Archive for April, 2004

The Thinker

Sharon Mitchell: Porn Saint

Discussing pornography like I did recently is probably not a popular subject. It won’t win me any Pulitzers for blogging. But after hearing this story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” I realized that ex-porn actress Sharon Mitchell is as close as one can get to being the Mother Teresa of the pornography business.

Born in 1952, Ms. Mitchell joined “the biz” in its infancy: 1974. She appeared in two thousand or so adult films before retiring in 1996. In a business where the average starlet has a career of months, not years, Ms. Mitchell somehow survived. She was cited numerous times for her acting ability in an industry where it was not valued. But Sharon Mitchell is atypical in many other ways. The caricature of a porn worker is someone with low self-esteem, possibly drug addicted who expresses her hostility at the world by letting it all hang out on film. Not Ms. Mitchell, or should I say Dr. Mitchell. Because this legacy of the adult film industry is no high school dropout. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality.

There is no denying being in porn could be very risky business for a porn actor or actress. This world in particular is rife with the potential for acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. Some like AIDS can kill. Add in the frequent numbers of sexual partners porn actors are exposed to and the risk of contracting disease can be very high. Porn consumers further stacked the odds against performers. Films where condoms are used routinely bomb in the adult box office.

The adult film industry could be awash in STDs but it isn’t thanks primarily to Dr. Sharon Mitchell. In 1998 a large HIV outbreak among porn actors and actresses called for some real leadership. The business was not going to dry up. It was too profitable. It was Dr. Mitchell that stepped up to the plate. She founded the nonprofit Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation. Pretty much all porn producers in California require a current clean “bill of health” from the AIM Foundation before an actor or actress can be cast in a film. Dr. Mitchell’s foundation facilitates the tests and provides the certificates. The tests cost over $100 a month. While that seems expensive it includes a battery of the most sophisticated tests available. The certificate gives actors a very high assurance that they will not contract a STD on the job.

It is not a perfect system. Perhaps you’ve read of the recent case of porn actor Darren James, who tested positive for HIV. But because a rigorous system is in place the possibility of widespread infection was quickly contained. And this was because producers are voluntarily keeping detailed lists of who was filmed having sexual relations on the set, and when. As a result of this outbreak porn producers are voluntarily limiting new productions until they are sure this outbreak is contained.

It’s hard though for many of us to think charitably of anyone in the pornography business. And that’s why I consider Dr. Mitchell something of a modern day saint. Mother Teresa cared for the most destitute, sick, impoverished and forgotten people in the slums of Calcutta. Dr. Mitchell is candid that many of those in the porn industry have major mental and psychological problems. Nonetheless she cares enough about these people to do what she can, perhaps because she was one of them. While they choose to have an adult film career she can lay excellent odds that they will not end up dead from their choice. And because they can get tested at her central facility they don’t have to suffer any embarrassment or feelings of shame.

Some would probably fault her for not doing more to reduce risks. Arguably she could be crusading for all producers to require use of condoms on the set. But at some level it’s unrealistic to be too hard on porn producers. They are after all in business and are trying to meet demand. And the movies where the actors use condoms aren’t selling.

Clearly Dr. Mitchell is not living in poverty. But she is ministering and protecting a class of people who are often scorned, marginalized and abused. You can bet you won’t see any religious organizations funneling their charitable contributions to these people.

In the final analysis one can only affect change in the realm of the possible. Dr. Mitchell chose her own peculiar ministry to protect arguably one of the most scorned classes in our society. She may have been a porn actress, but she is very much a humanitarian. No one else will say it but I will: thank you Sharon for caring where no one else would give a damn. I strongly suspect somewhere up in heaven Mother Teresa is looking down on you and smiling.

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The Thinker

Virginia Emerges from Budget Gridlock

I note with relief that the Virginia legislature finally seems to have agreed to a budget solution. It took more than three months, much vitriol, and chronic wailing and gnashing of teeth. But our Republican controlled legislature seems to have bit the bullet and ever so modestly raised taxes. In brief our sales taxes will be going up from 4.5 cents per dollar to 5 cents, while taxes on groceries will be eased. The cigarette tax, currently the lowest in the nation at 2.5 cents a pack will go to 30 cents a pack, which is still a bargain. The personal property tax on cars, which former Governor Jim Gilmore tried to phase out altogether, will be frozen. This means no further relief for Virginia drivers, who will have to pay 30% of the car tax out of their own pockets. Income tax rates remain unchanged.

It seems that since Virginia can’t print its own money it can’t have its cake and eat it too. No matter how many times the legislature did the math it couldn’t satisfy its constituents, fund basic services and not raise taxes. It appears that even in my notoriously anti-tax state there are certain minimum expenditures that if not met the public will squawk about. This includes basic funding the public schools, prisons, public safety and roads.

To come to agreement Republicans in the Virginia House had to actually turn against their own speaker. It was House Speaker William J. Howell who overreached his power. Time and time again he refused to even allow conversations of new taxes to come up. Eventually Republicans felt stifled and frustrated, and a critical mass joined with the Democrats to do the people’s business. Consequently we have the bizarre reality of a Republican controlled legislature falling behind a moderate Democratic governor and minority Democrats to raise taxes.

The reason it happened first in Virginia is not because Virginia is a progressive state. Far from it. It happened here in Virginia because Virginia has always been a niggardly state. Advocates for the infirmed and mentally retarded made numerous trips to Richmond to try to persuade the legislature to support basic services for those who could not help themselves but who had been a casualty of declining tax revenues. In the Virginia House their pleas fell on deaf ears. If you can believe it, our legislature was more concerned about not raising taxes than about assuring basic mental health care for our most needy and desperate citizens. “Let all but a handful wander the streets,” seemed to be their enlightened motto in dealing with the mentally ill. However, when asked to cut subsidies for Virginia tobacco farmers they couldn’t summon the will.

Maybe there is a silver lining in this. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of the “no new taxes ever” revolution. If it can happen here in Virginia it can happen anywhere. A precedent has now been established. Apparently there is a point to having a state government. If our House had had its way, the tax increase would have had to be put to a referendum. But this strategy failed. Citizens began telling their representatives they were elected to make tough decisions, not pass the buck. Duh!

Anti-tax advocates are threatening to have those Republicans who voted for the tax increase voted out in 2005. It remains to be seen if they will succeed. But I sense even among Virginia’s most conservative voters there is some floor of basic fiscal sanity that they expect from their legislative representatives. In their zeal for no new taxes, they aren’t going to turn the state into a dysfunctional organization. In 2004 we may have found that boundary at last. Ideology, however reluctantly, has yielded to pragmatism.

I salute those brave Republicans who broke with the party leadership on this issue. Their “leaders” demonstrated zero leadership and zero courage. This $1.36B tax increase is hardly more tax and spend. It barely makes a dent in the state’s needs, which have been woefully out of balance since the economy tanked in 2001. But at least during this year this new revenue will keep Virginia from irretrievably falling into fiscal madness. While insufficient it is a step in the right direction. And it does allow counties, cities and colleges to now plan their own budgets.

The Thinker

Porn is Mainstream

When I feel a desire to look at porn there is no better place than the privacy of my personal computer. Thanks to the Internet, Usenet and high speed cable modems porn is available at no real cost (aside from internet access) for those who want it.

But I assumed that porn was still dirty. I assumed there was still some stigma attached to it. The dearth of strip clubs and adult “bookstores” (as they used to quaintly be called) here in Northern Virginia suggested to me that porn was still socially unacceptable. Even the men’s magazines at the local Barnes & Noble are wrapped in plastic.

I know there are a couple places in my county where hardcore pornography can be procured. I stumbled on one a few miles from my house some months back that I never knew existed. Who knew that MVC Video wasn’t a competitor to Blockbuster? I know of a hole in the wall in Fairfax City and have heard rumors of such an establishment in Springfield. Needless to say of course nothing on the shelves at the local Blockbusters ever gets beyond an R rating. We have no strip clubs in Fairfax County and I’m sure zoning wouldn’t permit it. But we do have one and only one Hooters down in Fairfax City. This is as ribald as Fairfax County gets.

So I figured most who needed a porn fix were getting it safely and discreetly online. No need to suffer the glare of the morally sanctimonious clerk anymore. Basically I assumed we were still ashamed of it. If we had a Penthouse or a Hustler we were hiding it under the mattress.

But my recent excursion to Florida suggested that I was entirely wrong. At least in Florida, porn is mainstream.

Not that Orlando (where I stayed) was overwhelmed with strip clubs and adult video stores. It tries to project a family image. I knew strip clubs could still probably be found on South Orange Blossom Trail somewhere, unless things had changed in the thirty years since I lived in Orlando. (I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida.) Most likely prostitution is still available somewhere on the trail too.

I can’t claim to have spent vast amounts of time in adult bookstores. But what I remember from the few I visited in DC before they were driven off 14th Street was they were dank places that smelled like a men’s room that had never been cleaned. And if you were expecting a woman to be a patron, you had best wait for a blue moon. It seemed to be a place for older men in trench coats to frequent. But the common denominator, aside from the bad hygiene, was that they felt sinful. That was part of their allure. You hoped that no one you knew happened to be in the neighborhood when you dodged into the store. But you enjoyed the thrill that maybe just maybe you might be caught. Or maybe just maybe you might find your minister perusing the BDSM magazines.

Fast forward to Orlando in 2004. I am there on business and looking for T-shirts to bring home to the wife and daughter. And nearby is this adult “emporium” establishment, awash in nice inviting bright lights. I hardly recognized the place because it looked so entirely ordinary. From the outside it might have been a drug store. Well it wasn’t much out of my way so I popped into the store, figuring here in Orlando at least the older men didn’t need trench coats.

It turned out I was the closest thing to an older man in the place. Behind the counter were two happy young ladies (presumably over 18) smiling and welcoming me into the store like they were Wal-Mart greeters or something. I figured this had to be the wrong place because, well, there was a woman behind the counter and it was so darn bright in there. And also it was clean. And it didn’t smell. And there was Muzak on the speaker system. And just behind the counter were rows and rows of adult videos, DVDs, books, marital aids and other assorted adult novelties.

So I’m walking up and down the aisles. It’s an extensive place: a veritable superstore of adult merchandise. There’s the anal sex aisle, there’s the oral sex aisle, there is a portion of an aisle devoted to gangbangs, the compulsory lesbian area, an extensive gay sex area, and specialty areas devoted to those into (I swear I am not making this up) grandmothers, midgets and pre-op transgender folk.

And not only are there women behind the counter, there are women walking the aisles, sometimes with a boyfriend or two in tow, sometimes together. Well knock me over with a soda straw! Women come into these places on their own initiative! The very idea! To be fair the women seemed less interested in the selection of DVDs and videos and more interested in the vibrator and lube section of the store.

I expected people to maybe be wearing dark glasses but everyone is so casual and chatty it’s like no big deal. There is even a teen wandering around who couldn’t have been 18 … who let him into the store?

And everything was wrapped or encased in plastic (for security, presumably). The DVDs and videos are adorned with lurid XXX pictures leaving no detail to the imagination. There were shiny wet human orifices opened for your viewing, often inserted with all sorts of things, some human, some artificial. If you are squeamish about body fluids it’s not a great place to visit. But clearly the patrons were nonplussed. Maybe they were shocked the first time they came in. But now they seemed inured. They seemed almost bored. It made me wonder why they were there.

In fact I quickly found out, much to my surprise, that I was bored by the place. Surely I thought there must be something in this vast superstore that would appeal to my prurient interest. But I couldn’t find a thing. Oddly it all seemed the same. It was like Sam Walton was running a porno superstore.

I am upset. Someone changed the rules. Everything was all hanging out but it was boring. It didn’t feel sinful. If I were still a Catholic I wouldn’t have even bothered bringing it up in confession. Where can a teenager go these days to feel guilty about something? Porn was a great but safe way to feel guilty, naughty and rebellious. Over the last 20 years the material seems to be a lot more lurid than I remembered it. Everything is now designed to be more shocking. But in the process porn has become so over the top that nothing is shocking.

Sometime over the last twenty years or so (when I obviously wasn’t looking) pornography became mainstream. I am sure there are plenty of places in the United States where it can’t be purchased locally. But in the home of Anita Bryant this particular culture war seems to have been won by the progressives. Pornography is not going to go back in the closet. It’s been mainstreamed. Somewhere doubtless there is a company specializing in the stuff on the Fortune 500. It’s been mass marketed and mass merchandised. Stores have been redesigned to be inviting to women. I have to assume women too must have secretly lusted for this stuff but felt too intimidated (until recently) to actually go into one of these stores. Those days are gone.

But I am also sad and nostalgic. Without the allure of shame and sin, can pornography survive? Will we reach the point of such saturation that women have to return to petticoats for a few generations so we can appreciate it again?

The Thinker

In Denial on Iraq

Oh there are so many metaphors I could use. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” “You can keep kicking a dead dog but it won’t get up.” But I think you get the idea. Our efforts to turn the situation in Iraq around to our liking ain’t gonna happen. No way. No how. Adding 10,000 troops to start as John McCain suggested yesterday won’t do the trick. Passing another mega-billion dollar supplemental spending bill (which looks like it will be needed before the election) won’t improve the situation either. The only safe bet is that the longer we occupy Iraq the more of our soldiers will die and be wounded. And for what? To try to make Iraq fit some fantasy neoconservative vision.

At this point you might as well try to make an egg whole again after it has hit the floor. This egg is in a thousand fragments. The stuff has spread all over the floor and the dog has been licking it up.

Even if we had another 200,000 troops to properly occupy Iraq, that wouldn’t work either. We might succeed in bringing a rough peace to Iraq, but we’ve already lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. There is too much bad karma between us to expect we can ever reverse the situation.

But these costly neoconservative fantasies die hard. They still think that with enough of indefatigable American spirit and taxpayer money we can build this shining new example of democracy in the middle of the Persian Gulf. And sadly most Democrats are saying, at least in public, that we can do it too. Or they are saying it is something we must not fail to do. Never mind the minor problem that it can’t possibly happen.

If we were talking about bringing democracy to a lawless Kansas it would probably work. But we’re talking about Iraq. We’re trying to build a house on a foundation of shifting sand. The British tried to give Iraq democracy and the result was that it sputtered out. You’d think we’d have bothered to read our history books before we invaded Iraq. But of course you’d be wrong. Because no good neoconservative will let facts get in the way of his ideology.

Hey, I’d like to be able to force my daughter to bring home all A’s from school too. But my daughter is a unique and stubborn human being with her own agenda. Iraqis have their own issues and perspective and America is not part of it. The people of Iraq are insistent on being who they are in all their often messy glory. And the reality is they want as much to do with America as we would if the French were occupying our country. You can bet we’d not be tuning in French radio stations for our news. Iraqis are saying, “Hey, we’re not the least bit like Americans. They eat the wrong foods. They pray in the wrong temples. They follow the wrong prophet. And they have the wrong friends.”

There was a time early in the war when it might have worked. Perhaps if we had had those 300,000 troops to start with the Bush fantasy might have worked. But the reality was the odds were stacked against us before the war. The reason we can’t install a western style democracy in Iraq is really nothing more complex than this: America is a non-Islamic power occupying an Islamic country.

What’s particularly odd about the situation is that of all countries, Great Britain should have been the ones to have held us back. It was British occupation of these areas, then known as the provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra that led to the state of Iraq in 1918. They won it as a spoil of World War I. But in less than two years Britain was embroiled in a situation much like our present one. There was widespread insurrection in Iraq that even a heavy occupation couldn’t wipe out. The British public got sick of occupying the country. The real struggle moved to Great Britain. Factions in parliament spent years deciding whether Iraq should be occupied or set free. The result was a big brother relationship with Iraq that never really worked and was widely resented by Iraqis.

Strangely our overlord in Iraq, Paul Bremmer, has a governance strategy that sounds very much like what the British tried unsuccessfully. Just as it is clear that come June 30th the Iraqis will really not be in charge of their own country, the British worked hard to make sure they were Iraq’s big brother, whether they liked it or not. Guided by the “sure” hand of Britain the long-term result was simply that their handpicked “King” was not accepted and their democratic state was half hearted. The Iraqi King and his family eventually suffered the same lovely fate as the Romanovs. And when their shell of a democracy died the Ba’th Party took over. And of course it was the Ba’th party that gave us Saddam Hussein.

At least the French remembered the lesson. They occupied Syria after World War I but it wasn’t long before they realized they weren’t wanted there. They wisely chose to leave Syria to the Syrians.

It seems that neither Bush nor Tony Blair bothered to study the history books before invading Iraq. So the more we try to impose a solution on Iraq the worse it gets. We seem to be clueless that in winning a battle we are losing the war. For example, attacking Fallujah to drive out insurgents makes military sense. But makes no sense whatsoever in winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis. As a consequence, hundreds of innocent Iraqis ended up as collateral damage. And since it looks like our marines are getting an itchy trigger finger the carnage there is probably not over.

At best our military prowess can only make Iraqis fear us. But many Iraqis don’t seem all that scared of us. Instead what seems to be happening is that we’re stirring Iraqis’ nationalistic feelings again. They have one common interest now: they want us out. See it in the pictures of the road to Fallujah. After our last military attempt there the roads were bumper to bumper with cars and trucks ferrying supplies to the inhabitants and rebels of Fallujah.

I would hope that the American people are sobering up. But lately the polls suggest many of us have gone back to the bottle. Bush’s poll numbers are creeping up again despite the upsurge in violence and despite the largest number of American casualties since the start of the war. When asked most Americans are still grossly ignorant of the facts. Most Americans still think that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war. And they still think that Iraq was tied with al Qaeda and 9/11. And most bizarre of all, Bush is getting decent marks for his alleged leadership on this war on terrorism.

“Ignorance is Strength,” proclaimed Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Apparently a lot of Americans think ignorance is patriotic. Ignorance in this case will be very costly. It will cause generations of pointless suffering. Iraqis are getting most of the suffering now. But sadly karmic forces are at work. We will eventually feel the sting of our ignorance. Let’s hope none of us are among the victims.

The Thinker

Spirited Away: The Best Movie You Never Saw

I’d lay odds that you have never seen the movie “Spirited Away“.

The reason you haven’t seen it is probably because its release in the United States was extremely limited. Typically it could be found in a couple theaters deep in the major cities. Occasionally it could be found in a suburban multiplex. But it disappeared fairly quickly because, well, it was a foreign film. As a rule we Americans don’t go see foreign films, even when lovingly voiced over by the team at Disney, who felt a missionary zeal to bring the film to the United States.

Another reason you may have missed it is because it is an animated film. While animated films are more acceptable these days, people tend to show up at animated films with children in tow. It’s a fairly rare adult who goes to see an animated film with other adults only. This is an animated film for all folks. Anyone will enjoy it.

Others may have been turned off because it is “Anime”. Anime is a type of animated film invented in Japan. From my perspective it is noticeable because most of the characters have such large, oversized eyes. As you might expect anime plots and storylines tend to emphasize Japanese characters. This makes it even harder for Americans to get into it. But anime is catching on with teenagers. My daughter is into anime. Because she is I am exposed to the culture. And I was delighted (no tickled pink!) to discover “Spirited Away”.

In America we’ve come to associate great modern animation with computerized tricks. Films like “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo” can create animation that on a technical level is stunning. When joined with an excellent script, fine direction and great voice actors a few of these movies can take the genre to new heights. But in the 21st century creating animation with paints and cells seems incredibly old fashioned. But director Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the greatest living animation director (and possibly of all time) proves that old-fashioned animation can still triumph over computer animation.

“Spirited Away” (2001) is very likely the best-animated film of all time. Period. Now clearly I have not seen every animated film out there. I can take or leave animated films. Still, one can recognize a masterpiece when you see it. There is no room for doubt here. “Spirited Away” is an animation masterpiece.

We Americans should be more open to foreign films. Films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) challenged our conventions that Hollywood knows best. That film absolutely deserved (but did not win) Best Picture. It lost, I suspect because it was a foreign film. If that alone weren’t a black mark there was also the fact that is was subtitled. There are often much, much better movies available if we have the courage to rent from the foreign films section of our local Blockbuster. Oh but wait… my Blockbuster doesn’t have a foreign films section. Yes, that’s the sad state of affairs around here. So your Blockbuster may not have “Spirited Away”. But it’s worth a call anyhow because if they have it you’ll want to rent it. But even if they don’t have it, it is easy to purchase online. You’ll have to trust me on this one: you’ll want the DVD. You’ll be inviting friends over to watch it with you. It is that good.

What should you know about the plot? You really don’t need to know much. It doesn’t matter because the film sucks you in from the first minutes. But in brief a prepubescent girl (Chihiro, who is called Sen through most of the film) moves into a new neighborhood in Japan with her parents. On their way to their new house they get lost and end up at what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. After passing through an underground tunnel and into the park slowly things start to get weird. Eventually it becomes clear that they have passed into a spirit world. Sen’s parents turn into pigs when they accidentally chow down on spirit food. Sen spends the rest of the movie trying to get her parents back and to go home.

This corner of the spirit world is a huge bathhouse where spirits of all types come to bathe and relax. Sen has to work in the lowliest of jobs simply to survive. The fact that she is a human who has passed into the spirit world is a major problem. She has to deal with a lot of discrimination and must grow up very quickly. You meet all sorts of fantastical spirits and creatures. Those who serve the bathhouse though at least look mostly human.

What I can’t really convey in mere worlds is the quality and depth of the animation. It is in a word: brilliant. Director Miyazaki is not just a terrific animator; he is a brilliant artist and storyteller too. His imagination just overflows with inventiveness and creative ideas. It is hard not to sit there with your mouth hanging open in sheer awe of his accomplishment. At the same time the story is deeply engaging. You find yourself totally sucked into Sen’s predicament. You are both charmed and appalled by the many spirits she encounters and her many adventures. You will be more than amazed; you will be stunned by what Miyazaki does with colors. The story does not just flow like a river, the film feels like a river flowing. The detail of the animation in every spot on the screen gives it a sense of realism that few animated films have achieved.

It’s the kind of movie that is so good you cry. It’s the sort of movie where when it ends you desperately want it to continue. It’s a movie that you have to share.

I’m doing my part. There is no way not to like it. If you thought the Wizard of Oz was inventive for its time, multiply that by 100. The Disney folks were so enchanted by the film that they left it completely unedited. They felt to edit even a single frame would be to deface a masterpiece. The English voiceovers are seamless and include the voices of David Ogden Stiers as the many armed master of the boiler room Kamaji and Suzanne Pleshette as the bathhouse owner Yubaba. Rent it or buy it today. And then spread the word.

2/5/13 – Belated rated 3.5 out of 4 stars.

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The Thinker

Review: The Ladykillers

I’ve been a fan of the Coen Brothers since I first saw Raising Arizona. Known for their quirky humor and skewed story lines, each of their films is both unique and somehow still the same. Fargo (1996), one of their more recent movies, was hard for me to explain to anyone. “Just go see it,” I would tell them. I have yet to be disappointed or bored with one of their films.

So I can report that The Ladykillers starring Tom Hanks is not only faithful to their particular cinema noir but perhaps their best film yet. Based loosely around a 1955 film starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, this one takes place in Mississippi instead of London. And this time a gang of crooks looks to use the root cellar of a lady’s house to tunnel into the vault of a casino and get away with the loot.

Tom Hanks stars as “Professor” G.H. Dorr, a quirky, long winded thief masquerading as a professor on sabbatical. He supposedly needs the root cellar of this house as a place for his band to practice the music they play at Renaissance Festivals. He also rents a room upstairs for fifteen dollars a week from the landlady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). She is a deeply religious black woman whose long dead husband’s picture now hangs prominently above her fireplace. She talks to him regularly.

Dorr puts an advertisement in the paper that attracts those with the right talents to carry out this heist. While they have the right talents, they have disasterously wrong personalities. Particularly funny together are Garth Pancake (played by character actor J.K. Simmons ) and Gawain MacSam (played by Marlan Wayans) who couldn’t be more oil and water with each other. Irma Hall is a treasure as Marva Munson. Some of the best characters are not even human. The cat “Pickles” is constantly observing everything and literally tripping things up. The portrait of the late Mr. Munson often changes expression when events in the house change.

There is foul language up the wazoo, for those who are sensitive, but little blood and minimal violence. I am still laughing over this movie. It is not an over the top comedy, but one that comes at you often from the sides and pulls laughs from you in places that you did not expect.

If you liked the other Coen Brothers movies you will love this one. If you haven’t seen a Coen Brothers movie, I can think of no better one with which to start.

The Thinker

The coming pervasive open source software world

I think I’ve become an open source zealot. Having recently returned from Orlando and a four-day MySQL User Conference, I think I have the religion.

Open source is software that tends to be free and whose source code (before compilation) can be freely downloaded, inspected and compiled if necessary. It’s not that I don’t think commercial software has its place anymore. But when looking for information technology solutions I just increasingly question why any organization or company would not first look at the open source software market.

In my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, we have a big enterprise license to use Oracle software. We are being gently pushed and nudged into looking for ways that we can utilize Oracle software in our information technology (IT) projects. In my part of the universe, the water resources area, we are Oracle free. Some visionary developers who arrived years before I did realized that the USGS could serve its water data to the public reliably and cheaply using an “open source” database product called MySQL. This was 1999. No, it didn’t have all the bells and whistles of an Oracle or a SQL Server database. But it was 90% of the way there and was good enough. More importantly it was free to use. In a cash-strapped agency we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase Oracle licenses. Moreover we sure didn’t want the expenses to have to train a staff in using Oracle technologies. MySQL is straightforward to use, simple to set up, serves data with blinding speed and is rock solid reliable. We didn’t feel vulnerable picking it as our solution. But just incase the developers, MySQL AB went out of business we still had the source code and could improve or modify it as necessary.

In 1999 this was a very innovative act for a government agency. Use of open source software back then was limited largely to the Apache web server and the Linux operating system. More typical was the agency I was working for at the time. It was a pure Oracle database shop. Now unquestionably Oracle runs very fast. It has all the latest gee whiz sorts of features including XML support. But we weren’t using any of them. MySQL would have been fine for many of our needs, had our agency bothered to look at the product. And we would have saved hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

But open source is not just about saving money. It’s about allowing software to become platforms that can be extended in ways that suits a customer. By buying into Oracle we found it was difficult not to lock into Oracle. I found in my last job that when I compared Oracle Reports to Crystal Reports, Oracle Reports won because we could get it cheaper through our enterprise license agreement. It was more complex to run and set up than Crystal Reports, but that didn’t matter. “We’re an Oracle shop” was the message. Oracle was preferred and the default solution. But its products are black boxes that rarely can be installed and configured to run efficiently by themselves. If you want those sorts of extras you had best hire Oracle Consulting to come in. For $2500 a day they’ll be glad to tune these applications to make them work reliably in your environment.

MySQL, on the other hand, is just a database. It doesn’t have pretensions to be anything better. It is optimized to be a fast, open standard, and rock solid reliable database. Yes, it is missing some features that I have taken for granted in commercial products but it will get there in time. For now it is more than good enough. It is a bargain.

It turns out that MySQL is most beneficial as part of a toolset that can be used to plug into different products. It is part of an unofficial open source uber-suite called LAMP: Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/PHP/Python. These products are likely the highest quality open source tools out there. Linux provides a rock solid operating system. Apache provides the most feature rich and reliable web server available. MySQL provides reliable and fast persistent storage. And the Perl/PHP/Python scripting languages provide an easy way for fairly junior programmers to serve and collect real time data over the web.

On top of this rock solid and best of class software developers are scrambling to put together new products, some open source, some not. Within the open source community the numbers of projects that utilize these technologies are breathtaking. Look at the Apache site alone to see what clever collaborative communities are doing.

How do companies make money when all this software is free? Some do it by allowing open source software to act as a common denominator platform that they build on top of. Others, like MySQL AB have a dual license: one for non-commercial use which is free and one for commercial use that is not. But even the commercial licenses are very affordable and offer huge cost savings over closed source software. Other companies make money through support agreements. Lots of businesses don’t want to have to track down and fix bugs in software and will naturally want companies to do it for them. This is what we are doing at the USGS. Our use of MySQL is noncommercial, since we are a government agency. But we spent six thousand dollars a year for a support agreement with MySQL AB anyhow incase we need technical support.

I should point out that most open source software is entirely free for everyone. Apache and Linux, for example, are free. Most open source software is protected by a GPL license. It requires that anyone who improves the software make it available free of charge. There are other public licenses that can be used with open source software that aren’t quite as open. But there is usually a model that will work for any company interested in providing an open source product.

Internally we have systems using OpenIngres as our database solution. We are already feeling the pressure to move away from OpenIngres (which costs us tens of thousands of dollars a year in licensing and support costs) to Oracle. But it’s clear to me that by the time MySQL makes it to version 4.1 that it, rather than Oracle, would be a much more logical database to use internally.

If I were Oracle CEO Larry Ellison I’d be cashing in my stock options. I see the open source wave as something that will likely increase until it becomes a tidal wave. Eventually it will probably sink Oracle, or render it into a company that will have to compete on drastically reduced margins. Even Microsoft is not immune. With the success of open source Linux desktop packages and office suites like OpenOffice, Microsoft will too eventually feel the heat. If Microsoft were more agile, it would be beginning its transition to open source now. Its failure to do so might eventually prove to be its undoing.

Businesses that write closed source software will increasingly have to market their software in unique niches unlikely to be targeted by the open source communities. Open source solutions are likely to become more pervasive because the cost of entry is so small. No one just dips his or her toes into Oracle. Your checkbook better have at least six figures on it.

MySQL and Oracle might not appear to have much in common. But today they have deployed roughly the same number of licenses. By next year MySQL is likely to be the number one deployed database in the world. Oracle is a large corporation with lots of big buildings, guys in suits and Lear jets. MySQL AB is about 130 people, many of them living in Sweden, who dress in T-shirts and who are very approachable. I had a nice long discussion at my conference with Monty Widenius, cocreator of MySQL. He is still very much a full time software developer. You can bet that if I went to an Oracle conference I couldn’t get within a hundred feel of Larry Ellison.

It’s time for businesses and government to look at open source solutions first. We should buy commercial software only when there is a compelling reason to do so. For most IT needs these days, these compelling needs don’t exist.

The Thinker

Back from Orlando

Back from a MySQL User Conference in Orlando, Florida. It was a good conference and perhaps a lead for a future topic on how open source software is going to either kill or fundamentally change Microsoft at some point.

While I was there I took a couple hours to see my sister Lee Ann (along with her husband Rick) at a Steak and Ale Restaurant off International Drive in Orlando.


International Drive is the ritzy area of town and full of tourists sick of Disney World. Lots of places to spend money and the competition must be rough, because apparently in order to entice tourists to part with their money, they have to deliberately construct upside down buildings.


The Thinker

Mini Movie Reviews

Here are capsule reviews of a few films I’ve seen recently. The first I saw in a theater, the other two in airplanes.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This was one of those movies that when the lights came up I had a hard time figuring out at first whether I liked it or not. I wasn’t quite sure how even to categorize the film. Drama? Science fiction? The premise of the movie — that painful memories can be selectively erased — is probably closer to being realized than we suspect. That’s why it didn’t quite feel like science fiction to me. Also, it was a gritty film that felt very much grounded in the present day. Rather than seem weird it just seemed quite plausible, like it could easily happen to me.

The whole crux of the movie revolves around voluntary memory erasures. A brief but very meaningful love affair between Joel Barrish (played by Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (played by Kate Winslet) turns toxic. For whatever reason Clementine decides to not just break up with Joel, but to erase all memory of him by seeing a doctor who specializes in this emerging field. He eventually gets a letter notifying him that her memories of him have been erased. He doesn’t believe it so he goes to see her where she works (a bookstore) and it’s true … she doesn’t know who he is and has no desire to find out who this weird guy is. Naturally he ends up at the office of the doctor who performed this erasure. And after a while he is so crushed by what she did to him that he agrees he must have his memories of her erased too because the pain is unendurable.

The film has a flat and grainy feel. Like the many shots near the sea it feels always in motion; the camera rarely rests. The special effects are done quite well, tend to be minimal but are never overbearing. Jim Carrey’s part is a bit of a stretch since he is much older than Kate Winslet, but he is surprisingly convincing in a non-comic role. Among the cast of minor characters is none other than Elijah Wood, who plays one of the guys who helps erase memories at night.

When they try to erase his memories of her things go wrong. He finds during the procedure that in the end he cannot erase all memory of her: he needs her memory as some fundamental part of who he is, and he keeps reprogramming his mind to hold memories of her. But by this time he is too unconscious to be able to tell them to stop.

The movie has a few plot twists and turns back on itself a few times. But it is overall quite a good little movie. So while I didn’t know what to make of it once the movie was over, after it grew on me I knew I liked it. I give it a solid three stars out of four.

Something’s Got to Give

In real life I could never see Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton falling for each other. I can’t imagine them having any interests in common. Talk about oil and water! So I had to suspend disbelief and enjoy the premise anyhow that a hip hop record label owner, played by Jack Nicholson, would fall in love with a famous playwright, portrayed by Diane Keaton.

At the start of the film Jack Nicholson plays an inveterate Hugh Hefner type, unable to ever commit. He attracts and frequently beds lots of women thirty or forty years his junior. He’s into shallow and short relationships, women with nice curves and primal sex. Diane Keaton plays Erica Barry, an erudite lady in her fifties and way past her prime. Nicholson’s character is there to boink her daughter. She invites him up to Mom’s house by the ocean, expecting Mom not to be there. Surprise! Mom shows up unexpectedly anyhow and they all try to be adult about the very awkward situation.

Nicholson’s character receives a well-timed heart attack. But after the heart attack her daughter proves as shallow as Nicholson’s character, and exits stage right. But since Nicholson’s character is already recuperating at their house, she grudgingly allows him to stay for a while. Being divorced and in her fifties, Keaton’s character rarely gets offers for dates, despite her financial success as a playwright. But while they are all at the emergency room she unexpectedly manages to attract Keanu Reeves’ character. Reeves plays an emergency room surgeon who is not put off by the age difference and goes in serious pursuit of her.

You know the plot: Jack’s character has to end up falling in love with Diane’s, even though she is by no means a babe anymore. Nicholson plays the same wisecracking character he always portrays and he does it as well as always. But it is Keaton’s acting that is the surprise in this movie. The situation is contrived but she comes across as wholly believable anyhow. Her light comic acting is entirely engaging. I just loved some of her scenes. The scene where she and Nicholson make love is truly hot, particularly after it is all over, and they are next to each other in bed both looking totally dazed and she says, “God, I just love sex!” It’s not so much what she says, it’s how she says it. I also liked the part where she is at her computer reliving some of her scenes by inserting them into her latest play. She is writing, crying, screaming, laughing and blowing her nose all at the same time while talking to no one in particular.

Keaton didn’t win an Oscar for the part, but she certainly deserved a nomination. This is a contrived but totally feel good romance movie that starts out a bit slow but ends up drawing you in anyhow. So just lie back and enjoy it, knowing this is not the least bit deep, but worth all the shallow emotions that they will spawn anyhow.

Anyone who assumes that a successful romance movie has to involve people with tight skin and athletic frames will be proven wrong.

Another good three out of four stars movie. Enjoy. You will unable not to.

Big Fish

Tim Burton strikes again with a skewed but fun and engaging film about a man and his tall tales. The man, played by Ewan McGreggor as a younger man, and Albert Finney as an older man (two very fine actors) draws his young son in hook, line and sinker into his numerous tall tales. Unfortunately the son eventually grows up, figures they were all lies, and feels very estranged from his father as a result.

A terminal illness though brings him reluctantly back into his life, and the son (played by Billy Crudup) tries gingerly to get his father to admit those big fish stories were so much malarkey. But his father won’t. Little by little we get clues that at least some of the outlandish tales had at least elements of truth to them. We also learn that some of the stories are indeed made up. But how much were made up and how much were malarkey? Stay tuned for the delightful conclusion. If there can be some satisfaction from any protagonist dying in a movie, a cinema viewer will find it in this tale.

A solid three out of four stars here too.

(Will be in Orlando most of the rest of this week … likely won’t have time for blogging.)

The Thinker

My Hum Drum but Remarkable Workweek

Something amazing happened last week at work. On the surface it was just another workweek. I came into the office every day, did my duty and went home. In that respect it was no different than any other workweek in my federal career.

The amazing thing was what didn’t happen getting to and from work. I wasn’t up before the crack of dawn, as I have been for the last 23 years of my employment. I wasn’t trying to get my sleepy headed daughter out of bed, pushing her to get her to eat a piece or two of toast, then running her out the door so she could meet her 6:45 a.m. bus. I wasn’t tearing out the door at 5:53 a.m. as I did for most of 1999-2003 to meet at some cold commuter lot in a predawn bleakness. I did not jump in a passenger van and end up at my office at 6:45 a.m., bleary eyed, still half asleep and trying to focus my mind on the day ahead.

Similarly in the afternoon I was not waiting to be picked up by my vanpool. I was not crammed into a tight seat and elbowed by my fellow commuters. We were not fighting traffic on Constitution Avenue. Where the van would normally unload, I was not there. I was not waiting three minutes for the light to let me out of the commuter parking lot. I was not navigating the back roads to avoid the crushing press of traffic on the Fairfax County Parkway. I did not arrive home drained of all energy and wanting to curl up somewhere and go to sleep.

Instead it was Spring Break week. My daughter had no school and got to sleep in. So I didn’t have to hassle with her in the morning. And since I now work three miles from my home this meant that I could choose to get up when I wanted to. I could choose to go into the office when I wanted, without the mad morning constraint of trying to beat the overwhelming Washington area rush/gridlock hours.

I slept in until 6:40 a.m. every day of last week! I arose then because that’s when my wife gets up. I could have slept in later but her up and moving around would have been enough to get me up anyhow. But it didn’t matter. Rising at 6:40 a.m. on a weekday seemed decadent — almost sinful. So I dressed, ate an unhurried breakfast, drove leisurely to work and was fully awake and at my desk at 7:30 a.m. I left work around 5 p.m. and was home ten minutes later.

In the evenings I was not getting the yawns about 8:30 p.m. I was not half into bed reading by 9:30. Instead – oh the decadence – but I stayed didn’t bother to get ready for bed until 10 or 10:30 p.m.

Each morning I woke up feeling well rested. Each evening I had plenty of time to relax and putter.

I don’t know how many of you have jobs close to home. I think long commutes during rush hour tend to be more the norm now than not. This is a circus I have spent my adult life trying to escape. My new job at the U.S. Geological Survey let me escape this madness, at least partially. Rising at 6:05 a.m. was a huge improvement over rising at 5:15 a.m.

But last week I rose at an hour that accommodated my natural body clock, instead of at a time dictated by the demands of a modern urban society. It was not quite as good as my Dad’s work life, which consisted of being at the office at 8:30 after a three mile commute to work.

But perhaps I will sample that life this summer and see what it is like.

It is wonderful to do things at a time of my choosing. Life is good.


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