Saturday, February 28, 2009

Learn to use "The Google"

Ever have one of those friends or a co-worker who insists on asking you question that they're perfectly capable of discovering the answer to themselves? If so, the Internet has a new resource for you:

www.lmgtfy.com

also known as "Let me Google that for you."

Simply plug in the person's question and then send them the resulting URL. When they click the link, LMGTFY leads them through a nice, easy tutorial AND gives them the search results they could have found all by themselves. Useful and delightfully snarky too!

Liar Liar Pants on Fire (well, probably not because the levees had broken)

During his disastrous speech on Tuesday night, Bobby Jindal told the story of Sherriff Harry Lee who, with Jindal's support, went up against the bureaucrats who were preventing rescue efforts from continuing during Hurricane Katrina. It had everything -- stalwart man of the law, give 'em hell attitude, and a congressman right there providing critical support. Well, perhaps not everything.

What has now come out is that it was lacking one rather important element: truth.

Daily Kos and TPMuckraker have done a solid job of debunking this story. It turns out that the conversation Jindal reported took place days after the rescue attempts that were the focus on Jindal's tale. Sherriff Harry Lee did ignore the bureaucrats to get heroic volunteer rescue efforts underway but Jindal? He simply overheard Lee talking about it days later but in the telling, it certainly sounds like Jindal is placing himself at the center of events to burnish his credentials.

Jindal staff are spinning furiously to protect their golden boy. According to Politico:

A spokeswoman for Bobby Jindal says the Louisiana governor didn't imply that an anecdote about battling bureaucrats during Katrina directly involved the governor or took place during the heat of a fight to release rescue boats.

The spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, said the story Jindal told in his response to Obama actually took place some days later in Lee's office -- though still in Katrina's chaotic aftermath -- as Lee was "recounting" his frustrations with the bureaucracy to someone else on the telephone.

Huh? Really? Because if you look at Jindal's speech, it sure doesn't come across that way:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: 'Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!' I asked him: 'Sheriff, what's got you so mad?' He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go -- when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, 'Sheriff, that's ridiculous.' And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: 'Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!' Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people.

Hmmm...that certainly sounds like then Congressman Jindal was right in the middle of it.

Of course, we're all used to politicians embellishing stories, recounting the heart-warming or heart-wrenching stories of people who are "composites" of real people or that are just flat out lies (anyone up for landing in Bosnia under sniper fire?). However, being used to it and tolerating it are two different things. There's the old adage: how can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving.

It's too bad to all too often it's proven true.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The non-apology apology and other thoughts on a Thursday

Somehow I don't think many people were comforted by the non-apology apology made by Bishop Richard Williamson, the previously excommunicated Catholic priest and member of the beyond-ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X. Among his other sterling qualities, Williamson has been a fervent Holocaust denier. Following the outrage that resulted when Pope Benedict "Really, Williamson is only slightly more conservative that me" XVI lifted the excommunication, Williamson went on record saying "If I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them...Observing these consequences I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks."

So basically, he's really really terribly seriously sorry that people got upset about what he said, not that he was wrong to deny historical fact or that he recognizes that he's a looney tune who believes that 11 million people didn't actually die during the Holocaust. For his next trick, he'll prove that the sun revolves around the earth, that if you sail too far to the west you fall off the edge of the planet, and that George W. Bush actually won the election in 2000.

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The Pentagon and the White House did a good thing today, reversing the 18-year ban on photos of returning war dead. By electing to operate under the same rules that govern photos of military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery -- the families of the fallen will be given the choice to permit or deny photos -- those who died in the service of their country will no longer be shrouded in secrecy upon their return home. The cost of war will no longer remain hidden away. While we may disagree with the rationale behind the war and loathe the politicians like Bush and Cheney who, after doing their all to avoid service, blithely sent U.S. forces off to fight, we absolutely must salute and honor the service sacrifice made by the women and men in the service of the United States. Lifting this politically motivated ban is an important step.

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On a lighter note, I want to know who thought it was a good idea to put an octopus in the same tank as the valve that opened into the offices of the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

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Give a big Bronx cheer to A-Roid who, after disclosing that an unnamed cousin injected him repeated in the butt with an unknown substance for three years, thought it was a good idea to have that same cousin come pick him up at the Yankees' spring training ballpark. Apparently, A-Fraud was not only young and stupid for three years in his late 20s but also apparently decided he liked the "stupid" part of that equation so much that he asked it to hang around for a bit longer in his 30s.

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Thumbs-up to the Obama Administration for practicing what it preaches, laying a verbal smackdown on a lobbyist who tried to listen in on a media-only briefing about the new budget.

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Apparently Nadya Suleman, the Octomom, has been offered $1 million to make a porn film for producer Vivid Entertainment. You know, I try to keep this blog on the virtuous side of the "Not Safe For Work (NSFW)" line so I'm just going to ignore all the tasteless jokes running through my head about "the diaper service delivery man comes twice" and a certain 1983 James Bond film and call it a night.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Katrina...the Republicans' Model for America?

Somehow, a Republican address to the nation built around the government's response to and lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was just a bit too irony-filled, even for me and even if Governor Bobby Jindal is the Governor of Louisiana.

And are people really taking Jindal seriously? Did anyone else feel like an 7-year old after hearing his condescending tone? Someone also needs to strap his arms down or give the man a podium. Did an aide tell him to emphasize every syllable with hand gestures?

A few other random thoughts on the night of President Obama's big speech:

Nancy Pelosi would never survive "What Not to Wear" with that outfit. It was a horrible color on her and looked like it was made of burlap.

I also think she was spring loaded. She was bouncing up from her seat so fast to applaud that I expected her to vault over the President's head and land in Patrick Kennedy's lap at least once during the night.

Was Joe Lieberman sucking a lemon?

Got to love the Republicans who remained sitting on softball applause lines about children's health care and expanding aid so more kids can go to college. That's the spirit, guys!

I think Mitch McConnell is a Red Lectroid. I'll try to dig up a picture of Vincent Schiavelli from "Buckaroo Banzai" so you can see what I mean. Seriously. The man has got to be from Planet 10 and taking orders from Lord John Whorfin. It's the only explanation.

Ouch, that's low

Memo to Senator Roland Burris:

You know your situation can't get much worse and your reputation can't take much more of a beating when Senator David "What? She's a madam and runs a brothel? Really, I had no idea..." Vitter is calling you too scandal-plagued to stay in office.

Ouch!

Pretty soon, Illinois will change its welcoming signs from "Land of Lincoln" to "Scandal-free for 4 months...2 weeks...yesterday...ah crap, just screw it."

Game Review: A Prince among videogames

One of my favorite videogames that I owned for my old Mac was Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia. A side-scrolling game, it was the first I'd seen to incorporate natural human motions along with challenging puzzles and a fun storyline. Looking at it now, it seems primitive but 20 years ago, it was a step beyond.

One of the benefits to winning that PlayStation 2 in a raffle a few years ago was that the Prince of Persia franchise had been relaunched with vibrant 3D designs and actions. The first installment, Sands of Time, blew me away. The dark and largely charmless second game (filled with goth rock and busty sword-wielding ladies in metal bikinis) and the moderately satisfying third were fun but didn't have quite the same "wow" value that I found in the first. With the conclusion of the trilogy, the Prince appeared to be retired.

Until now. I finished playing the series reboot, simply called "Prince of Persia", a short time ago and it's the most beautiful game I've ever played. I know that's an odd thing to say about a video game but it's true. The world you inhabit is stunning, as detailed and creative as anything you might have found in Myst. In addition, the look of the characters has gone from CGI with smooth, unnatural skin to a blend of motion capture and cel-shading while the actions and storyline are compelling.

The Prince of Persia plot is quite good -- return life to a ravaged land and prevent the escape of a dark god -- that unfolds over time and a partner (Elika) who actually works with you rather than getting trapped elsewhere leaving you to face the challenges alone (basically, what happened in every Prince game that preceded this one). While the Prince isn't the most lovable character...truthfully, he can be something of a jerk...his conversations with Elika are worth participating in rather than just skipping. And they all build to an end that was simultaneously unexpected and perfectly in keeping with the tone and evolution of the story.

Sure, it's not the hardest game I've ever played but I'm finding myself appreciating games more for their storytelling now than simply for the hack and slash. For me, a good game is almost a video throwback to the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books only with cinematics, an opportunity to immerse yourself as if in a movie. While it reduces the tension a bit knowing that if you slip and fall, you don't die and reboot because Elika is there to save you (repeatedly in my case), I didn't find that it detracted much from the game because I was playing to reach the end and find out how the story wraps up. And the story, together with the artwork, and the "can't wait for the sequel" feeling at the end all make the new Prince of Persia a game worth playing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Technology you just can't live without

A month or so following the techno-orgy known as the Consumer Electronics Show, the Onion News delightfully skewers the never-ending trend of major market rollouts of new electronic boxes with blinking lights that may or may not actually do anything (reader beware...salty language ahead!):




Well, I suppose a new level of candor would be welcomed in the electronics industry!

Of course, my beloved Apple isn't immune to the rapier wit of the Onion either:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rourke gets ready to ruuuuummmmbbbbllllle!

Is it life imitating art? Art imitating life? Who knows but Mickey Rourke, star of The Wrestler, is actually slated to wrestle Chris Jericho during WWE's Wrestlemania 25. Gee, can't wait to shell out the $50 for that event.

Movie Review: At Home with "The Visitor"

Quiet, spare, sweet, funny, heart-wrenching, gentle, revitalizing -- all words that come to mind when watching writer/director Tom McCarthy's second film, "The Visitor". This little indie flick and character study latched on in the theatres this spring and just kept chugging along as it pulled viewers into the story of Walter Vale, a middle-aged college professor in Connecticut whose life has settled into a form of stasis following the death of his wife, a concert pianist. Walter's life is disrupted upon discovering Tarek and Zainab, two illegal immigrants who are victims of a real estate scam and are living in his apartment in New York City. What follows is a look at how the lives of these three, together with Tarek's mother Mouna, are enriched by the others even as they are pulled apart by the faceless and implacable bureaucracy of the immigration system.

***Minor Spoiler Alert***

The core of the film is a brilliantly moving and restrained performance by Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale (personal disclosure -- I've known Dick since I was 9 and couldn't be happier for him that he landed this role and the accolades that have gone with it, including an Academy Award nomination for "Best Actor"). To watch Walter evolve from a man going through the motions, existing but not living, to a man who realizes that he can connect again, who can feel passion for something (playing the djembe) and someone (Tarek, Zainab, and most importantly, Mouna) again is a study in the actor's subtle craft.

With him step for step are Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira, who play Tarek, a young, Syrian musician and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab, respectively. While Walter is shocked at their appearance in his apartment, they are no less frightened of him. Sleiman and Gurira carry us along with their fear, driven by their illegal status in the U.S., followed by their gradual trust and acceptance of Walter in their lives and then, eventually, their dependence upon him as Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation after being arrested for a minor infraction that he didn't actually commit. Sleiman especially presents a varied, strong performance as Tarek, ranging from his aggression spurred by fear when Walter arrives at the apartment to his affection for Zainab and love of his music to his anger, frustration and helplessness once swept up into the immigration system.

However, it is Hiam Abbass' performance as Mouna, Tarek's mother, that truly matches Jenkins' in every way. She and Jenkins together present a pair both damaged from loss and largely unconnected to the world around them who discover how to reconnect and move into a fragile courtship. I'd never seen Abbass perform before but she's a lovely, grounded presence in "The Visitor" whose emergence from her wounded shell is heart-breaking. Pairing her with Jenkins was a brilliant bit of casting by McCarthy.

In making "The Visitor", McCarthy strips away much of the filler that would be used by other directors. When Walter approaches Tarek and Zainab on the street with a photo they forgot in the rush to leave his apartment, the conversation is short and spare and it makes perfect sense that the next scene is of the three of them back in his apartment. There's no need to see the conversation with Walter inviting them to stay, saying "no, really, it's no trouble at all" and then hauling bags and baskets back up the stairs. As Walter begins to feel attraction to Mouna, he buys new, more stylish glasses -- a small thing for many people but a big step for him -- but McCarthy doesn't draw attention to them until Mouna mentions them and Walter's pleasure at being noticed shines through. We never see Walter mulling over his glasses, picking out new frames, etc. It just happens and it makes sense. McCarthy leaves these extraneous scenes and allows the audience to follow the progress intuitively without connecting every dot. It's a pleasure to watch film-making that doesn't treat the audience as idiots who need to be led along every step.

Music is the thread that weaves throughout "The Visitor." Walter, confronted with his wife's death, feels compelled to play piano but does it without passion, as though it's boxing him in, trapping him beneath the weight of her loss and her life as a classical pianist. His teacher, played by Broadway legend Marian Seldes, reminds him to keep his hands arched like a tunnel for a train to pass through. Physically he's cramped and stuck. But as he learns the djembe from Tarek and ventures out into the world with it, you literally see Walter's body and life opening up. It sustains the connection between friends once Tarek is in detention. And the final scene, as Walter sits alone amidst the crowd in the subway, playing the djembe and letting his anger and loss and passion emerge? Pitch perfect and heart wrenching.

It's a small film, not one to play to sellout crowds or have people screaming alongside the red carpet at the awards ceremonies but it is a powerful, meaningful film. "The Visitor" is without a doubt my single favorite movie of 2008 and one that will be on my favorites list for years to come.

Theyre Birminghams apostrophes...or are they?

I missed this news when it broke at the end of January but thought it was worth sharing now.

The city of Birmingham in the United Kingdom has struck a blow for the punctuation-lazy by banning the possessive apostrophe from all of its street signs. Now the formerly named "King's Heath" shall be forever known as "Kings Heath" because, as one councilman pointed out, the monarchy no longer owns it. The hopes of apostrophe users throughout Birmingham rest on the unbowed shoulders of the you'll-only-find-something-like-this-in-Britain Apostrophe Protection Society.

Of course, you've got to applaud the "out of the box" thinking by those folks on the Birmingham City Council, the same whiz kids who brought you an official Birmingham City recycling pamphlet featuring the city skyline of Birmingham, Alabama. But I can understand their confusion. Without the apostrophe, how were they to know that it was Birmingham, Alabamas photo they were using.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Crash Bang Boom

Just returned from an enjoyable evening with friends -- Mexican food, good conversation, tasty dessert, and then rounding out the night watching STOMP.

If you haven't had a chance to see this explosive, tremendously creative show, I encourage you to do so. The combination of dance and percussion, all with found objects like brooms, plastic bags, rubber tubes, trash cans, and newspapers, is stunning. I had the pleasure of seeing the original US tour a decade or more ago and I was just as blown away this time around.

Here's a taste:

Nose, Face, I'd like you to meet my friend "Spite"

I'm a big fan of the Republican's hypocritcal approach to the stimulus package -- fight it like crazy, bitch about the spending (after 8 years of deficit expansion thank you very much), then applaud and fight for those bits of spending they didn't vote for but that will help their districts. Yep, that's the GOP bringing home the bacon for you.

Of course, you then get the Governors who are considering passing on the stimulus spending or picking and choosing like from an a la carte menu. Bobby Jindal better run for President because after deciding to decline $100 million in stimulus funding to aid more than 24,000 long-term unemployed workers, he might not be getting re-elected in Louisiana.

TV Review: This is definitely not Ibsen's "A Doll's House"

Anyone who has read earlier posts knows that I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon, creator of compelling, smart, and entertaining TV like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, the sorely mistreated Firefly (damn you, FOX TV), and most recently, Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. Even with this track record, I watched the first episode of Whedon's new series, Dollhouse, with some trepidation.

First, the story -- young woman agrees to 5 years in the employ of a mysterious organization that wipes her memories and replaces them with those of other people with other skills as the request of wealthy clients -- just struck me as creepy and unpleasant (hey a TV show about human trafficking and an organization pimping out the perfect prostitutes...Must See TV!!). Secondly, the star of the show is Eliza Dushku who played psycho Slayer Faith on Buffy and, in her younger years, the 14-year old daughter in peril in True Lies. While Dushku's flat presentation was fine as Faith, I questioned whether she had the acting chops to play new, varied characters every week and make us care about her, especially hard because she is playing a different character each week.

After watching the premiere, my questions remain unanswered. Dushku either walks around with a blank, airy look when appearing as the memory-wiped Echo or walks around looking and sounding like Eliza Dusku in sexy librarian glasses while playing a hostage negotiator (I was never really clear while a billionaire would go to the Dollhouse for a hostage negotiator in the first place). And my concerns about the basic premise? Still there as the first character we see Dushku inhabit (albeit briefly) is a motorcycle-racing sex kitten who spent three days giving a rich kid his ultimate weekend for his birthday. The only signs of life are from her conflicted handler, Boyd Langdon (played by Harry Lennix) and FBI agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar Galactica's Tahmoh Penikett) who is convinced that the Dollhouse exists in the face of pushback from his supervisors.

It's still early days yet (episode 2 awaits on the DVR) but so far I'm not sold on Dollhouse, not matter how good Whedon's track record has been so far.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Let me tell you about my vice...no, press the A button first and then up with the joystick!

I don't smoke, I don't do drugs, and I don't drink to excess. All in all, I live a pretty vice-free life. Of course, there is one exception that my parents knew about for years and that my wife has learned to tolerate -- I'm a member of Generation V...the videogamers.

I was hooked from the start by Mattel's handheld Football, a game that my father and I still look back on with a fond eye. Nothing more than little red LEDs moving up and down, left and right as you pushed the buttons as fast as you could, it was completely addicting and passed the time in the car as we drove to visit relatives. That carried over to Mattel's handheld Baseball, another game that consumed hours of my childhood. With both games, you never knew how fast your "player" was going to be at the start of the play so there was always a little bit of variability. Would you be able to zip to a touchdown or would you be limited to a single even though you heard the double beep that indicated you might be able to stretch it to a double?

As the videogames in the malls got more involved, so did the games at home, including Donkey Kong and Pac-Man designed to mimic that full-size feel while consuming huge quantities of batteries. Untold quarters were fed to the waiting maw of Joust and Tempest with its deceptively simple but oh so engaging design at the local Store 24.

However, my parents never went so far as to buy me a console game like Atari. Perhaps they recognized the temptation embodied by those silicon chips. For those, I had to visit friends' homes where we'd play Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc., using the rudimentary single joystick and one red button. Eventually I received a home computer (first a Commodore VIC 20 and then a 64) on which I could play some incredibly basic games (anyone remember Lunar Lander and Escape MCP?) before moving on to my first Macintosh and classic Mac games like Dark Castle, which filled many late nights in college.

The fascination has continued. Getting a computer with color monitor expanded the realm of available games. As a bachelor, I owned a Nintendo 64, my first home console game, and became hooked on Goldeneye and Wave Race. The Nintendo 64 eventually went away but the computer games remained, although I always felt a bit deprived on the Mac when faced with the swath of games available to PC owners. Then came the Playstation 2, which I won in a raffle, and the love affair began again, much to my wife's chagrin and bemused tolerance though she revealed a surprisingly strong affinity for Tempest and Pac-Man.

And then Apple began using Intel chips and suddenly, the world of PC games were accessible. Finally and most recently, came a Nintendo Wii, which definitely elicited a rueful shake of the head from my spouse even though I was merely following in the footsteps of 10-year old sister AND my 33-year old sister and her husband while being urged on by my mother to get one for use during Game Nights. Watching my mother and step-father box against one another in Wii Sports was oh so worth the money.

It's never been a head-to-head competitive thing for me. Oh sure, I'd play against friends (head-to-head Mario Kart on Wii is hilarious) but more often than not, it's me against the computer, trying to complete the story or tally a high score that carries no value in the real world. It's an escape, a release valve, the same way losing myself in a brilliant book is. Now, I'm using it as a spur, as an incentive. I allow myself to play when I reach a milestone (complete the outline or the text of a new chapter in my book, finish a project around the house) though I will admit to slipping, playing in recent days just to not think about my mother's cancer or the challenges facing friends and relatives right now.

Sometimes it's good to simplify your world for a short time and just go head to head with a giant gorilla that's throwing barrels at you.

This isn't supposed to be happening

We learned this week that my mother has breast cancer. The news came from out of the blue during what I thought was going to be a quick "hi, how are you" visit last Monday, or perhaps a "we've got some news about your 93-year old grandmother" conversation since my mother and step-father were coming over following a brief stop at the nursing home.

The initial news was that yes, there is definitely something there but test results weren't expected until Friday so we wouldn't know what it meant until then. Instead the news came in stages -- Wednesday: yes, it's confirmed and it's not benign. Friday -- yes, it's in a few more places than the initial lump that raised the alert, it's in Stage 2, perhaps edging farther, more tests are needed to discover how far it has gone, the probable initial course is 16 weeks of chemo, get a really cool short haircut because it's easier to bear as the chemo takes affect.

For someone whose exposure to cancer had been extremely limited (my grandmother had it 20 years ago but at 93 is still cheering on the UConn Huskies) I find myself writing about it for the third time in this still relatively new blog. That it's my mother who I'm writing and worrying about, that's even more shocking.

I think your perception of your world doesn't always match your chronological position. Internally, you lock yourself into a particular time and place and age. In my mind's eye, I think I'm younger than I am (probably thinner too) and sometimes get caught by surprise as I spot a new batch of grey hairs insinuating themselves amidst the dark brown that I've always had. My parents are young, only 20 years older than me. That's not old. But then I remember that I am now my parents' age when I went off to college and my perception changes again. They're verging on 60, my father suffered a stroke almost 1 year ago to the date of my mother's announcement, and now she's facing a battle like this. The sense of mortality becomes palpable. The desire to fight for every day that's potentially ahead becomes intense.

I can't imagine what she's going through right now, consumed by the knowledge that something inside her is trying to strip those days away. I know she's scared -- who wouldn't be? I know she's angry -- what did she do to deserve this? If it was me, I think I'd be clawing at my skin, crying "get it out, get it out" to anyone who would listen. But I also know that she's determined. She's strong. She's a fighter. She has excellent doctors who have help thousands of women successfully face this same challenge. She has a loving family and a close knit circle of friends, all of whom will be there to provide support and encouragement and to celebrate when it's over. And that gives her something to fight for -- time with those people who love her, time with her family, and most of all time for herself.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What's in a name?

Rebranding sometimes can wash away or at least obscure the stains of the past. Most people don't realize that AirTran Airways is largely a rebranded version of ValuJet, the low-cost airline whose systemic safety issues eventually resulted in the deaths of 110 people following the in-flight fire and subsequent crash of Flight 592. Worldcom shed the baggage of accounting scandal by assuming the name of its subsidiary, MCI.

Now, we have the latest example of the attempt to rebrand to escape the past -- Blackwater Worldwide, the private security firm that was been kicked out on its ass by Iraq after employees murdered 17 civilians in Baghdad, recently announced that the tarnished and reviled Blackwater brand is no more. Now, the company's private security division...screw it, let's be honest here...the mercenary division will now be known as "Xe", pronounced "Zee". Wow, that's a catchy name. Were they going for ominous? Frankly, I would expect to see it as the name of a character in a cheesy sci-fi movie ("All hail, Lord Xe, conqueror of Grebulax 5!") or a cheap Asian hooker in a Hong Kong action flick starring an aging Jean-Claude van Damme. Of course, they manage to top that by going from cheesy to just plain generic as their overseas operation formerly known as "Blackwater Lodge & Training Center" is now "U.S. Training Center Inc." I can't wait to see their stationary -- off-white with a dark grey bar from a generic can of beans label circa 1983. Why not just skip right to a bizarre little logo that's utterly unpronounceable, like the "Artist Formerly Known as Prince Who is Now Known as Prince Again"?

Odd naming choices aside, it would be sad if this rebranding effort succeeded in obscuring the clearly blackened slate of an organization that often acts as though it is above the law and that its employees do not need to be held accountable for their actions.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Best Congressional Prop Ever

While Stewart Parnell, the owner of the peanut company that shipped salmonella-laden peanut products that resulted in 600 illnesses and 9 deaths, is perhaps one of the most miserable business people in recent memory, his "I take the Fifth" performance today in front of a Congressional subcommittee today did have the entertaining benefit of allowing Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore) the opportunity to use what might be the best prop ever used in a Congressional hearing.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rationalizations

Reading the New York Times today, I came across a full page ad from the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank. He was responding to the outgoing outcry against recognition events and luxury retreats funded by banks involved in the financial bailout. The full-page letter sought to achieve three things:
  1. Explain that everyone is wrong about what these retreats are all about -- these aren't for the multimillionaire brokers but just for the common folk like tellers and clerk to recognize their efforts
  2. Explain that by demanding these retreats not be held, we the taxpayers are deepening the recession -- all that retreat money isn't going to hotels, chambermaids, waiters, and valet parking attendants
  3. Make us feel guilty -- in response to all of the outcry, Wells Fargo is canceling all retreats for the remainder of the year and has to make due with thanking their employees through a newspaper ad because we're all getting fired up by overblown media accounts.
Look, I don't think anyone wants the recession to mean that people who do outstanding work can't be recognized for their efforts but I can't see how their management could have possibly believed that the planned Las Vegas junket and this full page ad would be a good thing. If there is one thing that the American people do not currently hold in abundance right now, it's sympathy for the financial industry.

For Wells Fargo in particular, this attempt at public rationalization as well as the "we're only canceling these events because you're all a bunch of a spoilsport meanies" message fall flatter than the value of my 401k, especially as details of the lavish past retreats emerge (helicopter rides, wine tasting, horseback riding in Puerto Rico, and a private Jimmy Buffett concert in the Bahamas for more than 1,000 of the company's top employees and guests).

Almost 600,000 people lost their jobs in January and no one except apparently the bankers are willing to accept that the financial institutions at the center of this mess should be allowed to continue spending money like that after getting bailed out by the taxpayers (see Citigroup's retreat on a plan to buy a $50 million luxury jet as a perfect example). Seriously, that's almost as bad as auto makers taking their private jets to Washington DC to ask for financial support. Can these people possibly be more tone deaf? Perhaps they should use some of the bailout funds to pay for a new position in senior management -- the Vice President of What the Hell are You Thinking?

Temptation vs. the desire to believe

Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003, the year he won the MVP award and hit 47 homers -- that's the bombshell that went off on Sports Illustrated's web site yesterday. I heard the news and, in all honesty, didn't know what to think. I was all over the map.

I felt sense of glee -- Anything that makes the Yankees squirm has got to be a good thing and I've never been a fan of A-Rod, especially after the 2004 season and his various tabloid appearances. This was the icing on the cake following Joe Torre's book and I really didn't feel bad for Rodriguez -- he made a conscious decision to do it and expose himself to the risk of being, well, exposed.

I was surprised but only a little bit -- You see players like Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia who kill themselves playing the game and never in a million years would I believe that they were taking something extra. With Rodriguez, I might not like him but I always thought he was one hell of a ballplayer. If the Red Sox had managed to trade for him in the offseason following the 2003 ALCS collapse, I would have been pleased at least to start (just goes to show that fans cheer for the laundry, not the guys wearing the laundry, I guess). But A-Rod is a man with immense natural gifts for baseball who was on his way to being potentially the best or one of the best to ever play the game. Why did he do it? Was his drive to succeed so strong that he felt this was the only way to cement that reputation?

I felt a sense of resignation -- just one more player unmasked as a cheat and a liar. Are any of these guys clean? There was Mark McGwire who I cheered for as he broke the home run record. There was Barry Bonds, a supremely talented player whose bitterness at being overshadowed by McGwire and Sosa led him to become Barry Bloat and the poster child for steroids. The list goes on -- Rafael Palmeiro, Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, the Giambi brothers, Chuck Knoblauch, Andy Pettitte, and more. Even someone like Nomar Garciapparra (who, to be fair, has never been linked to performance enhancers) certainly raised questions among many fans following the display of his ultra-built physique in Sports Illustrated and his repeated physical breakdowns in the years. It reached the point where people were surprised that he wasn't named in the Mitchell Report on performance enhancers in baseball.

Most of all, I felt another twinge of disappointment when it comes to a game I adore. Call me naive but I want to believe that baseball is a game, that what we're watching is fun and true and pure. Of course it isn't -- major league baseball is a multi-billion dollar business. Whether it's alcohol, greenies, coke, steroids and whatever designer drug comes next, this stuff has always been part of baseball since the start because baseball is played by humans and we are a competitive, driven species. Even the smallest edge is enough to turn a player from a minor leaguer to a major leaguer, a backup on the bench to a starter raking in tens of millions of dollars a year.

As Crash Davis so eloquently points out, the difference between a career .250 and a career .300 hitter is just 25 hits...one extra hit a week over the course of a season, "just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium." The temptation to seek that edge, to get those millions, must be enormous. If I was one of those guys, someone just on the cusp, would I be able to resist that temptation? I would hope so but when $10 million a year for 5 years is out there, just within reach, vs. $2,500 per month as a journeyman in AAA ball, who knows. But A-Rod? He was never just on the cusp. He was a great player with regard to his skills right from the start.

What's sad is that the question is even out there for players and that as a result, every time we watch a hitter slap one out of the park or throw some ungodly breaking stuff, we now wonder if what we're seeing is real.

I wrote about baseball and its cathedrals and country churches last year as I was really ramping up here on Walks in the Marsh. Yes, going to a big league park is an experience but more and more, I find myself drawn to the minor league and summer college ball games. I guess I'm a romantic, pining for the halcyon days of baseball that probably didn't really exist. However, we can still wish and hope for them, for a time when baseball was just a game and it was good and right. In the meantime, I won't be surprised anymore at the news coming out of major league baseball and other sports. Sad and disappointed maybe, but no longer surprised.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

An insult to insurgents everywhere

Fresh off a pasting in the national elections yet feeling the need to strut a bit after the House Republicans voted in lockstep against the stimulus package, Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX) decided it was time to set the record straight about how the GOP would operate as the party of loyal opposition:

"Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes. And these Taliban -- I'm not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that's not what we're saying. I'm saying an example of how you go about [sic] is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their frontline message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with."

-----

When pressed to clarify, Sessions said he was not comparing the House Republican caucus to the Taliban, the Muslim fundamentalist group.

"I simply said one can see that there's a model out there for insurgency," Sessions said before being interrupted by an aide. The staffer said Sessions was trying to convey that the Republicans need to start thinking about how to act strategically from their perch in the minority.

Well, I don't know about you but I'm ever so relieved that the GOP isn't the Taliban...they're just modeling their behavior on the Taliban. Phew...that's makes me feel so much better. Now all we need is Mitch McConnell to say that Nancy Pelosi looks hot in a burkha and we can call it a banner day for the Grand Old Party.

Snakes...why did it have to be sna-- HOLY CRAP!!!

So if a tomb full of little snakes could make Indiana Jones all sweaty and shaky, I think it's safe to say that the recent discovery of titanoboa cerrejonensis in what was once a rainforest of Colombia would make our fedora-clad hero melt faster than the Nazis at the end of Raiders.

Yes, the now-extinct super snake was roughly the length of an RV, as thick as a garbage can, and ate alligators whole. I don't know about you, but the idea of a 42-foot long, 3-foot thick snake capable of swallowing a cow makes me think of something you would see in a Ray Harryhausen movie. However, paleoreptilologists (or as real people who don't make up words call them, paleontologists) have found the 5-inch wide vertebra of titanoboa, proving that this scaly beastie roamed...er...slithered across the land some 20 to 60 million years ago or, as Sarah Palin and the three former Republican candidates for President who don't believe in evolution would call it, last Thursday.

It's times like this that science proves once again that it is so freaking cool! And now it's only a matter of time before there's a Saturday evening movie on the Sci-Fi channel with titanoboa squaring off against T-Rex with a group of unlucky campers caught in the middle. Must See TV!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Murder Ballads and the Strong Woman

While I'm not a country music fan, I've become a tremendous fan of some all-female groups that cross between country, folk, and more mainstream stuff. In listening to them, I've noticed that they all turn their eyes to the murder ballad at least once. The traditional form of the genre often tells the story of a man who kills his lover and then repents and is punished. Listen the Appalachian classic "Knoxville Girl" for a great example (it was inspired by a 17th century British poem).

Of course, murder ballads are nothing new but I love how a venerable form historically associated with male blues or bluegrass singers has been subverted and rebuilt in the image of a strong woman or a woman finding her strength, converting the murder ballad into a dark and sometimes gruesome anthem of self-defense and emancipation. Some that come to mind include:
  • The Wailin' Jennys kick off their fantastic album, Firecracker with "Devil's Paintbrush Road" (not exactly a ballad but inspired by one)
  • Red Molly offers a double homicide on Never Been to Vegas with their version of the classic "Caleb Meyer" and the rocking and original "Seven Years" (I'm really sorry we missed this trio when they performed here in Rhode Island a few months ago...they are great)
  • And of course, this list couldn't be complete without "Goodbye Earl" by the Dixie Chicks, which offers not only a great song but a rollicking music video staring Lauren Holly, Jane Krakowski, and Dennis Franz among others. It manages to mix the very unfunny topic (and images) of spousal abuse with a fun tale of revenge right out of Fried Green Tomatoes. It's worth watching the whole video just to see Dennis Franz as "Corpse Earl" doing moves from "Thriller" followed by a hoedown.
Of course, as a guy, listening to these just reminds me to always be nice to my wife because she knows where I sleep and the kitchen knives aren't too far away...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

So how much did that ad cost us?

For the most part, we ended up skipping the Super Bowl, despite what I wrote earlier. Sure, we flipped to it now and then but there was no "don't miss a minute" commitment to watching it and much of what we saw was rather dull (can't anybody run the ball in these game anymore?). On the other hand, we did manage to catch the night's most memorable moments:
  • James Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown at the end of the game -- now that was exciting, even if on replay it looked like a Pittsburgh player clipped a Cardinal, which would have negated it if any of the refs had been looking or cared to call it
  • the final two minutes as we flipped to the game just in time to see the Cardinals take the lead on a beautiful pass play only to cough it up on defense thanks to blown coverage on Santonio Homes for 40 yards and then Holmes' drag-your-toes catch for a touchdown, the likes of which I've never managed to pull off when playing Madden Football
Often, on dull Super Bowls, we'll keep it on just to see the commercials. However, through the magic of the Internet that wasn't even necessary anymore as Hulu.com posted the commercials in almost-real time (conveniently, Hulu is co-owned by NBC, which was showing the game). From what I saw in looking at some of the commercials, the $3.0 to $3.5 million spent on some of them would have been better spent as insulation or fuel for the furnace in some poor family's house. Still, there were a few that stood out as just plain funny:
  • Hulu.com's spot with Alec Baldwin, highlighted by lines like "Hello, Earth. I'm Alec Baldwin, TV star" and "You know, they say TV will rot your brain. Ha, that's absurd. TV only softens the brain, like a ripe banana."
  • Monster.com's "need a new job" spot with its nice dig at the fat cats in the corporate office and the sad grunts who do the work
  • and Bridgestone's ad took a page out of "Toy Story"
Of course, there were a host of bad ones. The sight of dancing NFL players with animated lizards was mildly disturbing, the talking babies are still just plain creepy, most viewers are not thinking of web site registration during GoDaddy's ads (yes, I know that's the point but really...) and when Toyota's narrator talks about a steep grade and a tunnel of fire being bad for their tranny, I'm sure there is a segment of the population thinking about something (or someone) other than a transmission.

"I screwed up."

"I'm frustrated with myself, with our team. ... I'm here on television saying I screwed up."
-- President Barack Obama, speaking to Brian Williams on NBC's "Nightly News"

If there was ever any doubt that we've entered a new era and are making good progress on shedding the noxious, gangrenous waste of the last 8 years, it's sight of the President of the United States standing up and admitting fault, followed by...

"This is a self-induced injury that I'm angry about, and we're going to make sure we get it fixed."
-- President Barack Obama, speaking on ABC's "World News"

After 8 years of obfuscation, redirection of blame, counter-attacks, and incompetence, I had to read these comments twice (not having seen them live on TV) to make sure I hadn't slipped through into a parallel dimension where personal responsibility and leadership actually meant something. It's nice to know that if that parallel dimension does exist, some of that sensibility appears to have seeped through the cracks into our world.

Of course, the President's comments don't make me feel better about:
  • the apparent plague of tax avoidance among major appointees (so the message is don't pay your taxes and you're OK as long as you don't try to help run the country)
  • that these minor issues, like Tom Daschle's failure to pay $128,000 in taxes...$128,000!!!!!!...didn't show up as part of the almighty Obama administration job application,
  • or if they did, that the administration vetters didn't realize they'd be an issue and left it to the press to discover them
Nevertheless, I am relieved that these embarrassments didn't get strung out and that President Obama stepped up and said "My bad and now we're going to fix it."

Quite a change from "Heckuva job, Brownie," wouldn't you say?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Apparently drug testing is out of season

I do feel sorry in a way for ultra-celebrities, those people who are so well known and of such interest that it seems like they're constantly shadowed by photographers and unable to have any privacy. It all the worse when their legitmately private moments are caught on film and put out there for everyone to see. Of course, then you also get the people like Britney, Lindsay, and Paris who seek it out and then get photographed or filmed doing stupid things and we just shake our heads because they've merely reinforced our belief that they aren't someone we'd want our sons or daughters ever going out with.

Neither of these things excuses Michael Phelps. Clearly he's an ultra-celebrity and is certainly due his private moments but his whole celebrity persona is also that he's as a paragon of athletic virtue, remarkable health, and the Olympian ideal. Of course, there's no doubting his athletic prowess but the rest of the stuff, well, I'm sure it's largely a concoction of our own need for heroes and the creative stylings of a publicist.

But did he really have to be so stupid as to get photographed smoking pot? If he's going to smoke it, fine. But if he doesn't want his image tarnished, he needs to remember that everyone and anyone can have a camera now via their phone and rags like "News of the World" will pay big bucks for photos like those. Now he says he's sorry and made a mistake. Will his sponsors buy it or has that photo cost him some serious bucks in endorsement dollars?

Of course, now we know why he needs to eat 12,000 calories a day. I hear the munchies can be killer.