Friday, October 26, 2007

Into the Wild

"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." -- Henry David Thoreau

I'm on a pretty good run of picking movies. I would say that the last 3 I've seen will be in my year-end Top 10. (3:10 to Yuma and Michael Clayton being the other two)

Into the Wild might be the best of the group. A 22 year old college graduate name Chris McCandless, chooses to opt out of the life lined up for him by his parents and society, instead choosing to donate his life savings, ditch his car, and begin a tramp's journey through America that culminates with him in the wilderness of Alaska. For a young man, he seems to have a defined moral code. A code that is influenced by the great authors he admires: London, Tolstoy, Thoreau.

The cast is outstanding. Katherine Keener turns in some of her best work (40-year-old Virgin, Being John Malkovich) as a hippy that Chris befriends. Vince Vaughn tones down his vince-vaughnness a little bit and turns in a good performance in a cameo role. And best of the group, I believe, is Hal Holbrook as an older widower that Chris brings out of his self-imposed shell.

In the title role is the relatively unknown actor, Emile Hirsch. His performance is revelatory and goes a long way towards helping the viewer buy into the character and the movie.

The characters he meets all identify with some part of Chris' life. Keener's character has not spoken to her son in several years and doesn't know where he is. As such, she understands what Chris' parents are feeling. Holbrook's character lost his child in death and sees Chris as a surrogate.

This is Sean Penn's best directing work. He gives the story and lot of space and doesn't crowd it with too much dialog. Penn also wrote the screenplay.

This movie is, quite simply, brilliant. I believe the viewer can take a lot from it. Don't get so caught up in what your are "supposed" to do, or what society expects from you. Don't get caught up in material things. They don't make you a better or more happy person.

This is based on Jon Krakaeur's book of the same name, which itself was an expansion of an article by Krakaeur. While I have read his other works, Into Thin Air (Mt. Everest disaster) and Under the Banner of Heaven (Mormons), I haven't read this. He's a great writer and I've heard that the movie is faithful to the book.

Last but not least is the incredible soundtrack highlighted with 9 songs by Eddie Vedder. Vedder, a close friend of Penn, and a contributor to an earlier Penn movie (Dead Man Walking), perfectly evokes nature and space and longing with his songs, serving as a perfect backdrop to McCandless's journey. Many of the songs even speak directly to the things McCandless strived for, such as the abandonment of the need for material goods - "Empty pockets will/Allow a greater sense of wealth." - in Far Behind. I'm a huge Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder fan and have been every since college. I'm going to get this CD this weekend.

Obviously, this movie comes highly recommended from me. At awards time, I really think this movie may see acting noms for Keener, Holbrook and Hirsch, writing and directing ones for Penn, and soundtrack for Vedder. Grade: A+

"There is pleasure in the pathless woods
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and the music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more."

Lord Byron

Sunday, October 21, 2007

California Trip Highlights

All the sordid details of our trip to California:

Day 1-2 - Disneyland

Day 3 - Farmer's Market

Day 3-4 -Manhattan Beach

But, wait, if you act now, you will not only have to look at pictures of yours truly but you will also get recountings of near-encounters with no-name actors and a seemingly endless retelling of every single thing we ate. Most people would pay a lot of money for these things, but you, my loyal blog readers, get this for free. Lucky you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Going to California ...

"Made up my mind to make a new start,
Going to california with an aching in my heart.
Someone told me theres a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.
Took my chances on a big jet plane,
Never let them tell you that theyre all the same.
The sea was red and the sky was grey,
Wondered how tomorrow could ever follow today ..." -- Led Zeppelin

Just kidding, not making a "new start". Just going to Cali for a long weekend. Disneyland Thursday, Manhattan Beach through Sunday. Hoping to go to the Farmer's Market Friday and maybe Griffith Park to get my James Dean swerve on.

I'll have internet access all weekend and will be blogging often.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Clayton

Expertly written and cast, Michael Clayton is all that you would want in a legal thriller. Part Grisham, part Erin Brockovich. The dialogue is sharp and technical, but not so much that it loses you.

The title character, played by George Clooney, is a "fixer" in a law firm. A "fixer" is an attorney who cleans up messes and gives clients a dose of reality in places where others might try to sugar coat it. He is called in to "fix" one of the firm's own attorneys, a character played exceptionally by Tom Wilkinson. That character is portrayed by the firm as having went crazy, while he maintains he's only had a "moment of clarity". He's been the lead attorney defending a large agricultural corporation who apparently has knowingly hid information damaging to them.

Wilkinson's character's moment of clarity is the realization that he has used the last 9 years of his life defending a company that is knowingly making people get sick and die. A realization long overdue, obviously, and not taken well by the firm who have received hundreds of millions of dollars in fees or by the agricultural company who see the publicity nightmare looming.

Michael Clayton is sent to talk him out of his change of heart but ends up having one of his own. The story works because all of the characters are real and flawed.

The movie is very appealing because it makes the viewer think about their own lives and the choices he/she makes. We all have these moments of clarity. My last major one led to my quitting a management job in a great company and branching out on my own. I'm about due for another.

We may have these moments and choose not to act on them. It's when you get older and keep ignoring those clarion calls, that you slowly lose your integrity and your soul. It becomes easier and easier to lose every bit of humanity that you may once have had. Don't keep thinking there will be a better opportunity or a more convenient time to do the right thing. Right now is the right time to do the right thing.

It's all well and good to decide on changing your life. Frequently we don't have the luxury of being able to afford a change, financially or otherwise. But, how can we afford not to?

What are each of us worth? How much will it take for us to turn the other way, to subvert our integrity? Really, we're all sell-outs. If someone else pays you to do something ... you are selling out. Whores, basically. But, hopefully, we're prostituting ourselves for some greater good. How we are defined as people is largely determined by where we draw the line.

We can frequently rationalize the things that a company we work for does. One person is just a small cog in the machinery ... or so we think. If we knowingly work, buy goods from, or promote a company that is immoral, illegal, unethical, then aren't we just as culpable? Aren't we giving tacit approval with our silence? It is our responsibility as workers to call out our employers when necessary just as it is our responsibility as citizens to call out our government when necessary. Loyalty and patriotism are hollow words if we are propping up unethical people.

I'm not talking about quitting your jobs and joining the Peace Corps. I'm just saying keep your eyes open. It's not about agreeing with everything your co-workers and bosses say, politically or otherwise. People of good conscience can disagree ... and that's OK. But if somebody is being unethical or is endangering someone else, if you look the other way, you might as well be an accomplice.

It's with no apparent sense of irony that I start this discussion after just a couple of days ago telling you about all the perks that I get working for certain people. I believe those are borne out of satisfaction with a job well done, not with any kind of quid pro quo. I've turned down clients who I had ethical concerns about.

Reviewing this movie appears to have been an excuse for me to lecture ... sorry about that. I really liked the movie. Clooney is on an incredible roll. His career right now is a model of what I would hope to do in my own field -- work on projects that mean something, that are provocative and intelligent. When not doing those projects, have fun, do no harm, and make money that will allow you to make more meaningful projects. Grade: A

"This is not a psychotic breakdown; it's a cleansing moment of clarity." -- Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network

Friday, October 12, 2007

Construction Orange

"You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some weeks you feel like you must be living right ... or that you are just one lucky bastard. Probably the latter. This was one of those weeks.

A couple of days ago, I made $60/hr for 5 hours to stand around and eat donuts. A client of mine who owns a print shop was having a $100,000+ large format plotter delivered to his store and installed by the techs who brought it. It was one of the most complicated devices I've ever seen and took them until noon just to assemble.

Not to get too technical, but my sole purpose there was to make sure that the new device got an IP address from the network so that it could be accessed by all the computers. 5 minute job ... tops! But there was no way of knowing when that 5 minutes would be. So, my client wanted me to be there the entire day. And he wanted to pay me for the entire day. I tried to insist to him that we discount the amount of hours. He would hear nothing of it. He just felt more comfortable having his "computer guy" there while they were setting everything up. He'd had bad experiences in the past with other techs and wanted someone he trusted to watch over everything.

I get that he was not just paying for technical knowledge but also piece of mind. He appreciated the work that I've done for him in tough situations in the past and knows that I always go out of my way to be honest and thorough. And that I'd never overcharge (he's actually accused me of undercharging!).

So, forget all the technical crap, I was basically a DOT worker standing around on the side of the road, "supervising". I just didn't have the orange construction vest.

Speaking of undeserved benefits, one of my clients gave me his extra Palm Treo 700p yesterday. Broadband Internet, Palm OS, QWERTY keyboard, etc. Sweet. I am the master scrounger. This is a $500+ phone and less than a year old. It was bought for his dad, but the dad decided he wanted the iPhone instead.

Yeah, I'm really living the "simple" life. Sorry, but I dig all those crazy toys way too much.

In the past, clients have given me football tickets, baseball tickets - you name it. I mooch with the best of 'em.

Well, not really mooch. I don't seek out any of this stuff. I've just been fortunate. There are some regular clients that I've had for 8 years plus and who I would go do work for any time of the day, any day of the week. And I always bill them less hours than I work. You build a good relationship in any job and there is a lot of things that go above and beyond a normal business relationship. That's probably the biggest aspect of this job that I like -- the close friendships that I've built with a lot of my clients.

Hopefully, my good fortune has something to do with the way I run my business. I don't believe in karma in a mystical sense (I believe Shawn's our resident "karma" expert), but I do believe that in the grand scheme of things if you do good for others, it generally comes back around. But even if it doesn't, it's still the right thing to do.

"Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life." -- Steve Jobs

Congrats Al!

2007 Nobel Peace Prizes to:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - Geneva, Switzerland

Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. - USA

"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"

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Problem with Atheism

"Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." -- J.K. Rowling

Second hand, by way of Andrew Sullivan's blog, is noted atheist (but don't call him that) Sam Harris' admonition to atheists to not be so quick to accept the label of "atheist":

"... Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn't really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as "non-racism" is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of "atheist," it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I'm not saying that meetings like this aren't important. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

While it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a single person with four heads, this whole notion of the "new atheists" or "militant atheists" has been used to keep our criticism of religion at arm's length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves "atheists." We should not call ourselves "secularists." We should not call ourselves "humanists," or "secular humanists," or "naturalists," or "skeptics," or "anti-theists," or "rationalists," or "freethinkers," or "brights." We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them ..."

While I agree with a lot of Harris' arguments, he has a tendency to outclever himself sometimes - and this might be one of those occasions. He seems to be getting just a bit hung up on semantics. Whether I call myself an atheist, humanist or skeptic, it doesn't fundamentally change who I am. If an argument or a critique of something (in this case, religion) has merit, should it matter where it comes from? Maybe that's naive on my part. As he says, naming "has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism".

It's too bad that people are not taken on the merit of their ideas, instead of what we perceive them to be. We're too quick to slap a label on them. I certainly am. I've bandied about terms like neo-con, right-wing, liberal, etc. It's a shortcut. People's opinions are hopefully more nuanced than a mere name can capture.

I'd have to agree with him that naming something certainly makes it an easier target. Hence the tendency of some to give the mantle of religion to atheism.

So, overall, I agree with a lot of his comments. Where I could disagree is in his position that we should allow our fear of being label atheists to affect our behavior. Certainly a lot of atheists call themselves humanists or agnostics because the fear of being ostracized. That's a problem with society, not with one's views. If more were not afraid of the label, maybe society would get over it's hangups.

"What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2) -- William Shakespeare

Friday, October 05, 2007


Bush cares about kids ... right.

Our kids may not have healthcare, but at least our "chidrens do learn". It's just our moron president that doesn't.