Thursday, September 25, 2008

Time for a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster

Last week, while perusing a used bookstore with Pastor X, I picked up the book I should have read back in middle school. I watched the movie (on opening weekend, I believe, with, among others, the FG and The Scot) and loved it. But decades ago, I was still overly skeptical of science fiction.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was brilliant! It was sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek and irreverent and insightful. Just as his house is about to be bulldozed to make room for a freeway, human protagonist Arthur Dent's planet is destroyed by otherworldly beings to make room for an intergalactic highway. Dent is thrown together with a motley crew, including the only other human left in existence, a woman who ditched him at a party back on Earth to hang out with, as it turns out, the President of the Galaxy. Wackyness ensues, sandwiching fleeting but perceptive commentaries on various beings' social behaviors and beliefs. Spoiler alert: the answer to the question about life, the universe, and everything is 42, and Earth was a giant computer built to figure out what the question itself is.

So then I ran back to the bookstore and bought the second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It picked up where Hitchhiker left off, with the crew on an odyssey through space and time to discover the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything.Suffice to say, I thought this second book toned down the wacky factor a tad (but just a tad!) and waxed a little more existential (in a satirical sort of way). Restaurant did also have longish stretches where some of the protagonists wander around trying to solve their own identity crises (particularly Zaphod, the President of the Universe, who is unaware that those in powerful positions are supposed to distract attention away from those who actually have power). But it was all fine by me. It ended rather abruptly, though.

So now, of course, I'm hooked....

Xtina has kindly lent me her big thick volume of the books, so I now have reading material for the next few weeks!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

No Soy Marinero

In the ongoing quest for free food events (though the grants post this Friday, so it shouldn't last much longer), Lady Grace and I met up with two others at an alumni function on Wednesday. Turns out we were the only ones over the age of 23, so we ditched the private event and headed to the main area of the bar (but not before I got two platefuls of free hors d'oeuvres), where it happened to be trivia night.

We fared badly, but one of the questions was "What Mexican-American singer's former bandmembers went on to form Journey?" Partly because I sang "La Bamba" at karaoke two weeks beforehand, and partly because we couldn't name any other Mexican-American singers, we guessed Ritchie Valens. (Incorrect. It was Carlos Santana.)

Based on that, though, I decided to watch La Bamba via Netflix Instant Viewing. Except for the plane crash with Buddy Holly and the one hit song, I didn't really know anything about Ritchie Valens (or, for that matter, that "La Bamba" was a Mexican folk song before it was rockified.)

Also, ever since I watched Stand and Deliver as a kid, I'd been a fan of Lou Diamond Phillips. Then a few years ago, I found out he was a hapa brotha, which escalated the cool factor.

At any rate, as biopics about musicians go, it was pretty good. The genre has a formula, like all genres do: struggling, talented artist overcomes personal issues to make it big, then struggles with success. Movies about modern musicians seem to always have a nostalgic tinge to them, too, and this one was no different. The stories are really about innocence lost, whether it's the singer's or the audience's; viewers are left only to compare the depiction with contemporary entertainment legacies.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I finally finished Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People, four months after the author led a training for candidates at work this summer. (For some odd reason, I kept falling asleep at my work desk while trying to read it....)

Having read George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant almost four years ago (it was the book that catapulted Lakoff from linguistic, nerdy obscurity into the mainstream political spotlight) and having had to attend many work-related trainings on the concept of issue "framing" as well as re-reading articles for a policy class last spring, there was nothing conceptually new in Horn's book. What was different was that he relied on polls and surveys to test frames, which was fascinating.

The idea of framing is, to be blunt, that words are loaded. For better or worse, like it or not, certain words carry certain images and convey specific wordviews (or frames). Everybody knows the "illegal alien" versus "undocumented worker" frames -- each phrase conveys a different ideology. ("Illegal" lumps people with murderers and rapists, "alien" makes them "not one of us"; "undocumented" calls attention to the paperwork, and "worker" on the fact that individuals are both working as well as, well, hired by someone...) But my favorite example is the conservative "death tax" versus the progressive "estate tax." It's not hard to figure out how those words affect voters.

Conservatives have mastered the art of framing; progressives have not, sadly. For the past five years, it's been drilled into my head that using the Other Side's frames does nothing but reinforce the Opposing Viewpoint. (So anytime anyone's ever said "gay marriage" I've always responded with "marriage equality" or "equal marriage rights" or "marriage for same-sex couples" ... if nobody's ever noticed...) Lakoff as the cognitive linguist goes into detail how frames determine the starting point for all political discourse; Horn backs it up with survey data to show how many Americans will run off and vote for politicians that oppose their values, based on how an issue is presented. Framing the Debate is specifically geared to persuading the "moveable middle" voters.

A cynical person might think that framing is just another attempt at political spin, but it's not. The vast right wing network has been honing the craft of framing for almost thirty years now, to the point where frames that were deliberately constructed to further one political agenda have entered the mainstream vocabulary (see "partial birth"). The values, as Horn points out, stay the same; it's the language that changes.

Horn's three frames are freedom, security, and opportunity. Every issue can be framed according to these values -- frequently all of them, depending on the goal. Three years ago, after the Washington State Supreme Court smacked down our challenge to the state DOMA, one recourse for same-sex couples was domestic partnerships. The first few weeks of the legislative session after the ruling, our framing around the bill was one of freedom: LGBT Americans work hard and serve their country, and should have the right to basic benefits that the government only gives to married straight couples. Then, as it became obvious that the "denial of rights" argument worked with some legislators and constituents but not others, the framing switched: LGBT familes and their children deserve basic protections in order to remain stable and healthy. That's the frame that worked, and the bill passed. Both frames are true, but only one persuaded enough elected officials and members of the public at that time.

I like how Horn ends his book, by saying framing is just one of many, many tools in a progressive activist's kit. There's still a lot of organizing and hard work, not just talking to do!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Feeding time at the U

A classmate recommended King Corn last spring while we were surviving the Econ class and dealing with the assignment on farm subsidies.

The documentary can be summed up pretty easily: most corn grown in the U.S. is destined to be made into cattle feed for the beef industry (and cows are grass-chewin' creatures) or corn syrup for soft drinks and other highly processed foods.

It could have been as horrifying as Supersize Me, but it wasn't. The filmmakers rented an acre of a corn farm in Iowa for a year, talked to locals, learned about the corn-growing business, and then followed all the routes their corn might make after harvest. It started a bit slowly, but picked up towards the middle. It
wasn't as in-depth as it could have been, but it was a good effort, with some enlightening bits.

Scary in totally different way: Best in Show, which I watched with Ms. Tungsten before I left the Emerald City. I have all of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries in my Netflix queue, and have been watching them when the mood is right. This one was, as expected, funny -- though to date, A Mighty Wind is still my favorite. Maybe because folk music is dearer to my heart than dog shows!

And speaking of Netflix... its online viewing offerings (along with Hulu) are my saving grace while broke and bored, before 1) the fellowships and loans post in a few weeks and 2) the homework assignments start to eat away at the free time.

Currently getting through the first season of 30 Rock. HILARIOUS!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Next up: a Star Wars convention...

In the ongoing quest to read all of Connie Willis' books, I finally got around to
Light Raid.
It's essentially a war spy story, almost Blitz-esque with its regular air raids. (And one of Willis' favorite periods for constructing alternate realities is the Blitz, as we know from some of her short stories...) Except in this delightfully cute story, a teenage war refugee escapes from a home for war orphans and heads home to find that her mother is accused of treason, her dad is shellshocked, and global alliances hinge on her investigative abilities. The hilarious assortment of nations at war, though, are Quebec and Victoria. (Sleeply little Port Townsend -- really in Washington State where, in fact, where my cousin lives-- gets a nod as one of the cities full of secret agents and military secrets.) In all, a great way to spend an evening when you're still tired from being cheap and walking around the city on errands.

Unlike a lot of Willis' stories, Light Raid did not involve time travel. This is only relevant because I also finally got around to reading H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. It is surprisingly short! Appropriately, it is the grandfather of time travel stories. Though I knew the general plot (especially since "Eloi" is a typical answer in many crosswords),

I didn't expect to like it as much as I did. But I was roped in from the very first pages with the dialogue and debate on the Fourth Dimension!

One thing that irked me (but only slightly) was the Time Traveller's assumptions about the descendants of capitalists and workers. The man goes 800,000 years into the future for all of eight days, manages to become semi-fluent in Eloi, and by pure observation of a completely unfamiliar world, manages to somehow know how human history progressed. Riiight... because if someone from a mere 1000 years ago traveled forward to our 21st century, they could definitely do the same thing. Also, though Wells had socialist leanings, there's still a smattering of classism in both the 19th-century characters' attitudes as well as in how the whole narrative of future class stratification between the Eloi and the Morlocks plays out. Ironic!

It did remind me at times of The Planet of the Apes ... but of course The Time Machine was not only the first (I'm pretty sure!) time-travel story, but one of the first to offer the "humans will annihilate themselves" theme. So many other stories have drawn from it heavily, and it's so much a part of pop culture at this point, that I didn't realize how much of the story was already imprinted in my brain. I'm glad I finally read it!

Both Wells' classic and Willis' story did reinforce some of my preconceptions about the sci-fi genre, though: that many sci-fi tales are really just concerns about present social situations (technology, racial inequality, sexuality, or war), transposed onto a thinly disguised alternate present or set in a future that can be altered only if present-day humans change their ways.

Classes resume tomorrow!

Friday, September 12, 2008


Lesson learned the hard way #1760: Saving money this month by walking everywhere and NOT buying a T/bus pass is excruciatingly exhausting.

And it's only been three days! Granted, campus is about 45 minutes to an hour away by foot, depending on which route I walk (it's 45 minutes cutting through the Fens, but I won't do that if it's dark). And lugging books and then groceries (10 minutes away) is extra-tiring. But still!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rock of Ages

Admittedly, I was packing while watching the last film in the Rocky series, so I don't know if the final Rocky movie was actually as bad as I thought it was...

The plot: Rocky returns! Again. Except this time, he can't come to terms with Adrian's death, his businessman son is embarrassed about him, and the online fight community claims he was never the best. To vindicate his record, prove his sport is still relevant, and join Indiana Jones in celebrating elderly sports-action heroes, Rocky fights a much, much younger boxer.

It did wrap up the series neatly, though. I was really only a fan of the first two Rocky films; after the second it all got a little ridiculous.

La Madre has an odd DVD collection, and I found Amazing Grace sandwiched between 3:10 to Yuma and The Pursuit of Happyness. (Strangely, La Madre's media collection gained numerous R-rated films only after Mi Hermana, the youngest sibling, left for college... there were virtually none when I was a teenager.)

At any rate, I thought Amazing Grace was going to be the Merchant Ivory version of the life of John Newton, the former slave ship captain and author of the well-known hymn. Plus, I vaguely remember watching sometthing similar on PBS as a child.

However, the film turned out to be the story of William Wilberforce, the abolitionist MP credited with outlawing the slave trade in Britain.

Unfortunately, the actor who played Wilberforce was also the guy who, many years ago, played Horatio Hornblower in a series which I was sliiiightly obsessed with in college. So in between packing sessions, I kept wondering

The film was the typical rushed period piece. I didn't know enough about Wilberforce, so I read his wikipedia entry while watching parts of the movie. Looks like they toyed with the timeline a bit, but other than that it was okay. I'd recommend it only for its educational inspiration, not its stellar acting or plot twists. (Because the abolition bill eventually passes in Parliament. Not to ruin the ending or anything...)

The one interesting story development, where I actually stopped packing watch, was the discussion on whether or not criticizing one's country was appropriate in a time of war. The irony struck me as timely (especially given today's anniversary, though I watched the film a week ago: my first job out of college, though horribly traumatic, relied on bashing the Bush Administration. Then 9/11 changed political advocacy forever. Gathering signatures for the public comment period on drilling in ANWR suddenly had to stop and be reframed, as did every other legislative or policy issue.

At any rate, the irony comes in the fact that I was packing to finish up a degree in public policy, in the city where I working seven years ago on 9/11 when that whole "patriotic" debate took on new meaning. It was just kind of interesting how Amazing Grace highlighted the same dilemma for a different time, a different issue, and a different set of political organizers.

The rest of the vacay was spent with family and friends. The neffy will be crawling by the time I'm home for the elections!

Lesson learned the hard way #1757 : Shoes are damn heavy!
Especially when you want to take, uh... many, many pairs back to Boston, but end up having to leave some in Seattle. (Side note: many, many pairs awaited in Beantown...) But since the airline luggage limit is now 50 lbs, shoes now rival books as the heaviest things I transport, and are thus the cause of much re-arranging and re-packing. Arrrgh.

Lesson learned the hard way #1758: There can be moments of bliss in old, unhealthy behavior patterns
Last-minute, unexpected relapses could also be indicative of, in the words The Champ, a subconscious but nonetheless determined attempt to be "as dramatic and tragic as possible." Ahem.

Lesson learned the hard way #1759: Your cat allergy is very, very serious
And apparently it's possible to either build up a tolerance to Benadryl, or for the FG's cat to somehow haunt the couch she sold to the The Champ several years ago. (The cover was washed the night I crashed on it, and the anaphylactic reaction I got after sitting on it for a few minutes didn't lessen even when I overdosed on OTC drugs and moved to another room, causing both The Champ and Ms. Tungsten to rearrange bedding options.) Whatever mystery caused the abnormally strong reaction, it warrants a doctor's visit before the end of the year.

Summer days drifted away, indeed....

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Because she'll have the nuclear codes..."

Sarah Palin, that is.

That was my favorite line in this AP interview with Matt Damon:

Yeah, it all does kind of seem like a bad Disney plot...

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sleep, read, veg out, repeat...

The internship ended last week, just in time for Labor Day. I learned a hell of a lot about elections this summer, and think I will return to school next week a better-prepared student of public policy. I doorbelled for candidates for the first time ever, examined past election results at the precinct level, and met a lot of great people trying to change politics.

But vacay is, of course, an all-powerful force that makes lazy pumpkins out of even the most overly stimulated graduate student. =)

Ms. Tungsten lent me Courtesans: Money, Sex and Power in the Nineteenth Century. The story of five English courtesans in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the book traces the various experiences of women who became prostitutes. The point of the book is that, in a time when "respectable" women had no legal rights and few educational or vocational opportunities, courtesans actually had more freedom than even some of the most privileged women. The price of independence and business acumen, working within society's sexual double standards, was virtual invisibility in "polite" circles.

Hickman did a good job of selecting women who entered the business for different reasons: one had a mutually open marriage that eventually led to a string of wealthy patrons, another was raped and too ashamed to return home, another was tossed out on the streets by a guardian and had no choice but to join a brothel. Similarly, their last days were equally varied: one died in poverty chased by creditors, another married her longtime aristocratic lover, others slowly faded into comfortable retirement. Surprisingly, many wrote memoirs later in life, or had biographies written by acquaintances.

Though I appreciate the fact that Hickman illuminated parts of the past that I, for one, didn't get in two semesters of Women's History, their stories were sort of the same. Between becoming a prostitute and rising to the status of courtesan, and then eventually dying, the five women really just went through a succession of lovers/clients, and the roll call got a little repetitive.

What I found more fascinating than the five mini-biographies were Hickman's background asides on the history of condoms; the evolution of the crinoline; the descriptions of jewelry; the slow passage of bills in Parliament that gave women the rights to divorce, own property, and inherit ... Within the context of how powerless women were, the book made a very loud statement about the price of cultural subversion. But after a while I didn't really care how many lords each had slept with, and how much all the diamonds they received in payment were worth.

Ms. Tungsten and I returned to our Hrithik Roshan roots with Mission Kashmir, in which the hottest man ever to have lived plays a terrorist separatist. To be fair, the film is actually a kum bah yah tale of hope and peace and how cycles of violence only hurt everyone. Hrithik plays an orphan of violence who wants revenge for his family's death and so joins a separatist cell.

The plotline is barely believable. There is also the creepy factor -- the policeman who murders Hrithik's entire family tries to adopt Hrithik to ease his wife's pain and to replace his own murdered son. The rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game as Hrithik wants to kill his adoptive father to avenge his own family, and the policeman hunts his adoptive son because he's, well, a terrorist. The whole cycle of violence thing being rather crucial, there were only two possible outcomes: either the cycle continues and some main character dies, or the cycle ends and some main character still dies to atone for the past... (Turns out, I guessed incorrectly which character would be sacrificed for the larger message of peace. Oh well.) At any rate, the ending was the stuff of dreams -- literally, it was complete with the dream-sequence-as-metaphor-for-a-happy-afterlife.

But then, we weren't really watching it for the deep plot... ;-P

By contrast, I See You, Bollywood's version of the Reese Witherspoon film Just Like Heaven, was hilarious.

Arjun Rampal, the creepo from Om Shanti Om (which we also watched again, just for the hell of it), was great as a TV personality "haunted" by the spirit of a coma patient that no one else can see. Of course, she's a hot coma patient whose job is to just look pretty the entire movie and to show Arjun how to stop being an arrogant, womanizing prick. I haven't seen Just Like Heaven, but its wikipedia summary looks like the same as I See You. (But I'm guessing Just Like Heaven didn't have the random Hindi-speaking London bobby. It was a kind of funny.)

One of the coolest things about the movie: cameos by Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan!

Vacation rocks. Especially since the last week at work was really hectic.

Now it's nap time again...