Monday, February 26, 2007

Who trusts scientists anyway?

As usual, Tom Tomorrow cuts through the bullshit:

You can see a larger version on Salon, here.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar High(and low)lights

#1. Ellen
Not perfect, and not quite as comfortable as Billy Crystal (especially in the first moments of her monologue), but overall I think Ellen acquitted herself quite well. Certainly better than Jon Stewart or David Letterman. I also think she made a great fashion choice -- the velvet tux walked the line between masculine and feminine quite adroitly.
#2. The "Sound Effects Chorus" Stuck in the middle of the show was one of its best moments -- a tribute to sound effects people in the form of a chorus of human voices creating some very convincing sound effects for scenes from actual films.
#3. Pilobolus
Pilease. I can appreciate the skill it takes to create those shadow shapes with their bodies and a few simple props, but every time they cut to one of the Pilobolus segments, I felt the show grind to a halt.
#4. The Ovation for Martin Scorcese
Long overdue.
#5. Jennifer Hudson
Not for her win, but for the look on her face in the opening moments of the show when Ellen called attention to her and said, "I mean -- look at that." It felt like a sexual comment was coming and Jennifer looked very uncomfortable with being the possibility of being desired by a lesbian in front of an audience of billions.
#6. Philip Seymour Hoffman
For worst hair of the night. His head looked like it was being prepared for commercial agriculture.
#7. "The Nominees"
Errol Morris's beautiful, simple, egalitarian look at excitement, anticipation and dedication to craft.
#8. Meryl Streep
For being herself and dressing it down. (And her amazing take when she and Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway got back into their "Prada" characters for a moment.)
#9. Alan Arkin
I'm just glad "Little Miss Sunshine" was recognized. I had hoped Peter O'Toole would be a surprise winner over Forest Whitaker, but an upset is always fun.
#10. "I Need to Wake Up"
And there was no bigger upset than this -- I mean, the song from a documentary about the potential life-changing effects of global climate change beating out not one but three songs from "Dreamgirls"? Melissa handled the excitement with grace, especially her loving (but nearly chaste) kiss for her girlfriend.
#11. The Show Itself
A reinvention of the form, but familiar enough not to shock. Mostly well-written, with interesting inside looks at the industry. (Especially Errol Morris's short film, reference in #7.)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Getting Real About Global Climate Change

In the first installment of the new season of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," Maher addresses the current controversy over global warming with relative balance, even giving air to a recent column by George Will, which attempts to counter the current consensus on global warming that while it may be happening, it's not necessarily our fault and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Though I think Will is protecting some secret interests of his, he does raise an interesting question: "Are we sure the climate at this particular moment is exactly right, and that it must be preserved, no matter the cost?"

He raises two points in this question. The first is whether we humans are acting with hubris by saying the climate as it is now is optimal enough to attempt to maintain it. Who are we, after all, but simple bipeds wandering this shimmering orb for but a moment, to think we should try to control the forces of nature? Global warming, Will maintains, could merely be part of a natural cycle of troughs and peaks of temperature. "Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there?" he asks. (Since the former was 25,000 years ago and the latter a millenium removed from us, meaning sugarless gum was still in its infancy, I'd say yes and no. Or rather, no and yes.) Does the Earth know better than we what it needs?

On the show, Maher's guest, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina said "How sad if 90% of the species on the Great Barrier Reef perished within the next 25 years. That would be a bad thing." If one follows Will's reasoning to its logical conclusion, one would have to assume the opposite, that the death of those species is what is meant to happen, just as other climatic shifts in previous epochs have meant the extinction of other species. And that interfering with the cycles of Earth's climate is not to be done. Now George goes all crunchy granola on us -- just when people want to use our human powers of reason and ingenuity to try to repair some of the damage past efforts of human ingenuity have inflicted -- or to at least reduce the damage we continue to inflict. Now conservatives decide Earth's natural order must be respected. How convenient.

However, at the core level, I think Will's question deserves an answer. Perhaps this warming would be happening anyway, regardless of what humankind has pumped into the atmosphere. Perhaps carbon emissions do have an accelerating effect, but they merely speed our arrival at a temperature that would have been reached any way due to natural causes. Or perhaps their accelerating effect isn't as strong as we might believe.

The second part of Will's question refers to the price tag for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, solving a technology problem on such a massive, global level will require the investment of billions upon billions of dollars. Here, like Fiorina, I take a pragmatic view. My reading leads me to believe our meddling with the atmosphere is responsible in large part for the changing weather patterns we are seeing and it's time to fix what we've broken, or at least to stop breaking it.
As Fiorina puts it, "the risks of doing nothing are far greater than the risks of doing something, so let's do something." What's more, she continues, there are so many benefits that could accrue from doing something: "We might reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we might ignite a cycle of innovation in this country -- and that's a good thing." (At least for technology companies that will benefit from the investment required to attack this problem.) Why not invest more money in new energy technologies instead of new military technologies, which are designed to help us wrest the old energy technology from the people who live on top of much of it. The innovations we develop along the way to creating new sources of energy might turn out to be just as important as the energy itself.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Correct Response to Hater Hardaway

Dan Savage of The Stranger, a Seattly newsweekly, gets it right when offers what gay advocacy groups SHOULD be saying about the recent bigoty exhibited by NBA star Tim Hardaway:

"Mr. Hardaway is entitled to his opinions—and his prejudices. He is not entitled to live in a world or a United States that’s free from homosexuals. We are ‘in the world,’ we always have been, and we always will be. And gays and lesbians should not be subject to discrimination because some people are homophobic any more than African Americans should be subject to discrimination because some people are racist. But if Mr. Hardaway doesn’t care to know or associate with gay people in his private life, that is his right. It is also his loss."

You can read the complete column here.

Dying for Jesus

"Jesus Camp" is a documentary film, one of five nominees for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It is frightening, fascinating and thought-provoking; I recommend it highly, but still with reservations. (More on those later.)

The film follows Becky Fisher, a Pentecostal youth minister who hosts a summer camp for Christian children each year in North Dakota. Becky Fisher is truly a force to be reckoned with; she is a powerful preacher, connects well with kids, and (except for some of what she says) comes off as very normal, very intelligent and completely sincere. So do the three kids the filmakers follow during the course of year (leading up to camp, at camp, and after camp on trips to Washington, D.C. and Ted Haggard's New Life Church).

Becky's goal is very clear and stated early in the film:

"Where should we be putting our focus? I'll tell you where our enemies are putting their focus: on the children." She then goes on to discuss how in the Middle East, Muslim children are going to camps where they learn to operate machine guns and strap on bomb belts: "It's no wonder that with that kind of intense training and discipline that these young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam."

Then, instead of offering how the children she ministers to are going to bring peace or counteract Islamic hate with Christian love, she instead says: "I want to see young people as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I want to see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine. Because we have...excuse me, but we have the truth."

There in that one paragraph is a philosophy that can lead us into a world of even greater violence and bloodshed than the one we currently inhabit. Two opposing forces, each believing they are divinely endowed with a sacred, immutable truth. And without this truth, no person on Earth can enter into their idea of Heaven. There is no explaining, no logic, no reasoning with fanatics such as these. They WANT Armageddon, they encourage it, because they believe it is the only way the world will see that they have been right all along, that their truth was indeed THE truth.

The rest of the film only reinforces the frightening nature of fundamentalism. When you see Becky shouting "This means war! This means war!" referring to a holy Christian war against non-believers, or hear the children chanting "Righteous judges! Righteous judges!" during a sermon on the evils of abortion and the need for Christians to influence government, it will give you goosebumps. And nothing can prepare for the moment when a sweet, smart, sincere nine-year old girl talks about how being a martyr is "really cool."

The film also shows you how the children reach this place -- through intensive indoctrination that causes them to weep for the sins they have committed, or to hear that "Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death."

Now, to my reservations. Although the filmakers did include an alternative Christian voice (Mike Papantonio of "Air America"), I think it's important to watch the film with a sense of the filmaker's point of view. Although the co-directors claim they tried to approach the subject with complete balance and fairness, I think there are several instances where their bias comes through.

Overall, though, I think "Jesus Camp" is well worth a rental.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"And I am telling you...

...I'm not braking!"

This guy (under the influence), drove his SUV through the wall of a movie theater during a showing of "Dreamgirls." And I thought Jennifer Hudson could stop a show.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I Want Candy

This post is strictly for my Marin County readers (or for those who might be traveling through). The rest of you will just have to suffice with the picture.

The old downtown of Grant Street in Novato is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. New restaurants have opened there (though The Kitchen at 868 Grant, which held such promise after our first visit, has tumbled in my estimation after a second trip there) and there are many new retail stores popping up.

But by far my favorite store in this neighborhood is Powell's Sweet Shoppe, notwithstanding the fact that I hate stores that add an extra "pe" at the end of "shop" -- unless of course your "shoppe" happens to be in Surrey or Nottingham or some such. Stepping into Powell's is like going back to the 60s -- all tha candies of my youth are there: Flicks, Pixy Sticks, Chick-O-Stick, Abba Zabba, Clark bars, Big Cherry, Zero bars and more. There are drawers of all the defunct gums of days gone by: BlackJack, Teaberry, Beamans, etc. Every flavor of Jelly Belly is represented, plus dispensers that allow you to fill a bag of M&Ms in a single color, so you can have nothing but green ones if you like -- or teal or silver or... I've been to what is generally considered the world's best candy store -- Dylan's Candy Bar on New York's upper east side, founded by Ralph Lauren's daughter -- but Powell's is better.

Go -- find a gift for your valentine. (They even have attractive vellum/glassine bags for all the treats you buy.)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Legally Blonde" World Premiere

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to opening night of "Legally Blonde," a musical based on the hit movie, and bound for Broadway. The scene at the Golden Gate Theater (once you got through the Tenderloin spectres outside) was electric. Great crowd, lots of buzz in the lobby beforehand. A handful of minor celebrities in the crowd, Michael Bolton being the most major of the minors.

My overall impression of the show is that it will be the pinkest thing to hit Broadway in, oh, forever. They may not have to rename the street "The Great Pink Way," perhaps, but New York is going to have to reckon with Elle Woods. Though Laura Bell Bundy does a mostly terrific job in the role, it's the character of Elle that stands out, not the actress inhabiting her. As she was in the movie, Elle is ditzy but smart, insightful in a subtle way, and always true to her heart, with great courage in her convictions. (Or acquittals, as it turns out.)

The show has a lot of what Broadway audiences want -- I laughed quite a lot, smiled most of the rest of the time, and walked away happy. There are some wonderful dance numbers (especially the act two opener, "Whipped Into Shape" and "Bend and Snap), and the sets are great. The costumes are fun, as long as you love pink (and blue and gold -- Elle's a UCLA girl).

Some of the music is a little predictable and cliched, but the lyrics are fun and clever, and Jerry Mitchell has done excellent work in the staging of the show. I especially liked "What You Want." In the film, Elle sends a video of herself in lieu of a personal essay. Here, director Jerry Mitchell has turned the video into a live performance -- and a pretty good one at that.

I do think Mr. Mitchell needs to cut 10-15 minutes from the show, as it drags occasionally in the exact same way that "Jersey Boys" doesn't. I might suggest Jerry take the axe to one or two of the weaker songs, such as "Ireland" or "Chip on My Shoulder" or "Take It Like A Man"), but I think overall the show is a winner. It won't do what "Wicked" has done, but it can certainly have a run like "Hairspray" had. The audience certainly ate it up tonight -- I don't know when I've been to a premiere where the audience was more amped.


Today on Andrew Sullivan's blog (now hosted at The Atlantic, not Time): "the Christianists are not going to put up with secular, inclusive, reality-based conservatism." Wouldn't a shot of reality-based conservatism taste good right now? More important, when will our politicians wake up and realize their pandering to the Religious Right for votes has ended with God's boot on their necks? They can't act on policies that might be effective and efficient unless those policies pass biblical muster.

Case in point:
Religion holds an important place in the lives of individuals, families, communities, our nation and the world. Religious faith, however, takes many different forms, between which there is often very minimal agreement, as evidenced by the deaths of tens of millions of people throughout history on religious grounds.

There must be tolerance for people of all faiths, and for people of no faith. The choice of what tools to use in building a coherent understanding of existence and their place in it must be left up to each individual. Buddha or Allah, Jehovah or the Great Void, believe what you wish. But when it comes to our shared life on this planet, during the time we have, we should guide ourselves by principles which can be tested and proven effective, no matter who does the testing. Theologians may disagree about the nature of God, but scientists do not dispute the effects of gravity, or what happens when molecules of water are heated to 100 degrees Celsius, what is the escape velocity for a spacecraft of a given mass to break free from Earth's orbit. The Christianists (and the Islamists and I imagine several other "ists") would have us believe the Bible is universal and unchanging, God's true Word. If that were true, ultimately, all Christians would come to the same conclusions. Unfortunately for all of us, that is not the case.

So when it comes time to make public policy, let's use science and logic and rationality -- let's make our civic life reality-based.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Can Rudolph Guide Our Sleigh?

I don't think it's an accident Giuliani chose to announce the same day the Bush White House requested an additional $93 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Giuliani's reputation as an expert manager was certain to stand in sharp contrast to Bush's bumblings. Even before watching Giuliani talking on Fox with Sean Hannity this evening I felt so much more comfortable with the idea of having him in charge than any of the other leading candidates, and certainly more than the current occupant of the Oval Office. I don't think I'm alone. The man is impressive; he speaks simply, seems to think rationally, and exhibits a nice balance of confidence and humility. He has gravitas, but not of the stuffy variety. Add that to the turnaround he oversaw in New York, and his response to 9/11, and I think you have a very desirable candidate. This is not a man who would sit glassy-eyed for seven minutes after being informed the nation was under attack. After eight years of one of the worst managers-in-chief in the history of the country, having the man who made New York City safe and financially secure seems like a pretty good option.

But is he an electable option? If die-hard religious conservatives represent 30% of the vote, that's 30% Rudy will have a hard time pulling in. The two divorces and his positions on gun control and equal rights are going to be major stumbling blocks for those whose faith also dictates their civil life. He needs to find a corresponding bloc of voters who can offset that 30% - people who might otherwise vote for a Democrat, but who appreciate Giuliani's skills and rationality enough to give him their vote.

I don't think Barack Obama has the experience to lead the nation yet, John Edwards doesn't inspire enough trust, and I don't like the way Hillary is handling herself -- that stupid jest about Bill is just the most recent example, but her whole campaign feels insincere to me. Giuliani, on the other hand, feels presidential. The question is, are there enough people out there who might vote Democratic in most races, but would crossover to Giuliani for the big race?

One of the main issues for me is obviously equal civil rights for the GLBT community. There are still more than a dozen states where people can be denied housing or fired from their jobs solely for being gay, for pete's sake. On the most visible gay equality issue, marriage rights, I think Giuliani is taking the best position he can, given the political realities. Here's what he said tonight on Hannity & Colmes:

"I feel the same way about it today that I did eight, ten years ago when I signed the domestic partnership legislation: marriage should be between a man and a woman. It should remain that way. We should be tolerant, fair, open and we should understand the rights that all people should have in our society, and I thought the best answer was domestic partnership. So that you recognize the rights of people that are lesbian and gay and you protect them, but marriage should be between a man and a woman."

In other words (I hope), "Let straight people keep the word 'marriage,' as long as full civil equality is provided to all people." I don't have a problem with that -- if everyone has to obtain a civil union license in order to get the full civil benefits of official couplehood, I don't care if heterosexual couples want to take an additional step of having a church recognize the union, I can get behind that.

Perfect Party Place

Check this out -- looks like a great place for an Oscar or Super Bowl party. Or any occassion where you want comfy seats, a big screen and huge sound.

The Decline of Western Civilization, Part 8732

Oh. My. God.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Soy Vey!

Here's an interesting theory -- tofu causes homosexuality. According to James Rutz, chairman of Megashift Ministries, the rise in the use of unfermented soy products, such as tofu and soy milk, causes an increase in estrogen production: "Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That's why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today's rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products."

You can read the full story here.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

He's Your Man

A word to the Nobel Committee:

How about Leonard Cohen for the Literature Prize? While not a poetry critic, I find myself touched by his lyrics (and poems), and I know tens of millions of others (or more) have had similar experiences. I don't know exactly what criteria the Nobel committe apply, but I think Cohen has certainly produced a body of work over the course of his lifetime, which counts for a lot I should think. Plus a lot of it is brilliant. The committee has honored novelists and poets and playwrights and politicians -- why not a songwriter (who also happens to have published many volumes of poetry)? He basically reinvented poetic performance, by cloaking it in song.

Give the man the medal.

On Altman

ArtForum has an interesting piece on Robert Altman, by Michael Tolkin, the author and screenwriter who created "The Player," one of the best movies ever about Hollywood.