Archive for November, 2012

The Thinker

She is more like me than I thought

There are children that are a chip off the old block, and then there is my daughter. Physically she has many of the attributes of her father (me). She tends toward being tall, with bigger feet and the proud Roman/English nose sported by my side of the family. However, she has never seemed to take after her dear old dad. Her room and car are usually a mess. Whereas I put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher and clean the kitchen counters after a meal, the best I can hope for is that she washes a pan or two and her plate and silverware end up at the bottom of the sink. Whereas I spend my leisure time reading news online or various political blogs, she is reading and LOL Cats. If she shares interests in common with a parent, they seemed to be my wife’s, who is also looking at LOL Cats. My daughter likes most of the same TV shows my wife does. That is because my wife introduced her to them.

But lately there have been some weird signs from daughter-land. The other day I heard the theme music from the TV Series The West Wing emanating from her laptop computer. “Hey Dad! Guess what? I am on Season 1 of The West Wing!” she exclaimed. “And I really like it!” This got us into a deep fan discussion. Who is her favorite character? What episode does she like the best? When she got to the famous Christmas episode in Season 1, perhaps the best show in its entire seven seasons, she was crying at the end, just like me.

All this may have something to do with the fact that she is 23 now, and on the cusp of graduating from her interminably long quest to complete a bachelor’s degree. I was hoping her degree might be in engineering, like her father, but it’s in English. However, in retrospect, maybe she takes after her father here too. My bachelor’s degree was in communications. It wasn’t until the 1990s after ten years of doing IT work that I got a masters degree in engineering like my father.

My daughter and I are both creative writers, as evidenced in me by nearly ten years of writing this blog, and evidenced by her in various stories, none of which have yet been published. But just as I had (for a brief time anyhow) a literary agent about the time I graduated, she has one already, and her agent is reviewing her novel. It may suffer the same fate as my attempts to sell fiction did, but maybe not. For one thing, she is a better writer than I am. Her dream of making a living from writing fiction just might be realized. She promises her mother and I a chalet in Switzerland when she hits the big time, like JK Rowling. Meanwhile, of course, we subsidize her modest lifestyle, which includes tuition at a state university, her rent, her car and her living expenses. She dreams of an apartment and a cat of her own. Right now she has roommates.

Her interest in The West Wing truly surprised me, but it should not have. This is because she has become a politically active creature, just like me. She has not joined the Young Democrats or anything, but she did make a point to vote this year, to the extent that she drove home from Richmond to make sure her vote was cast. She is passionate about gay marriage, health care for all, and most issues of concern to liberal Democrats like me. Of course, her mother is as well. So she gets that from both of us. But my wife will largely ignore the front pages of newspapers. She is delving into the details of current political issues, albeit via rather than The Washington Post.

Most surprising of all is her new interest in classical music. Four years ago we took our last family vacation to New England. One night we ended up at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony. It was the first time she had been to a classical music concert. She hated it. Her eyes rolled toward the heavens and could not wait to leave. At university however she is enrolled in a music appreciation course, and has been studying composers even I have not dabbled into, like Bedrich Smetana. However, even before her music appreciation course, she had been online downloading classical music. Maybe she took up my suggestion that it facilitates studying, since there are not usually any lyrics to distract you. I find that we are getting into rather deep conversations about classical music composers and their strengths and weaknesses. I am astounded by how quickly she is mastering this genre. For example, we can contrast Beethoven’s influence on artists like Brahms and Wagner. A couple of weeks ago she even joined us for a concert by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, in part because her class required going to a live performance.

For a girl who rarely got A’s in school, we were often frustrated that her natural intelligence rarely translated into high grades. I still have no idea what kind of grades she is getting, but I do see evidence that her natural intelligence is coming out. I see it in her writing, in our conversations, in her term papers, in her ability to handle complex reasoning and exercise critical thinking. In this sense she is more like her mother. She picks up knowledge more indirectly than through studying, and most of it gets filed away for later use.

Her cautious nature may have come from me. Her friendships tend to be relatively few but deep. She mostly keeps her mouth shut in crowds but expounds at length in small groups. She tends to be firm in her opinions and can justify them at length.

On the cusp (we hope) of surviving independently, I still hope that she will embrace financial prudence. So far there is little sign that she will, but I do think it is getting observed and perhaps filed away for future use. She seems to be aware that her education is not just chance, but involved a great deal of planning, mostly by me. The one course she never got, and which is not even required in either school or college, is financial literacy. Trying to engage her on the topic usually leads to rolled eyes. Soon as she tries to make her income as an English major cover her life’s expenses she will have no choice. Toward that end she will find a couple of books under the Christmas tree on financial literacy that might help her. I’m not sure whether she will take the time to read them, but I am hopeful that she will.

Overall, I find myself warming to her more as an adult than I did as a child. I have always loved her of course, but she rarely seemed a person that I could relate to. More recently I am seeing that there is far more of me in her than I suspected, and it is mostly (I hope) the good stuff. I hope it rubs off. Life is far more complicated for her generation than for mine, and she will likely need every bit of her wits and her intelligence to thrive in this resource-competitive 21st century. Maybe I am guilty of wishful thinking, but I think that she eventually will. In time, I expect that I will learn some new tricks from lessons that she will teach me.

The Thinker

Review: Lincoln

These days, it’s rare to see a movie that accurately depicts history. It is rarer still to find one that is quite excellent. Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is thus quite a precious gem of a movie, one that fully succeeds in making you believe you are in Washington D.C. in 1865 and which is filled to the brim with memorable characters, each of whom deserves a movie of their own.

What’s that? You thought this was just a great movie about Abraham Lincoln? Why, it certainly is, and Daniel Day Lewis does such a great job of channeling Lincoln that he seems like a man wholly possessed by his spirit. From the crooked nose to his poor grooming to his unnaturally high voice, he has Lincoln nailed. No actor has done a better job pretending to be Lincoln and likely none ever will. And while Lincoln is certainly at the nexus of this story of the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which made slavery unconstitutional), he does not own the movie. Rather, he complements the movie as a whole cast of memorable and now largely forgotten cabinet officials and legislators provide equally impressionable performances in this often-riveting two and a half hour movie. Such exquisite care was made to render a historically accurate and plausible movie that you truly feel in the 19th century.

Ironically, Richmond Virginia substitutes for Washington D.C. This is ironic if you know your Civil War history, because Richmond, two hours south by car from Washington was the capital of the Confederate States of America. Since I have a daughter at university in downtown Richmond, I can attest that much of it looks like was around in the 19th century. There are many blocks of aged and rather ugly row houses. They made for a ready substitute for a 19th century version of Washington, D.C., courtesy in part by the taxpayers of Virginia, which helped subsidize the film. This makes the film more ironic, since there is a large Confederacy museum within blocks of where the movie was filmed in Richmond, and there are plenty of Virginians who still wish the state was part of the Confederacy. So in a way I had to see the movie just to ensure that my investment as a taxpayer got sufficient return.

The movie begins more than three years into the Civil War, as its outcome was becoming increasingly clear. While Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, it did not free all of them, only those who lived in slave states, and was no guarantee that slave states would not bring in more slaves. Anticipating the readmittance of the Southern states, he knew the Civil War might be in vain if slavery were not first forbidden by constitutional amendment. However, getting there was hard. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval by both houses of Congress, and Democrats in Congress were hanging tough.

Do not expect a movie about the Civil War, but rather a movie that concentrates on Lincoln’s Herculean task of trying to round up the votes to pass the amendment in the House of Representatives. In the 19th century, the House of Representatives is a wild and raucous place, where fistfights could easily break out and decorum was even worse than it was today. The movie shows representative government in all its ugliness and frankly this kind of government is hugely entertaining, sort of like watching Storage Wars. If legislating were this interesting, C-SPAN might be the most watched cable channel. Lincoln had a boost, having won reelection. His coattails include more Republicans in Congress as well. Still, passage of the 13th Amendment seemed a long shot at best, given the implacable opposition by Democrats who simply could not see blacks as equals.

The result is Washington that is depicted as a chaotic menagerie of 30,000 people or so, the actual size of the city back then. There is Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife played by the excellent actress Sally Field, obviously in need of therapy and antidepressants that did not exist, and driving poor Honest Abe nearly nuts with her tantrums, crying spells, sniping and moodiness. There is his Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn), trying to delicately negotiate an end to the war through third parties. There is the eloquent Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the nexus of Republican power in the House trying to corral his party and coax mostly hostile Democrats to support passage of the amendment. There are many, many others who even with their limited screen time are the fully fleshed out characters they should be.

Lincoln is all this plus it has an eye for authenticity to the time that is flawless. The White House is depicted as it was: a largely dark place where kerosene lamps and fireplaces provided limited light and enhance the feelings of brooding. The desks are piled with books and papers, and the walls are hung with War Department maps. There is the dark paneled telegraph office across the street from the White House where Lincoln often hung out, awaiting the latest news from the battlefield. The heart of this movie though feels not in the White House, but in the House of Representatives where an ineffectual speaker tries to control his zoo of passionate, partisan and crass legislators. If for some reason you tuned out civics in school, see it in all its ignoble glory in Lincoln. You might come away with the notion that democracy is actually quite interesting.

The result is a gloriously realized and fascinating look at perilous times for our nation one hundred and fifty years ago. It’s a movie so well done that I feel it demands not a sequel (since Lincoln is assassinated) but prequels, so we can learn so much more about these people and their times.

Stephen Spielberg has produced a masterpiece, and considering his illustrious career that includes other movies like Schindler’s List and The Color Purple, that says a lot. It will be criminal if Lincoln does not win Best Picture this year. While Daniel Day Lewis certainly deserves best actor, you would have a hard time choosing the best supporting actor as there are so many candidates in this movie worthy of that award.

Thanks Stephen. This Civil War buff cannot begin to express the depth of his gratitude for this lovingly rendered masterpiece. 3.5 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

Review: Jekyll & Hyde at the Kennedy Center

Musical composer Frank Wildhorn is one of the few composers to have had two shows running on Broadway at the same time, specifically Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Of the two, the older is Jekyll & Hyde, first produced on Broadway in 1997. This predictably dark musical has had a number of revisions over the years. The one that appeared Thanksgiving evening at the Opera House at the Kennedy Center feels very much like the latest, and not necessarily best revision.

It is hard for me to say for sure, of course, since this is the first time I have seen it staged live. I did watch a pay per view performance with David Hasselhoff playing, of course, both the humanist Dr. Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, the murderous Edward Hyde. I was disappointed both because I find Hasselhoff very annoying and because the musical had been toned down from the much darker version first tried out in Houston, Texas that I have on CD. This version is gratefully darker and brings back numbers that did not warrant disappearance, and maybe made it off limits for children like the bawdy “Bring on the Men”. But it also feels more jangled and rock-like. While not a rock musical, it feels like it is experimenting with it a bit on the edges. Moreover, some of the notes have been changed making the songs less fluid and a bit off key. It didn’t help that the acoustics in the Opera House were less than ideal, with the sound dramatically over-modulated and frequently excessively loud.

The result was an uneven performance that had some merits but many detractions. Constantine Maroulis, a fine actor, does not have the best voice, at least for the songs he has to sing here. He sounds breathy when he sings. It turns out that the musical’s true flaws lie elsewhere: with its script. It must have been good enough to survive four years on Broadway, but at least with this version produced by Nederlander Presentations it simply lacks plausibility and heart. And that’s a shame because all the murders that Edward Hyde wreaks don’t mean much if the characters he kills are all cardboard, which is largely the case here. One thing is for sure: you won’t be living long if you are a member of the St. Jude’s Hospital Board of Governors, and if you are a member then you are a flaming hypocrite that maybe deserves to be slashed and/or strangled to death.

Granted, it’s hard for a musical that is mostly about killing other people to have heart, but in this case you have to believe that Henry Jekyll is the passionate humanist he claims to be. I didn’t feel it in Maroulis’s performance. John (played by Laird Mackintosh) is supposed to be Henry’s best friend and his lawyer, but there simply isn’t enough dialog and interaction for us to feel that any friendship exists. “Look behind the façade,” the actors sing in one of the opening numbers. The audience though is left with the feeling that the musical is a façade, flashy but not terribly engaging and ultimately not terribly compelling.

Not that there aren’t some good performances. Deborah Cox landed the role of Lucy, the harlot with a heart who is drawn to Jekyll because he is the only good man she has ever met. Cox is a great actress and has a voice to match. To the extent that this version is worth seeing, it is probably for Cox’s portrayal of Lucy. There is also the music, which when it is good is quite memorable. Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse can put together some memorable show tunes that rival some of Andrew Lloyd’s Webber’s best. In Jekyll & Hyde we get “Take me as I am”, “Bring on the Men”, “This is the Moment”, “Alive”, “Dangerous Game” and “Confrontation” that are all compelling.

The direction and staging are competent but not particularly compelling. Jekyll’s laboratory has been redesigned so we get fluorescent flasks of bubbling chemical concoctions delivered into Jekyll’s veins via tubes instead of flasks. Special effects, such as they are, are saved for the song “Confrontation”, which are well done but do not really redeem the musical’s many faults.

I don’t feel that ripped off, however. Tickets were only $49, a good deal for the Kennedy Center, but were perhaps priced so low because word had gotten around that this production was less than stellar. If you have a hankering to see the musical and can snatch any of these tickets, it is probably worth seeing, but you had best hurry, since it’s last performance at the Kennedy Center is on Sunday. If you paid full price, well, I’m sorry. You are likely to feel disappointed.

While this production does have some merits and I have seen much worse at the Kennedy Center, it is probably not Jekyll & Hyde at its best. You might want to wait for a better and more compelling production.

The Thinker

Lost in translation

I am starting to realize that one of the reasons labor costs are so low is because so much of the labor I use cannot speak English. In theory, English is the common language in the United States, but in practice it often is not. English works fine for me on the job and usually works in stores, but its use becomes problematical with most of the service industry.

At the Wendy’s, the lady behind the counter speaks English as does the manager, but everyone actually preparing the food appears to speak only Spanish. At least that’s how I hear them communicate among themselves. In fact, I have yet to go to a Wendy’s within fifty miles of my house and not find all the workers Hispanic and speaking Spanish to each other. I assume that most whites won’t consider working at Wendy’s. Maybe it’s too low class or something. Or maybe it is because they would have no idea of what their colleagues are saying, unless they studied Spanish in high school. It’s intimidating to work a job when you can barely communicate with your coworkers. I suspect to the extent that anyone wants a low wage job, Hispanics are preferred at Wendy’s.

I don’t interact much with the people who cut my lawn but when I listen to them, it’s clear that they too are Hispanic. The same seems to be true with the trash crew. I hear the guy hauling the trash whistling and talking with the driver, usually in Spanish. I have no particular reason to complain about this. I don’t normally need to speak to someone who is cutting my lawn, but if I did it would be best to relearn Spanish, because I don’t think they understand much English.

It’s those home services where it is easy to get meaning lost in translation. Recently, we removed the dated vinyl countertop and installed a new granite countertop. The business we bought from is family owned and run by a Chinese man. It’s hard to know if the installers were family, cousins or just part of the local Chinese American network, but they were all Chinese. When they came to install their English was obviously marginal. One of the two clearly did not understand a word of English, and the other often had confused looks on his face and spoke in short sentences when he spoke. Communicating mostly involved a lot of pointing and repetition. To make it more confusing, while our countertop installation was done by a Chinese crew the plumber arrived to attach the new garbage disposal. He was Hispanic. It all got done, sort of, but it was often confusing.

I am learning that when I have a contractor in the house I must closely monitor them because chances are they will goof up on some important detail. It’s not their competency which is usually the problem, just clear communications. Something usually gets mistranslated between talking to the salesman in the showroom and the installer trying to do the work.

If you can afford a maid service, you will likely discover that maids are particularly challenging to communicate with because few of them can speak more than a handful of English words. They are usually dropped off and picked up when they are done. Explaining how you like your bathrooms cleaned or how to dust properly can consume a lot of your time because mostly you get blank or confused looks. It helps to have the same maids every week, but there is often large turnover among maids. Eventually we decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.

This system is less than optimal, but presumably is quite cost effective. Arguably it does sort of work somehow. It must be intimidating to the non-English speaking or marginally English-speaking workers around us, and there are many. It is no wonder that they choose to cloister in similar communities. Some businesses have decided that being multi-lingual is good for business. The local Lowe’s has signs in both English and Spanish, and some of the cashiers identify themselves as multi-lingual. While Hispanics form the major minority in the area, they are hardly alone. There are also Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Egyptians, Turks, Filipinos, Cambodians, Thais, Indonesians, and people from various places in the Caribbean. They seem to have their specialties. The Koreans are running the dry cleaners and convenience stores. The Indians are in the carpet and tile business. The Pakistanis are also in the carpet and tile business. The Chinese are mostly doing high tech stuff or are in a highly entrepreneurial business and at least here in Northern Virginia are mostly businesses of one or two, usually related, subcontracting to some major Beltway Bandit. Mostly the Hispanics are mowing and landscaping our lawns and running the trash trucks. So far the roofers still seem to be principally blue collar whites, but that is doubtlessly changing.

It is clear to me that I pay extra in time and attention for having so many people providing services who cannot speak English or who can speak it only marginally. In fact, English is not really our common language, as so many residents simply cannot speak it with reasonable proficiency. Maybe we need some other common language. Spanglish, perhaps. Maybe it is time to resurrect Esperanto. Its time may have finally arrived.

The Thinker

Did Petraeus betray us? Say no more!

Truly, I have lost all surprise when I hear that another prominent politician has been caught in infidelity’s web. Not that I haven’t found incidents like this latest one involving former general and CIA Director David Petraeus not to be blog worthy. The steady stream of these infidelities gives me plenty to discuss, and they conveniently happen when I am running out of ideas. I have blogged about dalliances by Rep. Anthony Weiner, Rep. Chris Lee, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (which was really more about his wife Jenny’s reaction to the affair), New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, astronaut Lisa Nowak and Bill Clinton. There are likely others I have blogged about that don’t come up with a quick search of my site.

Once I learned the details Petraeus’s affair, shocking to many, it did not surprise me at all. Paula Broadwell had spent years working on his biography, had access to inside information and apparently classified material, met with him frequently including in Afghanistan and they had a lot in common. He is physically fit and has zero body fat. She runs Iron Man marathons and is about twenty years younger than he is. This affair was a matter of spontaneous combustion: all the raw material was there once he bought her sales pitch for the biography. It would have only been a surprise had it not occurred.

Was it poor personal judgment? Certainly. Was it surprising in the least? Not at all. And yet predictably the pundit class was largely deploring the whole thing, acting more than a little like Captain Renault in Casablanca and declared our shock that there was infidelity going on with our CIA Director. For me, Monty Python came to mind instead:

“Eh? Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Nudge, nudge! Know what I mean? Say no more! A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, say no more, say no more!”

Should people be upset? If I were Holly Petraeus or his immediate family I would be quite upset. Promises likely were broken, balloons burst, feelings of betrayal must be rampant and probably divorce proceedings will be forthcoming. As for the rest of us, it’s always a bit disheartening when our heroes prove as human as we are, particularly the ones we put on special pedestals like David Petraeus. He was a superstar, instrumental in turning things around in our disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and apparently a pretty good CIA director as well. He wasn’t quite so good at covering his tracks but goodness he must have had plenty of suppressed feelings to share, since apparently there were the equivalent of tens of thousands of pages of feelings to share in his GMail drafts folder. That’s a lot of feelings in a short period of time. I am impressed because in nearly ten years of blogging, I don’t think I’ve come anywhere near that. It must have made it hard to do any work. Gosh, it would be hard to actually meet and drop your pants for Paula. Who would have the time?

As a country, while we seem to loathe the French, there are times when I think we should admire them instead. At least on the subject of infidelity, the French have evolved. Basically, they just don’t care. They expect their leaders to have affairs. If they don’t appear to be having an affair, they assume they are probably having one anyhow. They are deeply suspicious of any politician who is not actually having one. There is something very peculiar about them, they probably think.

Americans are slowly adjusting. Bill Clinton’s tawdry oral affair with an intern only raised the wood of Republicans, who seem to have a Puritan streak in them while, secretly of course, they are busy engaging in the same philandering. I have observed from the many prominent infidelities that I have chronicled that professed beliefs have nothing to do with whether you will have an affair or not. Sinning is equal opportunity and party affiliation has no affect one way or the other.

Infidelity is all around us, we are just mostly not aware of it. Infidelity is not something that most of us will choose to acknowledge, and will only do so reluctantly when caught, and sometimes not even then. Somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of marriages have at least once incidence of infidelity in them. I was ruminating on this yesterday when I was walking the neighborhood for exercise. There were all the happy kids jumping in piles of leaves, dads doing woodwork in their garages and families coming home from their local house of worship in minivans. All this ordinariness and virtue and likely in at least one out of three of the houses I passed there was one or more cheaters, just like David Petraeus, just not as newsworthy.

And yet I live in a very safe neighborhood. All the infidelity doesn’t seem to be attracting crime or lowering property values. It may lead to an occasional For Sale sign or a neighbor mysteriously moving out of the neighborhood on no notice. Whatever this infidelity thing is, it is not the equivalent of robbery, or murder, or assault with a deadly weapon. (The frying pan thrown by your wife when you disclose your affair might result in a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.) It is likely personally devastating to the innocent spouse (who I suspect is not so innocent) but it is not generally a sign that the unfaithful one is a complete loser, never again to be trusted with anything more important than an expired lottery ticket.

The French figured it out. Affairs do not speak to our better nature, but they happen, so let’s stop pretending that they mean more than they mean. So should we. In this case though there might actually need to be legislation. Let’s call it the “Infidelity Forgiveness Act”. If you are a politician caught being unfaithful, you are allowed to retain your job and your benefits providing of course that no ethical or criminal barriers were transgressed. And any such investigation shall remain confidential, certainly to the potentially aggrieved spouse, unless there are resulting charges.

Given that Broadwell apparently had classified information on her computer’s hard drive, there are legitimate questions about whether Petraeus provided them. Assuming the investigation shows no wrongdoing by him and his job performance is satisfactory, he should be allowed to remain in office and keep competently doing his job until such time as your chain of command decides he should not.

Know what I mean? Say no more!

The Thinker

More advice for Republicans

It’s been a while since I have given advice to Republicans. There is lots of handwringing among Republicans after their trouncing in last week’s elections. There is a general consensus that losing the presidency, two senate seats and at least a half dozen house seats was really awful and that some rethinking is in order in order to change things. Republicans would be wise not to rush back to their political consultants who performed so miserably for them in this election season. But with few other places to go, they probably will, and this class of prognosticators will probably keep their cash registers busy in the years ahead.

They could at least hire Donald Trump, not that he did any better at this business, but simply to tell these consultants what they should hear: “Your fired!” In fact, Trump turned out to be a supreme embarrassment for the party. I often wonder if he is pulling a long-term joke on pretty much everyone. He is way too smart (I hope) to seriously think Barack Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret Muslim and faked his grades. I figure in maybe a year he will say, “Fooled ya!” and reveal he is a secret Democrat. Not that, speaking as a Democrat, I want him or his money in our party.

The losing party is required to go through angst and hand wringing after a drubbing. Democrats have certainly done this periodically. When Republicans took over Congress in 1994, my party went through a lot of the same soul searching. Back then the sacking by Republicans may have been useful, because Democrats were largely captive of special interest money. The thinking then was that Democrats had to tack back to the center. It resulted in Blue Dog Democrats and the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of right leaning Democrats that made it hard to tell if they even were Democrats. They sure did not vote like Democrats.

Republicans may invent something similar, but I doubt it. The initial reaction seems to be to double down. The thinking seems to be that their message was not quite heard correctly, and if it had been heard correctly America would have voted the “correct” way. A significant number of Republicans feel despair. They know their message won’t resonate with voters generally, so they want to cash in their chips. After Bush won reelection in 2004 many Democrats (including my wife) wanted to emigrate to Canada. I can’t see Republicans doing this, as it is rife with socialized medicine and value added taxes. Others are talking about moving to Australia. Surely those leatherneck Aussies are stout Republicans at heart, overlooking the fact that they too have socialized medicine, and their female prime minister is an atheist. I am afraid there is no place to run to, unless a nice comfortable dictatorship appeals to Republicans. There are plenty of them. Serbia might work, if they don’t mind learning Serbian.

Secession was decided by the Civil War, but at least Texans still see it as a solution. They could secede and all the good Republicans could simply move there. That might work for a while, but if one man, one vote holds in Texas, at some point Democratic-leaning Hispanics will overwhelm white Republicans. Rush Limbaugh was threatening to move to Costa Rica if Obama won. That works for me. Se habla español?

In reality, the reason Republicans lost was not because of their ineffective advertising, but because long predicted demographic changes are starting to be felt in a blue direction. Whites as a percent of the voting population are down to 72% from 78% ten years ago. This trend is going to only increase. It’s unlikely Republicans will persuade whites to have more babies per capita than other minorities. Voter suppression was tried ruthlessly this election, but it seemed to only get the minorities only more riled up, often waiting in hours long lines to vote.

It turns out the most reliable predictor of whether you are likely to vote Republican or Democrat is the density of people in your community. The Washington Post published a map of how people voted in the Washington region today. It’s startling: the more people per square mile, the more they voted for Obama. Democrats are leaching into nearby Loudoun County, Virginia, which voted blue for the second presidential election in a row. It’s because their housing is denser, and it is being filled by better educated people with significant amounts of minorities. Since land is finite, Republicans can’t really count on more of their type moving to less dense neighborhoods.

What can the Republican Party do then? It won’t be easy, but they need to jettison some of their baggage and concentrate on what is achievable. It’s obvious what is not achievable. They should stop wasting time trying to defeat gay marriage and overturning Roe v. Wade. When voters in four states in one election give the okay to gay marriage, you know it’s a lost cause. More importantly, young voters simply don’t get all the hostility. Social tolerance is something they have grown up with. Even worse, this one-size-fits-all approach to social issues undermines their core principle of federalism. New philosophy: marriage and abortion laws should be something states decide. End of discussion.

Clearly a dying party must attract non-whites to survive. Good news: Hispanics tend to be very religious and have entrepreneurial hopes. They still believe in large families too. It’s time to embrace immigration reform instead of opposing it. Give these non-citizens a path to citizenship, rather than revile them. You need them anyhow, to do the work you won’t want to do. See them bussing tables, mowing your lawn and cleaning out toilets. Push for micro loans and fund small business education. Hispanics are not the only minorities anxious to get ahead. What about African Americans? They vote overwhelmingly for Democrats mainly because you hate them so much, but they too tend to be deeply religious. Instead of Crossroads GPS wasting money on political ads, why not invest the money in entrepreneurial initiatives for blacks and Hispanics, in particular? Admittedly, this will be a challenge for Republicans. Many of them still rush to the restrooms to wash their hands after shaking hands with minorities.

Also, wake up and smell the coffee on undeniable issues, like climate change. Opposing the obvious makes you look retarded. Push for market based solutions to these problems, like carbon exchanges, one of the better ideas of the Bush Administration. Welcome the eco-friendly into the party. You don’t need to be the party of mass-marketed and mass-produced food. You can be the party of Whole Foods instead.

It’s time to jettison Grover Norquist. He is causing you all sorts of problems and is boxing your party in. Instead of “no new taxes” what about “revenue should be limited to a percentage of gross national product”. Most Americans agree with the notion of limited government, just not austere government, which is what you want. Go halfway and you look sensible.

Okay, that’s all the free advice I have for you this cycle. I have pages more advice I could give, but I suspect you won’t take any of this to heart anyhow. I don’t want your party to win, but I do want genuine competition between political parties. I don’t want political dysfunction, but I do want clear, well thought ideas between political parties so voters have intelligent choices. Right now the trends are that Democrats will be the dominant party of the 21st century. Without good competition, Democrats will become moribund like they were in the past when they had overwhelming political power. We need to be kept honest. If you are true patriots, you will do your part by giving us genuine competition, not slogans and hate. Right now you resemble the latter.

The Thinker

Election 2012 postmortem

Ouch! It must hurt to be a Republican after the walloping they got from voters last night.

What hurt them the most of course was President Obama’s reelection, called by CNN (which I was watching) at 11:18 PM Eastern Time. I was not really worried that Obama would lose, despite the tightness in the popular vote, because of polling in swing states. Still, Republicans must have really felt the sting from losing the White House. As a result, the Supreme Court is saved from new conservative justices, at least for the next four years. The Affordable Care Act will not be overturned. We won’t get entangled in any wars of hubris. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will not be gutted, and it’s hard to see how tax increases can be avoided on the wealthiest Americans.

Obama’s reelection was especially improbable given the poor state of the economy. He joins a small list of presidents to win reelection under these circumstances, the last one being Franklin D. Roosevelt. What is even more remarkable is that Obama did this while being additionally handicapped by being black. Not a handicap you think? Disturbing new research shows just how prejudiced Americans remain. Had Obama been born white he likely could have added five points to his electoral win. Yet he still won with a clear majority of the votes cast.

Overall, voters assessed the Republicans’ candidates and rejected them. Most Republicans simply can’t figure out how their message failed to resonate. Even Mitt Romney revealed that didn’t get it with his much reviled remark that 47% of the public would not vote for him because they were dependent on the federal government. Republicans lost badly because they are seen as elitist, out of touch with the real world, obstructive, obnoxious racists and misogynists. This was obvious, if not from their rhetoric and their “Put the White back in the White House” signs, then from the candidates they nominated. The crazier they were, the greater they lost.

The Senate was supposed to turn Republican this year. Retiring Democratic senators outnumbered retiring Republicans two to one. Two ultra pro-life candidates went down in flames. Todd Akin lost by 15-points to incumbent Clair McCaskill in Missouri, a state that Romney ended up winning. A couple of hundred miles to the east in Indiana, Richard Mourdock lost an easy seat in a bright red state to moderate Democrat Joe Donnelly. The only bright spot for Republicans was narrowly winning a seat in Nevada, won only by a point, and only because of ethical problems with the Democratic nominee.

Otherwise, the horror! An open lesbian, Tammy Baldwin won against former governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. Democrat Heidi Heitcamp narrowly won against Rick Berg in dark red state of North Dakota. John Tester hung on to his Montana seat. In my state of Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine won by nearly five points against former senator and governor George Allen. Scott Brown was tossed out of Massachusetts by progressive Elizabeth Warren. Many of these seats were salvageable had Republicans nominated someone relatively mainstream. But in most cases they went for candidates with “principle” (i.e. extreme positions) instead. They picked candidates they wanted to see in office, not candidates that could win in a pluralistic election. These losses were stupid and preventable, and fed the narrative that Republicans are deeply out of touch with the rest of America. Overall Democrats picked up two senate seats, an amazing accomplishment. In addition, there will be twenty female senators in the next congress, a new high.

Not that the elections went entirely bad for Republicans. They did manage to retain control of the House of Representatives. Not all house elections are called yet but it appears they lost only a handful of seats. Gerrymandering resulting from the 2010 census certainly helped there. Still, a few of the more egregious Republican representatives went down in flames, including Alan West in Florida. Progressive Alan Grayson won back a seat he lost two years ago in Central Florida, with 62% of the vote. Michele Bachmann came within a percentage point of losing her conservative seat in Minnesota.

There were many contributing factors to yesterday’s election results. Ironically, most of the television advertising unleashed by special interest groups and candidates may have proven unproductive. First, they stimulated interest in the election, since it was impossible to get on TV or radio and not hear political ads. Second, for the most part the ads canceled each other out, so they had no impact. They proved great for media companies bottom lines, but bought candidates of either party or special interests very little. What worked were messages directly from the candidates themselves, and early messages that set narratives.

The ground game was also phenomenal, at least for Democrats. I was receiving two or more phone calls (mostly robocalls) from candidates a day. There were dozens of emails as well, mostly soliciting donations. In my neighborhood the Obama campaign was relentless. They knocked on my door countless times (I don’t open my door for any campaign), left voice mails, left at least one brochure a week on my stoop and sent information through the mail. It was quite overwhelming and frankly more than a bit annoying. I simply could not turn it off, as much as I agreed with the candidates. Perhaps I would have received less attention had I not lived in a swing state.

I saw the effects at my local precinct Tuesday morning: long lines at the elementary school that nearly stretched outside. There were only three electronic machines at our precinct, which contributed to the slowness, so most elected for paper ballots, which were faster. Even subtracting out the crowds the energy level was high; the precinct buzzed. I cannot recall an election where I saw more voters at the polls. Even my daughter came up from her campus in Richmond to cast a vote. The result was clear during the evening, when Fairfax County was slow to report. A lot of precincts had large queues of people waiting in line to vote. For much of the evening, CNN was showing Virginia voting red, but it was clear to me that when Fairfax County’s vote finally came in, it would flip. And we did. Obama won Virginia sometime after midnight.

This was an election to remember, nearly as memorable as the 2008 election. If it demonstrates anything, it demonstrates an electorate whose demographics are changing. White America voted 58% for Mitt Romney, but it comprises a smaller proportion of the electorate. This problem will only grow worse for Republicans. They will have to moderate positions or risk obsolescence as a political party. The Tea Party and extreme social conservatives are doing them in.

The Thinker

Review: Cloud Atlas

If you are the Wachowski Brothers* and you have produced three extremely popular Matrix movies, what do you do for an encore? The Matrix movies, perhaps the ultimate dystopian movie trilogy, developed a cult following and was a reasonably weighty philosophical treatise on the nature of reality as well. It’s a good bet that the Wachowski Brothers would not be directing any light comedies. They have their reputation to protect, which means they had to attempt to outdo their Matrix movies with an even deeper topic. Fortunately this time they chose to build on someone else’s work. This would be the book Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

The trailer for the movie Cloud Atlas was great, so I knew I would want to see it. As a part time metaphysician, I am quite curious about ideas like reincarnation as was happy to pay $10 for a matinee to see it expanded into a full-length feature film. And yes, Cloud Atlas is quite a feature-length film, as in long. As in kidney-busting, run-several-times-to-the-restroom-during-the-movie long. It clocks in at nearly three hours in length and there is no intermission. So easy on the high fructose sodas because you are not going to want to step out. There are too many complex plot points to puzzle through.

Okay, go ahead and hit the restroom if you need to. Even film critic Roger Ebert gave up on connecting all the plot points. To really understand this movie thoroughly you will have to own it, and watch it repeatedly. And even then I am not sure you will still not be scratching your head. It’s perhaps the most imponderable movie since What the Bleep Do We Know? Thankfully, Cloud Atlas has a virtually all-star cast, but Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are the two main anchors of the movie. Both are fine actors but Hanks is the one really stretching as an actor. For Cloud Atlas is six movies for the price of one, and the directors constantly cut between story lines.

Essentially the movie is all about reincarnation: one soul traveling through multiple lives, generally with other souls they have interacted with in previous lives. The only twist here, doubtless done so we could at least attempt to keep it all straight, is that one soul may span multiple lives, but seems to have the same body. So we get Tom Hanks as the evil ship surgeon Dr. Henry Goose and much later as Zachry, a Hawaiian native in the 24th century living a primitive life in a dystopian future. (You knew I would get “dystopian” in there again, didn’t you? This is a Wachowski film, after all.) Sometimes these transitions seem to work, and sometimes they don’t. Where they don’t work very well is seeing Hugo Weaving in a dress playing Nurse Noakes, something I did not expect to see again from him. He will make you long for comfortable Nurse Ratchett.

It seems we are chasing the same demons and people in multiple lives, and our enemies and to some extent our loves follow us from life to life too. Progress into the light sure is a slow process, which is why it helps to reincarnate, and real progress seems only possible during periods of great stress. We progress through acts of human kindness, particularly the really daring ones.

The six stories all have compelling elements to them. But mixing them up into short snippets, while necessary for the plot, arguably detracts from the overall story. And yet despite all the inspired acting and directing, the underlying theme of this movie is not hard to discern. In fact, it is rammed repeatedly into your head, principally by Sonmi-451, a “fabricant” manufactured to serve people, and living in Neo-Seoul in 2144. If there is a pivotal character in this movie it is Sonmi-451, played by Bae Doona, certainly a fine if not mesmerizing actress. I won’t spoil the plot (since it is in the trailer) to tell you its great metaphysical lesson: we are all connected not just in this life but also in multiple lives.

Critics’ reactions so far have been to either like or loathe the movie. I find aspects to both like and loathe. What I loathe is its length. It reminded me a bit of Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s bloated attempt to prove he was a serious actor and director. The largely all star cast are also working hard to give their various parts their all, and it sometimes feels strained, such as Tom Hanks as the Hawaiian Zachry. There is also a sometimes unbearable heaviness and preachiness to the film.

What’s to love? There is the overall fine acting, not just by the main stars but also by various well known supporting actors including Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon and Jim Sturgess. Each of the six stories is well done, and Neo-Seoul is particularly well done, having a Blade Runner feel to it. It’s something of a rarity in cinema: a thinking person’s movie, even if its overall theme is easy to discern. I haven’t seen one of these in the theaters since Inception.

Alas, Cloud Atlas is not quite as good as Inception. Like Reds it reaches for the stratosphere. Nice try, but despite all the great acting I don’t think they quite made it. If you can deal with its ponderous nature and length, you will probably enjoy it despite these detractions.

3.2 on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

* Okay, technically it’s the Wachowski siblings. Lana Wachowski identified herself as a transgender female, although she was born Laurence.

The Thinker

Review: Arbitrage

Richard Gere, sorry his character Robert Miller in the movie Arbitrage, is a billionaire with a problem. Specifically, in preparation for selling his company for an obscene amount of money he has been cooking the books. That would normally be a large enough problem to consume any movie, but Miller has plenty more of them. He has a mistress, who is getting impatient with his lack of attention. He has a daughter working for the company who is getting good enough at reading ledgers to realize daddy probably should be in jail. And his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) realizes she has a two-timing husband and is anxious to make him pay. But hey, it’s all for a good cause. (More on that near the end of the movie.)

Oh, and Robert Miller has another problem: he is aging. In fact, he is still handsome, but he looks like a sixty year old guy. One can’t say the same about Susan Sarandon, who is looking scrumptious at age 65, so good in fact that she can pass for a woman twenty years younger. One thing is for sure: Ellen reads her husband like a book and can sense that he is in deep over his head. In fact, if there is one person really controlling the crazy events about to unfold in Robert Miller’s life, it is Ellen, the unseen puppet master.

Problems go from bad but manageable to catastrophically crazy when he steals out of town with his gap-toothed mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta), falls asleep driving and she ends up dead. Miller is injured as well but naturally feels a need to cover up the event, which is kind of hard when your girlfriend is burned to death in the subsequent car fire. At times like this you need a discreet friend. Nate Parker (Jimmy Grant), his black friend from Harlem that he helped out once, has his arms twisted into picking him up along the side of the road in the middle of the night and helping him get home to Ellen before dawn. Miller needs a lot of pain pills and has to spend much of his time pretending he does not have a set of crushed ribs, since he doesn’t want to be implicated in Julie’s death.

Meanwhile, Miller has to work real hard to pull off the biggest deal of his life: selling his company with the books cooked while a New York City detective is hot on his trail and his daughter is piecing together the extent of his financial crime. In short, Robert Miller’s life becomes a textbook case on the virtues of living simply and honestly. If only he can keep his cover, sell the company, keep the city detective from charging him with a crime, console the relatives of his dead mistress and manage his devious and suspicious wife all while racked in pain from his crushed ribs.

This is all challenging material but Gere and the supporting cast do a great job rendering this web of lies into a convincing motion picture. It turns out that Miller is not the only character involved in lies and deception. In fact, you might want to bring a pad of paper and a pencil with you to the theater to keep track of the subplots, characters and small details that will matter in figuring out what’s really going on here. There are many layers to this movie.

This is a mystery movie for the Wall Street crowd. This movie is better appreciated if you inhabit the world of brokerage houses and high finance, a limitation that may make the movie hard for many of us to appreciate. It’s impossible to feel any sympathy for Robert Miller, since he spun a complex web of his own making. When you build a house of cards like he has, you have to expect that it may fall over easily. Like many on Wall Street, Miller believes that life is one big game of poker and if you can maintain a poker face you can end up defying crazy long odds. After seeing Arbitrage, most of us though might want to simplify our portfolios, if not sell our possessions and go live on an island somewhere, rather than come anywhere close to living the web of lies that Miller manages to spin.

As a movie, Arbitrage works well, providing you can manage to find some way to relate to Robert Miller’s surreal and glitzy life. It has enough subplots to keep your mind fully engaged and is directed and acted well enough so that you don’t mind coming along for the intimately painful ride. Gere proves that he may be over sixty, but he has the acting mettle for this complex role. Arbitrage provides a fine cinematic plot boiler. However, within that class of plot boiler it is probably standard fare. Enjoy the acting and plot twists, but don’t expect much otherwise.

3.1 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★☆ 


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