Archive for May, 2008

The Thinker

Review: Love Actually (2003)

Back in March, I reviewed the odd 2006 film Once. Once was a one of a kind relationship movie, hard to describe, but easy to enjoy. If it had a defect it was that it felt too real. It was a film full of non-actors acting like non-actors. Filming what feels like real life rarely works in the cinema. At times, Once came perilously close to feeling like a home movie. Yet somehow, it worked.

Love Actually feels at times too much like a three ring circus to work. There is no central plot, just a central theme: in our crazy world, deep, passionate, engaging and meaningful love is everywhere. However, it is so commonplace that we mostly tune it out. It both begins and concludes in London’s Heathrow Airport around the holiday season. Heathrow is where a chain of interlocking multiple love stories intersect at one particular time and place. Each love story is unique and most are engaging.

Alan Rickman plays Harry, who is as close as the movie comes to having a central character. He is a magazine owner and is dutifully but not excitedly married to Karen (Emma Thompson). He is tempted to stray because his secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) is younger, much shapelier and is doing everything short of a Monica Lewinski act to show his interest in him. His wife just happens to be the sister to the new British Prime Minister David (Hugh Grant). Settling in to his Downing Street digs, the strangely unmarried David finds himself attracted to his caterer Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), and gets protective after the visiting President of the United States (played by Billy Bob Thorton) tries to stick his tongue down her throat. Natalie lives in a part of London that she warns the Prime Minister is “a bit dodgy”.

Karen is also a good friend of Daniel (Liam Neeson), who is just beginning to mourn his wife’s death from cancer. Daniel is too busy grieving to ponder another love life for himself. Rather than being in mourning his ten-year-old stepson find himself instead desperately in love with an American classmate. They have not even reached puberty. How could it be love? Yet the boy’s feelings are sincere. She is close to departing his life forever to return to America. Yet she does not even know he exists. Karen is also friends with Jamie, whose wife humiliated him by leaving him for his brother. Jamie finds it necessary to go to France to escape and try to work on his novel. While there, he is fussed over by Aurelia, a Portuguese housekeeper. She cannot speak a word of English. They soon find that they love each other, but they have no way to put it into words.

Also in Harry’s office is Sarah (Laura Linney) who for years has had a mutual crush on Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Neither found the courage to express their feelings until they finally dance at their company Christmas Party. Unfortunately, Sarah is also the sole guardian of her psychotic brother, who lives in an institution, periodically tries to hurt people, and who calls her on her cell phone any hour of the day or night to talk to her. She lets him control her life and in the process finds that the dutiful love she feels for her brother means she cannot have the romantic love she craves.

There is also Juliette (Keira Knightley) who just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). However, Peter’s best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) desperately loves her, but cannot express it, so he pretends to dislike her. In addition there is Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) a late-50s something mostly ex-pop star who sells his soul to remake one of his hits to give it a holiday theme, and loathes himself for it. Billy looks wasted, and comes across as spectacularly crass and boorish. This may be because all these years he has harbored feelings for his “fat manager” Joe (Gregor Fisher) rather than the scores of women he has bedded. Then there is Colin (Kris Marshall), the unlucky young male virgin who strikes out with all the women in Great Britain, and makes a desperate trip t

Editors note: the text for the rest of this review seems to have gone down a black hole and cannot be recovered.

The Thinker

My meatless Mondays

A few weeks ago, I preached about the virtues of vegetarianism. I did so hypocritically, because I am not a vegetarian. I have been getting the vegetarian gospel from many sides lately. My friend Wendy likes to say she belongs to the Church of Vegetarianism. She points me to sites like Grist to encourage me to become one and educate me about environmental choices. I also have a sister who is a vegetarian of a quarter century standing. My new sister in law is also doing the vegetarian / all organic food thing. It is a very Boulder, Colorado-ish thing to do.

It seems unlikely to me that after fifty years of eating meat generally at least once a day that I could give it up forever. However, as an experiment I have been having Meatless Mondays. It is not much but if all Americans went meatless one day a week, we would cut our meat consumption by one seventh. Assuming a stable population, that would mean fewer feedlots and fewer animals consuming our nation’s grains. By redirecting these grains from animals and biofuel plants, more grains would be available for human consumption. This would be good news for much of the Third World. The high price of grains, driven by our need to direct so much of it to animals and biofuels, is putting basic carbohydrates out of reach for the poorest, meaning millions are malnourished who were not a few years ago. Some are starving to death because they cannot afford something as basic as a bag of rice. In addition, with fewer livestock there would be less animal waste, fewer pollutants and fewer greenhouse gases. It would be no panacea to global warming, but this strategy in conjunction with many other efforts could perhaps change the current global warming dynamic.

To my friend Wendy, the primary reason she is a vegetarian is because she believes that slaughtering any animal is inhumane. There is no way of knowing how an animal feels about being dismembered, although I suspect it is something far more abstract to them than it is to us with our large prefrontal cortexes. It strikes me as reasonable to assume that animals above a certain brain size probably have some idea of what is going on when they before they are slaughtered. If we must eat meat, then animals should be killed in a way that minimizes animal trauma and suffering. Most cattle are killed by having a bolt shot through their brain. This supposedly rapidly leads to the animal’s death, or at least allows it to be dismembered without being aware that it is happening. I suspect if I paid a visit to a slaughterhouse then I would suddenly find the wherewithal to become a vegetarian. If we were serious about global warming, we would send meat-eating students on slaughterhouse tours so they could see how it is done. Like most Americans, I prefer to have my animals killed far away where I cannot hear them complain.

Not eating meat with breakfast is not a problem for me since I typically do not eat meat with breakfast anyhow. Lunch is more challenging. I am used to a sandwich or some soup where meat is one of the ingredients. One can always have a salad with lunch. I know salads are very healthy but no matter how much I dress them up, they are never interesting to eat so I want to add something more substantial, which I equate with dense food. One can claim to be a vegetarian and have an egg or tuna salad sandwich with lunch. It seems like cheating somehow. Eggs come from chickens, which produce them by eating grain. Calorie for calorie, feeding a chicken is better for the environment than feeding a cow, but an egg salad sandwich defeats my modest goal of making more grain available for human consumption. I should really avoid any dairy or egg products on meatless Mondays. Eating tuna also feels like I am cheating. Logically there is virtually no connection between harvesting seafood and solving global warming and hunger, providing species are not over-harvested. If you are a sea creature, there is no humane way to die. Unless you are a very large creature like a whale, you are likely to die by being gorily dismembered by some other sea creature. Thus far, I have avoided both egg and tuna salad sandwiches on my meatless Mondays. More typically, a cheese sandwich with some lettuce and tomatoes suffices and feels filling. It is not perfect, but it demonstrates intent. If I feel like being bad, a slice of cheese pizza is another easy substitute.

For me, the only challenge comes at dinner. This is when my desire for consuming meat becomes almost Pavlovian. The first couple of weeks I found that I had to exercise mind over matter, because my body told me to eat meat. Meat substitutes help. If you buy the right veggie burgers, you will not feel denied. However, one can quickly get tired of veggie burgers. I am not much of a burger fan in general. It is rare that I consume more than one burger a month.

Most meat substitutes tend to be rather poor imitations of the real thing. They rarely come close to either the taste of meat or its texture, nor do they usually have meat’s heft and density. Perhaps if you eat them religiously your taste buds adapt. I suspect for most vegetarians meat substitutes are transitionary products. At some point, you do not want them anymore.

Other dinner meat substitutes are more prosaic. Peanut butter and grill cheese sandwiches qualify, with a peanut butter sandwich being the better substitute. After three weeks, going without meat one day a week no longer seems particularly difficult. I may well choose to try two meatless days a week soon, and see if that is as simple. All I have to do is be mindful not to eat meat that day. Nor do I feel the compunction to eat more meat on the other six days to make up for the day without meat.

My solitary actions do feel rather pointless. I am just one of 300 million Americans. Perhaps by blogging about it I can help start a trend. Less than 3% of Americans are vegetarians. I cannot claim to be one, but I have found cutting back on meat was simple and relatively painless. Going through this exercise once a week serves another important purpose: it keeps me mindful of my values. If like me you are concerned that your meat eating habit is indirectly causing people elsewhere to starve, you should not hesitate to try my approach of going without meat just one day a week. I suspect that you will find as I did that soon for that day you will not miss the meat at all.

The Thinker

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Can a 65-year-old Harrison Ford successfully reprise his Indiana Jones roles nineteen years after his last movie? Box office receipts for the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, now playing everywhere, suggest the answer is yes. For a man old enough to draw social security, Ford still looks virile. How much of this is due to genetics and how is due to stage makeup I am not sure. Also back in the director’s seat is Stephen Spielberg, age 61. After directing heavy movies like Munich and Flags of Our Fathers, Spielberg probably enjoyed returning to familiar territory to direct this belated fourth movie of this series.

In a way, viewers also get a reprise of Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Oops, gave away the plot, not that it really matters. Yes, it appears the crystal skull in question belongs to an extraterrestrial being. Professor Jones must return it to a cave in the lost city of El Dorado deep in the Amazon so that E.T. can phone home.

Okay, this E.T. is not that E.T., but their skull shapes are not that dissimilar and the original E.T. struck me as more of a boy extraterrestrial than the full grown up version we see near the end of this movie. So maybe the 1982 E.T. didn’t get the message that back in 1957 Archeologist Indiana Jones sent his parents back home. In any event, rest assured that the Professor Henry Jones Jr., a.k.a. Indiana will make sure that these extraterrestrials make it home at last.

Before sending them home though, Jones has to take a few side trips. Against his will, he helps crafty KGB agents find the skull in a secret warehouse in a Nevada nuclear test zone. Heck, before he even leaves the states, Jones gets to be the first American to survive a nuclear explosion, thanks to a convenient lead lined refrigerator in a Potemkin Village. This happens after nearly being accelerated to death by a rocket sled. In short, it takes less than fifteen minutes to discover that Indiana Jones may have aged but he has lost none of his ability to survive improbable escapes. Nor has Spielberg forgotten the Indiana Jones formula. This Jones may have arrived 27 years after the first Indiana Jones movie, but this fourth movie is probably the most satisfying since the first movie released in 1981.

New in this movie is Mutt Williams (played by Shia LaBeouf) who is a 1950s motorcycle greaser obsessed with combing his hair and who ends up following Indiana Jones on his adventure. If there are times when Mutt seems a chip off the old block, your instinct will be confirmed when Jones’ ex flame from the first movie Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) eventually appears deep in the Amazon. It turns out that Captain James T. Kirk was not the only famous fictional adventurer leaving fertile presents in the wombs of comely females. By the way, Karen Allen still looks good at age 56.

Still, by this point you have a good idea of what to expect from an Indiana Jones movie. Perhaps the 19-year gap was necessary to make it feel a bit fresh again. There must be plenty of improbable escapes from death, many nefarious people trying to keep Jones from succeeding, secret caves, snakes and bugs by the billions (preferably both), hidden chambers and of course animated map overlays showing his plane trips from point to point. Also back and thankfully not retired is composer John Williams (now age 76) to score the movie which, unsurprisingly, does not sound that much different from his scores for the other three movies.

Formula it may be but Spielberg keeps it both humorous and enjoyable. The antagonist this time is Irina Spalko, a super-smart KGB agent played by Cate Blanchett. Spalko is not only dedicated and smart, but never sweats. It is amazing to see her careening through the Amazon rainforest in her Stalinist garb, yet her pressed blouse never wrinkles in the slightest. I think Blanchett is wasted in this movie. It is not that she does a bad job in this movie, but any one-dimensional actress would have sufficed for this part.

We go to see Indiana Jones movies for pure entertainment and escapism, so it is unlikely you will be dissatisfied with the movie. There are times in the middle of the movie where the plot feels a bit muddled but overall, like Jones himself, the movie does not stay in one place very long for it to matter.

Look for supporting roles by John Hurt as Jones’ old friend Professor Oxley and the well-known character actor Jim Broadbent as Dean Charles Stanforth. This movie marks the start of the mindless summer blockbuster movie season. Let’s hope the summer season ends on as high a note as it began.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

Stupid is as stupid does

Apparently, I missed this law enacted in 2005 before Republicans were routed out of control of Congress. The bill was labeled the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users” otherwise known by that ever popular acronym SAFETEA-LU. What? You never heard of it either? Well, these things happen. I had not until I read this story in today’s Washington Post. Only a very stupid Congress could pass such an asinine law. It had to be one vested in obsessive and anal adherence to its bizarre political ideology at the expense of all common sense. Doubtless it was a congress full of bizarre ideologues like this one. In other words, it comes courtesy of our late and unlamented Republican congress. Moreover, only a very stupid president could have signed it into law, and we sure have one of those now.

It would be much more appropriate to have called it the STUPID: The Scatterbrained Transportation Umbrella Program from Insipid Dunderheads. The provision of note is the one that cuts federal funding for regional transportation systems that provide charter buses for special events. Apparently, by doing so private charter bus services might be undermined. The effect of this law locally is to make it difficult or impossible for Metrobus to provide buses for special events that it is uniquely qualified to handle safely, efficiently and conveniently.

For example, not everyone drives to FedEx Field in Lanham, Maryland to see the Washington Redskins play. Some want to take the Metro. Unfortunately, Metrorail does not have a station at FedEx field, so Metro has been conveniently providing shuttle bus service pre and post games for fans. According to Metro, 1300 buses last year alone were chartered to get people to and from Fedex Field. Patrons get off at Metro’s Landover Metrorail Station and give the bus driver a five-dollar bill. In return, they are quickly driven to the stadium in time for their game and get a convenient ride back to the Metro station after the game.

Thanks to SAFETEA-LU, this is ending. Metro would first have to check with dozens of charter bus companies in the region to see if they are interested in providing the service. The law discourages metropolitan transit systems from competing with the private sector for these events even though they already have the infrastructure in place to provide the service, and all parties are comfortable with the service provided.

It is not as if Metro is making any profit from the service. Part of its “problem” is that it is a non-profit agency. Maybe that was the real issue that chafed at Congressional Republicans. According to Metro’s press release in 2007, it provided 2,500-chartered buses and earned $1.6 million dollars for these services. It made no profit off these deals. Turn the job over to the private sector, assuming it could provide the number of buses needed for the event, and the price is likely to rise substantially.

Is Metro particularly concerned about this loss of business? Not really, since they never earned more than pocket change off the service. They are concerned about chartered bus services delivering customers to Metro stations where they are currently not allowed. The drivers who operate these charter buses are not familiar with Metro’s rules. Likely some of these buses are too long or too high to even get into the Metro stations. As for passengers, primarily they want to get to and from the game. Yet because of SAFETEA-LU they are likely to have to pay more for the privilege. Ah, the joys of free enterprise!

In short, the law creates a new large and unnecessary inconvenience for riders and Metro. Moreover, not only Redskins fans will be inconvenienced. Also affected are patrons who want to take Metrorail to Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia. The Filene Center there holds myriad concerts during the summer. In 2009, patrons will not be able to step onto a Metrobus at the West Falls Church Metro Station to get to Wolf Trap. For 2008, Metro has received a waiver to continue the service, perhaps because shows start this weekend and it is impossible to find a chartered bus service in time. The waiver might also have something to do with Wolf Trap Farm Park patrons tending to be pretty well moneyed. It may not be a good thing to tick these people off.

In satisfying the holy grail of competition, our unlamented late Republican congress once again conveniently bypassed the sanity test. This portion of the law at least is shortsighted and dumb. It is also bothersome and likely more expensive to riders. It adds to Metro’s hassles, since they have to deal with the logistics of training charter bus companies to adhere to its rules and regulations. It is also likely wasteful, because Metrobus has the buses and the drivers readily at hand who can provide the service.

“Stupid is as stupid does,” Forrest Gump informed us back in the 1994 movie. I guess compared to squandering trillions on an unnecessary war in Iraq, this is a venial sin. Nonetheless, we will be dealing with the legacy of stupid laws like this one for some time to come. I hope in the wash of pressing business for our new Democratic president and our expanded Democratic congressional majority next year, rescinding these silly provisions of this law will not be overlooked.

The Thinker

The synergy of RSS to Email

Four and a half years ago, I wrote about this new cool technology called RSS. Actually, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) was hardly new in December 2003. It was introduced by Netscape in 1999 as “RDF Site Summary”. This original version is now quaintly referred to as RSS 0.91.

The problem in 2003 was that RSS had not caught on. Who really wants to manually check the same web sites periodically for new content when a solution like RSS was available? It took a couple trillion web clicks but eventually users realized this was stupid and inefficient. Instead, web savvy people like me were noisily petitioning content providers to create RSS feeds. Eventually web publishers took notice. They realized the cost of implementation was relatively small, the underlying XML dirt simple to generate and that it could expand their market for minimal cost. Now, it is hard to find any web content provider without news feeds. This blog, for example, is accessible in two RSS formats as well as the Atom 1.0 syndication format. According to Feedburner, approximately thirty of you access my blog via my RSS feed. Thanks for subscribing, by the way.

So RSS has caught on to the point where it is widely available, but it is still not as widely used as it should be. Only about 10% of us web surfers regularly fetch web content through news feeds. I can only speculate on why this is so. I know I often prefer the rich content available on a web site to the relatively dry text that comes through with RSS. Both Internet Explorer and Firefox let you subscribe to a site’s news feed with a couple clicks, providing the site adds appropriate tags to its HTML.

Syndication formats like RSS and Atom thus serve a different purpose than a browser. We visit web sites for the relative ease of finding the depth of information at a site. We subscribe to news feeds because we want its regular content on a small range of specialized topics. Those of us who are religious about reading content via a newsreader know that it is very efficient at aggregating feeds for us. Yet it lacks the breadth of information that is available on the web site. A newsreader does not facilitate curiosity the way a browser does.

Many of us would probably like to subscribe to hundreds of news sources but really do not have time to read all of them, even with the efficiency built into a newsreader. For example, there may be a site that you only want to read quarterly. In addition, these sites may have pertinent information, but much of it may be irrelevant to our needs.

The problems with email are well known. Given the overwhelming amount of spam, it is hard to legitimate email to make it to your inbox. There is never any assurance that you have received all email sent to you. More email than you think gets lost, but much of it probably ends up in spam folders because spam filters generate too many false positives. As dreadful as missing an important email is to us, many of us fear the alternative even more: having to sift through the dozens or hundreds of spam emails we would get daily if we turned off our spam filters.

I have been wondering if RSS might be an effective solution to broadcasting certain kinds of information. Generally you do not have to worry about an RSS feed containing spam, since you typically verify that the site is legitimate by visiting the site. Once you know it is legitimate, you then can add its RSS feed. However, as I noted, unless you are meticulous about using your newsreader on a daily basis, it is easy to lose these timely notifications.

For those feeds where I need certain information, but only sporadically, it would be nice to get an email with the feed content when the feed changes, or when certain keywords appear in the feed. Moreover, when I no longer need to receive a feed from a particular source, it would be nice to have a fast way of unsubscribing from the feed.

As usual, industry is way ahead of me. A simple Google search eventually led me to the RSSReaderLive site, which I have been testing out. You could also choose one of the many other alternatives out there. Among them are RSSFWD, SendMeRSS, and FeedBlitz. FeedBurner also has a notification service. Using RSSReaderLive, the only thing I had to remember is to program my spam filter to let all emails from it go into my inbox automatically. I just have to hope that the email will not end up dropped in some digital bit bucket on its way to my inbox.

As you might expect these services are not necessarily free. You generally have to either pay a small fee for the service or deal with ads in the email. I hope that email clients will get smarter and start polling RSS feeds for you automatically, and include feed items as emails in your inbox. For those who like to diddle with their PCs, there are programs like rss2email that you can install that will act as an RSS to email proxy for you.

I like it when a confluence of standard web technologies (email, the web and newsfeeds) can be leveraged together to solve a problem like this, minor though it may be. It neatly solves the timely broadcast notification dilemma in a way that works for both content providers and consumers.

The Thinker

Solving the obesity crisis

I read two items in the news that are guaranteed to make obese people and the parents who raise them feel guilty. First, obese people are contributing disproportionately to global warming. Apparently, because obese people are larger, they need more calories to sustain their weight. This also translates into the need for more fuel to move them around on cars and public transportation. According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, obese people on average require eighteen percent more calories than people of the same height and age of normal weight.

The second story (and to me the more frightening one) is the lead story in today’s Washington Post, Obesity Threatens a Generation. Apparently, the youth of today who are obese or even overweight have a much higher likelihood of developing chronic diseases earlier in life.

Doctors are seeing confirmation of this daily: boys and girls in elementary school suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and painful joint conditions; a soaring incidence of type 2 diabetes, once a rarity in pediatricians’ offices; even a spike in child gallstones, also once a singularly adult affliction. Minority youth are most severely affected, because so many are pushing the scales into the most dangerous territory.

I am worried not only for the children out there who are overweight but also for my own daughter. She had times in her childhood when she was technically obese. For a few years, we enrolled her in Taekwondo. During that time, she had a normal weight and was in great physical condition. Eventually chose to give up the sport to concentrate on her academics. We encouraged her to exercise but she got out of the habit.

Now that she is eighteen and is earning her own money, she has the freedom to buy whatever she wants. Apparently, our choice of junk foods is very modest, so she has begun to buy her own food. Her food choices have been discouraging. She eats what most in her generation eat: a preponderance of junk food. My wife and I have of course registered of concern, but are being careful not to overdo it. As a young adult, she has the right to make her own choices and too much nagging is likely to be counterproductive. Fortunately, her job at a bookstore provides exercise simply because associates are so often on their feet. That helps.

Obesity runs in my wife’s side of the family. I am hoping my daughter did not pick up that particular gene. Given that my wife is one of many Americans struggling with obesity, I cannot help but wonder if ten or twenty years down the line, or perhaps even sooner, my daughter will be struggling with the same issues. I hope of course that she will emulate me and eat better, and exercise regularly. Like most teenagers, she thinks she is immortal. She realizes she may have to eat better and exercise regularly someday, but for now, she chooses to ignore the issue.

As do a preponderance of our youth, apparently. I am skeptical that today’s youth will find the wherewithal to address the problem as adults. I think without some major societal intervention that it is much more likely that they will stick with their current eating and exercise choices, because it has the feeling of familiarity and thus provides the illusion of comfort in a confusing world.

The consequences for these latest generations are truly dire. Yet there is little in the way of planned action to address these chronic problems. It appalls me to think that I may live to an older age than my daughter, primarily because my mother fed us healthy and nutritious food. Single parent families or dual income families are disproportionately raising today’s generation. That was true for our daughter. We both had full time jobs when our daughter was growing up. Living on one income, however modestly, was out of the question until the last few years. Our daughter ate most of her lunches in the school cafeteria, where she could safely consume the foods she wanted, like pizza, rather than the foods she needed. She fit right in. Her friends largely did the same thing.

I think dual income parenting contributed a lot toward the obesity epidemic. With family time so squeezed, it is not surprising that parents often rustled up meals from of a box or out of a fast food bag. It was also not surprising that our children tended to prefer these meals too. Food vendors do not stay in business by making uninteresting food. In order to attract more business, food had to be jazzed up. In that sense, American capitalism succeeded very well. Over time, we developed strong preferences for this unhealthy kind of food.

Congress may have inadvertently done our kids in too. Our agricultural subsidies, most of which went to subsidizing grains that could rarely turn a profit, made grain incredibly cheap. When certain types of food are cheap to purchase, many of us feel inclined to consume more of them than we used to. It used to be that we would rotate through seasonal foods over the course of a year. With grain cheap all year round, we added more and more grain to our diets. With sugar also artificially cheap, we had a deadly combination: cereals and breads laced with sugars. Cheap grain also encouraged us to give it to our livestock, making the price of meat cost less too. Most foods served in America were relative bargains throughout the latter half of the 20th century. There was little reason for restaurants not to super-size our portions when the ingredients were so cheap.

Our additional eating was one part of the equation. Lack of exercise was the other part. When I was a youth, we were free to roam neighborhoods at will as long as our homework was done and we returned home in time for dinner. Neighborhoods were assumed safe. My parents gave little thought to where we were as long as we were in the neighborhood. We also lacked modern indoor distractions like computers and videogames. Going outside and playing with the kids on the block was a compelling alternative to the drudgery of being home. Modern parents perceive that if they give the same freedom to their children that their children are at risk from child molesters. Parents believe it is safer to keep children at home rather than let them roam the neighborhood. To make this unfortunate reality easier to swallow, we provided indoor amusements for them. The combination of a poor diet and reduced exercise appears to be toxic.

Few of our children are likely to end up in professions where exercise will be built into the jobs. Most are likely to spend their lives much as we do: in offices living sedentary work lives much like Dilbert’s. Perhaps in their off hours they will be able to grab some exercise. That seems unlikely, for they will likely have children of their own at home, and these children will have to be fed and protected.

Our society desperately needs a culture shift. We may need to reduce our workweeks to 35 hours a week simply to allow adults to have time for physical fitness and parenting. An hour-long workout may not be enough, but it is a start. Employers may need to be required to offer exercise facilities to their employees to use at work. Just as you cannot keep horses in the stables for days on end, neither should humans be trapped in cubicles, cars and their homes for days on end. We are built to move, not to sit.

Exercise needs to be seen as a necessary and critical part of being a human being. What has changed over the last generation or two is that most Americans must now dedicate time for exercise. It should be encouraged by our leaders and our employers. Health insurance premiums should be substantially discounted for people who participate in monitored exercise programs. Our children need more than recess and occasional PE classes. They need regular and more vigorous exercise at school, extending the school day if needed, as well as more healthful food in school cafeterias. Since they are children, their weekly exercise should be monitored and tracked by school officials. It may seem offensive to some to require our children to be regularly weighed and tested for their physical fitness at school. However, these prosaic activities also encourage children toward a lifelong appreciation toward the necessity of exercise and healthy eating.

My suspicion is that these are the sorts of steps that must be taken to keep future generations of Americans from being obese, dying prematurely and the obscene health care costs that are associated with obesity. They may seem Big Brotherish, but for the sake of our children, we need to do it.

The Thinker

The change we need

There have been many deserved jeers over the new U.S. House Republicans’ slogan, “The Change You Deserve”, which they unveiled yesterday. They desperately need to convince the American public to keep pulling the levers for congressional Republicans this November. Somehow, they think this lame and wholly inappropriate slogan is going to make us overlook the last eight dreadful years. I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. This slogan sure is desperate, and lame.

The slogan has been viciously lampooned. Ironically, it apparently was first used in advertising for the antidepressant Effexor. The metaphor though is an interesting frame, though not for Republicans. Americans do deserve a dramatic change. Unfortunately for Congressional Republicans, since the Democrats took Congress in 2006, Republicans have been the anti-change party. Understandably, the political opposition prefers to jam sticks between the bicycle spokes of the opposing party rather than show them succeeding. They have been very effective, ensuring that little meaningful change occurred during the last two years. No matter what the House passed, it was killed in the Senate. Republicans may be in the minority there too, but they have the power of the filibuster, and they have been using it at rates unseen in any previous congress. Change has been stopped. There has been no change in deficit spending. There has been no change in the Iraq War. There has been no change on the environment. There has been no change in holding the Administration accountable for its crimes. Between Bush’s obsessive obstinacy and congressional Republicans effectiveness at gumming up the gears of government, it is no wonder that 81% of Americans disapprove of Congress.

Yet somehow, Americans are being asked to reelect these bozos in order to get “The Change You Deserve”. Most Americans feel like they have gotten plenty of change in the last eight years. Between stagnant wages, downsizing, two wars, half a trillion dollars squandered, millions more uninsured and no action on global warming, the nation feels like it has been gang raped. Now these people of all people want us to believe they can give us the change we deserve.

Maybe they are sobering up at last. House Republicans have been feeling very spooked lately, having lost three special congressional elections in a row. The latest happened Tuesday in a northern Mississippi district that is so red that President Bush carried it by more than twenty points in 2004. It suggests there are no safe seats for Republicans come November 4th.

Election Day promises to be the perfect storm that capsizes the Republican brand for a generation or more. I am one of these Democrats not afraid to dream large. I do not think a filibuster proof 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate is out of reach. When over eighty percent of Americans say we are on the wrong course, this means this election will be a torrential storm that will shake the rafters and blow out the windows. It means a fundamental political realignment is likely.

I think there is a 50-50 chance that Democrats will achieve a filibuster proof majority in the U.S. Senate. House Republicans are worried about losing as many as 23 more House seats to the Democrats, having lost 31 seats in 2006. In truth, in 2006, voters were just miffed. Now they are royally pissed. Republicans will be lucky if they only lose another 31 seats. I would not be surprised if Democrats picked up another 45-50 seats.

In the presidential contest, it is clear that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. It is also unfortunately clear that racism still exists in this country. I suspect the race factor could add as much as 5% to McCain’s vote total nationwide. Nonetheless, in the end it will not matter. The chronic need for change will overwhelm the race issue.

It is going to be a very blue election. I expect 58-62 Democrats in the Senate when the dust clears on November 5th. I expect 35-50 new Democratic house seats, making the House at least 60% Democratic. I will be surprised if John McCain exceeds 200 electoral votes. In any event, I cannot see him winning with these election dynamics.

So where is the downside for us Democrats? The downside will be that Democrats will be expected to govern competently. There is a reason Republicans rose to power in the first place. It had nothing to do with Democrats being “too liberal” or “too high taxes”. It had to do with complacent and corrupt Democrats feeling secure in their majority and forgetting those they served. It remains to be seen whether we have learned our lesson. If history is any guide, Republicans have some cause for hope. Change may be necessary, but it is damnably hard. Complacency may be more of a Democratic problem than a Republican problem. Republicans have proven reasonably effective at implementing their agenda. Unfortunately, their agenda and America’s needs rarely intersect. I am hopeful that with the influx of new Democrats and a Netroots base committed to real change that this predisposition can be overcome.

While Republicans promise small government and lower taxes, what they deliver instead is larger government, modest tax cuts and obscene amounts of long-term debt. Democrats are comfortable with larger government, are not terribly comfortable with deficit financing but are also leery of increasing taxes too much. The problem for Democrats will come when they try to align their promises with available revenues. Die hard Republicans still believe that all fiscal problems are solved by cutting taxes. Democrats cannot spend money on vital activities like addressing global warming and insuring all Americans’ health by putting it on the credit card as Republicans did. Taxes will have to go up. Of course, the most convenient target will be the wealthy. However, like a new oil well, it cannot be tapped indefinitely. Eventually more of the tax burden will have to go down the income chain.

Democrats must sell value. National health insurance, for example, is going to cost tens to hundreds of billions of dollars a year for starters. No one likes to add to his or her tax burden. However, tax increases can be sold by selling the value of the new services for their cost. For my family of three, our health insurance costs average about $12,000 a year. If I were to pay this in additional taxes, my tax burden would double. Presumably I would not have to pay this much. Nevertheless, even if I did I would hopefully have the certainty of not having to pay any additional costs to ensure my family. I do not have that certainty right now. The hard part of course is implementing a national health insurance plan that provides this value and does not squander the money. That takes competent government. Using such strategies, I think Democrats can sell the obvious tax increases that are needed to address these sorts of problems.

What we really do not need is more pandering. House Republicans want to pander to us by selling us the change we deserve. Heck, don’t we all deserve a pony? What we require is a president and Congress that will sell us the changes we need. If Barack Obama is to draw on the power of hope, then he needs to find the eloquence to sell to ordinary Americans on the ultimate value of these painful and taxing changes. Moreover, I hope we Americans can find the patience to give our bluer government a chance and to make the long-term changes that our country requires.

The Thinker

Review: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

You would not be surprised to learn that as a heterosexual man I am not particularly into the drag queen scene. In fact, I can think of few things less likely to interest me. Still, even though the topic does not interest me I can sit through any two-hour movie with a decent plot. I was surprised to find this oddly named movie about three drag queens, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar both fun and a little poignant.

Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) and Noxema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) are three New York City drag queens lusting to be named the city’s drag queen of the year. Granted, with the exception of Chi-Chi, they look more like Xena but Amazons make attractive women too. A tied vote though meant that both Vida and Noxema win the award. Consequently, both are sent to Hollywood to compete in a national drag queen competition. Afterward, in the hallway, they try to assuage Chi-Chi’s hurt feelings. Poor Chi-Chi was also hoping to win, primarily to boost her low self-esteem. Vida feels awful over her hurt feelings, and persuades Noxema to let her come along. In order to cut costs they will have to drive to the west coast. Being New Yorkers, they do not own cars, so they use their modest winnings to purchase a convertible off a used car lot. Off the three girls go to Hollywood, in drag, with of course the top down.

As you might anticipate, when three drag queens drive across the heartland they are likely to experience some hostility from less broadminded folk. A libidinous sheriff somewhere in the Midwest pulls them over. When Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn) gets Vida alone behind the car, he tries to make out with her. To his utter shock, he quickly discovers Vida comes with a sort of package he does not expect. That, plus a stiff right from Vida (who when out of costume must box for sport) puts Sheriff Dollard flat out on the pavement. Their initial assessment that they killed him freaks them out, so they hustle away. Shortly thereafter, their car sputters to a stop in the middle of nowhere.

The kindness of Midwestern strangers gets them a ride to a nearby town that is so small they have only one event a year: a strawberry festival. The folks in this small town are so out of touch that it appears they can pass themselves off as ladies. Their car conveniently cannot be fixed until a part arrives on Monday. Meaning Vida, Chi-Chi and Noxema have to hang out all weekend in this oppressively backward little town in the flatlands.

Needless to say, they are by magnitudes the best dressed people in town. The townies are a dull, sullen and occasionally hostile bunch. The local rednecks apparently are having a hard time discerning that the women are actually guys. Chi-chi attracts the most attention. Vida has to avoid a group of rednecks who look like they want to assault her. The situation does not look promising, but among the townies are some good, stouthearted Midwestern women with traditional values, but who are also bored with life.

Vida, Chi-Chi and Noxema end up breathing something very unusual into this little town: a little life. They decorate their hotel room to make it fashionable. Noxema discovers a cache of 60s clothes in the general store. Soon they have most of the women in the town dolled up in a 60s retro style. This is just as well because the Strawberry Festival is almost upon them.

So yes, there are the sorts of laughs that you would expect when a car full of drag queens encounters a back corner of the Midwest. Yet the laughs are done with a light touch. Curiously, everyone in the movie, with the possible exception of Sheriff Dollard come across as plausible. (We discover the sheriff is indeed alive. Moreover, he becomes obsessed with the injustice that happened to him and goes in search of them.) Vida, Chi-Chi and Noxema are as flamboyant as you would expect, but every single member of the town feel authentic. It is also a town with a few bad apples, including the local mechanic Virgil (Arliss Howard), who abuses his wife Carol Ann (Stockard Channing). Pretty much everyone in this small town will learn a few lessons from these “girls” before they resume their trip to Hollywood.

So the movie has a light comedic touch with an odd feeling of plausibility. Granted, the climactic scene was quite unlikely, but it was deliciously satisfying.

What does Julie Newmar have to do with the movie? Very little, except Vida is obsessed with her figure and idolizes her as the ideal woman. You actually do briefly see Ms. Newmar playing herself at the end of the movie.

Undoubtedly, these roles were quite a stretch for Swayze, Snipes and Leguizamo, but that is part of the fun because they are quite convincing. For the first thirty minutes, my wife found the movie annoying and I was afraid she would give it up. Eventually though we both warmed up to it, and were glad we made it through the movie. It was amusing, fun and satisfying all at the same time.

This is not a B movie in the traditional sense, but neither is it close to being on anyone’s A list. It falls somewhere in between, but is much closer to a B movie than an A movie. It gets a solid 3 points on my 4-point scale, which means “better than average and worth seeing, but nothing overly special”. Unless you are very stuck up, you will probably enjoy it.

The Thinker

Review: The Life of Elizabeth I

As I age, I am more and more drawn to history. Surveys report few students these days find history interesting. The 1998 book, The Life of Elizabeth I, by Alison Weir will dispel this notion. The book, which covers the 45 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is a page-turner. It is hard to put down and provides a fascinating, intimate and detailed look into the life of the last of the Tudor sovereigns, as well as the many fascinating characters that populated her court.

Elizabeth was born in 1533 to Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s many wives who he found convenient to have executed. Having your mother executed by your father is a very traumatic thing for any daughter to deal with. Elizabeth herself once came close to being executed too and spent many months in the Tower of London. She was imprisoned by her half sister Queen Mary I for her Protestant faith. In the end, she was released and a dying Queen Mary permitted her to succeed her. She was crowned at age 25 and reigned for 45 long years. She remains one of England’s longest serving sovereigns. England’s current queen, Queen Elizabeth II, is one of the few to serve longer. During her reign, luminaries like William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon were contemporaries.

Those lusting for a female president would find her a great example of a female leader. She was very well educated and spoke fluently in French, German, Latin, Spanish and Italian. She had thousands of horses at her disposal and was rigorous about morning walks and lengthy horse rides. She had one overriding goal during her reign: keep England out of foreign wars. She did not entirely succeed. While she wanted little to do with war, other countries very much wanted control of England. Spain was her principle enemy. She ended up lending support to Protestant governments fighting Spain, including the Netherlands and France. After her success defeating the Spanish Armada, she became proactive dealing with Spain. She periodically sent her fleet to destroy Spanish ships while they were in harbor. She also attempted to rule Ireland, often unsuccessfully. In general, she had little in the way of imperialistic ambitions. She realized that to the extent that England could get along with other countries it would remain at peace.

Known as The Virgin Queen, she remained a virgin in part because she felt it necessary to ensure England’s security. She had a constant stream of foreign suitors, which continued well past her childbearing years. There is little doubt that she was strongly heterosexual and she even fell in love a few times. She nearly married the French Duke Anjou, who was much younger than she was. However, it is clear that for a time their affections were real. It is even possible that their love was consummated. Elizabeth had much to recommend her as a spouse beyond the prestigious position of being queen. She was an accomplished equestrian, dancer, poet and scholar. She was politically adroit. She kept England at peace for so long by constantly leading on foreign suitors and playing them against each other. Playing the game of romance forestalled many military adventures against England.

She was often despised outside England for her militant Protestantism. She codified the Book of Common Prayer used by the Church of England. The Pope repeatedly offered bounties to anyone who would kill her. King Philip II’s Spanish Armada was one of many attempts that he made to revert England to what he said was the true religion of Roman Catholicism.

All these details are widely known. What Weir does is bring history to life. Elizabeth lived a public and very well documented life. She saw being England’s sovereign as a great responsibility. We are accustomed to presidents who are replaced in four or eight years. She led England’s foreign policy for forty-five years with one single and constant vision. She was both conservative and liberal. She was conservative in the sense that she was not anxious for England to change and wanted very much to preserve the status quo for future generations. She was also notorious niggardly, and ensured her royal household lived well within its means. She was liberal in being unusually compassionate. Perhaps because his father had so few problems having his opponents’ heads removed, she reserved this terrible punishment for a relative few. With every execution, she seemed a bit diminished. For decades, she dithered over the chronic problem of her stepsister, Mary Queen of Scots. Near the end, despite being protected in England, Mary was covertly working to violently overthrow her government and restore Catholicism. Equally traumatic was the execution she ordered late in her reign for her close advisor, Robert Devereux, more commonly known as the Earl of Essex. A headstrong young man with boundless ambition he failed miserably in his attempt to subjugate an Irish rebellion. When he returned to England, he tried to blame Elizabeth for his own failings and used his popularity to try to bring about civil insurrection. He paid with his life.

Catholicism was another constant problem that dominated her reign. After the Church of England was established, England remained full of Catholics, and many remained loyal to the faith. For many years, Elizabeth practiced benign tolerance of Catholicism, and even had some Catholic advisors in her government. As plots against her life and the state multiplied, she found it necessary to oppress Catholics. Eventually they were forbidden to attend mass and were required to attend Church of English services or be taxed. Today these actions would seem quite harsh. In the context of the times and the real need to keep England united, they were sensible strategies.

Elizabeth was also blessed with a coterie of top-notch political advisers, including the ever-present Lord Cecil, essentially her chief of staff and Lord Walsingham, who ran a huge spy apparatus for the state. If you have seen the two movies about Queen Elizabeth I starring Cate Blanchett (my motivation for reading this book), you will grow well acquainted with these two men. Movies can only give you a hint at the complexity of being a sovereign. She had many, many more in her cast of characters over her 45-year reign. She made the occasional misjudgment in her appointments, such as with Lord Essex. Overall though her record of appointing competent people to positions of power was excellent, and would be the envy of all politicians. That she did so over a 45 year reign is an extraordinary accomplishment.

This biography also captures the experience of living in Tudor times in a way that makes you feel as if you were alive back then. The prevalence of disease was a sad and overwhelming fact of life. Few people lived past their fortieth birthday. The plague hit London virtually every summer. The queen’s long life was due to being proactive. During the summer season, while Londoners died of the plague she took annual “progresses” into the English countryside to meet with many lords, ladies and the public. Indeed, she rarely stayed in one place very long. She had dozens of castles at her disposal. She and her court frequently moved from one to the other. There was no one place that she thought of as home.

Most kings and queens lived public and well-documented lives. Few though were kinder and acted in what were truly the best interests of her subjects. It is unsurprising that as a result she was so beloved. Alison Weir provides an exceeding intimate look at this remarkable woman that is compelling and brings history alive. I doubt that anyone can get past the first fifty or so pages of this biography and leave the rest of the book unread. Thanks to Weir’s biography, we are blessed with a human and intimate portrait of a truly remarkable woman. There is no question that in the top ten most influential women of all time, she would be on the list.

The Thinker

The hard road ahead

In 1980 at the tender age 23, I voted for John B. Anderson for President. Anderson was an independent candidate. Anderson was full of great ideas that were politically non-starters. One of his ideas was to increase the federal gasoline taxes by fifty cents per gallon. This was at a time when you could buy a gallon of gasoline for under a dollar a gallon. His rationalization was that the tax would serve three purposes: reduce our dependence on foreign oil (we had already been through two oil shocks during the 1970s), give us incentive to practice conservation and provide the funds needed to achieve energy independence. This great idea killed his campaign. He started his campaign at above 25% support in polls and ended up with 7% of the vote.

John B. Anderson, Independent for President in 1980

In one of life’s little ironies, just a month after the tragic events of September 11th, John Anderson showed up at my church and gave a talk. (See picture.) He was then about to retire as president of the World Federalist Society (now Citizens for Global Solutions). There was time for questions and answers after his lecture. I went to the podium, looked him in the eye and told him I proudly voted for him in 1980. I mentioned his gas tax proposal and opined that events had sure proven him right. Had we taken the unpopular steps he suggested in 1980 and imposed on ourselves a fifty cent a gallon gasoline tax, the events of September 11th likely could have been avoided. It was President Reagan after all who strategically aligned us with Saudi Arabia, providing a compact of military arms for a dictatorial state for the assurance of low oil prices. It was our support of this oppressive state that provided the animus for Osama bin Laden, a citizen of Saudi Arabia to target the United States on September 11th. If only we had the courage to follow through on Anderson’s courageous idea, three thousand Americans who died that day would still be alive and we might also be energy independent today.

Change is never fun and serious change is usually resisted. Those who embrace inevitable changes though often end up ahead in the end. Why has the Euro been doing so well while the U.S. dollar has been in the toilet? It is because in Europe they were prepared for a changing world. Gasoline has been highly taxed for decades in Europe specifically to discourage the automobile and to encourage public transportation. If you have been to Western Europe, you know that it has phenomenal public transportation. Right now, Europe is also leading the way on global climate change. Among many initiatives, it is markedly reducing its carbon footprint through fuel efficiency standards in place today that we will not have in ten years. Not surprisingly, the European economy is doing rather well in shaky economic times. Its currency is so valuable because Europe as it is configured and managed is very well matched for our changing times.

What has the United States done? It would be polite to say we have been dragging our feet. In reality, we have largely ignored the environment and concentrated on glorious selfishness instead. We started an unnecessary and foolish war in Iraq that is bankrupting us. We have pretended to care about global climate change while doing almost nothing to address it. We have blithely ignored the consequences of our increased oil dependency. Public transportation, which is still inadequately funded, remains focused on highways and bridges. We have thrown mostly chump change at mass transit solutions.

It’s karmic payback time. In the years to come, we are going to get sticker shock at the cost of having ignoring these problems for so many decades. We may come to resemble Haiti in the sense that we will ask our leaders to deliver the impossible: address climate change, keep our taxes low but not allow our standard of living to change. If the 1980 election is any guide, when we discover our current leader cannot do it, we will elect someone else who will claim they can, but who will also fail.

Whether we like it or not, the times, they are a changing. We can choose to adapt to this new reality or, more likely, continue to try to have the same selfish lifestyle we always have had and take half measures. However, more of the same will only result in additional unnecessary pain. It is time to acknowledge that our future lives will be markedly more downscale than our current lives are. This transition is unlikely to be much fun. As a nation, we are in the initial phase of an extended high colonic.

Here are some likely outcomes that I see. Traditionally, the cost of living out in the country has been cheap. That is going to change. Life in the country may become a privilege for the rich. To live in the country you will have to pay the freight: ever-higher gas prices. As those living further out feel the gas squeeze, they will naturally choose to live closer in. By doing so, they will be less affected by the cost of oil. They will also be closer to jobs. By living closer in, they will have access to public transportation so they can get by with one or no cars. This will allow them to have a comparatively higher standard of living and more job security than if they live in the country or in a far-flung exurb.

This will work for a while. Of course, economic factors will make most who do not live around a city also want to move in closer too. This means land prices will rise the closer you are to urban areas. Which means the cost of living will go up around cities too. You will feel damned either way. As I suggested in a recent post, people watching these mega-trends are already making the smart choices. They are moving in now while housing prices and interest rates are down. Their houses are going to be smaller than they envisioned, but they will gladly pay this price for convenient access to jobs and transportation.

Energy costs will continue to rise, which will drive everything toward energy efficiency. Energy efficiency though will not come cheap. New houses will probably need more than just better insulation and highly energy efficient windows. They will need solar panels on the roof. It will be built into the building codes. Houses will be required to be built with LEED Silver or better standards. This will raise the cost of housing making it that much harder to afford to buy a house in the first place. Older houses are probably too hard to retrofit to be LEED compliant. Eventually they will become too expensive to inhabit, so they will have to be replaced with energy efficient houses. More likely, they will be replaced with condos and apartment communities. Demand will require it.

We will require readily accessible public transportation. This will mean heavy rail, light rail, trains, buses and bike trails everywhere and maybe even the return of trolleys. This cannot be done for free. It will require substantial tax increases. In short, we are all going to feel very squeezed which will have the consequence of us having lifestyles that will seem markedly poorer than our parents. We will probably resent this new reality.

What I have outlined is something of a best case. What actually happens is likely to be quite different and probably worse. Certain trends like people migrating from far-flung areas to closer in areas are inevitable. Most likely, we will try incentives like tax credits to ease the pain. Yet tax credits still have to be paid from somewhere. In short, to reinvent society takes incredible amounts of money. We will pay it one-way or the other. It can be intelligently accomplished through taxes and careful planning, or unintelligently through reaction to market forces. It is a road that we will have no choice but to traverse. However, we do have a choice on how painful it will be. As with most things, the sooner you start and the more intelligently it is accomplished, the less painful it will probably be.

I suspect that if a candidate today proposed a fifty cent a gallon tax on gasoline, he would get the same response at the voting booth that John Anderson received in 1980. Unfortunately, because we have dragged our feet for thirty years, the cost of procrastination has gone up dramatically.

So get ready. Our economic foundations are starting a seismic shift that will affect every one of us. Are you going to work with these natural forces? Or are you going to resist them? We all need to realize that to adjust to these new realities will require extraordinary sacrifice, akin to what our parents went through during World War II, but unfortunately lasting much longer. Over the next fifty years, we will have to reinvent ourselves as a society and as a world. I hope that this time we find the determination to do it intelligently. If government of the people, by the people and for the people is not to perish, we the people are going to have to come to terms with these costly changes that are already unfolding all around us.


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