Tuesday, May 29, 2007

and war is peace and ignorance is strength

When I Googled this quote in disbelief, I found it at the New York Times Web site along with a lot of comment from late March of this year, so I'm late coming to it, but I have to do my part in getting it more widely read:

"We look upon authority too often and focus over and over again, for 30 or 40 or 50 years, as if there is something wrong with authority. We see only the oppressive side of authority. Maybe it comes out of our history and our background. What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do."

The quote is from "a forum about crime in the cities, sponsored by The New York Post," in March 1994. The speaker is New York Mayor Rudolph Giulani. No one who believes this should be president of the United States (although one might argue that most presidents believe it in their heart of hearts).

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

A great, great film

William F. Buckley writes a column this week about how an old friend called and told him to drop everything, seek out a movie called The Lives of Others, and go see it. That's literally what Buckley did, and he effused so thoroughly that I did the same thing. And now I'm telling you to do it.

Das Leben Den Anderen is set in East Germany, 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin wall, and no doubt director-screenwriter Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck chose that Orwellian year deliberately. It is a society so totalitarian that people are afraid to tell jokes about the country's leader, Erich Honecker, for fear their lives will be ruined or worse. The story begins as Captain Wiesler of the secret police known as the Stasi is giving a lecture to students in State Security school about how to conduct a 48-hour interrogation that will yield information just about every time.

Wiesler, brilliantly portrayed by Ulrich Mühe, is drawn into the surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), leading the team that bugs their apartment and setting up shop in the building's attic with electronic equipment that looks outdated even for 23 years ago but does the trick. Slowly he learns there's a reason why Dreyman was selected for monitoring, and it's not just that he's not a perfect little socialist.

What follows is a compelling, suspenseful and ultimately satisfying character study about small but powerful victories under an oppressive regime. The 82-year-old Buckley wrote, "I turned to my companion and said, 'I think that is the best movie I ever saw.'” I have seen a lot of movies and "best" is a big word, but this film will spring to mind from now on when I think about the best movies I've seen.

We stayed through the closing credits, even though our German is shaky to non-existent, in part because we didn't want to let go of the story or the lush, beautiful score by Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared, and Sweetie turned to me and said something she's never said right after a movie: "That was great!"

Das Leben den Anderen has wracked up a boatload of awards including the European Film Academy's Best Picture award and this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Mühe has won four Best Actor awards for this performance.

Don't wait for the DVD if you don't have to. Run to any theater showing The Lives of Others and drink in this brilliant film.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Orwell watch: A new definition of 'reasonable search'

This one's straight out of 1984 and Animal Farm: It's OK for storm troopers to ransack the wrong home and hold the wrong suspects at gunpoint, naked, if the officers took reasonable precautions to protect themselves.

The whole L.A. Times story can be found here. The U.S. Supreme Court Monday let stand an appeals court ruling that said it was OK to roust a white couple out of bed in their search for black suspects who had moved out of the home three months earlier and had no connection to the couple:

Mistakes sometimes happen when police conduct home searches, the Supreme Court said Monday in throwing out a lawsuit brought by a white couple in Southern California who were rousted from bed and held naked at gunpoint by deputies looking for several black suspects.

The search of Max Rettele and his girlfriend, Judy Sadler, in their bedroom may have been an error, and it was certainly embarrassing to them, the justices said. But it did not violate their rights under the 4th Amendment, which protects against "unreasonable searches and seizures," they added.

Police obtain search warrants based on probable evidence, not "absolute certainty," the court said in an unsigned opinion. "Valid warrants will issue to search the innocent, and people like Rettele and Sadler unfortunately bear the cost." ...

The couple's "constitutional rights were not violated," the court said in Los Angeles County vs. Rettele. The deputies "believed a suspect might be armed…. In executing a search warrant, officers may take reasonable action to secure the premises and to ensure their own safety and the efficacy of the search."

As for the innocent victims, "the resulting frustration, embarrassment and humiliation may be real, as was true here," the court said in its seven-page opinion. Nonetheless, "when officers execute a valid warrant and act in a reasonable manner to protect themselves from harm, however, the 4th Amendment is not violated."

Thus, the meaning of the term "unreasonable search" has been reconfigured to protect the state, rather than the individual. A state search of innocent, unconnected parties is reasonable if the state was acting in a way that would be OK if the innocent parties were guilty. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and reason is chaos.

I suppose this kind of insane ruling is the end result of a society where random drug tests are acceptable behavior and innocents entering an airplane or a stadium are frisked for contraband and weapons.

The couple's lawyer says they have moved out of Southern California and are living in Kansas now. The Supreme Court's 8-1 decision (only Souter dissented) shows they didn't go far enough away. The law-abiding are no longer safe or free in this country.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The best damn circus in town

Ordinary people discover they have extraordinary powers. How would that work in real life? For the past few months, those of us who bought into the TV show Heroes have been enjoying one intelligently written, well-acted and -produced thrill ride of an answer to that speculative question.

The show concluded "Volume One" Monday night and gave us an entertaining tease about where "Volume Two" will take us when summer vacation is over. I don't know what else to say without spoilers, so let me simply say that the denouement was well worth the investment of 23 hours over eight months.

And the program rewards repeat viewings - I've already discovered that in a casual re-look at my tape of the pilot episode - so buying the first-season DVD set when it arrives in late August will be worth the investment. (Thanks for the tip, Wally!)

Sure, with the world going to hell in a handbasket, this can be dismissed as just a very well-done sideshow in the realm of bread and circuses, but our myths and stories are an important and healthy part of our lives, so ignore it at peril of missing a very good dose of medicine for what ails us. Heroes shows us what creative minds can accomplish at their best - which just may save the world someday.


Monday, May 21, 2007

This year's American Idol

No need to watch the big finale Tuesday night - Melinda Doolittle wins.

Yes, I know she was "voted off the island" last week. You might recall that Chris Daughtry didn't win the big prize last year, but he did - his album is killing any and all Idol-related material on the market from the 2006 season.

Melinda Doolittle is the best singer in this year's competition. That ought to translate into sales. I've been wrong before. I don't think I am this time.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

A little bit of Paul momentum

I caught a little of Rush Limbaugh the other day, and he was smacking down Ron Paul for his comments about the motives of the 9/11 attackers, while being careful to say Paul is a "fringe" presidential candidate and he was concerned that commenting about the congressman would elevate his status.

What is interesting is that the congressman from Texas is concerning the defenders of the status quo in any way. Truly fringe candidates can be ignored and they'll go away.

It seems that Paul has gained enough from his appearances at this month's TV debates that prominent folks feel a need to smack him back down.

Here's their problem, methinks: Ron Paul represents a point of view that a great many people share, a point of view that is thoroughly absent among the others running for president. Ron Paul is the only candidate who actually believes the government is too big and too intrusive, and to my knowledge he has no plans to expand federal government powers in any way, which makes him unique not only among presidential candidates but among members of Congress.

That's why people are suddenly feeling a need to smack him down or exclude him from the conversation: He represents a substantial constituency, perhaps not a majority but certainly one to be reckoned with. The other pretenders would like to attract the limited-government constituency, but as long as Ron Paul is in the room they are exposed as the pretenders they are.

Go, Ron, Go.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Who the terrorists are

If the purpose of terrorism is to strike terror into the hearts of your victims, I nominate the schoolteachers in Murfreesboro, Tenn., who told their kids a random shooting had occurred and made them hide under their desks.

This despicable act may not have included physical violence, but the real purpose of terrorist violence is to frighten the survivors into submission - and no doubt that's exactly what these idiot teachers did.

Another terrific argument for the separation of schools and state. Here's the link. Here's the story:

Parents upset after teachers' prank goes too far
Staff Writer

MURFREESBORO — Parents of students at a Murfreesboro elementary school are outraged that teachers and an assistant principal staged a phony gun attack on their children, telling them repeatedly it was not a drill, while the children cried and took shelter under tables.

Sixty-nine sixth-grade students from Scales Elementary school were on a weeklong trip at Fall Creek Falls, a state park about 130 miles southeast of Nashville. On Thursday, the last night of the outing, the staff played a prank on the kids, convincing them there was a gunman on the loose.

A teacher wearing a hooded sweatshirt pulled on a locked door, pretending to be a suspicious subject in the area.

The students were told to lie on the floor or crawl underneath tables and keep quiet. The lights went out, and about 20 kids started to cry, 11-year-old Shay Naylor said. Some held hands and shook.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Shay said Saturday afternoon as she recounted the incident. “At first I thought I was going to die. We flipped out. (A teacher) told us, ‘We just got a call that there’s been a random shooting.’ I was freaked out. I thought it was serious.”

Some parents said Saturday they were outraged, especially in light of the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech that left 33 students and professors dead, including the gunman.

Scales Elementary Principal Catherine Stephens held a meeting Saturday afternoon at the school to discuss the matter with a handful of concerned parents who contacted school officials Friday night.

She said she was saddened by the situation and that the school was handling it, though she declined to elaborate on whether the teachers involved would face disciplinary action.

‘Poor judgment’ blamed
Assistant Principal Don Bartch, who led the trip, said the entire scenario lasted about five minutes, after which the teachers gathered the students and explained it was a prank.

“We got together and discussed what we would have done in a real situation,” he said.

Several parents said they were troubled by the staff’s poor judgment.

“The children were in that room in the dark, begging for their lives, because they thought there was someone with a gun after them,” said Brandy Cole, whose son went on the trip.

“This was not a good experience,” said Alisha Graves, whose son attended. “Those kids were crying, and they were terrified.”

Brandy Cole said she found out about the incident shortly after her son returned home from the trip Friday afternoon.

“I was shocked,” said Cole, whose husband, Jimmy, immediately sent an e-mail requesting a meeting with Bartch.

Barbara Corbetta, whose child also went to Fall Creek Falls with the group, said she spoke to several different parents and kept hearing the same details — kids on the floor crying and begging for their lives.

“The circumstance that occurred involved poor judgment,” Stephens said. “My hope is that we can learn from this, and in the end, it will have a positive result of growth for all of us.”

Shay and her mother, Niki Morris, said they forgave the teachers and wanted to move on. It “went too far because it was too gruesome,” Shay said. “You’d think a teacher wouldn’t do it, but they did. But they’re great teachers. If (the assistant principal) loses his job, I will break into tears. He’s the best assistant principal I’ve ever had.”

Kathryn Sherrod, a Midstate psychologist who works with children, said she can see how kids could be traumatized by this, especially in light of the Virginia Tech shootings.

“That’s too close to real,” she said. “It’s important for teachers and school administrators to realize they have a degree of trust with children. When you play a prank of that nature, you run the risk of losing that trust.”

The Daily News Journal and staff writer Ryan Underwood contributed to this report. Contact Natalia Mielczarek at 615-259-8079 or nmielczarek@tennessean.com.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The fish come outdoors for the summer

Spring! We cut the grass for the first time this year, went for a walk in the sun, and brought the pond fish upstairs out of the horse trough in the basement and into their little summer pond. A new filter filters the whole pond a couple of times an hour, if my math is correct, and the new plastic frog that spits the water across the pond is spitting along perfectly so far.

The white fish with pretty red spots, our first "free" fish born of the original group, came out into the sun with orange tinting that wasn't visible in the artificial light downstairs. At first I thought he/she had some sort of odd disease, but then I realized he's part goldfish, so he's probably developing his adult coloration. Very cool! (Two of our original six(?) fish survive after almost 10 years, and we have seven of their descendants roaming around the pond.)

All eyes (or at least my two) were on the little guy who spent a good part of the winter on his side looking like he wanted to die. I'm not sure if the newly visible red spots around his face, and the two pink streaks down his back, are nature's colors or a side effect of his ailment. But I do know that by the way he's darting around the pond, having a grand old time, if I told you one of the fish was sick this winter, you couldn't pick out which one it is, and you might be surprised when I told you.

The world is full of sad news and death and destruction, so I'm always tickled when someone or something beats the odds and stays alive for another season. This 5-inch-long fish is the smallest hero I've ever had.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

See why I'm called the Sandman?!!

July 1963, Milton, Vermont, at the old IGA ... wood floors ... a big pile of comic books in the back on the right side of the store. Most years we'd take the quarter Dad alloted us and buy Superman or, in recent years, a spooky comic called Strange Tales that had cool monster stories.

But this year my eye was caught by a red comic book that had a four-panel story on the front instead of the usual single big picture. It was a new comic called "The Amazing Spider-Man," and the hero was getting his butt kicked by a shape-shifting guy called the Sandman who was literally made out of sand. I was hooked, and I've stayed hooked for (ulp!) 44 years.

OK, it's been 20 years or more since I bought every issue religiously - ironically enough, I'm pretty sure I stopped buying shortly after a very good story arc where Spidey got into a new, black costume that turned out to be an evil symbiote from outer space. I liked the story, but other budget priorities were starting to call.

But I still check in every now and then, especially recently with J. Michael Straczynski writing the stories. And I have been over-the-top thrilled by the series of Spider-Man movies that Sam Raimi and company have produced over the past six years. The first two Spider-Man movies are the standard by which all comic-book superhero movies should be measured - and I'm tickled to report that, despite lukewarm reviews, the third film fits comfortably at that same lofty height as the others.

I am flummoxed about those lukewarm reviews, in fact. I was as worried as the next guy when I saw they were cramming three supervillains into Spider-Man 3 - the Batman movies starting going adrift when they began throwing two villains at a time at us, after all. How could Marvel give us three baddies and still have time for the charm and the sweet character interplay that made the first two movies so great?

How they did it still amazes me, but they did it, and those reviewers are full of last month's bologna. The Peter Parker-Mary Jane Watson love story continues - although there's a breakup that I hope will make more sense when I browse the deleted scenes on the DVD. Rosemary Harris has three key scenes in her role as Pete's moral compass, Aunt May. Elizabeth Banks as Betty Brant has more to do, which is always a good thing. J.K. Simmons was born to play J. Jonah Jameson. Bruce Campbell, who played the snooty usher who wouldn't let Pete into the theater in Spider-Man 2, makes a surprising and hilarious encore performance - not a reprise, mind you, an encore. And if a summer movie is supposed to be a roller-coaster action ride, this is one of the great summer movies of all time.

Which brings us to the Sandman, who holds a special place in my heart simply because he was my first Spidey villain. Alfred Molina's Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2 is the all-time best movie supervillain, because of the humanity Molina gave Doc Ock. But Thomas Haden Church's Flint "Sandman" Marko is a close second. Church makes Marko as sympathetic a man as possible for a guy who makes incredibly bad choices and turns out to be the real - um, er, never mind, that was going to be a spoiler. And the sandy special effects are spectacular to the point of bringing tears to the eyes with their beauty and grace. No, really!

Yeah, yeah, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are great as Pete and MJ, but you knew that. What surprised me is James Franco's turn as Harry Osborn. I always thought of Harry as the cardboard weak link in an otherwise three-dimensional depiction of my childhood obsession, but Franco finally stepped up to the plate. Maybe it's because he has a lot more to do as the New Goblin and - well, he has a lot more to do - but he really showed some acting chops this time around.

Wally Conger concludes, "The movie also passed its biggest test: I can’t wait to see it again." I can go you one better, Wally - The movie passed its biggest test: I've seen it twice already.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Some parts of the Web are busier than others. I don't check my little Stat Counter religiously, but I checked out of curiosity yesterday and discovered that instead of my usual 2-3 dozen readers, I had more than 150 visitors Wednesday. The vast majority came from a site called The Comics Curmudgeon, where commenter #316 had attached a link to one of my pieces celebrating the hottiness of Fritzi Ritz.

It's the third-biggest audience I've had after a couple of guest shots at Strike the Root. I think I'll keep an eye on this Curmudgeon for tips on how to build an audience that willing to look that far down the page!


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A chance to take the REAL ID revolt to a new level

Read all about it at DownsizeDC.org!

Evil genius indeed

I've recently been checking out the Evil Genius Chronicles podcast, where host Dave Slusher also stays active on a blog that predates the audio feed. Today he submits a haiku that is very cool:

I trust you fully
With my life, with everything
Still — I cut the cards

Most haikus are fun but, as poetry/art, fairly "eh." This one packs great insight into the human condition into that restrictive 5-7-5 box. I'm extremely impressed.