Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

Yet more evidence that the world has gotten to be a much smaller place....

.... and yet, at the same time we are farther away from each other than ever.

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Palo Alto, California, IMing with the Rocket Scientist, who is thousands of miles away on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. Among other things, we were comparing weather: 74 and sunny versus cold and foggy with occasional snow. I win!

The Internet makes this possible, of course.  It makes a sea change from fourteen years ago when they had no wireless access, and the only time I heard from him was on an Iridium satellite phone (at $7 a minute) halfway through the field season to let all of us at home know how he was doing.  Now I can talk to him cheaply in real time (at least once the communications got set up, thanks to the Fabulous Sarah Huffman) as easily as if he were simply at work in his office or in a hotel room at a conference site.

Yet when it comes to other people in my life, the connections are more tenuous.  Mom lives three time zones away, and I talk to her more infrequently than I should. She does not have -- nor does she want -- Internet access, so IM is out of the question.  She gets her news from television and the newspaper, I get mine from the Internet.

I was thinking about all this from a larger societal perspective last night.  When I was growing up, there were pretty much five news sources available to my family and community: The St. Petersburg Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and for the more cerebral, PBS.  The fairness doctrine meant that media spin could be called out and addressed.  People had a diversity of opinions, but at least we were getting our facts from similar sources.

Now people have hundreds -- thousands -- of outlets from which to get their news: online editions of newspapers, blogs, cable networks, and yes, broadcast television stations. (Not to mention Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.)  Not only are there a variety of opinions available, but the facts that each individual is exposed to vary widely and selectively.  People more and more seem to pick the facts (in some case, "facts") that support what they want to believe, instead of letting their beliefs be grounded in some common notion of reality. I wish I could be sure that I am not guilty of this, but I can't. I try, but I know given the tsunami of information I am exposed to on a daily basis that trying to sift through it will require some selective culling in which my personal biases (I believe MSNBC but not Fox News, for example), and those of my friends who tend to point me towards news stories, will impact what facts I latch onto.  For someone who believes in the importance of factual accuracy, this is deeply troubling.

This is not something new -- it's been the case for years, at least through the past two Presidential election cycles. It just seems to be getting more pronounced all the time. It's not often I yearn for "the good old days" (they were rarely as good as memory serves), but lately....

Oh, for it to be 1996* again...

Maybe I would be more sure that what I think is right really is.

*Not to mention the whole healthy American economy thing. Life before most of us had heard of credit default swaps seems a little more idyllic now.  Even if we had to live through the Monica Lewinsky scandal all over again.
There is a reason that the quote by Don Marquis is on my sidebar. Dan Savage, founder of the "It Gets Better" project, is a prime exhibit of ideas not being responsible for the people who believe in them.

I have often really disliked Savage for his hypocrisy in regards to fat people -- bullying gay people is wrong, bullying fat people is okay since it's their own damn fault they're fat, disregarding what a complicated issue weight really is -- but mocking disabled people? That's simply despicable.

Friday, July 20, 2012

July 20th.

Today is the 43d anniversary of the first time that -- as far as we know -- the species of one object in our solar system set foot upon another.  The first time where humans became the alien invaders, even if there were no other beings there to see that invasion.

It is one of those days I feel compelled to commemorate, just as I feel compelled to commemorate what one friend calls "Dead Astronaut Week," those horrible several days at the end of January and the beginning of February that mark the greatest failures of our space program.  You have to applaud the successes as well as mourn and memorialize the disasters, and this was the success to top all of the others.

We are, as a species, still looking towards the heavens with an eye towards exploration. The Rocket Scientist left today for his annual pilgrimage in support of that objective, to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic.  December 29th he leaves for the other end of the globe, on his way to Antarctica.  In both places he will be testing a drill design hopefully destined for some other planet.  

It's more of an international effort, now, than it was in 1969.  Not just the U.S. and the Russians, but the Europeans and the Canadians and the Chinese and many other countries have space agencies, and scientists all over the globe are working on the roadblocks that arise when people or objects leave terra firma.  (Many of those scientists are in private industry or universities.)  There are international conferences on a lot of these issues.  And each time we figure out how to overcome one obstacle, we inevitably end up finding a use for that knowledge here on earth, in everything from textiles to medicine to firefighting. Reaching for the stars helps us live better lives down here on the ground.

So, yes, we went to the moon and haven't been back since 1972. We have not yet been to Mars. Or Europa. But we will.  We have to.

As a species, we can not let that "one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind" be in vain.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dignity. Always dignity.

"Cosmo, call me a cab!" "Ok, you're a cab." Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), Singin' In the Rain.

The Red-Headed Menace and I caught one of my favorite movies on the big screen tonight. And it was even better than I remembered it to be.

"Well, if it isn't Ethel Barrymore." Don Lockwood to Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).

Singin' In the Rain is pure genius. It's not only a great musical -- the dance numbers bring joy to my heart -- but sparklingly witty. The story is stellar and the dialogue is sharp. It is the third most quotable movie ever, behind The Godfather and Casablanca. It is so well written that you could cut the musical numbers completely and still have a good movie.

"I make more money than Calvin Coolidge... put together!" Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan).

The supporting players make this movie. It may have starred Gene Kelly and made a star of Debbie Reynolds, but Jean Hagen and Donald O'Connor steal every scene they're in. Kelly may be a god of cinematic dance, but when they're side by side, O'Connor is simply more fun to watch. He has a fluidity to his movement that I find just dead-sexy. And "Make 'Em Laugh" makes me laugh -- and made RHM gasp when he saw it.

"You have to show a movie at a party.  It's a Hollywood law." Cosmo Brown.

Watching an old movie that you love with your kid -- and having him come away from the theater raving about how wonderful it is -- is one of the joys of parenting.  Both of us agreed that seeing it on in a theater made a difference, especially in watching the dance numbers -- "Singin' in the Rain" morphs from fun to soaring when you move from the small screen to the large.  RHM observed how the "Broadway Melody" segment -- which I still find too long, one of the movie's few flaws -- slyly references Kathy Selden's assertion in her first conversation with Don Lockwood that the only true actors are stage actors. It was a point that had never occurred to me before.

This was a one-night showing celebrating Singin' In the Rain's 60th anniversary.  Pity.  I want to go back and see it -- larger than life -- tomorrow.

There's always a downside.

I really want to support the Not-So-Little Drummer Boy's interest in cooking, not the least because it means I don't have to make dinner for the next week.  But having had my coffee mill appropriated to grind spices means my Decaf Sumatran now tastes faintly like garam marsala, even though he supposedly cleaned it out afterwards.  It's not bad, per se, just... odd.

The samosas were killer, though.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

So, I have just started a very part time freelance gig doing research and writing for the nonprofit I volunteer for.  And thus far I have two pertinent observations:

I hate Open Office with a passion that grows deeper every day.  Whatever my issues with Microsoft are, Word is a breeze compared to O.O. Today's glitches involved trying to format several paragraphs with bullet points.  The program decided that there was no need for the sets of bullet points to actually line up.  I had to manually whip them into shape, which I most decidedly should not have had to. Yes, I know, you get what you pay for.

Speaking of paying for things -- when you are earning roughly the same as the baristas, it behooves you not to spend too much on drinks at Starbucks, lest this freelance gig end up costing you money after taxes. Maybe working in the public library would be a better idea.

Still -- it's a writing gig, of sorts.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Food for thought.

I have learned a new expression recently: "Stairway to Heaven syndrome."

The Not-So-Little Drummer Boy  (my artist-in-residence for the summer) and I were talking about impostor syndrome and dealing with self-doubt.  He claimed that he generally accepted that all creative types were full of B.S., and in some cases your best accepted work was that which had been an afterthought. 

The NSLDB told me of the time  he had drawn several sketches of where the ball went during a Foosball game that his friends were playing. He was planning to turn them into actual drawings for an advanced design class.

"Then I got lazy and decided to put them in as they were and throw up some conceptual bullshit around them.  [The class] loved them.  In fact, they pointed to the two drawings I had actually finished as being the weakest and undermining the entire strength of the piece."

The song written in ten minutes to finish out an album which becomes one of the most beloved rock anthems of all time.* The quick sketches you make which get you praise. The dashed-off email to the professor which ends up being published.  

Maybe when you are not bogged down by your own thought-processes you can do your best work. Maybe if you are working on a deadline to finish an album you don't over think things and manage to capture the spontaneity and energy which rock music is supposed to be all about. Maybe the simple line sketches best capture the excitement of what you are watching.   Maybe if you are concentrating on getting your point across to one person you don't worry about what a lot of different people will think of you.  

Maybe it's all about not getting in your own way.

*That said, not beloved by me. As someone who listens to lyrics, I think it sounds like it was written in ten minutes.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Oh, my God, I've created a monster.

The Not-So-Little Drummer boy is working at a new Starbucks in an adjacent city this summer.  Perhaps in response, he has taken to viewing our Saturday morning family outings to the neighborhood Starbucks as an opportunity to exercise some misplaced creativity.

It started last week when he told a (fortunately experienced) barista to simply surprise him:  "Make me something new and delicious." The barista rose to the challenge, and produced a drink that tasted much better than the NSLDB's usual white chocolate mocha.  This morning, he upped the ante, requesting a drink with three different flavored syrups (and specifying the number of shots of each) as well as five shots of espresso. And chocolate whipped cream, which I didn't even know they carried. He can't recall exactly what he ordered now, which is a shame because we all tasted it and agreed it tasted great.

He has a cunning plan for next week. Flushed with success, and inspired by the music of John Cage (who apparently composed some pieces of music using coin flips to determine the notes), he wants to bring a spinner into the Starbucks, and base the elements of his drink order on what shows up when he spins, as well as the barista's birth-month.

I have explained how obnoxious this all is for the baristas and the other patrons in the cafe.  He doesn't care. He believes it will bring some excitement and interest into people's lives. It certainly will to his.  He claims that there will be no downside, that at Starbucks the customer is always right.

The Resident Shrink was no help here -- she was laughing, and suggested a flash mob.  He's considering it.

I am still not quite sure whether this is simply an elaborate story told to freak me out. With anybody else, I would strongly suspect so, but then other people are not as ... unique ... as my eldest son.

He once told me he viewed his entire life as performance art. I didn't dream that he meant that literally.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

My favorite July 4th post.

Because of the ongoing Charles Carreon v. The Oatmeal circus (which is the source of a blog post I need to write about the brokenness of the legal system, except that there are so many others writing far more cogent posts on the subject than I ever could -- not that that has ever stopped me before), I was pointed at and have begun reading Ken White's posts at Popehat. He's funny, smart, and writes well, and is a fierce proponent of protecting free speech. (He also has a legion of adoring fans based on a response to a cease-and-desist-letter he wrote that was posted on the website Regretsy. Be sure and read the comments.)

This may be my favorite post by him yet.  It is the perfect way to celebrate Independence Day, by recognizing those who choose to become citizens of this country, in spite of its imperfections, rather than having been blessed by being born here.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Amid the political back and forth about the health care mandate on my Facebook a few days ago, someone slipped in a piece about how conservatives give more to charity than liberals. I made myself read the article, even though I distrust the site it was on, because I believe in being even-handed about things.  And right away, I see a large problem with the study in the book it cites.

Conservatives are more likely to be religious.  They are also likely to give to churches, specifically churches they attend. Sorry, but as far as I am concerned whether or not giving to a church constitutes charity depends upon the extent to which said church has active ministries giving to the poor and destitute.

This is not a knock on churches.  They are great institutions.  But churches in many ways are mutual aid societies, where the large bulk of contributions go to buildings, staff and amenities that exist for the benefit of the churches' members. In most churches, anyone can join, provided you want to sign on to whatever beliefs that they promulgate.  Nonetheless, churches for the most part do not exist to take care of people who don't believe, or those who don't attend.  They take care of the spiritual needs of the members; they may or may not take care of the physical needs either of those members or the needy at large.

Some -- I daresay a majority -- of churches do have social service programs, but not all. But even for those that do, most of what they spend stays onsite.  I have been a member of churches that actively participated in local charities that took care of the needy.  And it was still only a fraction of their budgets.

So my suggestion to anyone looking at this issue, is to reduce the weight given to contributions to churches by at three quarters.  Or half, at least.  It may be that conservatives really do take better care of their fellow man than liberals (according to the story, they also donate more time and give more blood*), but I'd bet it's a lot closer than it would look at first blush.**

*About that giving more blood... I would ask what percentage of the liberals polled were gay or bisexual men who are automatically deferred from donating.  
**This is ignoring the entire issue of whether the care of the poor should be left to the mercy (in all senses of the word) of donors who have no obligation to continue donating.  We give to several human services charities -- Second Harvest Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity, to name two -- and I firmly believe that as vital as these charities are, making sure that people are fed and housed should be the responsibility of a strong social safety net.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Even stormtroopers have mothers.

It's been a hard year.  Part of the pain thus far has been the death of two people in my circle of acquaintances, friends and relatives.  They were not people I was really close to, and I know as I get older there will be more and more years where the death of someone plays a part, but it has been nonetheless troubling.  I find myself grappling with a fear of death in a way I can't remember facing before, both for others and for myself.  The thought of non-existence wakes me up trembling and sweating some nights.

As a result, perhaps, I find it hard to watch movies or television shows which have death in them.  Not merely a painful or tragic death of the protagonists -- those have always been hard.  No, I have trouble watching movies where anyone dies.

Last night I was trying to watch The Incredibles on television.  It is in its own way a violent film, and the violence and death are casual and celebrated.  The evil-doers chasing Dash and Violet explode as they crash into trees or cliffs, creating very pretty fireballs.  The death of Syndrome, the head baddie, by being sucked into a jet turbine by his cape, is played for thrills and yes, laughs, referencing as it does the lecture designer Edna la Mode gave on the dangers of capes on superhero outfits.

I know it is just a cartoon. And yes, the bad guys "had it coming to them" by trying to kill children.  Still, I found myself wondering if those guys had friends who worried about them, or wives and families.  What sort of letter was sent to their mothers?

The Incredibles was just a cartoon, but what about Return of the Jedi, which is the referent for the jungle chase scenes in The Incredibles? Did some of those stormtroopers killed by Luke and Leia have partners? They were just soldiers in a war they didn't start. And even bad guys have friends and relations.

We are a culture that is so uptight about depictions of human sexuality in our media, and so incredibly blasé about violence. A movie like Clerks gets the same rating for (admittedly extreme) off-color language that Kill Bill (either part -- take your pick) gets for bloodlust. I find it incomprehensible that we live in a country where simple frontal male nudity will most likely result in an NC-17, yet the works of Quentin Tarantino, gore-drenched as they are, escape such a fate.

There are violent movies that I don't find off-putting.  But those movies, such as The Godfather or Schindler's List, use acts of violence as inverted sacraments -- outward and visible signs of inward and invisible corruption. "Sleeping with the fishes" from The Godfather may be sort of a joke, now, but when the line "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes" was uttered onscreen, no one was smiling.

Death comes to us all, eventually. I know this, and when I have died I won't be worrying about it anymore.  In the meantime, I think I would rather not watch media which makes light of the fragility of human lives.