Archive for July, 2009

The Thinker

Republicans to uninsured America: screw you

The Republican Party could save a lot of time if they would just come out and admit it: they hate people not like themselves. They sure do not like Democrats, which is understandable, but they really loathe the poor. They actually seem to relish the fact that the ranks of the poor keep swelling. They seem to enjoy seeing them miserable.

It is clear Republicans figure that poor people do not deserve health insurance. To paraphrase the musical The Music Man, their message to the poor is, “You can have all the health insurance that you can afford buy for yourself.” The minor fact that if you are poor you may not even be able to afford to keep a roof over your head, let along pay hundreds of dollars a month in health insurance premiums, clearly doesn’t faze them at all. If they cannot afford to health insurance, then screw ‘em. It’s their own damn fault for being poor and all.

In rural Virginia last weekend, thousands of poor people lined up days in advance to get free health care at an annual clinic held at the Wise County Fairgrounds. They cannot afford health insurance. Preventative health care? This is as close as it comes for these people, assuming they are lucky enough to be seen at all. In many cases this “care” is more reactive than preventative. One woman reports that a visit last year saved her life.

“They done an ultrasound and told me that my gallbladder was enlarged and was ready to burst and it could kill me,” Miller recalls. “They told me if I hadn’t got help when I did, literally I could have died.”

Forty seven million uninsured Americans, roughly fifteen percent of the population, are priced out of the health care market. The number goes up every month as more people lose or can no longer afford health insurance. Even if you are employed, it is hard to maintain health insurance when premiums keep climbing at two or three times the rate of inflation. With nothing to change the dynamic, this simply means that more people will become priced out of health care every year.

And the Republican Party’s response? Kill any attempt to reform health care! They figure this will undercut President Obama and help them get back into power. It sure will not make them any more popular with the swelling ranks of the uninsured. But that doesn’t matter, you see, because this is all about principle. “Socialized medicine” is bad. You can tell it’s bad because of the excellent health insurance “system” we have right now, the best in the world, they claim. Surely, we don’t want to change such a perfect system? Anyhow, doing so would violate their free market principles. Apparently violating free market principles is not a sin when it comes to, say, crop subsidies, but it sure is when it comes to health insurance. Instead, it is much better if we all continue to engage in a Darwinian struggle for health care. The well insured or deeply moneyed get to rise to the top of the heap. If lack of affordable health care means that the poor die young and disproportionately, well, to quote Ebenezer Scrooge, “if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Many of these same people are all about protecting the sanctity of life at all costs, providing, of course, that no portion of their taxes goes to support anyone once they are born.

My wife is a friend of two lesbians, Nancy and Annie, who live in the Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The two women have been partners for a quarter of a century and would be married if they could but, of course, Pennsylvania does not allow gay marriage. Both women are incredibly impoverished. They live in a house built in the 19th century that should be condemned. Annie has a terrible case of adult diabetes. Because she is disabled, her health insurance is Medicaid. Her “free” socialized medical care of course leaves much to be desired but is much better than Nancy’s. Nancy has no health insurance at all. She feels lucky to have a job. Over the years, she has spent many anxious months unemployed and trying not to be thrown out on the street. She is currently working two part time jobs, neither of which allows her to purchase health insurance. Even if she had the option, the premium would likely be way above her reach.

Nancy’s health care plan is to trust to luck and when necessary visit the emergency room and plead indigence. Of course by then any condition she has is very chronic. She recently spent two weeks in the hospital. Because she had no insurance and could not afford to see a dentist, she developed an abscessed tooth. The infection spread to her lymph nodes, which swelled grotesquely and caused a lung to collapse. She spent two weeks in the hospital and is fortunate to be alive. She could not afford to pay her hospital bill of course, so it was passed on in the form of higher premiums to those patients with insurance. Meanwhile, she was unable to care for her nearly immobile partner. My wife was one of a handful of friends who tried to care for her partner while she was in the hospital, driving three hours each way.

This is “the world’s best health care system” that Republicans want to keep. Even if not perfect, this “system” must be far better than this scary thing called “socialized medicine”. You know how bad socialized medicine is because Medicare is “socialized medicine”, which means retirees must hate it, right? Well, no. In fact, seniors give Medicare high marks. The fact that someone pays the bills of the uninsured, and that someone is effectively those of us who are insured, is not socialized medicine, so it must be okay. Reality rolls over them like water off a duck’s back. It is far more important that they can see the doctor they want at a time of their convenience because they have money and are insured. Those others do not deserve the same privilege because they cannot afford it, so screw ‘em. They try to scare us with stories about the evils of socialized medicine in Canada yet put up blinders at the millions of stories of like my wife’s friends that happen every day in this country.

The truth is that if we modeled the Canadian health care system in the United States the vast majority of us would get better health care than we do now and we would pay much less for it. Moreover, we would not be worrying about being dropped for a preexisting condition, or whether we can afford the co-pay, or whether we can afford to get a regular checkup. Wondering if we could afford to be sick would be one less thing to worry about.

The unreasonable ideology on health care reform is unnecessarily killing and bankrupting us. This must change. However, it will not happen on its own. We must do more to make this change happen. I suggest you do what I did this weekend. Write a letter to your senators telling them about the importance of real health care reform, or better yet call them up on the phone. Tell them they must vote for real health care reform that includes a public option. Tell them you will vote them out of office in the next election if they do not. Insurance reform, the “compromise” that seems to be emerging in the Senate, does nothing to ensure that health insurance will be affordable. Nor will it do anything to constrain its costs.

We need a public-plan to help hold the insurance companies feet to the fire. We also need a public plan to make sure some health insurance plan will always be there. The government must be the insurer of last resort. Your life and mine may depend on it.

The Thinker

Great web hosting at last

Since I put my first domain on the web around 2000 I have been in a quixotic-like search for a good web host. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a web host serves web content, like the content on this site. To say the least, I have been frequently dissatisfied, in part because I have more sophisticated needs. Without some research, I cannot tell you how many web hosts I have used in these last nine years.

They all fell flat eventually. Moving my many domains from one web host to another was an annual (sometimes more than an annual) exercise. That is why it is such a pleasure to say that I have found a good and reliable web host at last. I just renewed my annual contract with my current web host, Media Temple, not with reluctance but with something bordering on enthusiasm. I had not even waited to get a billing reminder. To make sure nothing slipped through the cracks I took the initiative and renewed before the end of my contract in early August.

Is Media Temple the perfect web host? It is by no means because the perfect web host really depends on your needs. It is not for everyone because most people who need web hosting are not particularly web savvy nor are they particularly fussy. These people go to hosts like GoDaddy, in many cases because they do not know where else to go. I run a small part time business where I install web software for people, so I have worked on lots of hosts. GoDaddy is optimized for small sites like a Cub Scout Troop where page hits are low and customers are not too fussy if service is sporadically unavailable or inconsistent. In most cases, these customers do not notice issues because they do not get enough traffic for anyone to notice. In many cases, they do not know the right question to ask anyhow to resolve their particular issue so they stay silent and hope it goes away.

Media Temple like all web hosts has a help desk. However, you are expected not to be a web moron. You are expected to know what things like DNS and SSH are. You are expected to use their knowledge base to see if the answer to your question already exists. You are expected to take the time to make sure your sites are backed up and you are not exceeding your quota. Your primary interface for doing these things is the integrated Plesk control panel. Using Plesk is straightforward but at times a bit mysterious. I am quite web savvy, but even I was surprised by how deeply nested Plesk can be at times. For example, I wanted to use phpMyAdmin, a typical tool provided by a web host for administering MySQL databases. It is installed but you have to dig for it. Moreover, you have to turn off popup blocking for your site so it will come up.

Plesk allow you to do pretty much everything you need to do to manage a web site. You can create databases, backup your files, schedule cron jobs, set up users and mailboxes and enable features like SSH. Only occasionally have I had to get my hands dirty, so to speak. Since everyone is virtually hosted, I once had to change PHP to handle attachments of more than the default two megabytes, which meant going in as “root” and editing a php.conf file. I find certain things much faster to do the old fashioned way, using SSH and the Unix command line. Deleting a directory with all its folders is so much faster in Unix with a rm –r –f folder command.

Once everything is set up though, things run sweet and most importantly, reliably. Mainly, you do not have to worry about the sorts of problems that used to drive me nuts, like consuming too many server resources, or sporadic periods where page response is slow, or sudden inconsistent behavior.

I have had a few issues, some of them caused by my own ignorance. I ran out of disk space once because I stupidly hadn’t told the backup software to not let backups exceed a certain amount of disk quota. I have hit kernel and burstable memory limits a couple times, resulting in the domain not being available. When I have noticed quirks, I reboot my virtual server in the Plesk control panel and problems tend to disappear. Two system-related problems where I needed technical support in twelve months is a vast improvement over previous web hosts where issues were often out of my control and the help desk surly or not available.

I currently host six domains (including this blog) using one account with minimal issues regarding any of my domains. I am using their Dedicated-Virtual service, paying about $42 a month (a discounted price with a one year contract). If your needs are more modest, you may find their Grid Service ($20 a month) more than adequate. If your needs grow, Media Temple offers a convenient upgrade service. No web host can promise unlimited server resources for $50, $20 or $4.99 a month.

Paying more for a web host does not necessarily mean better service. If you are getting great hosting for a $4.99 a month special, enjoy it while you can because a company cannot be profitable selling hosting at $4.99 a month unless they cram a ton of rarely accessed web sites on the same server. $20, $40 or $100 a month will not necessarily buy you great web hosting either. It really depends on how much traffic your site gets. Mainly it depends on whether your host has the right mixture of people and technologies to juggle the complexity of web hosting. It also depends on management making a conscious effort not to oversell their servers to keep their profits up.

Media Temple is the first web host I have found that has demonstrated it has the right stuff. As such, providing they can maintain this high level of quality, they will have a long time customer.

The Thinker

On the movable walkway called life

As you may have noticed, one consequence of being born is that you eventually must die. It may seem unfair, but that’s just the way it is. We are all prisoners in our own unique time stream. We step onto our time stream (we assume) at birth, although some part of it begins at conception.

Yes, our life is undoubtedly a time stream. It is like one of those very long movable walkways that you find in large airports that carry you inside or between concourses. Its speed is constant. During the time you stand on the walkway, you stay in one place while things move around you. Eventually the walkway ends and the journey stops. We get off the walkway when we die but while we are on the walkway, we are its prisoner.

Unlike the movable walkway, we are not entirely sure how we got on it in the first place. The walkway behind us is quickly shrouded in mist and the walkway ahead, except for the first couple of feet, remains a dense fog. However, we can look to our left and our right and enjoy our limited view.

Unlike walkways in airports, this walkway is very wide. In fact, we cannot see either of its sides. Yet we know we are on the walkway because things are happening all around us. Suns rise and set. Seasons pass and return. Things that looked shiny and new last year lose their luster this year and in a dozen years are often dysfunctional or obsolete. Trying to find the edges of the walkway is as futile as trying to sail off the edge of the world. Space and time curve all around us. We cannot see the curve but we sense it is there. We feel its truth: that we are a singularity in a matrix called space-time. Ephemeral things, some alive and some not surround us. They are often beautiful. At its best life resembles a magnificent kaleidoscope. We often feel like we are sitting in a theater and our life is unfolding on the screen.

It is natural to wonder what happens when the movie that is our life ends. Are there credits? Were we really its producer and director, or just the unknowing actors? These may be impenetrable questions, but sages and common people have pondered them for time immemorial. The atheist believes that when our movie comes to and end, the lights go out and we are simply nothingness. The theist believes there is a producer. Some believe there is a producer and director. The producer is called God. The Christians call the director Jesus. The Muslims call him Muhammad. The Hindus believe there are many producers and directors and they often slip between their roles. Some of these directors coach us more than they coach others. The Buddhists think that like the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, when you pull back the curtain you find another human like yourself (perhaps yourself) at the control directing the special effects. The agnostic doesn’t know if there are producers or directors. He does not exclude them but has a hard time trusting what he cannot see. The humanists are unconcerned about how we got on the walkway or where it will end, but is only concerned about the state of the walkway right now and how we can all live more happily in the present

In general, the longer you stay on the walkway the more you feel the past fade. You see the collection of things you have surrounded yourself with disintegrate before your eyes. You watch people, many of them loved ones, mysteriously drop off the walkway altogether, particularly as they age. The more you witness these events, the more certain you become that your walkway will end for you too at some murky time in the future. A relative handful finds the walkway very annoying. They take their own lives, figuring wherever they end up, if anywhere, is less painful than the present.

How should you spend your time while you remain on the walkway? This too is a topic of great concern for the people on the walkway. Some people are much more concerned about the next walkway. They advise that we should spend much of our time on this walkway preparing the next one. For theists there are generally two walkways that occur after death: one toward heaven, glory and salvation and the other toward hell and misery. To the Buddhist, our walkways sort of cycle backs on itself. They are confident that after death we are quickly deposited into another walkway. While our memories of our last life will be erased, we will carry our personalities and predispositions into the next life. Nirvana is the act of getting off the time stream altogether. Meditation and living simply are the keys. Enlightenment is the goal. You reach nirvana when you have achieved full enlightenment. Then they assert the carousel finally stops, you can dismount, exit and see what, if anything, is real.

Sometime in my early 20s, I remember being profoundly shaken that I was aging. Before entering adulthood, old age was so far enough away that it was abstract and hence nothing to worry about. Grabbing the reins of adulthood made me feel that life was in reality fleeting. Now in my 50s, I still feel the steady passage of the years. It feels like I am at the bow of a ship heading into the wind. The wind tears across my face but the infinite sea ahead is as mysterious and impenetrable as ever.

Strangely at age 52, while I remain leery of death, it no longer seems as fearful while at the same time it feels more tangible. I now accept that I am born to die and that’s just the way it is. It is natural to be inquisitive about dying and death, but to be obsessive about it the way I was in my twenties now seems a great waste of my life’s energies. Whatever movie I am in, it is not a bad movie and it gets more engrossing as the years pass.

Today, it feels more natural to be in the moment than to peer into an impenetrable far future. I see progress in myself and in my life. Some part of me longs for the immortal feeling of youth again, but some other part of me is also glad it is in my far past. I am more comfortable, more ordered and find more meaning now than I did thirty or forty years in my past. I feel grounded, but not rooted. My feelings will probably continue to change as I age, but right now, I accept life for what it is. I accept that it must end and feel that embracing the present is the healthiest thing for me. The movable walkway is my home, so I had better enjoy it and take care of it as best my limited skills will allow.

The Thinker

Who should we trust now?

Lordy, Walter Cronkite is gone. Nearly thirty years after he retired as anchorman for the CBS Evening News, the most trusted man in America has regrettably gone to meet his maker at age 92. What amazed me is that even though Cronkite had been largely off camera for thirty years, his passing has inspired genuine grief from millions of Americans. It seems like more people are mourning Cronkite’s passing than Ronald Reagan’s. Cronkite should have faded from our memories by now but for many of us he looms large and singular all these years later. One thing you hear repeatedly is that America will never trust anyone again as they trusted Walter Cronkite.

If you want to be the most trusted person in America, it helps if you have little competition. Cronkite thrived in television news in an age when you had three networks and thus only three choices for your evening news. Cable was just emerging in the 1970s and cable news did not appear until CNN was born around 1980. Today with so many ways to acquire our news, many of them new, it is hard for any individual today to stand out they way Cronkite did. Few of us even bother to watch network news these days. The whole idea of TV network news is almost obsolete.

Cronkite seemed singular but in reality, he followed in the footsteps of the late Edward R. Murrow, who spotted him as a war correspondent in London during World War II. Murrow made it possible for us to place our trust in Cronkite because like Cronkite, America trusted Murrow. I was not old enough to watch Murrow live on television, but I was certainly aware of his legendary influence growing up. I suspect that even those under thirty who never saw Walter Cronkite behind his desk at the CBS Evening News felt his presence.

We trusted Cronkite not only because he looked trustworthy, but he was born in an age when journalism was a highly ethical career, where facts mattered and where professional duty required impartiality. In our new media age, some of us now place this level of trust in certain news bloggers. In fact, few bloggers are impartial, but many are voracious consumers of the news. A talented few have minds like Sherlock Holmes and can sift through vast amounts of information to discern the truth. A couple of bloggers that I deeply respect include Marcy Wheeler and Andrew Sullivan. Neither Marcy nor Andrew though would qualify as traditional journalists but rather interpreters of the news gathered by others. Cronkite, like all journalists, was a person with his own biases that only occasionally leaked out in the form of editorials. Cronkite though was not afraid to investigate an issue, although while anchorman he delegated most of this work to his staff. He was an imperfect perfectionist, always striving to provide America with the best-informed information available on a particular news day. It was reflexive in him and we could tell. That is why America trusted him. We never got that sense about his replacement Dan Rather. At least Cronkite could tell us, “That’s the way it is,” while all Rather could come up with was a pithy “Courage.”

Cronkite proved that trust must be earned in order for it to be placed. Cronkite earned the trust of millions of Americans through his fanatical devotion to objectivity and insistence on quality shoe-leather journalism. What was neat about Cronkite is you never got the sense that he had a bloated ego. On camera at least, he came across like someone out of a cold shower: relentlessly measured and sober. During the scary years of The Cold War where the stakes were often life itself, you could not trust much, but you could trust Uncle Walter.

Who should we place our trust in now, if anyone? It is unlikely that we will ever see that level of trust again in a television journalist, simply because to have it you have to have both a very large audience and be a journalist at your core. Technology has made the former very hard to acquire, and journalism as I studied it in the 1970s is almost gone. More of us are comfortable having our news served to us with spin, be it from the obviously right-wing Fox News or the obviously left-wing MSNBC. CNN claims to hold the middle ground yet populates its shows with cast of characters paid to show their biases. The closest I can find to high quality journalist on CNN is Campbell Brown. She is much nicer to look at then Uncle Walter, but even she is no Uncle Walter. On the radio, National Public Radio has some terrific hosts, but they are faceless. Hosts like Robert Siegel sound terrific but are faceless. You cannot stare them in the eye and get a sense of their soul, like you could with Walter Cronkite. Nor is it clear how much of what they present on the air they direct. Uncle Walter was in charge of the CBS Evening News. On NPR, it appears the producers direct the work.

The Washington Post asked prominent and not so prominent Washingtonians who they think should inherit Cronkite’s mantle of trust. The results were pretty disturbing and included Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart (please!) I like Barack Obama too but before I put Cronkite levels of trust in him, I would like to see how he did with four years as president. Oprah is energetic, empathetic and certainly filthy rich. Do I trust her to provide the insight and informed judgment needed in the 21st century? Not a chance, even if she did do much to make Obama our first African American president.

I can think of some non-journalists who I think can rise to Cronkite’s level of trust. These are typically people who tell us uncomfortable but true things about ourselves and our world that we do not necessarily want to hear or take to heart, but which we know in our heart are nonetheless true. And they have also earned a level of trust through actual deeds.

My number one choice is Nelson Mandela. He spent twenty-eight years in prison for his convictions and has a moral authority probably second to none in the world. Mandela, 91, while a great moral authority, does not claim to have any special understanding of the United States and our particular situation. Yet he is probably the most singular, inspiring and trustworthy living worldwide figure since Mohandas Gandhi. In many ways, I think he surpasses Gandhi, who himself was a very peculiar man. As I learned, in the process of trying to make things better Gandhi often made things worse. Mandela is a gentle and compassionate soul whose moral leadership moved the toxic Apartheid state of South Africa into a modern pluralistic state. In the process, he has inspired and revered by billions worldwide.

My number two choice would be the Dalai Lama. Popes come and go, some better than others and some worse, but the Dalia Lama (whoever he is in his latest incarnation) is consistently compassionate and demonstrates a saner and more sustainable way for human to live and the world to thrive. Buddhists though rarely get much respect because they are so unnoticed. Yet Buddhists are often full of great insight and wisdom. To my knowledge, Buddhists have never caused any wars and have always strived to live simply and compassionately. Like Mandela, the Dalai Lama has little to say to America that we want to hear, nor is he vested in the issues of our day.

My number three choice is actually my number one choice because he lives among us. He is a surprising choice because during the years that Americans got to know him best, he was not terribly popular. His name is Jimmy Carter. He is often telling America things that we do not want to hear, but he speaks with great moral authority, is grounded in our culture and our values and has the humbleness that Cronkite manifested on camera as well as a compassion for all suffering people.

What is truly great about Jimmy Carter though is that when he speaks we know in our hearts that he is right. He is right, for example, when he told us that Israel is engaged in a slow genocide on the Gaza Strip.  President Carter is now 84 years old. Given the actuarial tables he will probably not to be with us much longer. For those of us who find it hard to trust in a nebulous god we can neither see nor feel, we look for examples among us of the best that we can be. For myself, I can think of no better person to place my trust in now that Uncle Walter is gone than in Jimmy Carter.

May Jimmy, like Uncle Walter, live a long life. May we Americans learn much from him in the time we are fortunate to have him with us among the living. Like Walter Cronkite, we are unlikely to see the likes of him again.

The Thinker

Review: Brüno

In January 2008, I reviewed Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and labeled it the funniest movie I had ever seen. So obviously, I would be a candidate for Baron Cohen’s latest movie Brüno, right? My wife was not interested in going, but fortunately my daughter’s taste in humor mirrors my own, so we spent $10 a ticket to see it during prime time last night.

The peculiar thing about viewing Brüno is that while it was very funny and offensive, it felt like I had seen it before. In fact, if you have seen Borat, it will seem very familiar. Borat is a flaming heterosexual deeply concerned about the importance of large penis sizes, Jews and Gypsies. Brüno is a flaming homosexual from Austria concerned about neck scarves. Borat comes to America to report on American life for Kazakhstan. Brüno comes to America when his career goes bust. Borat has an emotionally dependent sidekick named Azamat. Brüno has an emotionally dependent assistant to his assistant named Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten). Borat chases the celebrity Pamela Anderson. Brüno chases a number of Hollywood celebrities in an attempt to restart his career. Azamat leaves Borat all alone after a stormy scene. Brüno jilts Lutz, leading to a stormy separation. Borat visits a California church in order to find Jesus. Brüno talks to some Christians who try to turn him away from homosexuality.

In short, the character may be different but the formula Baron Cohen rode to success with in Borat has largely been replicated in Brüno. That is not to say that Brüno is not a damned funny movie, it just not quite as funny because you have sort of seen this movie from him before. It suggests that while Baron Cohen is milking this moviemaking style for all its worth, that it is heading toward a brick wall and when it hits it will no longer be funny. What will he do for an encore when this stuff is no longer funny but just formulaic?

The movie is high on anyone’s outrage meter. One can laugh at this movie and still feel intensely uncomfortable watching it. Many of the scenes try too hard to reach beyond outrageous. I would think even flaming homosexuals would be offended by some of these scenes because they reduce homosexuality to a crude and outrageous stereotype which I suspect is indicative of only a tiny percent of homosexual relationships. Anyhow, if you think watching Brüno get an anal bleaching if funny, this movie is for you.

Congressman Ron Paul is one of many celebrities (including Paula Abdul) who become unknowing members of Baron Cohen’s cast. It is hard to draw the line sometimes on which scenes are real and which are faked. A black baby that Brüno supposedly imports from Africa in a cargo crate (in exchange for an iPod) is obviously faked. A scene in a Dallas talk show is probably real but is the social worker at the end of the scene real or fake? What about those scenes where mothers of baby actors agree their baby would have no trouble being filmed on a crucifix or covered in bees? What about his scene with the dominatrix, since the window conveniently gives out and the cameraman is adept enough to follow?

Regardless, there is plenty to laugh at and much of it is beyond outrageous. Yet, after seeing Borat, Brüno still feels anticlimactic. If Baron Cohen follows this format in his next movie, I am probably going to give it a miss. It will feel overplayed.

Like with Borat, I find it hard to rate this movie, but if you liked Borat you will probably also like Brüno, but probably not as much because the novelty has worn off a bit. Let’s hope Sacha Baron Cohen can find new and inventive ways to entertain us in the future. I think he has traveled down this road about as far as he can. I am not sure how this movie got an R rating. It deserved an NC-17.

The Thinker

And that’s the way it was

Forty years ago, I was a twelve-year-old boy whose voice had yet to change living in Endwell, New York. Like most Americans I was glued to my TV set because what appeared to be the most monumental event in the history of mankind was underway: man was about to land and walk on the moon! 1969 was a crazy time. It made no sense that such an epic achievement was taking place amongst the chaos of The Vietnam War (which was going badly), assassinations and great civil unrest. Fortunately, absconded in our upstate New York suburb we were largely insulated from these events. We could however gaze into the night sky, look at the moon and marvel that our species was about to land and put a foot on the lunar surface.

On July 20th, 1969, the day astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the network coverage was nonstop. All the networks had continuous coverage but like most Americans we were tuned into our CBS affiliate. Why? Because the moon landing was being covered by trusted news anchor and space nut Walter Cronkite. Between many commercials from The International Paper Company (“where good ideas grow on trees”), Uncle Walt and his space buddies (which typically included astronaut Wally Schirra and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) gave us the inside scoop. They were amply assisted by the CBS animation department, which created animations of events that we could not see live, like the landing of Eagle on the moon. (As I recall the simulated landing happened at least thirty seconds before the actual landing.) Americans may have been culturally divided but on July 20th, 1969 we were all watching TV or listening to the radio. It was not just America; it was the entire world. This triumphant event was simply not to be missed.

Yesterday, veteran CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite finally passed into the great hereafter at the ripe old age of 92. Wally Schirra died in 2007 at the age of 84. Arthur C. Clarke is still among the living at age 90. America’s space program, which reached its zenith on July 20th, 1969 is now nearing its nadir. The space shuttle is about to be retired. A next generation vehicle to take Americans into space is years away, at best. This means that soon for the first time since the 1960s the United States will have no way to put a man into space.

In many ways, July 20th, 1969 will probably be seen as the United States of America’s greatest moment. Since then America has felt like an empire in decline. In 1969, the universe seemed within our grasp. If we could put a man on the moon, we said, why not a man on Mars? Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, called for putting men on Mars by 2031. In reality, we could put a man on Mars by 2020 if we summoned our collective will. It would actually not be that large an engineering enterprise, at least compared with putting a man on the moon. In ten years, we went from Alan Shepard’s suborbital spaceflight in a Mercury capsule to putting a man on the moon. During the 1960s, we discovered that as a nation we could focus on what seemed like this crazy national goal and within a decade actually achieve it. In 2009, we struggle to even summon the will to limit our nation’s greenhouse gases.

What the hell happened? Part of the problem was that after the moon landing there seemed to be no satisfactory encore. Subsequent landings seemed anticlimactic, even though the later landings were far more interesting. By December 19, 1972 with the end of the Apollo 17 mission, our interest in exploring the moon largely ended. NASA tried to reinvent itself as a more practical agency. It reused surplus Apollo hardware and sent Skylab into earth orbit. The Skylab launch was the last time a Saturn V would rocket into space and I was five miles away to witness it. NASA then created the space shuttle as a next generation reusable space vehicle. Unfortunately, the space shuttle proved to be a great idea in theory, but not so much in practice. It was complex, hard to maintain and magnitudes more expensive than anticipated. At one point NASA was saying they could get cargo into orbit on the shuttle for $200 a pound. Each shuttle flight now costs in the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Today, marginal crowds of tourists will show up for a shuttle launch. By becoming commonplace, shuttle launches have lost their fascination. In fact, our manned space program today is a product of 1970s engineering. The people who inspired us to marvel in the space program, like Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra, are largely dead or retired. With so many pressing needs and our government vastly overextended, there appears to be little will to reinvigorate our manned spaceflight program.

Our modern triumphs in the manned spaceflight program these days are somewhat muted and amount to the International Space Station, now actually close to completion. This is just as well because the space shuttle is the only vehicle big enough to ferry its largest components. The ISS too is largely being taken for granted. Its research is of marginal value. It is most useful simply as an exercise in learning what is required for people to live in space for long periods. It turns out that piecing together an international space station in orbit is hard work. It is also challenging to keep it in orbit. Rocket and satellite debris careens around in near earth orbit. The ISS needs occasional boosts so it doesn’t fall back into earth. What is its future? You would think that after investing about a hundred billion dollars we might want to keep it orbiting, but NASA has plans to de-orbit the ISS in 2016. Apparently, it cannot find the money to maintain it beyond then, so it might as well fall back to earth. With the shuttle’s retirement, we have to depend on Russian space capsules to service the ISS anyway.

The truth is the nation’s manned spaceflight program is on critical support. It is not clear that there is the political will to ensure that the United States maintains a manned spaceflight program at all. We have had great and sometimes stunning success with unmanned spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. Unless the dynamics change quickly though, the future of manned spaceflight may belong to the Russians and the Chinese.

We simply have lost interest. But perhaps, if enough Americans take the time to appreciate the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, we will summon our collective will toward more manned space exploration of our universe.

The Thinker

Two more movie reviews

Nothing but the Truth (2008)

As you may recall, back in 2005 Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, was jailed for contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury. She refused because she did not want to chance revealing any of her sources for her stories. The jury was looking into who outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. Miller was suspected of having evidence relevant to the leak investigation. For refusing to cooperate, Miller spent eighty-five days in jail during which she never revealed her source. Eventually she received permission from her source (I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby) to reveal his identity and she was released from jail.

Nothing but the Truth is a movie loosely based on the Valerie Plame affair. Unlike Miller, who never actually outed Plame (Robert Novak did the dirty deed), in this movie a reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), a crack investigative reporter for “The Capital News”, outs a CIA agent with a front page story. This CIA agent (Angela Bassett, played by Bonnie Benjamin) is missing Plame’s blonde hair. Armstrong is quickly hauled before a federal prosecutor (Patton DuBois, played by Matt Dillon) and of course, she refuses to reveal her sources. Despite having a crack attorney (played by Alan Alda), both the prosecutor and the judge seem anxious to make an example with Armstrong on what to do with tight-lipped journalists. She is soon behind bars and dealing with all sorts of emotional issues, including the feelings of estrangement from her young son and her husband.

This movie spends much more time showing us how miserable an experience it is to be in jail than informing us about the issue of confidentiality of sources. Apparently being a woman in a DC jail involves no individual cells, bunk beds, one television for the whole ward and women largely unafraid to beat up on each other. Most of us would be squealing within hours. Although hardly unaffected by her environment, she holds fast to her promise, losing a husband in the process. Unlike Miller, who only spent eighty-five days in jail, Armstrong spends a whole year behind bars. Her case, like Millers’, also goes before the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike Miller’s career, which now includes a stint as a Fox News analyst, this movie has a surprising and unpleasant ending. Prosecutor DuBois seems unusually vindictive. Maybe he is secretly a misogynist. If you don’t loathe DuBois at the beginning of the movie, you will by its end.

While this movie feels a bit too stereotypical, it is competently executed. What you get is a solid movie which while well acted and where women do most of the acting, leaves little in suspense. In short, while not a bad film, there is no compelling reason to watch it. So you will probably want to give this one a pass and rent something worthier instead

3.0 on my four-point scale.

Ragtime (1981)

Having recently seen the musical Ragtime I thought it might be fun to watch the 1981 movie based on the book as well. Perhaps I need to actually read the book to see whether the movie or the musical is more faithful to the book. Like Nothing but the Truth, Ragtime turns out to be well done movie, but nothing exceptional. If a fan of the musical, your appreciation for the story will not improve by renting the movie too.

1981 now seems a very long time ago, which is why I could not place any of the principle actors. It was not until the credits rolled that they fell into place. In this movie, we find the legendary actor James Cagney in what turned out to be his last role in a motion picture. Here he plays New York Police Commissioner Waldo. Also almost unrecognizable (probably from the blond hair) is Brad Dourif as Younger Brother. (He played Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings movies.) In the musical, the Latvian/Jewish immigrant Tateh gets much more screen time than he does in the movie. Tateh too looked familiar and is played by Mandy Patinkin. Moreover, just whom was that woman playing the empty-headed Evelyn Nesbit? It turned out to be Elizabeth McGovern, who in one scene includes full front nudity and a minute or two where she is topless. This is a PG movie; the standards must have tightened quite a bit since 1981.

While the story is very similar to the musical there are some changes. Father (played by James Olson) has a more prominent role while Mother (played by Mary Steenburgen) seems much more subdued and docile. Howard E. Rollins Jr.’s portrayal of Colehouse Walker Jr. is nicely done. Emma Goldman never appears in the movie, and in the movie, Younger Brother manages to become a lover to Evelyn Nesbit. In the musical he is her flirtation.

Any movie that starts with credits saying it is a Dino De Laurentis Production should make you apprehensive, since he was known for making overblown and badly acted disaster movies. The Ragtime era is hard to convey convincingly, but director Milos Forman does a great job of making you feel you are living in early 20th century America. The street scenes, the trolley lines, the old-fashioned buildings, the abundance of horses and cars all make it feel quite authentic. I really liked James Olson’s performance as Father because it was wonderfully understated. He fits well as a Victorian-era gentleman.

The musical though is a much more satisfying than the movie. The movie feels a bit emptier without Emma Goldman’s presence, none of the labor strife, with Tateh as an ancillary character, and with Mother remaining largely superficial rather than the woman who undergoes a profound metamorphosis in the musical. Also, in the movie we get Randy Newman’s version of Ragtime, rather than Stephen Flaherty’s. Ragtime the movie turns out to be quite well done is but never quite as engaging as it should be.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

The Thinker

Misquoting Jesus

Some definitions for “faith”, from

a  (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God  (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b  (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof  (2): complete trust

America is rife with people of faith, and in my own strange way I consider myself one of them. America is particularly rife with Christians, particularly Christians who believe The Bible is a holy book, many of who sincerely believe that it is the inerrant and wholly consistent word of God. This faith in the accuracy of the Bible and for many that it is literally the word of God, forms the building blocks around which they orient their lives.

I for one am grateful that so many people have found divine wisdom in the Bible. While the Bible and Christianity have often been used for perverse ends, overall I think The Bible is a civilizing force. Regardless of whether you think it is divinely inspired or not, there is much wisdom in the Bible. Even though I have lived over half a century, I still cannot read The Sermon on the Mount without feeling profoundly moved and humbled by the power of Jesus’ words. And here I am, not even a Christian, but a Unitarian Universalist, which is a religion bereft of both a creed and a holy book.

I recently finished the book Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman. For the most part the revelations in the book, which concentrates on The New Testament and its evolution over the years, did not surprise me. Those who truly have faith that The Bible is the inerrant word of God, in the unlikely event they choose to read this book, will probably be unmoved by the revelations in this book (and I am not talking about The Book of Revelations). An absolute faith is impermeable to minor things like overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Underpinning this book is the wistfulness of its author, a recognized Biblical scholar and a premier “textual critic” of The New Testament. As Ehrman states in his introduction, he began his study of the Bible also believing that it was the inerrant word of God. He began his professional study of the Bible at The Moody Bible Institute, where to teach the professors had to sign in writing that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. After three years at the Moody Bible Institute, Ehrman moved on to Wheaton College, where he learned to translate ancient Greek, which is the original source language for much of The New Testament. This gave him the tool to examine many of the old Biblical books, scrolls and associated papers. Eventually the topic consumed him. He continued his education at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Today he teaches at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Reading his book it is hard to miss a note of melancholy from Ehrman as his once solid faith in the Bible simply could not hold as he examined and compared the ancient manuscripts that comprise The New Testament.

The book is a survey into why The New Testament is a testament to the failings of man. The failings were many. Mistranslations were common. In the days before the printing press, one had to depend on the accuracy of scribes who would attempt to copy previous generations of the work. For the first few hundred years, these scribes were not professionals, and their errors showed. Often they mistranslated in part because in ancient Greek words simply ran together, which meant their meanings were open to interpretation. There are numerous examples of scribes literally changing the meaning of the source they were copying. Our modern Bible is much like that childish game we used to play where we would whisper something quickly in the ear of one child, who would repeat it to another. The result is that the last message often suffered some major translation errors. As Ehrman shows repeatedly, the same is absolutely true of The New Testament.

For Jesus had the audacity to be born at a time when there were no microphones. If anyone was taking notes when he was wandering around Judea and Galilee they did not survive. In fact, not even a fragment of the original source material of any of the gospels or epistles exist. It all turned to dust millenniums ago. There are small sections of books of The New Testament in Greek from 200 to 300 A.D., but much of what survived is much more modern, as in generated from 1000 A.D. onward. There is simply no way to know how faithful the New Testament is to whatever its original authors wrote. What scholars like Ehrman can do is suggest that portions that are more likely to be closer to the original source than others.

If there is an accurate portrayal of Jesus, the closest would be the Gospel according to Mark, which scholars agree was written first. Indeed, as Ehrman points out it is clear that the other gospels rely heavily on Mark. Even so, Mark never met Jesus, so he was simply writing down the teachings that he heard or happened to believe personally. Mark’s perspective of Jesus, more than anything else, shapes the Jesus that Christians believe they know and revere.

However, I did find the book fascinating. In a way, it is amazing how much textual critics have been able to discern about the authenticity of various parts of The New Testament by comparing so many copies of copies of various translations and meticulously working their way backwards. Critics like Ehrman cannot reveal what is authentic, but they can say with some certainty which portions of The New Testament are not authentic. For example, the story of Jesus forgiving a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) is almost certainly incorrect. This is not to say it may not have actually happened, but by comparing older versions of documents with newer versions, the story mysteriously appears in newer versions.

Any honest critic of The New Testament simply must acknowledge parts that are inconsistent with other parts. This is a relatively straightforward process. You simply take each gospel, line up the story lines and compare the inconsistencies. The average reader of the Gospels of course does not take the time to do this. However, to assert that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is only possible if it unfolded in highly parallel universes that the authors conveniently traveled between. In that case, God does work in very mysterious ways indeed!

Perhaps one can judge The New Testament’s veracity on its impact, rather than the consistency of its story. One can certainly make a case for the Bible and The New Testament in particular as a civilizing and humanizing force, not to mention a source of great moral teaching. Of course, by being translated by fallible men, it was often used for evil purposes. What scholars like Erhman can assert is that based on scholarly study, the New Testament in particular is rife with errors, both inadvertent and deliberate. In addition, the Bible we revere today exists because over two millennium fallible humans have decided on which parts of it are holy and which were not.

Critics like Erhman challenge us, as the late advice columnist Ann Landers put it, to “Wake up and smell the coffee.” Perhaps those who assert that The Bible is the inerrant word of God should arise from their self-inflicted stupor and smell this coffee. They may find, like most of the rest of us, that while coffee has a bitter taste, is at least smells good.

The Thinker

No good options with North Korea

At one time President George W. Bush had lumped Iran, Iraq and North Korea into an “axis of evil”. No such axis actually existed, except possibly in the paranoid delusions of conservatives like Bill Kristol. The device was useful in selling a scared post 9/11 America on the necessity of starting a “preemptive” war with Iraq. Of the three countries that President Bush mentioned as part of his “axis”, only North Korea truly deserves the “evil” rap. At least the world has managed to somewhat contain North Korea these last fifty plus years. However, it probably will not be able to deter it from aggression much longer.

The Korean War never officially ended. Instead, it was suspended. Both North and South Korea remain technically in a state of war. Now, as North Korea demonstrates missiles with increasingly long ranges and its nuclear weapons, it is clear that this loco genie cannot be contained in its bottle much longer. What the hell can we really do about North Korea anyhow?

Apparently, not much, but it is not from a lack of trying. Various administrations have tried all sorts of carrots and sticks to help the North Korean leadership see the light. All rested on the fundamental assumption that the North Korean leadership could be persuaded to behave rationally. Experience has repeatedly shown that North Korea has no intention to act as a civilized state. If North Korea were a person, it would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Worse, this paranoid schizophrenic refuses to takes its medication. Worse even still, he may be a paranoid schizophrenic but he is not stupid. North Korea has enough knowledge to maintain large armies, build increasingly sophisticated missiles and develop nuclear weapons. It clearly does not care about its citizens, who can starve for all it cares. It is essentially a Mafia state, which means it can do things no other country in the world would dream of doing, like creating counterfeit American money, and doing so with total impunity.

Unfortunately, it is now wholly reasonable to assume that reason will never work with North Korea. Until now, the West has at least been successful in containing North Korea using the Cold War tactics. It is no longer clear that this strategy will continue to work. North Korea is stronger now than it has ever been. It seems eager for an excuse to lob a missile or two into South Korea or at an American ship. Boarding a North Korean vessel to inspect its cargo, a perfectly legal action under numerous U.N. resolutions, could by itself embroil the Korean peninsula in another long and bloody war. This one though could well include use of actual nuclear weapons, particularly if the war goes poorly for North Korea.

The time of kicking this can down the road is ending. Philosophically I have always been a pacifist, but if there ever were a justified case for preemptive war, North Korea would be its poster child. Unfortunately, any preemptive war is likely to be large scale and kill hundreds of thousands. Even if the North Korean leadership can be dethroned, attempts to manage the country after the war are certain to inflict even more suffering on its people, and likely leave it an international basket case for decades. Given these realities, it is no wonder that successive administrations have hoped that North Korea would see reason. The best hope at this point is that its current leader Kim Jong-Il will die unexpectedly and that his successor will be less paranoid. That is very unlikely. Extreme paranoia seems to run in the family.

So war of some sort in the next few years is likely and its cleanup, assuming it can be won, will be long and costly. Moreover, the peninsula is armed to the teeth. North Korea has an estimated 1.1 million active soldiers. Add in its reserve and paramilitary forces and it has almost 6 million of its 22 million people are potential combatants. In response, South Korea has about 655,000 active military forces, but with its reserves and paramilitaries could bring over five million forces to bear. The United States has about 26,000 soldiers currently stationed in South Korea.

My daughter is of draft age and I certainly do not want to see her involuntarily fight in that hellhole. My suspicion is that the longer the world drags its feet on cleaning up the North Korea mess, the more expensive it will ultimately be in lives, treasure and destruction. If I were the president’s national security adviser, I would reluctantly be making the case for a preemptive war with North Korea. Of course, we currently have our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tactically it would not make much sense to go to war with North Korea until our troops are out of Iraq, rested and our army has been rebuilt. Perhaps this more than anything else is the reason the United States is disengaging in Iraq as quickly as it can. President Obama is a smart man. Al Qaeda and the Taliban remain threats to our national security, but are diminished threats. Unless Al Qaeda finds a way to acquire a nuclear weapon, today biggest national security threat is North Korea.

In the Korean War, the North Koreans had the Chinese to fight with them. One thing that has changed is that China has become something of a lukewarm ally of North Korea. China’s leaders are aware that North Korea is a huge problem that it helped create. Aside for voting with the United States on a few U.N. resolutions, China is a long way from taking a huge step like helping depose North Korea’s leadership.

Since China is unlikely to assist in a new war against North Korea, if there is to be a preemptive war, the best the United States can hope for is a tacit agreement by China not to interfere. My suspicion is that China would be glad to if it had reassurances that the United States would not occupy North Korea. China could help in the war’s aftermath by readying and administering the huge amount of humanitarian aid that would be needed and acting as civil administrators. If China were to participate in cargo inspections or a blockade of North Korea, that also might help deter North Korea from starting a war. It is unclear whether China would participate in such an endeavor, although by doing so would demonstrate its emergence as a sober world power. North Korea is big, but not big enough to win a war against China should it decide to enter into the fray.

Presumably, war plans are constantly being updated. North Korea has already drawn its line in the sand and has said that inspections of its international cargo shall lead to war. The United States and South Korea should also set clear criteria for actions that will lead to war. It could reasonably include attempts by North Korea to interfere with the legal inspection of its cargo. Certainly any missile attack on South Korea or United States possessions should constitute grounds for going to war. Initial actions would presumably include the rapid destruction of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, airbases and weapons depots. Our attacks should also target Kim Jung-Il and the senior leadership personally. In the next Korean War, surrender is likely to be as elusive as in the last war. However, there may be de-facto capitulation. If executed smartly there would hopefully be minimal loss of life. More likely though, both sides would quickly find themselves reliving the Korean War quandary.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know what will happen when the North Korean genie finally comes out of its bottle. The genie seems poised to come out within the next few years, whether we want it to or not.

The Thinker

Two movie reviews

It has been a while since I have watched some movies. Time to catch up.


For Pixar to make a movie as good as last year’s WALL-E would be quite a trick. With the recently released Pixar movie Up, we get something that is nearly as good. It proves that while Pixar cannot always hit their movies out of the ballpark, it can regularly score homeruns. There is nothing in this digitally animated movie that anyone will complain about and much to savor.

I have a personal connection to this movie, in that my first cousin Ken Bruce was one of the story artists for the movie. Ken, who expends most of his talents on shows like Fairly Odd Parents, spent a few years working for Pixar and worked on this last project before he left. However, I have no particular bias toward the movie due to my cousin’s involvement with it. This is just a generally delightful animated movie that will offend no one but it probably best suited for the younger set. Ed Asner is the voice of Carl Fredericksen, an old coot who lives in a house that is rapidly being swallowed by the city around him. He was dopily devoted to his wife whom he met as a child and who recently passed away. Rather than move into a retirement center when pressed, he elects to tie thousands of helium balloons to his house instead, and uses them and a pair of wind sails he created to steer the house toward South America. There he hopes to find a mysterious waterfall that his late wife always wanted to visit and perhaps some rest from his heartbreak. Unfortunately, he inadvertently brings with him a young boy named Russell, who desperately needs to do something for this crotchety old man to earn the rank of Senior Explorer with the Wilderness Explorers.

The 96-minute film manages to pack a number of very memorable animated characters into the short time, including a dopily devoted dog named Dug, an exotic bird named Beta and an obsessed and evil explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by the indefatigable actor Christopher Plummer). The movie turns out to be fun, endearing, comedic and heartfelt. Unlike WALL-E, it goes for a more animated look than the pervasive realistic look that characterized much of WALL-E.

In short, this is a perfect memorable summer movie for the whole family but will probably not stick in your minds quite as well as some of Pixar’s bigger hits like Shrek and WALL-E. Nevertheless, it’s a shooting star. 3.3 on my 4.0 scale. Good work, Pixar.

Garden State (2004)

I have a connection with this film too, in that my sister Mary recommended it to me, so I added it to my Netflix queue. Garden State reminded me in spots of Dazed and Confused, as it is a sort of coming of age movie, in this case a coming of age movie for today’s twenty-somethings, particularly the subset who spent their childhood on Ritalin or other mood altering drugs. Actually, Garden State is much better than Dazed and Confused, which is a coming of age movie for those born in the late 1950s like me. Dazed and Confused, while it was not terribly memorable at least had dead on note of authenticity.

Garden State focuses on Andrew Largeman, who is played by Zack Braff, who also wrote and directed the film. This is exactly the sort of movie I imagined myself writing and directing someday when I had such pretensions. In a way, I am jealous of Braff, who here plays a 26-year-old Hollywood actor who returns to New Jersey due to the passing of his paraplegic mother. As we eventually learn, Andrew was responsible for his mother’s paralysis when at age nine he impulsively pushed her. His father, a psychiatrist (played by Ian Holm) has kept him doped up since then. Sent away to boarding school at age sixteen, he became disconnected from his classmates and his family, with his father writing prescriptions long distance from New Jersey. For more than ten years, Andrew has existed in a medicated haze.

When he comes home to bury his mother, he finds himself bereft of tears, which is due to the many medications he is on. He does however quickly run into old classmates, and he hardly has a chance to sit still before he is being invited to parties. One of his classmates is a gravedigger, who supplements his salary by taking jewelry off the dead before burying them. Another is a cop. Another works in a local hardware store. For the most part, they haven’t grown up and are still living at home, still smoking weed and still making out with high school aged women. Like Andrew, they too have spent the last ten years existing rather than maturing.

A funny thing happens in New Jersey. In his haste to get home for his mother’s funeral, Andrew leaves the drugs back in L.A. Once back in New Jersey the drugs slowly wear off. Rather than spending his life feeling like he is encased in fluffy pillows, he begins to feel again. He is aided by a transformative relationship with a girl he meets at a neurologist’s office named Sam (Natalie Portman), who is every bit as strange as he is but most importantly helps him feel and learn how to love someone too.

If tempted to walk out of the movie, don’t, because the movie builds toward a mild but moving crescendo that at times approaches brilliance, such as watching the transformation unfold between Andrew and Sam to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”. It’s brilliant stuff and this is an impressive (albeit low budget) movie from a young actor and director. Rent it.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.


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