Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Catch a Comet - No Telescope Required

Catch a Comet - No Telescope Required "This week there is a newly visible comet in the sky and it can be seen with the unaided eye! Last week, Periodic comet Holmes (17P/Holmes), a very faint comet far from the sun experienced an outburst and brightened a million times in just a few hours. The comet puffed up (it's still expanding), changed color and wowed viewers around the world."

Unfortunately I have cloudy skies, but the first clear night I'll be out there with my new binoculars to check it out.

Secret Intelligence Budget is $43.5 Billion

Secrecy News reports: "As required by law, the Director of National Intelligence today disclosed that the budget for the National Intelligence Program in Fiscal Year 2007 was $43.5 billion. The disclosure was strongly resisted by the intelligence bureaucracy, and for that very reason it may have significant repercussions for national security classification policy."


No I don't have Leopard (the next rev of Mac OS X) yet. I want to upgrade my powerbook and I'm waiting to see if a new MacBook Pro will come out soon. Also it's probably good to wait for 10.5.1. While they sold 2 million copies in the first weekend (and I'm not sure I really believe that) they also had reports of people getting blue screens (!) during upgrade. It turns out that most of those (if not all) were due to people running an extension library from Unsanity called APE that used private APIs. I usually avoid things with names like "haxies".

As usual the Ars Technica review of Leopard is extensive. The big new user feature is Time Machine which will make backups easy. I currently use SilverKeeper to make a complete (bootable) mirror disk on an external drive. I try to connect and run this weekly but sometimes its as long as a month. I was looking forward to using Time Machine with a drive connected to an AirPort Extreme, but this isn't supported.

Leopard has a lot of smaller features that sound interesting and in aggregate I'm sure make for a very nice experience. But it's also something I can wait a little bit for. I'm interested in the Spotlight improvements allowing boolean searches and some of the new Finder improvements (particularly coverflow and quicklook). I'm also interested in the new system-wide To Do service and some of the iChat features.

The development tools and libraries also improved a lot so I expect lots of 3rd party apps to make use of them and do really interesting things. There are also a bunch of security improvements but reports are that they need some work. You're still safer on a mac than you are on a Windows machine, but things should be better in an update release. Oh and doesn't anyone care about the Firewall in the computer? I use the one in my wifi router and don't run them on my computer.

Make a Bat Costume from an Umbrella

and it's even anatomically correct!.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Movie Review: King Corn

After seeing Super Size Me in 2004 I stopped eating fast food (except for Panera Bread). I think I had given up soda before that, but if I hadn't, that movie definitely stopped me of that bad habit.

Apparently after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, recent Yale graduates Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis decided to find out about the US corn industry by moving to Greene, Iowa and growing an acre of corn. They documented their adventure in the new film King Corn adding plenty of interviews and facts.

The film starts by testing one of the things I've learned from interviews with Pollan (I have his book but haven't read it yet, it's next on my list), that American's are turning into corn. Cheney and Ellis have their hair tested in a lab and find a high amount of corn in it (yes you read that right though it's probably more correctly described as a specific protein found in corn). They describe their movie as finding out how corn gets from the farm to their hair.

They find a farmer willing to put them up and help them grow 1 acre of corn. The first thing they do is sign up with the federal Farm Program and are given $14 as an upfront half payment of their $28 subsidy. It turns out this subsidy is the difference between losing money and making profit. As is said later in the film subsidies are the leading industry in Greene, Iowa. From 2003-2005, 317 Greene residents received a total of $364,693 in subsidies.

They get their ammonia fertilizer and a month or two later seed their acre with 31,000 seeds which takes all of 18 minutes. The corn variety has been bred to allow corn to grow more densely packed. They'll yield 180 bushels in their acre, which is 5 tons of corn. 100 years ago, an acre would yield about 40 bushels. As we've bred corn to be more productive, we've also bred out the nutritional value; it's mostly sugar and has less protein than it used to.

I learned that the silk of the corn is how it's pollinated. Each strand of silk leads to a kernel. The other end sticks out from the husk and collects pollen allowing it a path to the kernel.

Oddly, the breed of corn commonly grown in Iowa is inedible by humans. The film uses several stop motion animations demonstrations. One shows shows the various uses of corn by percentage. This leads to several side trips. One leads to eastern Colorado to show how corn is used as feed for cattle. Cows evolved eating grass, but we had all this extra corn so we started feeding it to cows since it's cheaper and made them fatter faster, making it cheaper to raise cattle for food since they can be slaughtered faster. We now feed them corn for about 150 days which is about as long as they can handle it as it raises the acid in their stomachs and makes them sick. Livestock consumes 70% of the antibiotics in the US. I forget the amount (a pound? a hamburger?) of corn fed beef has 9g of saturated fat while the same amount of grass fed beef has 1.3g. 65% of the calories in a hamburger come from fat, "hamburger is fat disguised as meat".

Another huge use of corn is in creating high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The process to mass produce this from corn was perfected in the 1970s. It's cheaper than sugar (partially due to sugar tariffs), easier to work with since it's a liquid and has a longer shelf life than sugar. In 1970 HFCS had 0% of the sweetener market, by the 80s it was 50%. Soda is 7-14% HFCS. In 2000, the average American consumed 73.5 lbs of HFCS. High fructose corn syrup has no nutritional value and is a cause of diabetes.

Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon. If you heard of paying farmers not to grow food, that was the policy before Sec. Butz. To keep the price of corn from falling because of over-supply the federal government limited how much corn farmers could grow. Butz thought this was crazy and changed the policy to encourage farmers to grow food (by paying subsidies to do so). As a result food production soared, particularly corn (and soybeans) because that's what we subsidized. Cheney and Ellis interview Butz who's in his late 90s. He points out that before this policy Americans used 30% of their income for food and after, food prices dropped so only 17% of their income is used for food. This means more money can be spent on others things which is good. My first thought was that they can now spend it on medical bills.

The point that seems lost on Butz is that in addition to the price, the quality of the food dropped tremendously. With a new tremendous over-suppply of corn, in the last 30 years we've found new markets to sell it. The film explores it's use as feed and as a sweetener. In this context it's easy to understand the interest in ethanol as a fuel substitute, , even though it won't use less fossil fuels (which are needed for fertilizer and transportation); it's a new (huge) market for corn (which is also driving up the price).

The Farm Bill is the most important piece of legislation that most Americans don't know about. The current Senate version of the bill is for $288 billion. "Despite higher crop prices and farm incomes, the Senate Agriculture Committee endorsed a farm bill Thursday that would continue to reward farmers with a substantial package of subsidies, setting aside the deep cuts that reform groups had sought." In 2007 in the US there are 93 million acres of corn planted and only 2 million acres of vegetables.

Yeah, I mostly wrote about the topic and not the film; isn't that a sign of a good documentary? The hour and half went by quickly and I wanted to find out more information. The two stars are likable though indistinct. The feel is closer to Morgan Spurlock than Michael Moore as they don't try to humiliate the people they talk to. One of things I took from this film is that we haven't always eaten this way, in fact we've only done so since the 1970s and it's hurting us. Now I have to find something without high fructose corn syrup to give out for Halloween tomorrow.

Tim Whyatt - Cartoonist

I hadn't heard of Tim Whyatt but his cartoons are funny in a dirty Far Side kind of way.

Lost's Jin Arrested for DUI

Apparently in Britain they call it drink-driving. Lost actor Daniel Dae Kim has been arrested in Hawaii on suspicion of drink-driving. Will Jin be the next cast member eliminated? The 3 previous ones to be arrested for DUI have been.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Drought Conversations Miss The Point

The New Republic describes how most drought coverage misses the point. "As Gertner notes in passing, it's farming, and not residential areas, that consumes the vast majority of water in the region (90 percent of Colorado's water goes toward agriculture). You'd think, then, that inefficient agriculture practices would get most of the scrutiny here. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, most irrigated farmland in the area—in California, Colorado, and Wyoming—is watered via flood irrigation, the least efficient method out there. Basically, farmers dig a bunch of trenches and dump water in them. In the short run, it's cheap and easy; in the long run, it tends to waste water and deplete topsoil."

Kevin Drum adds: "Unfortunately, this is an almost impossible problem to address. Reducing agricultural water use by 20% would basically solve all our problems, but it can't be done because water rights are controlled by an almost impenetrable maze of local water districts, Spanish land grants, English common law, multi-state compacts, acts of Congress, court rulings at every level imaginable, overlapping jurisdictions, and local, state and federal environmental regulations. And that's not even counting the vast corporate lobbying forces that would be at work even if the legal Gordian knot weren't."

Crazy College Football Play

GI Metro

Cool T-Shirt.

Election Coverage Does Suck

Paul Krugman comments on election coverage saying "we're doomed" based on A First Look at Coverage of the 2008 Presidential Campaign.

Mukasey Urged to Answer Torture Question

A Republican is standing up against torture. Michael Mukasey is Bush's nomination for Attorney General. He's dodged questions about whether waterboarding is torture. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said their vote for him would hinge on his answer. On Sunday Sen John McCain (R-AZ) who knows a little about torture said "Anyone who says they don't know if waterboarding is torture or not has no experience in the conduct of warfare and national security."

Now Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said "I am urging him that he needs to come forward. If he does not believe that waterboarding is illegal, then that would really put doubts in my own mind because I don't think you have to have a lot of knowledge about the law to understand this technique violates" the Geneva Convention and other statutes.

It's amazing that this is what we've come to but it sounds like at least some senators are remembering their jobs.

U.S. Navy Fights Pirates in Somali Waters

CNN reports U.S. destroyer pursuing hijacked ship in Somali waters.

"The guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke entered Somali waters with the permission of the troubled transitional government in Mogadishu," pursing a hijacked Japanese ship loaded with benzene.

The Falling Dollar

There's an article on Bloomberg, Dollar's Demise Can Be Seen Even in the Maldives. People don't realize that it's been the policy of the Bush administration to devalue the dollar. This has some benefits that I don't completely understand the consequences of. As I understand it, it's ok as long as the dollar doesn't collapse because no one wants a devalued currency.

It's inconceivable to me but yes, a Canadian dollar is now more than a US dollar. If you're a US tourist to Canada or to several Caribbean islands I've been to, they often take US dollars as currency. I'm guessing not so much in Canada anymore. The article starts out by saying not so much anymore in the Maldives. In addition, "some states that long pegged their currencies to the dollar are scrapping the policy -- like Kuwait -- while others are quietly considering it."

Colony Collapse Jeopardizing Beekeepers

60 Minutes did a segment last night Colony Collapse Jeopardizing Beekeepers. It's still a mystery and it's bad.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bush's Bungling of Iran

Esquire has a fascinating article on Iran, The Secret History of the Impending War with Iran That the White House Doesn't Want You to Know . " Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann worked at the highest levels of the Bush administration as Middle East policy experts for the National Security Council. Mann conducted secret negotiations with Iran. Leverett traveled with Colin Powell and advised Condoleezza Rice." They tell of negotiations with Iran after 9/11 and negotiations with Arab nations to solve the Palestinian problem. All of these were killed by the white House (Cheney and Rumsfeld).

The article contains one amazing event after another. Crown Prince Abdullah confronting Bush in Crawford about doing something about "the Palestinian issue".

Powell presented a middle east peace roadmap idea at a meeting "expel your terrorist groups and stop trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, and we will take you off the sponsors-of-terrorism list and start a new era of cooperation." "After the meeting, [deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley] wrote up a brief memo that came to be known as Hadley's Rules: If a state like Syria or Iran offers specific assistance, we will take it without offering anything in return. We will accept it without strings or promises. We won't try to build on it."

He described receiving "a detailed proposal for peace in the Middle East, approved at the highest levels in Tehran." "A two-page summary was attached. Scanning it, Mann was startled by one dramatic concession [by Iran] after another -- 'decisive action' against all terrorists in Iran, an end of support for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, a promise to cease its nuclear program, and also an agreement to recognize Israel."

Really the article is just incredible. I knew 9/11 was an opportunity that was completely blown by this administration but I had no idea how good things might have been. And it all seems to have been blocked by Cheney and Rumsfeld. It's no clear what their reasons are. Do they have some deranged plan to get oil? Do they like war so their Haliburton buddies can prosper? Are they insane? Or are they just completely incompetent at dealing with other humans in a way to build trust and cooperation instead of using force? Unfortunately I don't think we'll ever know the answer to this question.

"This is what Leverett and Mann fear will happen: The diplomatic effort in the United Nations will fail when it becomes clear that Russia's and China's geopolitical ambitions will not accommodate the inconvenience of energy sanctions against Iran. Without any meaningful incentive from the U.S. to be friendly, Iran will keep meddling in Iraq and installing nuclear centrifuges. This will trigger a response from the hard-liners in the White House, who feel that it is their moral duty to deal with Iran before the Democrats take over American foreign policy. "If you get all those elements coming together, say in the first half of '08," says Leverett, "what is this president going to do? I think there is a serious risk he would decide to order an attack on the Iranian nuclear installations and probably a wider target zone. This would result in a dramatic increase in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, attacks by proxy forces like Hezbollah, and an unknown reaction from the wobbly states of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where millions admire Iran's resistance to the Great Satan. "As disastrous as Iraq has been," says Mann, "an attack on Iran could engulf America in a war with the entire Muslim world."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Can't Buy an iPhone With Cash?

Apple has a new policy on selling the wildly popular iPhone, Two Per Person and No Cash. They're trying to prevent unauthorized reselling (of probably unlocked phones). I'm fine with that and if I were to buy one (if AT&T had decent coverage at my home) I'd use a credit card. But I'm curious, is a no cash policy legal? On my money it says "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private." Is it legal in the US to sell something for dollars and not accept, you know, money?

Iraqi Refugees in Syria

QQ has a good (and very long) story this month Out of Iraq by Chris Heath. "Chased from their country by the ever growing chaos of war, more than a million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria, where they live in limbo, waiting for a rescue that will likely never come. They cannot work legally, their money is dwindling, and no other country will take them. But almost all of them agree on one thing: They will never come home."

He interviews a lot of different people and one of the things that came through is that they are all afraid, and when people are afraid they don't always tell the truth. He heard one bus coming over the border had it's windshield blown out by American bullets. He interviewed the driver, "he says everyone is okay, but he seems freaked-out. He insists no bullets were involved. It was simply the wind that broke his windshield. The wind. But his face, and the concern of those milling around, suggests a very different story. 'He’s afraid if he tells you about it,' another driver explains, 'he will get his neck cut when he goes back to Iraq.'" There are similar stories about life under Saddam. It will will likely be impossible to ever find out what really happened in so many situations, but one thing is clear, millions of people are in horrible circumstances.

The article ends as follows. I'm sure it doesn't have nearly the impact if you haven't read the article, so read it all first and make it to the end.

"If the Iraqis I met were united in one thought, it was this: that we—that is, you and I—did this to them. And that now we should do something about it. And that, surely, with all our wealth and power and compassion and decency, we would want to and be able to. They want help, not sympathy, and feel so justified in asking for it that they don’t feel obliged to soften their experiences and opinions while doing so. If they are not too worried about any offense they may cause by what they say or describe, that may be because they consider themselves already the subject of an offense they could never hope to equal. It baffles them that nothing much is happening, and many of them assume that it is just a matter of time. Myself, I’m not sure what our moral responsibilities should be or how we should act on them. But I know this: Each day that these refugees awake into the deadened agony of limbo and exile, they think that we are thinking about their predicament. For the most part we’re not, and I’m sure that we should be."

Friday, October 26, 2007

FEMA Fakes a Press Conference

This is just completely astounding. FEMA, the organization that screwed up the Katrina response two years ago, is responding to the California fires. On Tuesday at 1pm FEMA held a news briefing. Al Kamen in the Washington Post explains the press conference was faked.

"Reporters were given only 15 minutes' notice of the briefing, making it unlikely many could show up at FEMA's Southwest D.C. offices. They were given an 800 number to call in, though it was a 'listen only' line, the notice said -- no questions. Parts of the briefing were carried live on Fox News, MSNBC and other outlets."

He then describes how the briefing went, with questions taken from the audience and how the answers were smooth and polished and the questions were softballs.

"Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by 'Mike' Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John 'Pat' Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin."

Yep, FEMA faked a press conference. Widomski admitted this, explaining they were getting questions from reporters all day and since reporters couldn't make the meeting, they put staffers in the seats and asked the questions reporters had asked them. Uh huh.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

T-Radio Has Been Suspended

That didn't take long.

Who Are The Activist Justices?

There are lots of ways of evaluating whether a justices' decisions are activist. In Who are the bench's judicial activists? the Los Angeles Times describes a recent study that looks at cases about decisions of federal agencies from 1989-2005. They rated the decision of the agencies as liberal or conservative and then tallied which justices voted to uphold or overturn those decisions. The more overturning the more activist the justice. This approach also shows partisanship of the justices if they support conservative or liberal decisions more often.

The least activist justice is Breyer, upholding agency decisions 80% of the time. The most activist justice is Scalia who supports agencies only about 50% of the time (and they are supposed to get the benefit of a doubt in their decisions).

Kennedy the least partisan justice. "He upholds liberal and conservative decisions at an identical rate -- slightly more than two-thirds of the time." Souter is second.

The most partisan justice is Thomas. "When the agency decision is conservative, Thomas votes in its favor 84% of the time. But when the agency decision is liberal, Thomas votes in its favor merely 38% of the time -- a remarkable 46% swing." Stevens is second with a 40% swing favoring liberal decisions.

"According to our tallies, the remaining justices [O'Conner, Ginsburg, and Rehnquist] were neither distinctively neutral nor distinctively partisan."

Here are some interesting comments on the study.

Republicans Ignore Wars $2.4 Trillion Cost, Literally

Yesterday a House committee had a hearing on the cost of the war: Iraq and Afghanistan wars may total $2.4 trillion.

Chairman Spratt: “The cumulative cost by 2017 could be an astounding $1.7 trillion. While these costs are enormous, they omit any calculation of interest on the funding borrowed for war operations. And since the government has run substantial deficits from 2003 through 2007, and since future borrowing to some extent can be expected, interest needs to be imputed to the total cost of the war. This expense, as I said, has previously been omitted, but if included, according to CBO, interest cumulatively could be as much $705 billion by 2017. Added to direct costs… the total cost could reach $2.4 trillion by 2017.”

The funny thing about the hearing is that of the 16 Republicans who are members, 15 did not show up! The ranking member Paul Ryan (R-WI) was there but the following were not:

J. Gresham Barrett (R-SC)
Jo Bonner (R-AL)
Scott Garrett (R-NJ)
Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL)
Jeb Hensarling (R-TX)
Daniel E. Lungren (R-CA)
Michael K. Simpson (R-ID)
Patrick T. McHenry (R-NC)
Connie Mack (R-FL)
K. Michael Conaway (R-TX)
John Campbell (R-CA)
Patrick J. Tiberi (R-OH)
Jon C. Porter (R-NV)
Rodney Alexander (R-LA)
Adrian Smith (R-NE)

A conflict? A statement of protest? Or just putting their heads in the sand of what their party is doing. If one of these is your representative, why not call and ask why they didn't even bother to show up?

Does Senate FISA Bill Immunize FBI Black-Bag Jobs?

Declan McCullagh asks Does Senate FISA bill immunize FBI 'black-bag jobs'?.

"The FISA Amendments Act, approved by a Senate committee last week, seems to immunize people who cooperated with the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency--and other even more shadowy agencies--that conduct black-bag jobs. Although most of the attention has focused on how the Senate bill might offer telecommunications service providers retroactive immunity (and derail the lawsuits against AT&T), the actual language appears to cover physical intrusions too."

I agree with his conclusion: "One thing we do know, given the White House's flexible definition of "torture" and its legal legerdemain when it comes to NSA surveillance, is that this administration will find creative ways to stretch the law. If politicians are intent on enacting this law, one fix would be to narrow the bill's immunity to "telecommunications companies offering telephone or Internet service to the public." If providing legal cover for black-bag jobs isn't the goal, why not say so explicitly?"

Supernova Remnant

Universe Today reports: Chandra Sees the Death of a Star in Detail. This is a view of what remains after a supernova as seen in x-rays. There's a pulsar in there (a rotating neutron star), but oddly not right at the center.

American Kids, Dumber Than Dirt

Mark Morford, a San Francisco Gate columnist writes American kids, dumber than dirt "Warning: The next generation might just be the biggest pile of idiots in U.S. history."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Michael Pollan Interview

Here's A conversation with Michael Pollan a noted food author. I heard him interviewed on NPR a while ago and was fascinated. I just picked up his book The Omnivore's Dilemma in paperback a week ago and now I see he has a new book coming out on New Year's Day, In Defense of Food. I like his summation: "It really comes down to seven words: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Go Sox!

Go Sox!

Apple's Time Machine and a Laptop

I think I'm impressed with Apple's backup solution in it's new operating system Leopard coming out on Friday. Time Machine keeps track of files that change and copies them to a backup disk every hour. Every day it compresses them down to a single changed file a day and keeps track of them. The result is that if you lose a file or a change in a file, you can go back in time to find what you want. The UI is very Star Treky but the integration of "search back in time" in the Finder and Address Book is very very slick. Type what you're looking for then scroll back in time until it appears in the window.

So this seems like might work great on a desktop machine. Just connect a backup drive and point Time Machine at it and you're set. But I use a laptop, sitting in a comfy chair connected via wi-fi to the internet. Remember Apple's iBook laptop was the first laptop with wi-fi built in. So how will I use Time Machine? It seemed obvious; Apple's AirPort Extreme base station lets you connect a disk drive to it making it available over the network. At 802.11n speeds this seemed great as long as you didn't travel much. However now it seems Apple has doubled back on Time Machine and AirPort Disk. All references on Apple's site to using Time Machine with an AirPort Disk have been removed. Now why would that be? If it's really not supported, I'm very disappointed. Connecting an external drive to a laptop all the time seems to defeat the purpose.

Update: Apparently it will work with a network drive that's connected to another leopard machine. So if you have a mini with leopard and an external drive you're fine. Then again, I'd rather pay $200 for an (overpriced) AirPort Express for this task than $600 for a Mac Mini if that's all I'm going to do with it.

Election Coverage

I've been very unhappy with the election coverage in the main stream media. I don't want to know much about fund raising or polls. A little is ok but I'd rather know how they stand on various issues. This article in today's Boston Globe is at least somewhat useful.

We used to be limited to what the media told us. Now every candidate has a web site with their platform on it. I'm going to see if I can do research myself and maybe blog some posts on various issues. If you have an issue you'd like to see covered let me know. As a start, here's a list of candidates with links to their sites.

Joe Biden
Hillary Clinton
Christopher Dodd
John Edwards
Mike Gravel
Dennis Kucinich
Barack Obama
Bill Richardson

Rudy Giuliani
Mike Huckabee
Duncan Hunter
Alan Keyes
John McCain
Ron Paul
Mitt Romney
Tom Tancredo
Fred Thompson

Purgegate Update

The New York Times has an editorial today Tilting the Scales of Justice. "Every time we take a look at the United States attorney scandal, more evidence emerges that Alberto Gonzales politicized the Justice Department to the point where it sometimes seems like a branch of the Republican National Committee."

Movie Review: Owning Mahowny

Owning Mahowny is based on the true story of Brian Molony who worked at a bank in Toronto and embezzled more than $10 million to feed his gambling addiction. In the movie Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the title role of Dan Mahowny. It opens with him arriving at work at a bank where he's just gotten a promotion to assistant manager. We learn quickly that he has $10,300 in gambling debts from bets at the race track. His bookie, Frank Perlin, wants his money and is not going to take more bets from him until his debt is paid. Dan's response is "What am I supposed to do? Go to the racetrack and watch?" That really says it all. Dan can't even conceive of not betting.

He needs money and conveniently he works at a bank and has new authority on loans. Dan forges some papers and gets money from the bank to pay Frank via a bank draft. Frank takes it but still won't take more bets until it clears. Dan gets more money from the bank and flies to Atlantic City for the weekend to gamble at a casino. This becomes a regular occurrence and Victor Foss the manager, played to slimy magnificence by John Hurt, tries to make his new whale happy. But Dan wants nothing other than to gamble. Another regular occurrence is that Dan neglects his girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver). What follows is the inevitable conclusion.

Unlike every other gambling movie I've ever seen, there are only a few shots of cards turning over to dice rolling or roulette wheels spinning. There are no shots of horses crossing a finish line and only one shot of a sports game. We're shown just enough to know what's being bet on but the outcome is shown on Dan's face. The director, Richard Kwietniowski, allows the movie to rest on Philip Seymour Hoffman's shoulders and it's a great choice. We see close ups of Hoffman, almost always dejected. He's slumped over and looking down, his head almost below his shoulders. Even when he wins he's in the same position. What the movie shows is it's not about winning but about making the next bet. When Dan doesn't have time to research his bets he puts thousands of dollars on all the home teams in the National League and all the away teams in the American League. Even his bookie is annoyed by this, calling it disrespectful to his business and to him.

I found the film completely riveting. It's similar to Michael Clayton in showing a character reaching rock bottom. But unlike Clayton, it actually shows the descent. This film covers 18 months but concentrates so much on the gambling (as opposed to the embezzling) that the time scale isn't particularly clear. To Mahowny it all blurs together into one bet after another. It's not an hour and 45 minutes of gambling shots. Dan has confrontations with Belinda and Frank and we see Victor try ever so hard to make sure his favorite customer keeps coming back. There are a lot of shots of Hoffman staring and I could keep watching that as often as Dan wants to place bets.

Worst Book Title Ever

Cooking With Pooh.

VP For Hilary?

Dan Rather interviewed James Carville on his show this week. He was asked by the audience who he liked as a VP if Hilary one the nomination. His was Kathleen Sebelius the Governor of Kansas. "75% approval rating, her father John Gilligan was the governor of Ohio, moderate, gets stuff done, successful in a red state. If you can't take one woman, hell, give 'em two." I've never heard of her.

White House Edits CDC Climate Testimony

The AP reports White House edits CDC climate testimony. "The White House severely edited congressional testimony given Tuesday by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the impact of climate change on health, removing specific scientific references to potential health risks, according to two sources familiar with the documents."

The document went from an original 14 pages to four. It was six pages as presented to the Senate committee. "The deletions directed by the White House included details on how many people might be adversely affected because of increased warming and the scientific basis for some of the CDC's analysis on what kinds of diseases might be spread in a warmer climate and rising sea levels, according to one official who has seen the original version."

"The White House in the past has said it has only sought to provide a balanced view of the climate issue." Someone should explain to them that that is what good science is. It takes the different views, gathers data to figure out what is actually happening and reports on it. When it's allowed to.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Movie Review: 3:10 To Yuma (1957)

After seeing the new 3:10 To Yuma a month ago, I caught the original 1957 film today on cable. I was surprised at how similar and yet different they were. The remake added a 25 minute middle to the movie. The opening robbery and town scenes are pretty similar, even the diner at Evans' house. What's added is the whole travel sequence to Contention, in the remake it's several days. In the original it's overnight and just a couple of minutes of screen time. The whole second half of the film is Dan and Ben hold up in the hotel and the shootout getting to the train. It's pretty similar in both films though it makes a more sense in the original.

What's so different is that there's no back story on Dan, and his son has just a minor role. There's a drought and he needs $200 but the landlord isn't an ass and is broke since no one he rents to can pay him and there's no railroad coming to buy the land. Dan just watches the robbery happen and doesn't do anything to stop it but it's pretty clear that there wasn't anything he could do. There's no Civil War injury. The result is that while Van Heflin's Dan is perhaps depressed, he's really not down on himself and his family is actually proud of him. I had problems accepting Glenn Ford as a villain. His Ben is less slick and less ruthless than Russell Crowe's, but then again the whole film is much less bloody. They also do a much better job in the original at keeping a gun pointed at the prisoner.

The original comes across as a short morality play. The first half is setup and the second is Dan in a difficult situation with Ben not making it easy to do the right thing. Everything else is really quite secondary. The remake is much more of a character study with Dan's character really fleshed out and many more situations to test and define his character; however the new plot elements don't hold together as well. I guess that's not hard to understand given as the writers were most known for 2 Fast 2 Furious. The cinematography of the remake (not to mention the color) makes the scenery much more interesting. The music of the original struck me as dated and overly melodramatic. Aside from some differences discussed below in the spoilers section I liked the remake more than the original.


The conversation in the hotel is quite different. In the original Dan turns down Ben's money because it's the right thing to do, not because he won't be able to explain where the money came from. You get no backstory on Ben and he doesn't quote the Bible once. The way they leave the hotel is much more plausible in the original as Dan has a gun on Ben the whole time. It still happens too suddenly but Ben's reasons for helping Dan at the very end makes much more sense. Instead of just respecting him, he owes Dan for saving his life in the hotel room. The remake gives Dan a character arc and depending on your view of him, Ben one as well. Yes Dan lives in the original, in fact the ending is so happy it even starts to rain in the last scene. Does changing things to have Dan die make much of a statement? Not that I can think of.

State Department Contractors Serious Problems

Spencer Ackerman sums up the state of the State Department contractors (Blackwater, DynCorp and Triple Canopy), as serious problems with waste and fraud.

Russia's Policy on Iran

Haaretz writes in Walking a nuclear tightrope: "In his approach to Iran, Putin is actually improving on the European carrot-and-stick method. When it comes to Israeli and international demands, if there is a chance Iran will listen to anyone, it will listen to Moscow. Russia's message to Iran is: You have a right to enrich uranium for civilian needs, but you don't have to do it now. Russia supports you, but you are liable to lose our support if you are too stubborn."

U.S. Prosecution of Muslim Group Ends in Mistrial

The New York Times reports U.S. Prosecution of Muslim Group Ends in Mistrial:"

"A federal judge declared a mistrial on Monday in what was widely seen as the government’s flagship terrorism-financing case after prosecutors failed to persuade a jury to convict five leaders of a Muslim charity on any charges, or even to reach a verdict on many of the 197 counts. The case, involving the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and five of its backers, is the government’s largest and most complex legal effort to shut down what it contends is American financing for terrorist organizations in the Middle East."

"The case involved 197 counts, including providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. It also involved years of investigation and preparation, almost two months of testimony and more than 1,000 exhibits, including documents, wiretaps, transcripts and videotapes dug up in a backyard in Virginia."

And yet they couldn't convince a jury. So if you can't use the evidence you get secretly, is it worth it?


The MBTA has launched T-Radio on the Boston subway. I think it might be a plot to sell even more iPods so people can block the sound. They are taking public comments on it but there's already a petition to Stop T-Radio.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Valerie Plame Was Tortured?

I saw this via tristero. Larry Johnson apparently worked with Valerie Plame at the CIA and writes Valerie Plame Wilson Speaks Muzzled about how the CIA is not letting her tell part of her story. Apparently though he can...

"Because of a pending appeal in her freedom of speech case against the CIA, she cannot say anything about joining the CIA in September of 1985 fresh out of college. She cannot say anything about her initial impression of her Career Trainee classmates–such as Jim Marcinkowski, Brent Cavan, Mike ‘the Griz’ Grimaldi, Precious Flower, and mois. She is proscribed from telling you about wandering the forests of Camp Peary learning land navigation and she certainly will not, at least for now, be able to tell you about being taken hostage and subjected to torture for two days."

More on Israel's Bombing in Syria

The Raw Story last week on the supposed Syrian nuclear site bombed by the Israelis. "Allegations that a Syrian envoy admitted during a United Nations meeting Oct. 17 that an Israeli air strike hit a nuclear facility in September are inaccurate and have raised the ire of some in the US intelligence community, who see the Vice President’s hand as allegedly being behind the disinformation."

Who knows?

Zakaria on Iran: What planet are we on?

Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek writes Stalin, Mao And … Ahmadinejad?:

"Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

When the relatively moderate Mohammed Khatami was elected president in Iran, American conservatives pointed out that he was just a figurehead. Real power, they said (correctly), especially control of the military and police, was wielded by the unelected 'Supreme Leader,' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now that Ahmadinejad is president, they claim his finger is on the button. (Oh wait, Iran doesn't have a nuclear button yet and won't for at least three to eight years, according to the CIA, by which point Ahmadinejad may not be president anymore. But these are just facts.)"

Sen. Mike Gravel: No More Debates For You

Sen. Mike Gravel writes in the Huffington Post Why NBC and the DNC Want Me Out of the Debates. "In the past year, I have attended 11 national Democratic debates of which two were sponsored by corporate media giant NBC. However, last week, the network suddenly conjured up arbitrary polling and fundraising requirements specifically designed to exclude me. None of the previous debates I attended held such requirements."

He certainly makes them more fun and they only let him speak a couple of times.

Free My Phone

Walt Mossberg in Free My Phone explains what's wrong with the US cell phone economy. The phone companies should not control the phones the software that runs on those phones just because they control the network. Your ISP doesn't have a say in what computer you buy or what software you run, why should your phone company?

Blaming the Victim

I saw interviews yesterday and today that really bothered me. Yesterday Katie Couric interviewed Valerie Plame on 60 minutes. She asked "You know, you're a covert CIA agent for X number of years and suddenly, you know, you're in this Greta Garbo pose in your husband's Jaguar," about the Vanity Fair photo of her from January 2004, 6 months after Novak's article.

"Can you understand how people just were turned off by that whole thing? They felt, 'Gee maybe she's enjoying her celebrity a little too much,'" Couric remarks.

"Uh-huh," Plame Wilson admits. "Well, again, you have to ask 'Who are these people and what is their agenda?' 'Why are they asking that?'"

Why is Couric asking this? Oh and with the Plame stuff, will all the people who said she wasn't covert now apologize and admit you were shilling for the right wing nut jobs? No I didn't think so.

Ann Curry interviewed Benazir Bhutto this morning asking "If you had not returned these woman would have their husbands, their children, these 100 people would be alive these, these 500 people would not be injured...It was a very slow moving motorcade surrounded by many people, did you make the right choice to come back in this way?" Um, she didn't set the bomb, terrorists did. When Bhutto says "I find this question very uncomfortable" Curry says something like "Of course you do it's a painful question". No, it's a crazy question.

Rum Butternut Ice Cream

Someone should make this for me: Rum Butternut Ice Cream.

Information R/evolution

Michael Wesch created this video that explains the switch from paper-based information to digital information.
Like the Vision of Students video I posted the other day, I love the presentation style a wandering camera putting printed words in context. I don't know if there's a name for this kind of thing but I like and am not really sure how these are created.

If you can't do video check out Clay Shirky's Ontology is Overrated

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mona Lisa Revealed

"Mona Lisa Revealed: A Virtual Restoration tells the story of the development and uses of a remarkable high definition camera, and how its inventor, French photographer/engineer Pascal Cotte, applied his new technology to reveal and recover the original color and appearance of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa whose iconic image has fascinated Cotte since he was a child."

Average American Rant

John Rogers of Kung Fu Monkey has a fun rant in Farm Fetish. He points to a CNN piece where Brooke Anderson said: "This is a year when smaller, more independent films are being recognized in a big way, films with controversial theme, political themes, gay or transgender themes, but outside of Hollywood are the Oscars and the films that are honoring. Are they relevant to middle America? Well, I took a trip to Kansas to find out."

As Rogers writes: "For chrissake, only 17% of Americans live in rural settings anymore. Only 2 million of those people work on farms or ranches (USDA figures). Hell, only ten percent of the average farm family's income even comes from farming anymore (did you know that? I didn't. Funky). The median age of the United States is 37. I am more than willing to point out that the agriculture industry is a crucial, nay vital part of the American economic infrastructure generating a sizable amount of the GDP. But why in the name of John Deere's Blood-Soaked Wood-Chipper Gears, every time I hear a news report on what "real Americans" think do I wind up watching some farmer in their fifties and sixties bitch as they survey the blasted plains landscape behind them, and not only that, somehow their cultural observations are assumed to have more relevance than anyone else's?"

But it he gets really gets rolling when he says: "Four million people in the US play World of Warcraft. And yet, do I ever hear:

ANDERSON: We stopped by the gates of Ogrimmar in Durotar, on the east coast of Kalimdor, where one local told us Hollywood just can't relate to the level-grinding life.

UNIDENTIFIED ORC: They've never been back here, questing Razormane or Drygulch Ravine, y'know ... or farming for Peacebloom and Silverleaf. They're out of touch.

No. No I do not."

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Movie Review: The Holiday

Pleasant little chick flick. Cameron Diaz is a stressed out Hollywood trailer producer. Kate Winslet is trying to get over the sleezy guy at work who is now engaged to someone else and still hitting on her. She lives in a quaint old cottage in the English countryside and Diaz lives in an LA mansion. They meet online and swap homes for a 2 week vacation. Diaz falls for Jude Law and that ends up being a very fun romance. Winslet meets an old Hollywood screenwriter played by Eli Wallach and an young composer played by Jack Black. That story is not the traditional romance and while interesting, I found it much less compelling. It was fun fluff, well at least one of them was.

Movie Review: A Good Year

Russell Crowe is a high powered trader in London who inherits his uncle's small vineyard estate in France. HIs outlook on life inevitably changes. Nothing fantastic but pleasant enough.

Movie Review: Bottle Rocket

Wes Anderson bores me.

The Vela Incident

Damn Interesting has this article on The Vela Incident which I've never heard of:

"On 22 September 1979, sometime around 3:00am local time, a US Atomic Energy Detection System satellite recorded a pattern of intense flashes in a remote portion of the Indian Ocean. Examination of the data gathered by satellite Vela 6911 strongly suggested that the cause of these disturbances was a nuclear device. Unfortunately, US intelligence agencies were uncertain who was responsible for the detonation, and the US government was conspicuously reluctant to acknowledge it at all."

TiVo Update

I woke up this morning to find I had received the 9.1 update on my TiVo. This should fix some sound drop out problems I had experienced but I haven't had the problem in over a month anyway.

It adds boolean logic to wishlist searches which I had been looking forward to. However I don't think it can do what I want. I want a wishlist to find all new tv show pilots, so I use the keyword "pilot". The problem is this finds lots of movies about aviators. So I wanted to do keyword:pilot and not category:movie but I think you can only apply the not operator to keywords (or title keywords). If I click a thumbs button on the category I just get an error sound. Unfortunately movies aren't labeled as such so entering "movie" as a keyword doesn't work.

I also noticed Guru Guides for the first time, I don't think it was new with this update. It's a clever idea of letting you subscribe to a wishlist by created by a guru. One was for the AFI Top 100 Movies but I've seen all of those. I looked at ones by TV Guide and Salon and I wasn't impressed with their selections.

US Is Only Nation to Give Life Sentences to Children

The New York Times reports Lifers as Teenagers, Now Seeking Second Chance.

"In December, the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter. Indeed, the United States stands alone in the world in convicting young adolescents as adults and sentencing them to live out their lives in prison. According to a new report, there are 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at 13 or 14."

Interesting article. 185-1.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Obama: DOJ Official Must Be Fired

Meanwhile, this is what Obama is concentrating on.

Comcast Disrupts P2P

Salon explains the story that Comcast is managing their network traffic but systematically shutting down peer-to-peer connections; pointing out that this is network neutrality issue.

"This is a difficult story to explain, but it's quite important. For years, consumer advocates have been demanding that Congress and/or the Federal Communications Commission impose 'network neutrality' regulations that would force broadband providers (like Comcast) to treat all data on a network equally. Lawmakers have so far failed to do so.

Broadband providers, meanwhile, insist that they do treat all traffic equally, but they reserve the right to use certain technologies to 'manage' data on their network. The Comcast plan suggests that broadband providers mean something very broad by 'traffic management' -- including, it appears, purposefully stepping into your network sessions to shut them down."

Bill Moyers on Blackwater

Bill Moyers Journal this week is on Blackwater and I found it absolutely fascinating. He interviews Jeremy Scahill author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

A Lego Space Odyssey

A Democrat Shows Leadership!

The new FISA bill currently includes a provision granting amnesty to telecom companies who might have broken the law and provided private customer information to the government illegally as part of the warrantless wiretapping that was done.

On Thursday Sen Chris Dodd (D-CT) who happens to be running for president said he'd put a hold on the bill. That's right, rather than just issue press releases and then capitulate to Republicans he was going to do something.

Daily Kos explains what a hold is. "So what it comes down to is that the "hold" is simply a matter of "professional courtesy." I want a bill held, so I notify my party leader of my intention to object to any unanimous consent request to bring the bill to the floor. Implied in that is the hint that I will make everyone sorry they brought it up if they don't just give me what I want, and they know by now that any Senator can do that, so they might as well just go ahead and hold it, for the sake of everyone's sanity."

People are happy that "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on Thursday condemned Intelligence Committee Democrats for brokering a deal with the White House" but it strikes me as just more talk.

Apparently Dodd has raised $150,000 in small contributions in just 24 hours, more than in the last month. Today Dodd's campaign said he'd filibuster the bill if the hold wasn't honored by Democratic leadership. I wish it was him saying it and not his campaign but at least someone realized that he was doing something good and doing more of it would also be good. Now Joe Biden (D-MD) has said he'd join Dodd's Filibuster. So the question is what will other Dem's do?

I really think the Democrats in the Senate need to watch the original series Star Trek episode A Taste of Armageddon and learn the lesson of Eminiar VII. In a more practical approach Eschaton uses ActBlue to allow you to easily reward good behavior by a candidate with money. Chris Bowers in Open Left notes Dodd "has put together an impressive list of accomplishments and issue positions during the past year" and asks Why Not Dodd?

The Onion on the Election

The Onion nails the election:

Poll: Bullshit Is Most Important Issue For 2008 Voters

I will say that I was happy with HDNet World Report episode (#533) showing a New Hampshire Town Hall, with Democrat John Edwards. He spoke about issues and actually said stuff.

Democrats Fall For It Again

What digby said. The Democrats yet again let the Republicans find a distraction on the SCHIP bill in Pete Stark's (D-CA) comments.

"Everyone knows exactly why the Republicans sent out "statement after statement" about this obscure congressman's words yesterday --- distraction. Does anyone point that out? No. In fact, the damned Democrats go right along with this nonsense and "hold meetings" and leak to the press about how they agree with the Republicans agreeing that Stark caused the distraction, and basically showing themselves to be a bunch of pathetic fumblers falling for this nonsense over and over again."

New TSA Report

Bruce Schneier on the New TSA Report.

Brownback is Out

Sen. Brownback drops out of 2008 campaign. At least the country isn't completely crazy.

US Nuclear MIssile Mistake

In early september I wrote about 5 nuclear missiles that were flown from a US base in North Dakota to one in Louisiana with no explanation. I noted some speculation that they were taken to a base being used as a jumping off point for Middle East operations.

Today the Military Explains Nuclear Weapon Mistake. "A six-week Air Force investigation found fault with several officers, who have been relieved of duty, [Maj. Gen. Richard Newton, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations] said. He said the 5th Bomb Group commander at Minot was relieved of command, among others. Newton did not name them. Newton said the 5th Bomb Wing, which operates the B-52 has been "decertified from its wartime mission.""

"The weapons involved were the Advanced Cruise Missile, a "stealth" weapon developed in the 1980s with the ability to evade detection by Soviet radars. The Air Force said in March that it had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile fleet soon, and officials said after the breach that the missiles were being flown to Barksdale for decommissioning but were supposed to be disarmed."

So it probably wasn't planned but I'm not sure that makes it much better.

Dungeons & Dragons Still?

A 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is coming out next year. Apparently people still play the game using books and paper and dice. So the new edition will include computers.

Actually it seems like a reasonable idea. They built an online system so that people can play when not together around the kitchen table. The system provides the equivalent of tile maps, miniatures, dice rolling, and VOIP chat. The notion is to open up game playing to more people, or more precisely to people that now are too busy or too far apart to play. I can't imagine their customer base is growing, so if someone moves away from a group that could end the game for those people. Over the years that has to have happened a lot.

Personally I could see the nostalgia factor, but I see no reason to play D&D vs something like World of Warcraft.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mac Security

I saw this article in MacWorld, I will keep my Mac safe from other users and liked it. Bruce Schneier said it was good so I blogged it.

Daily Show Archive Online

Wow. Viacom has put up an archive of all Daily Show episodes. Here's an article discussing this move in the context of their law suit against you tube.

A Vision of Students Today

This video is a vision of students today:

It's an interesting way of presenting information.

A Day With Film Critics

After last night's film critics panel I did go back for both sessions to today (I took the T). Here's much more detail on the morning session than I'm willing to write.

They showed the Hotel Chevalier which made the second time I've seen it. It's a short that augments The Darjeeling Limited and is available for free from iTunes. For me, it convinced me I didn't want to see Darjeeling. I disliked it just as much the second time as I did the first. A couple of critics didn't like it but most did. It was also a starting point for a discussion about film and a theater projection versus digital and downloading and watching on a computer or an iPod (or even watching DVDs at home).

Film critics love films so many were quick to point out that "it's an entirely different experience" but as I find is usual for such a conversation they didn't say what those differences were. In Hotel Chevalier's case I didn't really find a difference. I was surprised that none of the critics had seen it on a computer but were still talking about how inferior an experience that was (it was shown at the start of press and festival screenings of Darjeeling). I saw it both ways and didn't like either. In the discussion of the general topic I think they missed the point that a big screen can be better, but it's perhaps the last 10 or 20% and most of the film probably does come across in different forms. Someone mentioned how they knew someone who had seen Lawrence of Arabia on TV many times before seeing it on a big screen and didn't see a difference. I agree that's kind of absurd, but the point is Lawrence was made to be seen on a wide screen and uses these large wide peripheral vistas deliberately. I'm very much in favor of letter boxing but many films work fine on TVs (e.g., The Holiday which I'll review shortly), particularly new large screen TVs. Still seeing a comedy with many people is a different aspect of the theater experience. It also took too long for someone to say that with DVD the difference is often the choice between seeing a film in inferior circumstances versus not seeing it at all. Seems like an easy choice to me.

They also spoke with a fair amount of derision about the democratization of filmmaking as more and more people can create films and post them online. They view most of the stuff as a waste; one asked who wants to see someone else's home movies? Personally I think it means more people will be knowledgeable of film language and how difficult it is to make a good movie. Sure there will be more crap, but it's probably a bell curve and there will be more good stuff too. There are lots of films made in film schools, do the bad ones make the good ones worse? You don't want to see just anyone's home movies, but I've seen clips of the ones Spielberg made as a kid. It took a while for one to point out that with more to see perhaps the role of critics becomes more important.

They expressed a fair amount of frustration with being a professional film critic in this day and age. As newspapers come under more and more financial pressures, it's hard for film critics to make a living. That is a real problem as the industry undergoes a paradigm shift. Music videos didn't actually kill the radio stars, it merely changed them. Several said they had done music reviews for a long time in addition to film reviews. One spoke of interest in video game reviews as interactive film while another had no interest what-so-ever.

I enjoyed the day. They sometimes did go on too long too often but I can very much relate to that. It was most interesting when they (often) disagreed and when they wandered off-topic, for example when they spoke about bad remakes. While they often spoke about having a dialog with their readers I didn't understand that as they publish their views and that's the end of it (aside from a few letters to the editor or the critic). This was a conversation between them and that was fun to watch.

I found myself at times very much wanting to add my opinions to the discussion. It was fun to listen but I enjoy speaking too. While I didn't know many of the films they referenced I figure I've seen about 4,000 movies and I've read a number of books on film. I know enough to have an informed opinion if not a critical one. Then again, I could be the kind of blogger they hate.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An Evening With Film Critics

I went to a panel discussion of film critics at the Coolidge Corner Theatre tonight. They had some well known critics including several I've read in the Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly. Parts were interesting but it took a while to get good. Tonight's session was Introduction to the Current State of Film Critics and since it started late, the first hour was really an introduction to how these critics got introduced to criticism.

Most seemed to write from an early age and many started as music critics. I wanted to ask how many had formal training but didn't get a chance to. It wasn't at all clear from their answers. Most cited Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris as influences.

They discussed the distinction between reviewing and critiquing. Reviews are meant to be read before the reader sees the film and critiques are read after. In the reviews I've written I've struggled with this distinction. It's certainly not easy to describe enough about a film to talk about it without giving things away. And for some films I've wanted to write criticism (like I did with the Sopranos finale) but I figure my readers prefer reviews. I'd love to hear feedback on this.

I currently read very little about a film before seeing it. I usually depend on aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic to determine if I want to see a film, and then after seeing it I read reviews I find via imdb. I do this because I find trailers and reviews typically give away too much. The panel complained about trailers and said that studies have shown that audiences prefer trailers that give away too much.

I was very surprised to hear some of them writing in the mainstream press say they wanted people to read their "reviews" after seeing the film. Several described their self-imposed rules about giving things away which seemed pretty reasonable. However several then went off about spoilers and how at sometime you have to be able to talk about them. I stand by my comments from 2 years ago on the topic that spoilers are fine as long as you mark them and there is no statute of limitations because it's rude to ruin things for younger generation. If you want to write criticism to be read after people have seen the film, mark it such and give away anything you want. Usually when I read reviews after seeing the film I'm frustrated that they don't talk enough about the film.

They also spoke (and almost argued) about the effect of editors on their work. Certainly the print publications are feeling more space pressure. The space devoted to reviews is less that it was. Some complained about editorial influences on reviews but only one admitted to it actually happening to them and then it was only once. That example was for Fahrenheit 9/11 and after finding out she was writing a negative review, the editor had another reviewer write a positive one to run along side hers. While that is annoying, it didn't change her review. Some also complained about not being able to write about their favorite obscure movie vs some mainstream blockbuster of the week. Others recognized the limitations of the job. It struck me that editors were doing their jobs of, you know editing. It also struck me that the critics who were going on and on tonight could have used some editors.

They were very happy when one questioner mentioned that when they read a review that referred to an old film they weren't familiar with, they would order it from netflix. One lamented the decline of the theater experience but really appreciated that smaller films can get a larger audience. One commented that perhaps the long tail economic theory would help to employ film critics. Their other comment about the internet is that more and more people are becoming critics since anyone can write a review. One lamented that people without a knowledge of film were doing so. I'll admit to taking a bit of offense at that, particularly after so many said they started out writing reviews for themselves or small publications.

Overall it was pretty good and I appreciated the opportunity. I'll try to go to the two sessions tomorrow, if I can figure out where to park in Coolidge Corner, it's not easy.

The Useless Internet Knowledge Quiz

I don't know as much as I thought. On The Useless Internet Knowledge Quiz I only scored 45%.

Movie Review: Michael Clayton

The reviews for Michael Clayton all say it's a movie for grown-ups with really strong performances. I agree with that. They also say it's a great film but I'm not so sure about that. I think it's better looking back on it than it was sitting through it. Though that might be influenced by the woman sitting near me in the theater wearing way way too much perfume.

George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, a "fixer" at a high powered law firm. While some describe him as miracle worker, he describes himself as a janitor that cleans up messes. He deals with the shadier parts of his clients' and firms' problems so he's not a partner in the firm. Rather he's the goto man of Marty Bach the firm's head played by Sydney Pollack who always seems to play a morally compromised man in charge. The firm is a representing U/North, an agrochemical company in a class action suit. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, one of Clayton's friends and colleagues who has been on the case for years and Tilda Swinton plays is U/North's legal council Karen Crowder. When Arthur goes off his meds and his actions threaten the case, Clayton is assigned to fix things and Crowder has to make sure her company is protected.

So that's the plot, but in an odd definition of that word, that's not what the film is about. The film is well titled as it's about Clayton. He was a good prosecutor who became a good litigator and then found he was a great fixer. He's divorced and regularly sees his young son. He's had a gambling problem and tried to open a restaurant with his brother who had a drug or drinking problem. That failed and now he owes $75,000. Clayton seems at the end of his rope. He doesn't like where he is in life and unlike his cases, he doesn't known how to fix his life.

My issues with the film stem from the fact that we don't see Clayton's problems as much as we're told about them. E.g., we don't know anything about his divorce. It could be he worked too much, or his gambling or maybe he had an affair or anything else. Perhaps it doesn't matter, but we're in the same situation for all aspects of him. We don't know about his gambling problem, just that he had one. We don't know about the restaurant, just that it failed. We don't know about his parents or siblings, just that his brother had a problem. The film's arc is not about Clayton but about the end of the U/North case, even though we see it mostly through Clayton's involvement.

Michael Clayton is written and directed by Tony Gilroy. It's his first directing job but he's written before, mostly notably the three Bourne films. The film dives into the middle and then flashes back to 4 days prior. The first 45 minutes or so require a lot from the viewer to piece together who's who and what's going on. A lot of the conversations don't have nouns, just things like "Are we going to do this thing?" What helps is that the performances are all really strong. Clooney shows on his face all the struggles Clayton is going through. it's subtle, he's not the most emotive character but it's all there. Wilkinson has a showier role playing a manic depressive off his meds. He straddles the line of brilliant lawyer or crazy person very well. Swinton also has a juicy role as a nervous executive practicing her spoken lines and crossing the moral ones.

The story might be a little over the top but just a little. It could be something you read about in the paper and all the characters come across as real people, not mere characters. I think one reason people like this film is that no one is stupid. It's about smart people in complex and difficult circumstances. Unlike for the vast majority of films made today, there's no eye-rolling involved in watching Michael Clayton and no suspension of disbelief needed. That's not something to be discounted. But I would have liked more background on Clayton, perhaps seeing more than merely 4 days of the story. I don't need to be spoon fed but I don't like having to assume everything about a character; particularly in a character study. Stories about lawyers selling their souls for their careers (that is for money) are almost cliche, to do it well you need to bring something more to the table and not just make your viewers fill in the details how they want (that sounds like my issues with the Sopranos finale). Michael Clayton is clearly a good movie that deserves its 90% Rotten Tomatoes rating, but I'm not so sure about reviews that say it's the best movie of the year.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Interview with Lawrence Lessig on Corruption

Lessig is known for having working on copyright reform for the last 10 years. He recently announced he's shifting his effort to corruption reform. This seven and half minute interview explains it all nicely.

Who Leaked the Bin Laden Video?

I still want to know Who Leaked the Bin Laden Video?. TPM's article from last Wed describing how Dana Perino kinda implied it was the Director of National Intelligence before back peddling and his denial is the latest I've seen.

Verizon Shares Your Call Data Unless You Opt-Out

Gizmodo reports Verizon Wireless Shares Your Call Data Unless You Opt-Out. Call 1-800-333-9956 to opt-out. IP has info here. I don't really understand this but I opted out.

Gore Derangement Syndrome

Paul Krugman in the New York Times on Gore Derangement Syndrome. It's a good quick read, but here are some conclusions:

"The worst thing about Mr. Gore, from the conservative point of view, is that he keeps being right...Which brings us to the biggest reason the right hates Mr. Gore: in his case the smear campaign has failed. He’s taken everything they could throw at him, and emerged more respected, and more credible, than ever. And it drives them crazy."

Scientists Unravel Health Benefits Of Garlic

Scientists unravel health benefits of garlic "Now US researchers say they have figured out precisely why the pungent clove makes such a valuable health tonic: it boosts the body's own production of a compound that relaxes blood vessels, increases blood flow, and prevents blood clots and oxidative damage."

Team Fortress 2

I've never heard of Team Fortress 2 (or even 1) but it seems to be a video game that is an Incredibles take on America's Army. Windows only but I might be convinced. Here are 8 minutes of combined trailers. Hilarious.

Recent Torture News

Think Progress reports on CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson who quit in protest of the Bush administration’s torture policies. Apparently CIA Director Michael Hayden has started an unusual investigation into Helgerson.

The New York Times had an editorial condemning Bush's policies. "Truly banning the use of torture would not jeopardize American lives; experts in these matters generally agree that torture produces false confessions. Restoring the rule of law to Guantánamo Bay would not set terrorists free; the truly guilty could be tried for their crimes in a way that does not mock American values. Clinging to the administration’s policies will only cause further harm to America’s global image and to our legal system. It also will add immeasurably to the risk facing any man or woman captured while wearing America’s uniform or serving in its intelligence forces. This is an easy choice."

Andrew Sullivan pointed me at this account of a reunion of WWII interrogators. "'We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,' said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess.'"

"I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war," said Weiss, chairman of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy and a human rights and trademark lawyer in New York City.

"During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone," said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. "We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I'm proud to say I never compromised my humanity."

FYI, the interrogations took place at a secret installation in Fort Hunt, VA that went only by the designation "P.O. Box 1142". 4,000 POWs were questioned for days or weeks before being registered with the Red Cross, which violated the Geneva Conventions. "During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone," said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. "We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I'm proud to say I never compromised my humanity." In addition, none of the interrogators have mentioned anything about their top secret work until a few years ago.

Meanwhile William Quinn was a US interrogator in Iraq just a couple of years ago and he's already compelled to say Never forget that our enemies are human, too "I suspect that, when we are successful, it will be because we recognize our enemies as human and develop plans that recognize their humanity. We need to be tough, and we shouldn't back down from a fight, but we also need to learn that empathy can be as powerful a weapon as missiles."

The BBC reports not on US torture of terrorism suspects but of inmates of the US prison system. "Our findings were not based on rumour or suspicion. They were based on solid evidence, chiefly videotapes that we collected from all over the U.S. All the lawyers I spoke to during our investigations shared Carlson’s belief that Abu Ghraib, far from being the work of a few rogue individuals, was simply the export of the worst practices that take place in the domestic prison system all the time." The videos are horrible.

More Frontline on Cheney

Frontline debutes a new episode tomorrow Cheney's Law. "For three decades, Vice President Dick Cheney has waged a secretive, and often bitter battle to expand the power of the presidency. Now in a direct confrontation with Congress, as the administration asserts executive privilege to head off investigations into domestic wiretapping and the firing of U.S. attorneys, FRONTLINE meticulously traces the behind-closed-doors battle within the administration over the power of the presidency and the rule of law."

Spencer Ackerman say sin TPMmuckraker "Readers of Barton Gellman and Jo Becker's Cheney series, "Angler," will be familiar with a lot of this material...But that's not to say that Frontline doesn't advance the story. It deftly ties the Ashcroft-hospital bed incident to the appointment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the subsequent U.S. attorney firings. Much of the film's final 20 minutes presents the argument that the cronyization of DOJ occurred, with Cheney's blessing, to ensure that the department didn't balk, as Goldsmith and his allies did, over torture or surveillance or indefinite detentions. 'It was an effort by the White House to gain control of Justice,' New York Times reporter Scott Shane tells Frontline, 'to make sure there's no repeat of that rebellion of 2004.'"

Photoshop Wonders

jwz points to some amazing pictures with similar histograms. See his site and follow the links.

History of Religion

Here's a 90 second movie showing History of Religion as they spread around the globe.

Better Iraq Numbers

The Washington Post says "The evidence of a drop in violence in Iraq is becoming hard to dispute."

"In September, Iraqi civilian deaths were down 52 percent from August and 77 percent from September 2006, according to the Web site The Iraqi Health Ministry and the Associated Press reported similar results. U.S. soldiers killed in action numbered 43 -- down 43 percent from August and 64 percent from May, which had the highest monthly figure so far this year. The American combat death total was the lowest since July 2006 and was one of the five lowest monthly counts since the insurgency in Iraq took off in April 2004."

Gateway Pundit has some graphs and Andrew Sullivan comments too. Protein Wisdom has a large collection of good news clippings.

As I look at I see that there is definitely a dip but there have been others before. Violence being down is a good thing, but wouldn't you expect that with more troops? The change in Anbar is still because we left there to surge in Baghdad. And everyone still agrees there hasn't been political progress.

Water on Saturn's Moon Enceladus?

The Guardian asks Is there life on a moon of Saturn? "Dark, organic-rich material is splattering the face of Iapetus as it orbits Saturn, like a car whose windscreen is sprayed with water from other cars on a rainy day.'Dusty material spiralling in from outer moons [of Saturn] hits Iapetus head-on, and causes the forward-facing side of Iapetus to look different than the rest of the moon,' said Tilmann Denk, a Cassini team member based at the Free University, Berlin. Which moon is responsible for imposing this indignity on Iapetus remains unknown, however." Images are here.

Bill Maher Last Friday

Bill Maher on his Friday show took on lapel pins in his New Rules segement:

His panel guests were Paul Krugman, Tucker Carlson and Joy Behar. Krugman started things off well. When Maher brought up the Republican debates Krugman said "But these debates are getting better. Remember in the first debate they were all competing over who was most pro-torture. Now they're back to who's, the last one just who's most in favor of bankrupting the federal government as fast as possible. That's improvement."

I haven't really seen Tucker Carlson since the Jon Stewart episode, and having seen him now I'm really happy about that. First off, he took Stewart's advice and is no longer wearing a bow tie. One constant with Carlson was that he spoke a lot, spoke quickly, and spoke loudly. His constant rhetoric was annoying. Don't show a child who's losing health insurance because Bush vetoed SCHIP because no child can be an example. Just because the government is talking about bombing iran doesn't mean anything because the Pentagon has plans to bomb every country.

He wanted to ask Hilary why health insurance should be required for everyone. Why should the government force people to buy insurance. He thought Krugman was all about choice, Krugman managed to say "not at other people's expense". Behar mentioned what about children who can't buy for themselves but no one followed up. I wanted someone to say, fine, if you don't buy health insurance, when you should up at the hospital, if you can't pay you don't get treated. I suppose unconscious people should be treated and if they can't afford it, they become hospital workers until they pay off their tab.

I really wish Maher would stop having the Carlsons and Coulters on his show. There have to be reasonable Republicans who can make their case, right?

Sunday, October 14, 2007


I was in NJ for the weekend and drove back on Sunday. What was normally a 4 hour drive took 7. That's what happens when they close an interstate, but i had a better day than some.

Earlier in the day we visited the Morris Museum which for a small town museum was quite fun. They have one of the world's largest music box (excuse me musical automaton) collection and are opening a new wing dedicated to it. They also had an exhibit of Steve McCurry photographs which was just amazing. You can see some of his works here. In fact the exhibit was mostly what's listed there under Fine Art Prints. My favorite was Uttar Pradesh, India 1999.

Motion to Recommit and FISA

Daily Kos has an article FISA: A lobbying (and procedure) lesson describing the motion to recommit and how it affected the FISA bill in the summer.

Al Gore

Open Left has What I Have Heard On An Al Gore Run which is the best rationale I've heard. Basically he doesn't want to go against Hilary's machinery and he'll get in only if she falters.

Meanwhile the Huffington Post makes the point that people are Missing the Real Message in Nobel Prize, it's about the climate stupid, not whether or not Al runs.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Krugman on the Edwards Plan

Paul Krugman explains Why not single-payer? as a solution to health care. A single payer system will take longer to pass. The Edwards plan with many similarities can lead to it eventually but more importantly can pass quickly.

Fox Sucks

Think Progress reports Fox News And Right-Wing Bloggers Attack Gore’s Nobel Prize.

Al Gore Wins Nobel Peace Prize, and...

Al Gore won (ok shares) the Nobel Peace Prize 2006 "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change." Good for him.

Now people are speculating this will push him to run for president. I just don't see this happening. In the last year he's won an Oscar, and Emmy and now a Nobel Prize (among other awards). He's doing better as private citizen then he ever did as an elected one. Why run for president?

But I did find this funny: Gore Wins Nobel--Supreme Court Rules He Cannot Accept.

Questions About the US Budget Deficit

The economic news yesterday was that the US Budget Deficit Drops to 5-Year Low. While that seems like good news I have questions I haven't been able to find answers to. I thought the war was not included in the budget that Bush has submitted to Congress. Is the cost of this war included in this deficit or not? $162.8 billion may not seem like much of a deficit (um ok, it does seem huge) but compared to the surplus Bush inherited it seems pretty bad. Republicans will no doubt blame the bursting bubble and 9/11 but isn't cause of the difference really the tax cuts and unnecessary war? Finally Bush is proud that projects show the deficit continuing to decrease until 2012 when it becomes an actual surplus (again); but the reason it goes from deficit to surplus that year is that's when his tax cut expire. Wouldn't ending the tax cuts sooner mean a switch to surplus sooner; and yet Republicans are trying to extend the tax cuts.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Movie Review: In the Valley of Elah

Explain to me how a movie written and directed by Paul Haggis, someone who in the last 3 years has been nominated for five academy awards and won two of them, and starring the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon, and about the war in Iraq, can be leaving theaters after just 3 weeks? It's not playing in the City of Boston. I caught it in my suburban arty theater. Explain to me how the reviews can be mixed, usually complaining about how obvious it is and yet I think they've all missed the point?

The film dives right in with Hank Deerfield (Jones) being woken up by a phone call informing him that his son Michael (Jonathan Tucker) is AWOL. Hank says he's in Iraq but he's told his unit's been in New Mexico for a few days. Hank is a retired MP and goes off on his own to find his son. After a little bit, Michael's remains are found just off a kind of barren strip of road. Michael wasn't just killed, he was stabbed over 40 times, his body cut into small pieces, doused with something like gasoline, set afire, and left for animals to pick at. This is not a way that anyone should die. It's also not how any parent should see their child and yet both Hank and his wife Joan (Sarandon) demand to do just that.

The local police begin an investigation but the MPs quickly take over. Hank is looking into it himself and after a little bit gets civilian Detective Emily Sanders (Theron) to pursue the case despite orders to the contrary. Hank seems to have better investigative skills than anyone else. He chastises Sanders for how badly the department handled the crime scene and routinely finds leads after it seems like a dead end. He even pursues and takes down a suspect that escapes from 3 cops and requires all 3 cops to get him off the suspect.

The procedural aspects of the film are a little slow and drawn out. Hank gets Michael's damaged cell phone and is having someone restore video clips which come in one a day. A package arrives at their home that Michael sent to himself but Hank tells Joan not to open it. It's obvious to anyone who's seen a cop drama that the military is covering something up, we just have to wait for Hank to get through all the roadblocks.

And yet while it seems to play out that way, it really doesn't. Hank is wrong about things and this seems lost on most negative reviews I've seen. Sure there's an obvious theme that war is hell and has a dramatic effect on the boys we send to fight them (in one scene, explicitly pimply faced boys). But the reviews that say this is anti-Iraq is missing the point. It's anti-war because of what war does to people. Hank is old school military. He is honorable and disciplined. On the way to find his boy he stops at a school with a US flag flying upside down and teaches the immigrant responsible for it the error of his ways. He remakes the hospital corners on his motel bed. For a while I thought his only character development was that he cut himself shaving.

But there are pieces to pieced together. He strikes me as lonely. His relationship with Joan is stoic at best and there are hints of previous arguments and an inability to deal with them. Only one of Hank's friends is mentioned and they haven't spoken in years; Hank didn't know he retired 14 years prior and never mentioned that his first son died. He is gruff although mostly polite to anyone who is not military. Sanders points out he's a brilliant investigator but he's spending his time hauling gravel. In one flashback we see his son call him for help and he's completely incapable of offering any. In as much as the newly returned Iraqi soldiers can't talk about what they went through, neither can Hank. He's what they will become in 30 years.

The film is deliberately put together and the mood is glum. The colors are washed out and the music depressing; as is the subject matter. The performances are compelling. Jones and Sarandon are more obvious but Theron is excellent too. Her character isn't too smart (except in comparison to her coworkers), slept her way to her current position and as a result is disliked by her colleagues and boss. She's raising her son alone and seems a good person who gets inspired by Hank's persistence. The supporting characters may be one dimensional, but they are not Hollywood caricatures.

Those inured by too many CSI episodes may miss the point that this is not a police procedural, the last scene should make that clear. As horrendous as the murder itself is, the cause of the crime is so much worse. But sadly this is nothing new to this war.