been working for about three months straight:

Pelosi, Clyburn, and happy staffers

Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. photographing happy supporters with smiley face balloons:

Jesse Jackson and happy supporters

Do you think Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott were raising their hands in the air and beaming so radiantly when the Iraq War Resolution and Bush's tax cuts were passed?

March 12, 2010

Public money double standard

Boys and Girls Clubs vs. Lockheed Martin

Today we heard that a group of Senators in the Finance Committee (all Republicans, btw) are concerned about the total compensation that the CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs Roxanne Spillett receives, which when you add up her salary, benefits, bonus, and payments into her retirement fund, is almost $1 million. The Senate is considering renewing a grant to Boys & Girls Clubs of $425 million over five years, but until the organization answers questions about the CEO's salary and their high travel budget, these Senators say they're not making any grant.

You probably know that Boys & Girls Clubs of America runs local centers for kids in cities all over the country. They do mentoring and after-school education programs for kids, mostly in poor neighborhoods. Their annual budget is over $100 million, and in 2007 they were the 7th biggest nonprofit organization in the country.

The Senators are concerned that this million dollar compensation for a CEO is too high, because she is the CEO of a charitable organization that receives public funds for about 40% of its budget.

This makes me want to spit. I don't necessarily think the CEO of a nonprofit should make $1 million a year (Roxanne Spillett's actual salary is $360,000) and I bet that the Clubs' staff who work directly with youth probably get unfairly low pay, like almost everyone in the nonprofit sector does. But this congressional scrutiny is based on an unspoken assumption that people who work for nonprofits should not be well compensated for their work. Like the sense of well-being they get from helping people should be adequate justification for a meager salary. Especially when some of that salary is paid for with public funds.

This is crap. Let's look at another big recipient of public support: Lockheed Martin. Lockheed is the world's largest defense contractor, and 85% of its income comes from the US government, i.e. public money.

Last year, Lockheed's CEO Robert Stevens' salary actually fell by 10%, due to government spending cutbacks and everything that was happening with the economy. So that reduced his compensation to $20 million. TWENTY MILLION DOLLARS. 85% of which is paid for by US taxpayers.

Lockheed is a much larger organization than Boys & Girls Clubs; it had $43 billion in revenue last year. The Washington Post said some people saw Lockheed's top salaries as "insensitive" during last year's financial crises.

When our government gets suspicious of generous executive compensation and questions travel budgets and benefits packages, and they go after the $1 million compensation of the head of one of the largest nonprofits in the country that helps 4.8 million kids a year, but don't think twice about the $20 million salary of the head of a weapons manufacturer that US taxpayers are funding, it drives me up the wall.

Another thing: Lockheed Martin is a publicly traded company. That means most of the shareholders' income essentially comes from US taxpayers, too. Apparently our government thinks it's OK for shareholders and executives to get rich using the public's money, but only if those people are making weapons. Not if they're helping kids.

Roxanne Spillett, I bet you earn every penny.

February 9, 2010

Hands off the eggplant!

Bt Brinjal eggplant protesters

In an impressive display of grassroots politics, legions of passionate Indian food activists successfully prevented genetically-modified eggplant from contaminating countless delicious servings of baingan bhartha. I'm a big eggplant fan, too (a friend once observed that if any given menu has a dish that involves an eggplant, that's the one I'll order) so I'm psyched.

An Indian seed company, Mahyco, had developed the world's first pesticide-resistant eggplant seed called Bt Brinjal, though as you might guess, our old plant-patenting ghouls over at Monsanto are also involved--they own 26% of the Indian seed company and the patented Frankeggplant gene came from them. Earlier today, the Indian Environment Minister decided to keep his nation's eggplants engineering-free.

Anyway, the protests involved the usual rallies and street marches, with many opportunities to dress up like giant eggplants.

Bt Brinjal protesters

To remind everyone what they were fighting for, Greenpeace organized a World's Biggest Baingan Bhartha campaign, making the tasty roasted dish with one eggplant for every signature they collected--so far they're at 20,000 eggplants. That's my kind of politics.

January 11, 2010

Farmers use the wrong agricultural metaphor

40 Acres and a Mule t-shirt

Industrial farmers have been getting more scrutiny lately, now that anyone concerned about animal welfare, pollution, climate change, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or their own health has started looking at factory farms as the cause of a lot of big problems. Some states are considering new laws regulating things like the size of cages animals are kept in and other agricultural operations in order to protect animals and the people who eat them.

Which, of course, farmers don't like one bit. At this year's meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the president, Bob Stallman, said in a speech yesterday denouncing their perceived opponents, "A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule."

Um, oops. I think what Bob Stallman was trying to say is that we're no longer living in an age of small farms, and large-scale corporate factories that produce massive volumes of food must resist efforts to treat their industry as if it's made up of independent, pastoral family farmers with their livestock eating clover out in the pasture (even though that's exactly the image food producers use in their marketing.)

But "40 acres and a mule" is a reference with a very specific meaning that isn't really about agriculture. For a brief period after the Civil War, under Special Field Order No. 15 from General Sherman, former slave families were to be given 40 acres and a mule, in order to start their own farms. According to the Wikipedia entry, about 10,000 former slaves were settled on 400,000 acres of land in GA and SC, but after Lincoln's assassination, the policy was revoked, and the land was given back to the former white landowners.

"40 acres and a mule" has become shorthand for the need for reparations for slavery in an effort to reconcile the incalculable advantages that the beneficiaries of a few centuries of slavery had and continue to have. During his anti-agricultural legislation speech, the American Farm Bureau president accidentally (I hope) equated proposed farming regulations with making reparations for slavery, which he later referred to as an "elitist power grab." Need to get your metaphors straight, there. Unless he's trying to make some ill-founded connection between beleaguered factory farmers and slaves, which I really hope is not the case.

Wikipedia has a list of pop culture references to 40 acres and a mule, the best known being Spike Lee's film production company. My favorite on the list is some lines from Nelly's "Nellyville": "40 acres and a mule, fuck that, Nellyville, 40 acres and a pool."

The Yippies' website outlines their own 40 acres and a mule demand as follows: "Since it is illegal to grow pot in the United States the YOUTH INTERNATIONAL PARTY demands 40 acres of prime pot growing land in Northern Mexico for every former Prisoner of Weed (POW) and a mule to bring it back into the States."

I really hope Spike Lee never sees that.

November 30, 2009

Switzerland and its nuanced form of bigotry

Anti-minaret signs in Switzerland

In a spasm of racist panic, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban all new construction of minarets. Muslims make up only 5% of the Swiss population, and there are only four minarets in the entire country, but enough people are scared of Muslims to "want to stop further Islamisation in Switzerland," according to the leading political party that sponsored the referendum, which sounds about as reasonable as hetero Americans being afraid of the approaching takeover of the country by the 5% of the population that's gay. Which, well, right, OK.

Yeah, minarets are just symbols: it's not like Islam itself has been banned. The Swiss just hate hate hate minarets! Muslims will just have to practice their religion more quietly and unobtrusively. Sort of like, say, sitting in the back of the bus.

Despite the fact that it's got a lot of reactionary bigots in it, Switzerland is a little like the New Hampshire of Europe. They're as close to libertarian as Europe probably gets: taxes are relatively low and they seem to want the rest of the world to just leave them alone and let them shelter questionably-gained cash for the world's shady businessmen. The Swiss are not joiners. They're not quite members of the EU, they're into direct democracy, and they still half-pretend to be neutral.

On the positive side, Switzerland offers civil unions for same-sex couples with most of the same rights and benefits as married couples. And true to its libertarian tradition of not messing around in other people's business, New Hampshire legalized gay marriage this year. It's helping to push the US in its jerky, slow-motion lurch toward marriage equality.

But come on. Switzerland just violated international human rights conventions by banning the religious buildings of a small minority. They look like backward morons.

So the real lesson of this story is: New Hampshire beats Switzerland in the battle of libertarian non-conformist weirdo states.

October 23, 2009

Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me! at Carnegie Hall

Wait Wait's Peter Sagal and Carl Kassell

Public radio nerds descended on Carnegie Hall last night for this week's taping of Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me!, the NPR news quiz show. It's one of the most popular shows on NPR, which makes sense: it's weirder than The Daily Show, and sometimes I think it's funnier in a loose, improvy sort of way.

I was lucky enough to go, and thought I'd share a few highlights. The live show ran for two and a half hours, and will get cut down to 45 minutes for Saturday's broadcast, so some of the really funny stuff is going to have to get cut:

  • For those of you wondering what the outgoing message that Carl Kasell records for your voicemail if you win, they played a sample. The winners get to script the message, and this one ended with Carl singing "What's New, Pussycat?" like a sonorous baritone Tom Jones.
  • The special guest for the "Not My Job" segment was Brian Williams, who's been on the show a few times. That guy is a riot. There was some immediate adversarial jabbing between host Peter Sagal and Williams over the mainstream media's Balloon Boy coverage: Williams said he was (conveniently) on vacation for the whole thing, and made some lame excuse for all the media attention like "people were concerned and really cared about that kid in the homemade UFO" or something, but Sagal went for integrity points by ripping TV news outlets. Well, NPR covered it, too, but at least they covered the media reaction, not the actual balloon.
  • Peter Sagal brought up the fight between the Obama administration and Fox News, which Williams thought was a bad fight to pick. Everyone has to work together in politics and news, he said. Making distinctions between network news and cable news is meaningless: he said the evening news is "like The Munsters." Heh. It was the weirdest comment of the night.
  • Then Brian Williams shared an anecdote from the 90's when he was a White House correspondent, about an unflattering piece he did on Bill Clinton. One night while Brian Williams was making dinner at home with his wife, he was in the process of pouring the pasta into the colander when Clinton called him, mad as hell, and started berating him mid-pasta pour. His point was that Presidents have always gone after individual reporters; his pissed-off Clinton impersonation was perfect.
  • Music Brian Williams is into lately: Deer Tick and The Republic Tigers and other stuff listed on his embarrassingly titled BriTunes page on MSNBC.
  • Williams was so funny and quick, I think everyone had to remind themselves that he has a day job as a news anchor. After he left the stage Paula Poundstone said, "What a waste of talent!"
  • Peter Sagal wrote a screenplay that ended up becoming Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights.

    Mind-blowing trivia: both Roger Sterling and Betty Draper from Mad Men were in Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights!

Tune in Saturday for the show.

October 18, 2009

Putin: Everybody Dance Now

Putin rocks it

Ever eager to show the world that Russia is an equal to the West, Putin has suggested that Russia host a new international song competition. It will be just like the long-running televised Eurovision song contest, except it will be called "Intervision", and the only participating countries will be Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These are all the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which according to member countries is "not a NATO clone". OK.

Kazakh Eurovision sounds almost too good to be true. [Cue video of Borat singing "Everybody Dance Now".]

I'd love to see what kind of elaborately staged pop songs are put forward by quasi-authoritarian states as part of their effort to show the world that Central Asians can do flamboyantly choreographed dance numbers in glittery makeup and spandex dirndls while sing synth-pop, too, just like the Swedes and Germans.

In response to Putin's idea, Eurovision says "it would be delighted to license Mr Putin the Eurovision Song Contest format," but they can't do Intervision without paying up.

Russia actually won Eurovision last year, so they were this year's host country. This year Norway won. Since Putin seems to be a man who doesn't enjoy losing, the upside of Intervision would be that Russia would probably get to win every year, with maybe an occasional courtesy victory for China.

As a side note, Sacha Baron Cohen is reportedly on board to play a new, non-Borat character who enters the Eurovision contest in a movie with the self-explanatory title Eurovision: The Movie. It's being written by Dan Mazer, one of the writers for the Ali G/Borat/Bruno empire, so I think it's going to be great. A Eurovision parody is such a logical next step for these guys, though the biggest challenge might be creating parody acts that are funnier and weirder than the real ones.

Here are a few Eurovision videos to give you an idea of how bizarre a spectacle it can be, both intentionally and unintentionally funny. Norway's winning song from this year, an emo violin folkpop tune; Apocalyptica, a Finnish hard rock cello band from 2007, with stage dancers wearing some sort of pelt tutus; and Ukrainian comedian/insane disco robot Verka Serduchka from 2007.

October 9, 2009

Today's news

Obama waves

Some of today's happenings:

  • The Nobel Committee, in a spasm of ecstatic relief that George W. Bush is no longer President of the United States, awards the Peace Prize to Obama. "He's only been President for 9 months!," everyone is saying, "He hasn't done anything yet!" Obama himself seems genuinely surprised.

    It does seem like this choice is as much a condemnation on the direction the world has taken as a result of our last administration as it is an approval of Obama. For the sake of comparison, let's look at what George W. Bush accomplished in his first 9 months in office: He cut taxes, especially for the very rich, rejected the Kyoto Protocol, and allowed our country to be attacked by terrorists. Maybe Obama should get a few Olympic medals and a VMA on top of the Nobel Prize.

  • Charlotte Gainsbourg has a new song called "IRM", which is French for MRI, inspired by the many MRIs she went through after she had a brain hemorrhage a couple of years ago, which I didn't know happened. You can download it. Beck co-wrote and produced this song, and all the songs on her new album, also called IRM.
  • Do you realize Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" album came out THREE YEARS AGO? Wow. She has a new one coming out next year, "hopefully". This reminds me of sporadic reports of a new Elastica album that floated around music magazines throughout the late 90's. That one took 5 years, and wasn't worth the wait.
  • YouTube is at over a billion video views a day, and is "getting closer to being profitable."
  • Marge Simpson on the cover of Playboy.
  • And finally, two people killed by a sweat lodge.

September 10, 2009

Joe Wilson's got nothing on British MPs

You Lie!

Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) is getting raked over the coals for yelling "You lie" during Obama's address to the Joint Session of Congress. Maybe this was inappropriate and disrespectful, and lowered the level of discourse. Wilson has already apologized, and been scolded by Dems and Republicans alike.

In theory, I like respectful dialogue. In practice, high quality heckling is so very fun. This heckling was not high quality. If Joe Wilson wants to learn, he needs to look across the Atlantic. One of my favorites is Dennis Skinner. Skinner's known as the Beast of Bolsover (his constituency) and is famous for his beautiful, well-crafted put-downs. You can find some choice quotes online. I can't decide if calling someone "slimy" and a "wart" or calling someone a "pompous sod" during debates is more exciting. They're all pretty good. He also once said, in referring to the Conservative economic policy in the 80s: "The only thing that was growing then were the lines of coke in front of boy George and the rest of the Tories"

Dennis Skinner's not the only hilarious heckler. Here are some historical and contemporary insults, from parliamentary debates and elsewhere:

“He might as well have a corncob up his arse” Alan Clark on Douglas Hurd.

“She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus” Jonathan Aitken on Margaret Thatcher.

“A sheep in sheep’s clothing” Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee.

Joe Wilson, I'm not sure whether you need to raise the level of discourse, but I'd like it if you raised the level of insults.

September 1, 2009

Eliot Spitzer's self-regard vs. the public's memory

Eliot Spitzer's fall

The Post announced today that they've heard Eliot Spitzer is considering running for public office as soon as next year, maybe for state comptroller or even Kristen Gillibrand's Senate seat. Other sources say it's not true, but one described his state of mind like this: "He loves to be in the limelight. But he knows it can't happen."

Assuming the story is true, I was surprised that Spitzer would be talking to anyone about running again after reading an interview with him that ran in Vanity Fair a couple of months ago (which the Post article references) in which he was pretty believably humble and realistic about the permanent damage to his public image.

Are a few highlights from that VF piece:

I asked him why so many politicians are caught in insane sex scandals. "What is it with you all?"

“I’m not going to make excuses,” he replied evenly. “Let me ask you a question: Is there a difference between politicians and anybody else? Or is it that the lives of politicians are so very public?”

“There is a difference, Mr. Spitzer. You were elected to a position of public trust.”

“That’s right,” he conceded. “It’s why I resigned without delay. Some said I could try to ride it out. But I didn’t see it that way. What I did was heinous and wrong.”

The word that gets thrown around to describe his apparent attitude to lying and breaking the law and his failure to treat people with common decency is "hubris." In the interview, he says that's not it: "It wasn’t hubris or a death wish—but frailty, temptation, and common miscalculation."

Then he says he wouldn't run for Mayor for at least 20 years, and probably wouldn't run for any public office ever, to save his family from the agony they would obviously be put through.

These answers were probably well rehearsed, but there's a certain acceptance of how badly he screwed up here that I doubt is totally manufactured. At the end of the interview, he's asked if the prostitution scandal will ever go away:

"No. My obituary's written," he replied with shocking finality. "And that is a very hard thing to live with." When he turned away, I could see he was in tears.

Aww, poor Eliot Spitzer. Assuming any of this is real, the Spitzer in this interview sure doesn't sound like he'd be stumping for votes any time soon. Maybe he's testing to waters to gauge the public reaction, which judging from the Post's "Say it ain't ho!" cover headline doesn't look so great. His little sex scandal wasn't the worst thing a politician has ever done, but it sure was sleazy, and people are never going to forget it.

Maybe he should just become a Republican--at this point his image isn't really that much worse than anyone else in our joke of a state government, and the GOP voter base seems a lot more forgiving of its embarrassing political leaders.

August 19, 2009

Bake sales and teen flicks

Soterious Johnson and Richard Hake baking

  • WNYC made a ridiculously twee little movie with an extended gag about having a bake sale to raise money. Goofy, but it's cool to see Brian Lehrer, Jad Abumrad (whose dessert I would actually eat,) Leonard Lopate, Brooke Gladstone, Terrance McKnight, and our faves Richard Hake and Soterios Johnson (above) all pretending to be terrible bakers. Best YouTube comment: "Soterios Johnson is white?"
  • Interesting op-ed about how struggling newspapers should switch to a nonprofit model like Harper's and Mother Jones.
  • The good news: the first real video inside a print magazine. The bad news: it's a "Two and a Half Men" clip and a Pepsi ad in Entertainment Weekly. I like pop culture just a little bit less now.
  • Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, my favorite movie of 2011, now has Jon Hamm in it, playing a character named High Roller. OK, I guess I like pop culture again.
  • Maybe you've seen ads for this new movie Bandslam. Did you assume it was another cruddy pre-teen High School Musical spinoff? Me too!

    Did you know it might actually be a cool movie that's a victim of bad marketing, and features a scene in the abandoned CBGB's where, according to the Washington Post review, the main character "spots an old Patti Smith poster and gasps in awe, 'Do you know how many times she must have spit on this floor?'" And has a David Bowie cameo? Me neither!


August 4, 2009

Please don't let Ling and Lee fly home on one of Bill's party planes

Bill Clinton is a red-blooded American man, as we all know. We're sure he was delighted to do his patriotic duty and go to North Korea (as a private citizen of course) to try to secure the release of these two nice ladies who Al Gore hasn't really been able to help. We are terrified of what kind of favors Bill Clinton thinks he might be due in return from these just pardoned journalists.

As you can see from the picture, Bill Clinton apparently had to hang out with all these important people at the world's ugliest banquet hall, complete with special mural and lovely carpet. He's all "Oh my god, when are they sending some honeys over, I can't believe I'm doing this" and Kim Jong-Il is all "Ha! They sent Bill crawling to us."

Looking forward to the tell all, which will undoubtedly be an Oprah exclusive when we will find out whether Ling and Lee were really in a labor camp or a guest house.

Update: Ling and Lee are apparently flying home on Bill's private plane. He will skeeve all over them. Here's hoping Bill does the honorable thing and leaves them alone to nap.

July 27, 2009

Dirty politics and In the Loop

In the Loop and Burn After Reading haircuts

In the Loop is a little funnier than the other summer comedies, and dark dark dark-- it's meaner than The Hangover and more linguistically vulgar than Bruno. There's enough spectacular profanity in In the Loop that I guess the producers didn't bother to fight with the MPAA and potentially set a precedent for earning an NC-17 rating solely for swearing. It's unrated.

You can read the reviews (A.O. Scott in the Times, and the Washington Post review which unfortunately isn't by the paper's In the Loop columnist) and hear all about the witty barbs and conniving, selfish characters in the US and UK governments all trying to keep their heads above water as their leaders shove them toward war.

The movie is about Iraq and Bush and Blair and Rumsfeld, but it doesn't use any of those names. Instead it's about all the smaller government players scrambling to understand the larger machinations at work, and pointlessly trying to influence outcomes that have already been decided by people who don't care about democratic process or making the world a better place. It reminded me of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", a great play (and less great movie) about the two minor players in Hamlet, bewildered as they try to understand what's going on and what they're supposed to be doing while all the big Shakespearean guys are making things happen. Mostly they stand around and play acrobatic word games.

The word games in In the Loop are funnier. The best is lead British communications guy/Rottweiler, Malcolm Tucker, who in one scene accommodates an American official's sensitive ears by pronouncing his favorite swear word "F-star-star-cunt".

Anyway, I saw some parallels between this movie and the Coen Brother's Burn After Reading, another DC political comedy about people who think they're "in the loop", but are really small players in over their heads inside a political machine that chews them up and spits them out. Burn After Reading has an ambitious but bumbling duo, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, who try to blackmail an ex-CIA agent with a document that they think is a lot more important than it actually is. In the Loop has ambitious but clueless British aides and Secretaries excitedly caught up in the debates leading to the Iraq war, while actually being used by the US government to fabricate evidence to legitimize a baseless war that's going to happen anyway.

The American staffers aren't really in the loop, either. Assistant Secretary Karen Clark, who has Frances McDormand's exact sandy bob haircut from Burn After Reading (above), gets shut out by another State Department big, Linton Barwick, who's an amalgam of every senior member of the Bush administration. He's played by David Rasche, who also played J.K. Simmons's CIA assistant in the funniest scenes in Burn After Reading.

It's a great little movie, but has no redeeming characters and the story spins away to nothing by the end. In the Loop is getting better reviews than Burn After Reading did, partially because it's less slapstick and more talky and the swears are a lot more creative, and because we're impressed by British comedy over here and expect the Coens to be more serious than they actually are.

You can watch episodes of the UK TV show "The Thick of It", which is the predecessor to In the Loop and has some of the same characters--they're all up on YouTube. Here's the first one. And here's an interview with the writer/director Armando Iannucci about making the Iraq war funny and the lax security they encountered at the State Department.

July 15, 2009

Pomo Sotomayor

Sotomayor hearings

I sure wish I could listen to my college Postmodern Lit professor talk about these Sotomayor hearings.

Please excuse this diversion into shoddy undergrad English-major analysis, but has anyone else noticed the weird refusal to acknowledge that a justice's gender or ethnicity could play a role on the Supreme Court, unless that justice is not male or not white? The kerfuffle over Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment has gone further than subtly racist partisan pouncing on whatever makes her nomination questionable, and has moved into a strange realm where we all pretend that subjectivity doesn't exist.

When you're a judge, your job is to interpret the law with impartiality and not let your personal viewpoints color your judgment. The law is the law and we as individuals are supposed to fade into an undifferentiated mass of equality and non-discriminatory humanoids before it.

But come on. Even if we all agree that the law should strive for perfect objectivity based on a higher, absolute justice, we all know that's not ever going to be possible. Don't members of Congress know any basic postmodern critical theory?

I'm only half kidding, here. The pomo critics taught us that all the basic tenets that our society is built on--science, religion, the nuclear family, political parties, gender roles, law--are all human constructions that we made up. They don't possess any kind of innate righteousness. The only reason we have the law is that we made it up, if by "we" you mean "white men".

(The postmodernists also say that just like there's no real objective truth, there's also no subjective truth either because the idea of "selfhood" is just another construction, but then you're getting into sophomore-level cultural studies, and I didn't take that class. Here's a pretty good summary of all this stuff.)

I don't expect that we would find much Derrida on Jeff Session's nightstand, but it would be so great if someone in these hearings spoke up and pointed out that if Sotomayor has personal beliefs based on her life experiences that could have some kind of influence on her work as an interpreter of the law, then John Roberts and Clarence Thomas and Scalia and Ginsberg all do too. As justices their job is to strive to see beyond their personal beliefs, though they are still there. Sotomayor spoke about her life experiences as being positive contributions to her legal career, but every judge's experiences somehow influence the way they do their work. How could they not?

We only seem to notice or be suspicious of this when a person other than a white man talks about it, because we have a legal system that was created by white men, and has therefore historically directed more benefits to them than to anyone else. During his congressional hearing, Justice Roberts didn't have to talk about how a wise white guy might add value to a court of law because our courts are already pretty much of, by, and for white guys. Those biases are already there.

At least Sotomayor has admitted this, though now she seems to be backpedaling, playing the objectivity game with Congress. Still, I love that she said this: "Life experiences have to influence you. We’re not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside. That’s what my speech was saying."

Today, John Cornyn went back to the wise Latina thing again, "asking whether she would regret if her audience of students understood her to be saying that the quality of a judge depended on race, gender or ethnicity." "I would regret that," she said.

I would love to hear John Roberts laboriously explain over and over again how he has explored his own feelings and biases as a white man, then put them aside for the fair application of the law.

June 29, 2009

Lynndie's back

Lynndie England, 2009

After causing a crisis in US military morality, being the subject of an Errol Morris documentary and spawning the global internet photo meme "Doing a Lynndie", what is Lynndie England up to in 2009?

Not a lot. She hardly leaves her house, she's depressed, she can't get a job, and she's on welfare. AP has a piece on her today about her upcoming pulpy-sounding biography called Tortured: Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib and the Photographs that Shocked the World.

Lynndie served half of a 3 year sentence for her role in Abu Ghraib, but says she's still getting treated unfairly. "They think that I was like this evil torturer ... I wasn't." We all know that the highest levels of government authorized "enhanced interrogation" of suspected terrorists in Iraq, but the lead prosecutor from Lynndie's case points out that prisoners that she was guarding at Abu Ghraib weren't terror suspects, and none of them were interrogated. As the article says, they weren't terrorists, they were regular suspected "Iraqi-on-Iraqi" criminals. Her mistreatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners was just as unacceptable as mistreating any suspected criminal in a US jail would be.

So here's Lynndie, back in West Virginia with her 4 year-old son, getting turned down for restaurant jobs because the other employees said they would quit if the manager hired her. Clearly, moving back to one's rural hometown and sending around a bunch of resumes that say "Lynndie England" on them isn't a good post-release employment strategy.

April 28, 2009

Republican overlords not so all-powerful anymore

Arlen Specter trumps Sens. Snowe and Collins

Arlen Specter came out as a Democrat! Hooray. He's the 59th Democratic Senator, so that will put the total to 60 if you count Al Franken, who will hopefully get seated one of these days (though Norm Coleman will keep stalling for all eternity if he can.)

Specter is the big hero today for Democrats and especially for moderates. Unfortunately, that makes the other left-leaning Republican Senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine, the big losers in this scenario. For the last few months they could call the shots and effectively decide what legislation got passed by how they voted, but that overlord-like power that Cushie noted earlier this year just evaporated like Rick Santorum's political career.

Senator Snowe sounds like she's just about ready to follow her mavericky Republican colleague to the other side. In the Times article, she says "We haven’t certainly heard warm, encouraging words about how they view moderates, either you are with us or against us... Ultimately we are heading to having the smallest political tent in history."

I'm glad that the Senator who switched from Republican to Democrat is a decent person and not a lunatic like the one that switched the other way.

March 13, 2009

Chinese bloggers too dirty for the NY Times

Grass-mud horse video

The Times reports on a new internet phenomenon in China -- cheeky bloggers are writing stories and making cartoons and videos about an animal called a "grass-mud horse" in fake nature documentaries and children's songs [video example--it's actually an alpaca].

The grass-mud horse is an "impish protest" against the Chinese government's censorship of the internet, says the Times, because the characters that form its name are a homonym for something dirty: "The mythical creature whose name, in Chinese, sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity."

But this is the Times, a respectable family newspaper, so they won't tell you what that obscenity is -- sort of ironic for an article that's overtly critical of media censorship.

Slate, on the other hand, doesn't care about propriety, so they'll just come right and tell you that the Mandarin for "grass-mud horse", cao ni ma, is a homonym for "fuck your mother." (London's Times seems to be the first to report the actual phrase.)

The Slate article goes on to explore the "motherfucker" insult, which seems to exist globally as the worst insult anyone has been able to come up with. We get some funny and super-vulgar variations of the theme in African, Asian, Mediterranean, and Arabic cultures, with a little anecdote about the first written example in English, in a Texas court in 1889, where someone who was called that particular insult who then shot his insulter "could not be found guilty of a higher offense than manslaughter."

These subversive Chinese online writers seem to have thwarted government censors for now. Censorship has gotten a lot worse recently: in the last couple of months, the government has shut down about 2,000 websites for publishing material they don't like. The NY Times quotes Wang Xiaofeng, a blogger in Beijing, who wrote about the grass-mud horse phenomenon as a sign of censorship's inability to control free expression: "When people have emotions or feelings they want to express, they need a space or channel. It is like a water flow — if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows. There’s got to be an outlet."

Thanks to the London Times and Slate for providing an outlet for the mf'ing flow around the NY Times Manual of Style and Usage.

Here's an essay from the NY Times' Public Editor from last summer, around the time of the Jesse Jackson "I wanna cut his nuts off" incident, about when the paper decides to use crude language, which is just about never.

March 11, 2009

Manufacturing your bogus Wikipedia story on Wikipedia

Obama and Aaron Klein

Here's a beautiful example of the conservative media's protracted freakout over Obama: Aaron Klein, a writer for WorldNetDaily, wrote a story about Obama's Wikipedia page and how it lacks some of the controversial elements of his political career. Things like whether he was actually born in America or not, which as far as I can tell is not actually controversial except among people who also believe that Obama is secretly Muslim.

So Fox News picked up the story, noting Klein's discovery that a Wikipedia user called Jerusalem21 had been banned from Wikipedia after changing the Obama entry to reflect this supposed doubt over his birthplace.

From Wired's story about who this Jerusalem21 might be:

Of more interest is the identity of the mysterious Jerusalem21, whose courageous disregard of Wikipedia's ban on fringe material provided WND's Aaron Klein with his smoking gun in the first place, spawning what will soon be a national wiki-scandal.

Curiously, it turns out that Jerusalem21, whoever he or she might be, has only worked on one other Wikipedia entry since the account was created, notes ConWebWatch. That's Aaron Klein's entry, which Jerusalem21 created in 2006, and has edited 37 times.

Eventually Aaron Klein admitted that Jerusalem21 is his research assistant. Klein works in the Jerusalem bureau of WorldDailyNet, and I guess his assistant likes blackjack.

Wired also looked back at other edits to Obama's Wikipedia page, and one bit about his (minimal) association with William Ayers that got edited out was also originally submitted by Jerusalem21. When Wired asked Klein why he didn't disclose in his article that he was the one generating the Wikipedia edits that were the subject of his story, he said, "It just slipped my mind."

The discussion page on Wikipedia's entry on Aaron Klein, master of media manipulation, is a great read. On it, we find that 30 single-purpose accounts have been used to edit his entry, some "very obviously" used by Klein, his boss, and other people at WND. The entry at various times has exaggerated the importance of Klein's reporting on the 2008 election, and included details about his history of alleged plagiarism.

March 4, 2009

Someone who isn't Gary Condit arrested for killing Chandra Levy

Chandra Levy

DC police are about to arrest a man for killing Chandra Levy back in 2001. The guy in question, Ingmar Guandique, is already in prison, after making a habit of assaulting women in Rock Creek Park. He apparently talked to some other guys in prison and wrote letters and made phone calls that included gruesome details about the attack, and the case was built on their testimony.

Gary Condit might have been telling the truth all this time! The beleaguered former Congressman may be a cheating slimeball, and really unlucky in his selection of interns to have an affair with, but maybe he didn't have her killed.

After the murder, Condit looked like the prime suspect. Women's killers are almost always their male partners, and a successful, powerful, married politician looked like just the kind of guy who would have his young secret girlfriend killed. There are still a lot of arguments floating around out there about Condit's probable guilt, detailing his suspicious absences on the day Chandra Levy disappeared. He also tried to paint Levy as a slut, which made him look desperate and guilty, and also like a huge jerk.

Mostly famously, my own favorite celebrity, crime, and celebrity crime reporter Dominick Dunne's theories and gossip about the case in his Vanity Fair column added to the speculation that Condit did it. The weirdest stuff Dunne talked about was a rumor he had heard that Condit was hanging out with the leaders of a prostitution ring at Middle Eastern embassies in DC and told some guys that he had a girlfriend he needed to get rid of. A Times article from 2003 describes it better, but it's basically hearsay based on a rumor based on the report of an unnamed, unreliable horse whisperer.

Anyway, Condit sued Dominick Dunne for defamation and they settled, then sued him again and lost. Remember, Dunne's own daughter was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, who got off with a light sentence, so his own emotions probably played a role in his assumption that Gary Condit was a murderer.

Gary Condit was ruled out as a suspect in the police investigation, but it seems like the public still thinks he's guilty. Reader comments to a CBS story about the case from last week include a lot of things like "CONDIT=MURDERER=GUILTY". And an episode of "South Park" refers to Condit as a killer that got away with it, OJ-style (the one where Butters' parents try to kill him after he follows his dad into a gay bath house.)

Even with new evidence that Condit had nothing to do with the murder, his political career is long dead, and his post-Congress career hasn't gone so great. He was sued by Baskin-Robbins in 2007 for not paying franchise fees for his two Arizona ice cream stores.

The Washington Post has an exhaustive series on the Chandra Levy case from last year with details about Ingmar Guandique, who was a suspect back in the fall of 2001, but the investigation was sloppy and he was eliminated as a suspect. One of the guys who Guandique told about the killing says that Guandique originally claimed Gary Condit had paid him to kill Chandra Levy, so it might not be over yet.

February 19, 2009

No Tonya Hardings in competitive yoga

International Yoga Asana Championship

I bet you thought about Neal Pollack a lot more 5 years ago than you do these days. But he's still out there: he had an article on Slate a few days ago about the International Yoga Asana Championship that happened in LA earlier this month. (He's also writing a book about the "weird and circuslike" world of yoga culture.)

In the article, a lot of competitive yogis talk about how strange people think it is to practice yoga like a sport, and the charismatic leader of the competitive yoga circuit, Bikram Choudhury, says wonderful things like, "I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me."

Anyway, to counter the impression that competitive yogis are a bunch of aggressive cutthroats who stomp each other's chakras on their way to the top, the U.S. women's champion says, "The competition gets a lot of flak from a lot of people, but it's not like anyone's trying to crack anyone else's kneecaps."

This Slate article came out the same day that Tonya Harding, the original kneecapper, appeared on HBO's monthly sports show "Real Sports", and said that she's paid her debts for her involvement with the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan and thinks she's suffered enough. She mentions Barack Obama's derisive namecheck during his campaign [video]. Girl, if people as good-natured and benevolent as Barack Obama and the world's greatest yogi are still bad-mouthing you in public, it's probably not ever going to stop.

Tonya Harding does admit that as long as people like Barack Obama keep dropping her name, she'll keep getting more paid gigs, I guess in her new career as a pro boxer. Just give in already and do a season of "The Surreal Life", you'll be fine.

Here's a video of her catching a big catfish, and asking the HBO interviewer, "How much responsibility do you think I need to take?"

February 9, 2009

Meet your new overlords

Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Thanks to the wonders of a bicameral legislature, where small states get as much power as large states in the Senate, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are pretty much deciding our fates. Together they represent the 1,274,923 people of Maine. That's about the same number as people who live in the Nashville metro area, or Providence, RI.

Thanks to Senate filibuster rules, these two moderate Republican Maine ladies are prime targets to bring the Democrats to the 60 votes they'll need for cloture on all kinds of issues.

Obama knows the importance of winning these two over. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, Robert Gibbs said on Friday: "Last month the economy lost 598,000 jobs. That is the equivalent of losing every job in the state of Maine."

Some of us may feel a little hard done by. I voted for Obama, not for Snowe and Collins. This is like a hung parliament where some fringe party holds the balance of power. On the other hand, these two support Obama almost all the time. It's not like all the Democrats will be this supportive (we're looking at you Ben Nelson and Joe the Independent). And Snowe and Collins are both pro-choice.

If I have to go through the next two years with key policy decisions resting on these two people and the foibles of their 1.2 million constituents, I guess I'll just brace myself for lots of pork for the good people of Maine (even though they prefer lobster).

January 29, 2009

Lilly Ledbetter- The Little Lady Who Stood Up

oh.jpg

Lilly Ledbetter of Alabama has had quite a year. She spoke at the DNC last summer, lost her husband (who voted for a Democrat for the first time in his life in November) in December, rode the inauguration train in January, danced with Obama at an Inaugural Ball and attended a White House signing ceremony today.

Ledbetter recorded a tough attack ad for Obama, quoting McCain opposing the Fair Pay Act, saying that women "just need education and training."

Now Ledbetter's name will be associated with this breakthrough for equal pay. When the bill passed the senate, she said "I'm so excited I can hardly stand it." This in spite of the fact that she still won't get the back pay a jury tried to award her. As Gail Collins points out, the current situation was ridiculous: "Let us pause briefly to contemplate the chances of figuring out your co-workers’ salaries within the first six months on the job."
From all of us, thanks Lilly.

January 21, 2009

Our President is Black!

I am unable to say anything new or even very witty about what I experienced yesterday. But here's a picture of some very happy people (who may be Young Jeezy fans).

Yes he is.jpg


And here's Obama giving the inaugural address.

Let's get to work.jpg

January 20, 2009

Inaugration day!

watching the inauguration

It really happened! In all the excitement of Obama's inauguration and the outrageously optimistic hopes we all have for the new day dawning in America, I almost forgot how great it would feel to watch Bush leaving the White House, for ever. Hallelujah.

Cushie was there in DC for the big events, so hopefully we'll get a recap from her, but for now, here are some highlights:

The text of Obama's address,

Sasha hamming it up:

Sasha at Inauguration

Rahm Emanual hamming it up:

Rahm Emanuel at Inauguration

Dick Cheney channeling Mr. Potter:

Dick Cheney at inauguration

A procession of Indian school children in Obama masks:

Indian children in Obama masks

and maybe the most relieved person in America today, George W. Bush.

Bush at the inauguration

That guy is so psyched to get the hell out of there.

Lots of parties are going on around town tonight. Listings at Gothamist, NY Mag.

Wherever you go, expect a lot of blue (and red?) cocktails, like these tasty ones served at Vnyl today:

red and blue drinks

January 14, 2009

Times determines America pretty much just as racist as ever

Obama surrounded by other, white Senators

What will race relations look like in Obama's America? The Times explores this eternally tricky issue by asking a bunch of people if they have noticed any change in how people of different races deal with each other in the Age of Obama. And by "different races" they apparently mean "black or white", because that's all that gets mentioned.

A few good passages:

"All this exposure to this very counterstereotypical African-American has actually changed — at least temporarily — what is on the tip of the tongue," said E. Ashby Plant, a psychologist at Florida State University and an author of a new study examining the impact of Mr. Obama on the attitudes of whites. "It may have very important implications."

In Dr. Plant's study, 400 white college students in Wisconsin and Florida were asked, between Mr. Obama’s nomination and his election, questions like, "What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of African-Americans?"

The unpublished study found that the answers revealed little evidence of antiblack bias, in sharp contrast to many earlier studies (including one by Dr. Plant) showing that roughly 80 percent of whites have some degree of bias.

Sounds pretty good, but white college students learning not to come out with an obviously racist remark when asked to think about African-Americans doesn't necessarily mean that perceptions are changing.

As one black women interviewed for the article says, "I remember people saying Michael Jordan's 'not really black,' " said Gilda Squire, 39. "It's like Obama supersedes race." And not in a good way. Other people in the article note that white people often deal with their discomfort about race by just ignoring it or pretending that they "don't see color," like Colbert does as a joke.

Some of those interviewed for the article are hopeful that race is becoming an easier topic to talk about, which is a good sign. For white people, anyway. Most white people seem to think things aren't so bad to begin with. The article refers to a survey from July: "Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said race relations were generally bad, while only 34 percent of whites agreed."

The article ends with the weirdest story I've seen all day:

On the morning after the election, Kristin Rothballer, 36, who lives in San Francisco, kissed her female partner goodbye on the train while commuting to work. A black woman who sat down next to her turned and said she was sorry that Proposition 8, the amendment to ban gay marriage in the state, looked like it was going to pass.

"We grabbed hands," Ms. Rothballer recalled. "And I said, 'Well, I really want to congratulate you because we have a black president and that's amazing.' "

"Our conversation then almost became about the fact that we were having the conversation," she said.

Something moved her to apologize to the black woman for slavery.

Wow.

So here's the upshot of the article:

  • You will experience more open and comfortable race relations, but only if you actually are Barack Obama,
  • Watch out for white-guilt-afflicted ladies on the BART.

December 30, 2008

Roland Burris graciously accepts pretend Senate seat

Roland Burris and Rod Blagojevich

Look at the smile on Roland Burris's face. That is one brave and gracious man. Getting appointed to the Senate by an indicted governor who is in process of being formally stripped of his appointing powers -- it must be sort of like when you're playing with a small child who, feeling generous, starts handing you random objects she picks up, like other people's wallets or her mom's thing of lipgloss. You know it's not really yours, but you smile and say "thank you!" anyway to keep up the illusion.

Poor guy. He has to stand there pretending this sham is for real, and then Bobby Rush points out to everyone that once Obama is inaugurated there will actually be zero black people in the Senate. Good point! But let's be honest here: everyone knows that Blagojevich can nominate a really exceptional and worthy person to the Senate right now, even someone who he couldn't squeeze for any cushy jobs for the delightful Mrs. Patti Blagojevich, and it doesn't mean squat.

I would have no problem hearing an outburst from Mr. Burris sometime in the next few weeks about how he got used in this silly charade by a greedy, meaty-fisted charlatan trying lamely to make himself look honorable as he crashed and burned. Potential upside: at least his name is out there now, so he could very likely get appointed by some less tainted Illinois person, or even elected through a legitimate process.

Also: Gawker points out that on his way out of the press conference, Blagojevich demonstrated spectacularly poor word choice by asking the press not to "lynch" Burris over the ongoing corruption scandal. Dude, it's all over.

December 19, 2008

New Hampshire learning lessons from Katrina

HELP sign in Brentwood NH

A huge ice storm wiped out a lot of New Hampshire last Friday, and a majority of the state lost power. Something like 30,000 people, mostly in remote areas, still don't have electricity or water a week later, and NH gets pretty freaking cold in the winter. (Disclosure: both Cushie and I have family that were without power for 6 days, and in some cases 8 days and counting.)

A few trends have started to emerge as people deal with the aftermath of the storm that are sad reminders of 2005 and the weeks and months (and years) that followed Hurricane Katrina. That crisis seems to have created a kind of blueprint for what happens after large scale disasters.

(Note: we're not trivializing all the horrors that people in New Orleans and the surrounding areas went through and are still dealing with. At all. We're drawing some parallels between situations that have some similarities but are totally different in scale.)

While most people in New Hampshire have gotten their power back, a few isolated areas are still waiting, and were told yesterday it might not happen until after Christmas. People in Brentwood, NH have started making signs asking for help that doesn't seem to be coming:

Residents frustrated with the conditions on the road, where trees and wires still obstruct traffic in a number of places, have placed a sign on a barrier that reads "Help" and "Forgotten by Unitil and Exeter DPW."

Just give it a few more weeks, people of Brentwood, and you might come up with signs as memorable as those we saw along the Gulf Coast ("We Are American, Where Is FEMA?", "Still Heer"), like the infamous big dog, claw hammer, ugly wife guy in NOLA.

Some looting has also started to happen in abandoned houses and businesses with non-functioning burglar alarms, but of course, with a special New England twist:

In the 12-hour period between house checks, someone had forced entry into the home and stole numerous items. Police captain Raiche said some of the stolen items included seven rifles and shotguns, jewelry and two high-definition, plasma televisions.

Another burglary occurred Friday night at the popular restaurant and nightspot Kelley's Row, located on Central Avenue in Dover. Police say someone forced entry into the restaurant while much of Central Avenue was in the dark that night.

"They have a burglary alarm but they didn't have power, so the alarm didn't matter," Raiche said.

A flat-panel television and $100 worth of lobster meat were stolen.

"We have very few leads at this point," Raiche said.

And there are problems with FEMA and resources sitting in a warehouse somewhere, not reaching the people who need them:

Dover resident Jim Alty told the Herald he had been told there were 53 generators, along with several pallets of water, at Pease national guard base. He said he was concerned they weren't getting to the people who needed them.

A call to Sherri Pierce, spokeswoman for the 157th Air Refueling Wing, confirmed they were there. "But they are not under our control," Pierce said. "They are under the control of FEMA."

If things keep getting worse, hopefully we'll get New Hampshire natives Adam Sandler or Sarah Silverman to say "George Bush doesn't care about rural people" on live TV.

November 19, 2008

Obama baby names, other than Obama

Barack Obama and crowdsurfing baby

[photo of the guy who crowdsurfed his baby over to Obama at a Montana rally]

I've spent some time in upper Manhattan first grade classrooms lately, and noticed more than one little kid with a "NEVAEH" nametag on their bookbag or cubbyhole. The Times reported on the heaven-backwards trend in baby names in 2006, when it was the 70th most popular name for girls, and the Social Security Administration says it's up to 31 as of last year. As a girl's name, that is. Makes me feel bad for the one little boy Nevaeh I met yesterday who ended up on the losing gender of that particular trend.

Right after the election, Chief Baby Name Correspondent Jennifer 8. Lee told us about parents naming their babies after Obama, though DC's little Obama Alhaji Kabineh Kabba seems to be leading the trend--he's already 6 months old.

Obama-loving expectant parents out there don't have to follow the crowd. And there might be a bunch of them soon--Newsweek reports lots of people got busy on election-night (HuffPost describes the phenomenon as "Yes We Did It".)

Those looking to commemorate that special night with a special baby name might follow the lead of P.O.D. singer Sonny Sandoval with his inexplicable backwards baby name and go for Amabo. It means "I will love" in Latin, which sounds sort of hokey and weirdly Biblical, and captures some of the messianic expectations people have for the real Obama these days.

Or how about Kcarab? The K is silent. Unfortunately that sounds like those carob-covered raisins and peanuts my mom used to buy as some cruddy supposedly healthy alternative to chocolate. Gross.

November 17, 2008

Presidents and email

Bush on a video conference

"Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you."

That's the email that Bush sent out to friends and family just before his inauguration in 2001, announcing his self-imposed moratorium on sending emails during his presidency.

There are a few great little details about that email, which is like a miniature time capsule of email communications in the early part of our decade. "Cyberspace"? William Gibson invented the word in 1982, and at the time of Bush's reference it was probably still a relevant word. The Wikipedia entry gently points out that in recent years it has "lost some of its novelty appeal."

Also, his private email address: G94B@aol.com. You've got the date-specific address that looked behind the times about 30 seconds after he created it (94 is probably a reference to the year he became governor of Texas.) And, of course, AOL.

The Times predicts that Obama will send out some version of the same message before long, since all presidential correspondence is part of the public record. The emails that he will probably stop sending for the next 4 years are reportedly "crisp, properly spelled and free of symbols or emoticons" though he sometimes sends out short exclamations too ("Sox!"). (Isn't that what texting is for?)

AP says, "Often a president uses the equipment of personal assistants," suggesting that Obama might keep emailing using his aides' BlackBerrys. Sneaky. He'll probably have a few favorite staffers that let him use their BlackBerry and bum the occasional cigarette too.

November 13, 2008

Gay big love rally

Rally outside Mormon church, NYC

Gay marriage supporters held a rally last night outside the Mormon temple in Midtown to protest the same-sex marriage ban in California. It might not totally be the Mormon church's fault that the proposition passed, but the church did rally its members to vote in support of the ban.

But there were some awesome signs! This photo captures two of the best ones, "I Heart My Gay Mormon Husband" (a retake of the memorable and endlessly useful line from Heathers, "I love my dead gay son!" [video]), and the one next to it, "Share The Big Love".

That second one is really clever for a few different reasons:

  • It frames marriage as an expression of love, not just a state-regulated contract
  • It promotes the 3rd season of HBO's Big Love, which will start in January
  • It points out the hypocrisy of Mormons making gay marriage illegal while those same people at one time engaged in polygamy, a form of marriage which is also illegal, and maybe stopped doing it largely due to legal pressure.

Maybe Mormons are jealous of the gains others have made in legalizing their non-traditional form of marriage?

November 5, 2008

Tracy called it

CNN may have called the election at 11:00 PM last night, but Tracy said it back on March 15: Black is the new President, bitch!

November 4, 2008

It's election day! Here's your paper bag to hyperventilate into

McCain and Obama

The big day is finally here! By now you've probably already voted, or are restructuring the rest of your day so that you can vote without missing the election parties you're going to tonight.

It's an intense day for everyone. So far it seems like people (and by "people" I mean "Obama supporters"-- this is New York) are alternating between giddy excitement (when looking at polls), cynicism (when reading reports of voting irregularities and remembering the last two elections), and superstitious fears about jinxing it by being overly optimistic (when planning what time you'll pop the champagne or take the celebratory Obama Jell-O bust out of the fridge.)

The earliest a presidential election got called was 9:00 eastern time in 1980, and some people think it will all be over pretty early tonight. It will be interesting to watch the news channels struggle to hold back individual state projections until they're sure about them (and keep viewers around as long as possible) while eagerly wanting to make the overall call. "There's no way to get around it," CBS News senior VP Paul Friedman says. "If one man gets 270 electoral votes before the West Coast polls are closed, we're not going to pretend (he doesn't)." CBS said they might call it as early as 8:00, but I don't think that's happening.

An early call would mean that all the people watching the results in bars will switch over from nervous sipping of drinks to rounds of victory shots and special blue election-themed "O-bomb-a" Jager/Sake/Irish Car bombs. Here are a few guides to special bar nights from New York magazine, Time Out, Drinking Liberally, and those raging party animals at Channel Thirteen.

It looks like the folks over at Slate aren't feeling very superstitious: they offer some advice to McCain on his concession speech, and remind us of Bob Dole in 1996 shushing his crowd with "You're not going to get that tax cut if you don't be quiet." McCain should definitely go for funny--especially if this is the last big public forum he's going to get.

November 1, 2008

Presidential pardons: Not just for turkeys

I beg your pardon

While you should have had plenty of opportunities to guess the winner of the Presidential election, or forecast the state of the senate, November 5th marks the beginning of the Lame Duck Pardon Season. Between November 5th and January 19th we can expect to see President Bush get busy with the pardoning. Time helps us out with a list of the 10 most notorious presidential pardons in history, the list includes Marc Rich, Richard Nixon, George Steinbrenner, Jimmy Hoffa and Vietnam draft dodgers. A Times article from this summer fills us in on some of the folks requesting clemency from the President, including runner Marion Jones, and the so-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh. If Obama wins, Bush will probably feel free to pardon whoever he likes. Some possibilities:

Scooter Libby- remember, W only commuted his sentence, he could actually pardon him, which would allow him to get his law license back.
Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the Republican congressman who pled guilty to accepting massive bribes.
Newly convicted Ted Stevens, especially if he somehow gets re-elected.

Let us know in the comments who you think George Bush will pardon in his final days. Jack Abramoff? Former Illinois governor George Ryan? Martha Stewart? Jeff Skilling?

Don't forget, Presidents can also issue pre-emptive pardons for people who haven't been charged yet, so he may go ahead and pardon Dick Cheney and himself (self-pardoning power is still a grey area).

October 10, 2008

How to turn an ugly crowd into a scary crowd

McCain Palin puppets

McCain is in a tough spot. The Dow is down 40% since last year (20% just in the last 10 days!) and he's losing in states like Florida by a lot. His own desperation is starting to show in his supporters, and his latest strategy is riling up voters' illogical fear and anger. And talking about William Ayers, a topic I thought had already been played out last winter.

It's hard to see how Bill Ayers is relevant to anything in this election, especially now with the whole world falling apart, but a new McCain ad coming out today is largely about this guy.

Slate tries to set the record straight with an article by a guy who knew both Ayers and Obama in the 90's. These days Ayers, Chicago's Citizen of the Year in 1997, is best known for his work in education and juvenile justice reform. He's also worked on an approach to dealing with juvenile offenders that George W. Bush adopted as part of his 2000 campaign.

Reporters have noticed how riled up the crowds have been getting at McCain-Palin rallies this week. In Wisconsin yesterday, Slate quotes a man who probably expressed the anger and frustration that a lot of campaign staff is feeling these days: "I'm mad, and I'm really mad. It's not the economy. It's the socialists taking over our country." McCain started to respond, and the man shot back sternly. "Let me finish please. When you have an Obama, Pelosi, and the rest of the hooligans up there gonna run this country, we've got to have our head examined."

McCain decided this wasn't the best moment to bring up his socialist idea of the government buying people's mortgages. The Slate reporter also says that McCain's supporters gave members of the press the finger on their way out of the event (which he interprets as a "You're Number 1!" salute.)

At a rally in Florida earlier this week, Sarah Palin whipped the crowd into actual frenzy. From the Washington Post:

In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric's questions for her "less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media." At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, "Sit down, boy."

Wow. It's desperate and ugly and sinister, and I doubt McCain himself supports this stuff. But his campaign is encouraging this behavior from the people whose votes he needs, so he's still responsible.

October 2, 2008

The South Bronx on the $700 Billion Bailout

James Jacobs talks to the NY Times

As always, the Times does a great job of going into neighborhoods and asking New Yorkers what they think about national political or economic events. They went to the Morrisania neighborhood in the Bronx and asked residents about the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Responses are funny, and show a clear, and justifiably cynical understanding of what's going on:

On a chair outside Johnson’s Barbecue on Tinton Avenue in the Bronx, Keith McLean had thoroughly considered the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. "That’s for C.E.O.'s.," said Mr. McLean. "And I am a P-O-O-R."

The accompanying video captures the best bits, with one guy on camera and another guy shouting commentary off-camera:

"It’s corporate America doing what corporate America does," Mr. Jacobs said.

"Organized crime," Mr. McLean said.

"It's the new organized crime," Mr. Jacobs said.

"Ain’t nothing new about it," Mr. McLean said.

"We're not going to see none of that," Mr. Jacobs said. "Not one red cent."

One woman in the video is worried about her 401k and that the effects of bank failures will eventually trickle down to her. But the guys at the barbecue, who don't exactly raise concerns about their investments, had more to say about the aspect of the meltdown that affects them personally--the irresponsible lending that caused it in the first place.

"I was out of work there for a couple of years, and I ended up with three credit cards. American Express. Visa. I forget the other one. And the banks give all these loans to people knowing they can’t pay, but they get a commission."

These guys should open a financial advisory service. If they tell me I should put my savings in shoeboxes and hide it behind the couch cushions, I'm doing it.

September 19, 2008

A new kind of Obama heckler

Hecklers at Obama rally

Obama may currently have the support of an impressive 84% of African-American voters, but what about those that he hasn't won over? Who are they?

A bunch of them showed up at today's rally in Miami to protest. CNN has a video of Obama's speech getting interrupted by lots of guys with homemade white signs saying things like "Blacks AGAINST Obama" and "Jesse Jackson Hates Obama For Federal Child Support Act" who started shouting stuff about the KKK.

The URL at the bottom of their signs points to the not quite developed site of Michael Warn, who wants you to "learn the truth about the current issues of the world politically and religiously."

It seems that Mr. Warn's main problem is not actually with Obama, but with women. Specifically, the 33% of black women who he claims are Lilith, "the devil", who are trying to lead black men into evil.

[Lilith is an ancient Jewish and Sumerian female demon mythological figure, who has come to be thought of as Adam's first wife in Jewish and Christian thinking, and later for the Victorians was a sort of femme fatale temptress, as evidenced by the sexy nude Pre-Raphaelite painting of her in the Wikipedia entry.]

Anyway, there are lots of wacky claims in Michael Warn's book, "Satan Revealed, Her Name Is Lilith, She is 33% Of the Black Women Of America", a title which pretty much explains the whole premise of the book right there. The book's cover also identifies Oprah as what he means by 33% of black women.

Some excerpts that he has up on his site:

WOMEN TOOK OVER IN AMERICA when America gave women the right to vote. How? Because they out number men 40 to 1, women have the voting power in numbers, the majority. There are two hundred and sixty million people in America. Black LILITH has a thirty million person block vote ... She takes her numbers and vote her men in who will do her will, and make the laws in her favor. One woman can say you said something sexually negative to her eight years ago and destroy you.

Dizzying logic, there.

I'm not sure how today's protest in Miami ties in with evil demon women, but it sounds like this guy's main problem with Obama is that he is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and that he and Evan Bayh co-sponsored a bill to enforce child support laws.

So I guess Michael Warn wants to fight that 30 million Black Lilith voting block by requiring pregnant women to have children they don't want, but not requiring fathers to help support them. Actually, maybe this guy does make sense: that sounds like a great way to keep women from taking over America. Especially with there being 40 times more of them and all.

September 12, 2008

Election Analysis From Roger Ebert

Casablanca and Viva Zapata

Roger Ebert evaluates the candidates for president and vice president through the lens that matters most to him: What are their favorite movies?

Examining their Facebook pages, he comes up with the following responses:

John McCain: Viva Zapata!, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Some Like It Hot.

Barack Obama: Casablanca, Godfather I and II, Lawrence of Arabia, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Joe Biden: no response.

Sarah Palin: no response.

Well! Ebert is very disappointed by the VP candidates' failure to appreciate the importance of sharing their taste in movies with voters. He also believes that no campaign aides selected these movies for the candidates, but that they reflect the true views of the candidates themselves: "Something as important as choosing your favorite movie, you don't delegate that to underlings." He might be giving them too much credit on that, but let's hope he's right.

Obama's choices strike me as very safe and impersonal (come on, The Godfather?) but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is pretty interesting. He clearly likes movies about one man standing up to an oppressive regime or bureaucracy.

McCain has some easy choices too, though I was glad to see he had the guts to include a comedy. But he blows it out of the water in a recent EW interview, which Ebert references, in which he more fully explains his Viva Zapata! choice. McCain's a bit of a film buff:

"Elia Kazan made three movies with Marlon Brando. One was A Streetcar Named Desire, one was On the Waterfront, and the third was Viva Zapata! Many people think Brando's performances in Streetcar and Waterfront were his best. I think Zapata! was his best. I'm in the minority about this. But go back and watch the scene of his wedding night, with [Brando] and Jean Peters - the actress who later married Howard Hughes, who made her give up acting - when she teaches him to read by taking out the Bible and reading it with him. That's a poignant scene."

But Ebert says that Bill Clinton has them both beat, based on an interview he did with him in 1999. It's a pretty incredible conversation: Clinton can really talk movies.

Today's Ebert column offers another look at Sarah Palin, who he calls The American Idol candidate. People like her because they think she's just like them, he says, which is exactly why Ebert doesn't like her: "I don't want a vice president who is darned near good enough. I want a vice president who is better, wiser, well-traveled, has met world leaders, who three months ago had an opinion on Iraq."

September 10, 2008

Sex, Drugs, Oil, and Toby Keith

Big Oil is sexy!

Poster by Finnigan Productions

Today's ethics scandal is all about the corrupt government agency that oversees our nation's oil and gas reserves. Great timing, right?

As Sarah Palin said in her acceptance speech, "We Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas. We've got lots of both!" And, as it turns out, we've also gotten lots of bribes, sex, and drugs in return for for selling it to oil companies.

A Times covers a report from the Department of the Interior that busts the officials responsible for selling our country's gas and oil. Turns out our government is literally in bed with big oil. The report characterizes the department as "a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch."

A few of the best findings:

  • Bribery: oil companies gave government employees drinks, tickets to a Toby Keith concert, football and baseball games, and highly illicit paintball outings
  • Sex: two employees had "brief sexual relationships" with their oil industry reps
  • Defrauding taxpayers: the department let oil companies pay less than their contracted price for the oil they bought
  • And while this doesn't strictly count as government corruption, one guy who directed sales of our oil regularly bought cocaine from his secretary, who he also had sex with! Even though he was buying coke from her boyfriend, too. Nice.

Here's the official Royalty-in-Kind website, which is the department where most of the shenanigans went down. It's part of the larger Minerals Management Service, which brings in $10 billion in revenue a year (not counting all the weed they smoked with oil reps on their free ski trips.)

September 5, 2008

Sarah Palin Folk Art!

panhandle%20sarah.JPG

Amy's Robot's favorite folk artist, Pan Handle Slim, has created a beautiful portrait of the Republican Veep candidate. The painting is on eBay now, if you're interested in bidding.

September 4, 2008

Lars Ulrich--A changed man

Lars Ulrich, sad and happy

2000: Lars Ulrich, Metallica's outspoken drummer, alerts Napster to 600,000 fans who had downloaded their music. Their accounts are canceled, and fans are outraged at the band for targeting them, as on the whole they are probably some of the most loyal music fans on the planet. Ulrich also testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on file-sharing, and asks them to stop services like Napster, "before this whole Internet thing runs amok." Newsweek calls him a "cyber narc".

While this was going on, Ulrich did an interview with Slashdot in which he defends his primary argument (file-sharing is stealing), but also admits that record companies blew it by not understanding the Internet's impact on the music industry soon enough.

This week: Copies of Metallica's not-yet-released album "Death Magnetic" are getting downloaded all over the place after a Paris record store started selling it.

Not only does Lars not flip out and threaten to sick the government on his fans, he actually sounds totally OK with it:

"If this thing leaks all over the world today or tomorrow, happy days. Happy days. Trust me. Ten days out and it hasn't quote-unquote fallen off the truck yet? Everybody's happy. It's 2008 and it's part of how it is these days, so it's fine. We're happy."

Wow. Maybe all that band therapy got him to let go of his "fiercely independent and controlling" nature, or maybe he's just rechanneled his rage back into his music, which fans and the New York Times are saying is the best thing they've done in many years.

August 29, 2008

Sarah Palin's greatest hits

Beauty Queen


beautypalin.jpg


Waiting for Guffman
palinbeautybeast.jpg


Catch of the Day
Palinfishing.jpg


Just awesome
SarahPalinVikings.jpg

Birthdays

McCain's 2006 birthday cake

Happy Birthday, John McCain! On your 72nd birthday, you can celebrate by announcing your VP pick, a gift to political commentators who are still light-headed and hoarse from Obama's acceptance speech last night, and are ready to start tearing into something fresh. Especially if you picked that Alaska governor no one's ever heard of. (oh crap, you actually did. Oh jeez. Way to pander, dude*. Let the savaging begin!)

Happy Birthday, Michael Jackson! In an interview today with Chris Connelly on Good Morning America, he said, "I feel very wise and sage, but at the same time very young." Which is maybe even creepier than if McCain had said he feels young.

Happy Birthday, Katrina! The storm hit three years ago, and another one might be coming. On a recent tour of New Orleans, McCain said he still hasn't figured out whether he thinks the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt or not. "I really don't know," he said. "That's why I am going ... We need to go back to have a conversation about what to do: rebuild it, tear it down, you know, whatever it is."

The photo above is from McCain's 69th birthday in 2005, when the storm hit. Newsweek on the birthday cake photo op:

"As the deadly storm system moved ashore almost three years ago, sending fatal floods through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Bush was in Phoenix, on a tour aimed at boosting participation in what was then the administration's new Medicare prescription-drug plan. McCain had opposed the bill, but showed up to meet Bush at the airport anyway, along with other Arizona lawmakers.

It was Aug. 29, McCain's 69th birthday, and on the tarmac, Bush presented his old political rival with a cake. The two posed, holding the cake up for cameras, and within seconds, went their separate ways. The cake, melting in the 110-degree Arizona heat, was left behind, uneaten."

* OK, a lot is going to be said about this Sarah Palin thing, but I bet no one is going to be madder than die-hard Hillary supporters. McCain sees what went on during the primaries, says, "Oh, hey, people like women this year!" and picks some 2-year governor no one's ever heard of (maybe she's well known among conservative Christians?) sort of implying that she's the equivalent of someone like Hillary Clinton. He is going to get destroyed on this. Can you imagine the VP debates?

Update:
Please enjoy Palin's wikipedia entry. There's so much fun information there. Runner up for Miss Alaska! Tried marijuana but didn't like it! Fun ethics scandal (maybe)! Opposes gay marriage but has gay friends! Was known as Sarah Barracuda in high school! Kids are named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig! And much, much more.

--Cushie

August 27, 2008

DNC: I already miss the Olympics

Obama watches Hillary at the DNC

Every four years, I'm psyched about watching the summer Olympics again. But the conventions? I remember watching the 2004 DNC and getting excited about all the speakers, crushing on Barack Obama with the rest of the world, and feeling hopeful about the upcoming election. I don't know how professional news people go to these things every four years, because that old political enthusiasm isn't exactly bubbling up in my heart this time.

This year, even just the nightly one-hour network broadcasts are, in the words of Jack Shafer, "unfolding with all the drama of the formation of a stalactite." He advocates adding some actual decision-making to the conventions, or at least shortening the conventions from four days to three or two.

How about one day? A one day convention, with speeches by Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, one party leader (like Ted Kennedy or Kathleen Sebelius) and one random inspirational person who works at a hospital or something. Then Obama. Then that's it.

At least one of these people would ideally point out how exciting and historic it is that the nominee is black--a point that no speaker has mentioned yet, as Alessandra Stanley writes in today's Times. So far, we've heard an awful lot about how much the Obamas are like everyone else in America, when some of the things that make Obama such an inspiring candidate are that he's relatively young, has spent time working directly with poor people, and that he's from a mixed-race family.

Also, is anyone else a little nervous about Bill Clinton's speech tonight? Especially after his remark about candidate X and candidate Y yesterday?

"Suppose you're a voter, and you've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don't think that candidate can deliver on anything at all. Candidate Y you agree with on about half the issues, but he can deliver. Which candidate are you going to vote for?"

"This has nothing to do with what's going on now," he added after a momentary pause.

As long as he sticks to a charming yet blistering and occasionally funny assault on John McCain and George Bush, he'll be OK.

But right after Clinton tonight [full schedule], we get to hear from your old favorite mealy-mouthed political disappointment, John Kerry, reporting for duty. Ugh. After 2004, you thought at least you'd never have to listen to him again, right?

So far, the photos of Obama watching the convention on TV are the best thing to come out of it. Here's my favorite:

Obama watching Bill Clinton at DNC

UPDATE: I don't know if he sincerely meant any of it, but Bill Clinton certainly said the right things in his speech last night. Though I would have liked a stronger attack on McCain and a better reasoned argument about why Obama is ready to be President than just a statement assuring us that he is. Here's the video.

August 20, 2008

Another Olympics hoax? What a shock.

Fake Olympics logo

I think we should just start assuming that every aspect of China's Olympics is, to use Wonkette's phrase, an elaborate fake.

We were already taken in by the fake fireworks, the fake little singing girl, and the fake gymnasts' passports. But today's revelation is the best one yet: the Chinese government is allowing protesters to demonstrate in designated "protest zones" during the Olympics, as long as they apply for permits.

So 77 people obediently went and applied for protest permits. How many got them? Zero! And what happened to at least 6 of the applicants when they went to the Public Security office to try to apply? They got arrested! And sent off for "re-education through labor". Shooting fish in a barrel, people.

This clever plan to make the government look like it allows civil dissent while using the fake permit system to detain would-be dissenters hit the press today when two elderly women were sentenced to a year of re-education for applying for protest permits. These ladies probably won't be sent off to break rocks, but could be detained and, as the Times says, "forced to confess their transgressions."

In better news, there are two great sets of photos from today's games in the Times, especially this one of the US men's volleyball team after they beat Serbia, and the one below of Canadian synchronized swimmers.

synchronized swimming at Beijing

July 28, 2008

Can rock change the world?

Muhajababe

If you watched MTV in August 1989, you probably remember all the news reports about the Moscow Music Peace Festival, or in the words of Sebastian Bach, "Rocknost". The concert, which happened just a few months before the Berlin Wall came down, was the first huge western rock concert in the Soviet Union and represented its unstoppable shift toward democracy and cultural freedom.

Of course, it was a metal concert. The bands included Motley Crue, Cinderella, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, and Skid Row, and showed that the great unifier that spanned the Iron Curtain was big hair and guitar solos. Ironically, the supposed message of the concert was the war on drugs, which wasn't exactly reflected in the bands' behavior. Ozzy says that it was after this concert that he got so drunk that he famously tried to kill his wife, Sharon.

But the legacy of cultural and political change through music remains. A few years ago, Lionel Ritchie did a concert in the newly pro-Western Libya. In an interview, he shared his belief that music can be a more powerful force than diplomacy in mending political differences:

"I have seen it where in many many populations of the world, politics they couldn't agree on, religion they couldn't agree on. You bring a musical artist in, it translates totally into another realm, and I think that what's going to happen now, that by this being the door to open, you're going to see a change in this country, I can almost guarantee it."

Lionel Ritchie is apparently also huge in Iraq: "Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song."

So now Iran, a country in which all Western pop music with lyrics is banned and the government censors Iranian albums before they're released, has agreed to host a concert with Western artists. Who is going to represent freedom and democracy at this pivotal cultural event, our decade's Rocknost?

Chris de Burgh. The man who gave wretched life to a leading contender for the Worst Song Ever, "Lady in Red", will perform later this year at a stadium in Tehran, with an Iranian band. Apparently he's very popular.

Despite this devastating blow to the prospect of mutual understanding between the East and the West, I think the concept still holds promise. While Chris de Burgh is obviously a terrible choice for this Iranian concert, other artists could make some real progress in bridging our differences. Metal is universally and timelessly loved by teens around the world, especially kids who live in an oppressive political environment that's on the verge of a huge cultural shift. Basically, if the US considers a country our enemy, then that nation's kids are the world's biggest metal fans.

Slate has an article today ("Rock the Mullahs") about metal in the Islamic world, featuring videos by hard rock and metal bands from Morocco to Israel to Iran. A new book by political historian and metalhead Mark LeVine, called Heavy Metal Islam, demonstrates that just like Soviet teens in the '80's, the pissed-off kids in Muslim countries who want their world to change are the ones in Mastodon t-shirts:

A member of Iran's most popular metal band, Tarantist, tells LeVine, "Metal is in our blood. It's not entertainment, it's our pain, and also an antidote to the hypocrisy of religion that is injected into all of us from the moment we're born."

One of the patriarchs of Morocco's heavy metal scene, Reda Zine, puts it this way: "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal."

The photo above of a so-called "Muhajababe" is from a good NPR story about LeVine's book and the Middle Eastern metal scene.

Ahmadinejad may welcome Chris de Burgh with open arms, but it sounds like he'd have better ticket sales with Ozzfest. Or go local-- Acrassicauda, Iraq's biggest metal band, is the subject of a new documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad.

July 11, 2008

Today's Times

wooden rollercoaster

The Times has a lot of especially good stuff today:

  • A response from Rep. Charles Rangel about his 4 rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury building, which the Times exposed this morning. He fails to explain why he gets to have all 4 when one is the legal limit, and pretty much just comes right out and says that Harlem should be glad he still lives there.
  • A piece on the Bronx Zoo visitors trapped in a broken-down tram, and their newfound sympathy for the animals they were there to see: "I can understand what animals feel,” one woman said. "You have no say in what happens to you. You lose all control."
  • Amazingly in-depth piece on wooden roller coasters in Pennsylvania, which have a "different psychology of fear" than steel ones. (I agree--they're scarier.)
  • Positive comments from New Yorkers about the city's plan to use two lanes of Broadway between Times Square and 34 St as a pedestrian park. Opening in August!
  • New debate over who wrote the Serenity Prayer--a Protestant theologian? Aristotle? St. Francis?
  • Obama gets in trouble for saying Americans should learn other languages; McCain gets in trouble for saying Social Security is "a disgrace."
  • A court interpreter for Spanish-speakers wrote an essay saying that many immigrant defendants don't understand the charges brought against them or their legal rights.
  • A.O. Scott tries to avoid thrill-ride comparisons in his review of Journey to the Center of the Earth. He fails. But he does note that one of the coolest uses of 3-D in the movie is when Brendan Fraser spits into the sink while brushing his teeth.

June 23, 2008

WMD or single malt?

Whisky distillery

Ever wonder what secret WMD plants look like? They look like whiskey distilleries. Wired has a funny story today about our intelligence agencies and how they gather information about the chemical weapon development around the world.

Bruichladdich, a small whiskey producer on Islay in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, got an email one day from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (part of DoD), asking why their distillery webcam had recently gone offline.

Yikes. The folks at the whiskey company had a quiet heart attack, cleared out their bank accounts, smuggled their families out of the country, then nonchalantly emailed back asking why the DoD was interested in their non-threatening little distillery.

Someone in the Chemical Weapons department said they had been using the distillery's webcam as part of staff training because chemical weapon processes look very similar to the distilling process.

The distillery posted the story on their site, with emails from the DTRA agent who contacted them. Explaining her employer's interest in the distillery, the agent wrote a very friendly, non-Rumsfeldian email explaining the similarities between making whiskey and making WMDs:

"As part of a training class we went to a brewery for familiarization with reactors, batch processors, evaporators, etc. before going in the field. It just goes to show how "tweaks" to the process flow, equipment, etc., can create something very pleasant (whiskey) or deadly (chemical weapons)."

So, of course, Bruichladdich started producing "WMD 1 - The Weapons Inspectors" whiskey, and created a graphic to help the casual webcam surveiller distinguish between the two different kinds of WMDs:

Whisky of Mass Destruction

[click to enlarge]

[I just learned this story is several years old. Rats.]

June 6, 2008

God is my co-pilot

As if pro-life license plates (now on the road in ten states) weren't bad enough, South Carolina has approved these cross-bearing license plates. Apparently anyone opposed to them is closed-minded:
“I didn’t see a constitutional problem with it,” said Mr. Grooms, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We have other plates with religious symbols on them and phrases like ‘In God We Trust.’ Just because it’s a cross, some very closed-minded people don’t believe it should be on a plate.”

June 4, 2008

"Assassination" political art show shut down

Assassination art show getting papered over

The Democratic primary may be over, but it looks like we're still, on some level, freaking out about having a woman or a black man as our next president.

A Boston-based artist named Yazmany Arboleda was installing an art exhibit in a gallery today called "The Assassination of Hillary Clinton / The Assassination of Barack Obama". But don't worry, says the artist--he means the character assassination of the two candidates, as perpetrated by the media.

Well, the NYPD didn't care what kind of assassination he meant, and by 9:30 this morning had papered over the title on the gallery doorway. The artist, who just hit the free publicity jackpot, says he still plans to open the show on Thursday, but it sounds like it will run for only two days.

The NY Times post on the exhibit links to two websites that show its pieces, which mostly consist of doctored campaign photos, book jackets, and print ads about each of the candidates. The exhibit looks "edgy" to the point of being stomach-turning.

In case you're interested in learning more racist and sexist jokes and references about these two people, there's a whole bunch of them at the Obama exhibit site and the Clinton exhibit site. The artist says his exhibit is a "metaphorical"critique of the media, presumably the media's sexism and racism in how it covered the candidates during primary season. Critical analysis of sexism and racism is one thing, but when your art consists exclusively of cruel, belittling material, you could end up just looking like a jerk.

But it's not the content of the show that concerned the cops, or the Times, just the title. The cops took the artist in for questioning, then released him. The Times points out that the subject of assassination has come up in many cultural works, but--you know what's coming next--"in the post-9/11 context, recent comments touching on assassination during this political season — including references by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton — have hit a nerve, and have been followed by apologies."

Both candidates are protected by the Secret Service, and Obama has had Secret Service coverage for over a year, which is apparently the earliest that any candidate has been given protection.

June 3, 2008

Political theories

Hillary and Sex and the City

Slate offers a few political theories today, largely about the intersection of politics and pop culture:

  • First one: part of the reason Sex and the City did so well this weekend is because its main fan base, white ladies, could no longer deny that their favorite political candidate has lost the nomination. According to this theory, both Hillary Clinton's campaign and the movie (which had the highest grossing opening weekend ever for a romantic-comedy) represent a "weirdly conflicted feminism": the SATC ladies are successful and independent, but their lives revolve around status, money, and the men in their lives, while Hillary arguably got as far as she did because she's married to her own Mr. Big. So much for the feminist revolution.
  • Next is another theory about Hillary: since she keeps winning primaries, especially in big states, why doesn't she have more superdelegates supporting her? Theory: the superdelegates have learned from history that a party that fights with itself through the convention will lose in November. If she were running in the free-wheeling '70's or '80's when the news was only on for a half an hour a day, she might still have a chance. As it is, the political big shots who serve as superdelegates are trying (and failing) to minimize negative press and keep their party from looking like a chaotic bunch of squabblers.
  • And finally, an insinuated conspiracy theory: 90 year-old West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd was mysteriously hospitalized hours after criticizing Dick Cheney's "contempt and astounding ignorance toward his own countrymen" when Cheney made a cheap incest joke about West Virginia.

May 13, 2008

Third World? Third Helpings!

McDonalds in India

That title was coined by a friend, T-Rock, when reports of growing obesity rates in developing countries emerged a few years ago.

But now it relates to Bush's recent explanation for why we are in the middle of a global food shortage--people in poor countries are eating too much.

This is incredible: in talking about the food crisis, Bush referenced India and its growing middle class. "When you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up."

High demand for food is because of India? So if all those people in India would just stay poor and malnourished, there would be plenty of food to go around! Wow.

A representative from a poverty research institute in India hit back, and is quoted by the Times as saying:

"If Americans slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates." He added, archly, that the money spent in the United States on liposuction to get rid of fat from excess consumption could be funneled to feed famine victims.

Americans eats an average of 3,770 calories a day, which is more than anyone else in the world according to the UN, and 50% more than what the average Indian eats per day.

Maybe Bush is coming down on India for being such greedy snack-hogs because they've ignored his recent request to stop their plans to pipe gas into their country from Iran. Of course, they'll probably just use the pipeline to blast in more delicious Iranian cakes and halva and kebabs, those piggies!

April 22, 2008

Pennsylvania gets ever bluer

Pennsylvania, not a red state anymore

Pennsylvania keeps getting named as a swing state or a battleground state in every recent presidential election, even though the Democratic candidate has won in each of the last four elections.

And while proud wearers of the t-shirt above in the central region of the state tend to vote Republican [county map of 2004 election], the election this November should be an even easier win for the Democrats. Over 200,000 new voters have been registered in recent drives, and 70% of them are Democrats.

It should be easy as long as the maniacal in-fighting of the last 6 weeks doesn't make all these new voters hate their party. So far, it looks like Pennsylvanians are responding to all the attention they've gotten: only 26% of Pennsylvania voters turned out in the 2004 primary, but they're expecting at least twice that level today.

Hopefully they'll still be interested in voting in the fall after the candidates have moved their bowling-and-whiskey-shots operations to Florida and other real battleground states.

March 17, 2008

Increasingly cynical state looks forward to non-sleazeball leader

David Patterson, our new governor

After what feels like the fastest political scandal in history, David Patterson is getting sworn in as our new governor today, and will be taking on a state government full of corruption, ineptitude, and mutual partisan loathing. Plus we're in the midst of a tempestuous budget season and a recession.

Actually, Albany is like that pretty much all the time. We've gotten so used to corrupt politics in our state that having a competent, non-combative, upstanding guy in power feels like a radical new approach to government. If Patterson can just avoid swearing at/threatening Assembly members and stay out of any federal criminal investigations, he'll probably be heralded as a success.

A couple of interesting reports on how he's dealing with his new leadership position today. The Post reports that he's getting irritated with state officials, lobbyists, and fake Barack Obama assistants all claiming that they have special access to him. Patterson has just won the political lottery, so he should get ready to hear from a lot of long-lost friends coming out of the woodwork.

The Times says that Gov. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, another surprise governor who replaced an ousted criminal, sent Patterson a care package of Pepto-Bismol, Excedrin, and a Magic 8 ball. She says she wanted to "provide him with a few laughs" by suggesting that his new job will cause him physical pain--haha!

One last thing about the Spitzer scandal: I wonder if the Times checked out any other high-level politicians in the state when they first noticed that an FBI public corruption unit was involved in the prostitution ring investigation. I wonder who else they considered as the significant public figure before figuring out it was Spitzer?

Bloomberg? Ew! Would have been a much bigger shock, also would have dispelled rumors that he's gay that I don't think are based on anything but never seem to go away.

Schumer? He loves the media (As Bob Dole said: "The most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a camera") and is probably smart enough about his image to not commit such a salacious and easily traceable crime. He's also been impressively restrained in his comments about Spitzer, who he's never liked.

Cuomo? He was already involved in a sex scandal in which he was the one getting screwed over, so maybe political sex scandals are a lightning strikes once kind of thing. Unless you're Bill Clinton.

As it turned out, the Times journalists couldn't have written a tidier morality play. They're so pleased with their reporting in this area that the paper did a lengthy profile of three more expensive prostitutes in yesterday's paper. That's a lot of whores for the Times.

March 11, 2008

The more we learn, the duller it gets

Eliot Spitzer scandal

I was on the road yesterday, so got 100% of my information about the Spitzer scandal from text messages from friends who were at work. The first vague message I got--"Eliot Spitzer in prostitution ring"-- was by far the most interesting part of the story.

Whoa!, I thought. This is big news! Was he getting paid off to look the other way about something he uncovered in his Attorney General days? Why would someone as rich as he is need to make extra money by renting out girls, or getting hush money? Or, wait, is Eliot Spitzer involved in human trafficking? Maybe it's an international syndicate! Maybe he was trading Colombian children for guns for FARC!

Then I eventually got more specific text messages, and figured out that Spitzer was just some regular asshole who was going to hookers. Yawn. Sure, it's shameful, but receiving further confirmation that Eliot Spitzer is a self-righteous jerk who thinks he can get away with treating people like crap is hardly a surprise.

It also serves as a reminder to all us Democrats that we're not shielded from this kind of thing. Our elected officials can pose around all high and mighty about bringing ethics and morals to Washington/Albany/Spokane while secretly engaging in exactly the kind of behavior they claim to be fighting, just like the most family-values Republican can.

The Times offers an overview of the mess Spitzer had already made of his first year in office, as well as a psychological profile ("reckless"). And a good piece from Clyde Haberman on how building a career based on moralizing from on high means you've got an extra long way to fall when you screw up this bad.

However boring this scandal is, I guess he'll probably resign, because now he's "lost the respect" of New Yorkers--something he'd already been doing pretty well for the past year all on his own.

March 10, 2008

Remember when we didn't endorse Eliot Spitzer?

I'm so so sorry. Sorry I got caught.

You heard it here first: Amy's Robot wanted Suozzi (disclosure: he's related to one of us).

And poor Silda looks so, so miserable in that picture.

March 3, 2008

Female President idea returns to world of hour-long dramas and sci-fi movies

Condi Rice and Nancy Pelosi

There's a pretty good chance that Hillary Clinton is going to stay stuck as America's First Serious Female Presidential Contender, never quite making it to First Female President. I think she's made it easier for whoever decides to run in future elections, even if she ultimately loses. There are other great women in politics who don't have all the baggage that comes with Hillary, and today the Times looks at who might be the first woman president, for real this time.

They like Kathleen Sebelius, governor of Kansas and recent feature of O Magazine, and also Janet Napolitano, governor of Arizona. Both of these are good choices--they're popular second term Democratic governors in red states, and have strong fiscal backgrounds, and both have endorsed Obama.

I guess it's a good bet that speculation about Condi won't go away, though if she ever ran, she would be facing a country still pissed off from when we suddenly realized sometime in 2005 that we all totally hate our president. She'll always have to answer for Iraq.

What's surprising is that the Times didn't mention Nancy Pelosi, who is the highest-ranking woman in US history. I think Pelosi is smart, aggressive, and knows what she's doing, even though the Democratic Congress has been so disappointing. She's fought for a lot of good policies like raising minimum wage, and lots of other ones that got defeated, and she voted against the Iraq war. She'd be a pretty good candidate if she can get Congress to stand up to Bush more often. She also raised 5 kids while working her way up in California politics.

For now, maybe all we're going to get is another 4 years with Presidents Leslie McCloud, Mackenzie Allen, and Laura Roslin.

Watch Tina Fey's great "Bitch Is the New Black" political speech on SNL's Weekend Update from a week ago.

February 28, 2008

America's weird orange jumpsuit fetish

America's Prisons

In a study by Pew, we learn that America has more people in prison or jail than any other country in the world. "Is that a higher percentage of the population in prison, or more actual prisoners?" you ask. Smarty pants. Both!

We started 2008 off with 2.3 million people in prison or jail, compared to 1.5 million in China, a country with nasty human rights practices and a population 4 times bigger than ours.

That's 1% of the adult population overall. 1 in 100 American adults is in prison or jail. Among young black men, it's 1 in 9. That's right, 11% of young black men are incarcerated. That's ten times more than the rest of the population.

Why do we lock up so many of our citizens? Because we can. Or rather, we can when our economy is doing well. A director at Pew says, "We tend to be a country in which incarceration is an easy response to crime. Being tough on crime is an easy position to take, particularly if you have the money. And we did have the money in the '80s and '90s." Now that we're broke, we're thinking that violating parole or driving drunk maybe isn't worth $45,000/year per prisoner.

Recently, the states with the most people in prison have reconsidered locking up so many of their citizens--but not because it's a terrible system that doesn't work. Mostly because it's so expensive.

So our country has swung from the "tough on crime" era of the '80's to the "let's spend our money on more important things, like the war on terror and tax rebates" philosophy of the current decade.

The Voice did an article a few years back about so-called million dollar blocks, or individual city blocks where the state is spending at least $1 million per year to incarcerate some of its residents. It was a great piece about all the creative and wonderful things you could do for one city block with a million dollar investment every year, apart from the tempting option of locking up a the same group of people over and over again.

February 7, 2008

Romney fights terrorism by quitting

Romney is out

After winning the primaries and caucuses of 6 states, Romney has decided to drop out of the race.

Not because he doesn't think he can win. But because if he stayed in the running, the terrorists would win.

During his speech, he said:

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

That'll show 'em! Try splitting the vote now, insurgents!

The only downsides I can see to this news are that Romney's telegenic press secretary, Kevin "Mitt but handsomer" Madden, won't be on TV anymore. Same for Tagg, everyone's favorite Romney boy. Sorry, Tagg-hags!

[tx T-Rock]

February 5, 2008

It's Primary Day!

Barry and Bobby

Even De Niro has endorsed Obama, although his speech was a bit awkward:

"Barack Obama does not have the experience to be president of the United States," he began, evoking a pantomime "Boo!" from the crowd. "I can prove it. He wasn't experienced enough to vote to authorise the invasion of Iraq."

If Oprah, Caroline Kennedy, Michael Chabon and Craig Newmark didn't sway you, surely Robert De Niro will.

On the other hand, as of Friday, Snoop Dogg was still undecided.

January 31, 2008

Romney and 30,000 journalists visit California voters

Romney visits a California family

The Times has a great Reuters photo of Romney and friends meeting with the Bennetts of Long Beach, CA.

"Now just pretend we're not even here, Bennett family! Just act natural. And the consultants say if you can throw a 'Ronald Reagan' or two into your questions and comments, that would be great."

January 30, 2008

Edwards is out

John Edwards

John Edwards is withdrawing his candidacy today after a string of third place finishes in early primaries. Things were looking pretty good after he beat Hillary in Iowa, but since then he's been at around 15% in other early voting states.

The bad news: those of us in later voting states can't support the candidate who more than any other talked about the reality of poverty in America, who kept public attention on the ongoing public service disaster in New Orleans and other Katrina-affected areas, and who spoke most forcefully about how corporate interests hurt regular Americans, especially in terms of health care.

AP writes:

Edwards burst out of the starting gate with a flurry of progressive policy ideas — he was the first to offer a plan for universal health care, the first to call on Congress to pull funding for the war, and he led the charge that lobbyists have too much power in Washington and need to be reigned in.

The good news: we won't have to hear Elizabeth Edwards say shit like "I'm disappointed in Michelle Obama" and "I think I'm more joyful than Hillary is" and "Remember everyone: I have breast cancer!" anymore.

Edwards is expected to announce his withdrawal today in New Orleans, and will probably make the case for better government intervention in rebuilding the city and helping people still suffering from tremendous losses two and a half years after the storm.

January 25, 2008

Hey Palestine, let's go shopping!

Palestinians shop!

Life's been tough in Gaza lately. The people are ruled by a militant regime, there's at least 50% unemployment, and even if you have some money it's hard to buy food, medicine, gas, appliances, and pretty much everything else you would want.

Which is why it's been nice to see the tens of thousands of Palestinians flooding across the breached border into Egypt yesterday and today in an unbridled frenzy of consumerism. An economic analyst quoted by AP estimates that Gazans have spent $130 million in Egypt since Wednesday.

Egypt is moving toward controlling the shoppers eager to buy anything local vendors have to offer, but news reports suggest that until tonight, no one was doing much to stop them from coming in, and Hamas isn't taxing any goods they bring back. One Egyptian official estimates that 120,000 Palestinians are in Egypt, buying all the TVs, cigarettes, goats, generators, and potato chips (with special inflated prices) they can carry from the Egyptian border town they're temporarily being allowed into.

But of course, some resourceful Palestinians are taking this opportunity to experience other aspects of urban life they don't usually have access to. The Times interviewed Muhammad al-Hirakly, 22, while he was in line to ride the bumper cars at an amusement park. He and his friends were going to try to get all the way to Cairo, "to see the big city and our family there, and also the girls," he said. "It's the most fun we've had in years."

An older visitor took a more philosophical view of his moment of freedom:

Adel al-Mighraky, 54, was returning to Rafah... "We were like birds in a cage," he said. Once the door is open, he said, "birds will fly away as fast as they can — this is what we did. But what kind of bird has to go back to its cage after it was freed?"

Olmert and Abbas are meeting this weekend, and there are rumors that Israel might let the Palestinians take control of the Gaza borders, which have been pretty much totally closed since June. After seeing how happy a brief, overpriced shopping spree can make residents of Gaza, I hope the Israelis can recognize that despite our differences, we're all consumers at heart.

January 23, 2008

A Hell's Kitchen Economics lesson

 Olde English 800

Today the Times covered Eliot Spitzer's proposal for increasing NY state revenues for the coming year, which is a strange blend of encouraging some problem behaviors for residents (thousands of video gambling machines installed at the racetracks) while trying to discourage other problems (raising taxes on malt liquor and, weirdly enough, illegal drugs.)

But the political is personal, and the Times is at its best when it captures the reactions of regular New Yorkers to otherwise dull legislative proposals.

So they went into businesses along 10th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood where people love their 40s, which nobody knows better than bodega workers.

"It's bad for the people," said Niff Alaradem 29, a clerk at Clinton Gourmet Market, at 46th Street and 10th Avenue. "You see so many alcoholic people, it's all they drink, Colt 45, Olde English, everything. They take one of these big bottles and it's dinner."

The Times asked some local residents what they thought about Spitzer's plan--specifically, his proposal to raise the tax on malt liquor from 11 cents to $2.54 per gallon. The responses they got perfectly illustrate a number of key economic concepts:

Regressive Tax: "It's messed up, it's wrong!" said Darryl, who looked as though he was in his 50s and was bundled up against the cold. "You got mostly poor people like me buying malt liquor."

Inelastic Demand: Roman Isre, 28, a barber at Erik’s Barber Shop on 10th Avenue, said he bought malt liquor once or twice a week. "That's bad!" Mr. Isre said when told about Mr. Spitzer’s proposals. Would he buy less malt liquor? Mr. Isre smiled. "Nah. You got to do what you got to do," he said. "It’s like gas. You drive the same mileage for $2 a gallon or $3.50 a gallon."

Cost-Benefit Analysis: A and A Market and Deli, at 45th Street and 10th Avenue, used to sell as many as 40 cases of malt liquor a week, but it became too bothersome to stock. "We have arguments here, very loud arguments," said Mustafa Saleh, 27, the deli’s manager. "They don't want to pay." When customers did pay, it was annoying, he said. "They paid in change," he said, "$2.50 in nickels, dimes and pennies; that’s the kind of money they have."

You can argue that raising the price of a 40 through taxes will encourage people to stop drinking so many of them, but my guess is that this population isn't likely to respond to higher prices by quitting drinking. If anything, they'll just switch to beer, which will continue to be taxed at a lower rate due to its lower alcohol content.

But they won't be happy about it! Darryl, the bundled-up 50 year-old, was asked why he bought malt liquor rather than beer: "Darryl looked quizzically at a reporter and replied, 'You get twice as much, and it’s got a bigger kick to it.'" Smart shopper.

January 11, 2008

Illegal surveillance suddenly not quite so scary anymore

Terrorists Beware cartoon

Or rather, we'll be listening provided we paid the phone bill this month. My favorite headline of 2008 so far:

FBI wiretap cut off for unpaid bill

The inspector general of the Justice Department wrote in a recent audit, "Late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence."

Pretty ballsy for a telephone company to actually cut off the FBI's service. Whatever phone company this is, the only chance they have of not getting prosecuted for conducting illegal surveillance is that the administration keeps swearing that it wasn't the company's fault--the government made them do it.

Be sure to send in that cable bill, FBI! I hear "The Wire" is really good this year.

January 2, 2008

Fuck Iowa

Iowa caucuses

Tomorrow are the Iowa caucuses, in which a tiny percentage of people who live in a tiny state get together to have more influence on who our next president is than anyone else in the country.

Do you know how ridiculous the Iowa caucuses are? You can read all about the crazy process of participating in a caucus on Wikipedia, but one thing you should know is that ties between two candidates at a particular caucus can be settled by literally pulling a name out of a hat.

In the Times today, Joe Trippi disputes today's poll results that predict an Obama win, because he says "You’d have to have 220,000 people voting for that poll to be right. If that’s what’s going on, there’s no historic model for it."

What he's saying is that it's unrealistic to expect that 220,000 people in the whole state of Iowa are going to vote in a caucus, out of a population of 3 million. That's less than 10%! This absurdly small group of caucus participants, which realistically might be 150,000, or 1/20 of 1% of the US population, influence the outcome of every other state's primary. And as of today, one day before the caucuses, a quarter of likely caucus participants still hadn't figured out who they were going to vote for.

The Times also points out today that a whole lot of people who are legal Iowa residents won't be able to caucus, because instead of letting people actually vote on their own at any time the polls are open on primary day, they have to attend a local caucus at a set time:

Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty.

As loathsome as Giuliani is, I kind of hope his strategy of ignoring goddamn Iowa so he can pay attention to states with bigger populations, more democratic one-person one-vote primaries, and a higher percentage of people who actually vote in them, works out for him.

Next week: Fuck New Hampshire. Which at least offers actual individual voting in its primary, but like Iowa has ridiculously disproportionate political power. Let's all just vote for the candidate we like the best, and ignore what happens over the next week in these little states.

December 20, 2007

Argentina's awesome president

Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner

This is a picture of Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, at a graduation event at a military school outside Buenos Aires.

Look at her. That fan, the pose, the exposed thigh.

Now think about Hillary Clinton, and to what lengths she would go to make sure that no picture of her sitting like this while holding a fan at a state function ever surfaced.

Like Clinton, Kirchner is the wife of a former popular president, to whom she owes pretty much all of her political success. Nestor Kirchner stepped down from the presidency earlier this year so that she could run. She won easily, all the while wearing gobs of mascara and flashy suits and loud jewelry.

As the Times of London wrote in comparing the two women, "While every fashion move that Clinton makes is relentlessly analyzed for its potential impact on voters in Iowa – from her latest hair-style to whether or not she laughs too loudly - Kirchner has gaily shrugged off accusations that she is 'frivolous'."

In keeping with her usual aesthetic, which my friend Trash Rock describes as "retired cheerleader", Kirchner wears suits like this:

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

and adopts poses like this in TV interviews:

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

And nobody cares! Can you IMAGINE Hillary Clinton with this body language, looking all languorous and kittenish on the air? Americans would flip out. Sure, Kirchner got elected mainly because voters assume that her policies will be nearly identical to her husband's, but many Clinton supporters probably feel the same way.

The problem is, American campaign strategists seem sure that if Hillary looks good on purpose, she opens herself up to criticism and stereotyping. Obama looked great on the cover of GQ, and I would have been glad to see Hillary in that non-dowdy Vogue photo shoot she backed out of last month. You can bet she would have gotten shit for it, even without holding a fan. Poor Hillary, stuck with her pantsuits.

December 6, 2007

GOP screws up its sneaky Latino seduction ploy

Latino marchers

For a minute there, it was looking like the Republican strategy to win over Latino voters was working. They went on about family values and religion and being against abortion, hoping to appeal to the millions of Latinos who might agree with them on those issues. In the 2000 election, Bush got 35% of the Latino vote, and in 2004, he got 44%.

But somewhere along the way, probably around the time all the Republican presidential candidates started arguing loudly about who could keep more Mexicans out of the country, they wised up. A recent poll of Latino registered voters finds that after a brief shift, they're back to favoring Democrats over Republicans at the same rate they did in 1999 (57% to 23%.)

There are expected to be 8.6 million Latino voters in the next election, 1 million more than in 2004. And a lot of them are in big, important swing states like Florida and Nevada. It was a clever idea for the Republicans to try to win them over, but it looks like they blew it. If all those "Hoy Marchamos, Mañana Votamos" marches last year didn't make it obvious enough, Latinos are noticing that the Republican party doesn't even bother to pretend that it wants them anymore. If you side with the "build a fence!" morons instead of the fastest growing population in the country, you lose elections.

December 3, 2007

How you can help with the national debt

National Debt Clock

AP tells us today that our national debt is growing by $1 million every minute. This rate is so fast that about a year from now, the debt clock pictured above that used to be on West 43rd St (it was moved recently to make way for fancy new green building One Bryant Park) won't even have enough digit spaces to express the whole number.

That's $10 trillion! $10,000,000,000,000.00! God bless America.

Since we're obviously a totally irresponsible bunch of financial reprobates, and considering that rising interest rates are only going to make things worse, this makes me wonder: What kind of idiot is still willing to lend us money?

According to AP, part of our debt is held by U.S. citizens who live here and read the paper every day and still think that buying government bonds is a good investment. But a lot of investors are foreign: 44% of our publicly held debt we owe to foreign governments and investors. Japan has the biggest share.

Former Congressional budget anaylst Stanley Collender is concerned. "The first day the Chinese or the Japanese or the Saudis say, 'we've bought enough of your paper,' then the debt — whatever level it is at that point — becomes unmanageable," he says.

Our individual debt allocations are already $30,000, so what the hell--we might as well be patriotic consumers and start buying as many products as possible directly from the countries that our government owes money to. Go ahead and stand in the huge, crazy line that forms outside the Nintendo store at Rockefeller Center at 7:30 AM every time they get a new shipment of Wii consoles in. It's good practice for the bread lines we'll all be standing in when we're old and Social Security is a distant memory.

And while you're at it, support our nation's fiscal philosophy and get some new credit cards. With a few more big credit limits, your salary is doubled!

November 21, 2007

Eliot Spitzer reconsiders that whole "steamroller" thing

Eliot Spitzer reconsiders

It's been a rocky time for our governor, who swept into his first year of office promoting himself as a "fucking steamroller", guns blazing, ready to take on a mess of a state legislature and make some big changes.

Last week, a poll set his favorability rating at a crappy 41%, with only 25% of voters saying they would re-elect him. That's less than a year after winning almost 70% of the vote in an election in which many New Yorkers were relieved to finally have a Democrat running the state again. The two biggest stories about his governorship so far have been his proposal to offer driver's licenses to undocumented residents that nobody liked, and the "Troopergate" debacle.

It's been a total public relations disaster.

So he announced yesterday that single-swipe subway fares would hold steady at $2. This is being regarded by some media, including the Post of course, who calls Spitzer a tooth fairy, as pandering to grumpy voters in the face of fiscal experts who predict a major downturn in the region's economy in the near future, which will make fare increases necessary eventually.

Who knows? Maybe Spitzer is trying to change his public image and soften the pit-bull approach he's taken since the start of his term. But if he really is trying to get people to like him again, this approach isn't going to mean much to New Yorkers.

The Times interviewed several subway riders to ask them what they think about the single-ride price staying at $2. Considering only 7% of subway and bus riders actually pay $2 per ride according to the Straphangers Campaign, their responses aren't surprising:

"If they’re not hiking the $2 rates, there’s some way it will come out of our pocket," said Ellene Wundrok, a real estate broker from Flushing, Queens. "The tourists might benefit. They’re the ones that buy the $2 fares, not people who live in the city."

Joseph Rivera, 20, a graphic design student from Brooklyn, said that riders might react angrily once the authority announces what the increases in other types of fares will be. "This has the potential to backlash on him."

And this is hilarious: the Daily News jubilantly takes full credit for the non-increased $2 fare through its Halt the Hike campaign, and quotes chirpy reader Elsa Butler who gushes "The Daily News coverage has been fantastic!" I sure hope all those happy tourists getting a price break start picking up the Daily News down at the Publix!

I think actual New Yorkers understand that all the capital improvements the MTA plans to make over the next few years will require a big cash influx. A NYT editorial states that the MTA wants to bring in $580 million of new money in the next 2 years, so a fare increase for unlimited Metrocards may be unavoidable in that period. The MTA decides on its entire new fare plan on December 19.

But until then, we should use the Pizza Connection economic law to demand that midtown pizzerias stop charging $2.25 for a slice.

October 24, 2007

San Diego and New Orleans now have at least one thing in common

Big fancy burned houses

Once the fires stop burning, San Diego and surrounding areas will be left with a lot of charred houses and a lot of displaced people. Reports are talking about 1,500 homes destroyed as of right now. A lot of them were probably very big houses, like this photo of the remains of a multi-million dollar house in Rancho Santa Fe.

Comparisons are already being drawn between this disaster and the hurricanes of 2005. The Times has put together a simple chart comparing the populations of New Orleans and the areas around San Diego that were evacuated, and as you can probably guess, the people in San Diego are a whole lot richer, whiter, and have more cars to evacuate in. The Red Cross estimates that 350,000 homes were destroyed in Katrina and Rita.

But there are some things that these two very different regions of our country share: a take-no-prisoners approach to defending one's home against the perceived threat of looters.

In a article that compiles comments posted by San Diego-area readers, the Times quotes Jason S., whose family members made their way back into their evacuated neighborhood in Poway:

"Last night, my brother snuck past police barricades to check on our family home and watch for looters," he wrote. "Despite the risk, I think everyone is really proud of him for doing this."

After he returned from the home, his brother reported that a neighbor was camped out on another lawn with a shotgun and a sign that read "Looters will be shot."

"Looters will be shot"... where have we seen that before? Oh, hey! It's that guy! From New Orleans!

New Orleans looters beware

He must have moved to Southern California to get away from natural disasters and find a prettier woman.

October 12, 2007

Seven beautiful peacemakers stand before me

antm%20AL.jpg

Al Gore and friends have won the Nobel Peace Prize. It seems that the Norwegian Nobel Committee is trying to be like Tyra Banks in the way it announces the winner. No word yet on whether the eliminated peacemakers cried until their mascara ran.

Only one of you can continue in the running towards becoming...

October 5, 2007

Giuliani: a history lesson

Giuliani on his radio show

It is totally understandable for most Americans who live outside the NYC metropolitan area to think of Rudy Giuliani as a strong, no-nonsense leader who takes a tough stance on fighting terror and is experienced in managing complicated governments.

People who lived in NY while he was mayor know the truth: the guy is a belligerent, obnoxious jackass.

The NY Times has compiled a history of memorable moments on Giuliani's weekly radio call-in show, which is like a microcosm of his entire political career. For New Yorkers, it serves as a reminder of why Le Tigre called him "a fucking jerk", and as a wake-up call for everybody else.

A few choice excerpts:

When Joe from Manhattan called in 1998 to complain about the city government giving special parking privileges to a white-shoe law firm, Mayor Giuliani emitted an audible groan into the microphone. "Well, let me give you another view of that rather than the sort of Marxist class concept that you’re introducing," Mr. Giuliani said.

On Aug. 8, 1998, Marvin from Brooklyn complained that the mayor talked too much about the Yankees. (Mr. Giuliani opened summertime programs by examining the Yankees’ prospects and closed with: "Go Yankees!") Marvin got off the line but the mayor was not finished with him.

"Marvin, where’d you go? You go back into your hole, Marvin? Listen, I enjoy sports, Marvin — you think that makes me a bad person? Marvin, get a life."

When Bob from Manhattan asked in 1999 about a report linking a mayoral friend to ethical wrongdoing, Mr. Giuliani butted in.

"Why don’t you seek counseling somewhere, Bob? I think you could use some help. I can see the direction we’re going in — there are people so upset and so disturbed that they use radios for these sick little attacks on people," Mr. Giuliani said. "I hope you take this in the right spirit, Bob. You should go to a hospital. You should see a psychiatrist."

You know, I totally dislike this guy and think he would make a terrible President, but these old anecdotes? They're pretty funny. I read these, and I'm sort of grudgingly amazed at how outspoken and ballsy (and crass and offensive) Giuliani could be, in public, over the airwaves, to his own constituents. It's still a mystery to me how he got elected, twice, but these stories demonstrate one quality that will always appeal to many New Yorkers--the guy has no problem telling people when he thinks they're full of shit.

And now the very qualities that he had no problem sharing with the world pre-9/11 are the same ones that he's successfully (so far) toned down while campaigning in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

But it's only a matter of time before he shows his true colors and tells some elderly, ferret-owning voter that she's sick in the head and needs to get a life.

September 5, 2007

At last, George Bush has someone to vote for

Fred Thompson at the butter princess, Minnesota State Fair

Over Labor Day weekend, the Times asked a bunch of people who they thought looked good for president. A lot of the Democrats they talked to in Iowa and New Hampshire might not have made up their minds between Hillary and Obama yet, but they have this over the Republicans: they're going to vote for somebody.

But the Republicans are screwed. Ohio and NH Republicans aren't into anybody. Even if the people interviewed for the article actually like a candidate, they talk themselves out of supporting them.

"I liked McCain, but he’s losing ground too fast to win. I don’t know if it’s his age or the war," says Nancy Adams, an "energetic 70".

Leanne Stein, 41, sort of likes Giuliani. "He’s got style, and he has firsthand experience with how to run government in a way that deals with terrorism. But he needs someone to coach him on all the issues. All he talks about is terrorism. What about health care? What about education?"

Wayne Horton, 53, likes Romney, but assumes he won't get the nomination because he's a Mormon, and has nothing good to say about anyone else: "Giuliani, he’s pro-abortion. It’s hard for me to believe that he’s a Republican front-runner. Giuliani’s children aren’t even supporting him. He’s had three wives. I don’t like that." And McCain "never impressed me, anyway. He comes from Arizona, where he let all the immigrants walk in with no repercussions."

That leaves D.A. Arthur Branch who's looking like the best choice out there for Republicans, mostly because voters don't like anybody else, and his campaign hasn't really started yet. He's finally announcing tomorrow.

The thing about Thompson is, he's the only front-runner candidate in either party who is a white, Protestant man, which is all our stupid country seems capable of electing. I bet that George Bush, when he finally endorses somebody, will get behind Thompson. Plus, he's 6' 5" and was in Die Hard 2. Unless Giuliani transforms himself into a charming southern non-denominationalist, I think Thompson's going to take it.

August 22, 2007

Yushchenko completes Monster Hero transformation

Yushchenko battles forest fire

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has had a rough few years. It probably hasn't been easy reforming his nation while fighting off political adversaries who poisoned him with dioxin back in 2004 and then led to several disintegrations of his government. And even though the scarring of his face from his near-death experience made him look scary and Frankensteiny, did that hold him back? No it did not!

And just because his arch-enemy Vladimir Putin is posing around for the media flexing his saggy man-boobs, in my opinion he's no match for good old Yushy Craterface.

Here he is "personally taking control of firefighting" in Ukraine, where forest fires have been burning for a few days.

Yushchenko fighting fires

Yushchenko fighting fires

Yushchenko fighting fires

OK that's it. No more mean jokes.

August 16, 2007

Jim Naugle: scandal waiting to happen

Jim Naugle

If there's one thing that messy outings of conservative male political figures has taught us these past few years, it's that once you start going public with your promotion of anti-gay legislation and your personal views that homosexuality is a sin, your chances of being found to have had illicit/illegal sexual relationships with anonymous men, male hookers, or teenage boys go through the roof.

Jim Naugle is the mayor of Fort Lauderdale, the city with the highest concentration of same-sex couple households on the east coast. He's been quoted that he does not support gay rights, that homosexuality is a sin, and that ACLU stands for "Atheists and Criminal Lobbying Union". He also describes himself as being "extremely" conservative, though he is a Democrat.

Now he's in a fight with the local gay community over the issue of bathrooms at the beach--he wants to install single-occupancy bathrooms to deter "homosexual activity." When asked to apologize for making such an insulting statement, he agreed... then apologized to the families of Fort Lauderdale for not realizing "how serious the problem was of the sexual activity that’s taking place in bathrooms and public places and parks."

A grand total of 4 people have been arrested since 2005 for having sex in public bathrooms in Fort Lauderdale, and he's talking about a "serious problem" that compels him to be "concerned about protection of parks for our kids and saving lives."

Reading the Times coverage of Mayor Naugle and his bigotry, it's almost like the media is setting this guy up for some former Boy Scout to come forward and tell the world about his scandalous, possibly criminal, secret life. Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, former Washington state senator Jim West, even poor old Jim McGreevey--having such an anti-gay agenda just makes readers wonder exactly who's been spending so much time in those beach bathrooms.

Have you seen that clip of Ted Haggard telling his congregation about the Bible telling us not to be gay? [video]

August 3, 2007

Small-town New England, the anti-LA

Small town Maine, fisherman dolls

In a world where celebrities' vacations, shopping trips, and visits to Starbucks are the sole content of hundreds of media outlets, it's refreshing to see parts of our country where famous people go about their lives among people who couldn't care less. A couple of small vacation destinations in northern New England have made the news this week, bringing national attention to parts of our country that are used to being out of the spotlight, and want to keep it that way, thank you very much.

On Monday, Chief Justice John Roberts suffered an unexpected seizure while at his vacation home on the coast of Maine. A NY Times article on the reaction of the townspeople to the brief onslaught of media attention is a beautiful example of Maine culture, where people are so committed to being under the radar that they take offense when outsiders create a fuss over local VIPs. It must be a shock for media people, used to working in parts of America where people will gladly suffer any humiliation necessary to get on national TV, to try to operate in towns like Port Clyde where locals are totally unfazed by their celebrities and seem to have no interest in drawing attention to themselves.

"I wish the media would go away and leave him alone," said Caroline Voile, owner of the Port Clyde General Store, where the chief justice buys his groceries. "There are a lot of people on the islands who have high notoriety. They’d just as soon live quietly by themselves."

"It’s back to normal, business as usual — that was just a quick thing," said Ann Coffin, sitting outside the Port Clyde Baptist Church, whose sewing circle had made the fisherman dolls.

The coast of Maine seems to be the world's best place for famous people to go if they don't want anybody to take their picture or mess with their business or even notice them. My favorite Maine understatements about Chief Justice Roberts came from a couple of local guys. Dennis Cushman: "Around here he puts his pants on the same way we all do," and his lobsterman brother Mike: "He’s a wicked nice guy."

And today, French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he would spend two weeks vacationing in Wolfeboro, NH on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. The town manager's response in the press is somewhere on the border of a shrug and a whatever hand gesture: "We're going to have to get our French flags out, I guess."

July 20, 2007

Friday reading

Tom Cruise in Valkyrie

Lots of great stuff on Page Six today. Some highlights:

  • David Frost recounts the grossest conversation-starter of all time: As they were sitting down to their famous TV interview, Richard Nixon turned to him and asked, "Well, did you do any fornicating this weekend?" YUCK YUCK YUCK. What's even more disturbing than being asked a question like that by Richard Nixon is that Richard Nixon obviously thought of himself some kind of slick, winking, ladies' man. Puke.
  • Tom Cruise in his fetishiest/campiest movie outfit yet (above), on the set of Valkyrie in Germany.
  • During her first show in 2 weeks not to be canceled due to exhaustion, a troubled Amy Winehouse spit on the crowd. Crying onstage and hitting herself in the head with her microphone also reported.
  • A bizarre story from Moby about getting a funny letter from Karl Rove, after Moby joked that maybe they were half-brothers. The letter suggested that maybe James Carville was a more likely secret relative. Moby might actually not be joking about this.
  • And A.M. Homes, a writer we still love even though her latest books are maybe not as good, is reportedly doing an HBO series about the Hamptons, which hopefully will be as perverse and sick as her very best stories.

July 17, 2007

Republican identity crisis

Republican candidates

What is going on with the Republican party? The Democrats are more or less rolling along just fine with a handful of interesting yet predictable candidates that voters seem pretty happy with. Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose for the Republicans.

I don't even care that much which Democrat gets the nomination; the Republicans are a thouasnd times more interesting. Who are those people going to nominate? No idea. AP reports today that 23% of registered Republicans don't like any of the candidates, which is up from 14% who said the same thing in June.

Here's what's going on with the leading candidates:

  • Giuliani: His popularity has been in steady decline, from 35% in March, to 27% in June, to 21% now. Still the front-runner, but time is not on his side. Republicans are more likely to say they like no candidates than that they like him.
  • Romney is spending more money than he's raising, and last quarter he loaned $6 million to his campaign from personal funds, something he said would be "akin to a nightmare". His support is at about 11%.
  • McCain is in free-fall. Almost completely out of money, and his staff is out the door. It's over.
  • That leaves Fred Thompson, whose support has been steady at about 19%. He'll probably get a surge when he finally announces he's running. But really: an ex-Senator? Pretty doubtful.

The biggest Republican candidates are all so different from each other that they seem to have split the base into fragmented clusters that won't unite behind any one person, and also created a growing base of dissatisfied voters. Without some Karl Rove figure pressing the hot buttons, it's going to be hard to mobilize these people next year.

So who's going to get the nomination? Some are guessing it'll be a Giuliani/Thompson ticket. Your guess is as good as mine.

July 2, 2007

Vladimir Putin, Mr. Cuddly

Putin nuzzles dog

Putin nuzzles the Bush's dog yesterday during his visit to Kennebunkport.

Related: last July's stomach kiss of a young Russian boy, who Putin said made him want to "squeeze him like a kitten" [video].


June 20, 2007

"Mayor to GOP: We're through"

Bloomberg in California

As the Daily News headline tells us, Bloomberg has finally ended all his capricious and opportunistic dancing back and forth among party affiliations and quit the Republican party once and for all. Yeah, no more aligning himself with a particular party when it helps raise funds or bring money to the city or generally serves his own political purposes.

Of course, this move to Independent status is just one more example of Bloomberg running roughshod over our country's two-party system and using whatever aspects of "Republican", "Democrat", or "Independent" are most convenient for him at the time. More and more voters say they're fed up with the two-party system and consider themselves independents, and whaddaya know, now that's what Bloomberg thinks, too.

But I don't care. I still think it's a good move. The two-party system is a disaster; it oversimplifies all the complicated issues that politicians face into an increasingly meaningless set of prescribed stances. Partisanship has degraded open and respectful political debate. And for the Republican party especially, there isn't even any clearly identifiable party line or philosophy anymore: there are the Giuliani-Schwarzenegger-those two senators from Maine-(and fomerly Bloomberg) Republicans, and there are the Bush-Cheney-McCain-most of the 2004 Congress Republicans. The notion of a "big tent" party is transforming into a big incoherent contradictory mess.

So good for Bloomberg. Yeah, he exploited the two-party system to his best advantage all these years, but it's a system that deserves to be exploited and ultimately dismantled. Becoming an Independent is a blatant strategy to court moderate voters who are frustrated with both parties, but these days, that's most people.

When he announced his new-found no-party status yesterday, he said, "We're here not to represent parties. We're here to represent the people and that's what we have to do every single day and that's the way we get judged." Every politician makes idealistic statements like that, but few get behind those words, probably because being unaffiliated with either of the two major parties is political suicide. As the NY Times says, he won't be saddled with the ideological burdens of the Republican party anymore, but he's also setting himself up for full-scale assault from two powerful political machines should he decide to run for president.

But still! Burn that mother down, Michael Bloomberg!

June 15, 2007

What security looks like in the new Hamas-ruled Gaza

A Reuters photo from the security area of the customs hall at the border between Gaza and Egypt.

security at the Gaza/Egypt border

Yikes. I'm guessing that you don't have to worry about packing your shampoo in a 3 oz. bottle when you run your bags through this scanner.

Meanwhile, one man living in Gaza takes an ambivalent, and depressingly pragmatic, approach to the new local bosses. "Today everybody is with Hamas because Hamas won the battle. If Fatah had won the battle they'd be with Fatah. We are a hungry people, we are with whoever gives us a bag of flour and a food coupon," said Yousef, 30. "Me, I'm with God and a bag of flour."

June 8, 2007

Good news! The G8 summit has solved all the world's problems. Again.

Bob Geldof at G8

Well, Bob Geldof's pissed.

Another G8 summit meeting of the leaders of the world has come and gone with the usual ambitious goals, legions of protesters, and meetings with Bono. Here's what they accomplished this year:

The countries promised to spend $60 billion to fight AIDS, malaria, and TB in Africa. Spread out over "the coming years" with no actual timeframe. And also, that money was already pledged two years ago at the 2005 G8 summit.

Also, they pledged $25 billion in aid to Africa over the next 10 years. But they'd already made that same pledge, also in 2005, and apparently have already fallen behind on promised payments.

Some other accomplishments:

  • The countries issued a "message of firmness" to Iran that it had better stop enriching uranium, or else!
  • They agreed to "seriously consider" trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. By 2050. Which is over FORTY YEARS from now.

Wow! Global leader in bottomless frustration Bob Geldof called the summit "a pantomime": "Do me a favor, get serious guys, get serious," he said. "This wasn't serious. This was a farce. A total farce."

Sure, he's right. It's a disgrace. But after I saw some sort-of cute photos of Bush, Blair, Merkel, and other frequently loathsome world leaders sitting around in the sun having a few drinks, it was hard to stay too mad at those crazy kids.

Bush and Merkel at G8

world leaders at G8

Come on, Bob, sit down, have a beer! Relax, man. They can always pledge another $100 billion next year.

May 30, 2007

Immigrants in NYC

NYC locksmiths

The NYT has a great feature today on how the immigration legislation now in Congress, the first major new legislation in 40 years that might actually pass, will affect the social fabric of New York City.

Among urban areas with high populations of immigrants, New York has an especially high ratio of legal to illegal immigrants, and a large majority (72%) of those immigrants come to the city to be reunited with family. Since the new legislation would value education and marketable skills over family members already in the country, it will have an especially big impact on cities like New York.

A couple of the families interviewed for the article really show how much the city needs the highly motivated people who come here looking for a better life. Jamal Hussain, 26, is a Bangladesh-born owner of a deli at Delancey and Allen streets. He got loans from family members to open his business four years ago. He says, "'I’m a hard worker, motivated.' said Mr. Hussain, who has repaid the loans, married, had a baby, and bought a house in the Bronx. 'Kids are going to school, they’re being doctors, lawyers,' he added, citing a niece who is a graduate student in science at New York University. 'Bottom line, instead of bringing those people already educated from over there, we have the opportunity to be homegrown Ph.D.’s.'"

The article says that Mexicans have entered the top three biggest immigrant groups in the city, along with Dominicans and Chinese. But of course, New York's growing Mexican population tends to be viewed differently than in other, less diverse parts of the country: "In dense and diverse city neighborhoods, they generally have been absorbed as just one more immigrant group."

With so many different kinds of people coming to the city, New York even has its own, weirder, more high-brow version of coyotes, which the Times coincidentally also covered today. A guy named Ralph Cucciniello was charged with fraud for swindling illegal Irish immigrants out of $5,000 each for non-existent aid in getting legitimate papers through the Yale Immigration Law Clinic, which he made up.

He operated the fake law clinic from a desk at the Yale Law library, but has never been affiliated with the school apart from doing some volunteer research for a professor. Over the last two years, he got over 200 immigrants who wanted to be legal to give him millions of dollars, giving them nothing in return. Many of his victims won't talk to prosecutors for fear of getting deported; as one said, "Now I feel like my head has a flashing light on it screaming ‘I’m illegal’."

May 21, 2007

Good news! Your book got reviewed in the Wall Street Journal

Bad news: the review is by Dan Quayle.

Sports writer John Feinstein's latest book, Tales from the Q School about the qualifying tournament for the PGA tour, is sure to be popular among Journal readers. Feinstein, who describes himself as "very liberal and obviously not a big fan of Dan Quayle politically" didn't know who was going to review his book until he picked up the weekend edition of the Journal and saw the byline. "Oy vey," he said.

Quayle is quite an accomplished golfer, so his review isn't that much of a surprise. Given history's assessment of his political career, it's also not so surprising that the review identified him only as "a seven-handicap golfer and the chairman of Cerberus Global Investment." It also just so happens that the parent company of his investment firm is in the process of gaining control of Chrysler even as we speak, as the Times helpfully points out.

Here's a picture from 2005 of Dan Quayle with his golfing buddy Alice Cooper at a celebrity golf tournament.

Dan Quayle and Alice Cooper

Which does not imply that Dan Quayle is a rockin' kind of guy: Alice Cooper is a self-described golf monster and also supported Bush.

April 19, 2007

McCain: all washed up

McCain

Remember how John McCain used to command respect, even from Democrats? Well, I think those days are over. A painful anecdote from a campaign stop in South Carolina yesterday:

In response to an audience question about military action against Iran, the Arizona senator briefly sang the chorus of the surf-rocker classic "Barbara Ann."

"That old, eh, that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran," he said in jest Wednesday, chuckling with the crowd. Then, he softly sang to the melody: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, anyway, ah ..."

Agghh. Wonkette has video.

Earlier this week, Slate had an article called "McCain Self-Destructs" about his recent statements about having "no Plan B" for Iraq. A few days after saying that, he said that he would withdraw our troops from Iraq if it became clear that we were losing. Slate refers to an "appalling" NY Times interview in which McCain said that his unwavering support for the war has cost him some of his former popularity, but that "Americans will not continue to support an overseas engagement involving the loss of American lives for an unlimited period of time unless they see some success," he added. "And then, when they run out of patience, they will demand that we get out."

So basically, he'll condemn the Democrats' plans for withdrawing our troops, until later, when he's President, when he'll withdraw our troops.

He's currently 12 points behind Giuliani in polls. I think he'll become a more distant second soon. As ADM says, McCain represents the worst dropoff since the transition from the second to the third season of Lost.


April 17, 2007

The inevitable post-tragedy gun control debate

Bush at VA Tech Convocation

You might think that the days immediately after a horrible shooting spree seems like the most strategic time to raise the issue of gun control and try to make some real policy changes. Advocates for greater gun control have tried in the past, and generally failed (with the notable exception of Jim Brady.)

At today's convocation at Virginia Tech, President Bush spoke mostly about the raw emotions everybody is feeling: "On this terrible day of mourning, it's hard to imagine a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal, but such a day will come. And when it does, you will always remember the friends and teachers who were lost yesterday, and the time you shared with them, and the lives that they hoped to lead."

But his staff are already fending off suggestions that a different gun policy might prevent shootings like this from happening in the first place. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says, "We understand that there's going to be and there has been an ongoing national discussion, conversation and debate about gun control policy. Of course we are going to be participants in that conversation. Today, however, is a day that is time to focus on the families, the school, the community."

And you can bet that Second Amendment advocates are going to use this shooting as an example of why we'd all be more secure with greater access to guns, not less. After all, the reasoning goes, if some of the students in those classrooms had guns on them, they might have been able to take the shooter out before he killed so many people.

Boing Boing has coverage of the predictable debate. And as they point out, "No matter which side of the gun debate you're on, one thing is obvious: anyone who is capable of and intent on killing 32 innocent fellow human beings will do so regardless of law. Homicidal maniacs can always be counted on to violate the boundaries set forth by others who want to promote a civil, peaceful society."

April 16, 2007

IRS suddenly seems like the most reasonable office in our government

1040

It's tax time! The season when even those who truly believe in a strong social safety net start thinking how those kooky Libertarians might actually make some sense. Or, if you got a refund, a flutter of benevolent gratitude for that most generous of government institutions, the Department of the Treasury.

The Times has a piece today about how more and more undocumented immigrants are filing their tax returns. The number of returns that had an individual taxpayer number issued by the IRS to people who don't have social security numbers, known as an ITIN, went up 30% from 2004 to 2005, and new ITINs were issued to more people in 2006 than ever before. In 2005, people submitting their returns with an ITIN paid a total of $5 billion in taxes.

Which explains why the IRS doesn't ask about immigration status, and has created an identification system for people who are living and working illegally in the country--they pay. The pragmatic Commissioner of the IRS Mark Everson said, "We want your money whether you are here legally or not and whether you earned it legally or not."

If only the rest of our government took such a practical approach to how to deal with people who immigrate here to work, right? Commissioner Everson probably would love to see drugs legalized too, since it would increase his agency's revenue by at least one hundred million percent.

Despite the growing tax dollars that undocumented workers pay, people who think immigrants come here to rob convenience stores and go on welfare still assume the worst. Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies says, "First of all, almost all the people filing tax returns are doing it because they’re going to get tax refunds. It’s a bad thing, because they’re not obeying the law — they’re deciding which laws they prefer to obey."

This doesn't seem to be true, at least not in New York. A nonprofit in Jackson Heights that helps low-income people prepare their tax returns, Food Change, says that two-thirds of the 1,700 ITIN returns they've done this year end up owing more taxes, not getting refunds. The average income of these returns was $9,400--further demonstrating that undocumented workers aren't exactly living the high life in this city.

One immigrant in the article, Elsa Forero, is from Colombia. She works as a baby sitter and gets paid in cash. Now I don't know about you, but I wonder how many teenagers in wealthy suburbs are declaring their babysitting income to the IRS. Elsa had to pay the federal government $579, and expected a state tax credit of $115. "I want to pay taxes because I live in this country and I like to follow the rules," she said.

Paying taxes will probably be a step toward legalization in whatever immigration reform bill finally gets passed in Congress. Maybe the IRS should act like any other industry and start running some PSAs and making campaign contributions to key Senators if they want to keep seeing their revenues rise.

April 12, 2007

The nicest thing I will ever say about Paul Wolfowitz

Wolfwitz

A few things about Wolfowitz. He is: universally hated at the World Bank, wears socks full of holes (warning: gross), is apparently still married, but got his girl on the side a job at the State Department that is still paid by the Bank, to the tune of $193,500 ($10,000 more than Condoleezza Rice makes!), and is just generally a misguided corrupt ghoul. And I'll never get over that comb video.

But I will give him this: when the man decides to apologize for something, he actually gets around to apologizing, and does it in a way that at least sounds sincere.

"I made a mistake, for which I am sorry." He says that he will accept any remedies the World Bank's board proposes.

See how easy that is, politicians and talk show hosts across the land?

March 14, 2007

FDA backs Patrick Kennedy: sleeping pills can make you sleep-drive

Patrick Kennedy after car crash

The FDA announced today that all prescription sleeping pills can, in rare instances, cause those who take them to engage in "complex sleep-related behaviors" including driving. This supports Patrick Kennedy, who crashed his car in Washington, DC last spring after taking Ambien, Phenergan (not a sleeping pill), and, according to the staff at Capital Hill bar the Hawk & Dove, maybe a few drinks.

Only about a dozen reports of sleep-driving while on insomnia medication have made it to the FDA, but they think it's happening a lot more, which is probably true. Other sleep activity that these pills can cause include less dangerous but significantly more bizarre activities, like making phone calls, fixing and eating food, and having sex while still asleep (I'd bet these kinds of things happen a lot more often than sleep-driving, but there is no way people are going to tell their doctor about it.) Drug manufacturers will now have to put warnings of potential dangerous side effects on these "sedative-hypnotics".

So even though you're not supposed to drink while taking Ambien, it sounds like Kennedy was telling the truth when he said that he had no memory of driving or crashing his car that night. His claim to the police at the scene of the accident that he was "headed to the Capital to make a vote" at 3:00 AM is weird enough to make me believe that he was having some episode of sleepwalking, and wasn't just really drunk and incoherent as many people assumed.

He was also prescribed both of those drugs, though maybe now doctors will be more careful about recommending mixing two drugs that both act as sedatives.

Given this new FDA statement, it may not have been appropriate for Kennedy to plead guilty to driving under the influence of drugs that he was prescribed, or to have gotten a year's probation. This incident did also prompt him to go to rehab for a month for a supposed addiction to pain medication (who knows how/if that figures into the car crash), and he has an admittedly long history of addiction problems, but the car crash itself doesn't look like a crime.

Related: NYT article featuring many totally crazy stories of Ambien-related somnulent behavior (from before the Kennedy incident);
Ambien makes you compusively sleep-eat

March 9, 2007

Hey, America. Giuliani is sort of a jerk, remember?

Rudi/Rudia

The polls for the 2008 election are indicating that Giuliani has a good shot at getting the Republican nomination. Bush's continuing unpopularity is probably going to push the party back toward the center. And the disastrous mishandling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a huge bonus for Giuliani, who by comparison looked like a logistical and inspirational superman of a leader after 9/11.

But here's the thing. Most Americans that participate in polls aren't thinking very deeply about the 2008 election yet. When asked who they would vote for if they election were held today, their opinion of Giuliani is probably informed almost 100% by what they can remember seeing him say on TV from September 11-16, 2001. By the time the primaries come along, that positive image is going to be seven years old, the media will have had plenty of time to report on all the other stuff he's done, and my guess is that we'll all be reminded that Giuliani is actually a pretty unlikeable guy.

And that Rudy/Rudia drag incident from 1997 (see photo) might have been cute and whimsical in NYC, but as the National Standard (!) suggests, "When it comes to winning over GOP primary voters, if you can make it in New York, you can’t make it anywhere."

Today's papers offer a few reminders of how much this guy pissed people off when he was still Mayor. The International Association of Fire Fighters has written a letter to all members (representing 85% of firefighters nationwide) about his decision in November 2001 to limit the number of FDNY firefighters who could search for the remains of their colleagues to 25. They were mad as hell then, and they still are. An IAFF spokesman says, "The events of November 2001, we think, showed the true character of Rudy Giuliani, and we are going to make sure the firefighters of this country know that story." Makes playing the Hero of 9/11 angle pretty tough for old Rudy [see also The Onion's hilarious article from a few weeks ago, "Giuliani to Run for President of 9/11"].

The Times reminds us that Giuliani and NYPD weren't always so friendly, either. The nasty business between Giuliani and his former police commissioner Bill Bratton over who could claim responsibility for the crime reduction in the mid-90's led to Bratton's resignation, and it appears that the two men haven't talked since 1996. Until now. Giuliani is trying to make nice with Bratton, who is now the head of LAPD, I guess to try to shake his reputation for being a self-serving, paranoid, unreasonable jackass.

So he can enjoy the poll results now, but the days of looking like a hero just by wearing FDNY and NYPD baseball hats are over.

February 20, 2007

The metaphorical war

George W and George W Bush

Our government's struggles in dealing with Iraq are leading to some weird and increasingly desperate rhetoric. The President's speech at Mount Vernon yesterday in honor of the other George W's birthday drew parallels between the Revolutionary War and the war on terror:

"Today, we're fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life. And as we work to advance the cause of freedom around the world, we remember that the father of our country believed that the freedoms we secured in our revolution were not meant for Americans alone."

I wonder what an Afghan or Iraqi civilian would say about the U.S.'s role in defending their way of life. Anyway, in remarking on the dubious similarities between George Washington and himself, Bush tantalizingly said, "After winning the war, Washington did what victorious leaders rarely did at the time. He voluntarily gave up power." !!!

But, remember: Bush will never be a victorious leader, so don't get your hopes up.

And a couple great examples from last week that I should have mentioned earlier.

Republican Rep. Todd Akin, from Missouri: "Picture Davy Crockett at the Alamo. He has his back to the wall. Santa Ana has got thousands of troops. So he gets his BlackBerry out. He checks with Congress. Congress says, 'Hey, Davy, we really support you but we're not going to send you any troops.' That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."

Republican Rep. Virgil Goode, from Virginia: "I fear that radical Muslims who want to control the Middle East and ultimately the world would love to see 'In God We Trust' stricken from our money and replaced with 'In Mohammad We Trust'." [link includes video]

Muslims don't worship Mohammad, Congressman.

February 6, 2007

Gavin Newsom goes to rehab

Gavin Newsom repents

You knew this was coming.

After Thursday's announcement that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had an affair with his campaign manager (and close friend)'s wife, he has finally accepted that the best way to apologize for his indiscretion and do some soul-searching about his behavior is to go to rehab. For alcohol.

"Upon reflection with friends and family this weekend, I have come to the conclusion that I will be a better person without alcohol in my life," he said in a statement. "I take full responsibility for my personal mistakes and my problems with alcohol are not an excuse for my personal lapses in judgment."

Not an excuse, but a great distraction, right Gavin? Welcome to the club! Mark Foley will be contacting you soon with your Rehab Redemption membership card, which includes one (1) free public use of any relevant ethnic slur against Alex Tourk.

Good call, Cushie! [tx ADM]

January 29, 2007

Democrats will definitely start getting tough any day now

Hillary demands that the US leave Iraq within this century

At a campaign event in Iowa yesterday, Hillary Clinton took her political cues from one of our all-time favorite Tom Tomorrow cartoons [thanks, ADM].

The headline says it all--Clinton: U.S. out of Iraq by January '09.

The Modern World cartoon is from 2002, and so far all his predictions have been forehead-smackingly accurate.

January 19, 2007

Study: Kiev lake more effective than Proactiv for smooth, blemish-free skin

Yushchenko, with surprisingly clear skin

We've been following the political career, and the dioxin-related skin problems, of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko since the near-deadly post-election poisoning/bad sushi scandal. And I'm glad to say he's looking very handsome and un-Creature-like these days while swimming in a pore-evaporatingly cold Kiev lake as part of an Epiphany ceremony.

Here's a before and after shot from right after the poisoning:

Yushchenko, before and after

Related: Dioxin: The Modern Prometheus; Look out, Condi!; Robert Redford Syndrome; greatest Low Culture caption of all time.

January 4, 2007

The latest jerky thing our President did

Bush has your mail

The Daily News reports today on the postal bill that President Bush signed at the end of the year--specifically, that he added one of those signing statements he's so fond of to it.

The bill was mostly general stuff about the mail, and reiterated that first class mail cannot be opened by the government without a warrant. But Bush's signing statement contradicts this, saying that he has the right to open people's mail in emergency conditions. The News' caption above pretty much says it all.

Though opening people's mail is still actually illegal, Bush's assertion that he can do it in the case of "exigent circumstances" could certainly be interpreted as an outright declaration that this is already going on. After all, it's the one year anniversary of the uncovering of electronic surveillance, which is supposed to be illegal, too.

Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokesperson, says that Bush was just stating a right that he already has. "In certain circumstances--such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb'," she said, "the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches."

Help! Help! Save us, Nancy Pelosi!

December 20, 2006

Drink Pom, live forever. On the toilet.

Pom Wonderful kills animals?

Activists Animal Rights Militia have alerted east coast supermarkets that they've contaminated bottles of Pom Wonderful will some nasty bug that will make those who drink it suffer "diarrhea, vomiting and headaches." Pom allegedly kills mice and rabbits in trials that test some of its health benefits claims.

Friends of Animals claims that Pom Wonderful has supported tests of its juice on brain injuries in mice, and, even better, on erectile dysfunction in rabbits. Those poor rabbits, being force-fed that refreshingly not-too-sweet pomegranate juice and then hippity-hopping it up with some sexy bunny slut-clinicians? Doesn't quite pull the heartstrings like the toilet bowl cleaner in the eye animal testing stories, does it?

Health officials think the contimination threat is a hoax, of the kind Animal Rights Militia has done many times before, but Food Emporium says they're checking their bottles of Pom. If you're concerned about animal testing, the erotic lives of rabbits, or getting butt-sick, you might want to avoid drinking it.

November 8, 2006

The one who says he always tells the truth always lies

11/1/06:

President Bush gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an unequivocal vote of confidence Wednesday, saying he would remain in the job until the end of Bush's presidency, a pointed response to Democrats -- and Republicans -- who have called for Rumsfeld's resignation.

11/8/06:

Bush said Wednesday he met with Gates in Crawford, Texas, over the weekend. He said he had planned to nominate him as Secretary of Defense regardless of what happened in Tuesday's midterm election.

RummyPool™: We Have a Winner

rumsfeld

Rumsfeld just announced his resignation, and that means that RummyPool™, our betting pool on when Rumsfeld would resign, has come to an end.

Apparently, we have some pretty clever readers: the average guess was that Rumsfeld would resign on 10/26/06.

But guess what: way back in April, a reader named Danielle correctly guessed the exact date. Very good analytical skills, Danielle!

We will be contacting her shortly to arrange delivery of her prize, a very sexy Donald Rumsfeld man-thong.

November 7, 2006

Break the two-party stronghold

Working Families Party ballot

It's Election Day! If you live in New York State and are going to go vote after work, may we suggest you vote for your candidates on the Working Families Party line, Row E, rather than the usual major party line. The WFP vets all candidates, and endorses those that are most likely to fight for fair housing, employment, healthcare, and schools for everyone. Here are all their endorsements for this election.

The Working Families Party works for legislation and political representation for the working class, the poor, and the middle class in New York State. They're a little too closely tied to the big unions to be able to truly represent the interests of all working people, in my opinion, but they're still pushing for good change statewide. In 2004 they were a big player in the successful effort to raise the state minimum wage.

Even if you're not a union member and can't honestly count yourself among the working class, voting on the WFP line shows your support of moving beyond the shamefully inadequate two-party model of American politics. Your vote still counts for the candidate you're voting for (yes, I'm making some assumptions here, but come on, who the hell's going to vote for John Faso?) and you get to encourage a viable third (or more) party system.

October 18, 2006

Who's Older?™: Former Threats to Freedom

Muammar Gaddafi   Saddam in court

Today's edition of Who's Older?™ asks you to consider two world figures who used function as bogeymen for the free world, and these days have become more or less cuddly and harmless: Muammar al-Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Both men used to be terrifying threats to the U.S., but have been replaced by more active lunatics like Kim Jong-Il and the more-wacky-than-scary Hugo Chávez.

Gaddafi was an Islamic socialist, and had ties to Black September and the Lockerbie bombing, but more recently has denounced al-Qaeda, and revealed Libya's WMD program in 2004 and invited weapons inspectors to come in and dismantle it. In April of this year, Libya hosted a Concert for Peace marking the 20th anniversary of US bombing of Tripoli, where Lionel Richie performed and praised their current peacefulness.

Saddam is in the news today for his ongoing trial, where a Kurd testified about a massacre by Saddam's army in 1988 ("I ran and fell into a ditch. It was full of bodies. I fell on a body. It was still alive. It was his last breath"), but who can forget last year's reports of him eating Doritos in his cell, gardening, and writing poetry?


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