Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I like commandments 6, 8 and 9

Here's the thing about the whole controversy over displaying the 10 Commandments on government property. Call me a crazy rationalist, but doesn't it bother people that commandments 1-5, 7 and 10 are not reflected in our law at all? How can everyone be claiming that the 10 commandments are important to display because they're the basis for U.S. law? Let's take a quick look at the commandments, with my summaries and comments on whether they're expressed in U.S. law

1. Believe in God (actually our law seems to strongly oppose mandating that)
2. No graven images (nope)
3. Don't take the lord's name in vain (no way our jails have enough room)
4. Keep the Sabbath day (if you can buy a gun and a six pack in most states, I don't think the nation respects the sabbath)
5. Honor they father and mother (that seems to be more of a personal thing than a legal issue)
6. No murder (I like that one)
7. No adultery (I think it's still illegal in a few states, but I don't think many people are actually into prosecuting this kind of thing. Again, the jails are already pretty crowded...)
8. No stealing (that's good)
9. No false witness (check, althogh the penalties are pretty light)
10. Don't be jealous (jealousy is one of the main drivers of capitalism last I checked)

I'm much more offended at the public posting of the 10 Commandments because 7 of them are pretty dumb as far as lawas go than I am by the religious implications. Let's replace a few of the lames ones with prohibitions on rape and arson and embezzlement and then I'll be a little more interested in them as having some relevance to U.S. law.

Side note: It's extremely embarassing for the religious right that they're not very interested in making laws out of 7 of the 10 commandments, but they're obsessed with a constitutional amendment based on one line in the bible about homosexuality that didn't even rise to the status of a commandment.

One more thing: My favorite quote from an article about the Supreme Court ruling on the 10 commandments: "To me, this is all historical," he said in an interview. "To me, I don't see where it has any effect on church or state or whatever they want to say. … Our forefathers founded this country on the Ten Commandments and the Mayflower Compact and things of this sort."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Grokster doesn't matter

Kevin Drum (of Washington Monthly) asks what I think is a pretty dumb hypothetical question to critics of the Grokster decision and suppoerters of legal file sharing:

The year is 2015 and Columbia has just released Spiderman 7. The next day, 10 million people with no technical savvy at all go to their computers, stick a Blu-ray disc into their DVD drive, log on to Movies4Free (incorporated in the Cayman Islands), and click on the Spiderman icon. Three minutes later they have a 100% perfect DVD, beautifully silkscreened in the drive with the movie logo. They go to their living rooms and start watching.


But the Grokster decision is totally irrelevant to whether this is going to happen. If it's in the Cayman Islands, U.S. law won't apply.

Even more importantly, methods of downloading movies in the future probably won't be incorporated anywhere. Open source applications for accessing P2P networks are becoming increasingly common. And Bit Torrent, which isn't a company or even a network, is currently the easiest way to download content on the Internet (whether legal or illegal).

Call me a utilitarian, but that strikes me as a question of equal important, if not more, than the moral/legal issues surrounding the Grokster. Personally, I think it's obvious that downloading copyrighted content without the owner's permission -- or even more importantly, when the owner objects -- is wrong. I have mixed feelings as to whether operating a P2P company on which most of the activity is trading pirated content should be illegal (and if I did have an opinion I'd keep it to myself since I cover this issue extensively for Variety).

But it is clear to me that piracy will continue largely unabated regardless of what the U.S. government does to try to stop the technology and those who distribute it. Stopping P2P makes the drug war look efficient and effective.

We can punish those caught downloading (or uploading) huge amounts of copyrighted content. We can educate the public so they understand piracy is wrong. And content owners can offer innovative, appealing methods of obtaining their content that make piracy less appealing (a la iTunes and Rhapsody in the music world). In my opinion, those are the only realistic ways to deal with the threat of piracy.

All other discussions are just intellectual masturbation.

Rotten Apple

I can't stand Apple. The slavish devotion of a small number of people to this company astounds me for one simple reason: in my admittedly limited experience, their products suck.

Now I understand that Apple has, on the whole, been much more innovative than Microsoft. I know it came up with the first graphical OS that inspired Windows. And I know its products are particularly useful in graphic design and some other creative pursuits.

But despite brilliant marketing and design that have helped make it so popular (along with the innovation of iTunes), the iPod itself, the actual product, is a piece of crap. I got mine just a year and a half ago and it is already barely workable. The battery is totally erratic and usually runs out in less than an hour after it's charged. And the battery drains immediately when I plug it into my computer. So I literally can't load new music onto it.

It also freezes on a regular basis, necessitating my rebooting it in the obscure way you have to find on the Apple website. It has crashed twice, erasing all my music.

So basically in a little over a year, I have a product that only works with the music on it and only when it is plugged in (so I can connect it to my stereo when it's plugged in, but that's about it.

I know that thanks to a lawsuit, Apple is now offering to replace iPods with fucked up batteries like mine. But because I got mine gratis from Apple as a tech journalis, I don't have the proof or purchase to take advantage of the offer. Now obviously I'm not asking for any tears about poor Ben and his defective iPod he didn't pay for. But that doesn't make me any less pleased that Apple made such a piece of shit product.

As for Macs, I had one in college and bought an iBook as my first computer out of college. They both took forever to load and froze or crashed regularly. In comparison, Windows XP, which almost never crashes and is faster, is a joy. (I have heard that OS X is better, but Apple has already lost me and I'm not going back).

It seems lame to be "committed" to Microsoft, but I am, at least for computer electronics. I'm plannign to get a new digital music player for my birthday, but definitely not an iPod. I want one of the many Windows Media devices that work just as well (if not better), but aren't going to crash or run out of battery power in a year.

Plus, the Windows devices work with Rhapsody to Go or Napster to Go. For $15 a month you get over a million songs. That's such a better deal than 99 cents per song that it's absurd. And I don't even buy very much music (maybe an album per month). But it's still well worth it. And I know I'm going to try a lot more music that I would never both with now that the marginal cost is zero. (I already do with the 25 free songs per month on Rhapsody, which I highly recommend trying).

Friday, June 24, 2005

Karl Rove: master of smear and lies

Not that it's needed, but allow me to weigh in on Karl Rove's truly outrageous remarks about liberals and 9/11.

I think anyone with any common sense and decence can see why this comment was deeply offensive and wrongheaded. (See Sullivan and Tapped for examples, though. And see Brendan for why it's ironic to be linking Sullivan in this context.)

It was obviously Rove's intention to smear all liberals, and quite possibly all Democrats, with his phrasing (why else would he say: "No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals?">. But even in the few specifics he did mention, he lied. Ironically, the examples are what conservatives have been pouncing on to defend Karl. Redstate.org has a take along these lines that generated a link from Jonah Goldberg on The Corner.

RedState gives Rove more context than he got in many media reports by quoting him saying this:

MoveOn.Org, Michael Moore and Howard Dean may not have agreed with this, but the American people did. Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: we will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: we must understand our enemies.


Then RedState.org add this brilliant analysis:

Comment: here Karl Rove specifies whom he is talking about MoveOn.org, Michael "Fahrenheit 9/11" Moore, and Howard "Interesting Theory" Dean a/k/a the guest of honor in the presidential box at the 2004 Democrat National Convention and the current chair of the DNC.


Little problem here: Howard Dean didn't respond to 9/11 by saying we should understand our enemies. Remember that little war in Afghanistan that was actually about punishing the terrorists who attacked us and the nation who shielded them? The one that has largely been pushed aside to pay attention to the invasion of the country that never attacked us? Howard Dean supported it. As this website with profiles for the 2004 presidential candidates quotes Dean:

"Our military has done an absolutely terrific job in Afghanistan, which is a war I supported" and "I supported the war in Afghanistan; 3,000 of our people were murdered. I thought we had a right to defend the US."

In other words, Howard Dean had the same reaction to 9/11 as "conservatives" in Karl Rove's calculation. He is right that dumbass Michael Moore opposed the war. And current MoveOn.org leader Eli Pariser was circulating a petition asking for restraint, though the actual organization wasn't behind it, I believe.

If you want to smear liberals, it's not like it's hard to find 3 hard core lefties who did oppose the war. Rove is counting on the fact that most people just associate Dean with the hard left due to his strident -- but prescient and accurate -- opposition to the Iraq war. What a truly vile human being he is.

But he's possibly smart, if he had this all planned out, since the debate has now become whether this is as bad as what Dick Durbin said, rather than the merits of Rove's assertion. I think the two are clearly not comparable, since Rove smeared all liberals using lies, whereas Durbin made inflammatory comparisons in the context of a very fair and factually supported critique of our treatment of Guantanomo detainees (Brendan has a good analysis of what Durbin said that I agree with 100%).

NY Gov. George Pataki's response shows exactly how the right is going to respond thanks to the mostly bullshit Durbin controversy: "I think it's a little hypocritical for Senator Clinton to call on me to repudiate a political figure's comments when she never asked Senator Durbin to repudiate his comments." Of course most people paying only casual attention to politics will probably think both sides said something offensive and dismiss this all as more political bullshit.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Hillary Pulls a Kerry

Is Hillary Clinton taking communication lessons from John Kerry?

If the reaction of the junior senator from New York to the stupid flag burning amendment is any indication, I'm severely worried that in a run for president she'll easily be portrayed as a conviction-less waffler just like Kerry (and Al Gore and Bill Clinton, for that matter). Look at this tortured description of her position from a USA Today article:

It will not be an easy vote, as evidenced by the carefully worded statement issued by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I support federal legislation that would outlaw flag desecration, much like laws that currently prohibit the burning of crosses, but I don't believe a constitutional amendment is the answer," she said, adopting a position similar to the one taken by her husband, former President Clinton, when he was in office.


Her aides said there is no contradiction in being against the flag-burning amendment and for a flag-burning law.



They say she believes a federal law would not trample First Amendment rights because, like laws against cross burnings, it would ban flag desecration that is deemed to pose a threat to others — and not acts of political expression that are protected by the First Amendment.


However, a law like the one proposed by the senator would likely be challenged in courts because Congress has no clear right to outlaw flag burning. That is why supporters of the ban want to add a one-line amendment to the Constitution that says, "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."


Can't you just see the Republican ad now? Hillary Clinton: "I actually voted for an anti-flag burning law before I voted against it."

How can Hillary Clinton possibly vote for a law but not the authority to let Congress pass that law? At least John Kerry had the advantage of being technically correct when he said he voted against the $87 billion in troops funding before he voted for it. Hillary isn't even being intellectually honest here. So even the liberal elite press who pay close attention to these matters will massacre her. And rightfully so.

I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that on most issues, most voters prefer a consistent and passionately held position they disagree with to a pathetic attempt to please everyone. I know that as someone who strongly believes that an anti-flag desecretation amendment is an affront to the most fundamental values of our country, I'd still rather a politician just take a strong position against it rather than engage in this kind of pathetic posturing so that she won't offend anyone.

But I suspect that Hillary probably does agree with me, and most liberals, on this issue. And it seems to me that there's no reason in the world she couldn't do so and remain (potentially) appealing to moderate voters. All she has to say is something like "I find flag burning deeply offensive and those who those who do it deserve nothing but scorn. However, one of our country's core values is that all expression, no matter how outrageous, is protected by the 1st Amendment and we should not begin selectively altering the Constitution based on what we offends us."

Flag burning is not like gay marriage, where it's kind of odd to oppose it personally but also oppose outlawing it (I also have to ask what does it mean for a straight man like John Kerry to personally oppose gay marriage? Don't all straight people personally oppose gay marriage? It's not like abortion where he and his wife can choose not to ever have one but still not want to outlaw it. But anyway...) It makes perfect sense to oppose flag burning and oppose outlawing it. And according to that USA Today article, 54% of the public is against the amendment. So why is Hillary Clinton giving Republicans ammunition to make her look like a waffler with no core beliefs?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Save Cookie Monster, not Garrison Keilor

I'm sure most of us have heard that Congressional Republicans are trying to cut back on, and ultimately eliminate, funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting once again (if not, read here).

Liberals typically defend CPB, which provides a significant chunk of the funding for NPR and PBS stations (which they then use in large part to buy programming from PBS and NPR; it's all a little complicated). But I'm not one of them.

I don't believe we should defund public broadcasting entirely. But I think we need to narrow the scope. The one type of broadcasting that is truly so necessary that it deserves to receive our hard earned tax dollars that we are compelled by law to provide is children's educational programming. The private market is particularly ineffective at providing quality educational programming for kids. And even when it does give kids shows that are perhaps marginally good for them, it's chock full of ads for toys and unhealthy foods and other crap. I think we as a society do have a very compelling interest in providing children, particularly young kids under 5, with TV shows like "Sesame Street" and "Arthur" and "Barney" that are educational and free of the influence of corporate marketing.

But honestly, do "Charlie Rose" and "Morning Edition" and "A Prairie Home Companion" need public funding? Yes, NPR and PBS provide some of the highest quality programming out there in terms of documentary, in-depth news and talk, etc. In the case of PBS, cable networks like Discovery and History and National Geographic are doing much -- though certainly not all -- of the same kind of documentaries. And as for the news on NPR and PBS, these seem to have sizable audiences that, if my impressions are correct, are typically well educated and affluent. NPR claims 26 million weekly listeners and "Morning Edition" is the top morning news program in the country.

Also, let's be frank. Although I think its news reporting is pretty well balanced, NPR definitely leans to the left in its general sensibilities, particularly when it comes to local programming (in my experience, at least). I honestly don't watch enough PBS news to say if it also leans that way -- I just check out a documentary on PBS every now and then -- but my guess is it does.

Those of us who like these shows should have to either pay for them through station donations or suffer through a little bit of marketing. I don't believe that these shows are so beneficial to society that people who don't watch or listen should be compelled to pay for them. It's essentially a tax on people who don't like high quality broadcasts to subsidize those who do.

This is even more true in the case of the "entertainment" that NPR and PBS carry. Does the general public need to subsidize BBC re-runs on PBS, especially now that we have BBC America? And for God's sake, why should any public money go toward the wretched Garrison Keillor? I listen to NPR at least a few times a week and I find just the commercials for "A Prairie Home Companion" and its pretentious simplicity galling. Certain people like it, and that's fine. But there's no frikkin' way that show is a great boon to American culture and deserves a penny of my hard earned money that the government takes.


I don't know if this really makes sense politically, but I think Democrats might be well served if they offered to compromise with Republicans by cutting CBP funding, but preserving a healthy core for educational, commercial free children's shows. Let the people who like "This American Life" and "Frontline" and "A Prarie Home Companion" either pay for it or deal with the reality of commercials in a capitalist society. As adults, we're able to seek out the programming we want and if we want to be educated, so be it, and if we don't, that's our choice. We're also able to comprehend what ads are and how they're different from programming.

Little children, however, aren't very good at differentiating them, nor can they make responsible choices about whether to be educated. So I say separate out all the other public broadcasting and let Republicans defend eliminating the last refuge in American popular culture where kids can learn to read and write and function in society while not being assaulted by marketing designed to make them obese and bug their parents to buy them shit.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Dark Knight divides

The reviews are coming in for "Batman Begins," and interestingly the elite critics seem to be differing from the amateurs on the Web.

Take a look at Rotten Tomatoes, where so far there are just over 50 reviews, and over 80% of them are positive. That's a good start. But only 5 of 10 "cream of the crop," -- which is to say reviewers at mid- or top-tier publications -- liked it. Top critics like Variety's Todd McCarthy (who sits 50 feet away), the New Yorker's David Denby, and Time's Richard Schickel all disliked it and their common complaint seems to be that it wasn't fun enough. "Where have all the jokes gone?" asks Denby. "Psychological depth is all well and good," says Todd, "but it's an open question how much time you want to spend on it when the subject is a cartoon character."

Meanwhile, the Web geeks all love it. Geek site IGN Filmforce said "Smart and precisely crafted, 'Batman Begins' is the most accessible comic film ever made." Most other non-amateur reviews so far follow suit.

The first thing to say about this interesting disparity is that it's clear "Batman Begins" is a movie that's going to energize the fans at least as much as "Sin City" and more than any other big budget studio movie based on a comic book ever has. But elite critics who aren't really comic book fans and have a very different expectation for a comic book adaptation will be polarized, because they're expecting a fun big budget spectacle and won't get it.

In other words, the geeks read and loved Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" and "The Dark Knight Returns" and are thrilled to see that level of charaterization and darkness on screen. Many critics have probably never seen anyone take Batman seriously and find the idea of giving a guy who dresses up like a bat pathos and a rich supporting cast to be beside the point.

The other thing to say is that critics like Schickel and Denby and McCarthy are wrong. Very wrong. "Batman Begins" is easily the best studio movie so far this year, the best comic book adaptation ever, and a film that should play broadly to adults who don't typically like big budget action movies even though it won't appeal to 10 year olds who loved "Star Wars."

I saw a screening this weekend and was really blown away. It hits on almost every level. Most importantly, everyone and everything feels real. As many have commented, the point of the movie is to make a guy who takes the crazy step of dressing up like a bat to fight crime feel like a real person, and Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale do that. But the rest of the cast is almost all brilliant. Gary Oldman gives the decent cop Jim Gordon who becomes a Batman ally real humanity mixed with uncertainty about working with a vigilante; Tom Wilkinson plays the cocky crime lord brilliantly; Morgan Freeman plays Q to Bruce Wayne's James Bond, but instead of going campy with the gadgets he lets us in on his motivation and how much he knows about what his boss is up to with just his face; and Michael Caine gives the devoted butler Alfred, who is usually played as staid and soulless, an actual point of view and depth of character that he has never before had in a "Batman" adaptation. Katie Holmes and Cillian Murphy aren't quite up to par, but they're not bad.

I only had two complaints. Nolan doesn't seem to have mastered shooting fight scenes, so when fists are flying it mostly ends up a jumbled bunch of quick cuts where you can't quite tell what's going on. Since this Batman relies much more on inspiring fear than on kicking ass, though, it's not a major concern. The only real problem is that the primary villain, whose plot is revealed near the end, is kind of lame and definitely nonsensical. It's wildly absurd that he would have the motivation he does and it doesn't make much sense that he would choose to accomplish his evil plot the way he does it. But the style and the acting and the characters are so fucking good that it's very easy to forget about that.

Some critics got it. I think Kenneth Turan's review in the LA Times today is the most dead-on take.

This is a movie that dares to treat something that could be absurd as if it's deadly serious and makes you understand the characters better than many documentaries. I'm a huge fan of Tim Burton's "Batman," which focused on style and mood and largely ignored characterization, but "Batman Begins" is simply the exact opposite approach and Nolan accomplished his goal at least as effectively (if not better) than Burton.

It remains to be seen whether enough elite critics will agree with me, and word of mouth is strong enough, to bring in the adults who would typically avoid this. If that happens, I think "Batman Begins" could be the mega-hit of the summer (after "Stars Wars," alas) and we'll get the sequel expertly set up at the end of this movie.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Gimme Great Big Stuff, not Doubt

I'm the only person I know, besides my mother and her theater friends, who dutifully watches the Tony Awards every year. And enjoys them.
Hell, given the shitty ratings it garners, I'm probably the only straight male under 35 outside New York who regularly watches. But since I grew up around musical theater due to my mother's constant involvement, I love me big Broadway shows, at least when they're fun and/or thoughtful, not pretentious and/or sappy and/or cheesy.
That is to say, different music styles, flat out hilarity, and deep levels of meaning are great; kicklines and sappy songs about how you're "gonna make it" or whatever suck. Or to put it another way for those who know about such things, some of my favorite musicals I've seen on Broadway (or Broadway caliber productions elsewhere) are Avenue Q, Ragtime, Rent, and Passion. But I hate shit like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Urinetown and that kind of nonsense.

With that out of the way, I only have a few thoughts on the Tonys. Far and away the best moment was "Great Big Stuff" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I absolutely love the song: a smart and funny fusion of hip hop bragadaccio and a traditional Broadway tune. It totally makes you understand the character (who many of us already know from the movie, but anyway...) And Norbert Leo Butz was totally fantastic. In just 4 minutes I got him as a schlub with the crassest of dreams but also felt his energy on stage. From what I saw he deserved the Tony he won. And just as producers dream when they get a number on the stage at the Tonys, that song made me want to see the show.

The worst moment was the song from Light in the Piazza. That show took home a score and actress Tony and several tech awards, so maybe it's good. But the song was the worst kind of pretentious drivel with two women unnecesarrily belting out high notes about the beauty of Florence blah blah blah. They essentially said nothing and portrayed no character in the 4 minutes I saw. And the music is just the kind of crap I hate and that makes anyone who's not a music fanatic run like it's the plague.

I also thought the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was fun, although maybe a little too transpartenly going for a hip ironic young people Avenue Q kind of thing. Not that there's anythign wrong with that, it just didn't seem to have a lot of depth in it.

I don't have as much to say on the play front since you can't learn shit about a play in the Tonys and besides, it's pretty socially acceptable for a smart young guy to like plays. But I should note that I saw best play winner Doubt in Pasadena and didn't much like it. I found it very boring in the first two scenes until I figured out what was going on and then felt that it was much more about someTHING than the simplistic someONE's who inhabit it. I also just didn't care much about whether the mystery at the center of the play (did a priest molest a kid?) was true or not, since the script was very carefully balanced in the evidence it presented and only 1 character knew the answer. So what is the point in wondering when there's no answer? And since the kid is not a part of the play, honestly why would I care? But the Tony folks and the Pulitzer commitee and every critic on Earth and even my girlfriend disagree, so I'm probably just plain wrong.