Archive for February, 2008

The Thinker

Review: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

One of the problems with being a knight of old, aside from the obvious risks of early death or permanent injury, was that not just anyone could qualify in the jousting arena. Apparently, you actually had to be a knight to compete, and your noble credentials were checked at registration. So what do you do if you are a poor peasant with the stout heart to be a knight but not the lineage? You could try this strategy: wait until your knight dies unexpectedly, hope you can fit into his armor and then try to successfully impersonate a knight to earn a few farthing.

That is what passes for a plot to A Knight’s Tale. Due to the persistence of his father (who recognizes his unusual fearlessness), William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) of Cheapside in London circa 1375 or so manages to become a squire to Sir Ector. He is your run of the mill knight who makes a marginal living participating in jousts. Although William had never jousted before, he somehow manages to complete his master’s joust and win a small amount of prize money. The knight’s two other squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk, who went on to star as the pilot of the short lived but brilliant Firefly series) are persuaded to help William perpetuate his ruse, since apparently it beats starvation. William rebrands himself as Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland.

William may have a stout heart but he has to master jousting. Out in the country where he prepares for his first joust, he and his compatriots run across a naked Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). Yes, of course he is that Chaucer. Jeff as they call him has a gambling problem (hence his nakedness) and is as well a frustrated 14th century English major. Apparently, there is just no demand for poets in a world where only a tiny fraction of the population can read. I never imagined Chaucer as quite the flamboyant and petulant man that Bettany portrays him, but this movie is out more to amusingly entertain than to actually convince you that you are in the 14th century. Toward that end, it feels a bit like Moulin Rouge! Although it portrays medieval times, in this movie the good citizens of England are not beyond dancing to a few 20th century pop lyrics, which fits with the mostly lighthearted atmosphere of the movie.

In fact, both the nobility and peasants of this Medieval England look pretty good. You do not see that many beggars in the street, people with bad teeth or oozing sores, or dead bodies. What you do see plenty of are jousting competitions. Naturally, there must also be romance. William is enamored with a lovely lass named Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). She is a hard woman to woo. Fortunately, when you have Geoffrey Chaucer in your entourage, you can put an English major to good use. He generates some first class poetry that helps to woo her heart. Bettany is actually quite funny in this movie and may be one reason to see the movie.

As you might suspect, William succeeds in his knightly quest, although by the 14th century this largely meant earning money in jousts, not going to war. Jousting keeps him and his squires well fed, while constantly wondering when their ruse will be discovered. It is Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell) who becomes William’s thorn in his side. He is jealous of his love for Jocelyn and is determined to beat him in jousting, using tricks fair and foul. This provides a semblance of suspense to the movie.

This is mostly a lighthearted romp with occasionally serious undertones. The jousting is actually quite impressive. The movie at times feels like one big Renaissance Fair. I think I would rather have preferred to be a starving peasant rather than taking my chances on top of a horse like these knights did. Wrestlers who think they have many body pains cannot begin to imagine what knights had to endure. While the jousting is good fun and Chaucer’s comic heraldry is certainly entertaining there is little else about the movie that is particularly memorable. A Knight’s Tale then is really just an enjoyable and vapid popcorn movie. Unlike others in the genre like Van Helsing it aspires to be merely an entertaining B movie. In that sense, it succeeds quite well, since it was likely shot for a tenth of Van Helsing‘s cost. This is a B- of a movie, watchable and generally fun but nothing special.

I give it a 2.8 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

Boldly exploring the HD Radio universe

I like to think of myself as a technology pioneer. In real life, more often I am a technology laggard. Take my television. It’s so 20th century. It still runs in analog mode with its mediocre 480 lines of resolution. I know in about a year I will either have to buy a high definition television or a converter box. I do not seem to be rushing to buy a HD TV, although I do plan purchase a set by the end of the year. I did spend the better part of a week last year replacing a door in our entertainment room with drywall. We intend eventually to mount a HD TV in its place. Of course, if like me, you do not watch much TV then there is hardly a compelling reason to go HD TV.

On the other hand, I listen to a lot of radio. Principally I listen to public radio. I am a news junkie, and in the Washington D.C. area where I live, there are excellent public radio stations. Consequently when I heard that my favorite public radio stations were now broadcasting in HD Radio (the HD stands for “Hybrid Digital”, not “High Definition”), and I could get two or three times the number of public radio stations by going HD, my only question was how to get a HD radio. I decided to let my wife do the shopping, and told her to add one to my Christmas wish list.

She succeeded, but finding HD Radios was quite challenging. The local Best Buy had exactly one model, which also came with a host of other features that I did not need like a DVD/CD player. Christmas morning though had me excitedly assembling it and placing it in the windowsill above our kitchen sink. I removed our venerable twenty-year-old G.E. portable radio. I was prepared to be overwhelmed. Instead, I was underwhelmed.

She must have bought a dud. It was not that we could not get a HD radio signal; it was just hard to bring it in any HD signals. When they came in, they quickly dropped off. It also suffered from a number of poor design decisions. The speakers were poorly constructed: high on the bass, low on the treble. It also came with a remote control you had to use to access just about everything. After a couple weeks, I had had enough. I returned it.

I still wanted the promised thrill of HD Radio. I ended up going online and reading reviews for HD radios. I ended up with a Radiosophy HD100 receiver, which with shipping came to about $125. I had never heard of the brand before, so I was a bit suspicious, but it got a decent review. Moreover, unlike the first HD radio this one was light and compact. It fit on a windowsill and did not have separate speakers. To adjust the volume, I turned a knob instead of pressing buttons on a remote. The sound quality was quite good for speakers that were perhaps four inches in diameter. In addition, it was reasonably portable, assuming you did not connect its AM antenna.

One of the surprising things I learned about HD Radio is that it is not just for FM. AM can play in the HD Radio universe too. Four AM radio stations in our area have taken the HD Radio plunge. During daylight hours, they are allowed to broadcast HD Radio signals. Unfortunately, AM HD Radio sounds like FM analog radio. Considering the low fidelity we have come to expect on AM, it is a huge improvement. Still, it does not quite sound high fidelity. This is because its signal tops out at 15,000 Hz. Moreover, when the sun goes down it reverts to the 10 kilohertz telephone quality sound that now seems hopelessly dated.

On FM, it can take 5-10 seconds for my radio to detect and lock into a station’s HD radio signals. In the meantime, you hear the regular FM analog signal on the default Channel 1. If your HD Radio is tuned to Channel 2 or 3, there is a period of silence before you can hear the channel.

We live about 15 miles from the center of Washington D.C. You would think that I would be plenty close enough to get high quality HD Radio signals. Yet that does not seem to be the case. Perhaps HD Radio cannot broadcast digital signals as far. All I know is that sometimes just walking around my kitchen will make the signal will disappear; I must be causing signal interference. After a time it will pick up the signal again. I think this will be disconcerting to many radio listeners.

What HD Radio needs are compliant radios that fit into a shirt pocket or snap onto your belt. Apparently, some models are in the works but they are experimental. HD Radios so far have much higher power requirements than regular radios. Considering the signal problems I have, I am dubious as to how well these radios will work in places that I frequent, like the health club or when riding on the W&OD bike trail.

We have three principle public radio stations: WAMU, WETA and WCSP. WAMU and WSCP have three channels each. WETA, which broadcasts classical music, has just the one channel, but it is HD. This is good because when I am in a classical music mood, the fidelity of HD Radio compared with FM radio is both quite noticeable and much appreciated. WCSP is C-SPAN radio, which means it broadcasts three times as much public affairs radio as before. Much of it though is not terribly interesting. Channel 2 is just the audio portion of C-SPAN television, and Channel 3 is the audio portion of C-SPAN 2. WAMU offers Bluegrass on Channel 2. Since I am not a Bluegrass fan, I do not listen. Channel 3 tends to be shows that are broadcast on Channel 1, but at different times. This means there is not much original content on Channel 3 as you might assume. However, Channel 3 also has a fair amount of BBC radio programming. It is nice to be able to pick up the BBC on the FM frequencies.

HD Radio is a large improvement over what we have become accustomed to hearing, but it cannot begin to offer the degree of listening experiences available on satellite radio. Of course, unlike Sirius and XM satellite radio, you do not have to subscribe to listen.

I will keep listening to HD Radio but I suspect over time I will migrate to satellite radio. With prices as low as $10 a month and with so many more channels, most of them commercial free, satellite radio probably offers a better overall value.

The Thinker

Carbon offsets alone aren’t going cut it

It is not often that a sermon gets to me. This could be because most sermons, while they may be very well written and passionately delivered, have topics that hit my snooze button. Occasionally though I hear a sermon that does resonate. Even more rarely, I hear one that chimes all my bells. Such was the case last Sunday when the Reverend Dennis Daniel (co-minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston that I attend) gave a sermon entitled Footprints, Bootprints and Tireprints… If you have the time, please read it. It deserves a much wider audience than the couple hundred people who heard it in person.

Rev. Daniel articulated the real tradeoffs required to seriously address global warming. I am all for replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent or LED lights. Nevertheless, if this is how we intend to respond to global warming we might as well try to bail out the Titanic with a teacup. Not only is global warming a real problem, it is much, much worse of a problem than we are really prepared to think about.

Perhaps it is best to stay in denial. At least if you stay in denial you can leverage hope. I do not wish to sound like the problem is completely hopeless. However, given our current culture and our human dynamics, to soberly address global warming it will take a seismic shift in attitudes the likes of which have never occurred in human history. Perhaps all it will take is to have a few atolls submerged by rising seas for the worldwide consensus to become overwhelming. However, given our human history it is much more likely that the challenges of global warming will be manifest in massive migrations, war and pestilence. I suppose that if we were to engage in enough global genocide we could seriously reduce our carbon footprint. Dead men are carbon neutral.

The Rev. Daniel nailed it. In his sermon, he suggests that if we could regress our lifestyle to 1950 (with its requisite population) then maybe we could get a handle on global warming. In 1950 because our expectations and salaries were modest, instead of having two or three cars, we felt fortunate to have one. That was all most families could afford. Our electricity needs were similarly downsized. Lacking air conditioning, we got by on fans. Books and a radio were our entertainment. We got most of our produce locally because it was too expensive to ship it from far away places. It was easier to survive without a car because we tended to live either in well-connected cities or in smaller villages.

Could Americans revert to such a lifestyle again? I am dubious but I notice one other telling statistic. In 1950, the population in the United States was about 150 million. In a little more than fifty years, we have doubled our population. To have the same carbon footprint we had in 1950 not only would we have to radically downsize our lives, but also we would have to kill one out of every two of us. Umm, you first.

That is not going to happen of course. We will address global warming by tackling the relatively easy stuff first. Changing out light bulbs is the easiest. We will work at creating more energy efficient cars and appliances, and there is a lot we can do to make our homes more insulated. Solar energy and wind power is there for the taking too. There is promising research that suggests that solar panels can be made as cheap per kilowatt-hour as power generated from coal burning power plants. All this will require a massive amount of reinvestment and research. Instead of using teacups to bail water out of the Titanic, we might be using pails instead. The ship though will still go down rather quickly.

Many of us think we can resolve our guilt by being “carbon neutral”. In case you are not familiar with the term, some speciously claim they can buy enough offsets to compensate for their carbon addicted modern lifestyles. Typical offsets include funding organizations that plant new trees. As the Rev. Daniel points out, this really does little to address global warming either. It is not that we cannot replace the carbon dioxide for our jet trip to Portugal elsewhere. It is just that our real carbon footprint is far bigger than this.

Consider the carbon burned just to get a newspaper to your door. The whole newsprint supply chain is carbon intensive. Of course, it is but one example. Every convenience of modern society brings with it its carbon footprint. Just writing this blog entry, I am consuming carbon, because my computer is using something like 200 watts of power. In some coal-burning power plant a couple hundred miles from here, some chunk of coal is being incinerated so I can post this online.

To be carbon neutral as a society, massive changes are required. Everything in our supply chain must be reengineered to minimize its carbon footprint. Of course we are unlikely to get rid of the carbon altogether. If we are extraordinarily lucky, we may squeeze 30% to 50% of the carbon out of our manufacturing and distribution processes over the next 50 years.

However, all this efficiency reduces, but does not eliminate, the carbon required to run our modern society. Yet this alone means nothing as long as population growth increases. I have seen a number of studies that say the Earth can sustain no more than a billion humans without it having a negative carbon impact on the planet. In short, 5 out of 6 of us need to be planted six feet under, and arguably those of us in first world countries should be the first to be planted.

What we need is for all countries to reduce their population growth, but especially in first world countries, which produce a disproportionate amount of the carbon causing climate change. China seemed to be on the right track when it limited family sizes to three. However, it is currently engaged in its own frantic plan to become a first world nation, and its carbon footprint is becoming huge. It is hardly alone.

What is the likelihood that humanity can peacefully come together, agree to reduce its population, aggressively move toward carbon neutral technologies, end deforestation and peacefully figure out how to spend generations in a negative growth cycle? Sure, it can be done with enough will. Will we get that kind of will? If past behavior is a predictor of the future, our chances are slim to none.

To end global warming means that each generation should expect to have fewer opportunities and less comfort than the previous generation. It is a depressing prospect, and hardly the sort of scenario that inspires us toward hope. Instead, we will likely choose selfishness and convenience. We will choose it because we can. Let someone else be carbon neutral, is what we will decide. We will take measured steps toward being carbon neutral, but if it involves more than a modicum of pain (and God forbid that it raises our taxes), it will become politically unacceptable.

I have a fantasy that I am carbon neutral. My roof and backyard are covered with solar cells. I have an enormously tall windmill in my backyard that generates electricity too. With these steps, my energy efficient windows and my insulated walls I am all set and guilt free.

Except that I still would need to get to market to buy food. I could not grow it all in my backyard. I would still need to see doctors. I would still need to get to my job. I am fortunate enough where I can bike to work and I could even walk to work if required. I doubt all these things would be enough. I would still need someone to haul away my garbage. If I still had a child in school, she would need a way to get there. I would still need to buy clothes and appliances. All of that takes infrastructure. If it can all be made carbon neutral, it is many generations away.

For me what it comes down to is that at some level to be an environmentalist you have to hate your own species. The reality is that modern man is incompatible with the Earth. We are driven to destroy it. Our selfishness may in turn destroy us and much of life as we know it on this planet. When we go the way of the dinosaurs, perhaps the Earth will become carbon neutral again.

The Thinker

Love can be unlovely

Just as saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” does not at first trip naturally off the tongue, telling someone you love him or her can be awkward to say. After a while though it becomes engrained. It bubbles out unprompted when you are with your significant other. For myself, after twenty-two years of marriage I no longer know what I mean when I say I love my wife. “Love” has become squishy and abstract. Sometimes it feels like a lazy word. There are times when saying I love my wife feels more like a platitude than something meaningful.

It is a little like that question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” There is no way to answer it without feeling slimed. “How much do you love your spouse or significant other?” If someone to ask this of me, would I recoil? What the hell kind of question is it anyhow?

Just how do I measure my own love? Would I jump off a bridge if my love asked it of me? Hell no. Should she stay with me after I beat her black and blue because she loves me? I would hope that she would get the hell out of Dodge. Would I take care of her 24/7 in sickness and in health in her old age, giving up all semblance of personal happiness? I don’t know. I would probably try to find home health aides. At some point, the burden might become so crushing that I would put her in a nursing home. On the other hand, she will be going in for back surgery next week. Will I be there for her? Of course, I will. In addition, I will be with her at home for a few days while she lies flat on her back. I cannot imagine not doing any of these things for her.

I suspect very few couples have this kind of discussion about the boundaries of their love prior to tying the knot. I know my wife and I never did, but there were certainly many implicit assumptions about love that we carried with us into marriage. Instead, we just say we love each other and leave it at that. We cross our fingers and hope the positive aspects of loving someone outweigh what can be its crushing burdens. In fact, we do not really know the boundaries of our love for someone until they are put to the test.

When they are put to the test then love isn’t so much fun. That is what I have discovered. My wife is a lovely creature, but when God handed out bodies to inhabit, she was handed something shabby. Without getting into details, suffice to say that she is a challenging case for her doctors. In fact, she has a whole team of doctors of various specialties working to alleviate her suffering. You would think after working on her for more than twenty years that they might have cured something, but no. Her body is like a beanie bag chair. If one problem is fixed then another emerges to replace it. This means her life on a good day is full of discomfort, and on a bad day is full of wrenching pain.

Do I love my wife? I must, otherwise I would have checked out years ago. Do I love providing the persistent physical and emotional support to help her cope with her medical issues? Are you crazy? No. In fact, hell no. Frankly, I would rather be in Tahiti, but who wouldn’t? Nonetheless, I love her. In addition, I inherited the dutiful gene. I got it from both sides of the family and at this point, it is reflexive. Moreover, I have certain values, including kindness and compassion. Since I love her, I cannot imagine anyone who deserves more of it from me than her.

Nonetheless, I have discovered some inconvenient truth about values. Having values is easy. Living up to them is hard. Most of us do not have to get a root canal more than a couple times in our lives. How many of us, if called by conscience, would volunteer to get a root canal three times a week? Not many, which is what makes Mother Teresa’s story so interesting, and why I was so drawn to recent revelations. I sometimes feel by providing a high degree of support to my wife, that I am volunteering to get regular root canals. At some point a more dispassionate observer might infer, Dude, your values are really whacked.

It strikes me that all these love problems are easily solved. If love gets too burdensome, just bail out. This assumes, of course, that you can deal with the aftermath. I am quite confident that in my case, because I do love my wife, if I bailed on her the guilt (not to mention the wound I would feel acting at variance to my deepest held values) would likely be worse than providing the support she needs. Nonetheless, bailing out seems to be a popular option, given the divorce statistics in the United States. I do feel some satisfaction being there for my wife, and feel it says much about my character. I cannot say that it is fun. Nor was it fun to be the little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike, although doubtless the citizens of Holland were grateful.

If you are in a love relationship, hope that your values are not put to the test too often. If they are, expect it to be a learning experience about just whom you really are.

The Thinker

Review: Reds (1981)

I avoided the movie Reds (1981) for years because I find both Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty grating. I am not sure just why I feel this way, given that they are good progressives and so am I. There was also its bladder-challenging length (3 hours and 14 minutes), so long that it wisely came with an intermission. Moreover, there was its still controversial subject matter: communism, an ideology that never established a firm foothold in our country.

Frankly, I had forgotten just how old this movie is. I thought it was released in 1985 or so. Its age shows in the youthfulness of its leading characters. Principally all its stars now are sixty or seventy something. Warren Beatty, who played the journalist and socialist Jack Reed, is now 70. Diane Keaton, who played his freethinking and often-abused wife, is 62. Jack Nicholson, who I think is miscast as Eugene O’Neill, is also 70. Twenty-seven years ago though all were in their prime. Warren Beatty had women swooning over him. Diane Keaton was ascending after breakout performances in Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Jack Nicholson was fresh off the set from Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1980 film The Shining.

Clearly, 1980 found Warren Beatty very restless and ready to prove his moxie as a producer, director and writer, as well as an actor. Reds became his canvas. He succeeded on one score: in 1982, he received an Oscar for Best Director for the film. The late Maureen Stapleton also deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role as the radical anarchist Emma Goldman. My opinion after finally seeing the movie 27 years later is that Beatty reached for the brass ring a bit too early. Beatty seemed to be channeling David Lean, who directed Dr. Zhivago in 1965. He wanted to prove that he could create a landmark film of the 1980s. The result is a very long film with many worthy attributes as well as some substantial failings.

Where Beatty succeeds is in capturing the atmosphere of the world in the mid to late 1910s. If you want to know what America looked and felt like for your grandmother or great grandmother, see Reds. From its Ragtime music, to the tins of biscuits in the kitchen to the ubiquitous wood burning stoves of the time, Beatty nails the era. He also does a great job of capturing the intellectual energy of the age. As quaint as it seems to us now, at the time socialism appeared to be the cure for a nation that was struggling under capitalism’s oppressive weight. Workers needed few skills and were easily replaced. Much of America lived in wretched poverty while a tiny few like John D. Rockefeller lived in unimaginable opulence.

Labor organizer John Reed (played by Beatty) worked hard to draw attention to these issues as a journalist. Eventually though his life became consumed by the socialist and communist movements. His life also became entangled with a free spirited woman from Portland, Oregon (Louise Bryant, played by Keaton). In a time before women even had the right to vote, she was advocating ideas like free love. Bryant and Reed discover that their lofty ideals rarely worked in the real world of human relationships. Despite their enlightened attitudes, they too discover they can be jealous and possessive people.

In their time, Greenwich Village was the same center of progressive thought that it is today. Living there, Bryant and Reed became immersed in the gifted artists and intellectuals of the age. Among these are Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson) and Emma Goldman, the radical feminist. Goldman promoted not only workers’ rights, but also truly radical notions of the times like labor unions and birth control for women, as well as communism and anarchy as a means for remaking the world. The real energy of the labor movement though was not in America, but in Russia. As we know in 1917, a second Russian revolution toppled the Czar’s regime and resulted in the world’s first communist state. Like moths to a flame, both Reed and Bryant were drawn to the people’s revolution underway in Russia. Arguably, Reed is consumed by it. His passion led to neglecting not only his wife, but also his health. He ends up as something of a missionary promoting world communism.

The movie overflows with passionate people passionately trying to remake the world. Reed is arguably the tip of the socialist spear in America. He also has passionate feelings for Bryant, whom he eventually marries. Their relationship though is very troubled. They become estranged, reconnect and then become estranged again. Then try to find each other in a world torn asunder while half a world apart. Toward the end, the movie becomes predominantly a love story between two complex and passionate people navigating a relationship that frequently careens between toxicity and love.

The movie though does have some serious shortcomings. For one thing it is at least an hour longer than necessary. The movie does not need to take the viewer into endless meetings to understand the socialist and communist movements. Here is where a director less vested in its outcome would have taken out his shears and pruned the movie into a far more digestible size. With complete control over the movie, like many before him, Beatty became myopic. It has the feeling at times like Beatty invited many of his best friends to come and make this movie. Consequently, you occasionally get incongruent castings, such as Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill. With Reds, Beatty aspired to make a Citizen Kane. Instead, Reds compares more with some of Orson Wells’s lesser-known movies, such as The Magnificent Ambersons.

Still, Reds is a movie worthy for any fan of the cinema. If it was a shot at the moon, it clearly missed its target. Still, its trajectory was quite lofty. The viewer can count on a long, but mostly interesting ride through a neglected period of our history.

This movie gets 3.0 on my 4.0 scale.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Thinker

My odd Valentine’s Day gift

This Valentine’s Day, instead of my wife being next to me in bed, she was 2000 miles away. Specifically, she is in Arizona. She is taking care of her mother who is recuperating from lung surgery. She is doing this even though she herself needs surgery to repair a herniated disk in her back. She has been popping pain pills and getting physical therapy for months in an attempt to avoid back surgery. They did not work so recently the decision was made to operate.

I suggested that since her mother has plenty of family in the Arizona area it might be more important that she say home and get her back surgery rather than traipse across country to try to take care of her mom. But no, duty called. When you think your mother needs you that trumps everything, including your own major back problems.

I hope that she is earning some major karma points. I was similarly dutiful in 2003 when I went to Michigan to offer moral and logistical support to my mother during her long hospitalization and recovery. However, I was in good health. My wife kept the home fires burning on my trips. I am doing the same on her trip. I washed five loads of laundry yesterday, and I hate doing laundry. I even cleaned the kitchen floor.

I am also discovering a few things that I did not expect: it can be healthy to have time apart from your spouse. With my daughter working, I find that this week my household is often reduced to one four-year-old feline and myself. I do miss my wife, but I confess I do not miss all the drama that has been occupying our lives since her back went out after Thanksgiving. Herniated disks must be something like nine on a 10-point scale of painful things that can happen to you in life. Because she is in pain, she cannot help but broadcast her pain. Her back is a constant topic of discussion. I offer moral support, of course, and even some logistical support. I suppose it helps but it does not really solve her back problem. For eight days or so, I am free of it.

Ironically, her trip to visit her mom was perhaps the best Valentine’s Day gift she could have given me. Every caregiver needs some downtime and I have had precious little. I realize that since I do not have her degree of back problems, I am merely whining. Still it is a relief to have my wife with her bad back gone for a while. It is as if we are learning to better love each other by being less supportive.

Now that my daughter has her driver’s license, I do not have to fuss much over her either. She gets herself to work on time and comes home when her shift is over. Which leaves work (which was stressful this week), and hours and hours of glorious solitude. I am finding that I am slowly reverting into the creature I was before I got married. I am remembering who I was before I became tangled up in this institution called marriage.

Granted, before I was dating steadily in many ways life was a lot less fun. Sex was more likely to be my right hand than with another woman. Still, there was a certain reckless freedom to being a bachelor. As a husband and principle breadwinner, my life feels controlled and regimented. As a married man living the life of a bachelor for a week, I am discovering the pleasure of doing things at my own pace. Doing laundry yesterday was an example. If I felt like surfing the web for a while rather than move the next load through the laundry cycle so be it. No one was impacted.

I toyed with the idea of going out on the town by myself. Fortunately, I quickly abandoned it. It turns out I can have more fun at home than anywhere else. I am not sure what single 51-year-old men do, but it is probably not what twenty something single young men do. I think older single men congregate at the counter of their local Silver Diners, and read their newspapers while sipping coffee and consuming entrees loaded with fats and carbohydrates. My idea of a fun thing to do by myself is to spend a few hours at the local Barnes & Noble. I pick out a handful of nerdy computer books, hope for a ready cushy chair and just read. In theory, I could do this any night, but in practice, since I have a spouse I do not. I probably will do it tonight since my schedule is free.

Another thing I could do is take in a movie on a weeknight. I hear Tuesday is $5 movie night at the local Reston Multiplex. The leisure class does these sorts of things. They do not necessarily have to be at work at 7 AM. They can be spontaneous. While there are many great things about having a spouse, spontaneity is rarely one of them. No, things have to be negotiated and planned. I do not consider my dining tastes very advanced but I am an epicurean next to my wife. This typically limits us to a half dozen restaurants, generally with American or Italian food. She won’t do Mexican. She won’t do Thai. She won’t do Indian. She will do Chinese but she only likes one particular Chinese restaurant in Herndon. With her gone my dining options are now expanding. The problem is I generally do not prefer to dine alone. However, I can get takeout.

In short, I love my wife this Valentine’s Day. I did send her a card and made sure we had a long chat on the phone. I love her for being devoted to her mother in her time of need. It is an aspect of her character I cannot help but admire. I also love her for giving me this unexpected respite from our relationship. Perhaps I can be a refreshed and better spouse when she returns.

Happy Valentines Day, sweetie.

The Thinker

Brought down by Bill?

Does Bill Clinton have a passive-aggressive relationship with Hillary? I sometimes wonder. If Hillary Clinton does not become the Democratic presidential nominee this year, it can probably be traced to her husband. Before Bill Clinton said this in response to a reporter’s question, polls had put Hillary Clinton even with Barack Obama in the South Carolina primary. Indeed, prior to mid December 2007, polls showed Clinton holding a steady lead over Obama. While Bill Clinton’s remarks were not overtly racist, they were implicitly racist. When asked why it takes two Clintons to beat Barack Obama in South Carolina, Clinton drew attention to the fact that Jesse Jackson won the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina twice in the 1980s. The implication was clear: if given a choice, blacks will vote for other blacks. What was more interesting than his words though was the little “Ha ha ha” he uttered after being asked the question. The tone was unmistakable.

When I heard it, I just cringed. Some part of me thought that if Hillary Clinton did not end up mortally wounded by his January 26th remark, Bill’s remark would definitely knock her out for at least a round. Unquestionably, that was achieved. Hillary has been down for three rounds so far. Since Super Tuesday, there have been eight more Democratic primaries and caucuses. Barack Obama has won all of them, in many cases winning by double digits or more. This week in the so-called Potomac Primary, my state, Virginia, picked him over Hillary Clinton by 29%, which was nearly the same margin that Obama won in his home state of Illinois (32%).

It was a spectacularly bad and ill-timed remark by Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton is way too smart of a politician to say it without considering its likely the consequences. This made me wonder if he subconsciously wants Hillary to lose. His words, which were quickly broadcast and transmitted all over the country, caused South Carolinians of all races to reassess both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Many African Americans, who long thought of Bill Clinton as America’s first black president and consequently were inclined to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt, suddenly felt disillusioned. Perhaps they felt more used than disillusioned. Our 42nd president may have come from what many consider a trailer park trash household, but apparently, even trailer park trash households had their standards in Arkansas. I am left to conclude many in Arkansas like Bill had lingering racist feelings. Hey, at least they weren’t black.

I think African Americans across the country felt used and betrayed when they heard these comments. Moreover, by implication Hillary Clinton was slimed too. After all, she had married the man. She was still married to the man, in spite of his infidelities (perhaps because he promised the lure of a Senate seat for the price of staying in their marriage). It is nice to have white politicians who consistently vote to improve the lot of African Americans, but how do they really feel inside? Bill Clinton’s “ha ha ha” was a window into his soul. Consequently, almost overnight South Carolinians changed their mind. At least they knew that Barack Obama was a man of character. He grew up effectively in a single family home too, but he had never stepped out on Michele. His vision was uplifting. Bill Clinton’s vision was more political smoke and mirrors. South Carolina, which January polls suggested was a toss up, moved quickly into the Obama camp. The last poll taken near the end of January showed Obama with a 15% lead over Clinton. He actually won by 28%, winning more than twice the number of votes she received.

Barack Obama may be running a post racial campaign, but clearly, America remains racially sensitive. Many now seem inclined to make bigots pay a political price. Bill Clinton, the ultimate triangulator, was focused on what appeared to be short-term tactics to boost Hillary’s chances. The remark was a mistake. His wife’s campaign now feels like a balloon slowly deflating. It remains to be seen whether his remark will ultimately end it.

Many people, including myself, found much to admire about the Clinton presidency. Bill Clinton deftly navigated the 90’s surrounded by Republicans. Under the circumstances, his accomplishments were quite extraordinary. None of us voters though ever were disillusioned by Bill Clinton’s character. We always knew he was a Wile E. Coyote. Most of us liked what he did for the economy and loved what he did to our pocketbooks. It allowed us to overlook his moral transgressions.

This remark though reminded of us what we did not like about Bill. We hear remarks like “If you elect Hillary, you will get two Clintons for the price of one.” On the stump, Bill Clinton is talking about “our campaign”. These remarks just raise the question: just whom are we electing if we elect Hillary Clinton? Who will really be in charge? By having Hillary’s ear, are we in effect giving Bill Clinton a third term? Will he transform himself into the new Dick Cheney and be the secret power behind the throne? Is that how we want to remember the next Clinton presidency with a sixty something Bill Clinton holed up in Cheney’s old office on the phone working backdoor deals?

For many of us on the fence the answer is “No!” While it is generally better to go with the enemy you know than the one you do not know, Bill’s remarks on a Bill and Hill presidency feel more alarming than reassuring. This is probably why not just blacks, but white men and women, and increasingly Latinos are moving in the Barack Obama column. Given the realities of being president, offering hope may seem at times sophomoric. However, the Obama vision is at least a clean break from the past decades of endless political infighting and partisanship. It is a compelling vision, and one that Bill Clinton now makes look especially alluring.

Bill Clinton may have triangulated his wife right out of the presidency.

The Thinker

Review: The Aviator

Whoa! I had an inkling that the late Howard Hughes was something of a strange man, but I never quite knew how strange until I belated rented The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the aviation pioneer. To call Hughes merely an aviation pioneer though is to damn him with faint praise. He was a man of many enormous talents, as well as great eccentricities. I can understand why in 2004 the great legendary director Martin Scorsese felt compelled to bring his story to the screen. The film was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director but it won neither. However, it did win a host of lesser awards, including an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the legendary actress Katherine Hepburn.

Casting DiCaprio as Hughes was an unconventional choice. He was only age 30 when the film was released, which arguably made him too young for the role. I have seen too many pictures of Howard Hughes to succumb to disbelief from DiCaprio’s performance. He has Hughes’ lankiness but not much else. Regardless, he is compelling in the role. So even if he may be a bit off imitating Hughes, he is compelling being someone imitating an eccentric aviator who looks sort of like Howard Hughes.

With Scorsese directing, you do not anticipate mediocrity and you will find none in this movie. While the movie makes for a fascinating insight into an odd and amazing man, the movie itself does not have a feeling of greatness about it. Scorsese attempts to portray Hughes as something of a Citizen Kane. Hughes was not interested in power so much as proving to the world that he was a multihued genius. Yet the feeling of Citizen Kane pervades this movie. The parallels even include a pivotal early childhood scene.

Hughes was an early inheritor of a family fortune, and he was not afraid to spend it in relentless pursuit of his passions. The early part of the movie documents his obsession to create the most spectacular film of its time, Hell’s Angels (1930). The project takes years and squanders millions of his money, which makes it by magnitudes the most expensive picture ever attempted. After completion but right before its release, Hughes noticed that talkies were the wave of the future, so he reshot it as a talkie. Nonetheless, the picture turned out to be spectacularly successful. Hughes believed in his own vision and was relentless in its pursuit. Neither directing movies nor bedding famous Hollywood starlets was his true passion. That lay in aviation. Hughes dreamed big aviation dreams, drove his employees crazy with his demands. Yet more often than not, his inchoate vision took wings and soared.

Hughes also suffered from a number of phobias. An epidemic that touched him as a child made him paranoid about germs. He touched people only reluctantly and washed his hands even more often than a family doctor. Eventually, as the film sadly details, his phobias nearly consumed his life. He could hole himself up in his room watching movies for months at a time. Yet when push came to shove and he had to go to Washington to testify in favor of his airline, TWA, he could overcome his phobias.

Scorsese does succeed in providing a fascinating portrayal of a truly interesting man. While Hughes’ fascination for Rosalind Russell is never discussed, his love affairs with Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner are well documented. Howard enjoyed being a ladies man, but most of the ladies he pursued were merely arm candy. Indeed a number of them he considered part of his personal staff. The women he truly loved appeared to be rather few.

While Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn, I found her performance a bit off, perhaps because I have seen Hepburn in too many movies. Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner is far more plausible. This is one of those movies where the supporting actors are either hard to place or were too familiar. I love Cate Blanchett, but I was fully thirty minutes into the movie before I figured out who she was. In that sense, she acted quite well. Alan Alda though is instantly familiar, so it was hard to see him in the role of Senator Ralf Owen Brewster. Brent Spiner (Data, on Star Trek: The Next Generation) played Robert Gross, but I never noticed. I was quicker on the draw with Ian Holm, who played Professor Fitz, an eccentric professor from UCLA that Hughes adds to his menagerie of odd but talented people.

The movie is long (170 minutes) but it moves briskly because there is much to tell. Scorsese leaves us with the indelible impression that Hughes’ eccentricities and talents complemented each other. If he were not an eccentric, he would not have been as successful as he was. He had his share of notable failures (including creating the world’s largest floating flying wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose, which near the end of the film we see him fly over San Francisco Bay). He was inarguably one of these extremely talented but flawed people who pulls society out of its inertia and drags us forward at a brisk clip.

Scorsese succeeds in giving this strange man his due. The 20th century was a much more colorful place because Hughes. This notable film provides Hughes with a legacy that might otherwise fade a century from now. Scorsese has ensured Hughes will never be a footnote in history.

This film is well worth your time. I give it 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

Bye Bye, Modern Conservatism

The big lesson of The Cold War was that communism was unworkable. It was not that, like a shining city on the hill, it did not have some merits in the abstract. In a way, it was Christianity as Jesus had envisioned it without the Christ. In reality, communism killed millions, most of them fellow communists, in an attempt to prove that its model of governance would actually work inside our culture. It quickly devolved into a dictatorial socialism. Communism still has some adherents, but they are rare. You have to go to places like Nepal and Cuba to find communists these days.

In 2008, we should have learned another lesson: modern conservatism does not work either. The only ones who have not gotten the messages seem to be modern conservatives themselves. No matter how stupid and wrong-headed modern conservatism has proven to be in action they can neither see nor face it.

For six years the conservatives have had carte blanc. You had a conservative president with a rubber stamp conservative Congress. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that by putting their version of conservatism into practice, they ended up at odds with their own principles.

Conservatives are supposed to believe in limited government. When has the most growth in the federal government occurred lately? During two of our most conservative presidents: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Conservatives believe in giving more power to the states and less to the federal government. Yet Conservatives have been busy doing just the opposite. From intervening in the sad Terri Schiavo matter, to trampling on California’s desire to regulate automobile emissions, to overturning Oregon’s assisted suicide laws, rather than returning power to the people and the states, conservatives have proven they want to increase federal power. They cannot even be conservative about our food and are gleefully approving irradiated meats and encouraging us to consume cloned animals.

Conservatives supposedly believe in freedom from government intrusion into our personal affairs. Yet they have no qualms about allowing the NSA to listen in on our telephone calls without a warrant or to sniff our emails. Conservatives are supposed to believe in human rights, yet it was conservatives who took away some of our fundamental rights. They gave power to the president to lock up anyone he wants to as enemy combatants, including American citizens in the United States, and keep them away from the courts indefinitely.

It is all a ruse. What conservatives really want, and which is true of most politicians, is simply power. They have gone to extraordinary and likely unconstitutional lengths to acquire it and to hold on to it. Conservatism should be about relinquishing the power of the state. It is supposed to be a philosophy that gives you more personal freedom, not less. Before Bush came to power, I had the right of Habeas Corpus. Now in certain cases, I do not even have this right, a right that can be traced back to the Magna Carta.

Prior to our current president, I thought we had three branches of government. I assumed that if conservatives ran the government they would diligently respect the separation of powers. Now I find out that there is a fourth branch: Dick Cheney and that is why he cannot release any records under the Freedom of Information Act. Prior to this administration, I assumed that if a bill became law the President was constitutionally required to execute it faithfully. Now I learn that even though a president signs a bill, he can unilaterally assert the right to ignore parts of it or take actions that are the exact opposite of the intent of Congress. All he has to do is attach a signing statement. Conservatives, please show me what part of our constitution that gives the president this power.

In short, there is nothing the least bit conservative about modern conservatism. Indeed, conservatism as it is practiced today has nothing in common with conservatism at all. When someone comes along, like Ron Paul who actually parrots true conservative principles, modern conservatives snicker. A real conservative would never have gone into Iraq in the first place because real conservatives do not rush into anything. Changes, if they must occur, are done thoughtfully and only after great consideration, and typically with reluctance.

Conservatism does not really exist in this country. Instead, it has been co-opted by the ranks of people who are hotheads, obnoxiously stubborn and who cannot even be bothered to pay attention to the laws of cause and effect. Despite the last eight years, they still believe that by cutting taxes the government will balance its budget. It did not work for Ronald Reagan, and it did not work for George W. Bush either but hey, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any sense, what matters is sticking to principle! Cutting taxes is so important that they will even borrow money today and make their children pay for it tomorrow so they can enjoy lower taxes now. In essence, modern conservatism is simply rampant selfishness for the moneyed crowd gone amok. No accumulation of disagreeable facts and outcomes can suggest to this crowd that even one of their policies was ever in error. Instead, they anticipate tomorrow, or next week, they will be proven right.

This is why they are foaming at the mouth because it looks like John McCain will win the Republican nomination. Conservatives like Ann Coulter are so upset they want to raise money for their nemesis Hillary Clinton. The reason they loathe John McCain so much is that McCain realizes to get things done you sometimes have to cross the aisle. He has demonstrated an unforgivable pragmatic streak. A true conservative never compromises principle for the sake of political expediency. (I might add, many liberal Democrats suffer from the same delusion. I saw this in the fascination for many with the candidacy of John Edwards.)

Conservatism, at least its most modern and perturbed manifestation, is in its death throes. That is why President Bush’s approval ratings are at 30% and Congress’ are even lower. That is why Democratic caucuses in overwhelmingly red states like Kansas have people waiting for hours in the freezing cold to participate. People across the country are in great pain, and it is a direct result of having conservatives in charge. They are not easily roused out of their political stupor, where they prefer to remain. However, they are roused in this election. For eight years, government has been run for the exclusive benefit of the elite. It was done this way openly and shamelessly. Middle and lower class America has paid the price in lost jobs, stagnant wages, dirtier air and a collapsing health care system. It will take another generation before they will have a chance at power again. First, they need voters who can forget their trail of carnage, and the only hope of doing that is to have no memory of it.

I hope that future generations will read take the time to read their history books. Modern conservatism like communism has proven unworkable. It should now be relegated to the dustbin of expensive lessons learned.

The Thinker

Is cash obsolete?

In my wallet is a bunch of crumpled greenbacks. In my pants pocket is a change purse bursting with loose change. Having cash in my pockets is as natural to me as fetching my newspaper in the morning.

Only fewer people are fetching newspapers these days. Instead, they are reading them online. The same thing may be happening with the greenback. While cash continues to feed a huge underground economy, (drug dealers just don’t take credit cards) for many of us cash is becoming unnecessary.

My daughter Rosie is this way. Her wallet is usually has no cash in it. In fact, she does not usually carry a wallet. Instead, she carries a little metal box for her handful of cards and documents. Since she got her checkcard a year or so back, except for an occasional bus fare, she has simply not needed cash. Every place she buys from has the ubiquitous card reader by the register. There is no pocketful of coins in her purse. One slim checkcard seems to be all that she needs.

I would say that she is the future but I think she is the here and now for those 25 and younger. (She is 18.) Money is becoming wholly abstract. I open my wallet and know with a quick glance how much I can afford for lunch. You see, the cafeteria in my building only takes cash, and ordinarily that is the only place where I still need cash. I cannot imagine the hassle of paying for gas with cash anymore. In fact, in many stores, cashiers are becoming obsolete. That is because they can save money by making you bag your own stuff at their fully automated registers. Moreover, since you are in a hurry, you are unlikely to stuff twenties into their bill machine. Slide your debit card in the slot, touch a few keys, get your receipt and you are out of there. It may not have that personal touch, but it is expeditious.

These days, I even use my ATM card to buy movie tickets. This is more due to the higher price of movie tickets than anything else is. Point in fact: virtually everything costs more. Hauling around change is becoming a pointless hassle. I am always getting pennies I neither need nor want. I religiously contribute them to the give a penny, take a penny jar by most cash registers. I do not want the hassle of hauling them around. My strategy does not seem to work very well. If it is not pennies, it is nickels, dimes and quarters instead. Of course, if you pay electronically, you do not have this particular hassle.

Granted, there are some drawbacks with using electronic money. One is that it is hard to keep track of how much money is left on an account. Yet my daughter does not consider this a drawback. When curious she goes online and checks her bank balance. She has no charge card so all of her transactions are on her debit/checkcard. Most debits these days clear within hours. She thinks my obsession with using check registers is rather quaint. In fact, if you download your transactions from your bank into a financial package like Quicken, you can see where your money went easily enough. It is generally easier to do this than to type them into a computer.

My daughter has a point, but then her financial life is very simple. She has no debts at all. So she does not have to worry about whether she is overdrawn. Me, I want a more intelligent card. It needs to be a smart card. Every time I make a transaction, it should store it on the card and keep my current balance on it. Ideally, it would recognize my fingerprint. When I pressed my fingerprint on it, it would tell me my balance and give me a way to scroll through my recent transactions. I keep waiting for a device like this but even though I wrote about this several years back, it is still not here. At least it is not available here in the States.

I am starting to realize that after our cafeteria remodeling is finished this summer, I will only need cash on the rare occasion that I use the toll road. Moreover, I really do not need it to pay cash for tolls either, if I could get off my ass and get an E-ZPass.

One benefit of cash that I might miss if I were younger is its anonymity. The government should not be snooping into my financial transactions but I have a feeling they are doing it anyhow. Cash is a great way to hide certain transactions. Until we reach an age when we do not care, most of us men prefer to buy that latest copy of Hustler with cash. Should I be inclined to take some woman who is not my wife to a NoTel Motel, I probably would not charge it to my Visa either.

I have a feeling though that soon all our financial lives will be transparent. Cash is going the way of the horse and buggy. Soon we will be saving greenbacks so we can show our kids how money used to work. They will no doubt give us incredulous looks. Cyberspace is not real. Why should money be real? Besides, just how real is paper money? All it is is a government promissory note. The government is asserting that the face value of the money is worth what it says. It is not as if you cannot take it to your local Federal Reserve Bank and get gold bullion for it.

If we must go cashless, so be it. However, at least give us intelligent debit and credit cards. I realize that credit card companies in particular would fight this idea. They would prefer to keep us ignorant of how much we are spending. Someday though the Treasury Department will decide that printing all those greenbacks and minting all those coins is truly unnecessary in today’s modern world. Then maybe they will insist that banks and credit card companies give us all the sort of smart cards we need to make a cashless society useful.

Smugglers and dope pushers will not be happy of course. I have confidence though that they could find a way to circumvent any system that is created. People are ingenious when it comes to making a profit. In the unlikely event that we could not create an electronic system opaque to such transactions, I at least will not shed any tears. The benefits of going cashless are now obvious to me. It just needs a few tweaks so it will be obvious to all of us.


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