Archive for April, 2012

The Thinker

Whither the blog?

In 2002 when this blog started, blogging was new and cool. I was really on the cusp of an entirely new trend that soon became validated and mainstream. At last authors were free of the shackle of publishers! This was true if you didn’t mind your content being served electronically and revenue, such as it was, in the form of tiny Google Adsense payments.

Ten years later in 2012 blogging is certainly pervasive, but it has lost much of its allure. Blogging in fact is being chipped away at via Twitter (microblogging) and social media (principally Facebook). Thus I am not too surprised that Occam’s Razor has been taking hits since traditional web sites represent a smaller share of network traffic. A couple of years ago, at least using SiteMeter’s inflated statistics, I could count on two to three hundred page requests a day. Now it’s about half that. So at some point I ask myself if there is much point in continuing to blog. It’s sort of like Newt Gingrich pretending to run for president when it is obvious he has no chance of winning the Republican nomination. Blogging to declining statistics at some point feels like utter vanity.

Page requests do not capture the entirety of traffic on this blog. There are those who read via Feedburner, currently 62 readers. There are also some who have email subscriptions, although I cannot seem to find statistics on them. They may have been inadvertently dropped. There are also a fair number of people saving my posts locally on their hard drive, principally my mother’s eulogy but also various book reviews I have done. I suspect these are principally students trying to pass off my words to convince a teacher they did a review on a book that I reviewed. Shame on them. The general trend of less traffic is hard to dispute, although some of this traffic has shifted to regular Feedburner readers.

The blog also serves the purpose to keep me writing regularly, as well as provides a hobby that will be hard to replace. Still, traffic on this site is likely down in part simply because I am often stretched for time. Finding the time to post just twice a week is hard when I add in a full time job, adjunct teaching and other stuff going on in my life. Motivation to keep going mainly comes in the form of very occasional comments like this one, where it is obvious that my words moved someone. It is likely that a whole lot of other people are also moved by my words (not always in healthy ways), but don’t take the time to leave a comment.

The logical day to stop would be on December 12, 2012. This would end on a positive note, having completed a full decade of blogging, with my first post on December 13, 2002. I am still not sure what I would do with the time if I stopped blogging altogether. Everyone has a book somewhere inside of them they would like to write and I write well enough where it would probably be of interest. I am not getting any younger. Yet writing a book is highly problematic. It would be unlikely to be accepted by a mainstream publisher, which means it would be something I would market and sell, and it’s likely it would be of a niche interest at best. And effectively this blog is a book, a massive book. Over ten years I have accrued hundreds of thousands of page views that say unequivocally that I am a writer who is read. There are currently 1.42 million words in the blog and a total of 1339 posts.

The more likely course will be to downsize the blog. I would post even less frequently than I do and move the blog out of my current hosting space. I currently pay $500 a year to host this blog (and my other domains). If traffic is going down, I don’t need to pay for premium hosting. I have taken the first steps by moving my other domains to HostGator. Together these domains get at least as much traffic as this blog, if not more, and so far I’ve not noticed performance issues associated with other shared hosting services I’ve used over the years, which is encouraging. My current host contract ends at the end of July. At that point I will likely either move this blog into my new HostGator web space or place it on a free blogging site. WordPress.com is a logical location, since this is a WordPress blog and they will host it for free. The downside is that I would lose a lot of the extras I can provide by self hosting, such as the ability to dress up by blog with Rodan’s “The Thinker” icon, etc. So my inclination will be to move it to HostGator and cross my fingers. If response time is sometimes not ideal, it may still be worth the money saved on cheaper hosting since I am drawing less traffic.

I’ve threatened to take the blog down before and was in fact encouraged to do so by some commenters, whom I suspect are regular viewers of Fox News and are always happy to see another liberal voice silenced. Taking it down wouldn’t mean it would go away, simply that it would become an archive, and one increasingly irrelevant as time goes on. To the extent I have traffic it is because I add blog posts regularly. Posting less frequently than I used to likely reduces traffic, because search engines will see the blog as less interesting. Nonetheless, I have some popular blog posts that seem immortal. I suspect they will continue to get daily hits long after I am planted six feet under.

Feel free to encourage me or discourage me in the comments as you wish. Meanwhile, I will keep blogging at least through December 12, 2012 even in the face of declining statistics.

 
The Thinker

Review: Mirror Mirror

If you are not familiar with the Indian director Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror can be your introduction. The reason you may not be familiar with Tarsem Singh is because until the recently released Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts, his movies were written for Bollywood and Indian audiences. With Mirror Mirror, Singh is taking is directorial talents to Americans by lining up mainstream American actors like Julia Roberts.

As the title suggests, Mirror Mirror is a rewritten adaption of the Snow White story. The real story is so well known that even preschoolers would fall asleep if it were retold yet again on screen. So Tarsem (as he likes to be known) took the plot and changed it substantially, arguably making it both more interesting and engaging. The wicked queen (Julia Roberts) is just as wicked, but is at least civil to Snow White, who is on the cusp of turning eighteen. As long as she can be fairest in the land, she will suffer her to live, but maintaining her beauty is requiring a lot of magic. Snow White has also been rewritten. She (Lilly Collins, looking a lot like a young Natalie Wood) is still a princess, of course, but adversity will bring out a hitherto undiscovered side of her: an amateur Xena, once she gets trained in the art of fighting by seven dwarves.

These dwarves are not Disney stereotypes, and they survive by thieving instead of mining. They are pretty good at it, because they engage in a lot of practice, but also because they wear covered stilts that give them the illusion of being much taller than their opponents. It’s hard to know though how they eke out a living thieving given the slim pickings in this queendom. The wicked queen has overtaxed the villagers to support her lavish ways. So the dwarves depend on very unlikely encounters, like a wandering Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) and his companion Renbock (Robert Emms), who are quickly reduced to their underwear and left hanging from a tree. Moreover, it’s pretty cold out there because in order for the queen to maintain her beauty she must keep the kingdom in perpetual winter.

Snow White to the rescue! Rather than prince rescuing princess, princess rescues prince but they do manage to eventually fall in love. Much other action has to happen first. First Snow White has to be killed  but of course the queen’s servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) wimps out and leaves her deep in the woods rather than dead and missing her heart. It’s lucky that she quickly encounters seven dwarves, led by Grimm (Danny Woodburn), who take her in and quickly become enamored with her. The prince discovers the queen who decides she needs to marry him not for love but to restock her treasury. Unfortunately, she is much older than the prince, and only a love potion will do the trick.

That’s probably more than enough of the plot. Tarsem does a competent job orchestrating all of it, but Mirror Mirror is clearly not going to be the movie he will be remembered by. The dwarves are a lot of fun, Snow White has far more depth than we usually get, and the prince is atypically comic relief. As for Julia Roberts, she is stretching trying to make her role more interesting than it is, and it’s not interesting, hence her attempts fall mostly flat. Yet, you won’t fall asleep in the movie. It is interesting enough to keep you engaged, but not enrapt. The best part of the movie may well be the credits, wherein the Bollywood Tarsem comes out and the whole cast partakes in a spirited Bollywood musical dance sequence.

My recommendation: you can probably skip Mirror Mirror for worthier stuff, but if you decide to watch it you should find it fun enough and not a waste of your time. What is worthier stuff? Well, check out Tarsem’s best movie to date, one of the few I have rated 3.5 or above, the fabulous The Fall (2006). I’m hoping Tarsem’s Hollywood phase will be short, because this movie suggests his best works will created back at home in India instead of (in this case) a studio in Montreal, Quebec.

3.0 out of four points on my scale, primarily for fun performances by Lilly Collins and the actors playing the dwarves, who get to rise beyond the typical stereotypes. Otherwise, there’s not much worth seeing here, and that includes a brief part by Sean Bean as the absent king and Nathan Lane’s many attempts to make interesting his role as the queen’s bootlicker.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

SuperShuttle: Have you no shame?

No, I suppose not. You are a business, after all, and businesses are all about making profits through all means fair and unfair. So this article should not have surprised me. Yet it made me, a mild manner person, so irate I wanted to throw a brick through the window of SuperShuttle’s corporate offices.

SuperShuttle of course is the ubiquitous blue van found in many U.S. cities. They exist principally to get travelers to and from the airport. I fly reasonably regularly, mostly for business, so I cannot help but be acquainted with SuperShuttle. Most often I am on a SuperShuttle going to and from Denver International Airport. Most recently I was on a SuperShuttle from Boulder to DIA on April 1st.

A couple of years back I was chatting with the driver (they tend to be quite loquacious with customers) and I learned that he was not an employee of SuperShuttle, but a franchisee. He was mentioning that he had to take some time off from work to finish his taxes, not a small thing if you run your own business. I remember finding his remarks curious but until today I had forgotten about them. But today’s Washington Post article resurfaced this memory, and the memory of the less than a handful of us passengers who made that trip from Boulder on April Fools Day on a blue SuperShuttle.

It’s clear where SuperShuttle is making its money, and it is principally off franchisees. Holy nickel and diming, Batman! They are more creative in adding fees for their franchisees than TicketMaster is at adding reservation fees, surcharges and Will Call fees. Only it’s not customers who are paying these fees. Shuttle rates tend to stay relatively static. Rather it’s the franchisee. As the Post reporter Emma Schwartz reports it:

Enajekpo doesn’t complain too much. Any money will help, especially this week when he already owes SuperShuttle $1,054.45. There’s a $197.59 fee to pay down his franchise purchase, $179.20 for his van lease, $144.31 to cover insurance and a weekly $500 system fee for using the SuperShuttle reservations and equipment. He also has $33.35 in fees that SuperShuttle charges him for customer discounts or additional booking fees from third-party Web sites.

On top of that, Enajekpo owes SuperShuttle $79 from last week. Plus, he’ll have to pay the company revenue sharing fees — 10 percent of fares for runs to the airport and 27.5 percent for runs from the airport, plus an airport fee.

SuperShuttle is hardly alone in its franchisee model. Fedex drivers are often franchisees, not to mention the guy at your local UPS store.  Many franchise opportunities are great. Others, like apparently SuperShuttle’s, are traps that screw many if not most who sign up on the hope of living the American dream.

Fees are just one way these drivers are screwed, but there are so many other ways to screw them. The most common way, which I witnessed during the two years as a commission salesman, is to saturate the market with salesmen. What it did was turn the sales floor into a dog eat dog world, where salesmen would literally race to be first to a customer entering their sales territory. But at least during my days doing retail, for the now defunct Montgomery Ward Corporation, I was an employee. (The Wards brand was purchased, but it is an online only retailer now.) Granted, my time as an employee would have been pretty limited if I could not earn in commissions more than they had to pay me in minimum wage. But I had certain rights and while I might in theory need to pay Wards back for wages I did not earn in commission, payment would come in the form of a kick in the ass out the door with my pink slip. A franchisee for SuperShuttle is not an employee, thus has no rights, but is legally obligated to pay for the privilege of driving a blue SuperShuttle van, plus those other fees, with no guarantee that he will have enough customers to make it all profitable.

Just as Wards loved to saturate the sales floor with extra salesmen, SuperShuttle has learned to saturate the market with franchisees. They say they don’t do this, but the article makes clear that many franchisees simply cannot make enough money to keep up with their fees, let alone earn minimum wage because they don’t have enough customers. The fees are owed regardless, but curiously there are no corporate guarantees that they will have sufficient customers to earn those fees. The predictable result is that many if not most of these drivers are caught up in a no-win cycle. They are unable to drop the franchise because they have payments to make on their vans for which they are legally liable, and no way to know if SuperShuttle will deliver them enough customers to earn enough money. The predictable results: a lot of bad feelings, angry franchisees and lots of long hours hoping to make up the revenue they need to keep their business afloat.

Some of these franchisees are wondering why they aren’t employees. SuperShuttle used to have employees driving their shuttles, and they had salaries and benefits. The bean counters apparently ran the numbers and determined the company would be more profitable if they were franchisees instead.  The predictable result: lots of franchisees feeling like they have been screwed. They have been. Money is essentially being pulled from their pockets to keep SuperShuttle profitable. It doesn’t appear that SuperShuttle plans to raise rates, or if they do, that they will share more of it with their franchisees. And why the hell would they? They have their franchisees right where they want them: by the scrotum. And why not saturate the market with new franchisees? After all, all those fees just adds to their bottom line.

Franchising has gone too far, but we may not yet have seen its logical end. If Fedex and SuperShuttle drivers can be franchised, then why not airline flights as well? I should probably hesitate to give airlines like United any ideas, but they could charge a franchisee $100,000 a week for the right to run an aircraft with their logo on it, and let them worry about aircraft maintenance, and hiring pilots and flight attendants. United would still control the fare, of course, but they wouldn’t need any stinking employees, in fact they could be in hock to them instead. What a win for United shareholders!

SuperShuttle in fact has gone too far. Apparently in Denver, SuperShuttle drivers have won the right to form a union, but Denver is the exception. Shuttle drivers perform a service, protect the reputation of SuperShuttle, and they will do a much better job of it if they become the employees they actually are, rather than the legal abstraction of a franchisee.

I must be a socialist, but I think there should be legislation tightly reigning rules for franchises. There is a large difference between owning a McDonalds restaurant franchise where you have a store parked at one location where the owner hires his own employees and a SuperShuttle franchise consisting of one guy or gal where you are constantly on the move and have no say about how many other SuperShuttle franchises you will be competing against. These employees-in-essence absolutely deserve the right to be real employees. Meanwhile, anyone thinking a SuperShuttle franchise is going to be his or her step to realizing the American dream should read this article and look elsewhere.

As for me, I discovered that the apparently socialist Denver Regional Transportation District has hourly buses between Boulder and DIA, even early on Sunday mornings when I need to leave, for a $13 fare, less than half of what SuperShuttle charges. They even load and unload your suitcases for you. Moreover, their drivers are employees who earn a living wage. I’ll be on the Route AB bus next time.

4/23/12: Corrected to show that Fedex drivers, not UPS drivers, are often contractors. Also found this video of conditions at LAX:

 
The Thinker

Four liberals you can do without

In today’s news, we learn that the late conservative “journalist” Andrew Brietbart, who broke a phony ACORN scandal and exposed the sophomoric Craigslist shenanigans of ex Congressman Anthony Weiner, died of heart failure. He already had heart disease when he collapsed walking his dog in Brentwood, California. Some part of me wonders if he had to die because he basically had no heart. I would say he was the epitome of an angry white guy, but there are so many more like him, most recently ex-rocker Ted Nugent, who may wish President Obama dead but after a recent Secret Service interview confessed he didn’t plan to act on his wishes.

There are also annoying liberals out there, liberals so annoying that most of the time I tune them out and I hope most other liberals do as well. I cannot recall a case of a liberal stooping to Andrew Brietbart’s level, who had no problem carefully editing footage to give the false impression that senior Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was a black racist. However, being annoying is nonpartisan trait. Four annoying liberals come to mind to me today, and generally I tune them out.

Cenk Uygur first made a name for himself on mainstream media by landing a show on MSNBC. He established himself on YouTube under the channel The Young Turks. His show was part talk and part lecture but one thing it surely was, was mostly about Cenk and Cenk’s views, which were definitely ultraliberal, and often loopy, if not loony. He was frequently factually incorrect. There is left and then there is so far left of stage you are not just off the stage, but outside the theater in the parking lot. Opinionated is okay, but bombastic makes the hair on my scalp stand up. He is the left’s equivalent of Rush Limbaugh with little in the way of self-censorship between his brain and his audience. Apparently he proved a little too much for MSNBC, who put Al Sharpton in his timeslot, presumably because Al was more level headed. That’s how strange Cenk was on MSNBC, but he also comes across as one of those yapping dogs who loves to chew on strangers’ ankles. Cenk has a new gig on Current TV and looks like he may now be getting a distemper shot. I hope this is right and that he has reformed. For right now, I can’t take the chance and anyhow, Current TV is not on my channel list. I plan to give him wide berth regardless.

I used to like Keith Olbermann. This was before I spent a lot of time regularly watching him. Keith does have a certain style and charisma, and he looks great in a suit. Olbermann though is at heart a prima donna. He expects star treatment, even though most of the time he doesn’t deserve it. When after being abruptly fired by MSNBC, Keith moved to Current TV I knew he wouldn’t last there long. For Keith hasn’t yet learned that the world does not revolve around him. He is a man whose passion and ego cannot be repressed for very long. It’s not MSNBC or Current TV that is the root of his problem; it’s Keith. Just why does he go from one job to the next, and is inevitably fired pretty quickly? Is it because “they” are all bad? Or is it because his petulance, pompousness and irritable nature simply become more than any network can bear, and they realize they are better without him? For a start, Keith could use a prescription of Valium, and I suspect it would be a drug he would stay on for life. Rachel Maddow has learned to walk the fine line between being assertive and obnoxious. So can Keith if he ever does the self-examination to realize the problem is not everyone else. I hope instead of pressing lawsuits he has little chance of winning with Current TV, he uses his spare time and piles of cash on a good therapist instead.

Bill Maher also has me reaching to change channels. I realize he is a comedian, but he gives atheists everywhere a bad name. Most atheists I know are actually much kinder, gentler and compassionate people than the so-called Christians I know. Bill gives Christians plenty of reasons to wish atheists to burn in Hell. Mostly Bill is smarmy, and about as much fun to watch as it is to wear a wool sweater without an undershirt. Smarmy though does not begin to describe just how smarmy he actually comes across. Granted, being on HBO gives him the opportunity to exercise his considerable potty mouth. Frankly, I would be embarrassed to be part of his panel. I am hardly a puritan and I can on occasion cuss like a sailor. But I can’t imagine doing it on national television, or with anyone I consider polite company. I assume Bill is not trying to influence those he is chastising. There is no chance of that, of course, but with his constant brilliant professor attitude wherein he deigns to throw a few sarcastic bullets of his great wisdom, he smears the whole left with a taint we do not deserve. Mostly after watching Bill, I want to take a shower using a lot of Ivory soap.

Lastly, and perhaps most of all, I loathe Arianna Huffington. It wasn’t until she was divorced that she decided it was okay to be liberal, but she turned on a dime and gave it all of her time and energy. She used her considerable number of friends, many in Hollywood and the media, to put the Huffington Post online, then proceeded to make it something like the New York Daily News of the online world. It is a largely tawdry place, but its liberal opinions is something of a sideshow now, with stories mostly coming from rebroadcasting articles found elsewhere dressed up with lurid titles and photos. As an entrepreneur, my hat is off to her, for finding a saucy brand that is making her a ton of money. What it is not making is a ton of money for the bloggers who post there, many of who could use a steady income and should be paid for their content. This should be natural if she were a true liberal, which is why I think she is not. Instead her bloggers get paid in exposure and Facebook likes. I never believed Arianna became a true liberal and I doubt she is one now. I think she saw an emerging market and believed that with her alimony and connections she could milk it for all it was worth. This turned out to be a considerable amount, providing you shaft so many of your friends in the online world in the process. I don’t think she is particularly liberal or conservative, but she is pro-Arianna, enjoys having the Arianna brand and gets her thrills from exposure on political talk shows. Mostly, my bullshit detector says she is a phony so I should stay away, which I do. Huff Post is likely to forever stay off my reading list.

What we need are more good guys to offset these four, and there are plenty who deserve more exposure including Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, Fahreed Zakaria, Bill Moyers, Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum. Right now the Keith Olbermanns and Bill Mahers of the left are giving the whole apple barrel a bad stench. I wish more liberals like me would just chuck them.

 
The Thinker

Republicans win through intimidation

My post Psychiatrists agree: Republicans are insane still gets plenty of reads. “Plenty” is a relative word for a blog of modest traffic like mine but it was read 597 times in the last year and is the fifteenth most popular entry on my site. According to Facebook it has been “liked” 29 times since I added the “like” widget some months back, even though it was written two years ago. With a certain group, the post really resonates. Glad to hear it.

In thinking about it though, certainly not all Republicans are insane. There are generally two types of Republicans: the insane and the mendacious. The insane Republicans are the ones that swallow hook, line and sinker the propaganda broadcast continuously by Fox News and other conservative outlets. These folks are insane for the exact reasons I outlined in the post: because they lead the sort of life where evidence, if it contradicts their political philosophy, simply has no bearing. They are sheep. The mendacious ones are some subset of the leadership. They understand that most of what they believe is not evidenced-based but they simply don’t care. Moreover, they are completely comfortable with lying shamelessly. These are “the end justifies the means” folks. The means is whatever gets them in charge. Mostly they hold those who actually believe their lies in contempt. All that matters is that they vote for them. What they want is power, which they plan to use to garner more of it for themselves and their moneyed class. They really don’t give a crap about a Republican family getting by on $50,000 a year, just as they obviously don’t give a crap about the poor.

Yes, they are mendacious and as I also pointed out in 2009 they are also sadists. Why are they sadists? It’s because in most of these cases they have risen in the world because they have read this book by Robert J. Ringer, or came by it naturally. These intimidators generally fall under the category of bully, now featured in a topical and (I understand) extremely hard to watch movie of the same name, at least if you have any compassion in your soul. The mendacious Republicans simply lack compassion for anyone except those in their high social and income class.

Bullies succeed because they can smell someone who is emotionally vulnerable the same way a dog can smell its master a football field away. They love to exercise power through intimidation and they are well practiced in its discipline. Bullies excel in being assertive and at challenging people. They know the secret to exercising intimidation: argument does not matter so much as the ability to make someone physically or emotionally vulnerable (ideally both). The rules include: always take the initiative, always go for the jugular, always assert that you know best, and always use a tone of voice that includes as many of the above as possible: scorn, righteousness, certainty and authority with the overall need to dominate.  The corollary: never let any who disagrees with you get a word in edgewise.

Few of us are trained to deal with bullies, which is why we typically give way. In school, it’s a particularly good idea because many of these bullies are not afraid to put their fists and feet where their mouth is. I still have searing images of some of these bullies during my childhood. Like most of us partially civilized people, I learned to avoid them. We tried to practice the golden rule. Violating it even against a bully seemed deeply wrong somehow because we are not living up to our values.

There are the overt Republican bullies, the Rush Limbaughs and Newt Gingriches of the world, and then there are the less obvious bullies. It’s hard for even me to look at the likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and think he’s a bully. Gosh, Mitt seems so nice. But in fact, Mitt is just a different breed of bully. He’s the slight of hand bully. Mitt did not get rich by chance; he schmoozed and bullied his way into riches by moving money from one pocket to the other while taking the lion’s share. Moreover, he did a remarkably masterful job of it.

Romney basically convinced the greedy to give him and Bain Capital money. He took their money (putting none of his own money at risk, naturally) and bought companies with them. He then proceeded to make them more “efficient”, which generally meant looting the company. This was done by taking their free cash, of course, but also dramatically reducing wages and benefits for employees and, if he could get away with it, squeezing suppliers as well. Sometimes the company was just liquidated for the cash. For this he and his buddies took their share and if the company still remained then tried to resell the company. Aside from the employees who often took the shaft, a lot of money was also gained by billing Uncle Sam. Pension funds were raided and went to the control of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation instead. Pensioners received cents on the dollar for what had been secure pensions courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. To the extent they were left a safety net, it was provided by taxpayers. To add insult to injury, taxpayers were fleeced but it just added to Romney’s bottom line. Moreover, for his innovation the tax code gave him a special discount of a 15% tax rate on unearned income.

Romney is one of the weasely bullies, but a bully nonetheless. His agenda though is crystal clear, in spite of his ability to talk out both sides of the mouth. He wants to give a lot more money to people like him: the one percent but especially the top .1%. The talk about cutting government is mostly just that, because if elected Social Security and Medicare will still be largely untouchable, although Medicaid will not be. Which means plenty of deficit spending is guaranteed. And who will benefit disproportionately from all this borrowed money? As usual, it will be the richest of the rich: through paying fewer taxes, lowered capital gains and by making sure the industries they care about, principally defense and energy, are showered with government largess. It is a formula that worked well for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. All that remains is to talk you into it once again, and once again you, fellow taxpayer and especially you taxpayer to be, are the one who will pay the price. Your future will be robbed all under the guise of stopping socialism.

Robert Reich does an excellent job of summing all this up in a two minute video.

We can’t kill Republicans, so they are always going to be around. Intimidation is the game that they play so well. Expect more of it. They will be going straight for the American jugular, using these familiar but still uncomfortable tactics of intimidation but by also playing to your fears and to your patriotic instincts. To beat them, we have to do a better at standing up to these bullies. I will discuss tactics in a future post.

Meanwhile America, are you going to let yourself be bullied and intimidated into voting against your best interests yet again? Or will you join me and do something unnatural and uncomfortable, and stand up to these bullies by putting them in their place?

When it happens yet again to you, will you have the courage of Joseph Nye Welch, who famously stood down one of the greatest bullies of all time: Joseph McCarthy? Get ready with the words that will kill. Practice them until they roll effortlessly out of your mouth. Be prepared to stand up forcefully, look them in the eyes and simply say: “Have you no decency, sir, at long last?”

 

 
The Thinker

Review: Copying Beethoven (2006)

Considering the prominence of Ludwig von Beethoven in the pantheon of classical music composers, it’s strange more movies haven’t been made about the man. There was Immortal Beloved (1994) starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven that received mostly good reviews. Other than that, there is not much. There is a 1936 German film, The Life and Loves of Beethoven and an even earlier German film (1927) Das Leben des Beethoven. Until 2006 when Copying Beethoven was released, there were more English movies about a dog named Beethoven than about the composer. Now at least they are tied.

Perhaps the dearth of movies was due to a composer who may have made great music but aside from going tragically deaf did not have a compelling personal story. By all accounts Beethoven was not a very pleasant man, which might have been due in part to his chronic stomach issues and his frustration at losing his hearing. Copying Beethoven (2006) is an attempt to gives us a realistic portrait of the man, but to do so the scriptwriter decided to introduce an attractive young woman, Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) into Beethoven’s late life. Anna is a gifted woman musically, and ends up in Vienna when her sponsor sends her to Vienna to be a copyist for Beethoven. This is all quite interesting and spices up the movie considerably, but was also wholly implausible for 1824. This was an age when women had little in the way of rights. If they aspired to have a career it might be as a washwoman. Anna though comes from a family of pedigree and despite the odds aspires to be a famous composer. To be employed as a copyist for the famous but temperamental Beethoven is a great honor.

Beethoven (played by Ed Harris) quickly adapts to having this young woman in his life. It turns out it is much harder for Anna to adapt to the moody and quirky Ludwig von Beethoven than the other way around. By 1824 he was largely deaf. That would needless impair the movie, however, so the director makes him mostly deaf. Much of the time he wears a large tin device around his head to hear the piano better and when necessary funnels a cornucopia-like device into his ear to enable conversation. Beethoven also turns out to be a good lip reader. Harris portrays Beethoven as a frequently thoughtless man, yet with a simple natured sense of humor. He is oblivious to the effect of leaving his piss pots around the apartment in the presence of an attractive young woman or to the effects of his wash water spilled on the floors to the family living beneath him. In spite of these eccentricities and his often seen and undeservedly doted over nephew Karl (Joe Anderson), Anna is grateful to be in the presence of genius and tries to earn his trust.

Beethoven is on deadline as his most famous work, Symphony No. 9 is close to being premiered. He is very busy but trying to conduct at rehearsals becomes almost impossible, the orchestra he conducts cannot follow him. The symphony’s premier seems doomed. He arranges for an assistant conductor who cannot make it, leaving him in a bad spot. Would the lovely Anna help conduct the premier? Of course she will, discreetly from an orchestral pit, signaling the beat to Beethoven. The premier is a smashing success and feels achingly faithful to the symphony’s actual premier. (Opera houses were a lot smaller back then.)

Fortunately the movie does not end here. Beethoven rides the symphony’s great success but his fame quickly fades as a series of lesser works fail to inspire and have audiences leaving in the middle of performances in disgust. Beethoven’s health also continues to fade and with it what little social graces he has left. He is jealous of Anna’s boyfriend Martin (Matthew Goode), even though they hardly see each other because the virtuous Anna spends her nights cloistered in a convent.

The result is an uneven but generally well-directed and well-acted movie that, as designed, leaves you with mixed feelings about Beethoven. It’s hard not to have feelings for Anna, so young and beautiful, who is thrown into a situation she wants and needs but which is far outside of her experience. Beethoven is clueless about women’s emotional needs, but at least does not appear to be sexist and sees some talent in Anna, which he sometimes encourages and sometimes lampoons. At least as portrayed, Beethoven comes by it naturally because his nephew Karl is a despicable gambler who is not beyond pilfering from his uncle’s apartments to support his addiction.

Casting Harris as Beethoven was an unusual choice. He would have been one of my last choices for the role, but he does a decent job with the part. In my mind’s eye, Beethoven is the stern taskmaster seen in his frequent portraitures. Harris does not quite deliver a character of depth, except to portray his understanding and appreciation of music in mystical terms. Instead we get a bi-polar Beethoven, a condition many psychologists now believe he suffered from. Kruger is an excellent actress and does a great job with Anna’s measured performance. Despite his crassness, she wallows in his genius. We too get the measure of an imperfect man in the last years of life.

Copying Beethoven is probably worth nearly two hours of your time, although the movie fails to satisfy on some levels. Beethoven is portrayed as the musical genius he was, but Harris also shows us the common and imperfect man as well, and he is far less inspiring and the sort of man most of us would not want to know better.

3.0 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Money is freedom

Americans celebrate freedom. Everyone is free, we proudly proclaim. But what exactly is freedom anyhow? Freedom amounts to being able to do what you want when you want to do it. Based on this criterion, it’s clear to me that some of us are freer that others, and those are people with more money. When you have a lot of money, you have the freedom to go backpacking in Tibet. You are probably not going to realize this particular freedom if you are a product of a single-family household and your mother lives in subsidized housing.

We sometimes celebrate the homeless as free people. Perhaps there is a certain freedom in being a vagabond. You can go where you want but chances are to get there you will have to walk. You had best not walk into certain planned communities, particularly in Sanford, Florida. A George Zimmerman type anxious to try out the Stand Your Ground law may kill you. The homeless are free, but you are likely to frequently go hungry. I understand that the dumpsters behind neighborhood Burger Kings offer al fresco free dining opportunities. Sleep will probably be uncomfortable as you will be outdoors and subject to the elements. You likely won’t be allowed to sleep just anywhere, not even places you would think you would be, like a public park. So be prepared to be rudely woken up at 3 AM and asked to shuffle along, or hauled to a nearby police station and booked for being a vagrant. There you can at least you can get free meals and a warm place to sleep.

For most of us, this freedom is very limiting, and something to be avoided not embraced. In fact, it is a faux freedom. Wild animals have this sort of freedom too, but no one envies them. However, with money freedom becomes tangible. Money can buy you freedom from constant hunger and provide a safe place to call home. With more money it can buy health care and likely keep you out of a whole lot of unnecessary misery. With even more money you can become educated, attract a quality mate and take regular vacations. With yet more money you can take exotic vacations, afford homes in the Hamptons and maybe run for political office.

So in reality freedom is not so much about being free, it is about the how much freedom you can afford to purchase. And that depends on how much money you or your parents have. Consequently, in a nation that values freedom we also value wealth, because the more wealth you have the more freedom you have.

We are also aware that freedom is constrained by law. In many mostly Southern states, your right to vote can be constrained by requiring state issued IDs to be shown at polling places, which curiously affects the poor almost exclusively. Sometimes fewer polling machines show up in predominantly poor neighborhoods as well, making it harder to have your vote count, such as happened in areas around Cleveland in the 2000 election. The consequence of actions like these is to give those with money more leverage to influence laws than those with less money. The rich also have disproportionate resources to influence others politically. This is perfectly legal. In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court also asserted something wholly absent in the constitution: that corporations have the same rights as people and can give unlimited amounts to PACs. Unsurprisingly then, our government tends to disproportionately reflect the interests of those with money over those without.

Effectively money not only buys freedom, but also allows some measure of being able to take away freedoms from others. Lately the aspiration that all should have roughly the same amount of freedom has been classified as socialism, a strange assertion for a nation founded on the assumption that all men are equal. Make health care available to all regardless of their ability to pay, and poorer people will effectively have more freedom, but in the eyes of many it is an unearned freedom, thus it should not be allowed.

How does one earn more freedom? If freedom is wealth, it happens through acquiring wealth somehow, which can be hard to do without a good education and the right connections. Some time back I wrote about the rags to riches myth. Yet there was one famous president who arguably demonstrated that it was possible to ascend from rags to riches. He was our greatest president: Abraham Lincoln. He had no formal education and never went to law school, yet he became a lawyer and eventually president of the United States. How on earth do you get to become a lawyer with no formal education? At the time it meant convincing the Illinois Supreme Court, which had only recently become a state, that you were competent to practice law. Honest Abe did it somehow.

Rest assured that Lincoln’s tactic no longer works in Illinois or likely in any other state. If you want to practice law, you had best get a law degree and join the local bar association. That of course will require money, and it’s unlikely some benevolent nonprofit will be giving it to disadvantaged inner city youth. Anyhow, if you can acquire a law degree then maybe the Illinois Supreme Court will deign to let you argue before it. Since Abe’s time, Illinois has tightened its standards on who is allowed to acquire higher levels of freedom, and it is generally doled out only to those with the means. In effect, it has cut one pathway that enabled someone to go from rags to riches. There are virtually none left, but the Republican myth remains that there are all sorts of ways to achieve the impossible.

We have created all sorts of barriers to keep people from moving from one socioeconomic level to the next. If it happens at all, it requires superhuman effort. Few of us are supermen, so we are virtually doomed to fail and we will stay in our social class. This seems to be fine for those who are already have wealth. Indeed, they seem anxious to add additional barriers that have the effect of making it even harder to ascend up the socioeconomic ladder. This is done in the guise of welfare reform, reducing or eliminating subsidized housing, and strict time limits to food stamps and unemployment benefits. The effect is to give certain classes of people more freedom than others and through lowered estate taxes give them the ability to extend those freedoms to their children. It also helps ensure a permanent underclass of citizens and keeps a permanent upper class as well.

The lack of defined pathways to become upwardly mobile feeds resentment and fosters insular behavior, heightening class-consciousness and dividing us as a society. To understand the brouhaha in Wisconsin, one has to look not at the bottom of the income scale, but at its middle and the brazen power of those at the top to push the middle class further down the income scale by lowering their pensions, making them pay more for their health insurance and not allowing collective bargaining. In effect, through legislation the middle class’s freedom and wealth is being moved to those with more wealth. Ironically, this is classified as being part of a pro-freedom agenda. The reaction by a vulnerable but politically important middle class was entirely predictable. It was fed by cluelessness and a sense of superiority of those with wealth that they know better. Mostly it is due to a fundamental unwillingness by those in power to understand the connections that implicitly bind us.

Some of the wealthy understand this connection. They know that their wealth is predicated on keeping the other 99% hopeful for a more prosperous future. They understand that marginally higher taxes on their income are actually an investment in their prosperity. Moreover, the smartest ones understand that for society to be stable there must be viable economic ladders to move between all financial classes. Most of those ladders have disappeared, mostly between the lower and middle classes, but also between the middle and upper classes. These ladders do not appear magically, or they would exist now. Instead they must be constructed by civilized society. While capitalism helps provide the wealth that makes these ladders possible, they do not occur from largess, but are a result of government.

In truth, upward mobility is what truly drives growth and by extension wealth and freedom. It is in the best interest of the rich to empower the poor and the middle class so their talents can be maximized for the benefit of society. For when that happens, rather than wealth trickling down from the moneyed, it trickles up. All are enriched, all share the benefits of greater connection, and all share in a greater freedom. It is a formula that worked well for America until it was abruptly changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. To become great as a country again we must rebuild these economic ladders. The decline of our country will be marked by the day when we deliberately destroyed these ladders of hope and opportunity.

 
The Thinker

Ode to Ode to Joy

I recently watched Copying Beethoven (review to come), a fictional movie based on the late life of the composer Ludwig von Beethoven. It is centered around his last and most brilliant symphony, Symphony No. 9. This symphony in four movements concludes with the amazing and powerful chorale piece, Ode to Joy. The movie reenacts the symphony’s first performance in Vienna, right down to the vibrating wood floors not quite up to adequately holding the orchestra that played on it. (Watch it here.)

Unlike perhaps any other symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 has endured, and this is probably because of Ode to Joy, which frames the last movement. In fact, the entire symphony is brilliant, powerful, profoundly moving, brooding at times and a delight to listen to. The symphony is so good that I deliberately limit my exposure to it to maybe once a year, lest its brilliance somehow dim from overplaying it.

The world agrees. There is arguably no symphony played more often or that is better known than Beethoven’s Ninth. Even the common layman who never listens to classical music will probably know of the Ninth, likely because they have heard snippets of Ode to Joy off and on over the years. Most can at least hum a few bars of the tune.

Sometimes the Ninth sneaks up on you. So it did with me a few weeks ago, when this version on YouTube showed up on my wife’s LiveJournal. This version shows just the Ode to Joy. Two things make it remarkable. First is that is performed in Japan by the Japanese. Japanese appreciate classical music, of course, as does most of the first world, and a lot of the non-first world. Second is that this was not just any performance. It included a chorus of not a hundred, not a thousand, but ten thousand people, which nearly dwarfed the audience in the huge stadium.

It turns out the Japanese are obsessed with the Ninth, particularly during the holiday season. You can find performances in pretty much any city in Japan, often in multiple venues. The Japanese just get Beethoven in a way that perhaps even Germans do not. They have adopted him, and as you can see from the video their enthusiasm is genuine and uplifting. Probably only a handful of those ten thousand singers actually understand the German they are singing. It doesn’t matter. They emote the joy in Ode to Joy, which is, to say the least, an uplifting and joyful tune, not to mention a terrific way to conclude an almost God-like symphony.

The German poet Friedrich Shiller penned the actual ode itself in 1785. It might well have become a footnote to history had not Beethoven chose to immortalize it in song. It turns out that while joy tends to be fleeting, reacquainting oneself with Ode to Joy is always a joyous experience, as well as something of a marvel, when you realize how it is at once simple, complex and powerful. Without knowing a word of German, or even knowing what it’s about, it is hard to finish the fourth movement unmoved. In fact, it’s hard not to cry. You don’t know exactly why it moves you so, but it certainly does.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ode to Joy in particular has, like it or not, been adopted as the world’s unofficial greatest symphony, as witnessed by it being played virtually everywhere. This fact would please Beethoven as well as be more than ironic. The poem was written to celebrate the brotherhood and unity of all mankind, something that was in very short supply in 1785. The poem was an aspiration, and remains so. Yet the very fact that the Ode to Joy, as articulated by Beethoven, has been so wholly embraced by the entire world attests that the world aspires for universal brotherhood, even if its steps at achieving it are slow and haltering.

It has a strange and unique power and feels touched by a higher force. There is arguably more beautiful choral music out there than Ode to Joy. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), which aspires to have an orchestra and chorus of a thousand (but usually falls short) is in many ways a better piece of symphonic chorale music. Yet I have yet to hear any piece of choral music more heartfelt, more joyful, more connecting and more powerful than Ode to Joy. It’s unlikely that the world ever will. With the Ninth and its Ode to Joy, it is likely that Beethoven achieved a musical zenith that simply cannot be exceeded.

And that’s a joyful thought. Here’s my little ode to it.

Update 12/19/12

If you enjoyed the above, listen to the competition: Mahler’s Symphony No.8, worth all one hour and 23 minutes of your time.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Descendants

I can think of a couple of alternative names for The Descendants. Trouble in Paradise is the most obvious one, since the whole movie takes place in Hawaii. A Family Affair would also be appropriate, since there are family shenanigans aplenty. For those of you hoping to see lots of gorgeous pictures of Hawaii, you will get your share in this movie, including the prominently featured and beautiful island of Kauai. Mostly though it is a movie about the hazards of infidelity, with the twist that the unfaithful one ends up in a coma at the start of the movie. The unfaithful one would be Matt King’s (George Clooney) estranged wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hatsie), who we see animated only for a few seconds at the start of the movie, and who otherwise is seen only inert in a hospital bed. Elizabeth ended up this way due to a boating accident.

In short, Elizabeth leaves Matt with a hell of a mess, including two distant and emotionally disturbed teenage daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). At first though Matt is clueless about the infidelity and spends much of his time at Elizabeth’s bedside hoping that she will eventually recover. Then he can begin the process of being a better husband and stitching their family back together again. That is not to be and Elizabeth slowly slips from a coma into brain death about the same time his daughter Alexandra tells him that Mom cheated on her with a prominent local realtor. Alexandra is housed in a boarding school on the big island on the hopes that her grades will improve there, but instead is involved in a steady relationship with Sid (Nick Krause), who has not learned the arts of tact and self-censorship. Meanwhile Scottie is channeling her stress by sending nasty text messages to classmates.

So Matt has his hands full and he feels he is inept at best trying to deal with all of it, given that his daughters are distant and often openly hostile to him. He also has his hands full with his adult cousins, who with him undeservedly have title to thousands of acres of unspoiled Hawaiian property on Kauai. This is because they are great grandchildren of the last queen of Hawaii, although all of them appear at least eighty percent Caucasian. This should be a good dilemma because selling the land will make all of them filthy rich. Matt’s role is to be the executor of the estate and to work through various issues with his cousins. A long process of deciding who they will sell the land to is reaching conclusion and virtually everyone in Hawaii has an opinion. The money would be an undeserved gift for a group of cousins who are already pretty well off.

Once Matt realizes he’s been cheated on, he becomes obsessed with finding his wife’s lover. This becomes hard to do given that he also has to give the bad news that due to his wife’s living will, he must pull the plug on her. His daughters are not happy with the decision, or his in-laws, or pretty much all their friends. In short, Matt should also be in the hospital from dealing with all the stress, but he has to uncomfortably be the adult in the room while both daughters, in-laws and friends vent their feelings about the matter and him. It makes for pretty heavy material, but Sid provides moments of comic relief. As the movie progresses, the annoying Sid becomes closer to Matt and the reasons why he connects with his daughter become understandable: they share some baggage.

As in Up in the Air and in virtually every movie he has done, Clooney proves himself again to be a deft actor in a demanding role. He does by making sure that Matt mostly buries his feelings while suffering the slings and arrows of his bad fortune. No one can really speak for his wife’s behavior except the realtor who she had an affair with, which explains why he becomes obsessed with finding him. Finding him though not only lets more emotion fly, but exposes a not too surprising plot twist as well.

No doubt about it: this is a bummer of a plot which becomes even more so as the movie progresses. Yet it does manage to sustain your interest, in part to see how Matt is going to navigate all these explosive landmines and to find out whether he will ever win the trust and respect of his daughters again. The director, Alexander Payne, also gave us the annoying and uneven 2004 movie Sideways. In some respects this movie is not too different than Sideways in that we get plenty of people with chips on their shoulders here too. What makes this movie more endurable is a better plot, more interesting and empathic characters, and a better tier of actors. You expect that Clooney’s performance will be excellent, and it is, although he is looking much more fifty-something in this movie. What perhaps really makes it work are the performances by Woodley and Miller, who play his daughters. It takes excellent acting to convincingly carry off their issues, estrangement and angst. They come across as real teenagers, something you rarely see these days in Hollywood where teenagers are buffed up, fighting aliens or falling for vampires. Any parent with teenagers will relate to Alexandra and Scottie, because they painfully model the semi-functional and taffy-pulled teen girls we encounter in the early 21st century.

The movie probably will not qualify as fun but it should draw you in easily enough into a vortex of uncomfortable topics, while giving you occasional sideways comic relief and memorable ancillary characters, like Cousin Hugh played by Beau Bridges. The frequently gorgeous tropical landscapes and Clooney’s handsomeness may keep you in your seat as well.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 

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