Sunday, November 28, 2010

Papers Please ...

"All the problems we face in the United States today can be traced to an unenlightened immigration policy on the part of the American Indian." -- Pat Paulsen

Saturday, November 27, 2010


A relative of mine posted the following comment in passing on their Facebook page last week -- "excuse me but isnt't Harry Potter all about witchcraft? The bible says in deutoromy not to have anything to do with that or does it?" -- Classic. It's flippant, condescending and passive-aggressive all at the same time. And the spelling error of Deuteronomy is hers, not mine. All this lends credence to the recent study showing that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than the pious. That's the beauty of family ... most of the time you really can't tell them how unbelievably clueless they are.

Well, despite the fact that it may damn me to Hell and that I'm endorsing the forces of darkness, we saw Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 this past weekend. It was very good. Easily the darkest of the series ... not a surprise if you have read the books. By the movie's very nature, it leaves you hanging. After all, you are splitting the very long book into two movies.

It's gratifying to see the acting progression of the young actors in the series. We've seen them from their debuts 10 years ago through 7 movies. It's no wonder that they have improved considering they have acted alongside just about every great British actor of the last 20 years. Consider who they have co-starred with:

Gary Oldman
Richard Harris
Michael Gambon
Maggie Smith
David Thewlis
Robbie Coltrane
John Hurt
John Cleese
Alan Rickman
Kenneth Branagh
Emma Thompson
Helena Bonham Carter
Jason Isaacs
Brendan Gleeson
David Tennant
Ralph Fiennes
Imelda Staunton
Jim Broadbent

That's ridiculous! There isn't an acting school in existence that would give you that kind of talent to work with.

I've liked all the movies, to varying degrees, with The Prisoner of Azkaban being my favorite for several reasons: 1. The debut of my favorite actor Gary Oldman in the series (also Emma Thompson) 2. Alfonso Cuaron directing (Children of Men) and lastly 3. Incorporating the concept of time travel (one of my favorite sci-fi concepts).

Deathly Hallows is significant for the arc of the characters in that it's the first movie that is not set at Hogwarts at all (at least for the 3 main characters). That fact informs their sense of isolation and, at times, hopelessness.

The Harry Potter stories are mostly kids' stories but have themes (death, sacrifice, friendship, relationships, free will, choice, evil) that are universal and that entertain adults as well. My son and I have both read all the books and regularly re-watch the movies. I realize there are a lot of people that could care less about the movies and books ... and that is fine. To each his own. To a large part, that is my take on the Twilight series. But, if you have been following the books and movies of Harry Potter, you will not be disappointed by this one.

Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a worthy successor and a nice appetizer for the finale that will come out in July. Grade: B+

Now, you know me, I can't leave well enough alone and I'm going to get back to the relative's reference to Deuteronomy and witchcraft. The verse that is commonly taken to criticize witchcraft is Deuteronomy 18: 10-11

There shall not be found among you anyone ....that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.

It is seen as idolatry and "spiritual prostitution".

And, it's all a load of bunk. Equating reading or watching a movie about sorcerers to actually being one is a stretch. That's like saying that you are a murderer or adulterer because you watched a story that had people committing those acts.

Don't even get me started how one finds it more important to criticize a franchise that has encouraged a whole generation of children to read and to value friendship and loyalty than to criticize a church that regularly protects pedophiles and promotes hate.

I'm not trying to give philosophical significance to something that is basically just entertainment but when you start down that road, you best be ready to turn that high-powered moral analysis on your own beliefs. In what significant way is one religion different than another ... or even witchcraft? Your God is someone else's false idol. Your pastor is another's sorcerer. Your spirituality is another's magic. "Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let's call the whole thing off". Indeed. Let's.

Friday, November 19, 2010

We went to the grand opening of the new White Tank Mountain Library/Visitor Center. Very nice. A lot of environmentally friendly features (solar, low flow water, etc.). But, par for the course for Arizonans, there's always someone that is either painfully clueless or blatantly contradictory (or both):

It's a dual-use facility serving both the library and the park itself as a visitor center. We hike at the White Tank Mountains all the time and will make use of the facility just about every time we go out there.

It's always nice to see a lot of people in a library. Gives one hope that there are actually people that read.

Speaking of reading ... I couldn't resist showing the following picture. We dropped into a used bookstore after going out to eat on Saturday and I saw this sign. Insert your own joke as I will sound snarky and disrespectful if I inject mine. But I think you know where I'm going with this (my Christian friends ... and wife ... need to forgive me):

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." -- Mark Twain

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Carl Sagan -- Happy Belated Birthday (11-9-1934)

I meant to put something up on his birthday but better late than never. For a curious child growing up in the Midwest, Carl Sagan was a rational breath of fresh air. He gave voice to that feeling inside me that things I heard were not quite right and that it was OK to question. Some of his better quotes:

"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

"Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense."

"We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology."

"The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key."

"Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?"

"We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it's forever."

"The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge; it has no place in the endeavor of science."

"Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries."

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Jumping the Tea Party Shark

Do you get the feeling that the Tea Party is starting to "jump the shark"? I got that feeling about 5 minutes after it started but it might take others longer. Exhibit 1:

A Valley community's decision to change the way trash is picked up provided further proof of how deeply the nation's anti-government, "tea party"-fueled sentiment is running.

A decision by the Fountain Hills Town Council to hire a single trash hauler and begin a curbside recycling program has been met with angry protests from residents who accuse town leaders of overstepping their bounds and taking a leap toward socialism.

Some even likened it to "Obamacare" for garbage, calling it "trashcare."

An Arizona website affiliated with the Alexandria, Va.,-based Campaign for Liberty,, features an intimidating, cigar-chomping man standing in front of the town's famous fountain next to a story about the issue.

And last week, a flier was circulated around Fountain Hills with an ominous icon and the phrase, "The Hills Will Have Eyes," and that claimed the "Fountain Hills Green Police" checked residents' garbage and recyclables, and as a result, "you are wanted for questioning."

On Thursday, a divided council approved a five-year contract with Allied Waste Services to be the single hauler and begin a recycling program. Residents currently can choose among five haulers and the town has no curbside recycling.

That single issue generated a nearly five-hour public hearing and council debate that went past midnight ...

Come on! Anyone of any kind of conscience would have to be thinking that these guys are seriously off their nut. Right?  Socialist garbage collection.  You have got to be kidding me.  If this is the kind of substantive work they will be doing, progressives have nothing to worry about.

I'm almost looking forward to the next couple of years for entertainment value alone.  Here's hoping that Michele Bachmann gets a leadership position in the new Republican Congress.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Perfect Circle concert in Tempe, AZ

Photos courtesy of SPIN magazine.

For those that don't know who A Perfect Circle is, it is the side band of Maynerd James Keenan, lead singer of the band Tool.

They have not played live in 6 years and the 3-day stop in Tempe is the beginning of a warm-up tour. Each night sees them playing, in its entirety, each of their three albums. I went the first 2 nights at the Marquee Theatre, a small venue ... a glorified club that might have held about 1,000 people. It's quite a change from having seen Tool several times in arenas. But the smaller venue plays well to the strengths of APC, atmospheric music and vocals. Not to say that APC won't "rock out" but a lot of their songs are more about evoking a mood than banging your head.

These shows were mostly for the benefit of the band and re-associating themselves with each other. Everybody in the band has quite a pedigree and numerous other projects: lead singer Keenan (Tool, Puscifer), lead guitarist Billy Howerdel (Ashes Divide, plus has been guitar tech for NIN, GNR, David Bowie, etc.), guitarist James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), drummer Josh Freese (Vandals, Devo and has played with NIN), and bassist Matt McJunkins (Ashes Divide, Puscifer).

Their tour was started in Tempe because Keenan lives near Sedona and has an award-winning winery there.

Because of the cult following for Tool/APC and the small venue, the tickets sold out quickly and I was lucky to get them. I can't deny the coolness factor of being there on their first show back. As Maynerd commented on Thursday night, because they were performing these albums completely, there were several songs that they had never played in concert before.

APC played probably their most popular album, Mer de Noms, on Thursday (review in SPIN magazine) and their second album, Thirtheenth Step, on Friday (review at AZ Central). For not having played in awhile, I thought they sounded as great as the limitations of the venue would allow (big open cement-floored room with questionable acoustics).

The crowd was about what you would expect, mostly 25 - 35 in age, with some youngsters and oldsters (ahem, myself included) sprinkled in. As having been reviewed in SPIN would indicate, there was a large trendy hipster contingent with ironic t-shirts and disaffected attitudes. I'm neither cool or clever enough to be a hipster, so I played the aging 90's grunge/industrial elitist who regaled people with stories of how cool it was to see Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers ... as if anyone would care.

Highlights for me were Judith off Mer de Noms and a cover of John Lennon's Imagine on Thursday and The Outsider on Friday. The video for Judith (click the title) was directed by David Fincher. The lyrics are fairly harsh towards religion, and rightly so, came out of bitterness by Keenan at the passing of his very devout mother Judith at the age of 59 from an aneurysm. She was left paralyzed in an accident prior to her death and Keenan could not understand how her faith was strengthened during this period:

You're such an inspiration for the ways that I will never ever choose to be
Oh so many ways for me to show you how your savior has abandoned you

Fuck your god
Your lord, your Christ
He did this
Took all you had and
Left you this way
Still you pray, never stray, never
Taste of the fruit
Never thought to question why

It's not like you killed someone
It's not like you drove a hateful spear into his side
Praise the one who left you broken down and paralyzed
He did it all for you
He did it all for you

Oh so many ways for me to show you how your dogma has abandoned you

To your Christ, to your god
Never taste of the fruit
Never stray, never break, never
Choke on a lie
Even though he's the one who
Did this to you
Never thought to question why

It's not like you killed someone
It's not like you drove a spiteful spear into his side
Talk to Jesus Christ as if He knows the reasons why
He did it all for you
He did it all for you
Did it all for you

Thursday's Setlist:
The Hollow
3 Libras
Sleeping Beauty
Thinking Of You

Diary of a Lovesong
Ashes to Ashes

Friday's Set List:
The Package
Weak and Powerless
The Noose
A Stranger
The Outsider
The Nurse Who Loved Me

Movie Review -- Waiting for "Superman"

I saw a thoughtful documentary tonight on the subject of education in America called Waiting for "Superman" by documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud).

The movie follows several low income students in different parts of the country and what they have to go through to get a decent education. The families are faced with the choice of putting their kids in substandard public schools or applying to excellent charter schools that often can only take less than 10% of the kids that apply.

Waiting for "Superman" is kind of an odd film in that Guggenheim is generally viewed as liberal for obvious reasons but is receiving kudos from conservatives for this film because it takes on teachers' unions pretty hard. We shouldn't be so entrenched in our views that we become above criticism. I wholeheartedly believe in unions but if the ultimate goal of the teachers' unions is not the quality education of our children then they need to examine what they are doing.

The movie lists some of the biggest impediments to improving our public education system:

- intractable teacher unions that won't allow excellent teachers to be rewarded and deficient teachers to be fired
- a bureaucracy that makes system-wide change almost impossible
- parents either being uninvolved or taking their kids out of public schools and putting them into private ones

Instead of bad schools being a byproduct of bad neighborhoods, they are often one of the contributing causes of bad neighborhoods. When you are graduating 50% or less of the kids that come into your system, you are creating a pipeline to unemployment, poverty and crime.

Several innovative charter schools located in some of the roughest areas of the country have had fantastic results with these same kids and should be a model for how the system can be improved. They worked because they didn't assume anything. They weren't afraid to be innovative. They expected a lot out of their teacher and their students.

Now, my son goes to a charter school and I honestly can say that I don't know how I feel about charter schools as a whole. There are good ones, there are bad ones ... just like with public schools. But it seems to me that we have to make it easier for school systems to innovate and charter schools may be a way.

Our "track" method of education is straight out of the 50's and a time where maybe 20% of high school went on to college and the rest were either factory workers, farmers, or skilled office workers (accountants, etc.). The track system worked then but it doesn't work now where it's almost a requirement for students to have a college degree to even have a decent job, let alone a professional one. We have to rethink a system that makes assumptions about kids early and locks them into a path that they will never advance from.

We are not helping our kids by not caring and by putting them in schools that are no good. But we are also not helping our society as a whole by opting out and putting them in private schools or teaching them at home. We spend way more on housing criminals in prisons where over 2/3 of them are high school dropouts. I'm not talking about throwing more money at bad schools. But we can't keep cutting education funding and expect it to get better. Get rid of a lot of the bureaucracy and competing school boards at every level. Reward schools and teachers that are doing a good job. Quit cutting programs like music and art that help our students in other subjects.

I don't think charter schools are the complete answer but I do think that they might provide us a clue into how we might improve our public schools. There has been some justifiable criticism of the movie in that it highlights some charter schools that get a lot of private funding. But that doesn't necessarily detract from the fact that those schools are succeeding in areas that most would never have imagined possible. There has to be some way of scaling those methods up to a larger system.

Some will criticize the film for having an agenda. But, personally, I'd be more afraid of a film that wasn't try to say anything. Of course it has an agenda. You may not agree with the conclusions or solutions but you would have to be blind to say that there isn't anything wrong with our current system.

Obviously I want my son to have a great education but it helps our whole community if his friend down the street also gets a good education. Check this movie out. It makes you think. Grade: A-