Sunday, January 25, 2009

Stuck in lab

Hmmm, not a good weekend for the new-found sci-fi appreciation.

Though I am normally a fan of good cheesy fun, Spider-Man 3 did not qualify. The CG work was great, but the conquer-your-evil-nature theme was way overdone (Spider-Man's final internal struggle is inside a church, for crying out loud), and definitely did not need to last over two hours. The movie seemed more concerned with wrapping up loose ends from parts 1 and 2. If I thought it was worth over-analysis, I'd rant more about how I suspect the Spider-Man series depicts unhealthy messages about how mutant "science" destroys "traditional family values", but I don't think it is.

Also, I've never been the biggest fan of Tobey Maguire; I dunno, his supposed "boy next door" image has always come across to me as creepy and clingy. But Topher Grace was great as Peter Parker's rival photographer.

Rather than starting a paper, I finally finished the last in the Hitchhiker series, from the large volume that Xtina lent me. The fifth installment, a short story entitled "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe", is more of a prequel. Technically the story can stand alone, apart from the rest of the series. It was short and had some insightful lines. But it didn't really grab me. Also, wikipedia tells me there's a highly political inference to the story (which I approve but didn't catch).

Finally, because an old friend raved about it, I watched the pilot for the new FOX series Fringe. I don't mind bad TV (witness CSI: New York), but this one didn't quite grab me either. It seemed like a fairly unoriginal combination of Eleventh Hour, House, 24, and Alias . . . starring Pacey from Dawson's Creek. It even takes place in Boston!

Sigh. No choice but to start writing that paper now...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Costs and benefits

I intended to finish The Audacity of Hope over winter break, but never got around to it. What the hell, finishing it on MLK Day, and the day before the Obama inauguration works as symbolically as any other day, I suppose.

A few years ago, I read Dreams from My Father and still think it's one of the best memoirs of the evolving journey that is multiracial identity. This second book is obviously more politics-oriented: each chapter is a different large issue, explored through Obama's Senate experience and personal anecdotes.

The last four chapters are the ones most worth reading, I think: "Faith", "Race", "The World Beyond Our Borders", and "Family".

The general theme for each issue is that Democrats approach policies in this area one way, Republicans another, and that people are bitterly divided. It's the speech he gave at the 2004 DNC in Boston, revised and amplified and repeated again and again. The call for cooperation and mutual is hammered home pretty hard: Obama even goes out of his way on each issue to point out where he sees understands where conservatives are coming from, and where he thinks liberals need to back off. And then he lays out broad solutions that are undoubtedly Democractic and incredibly articulated. Bernie Horn mentioned in his book that Obama gets framing -- and that's absolutely clear here.

There's nothing very specific, though, in terms of actual policies. But I know that crafting intricate legislative strategies wasn't the point of the book. And though I do have a few minor quibbles with a few of the positions and statements mentioned in the book, overall it's a great general introduction to the biggest issues in contemporary American public policy.

The one chapter I had a hard time getting through was "Opportunity", which was basically my Econ class (which I also have a hard time staying awake for). So to make up for zonking out on the econ-heavy chapter, I watched Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price.

The slightly creepy thing was that Greenwald had no narrator -- I counted once where a disjointed voice tossed out statistics. The bulk of the documentary were the voices of former employees, current employees, union organizers, community activists, and snippets from CEO speeches and Wal-Mart commercials.

I'd heard the allegations of gender and racial discrimination, environmental irresponsibility, and union-busting; those have been highlighted pretty well in the mainstream media. But Greenwald brought up two new charges that struck me as particularly awful, if true: that Wal-Mart underpays and underbenefits its employees so much that they encourage them to seek public assistance, potentially straining local resources; and that Wal-Mart does little to keep its parking lots safe, encouraging crime. I have no idea if other large retail conglomerates have similar practices or problems (I do know that parking lots in general, not just Wal-Mart's, are where many crimes occur), so maybe Greenwald is blowing both out of proportion. But at least he raises the issues of corporate responsibility, and that Wal-Mart as the wealthiest company in the world has the duty to set the example in its community relations and employment practices.

A key missing piece was community complicity in the success of Wal-Mart and the reasons for it. After starting with a barrage of interviews of small business owners in small towns driven out of business by the arrival of Wal-Mart. But there was no explanation for why people flock (or are forced to flock out of economic necessity) to the newer, larger chain store, other than the low prices themselves. The film ends with the inspiring tale of community coalitions organizing and successfully stopping Wal-Mart from building in their communities.

Another issue I found fascinating that Greenwald touched on only tangentially was in the area of municapal zoning: that downtown business areas in small towns are dying as giant retail lots are built on the outskirts of towns and in suburbs, thus redirecting traffic routes and contributing to urban sprawl.

At any rate, the documentary definitely hammered home its points. I think it intended largely to preach to the choir.

Aaaaaand, now I have to go read for Econ*.

*Technically it's a Public Policy class on current affairs, but the course is entitled Economic Growth with Equity, and the guest lecturers and discussion leaders are all economists, including one Nobel winner. I forced myself not to drop the class partly because it's highly relevant right now, and partly to save face for not knowing the exact focus of the course before blabbing to both my department director and the dean of policy affairs (who are co-teaching) about how excited I was to take it. In my defense, the registrar's office had only a vague description, and last semester the course focused on Policy Advice to the Next President. Ahem. We live, we learn..

Sunday, January 18, 2009

La vie, elle continue

There's a point in your busiest-ever semester (of grad school, at least) where you just crack. Patent laws, copyright infringement, the rights of journalists, and color-coded charts of last quarter's unemployment figures inexplicably blur. Procrastinating on Facebook doesn't make it all go away, but a three-day weekend with almost-arctic temps certainly helps to cloud those pending deadlines!

For some odd, out-of-touch reason, I didn't know Clerks was a Kevin Smith film. I was expecting a bad popular slapstick comedy (and honestly wanted one) when I put it to the head of my Netflix queue before Winter Break. Yes, it's taken that long to get around to watching it.

It was not the brain candy I craved. The existential agonies of a convenience store clerk and his video store clerk buddy were out of the blue. It was great stuff (I'm a sucker for indy flicks with characters who rant and ramble about the meanings of life), just unexpected.

The film gives a little too much weight, I think, to agency alone -- the main character's "Why me?" (or rather, "I'm not even supposed to be here!") is repeatedly answered by pointing solely to his own life choices, even though the parade of customers remind him of how his destiny, for lack of a better word (what else can counter free will?), is unfortunately wrapped up in others' life choices. There was an overt preachiness that didn't sit well with me once applied outside the microcosm of the convenience store itself. Of course, I liked it for exactly that reason! More procrastination material for snowy weekends.

On a side note ... Good Lord, did we all really dress like in 1992? And I'd forgotten that lisping was a brief fad then ... the character of the cheating ex-girlfriend reminded me of that, and it annoyed the hell out of me.

At Torgo's suggestion, I watched Man on Wire. As promised, it was brilliant.

A story of a French highwire artist's attempt to walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, the structure of the documentary itself was captivating. There are the interviews with Philippe Petit himself, his accomplices, and others; the re-enactments of the "heist"; a theatre, stand-up style monologue with Petit; and then there is actual footage from personal home videos. It's a great tale, skillfully presented. The story itself is what it is, and Petit and his helpers clearly love retelling it, recounting how the combination of the beauty and the danger of it made it so breathtaking.

Petit is clearly slightly crazy as well as a bit full of himself. But that doesn't detract from his achievement. It does, however, make the last few minutes of the film bittersweet and heartbreaking, as the viewer realizes how the pivotal act itself changes him so much. It's the quintessential dilemma in art: art for art's sake fundamentally changes when it collides with fame, and the casualties are usually very human and very tangible. As a portrait of art and a commentary on beauty and life, the film is strikingly poignant.

When I looked up the year Petit's book was published I found several references to the fact that 9/11 was deliberately kept out of the film so as not to detract from Petit's daredevil and artistic accomplishment. But realistically, all viewers were watching it with 9/11 in mind; and the fact that Petit's book about the feat came out post-9/11 also points to some retrospective attempt to inscribe meaning to the endeavor. (I, for one, also couldn't get the recent plane landing out of my mind every time I glimpsed the Hudson from Petit's vantage point atop the WTC... but that's a different rambling about the lives of cities themselves.)

The very absence of a world-changing event, of course, is still the essence of art and continual renegotiating of its meaning to different audiences. It's still art and still beautiful, but for different reasons.

Lastly, an overdue veg-out ... The Mummy films are decent, cheesy fun. (When the first one came out, I watched it for Brendan Fraser; now, I shake my head in embarrassment at my youthful folly. Why -- why??? But we live, we learn....)

Anyways, Part Three was equally as cheesy, and easily the dorkiest of the series. I chose to ignore all the various cultural stereotypes and characters (from the eccentric English nobles to the exotified Chinese sorceress), because there'd be no end. I will also admit that I was playing word games online while El Otro Cuñado watched it on Christmas Day.

Yetis help fight the evil Chinese general who wants to resurrect the powers of an ancient mummy. Yetis! That sort of puts everything in perspective.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

(And Foremost)

Borrowing, as so often, from the FG (and also because I'm buried under coursework for a journalism class on the First Amendment in a Digital Age and a law class on Intellectual Property), here's a wordle to inspire both art and procrastination:

Wordle: The First Amendment


Thursday, January 01, 2009

A cup of kindness yet

Every year I steal this from -- er, "am inspired by"-- a friend, who likes to reflect on all the "firsts" from the past year.

New experiences from 2008 include:
  • A nephew -- He arrived in February, and I met him when he was two weeks old, making him the smallest baby I've ever held. Currently at 10 months, he is crawling around, can happily punch me on the nose, and has been hiding items in my suitcase. In June he got to meet his cousin, which was a cute family reunion.

  • An internship -- Believe it or not, I'd never had one, in high school or college. Spent May through August at home in Seattle interning for a great state PAC and learning a lot about local campaigns. Which brings to mind...

  • Doorbelling -- Tons of work experience in legislative affairs and political advocacy, but none on electoral campaigns and strategy. I went doorbelling for candidates for the first time, something I was absolutely terrified to do for a candidate (the only other time I'd done it was in '01 for an environmental nonprofit, with bad experiences.)

  • Picking a winner in the presidential primary (and the general!) Let's just say the people I voted for in the '00 and '04 primaries didn't make it past Super Tuesday, and I had no luck in the general elections in those years either.

  • A white Christmas! A real one, with about 8" of snow! Turns out the mere dusting of snow about 18 years ago pales in comparison to Seattle's recent "Snowpocalypse."
Overall, 2008 was a good year. It definitely had its share of drama, but hopefully I can learn and grow from all that. And, as always, every New Year's reflection, I'm humbled by the fact that I'm surrounded by so many wonderful friends and family who continue to inspire me.

Life is boundless, bittersweet, beautiful. Here's to 2009!