Saturday, April 30, 2005

Runaway Brides and Drowned Children

Right now Fox News Channel is running frequent stories about the young bride-to-be from Georgia who decided to go AWOL instead of take her walk down the aisle tonight.

One of the sad things about the whole affair is the number of talking heads who feel that “there have to be consequences” if, for no other reason, to discourage copycats.

From the time I was six until the time I was nearly twenty-two I lived in Phoenix (except for two too-brief semesters in San Antonio). Phoenix is hot; personally, I love it, even still, but back then it was with calm, smug satisfaction knowing so many didn’t like the heat. We would go swimming at the local public pool -- usually my brother and I, and we’d walk the couple of miles each way. A lot of the time we didn’t bother with shoes, either. Kind of like those stories about Grandpa having to walk miles through the snow and rain to get to school...

As time went by, more and more families in Phoenix had pools installed. Almost at once, as the family swimming pool became more prevalent, it became clear that there were serious downsides to pools. Children started to die, most commonly, victims of inattention on the part of their parents.

Laws were passed mandating minimum standards of fencing and gates... gradually too, people reacted against parents who paid so little attention to their children, that they could wander away, find a pool and jump in.

I never cared for laws mandating penalties for carelessness. I’ve been a parent; I’ve raised a child. Sure, you’re supposed to pay attention 24/7 -- and any honest parent will admit to having failed at that, a time or two. Just putting an infant on a countertop for a second and then turning around to deal with something else for one second is fraught with danger.

I remember when I was five or six, sitting on a countertop watching my mother do dishes. She was nearly done and was drying them and putting them away. I remember her taking some plates and reaching for the cupboard. Two, three... maybe five seconds of distraction. Time and then some for me to reach over to the dish rack, grab a fork and ram it into the electric socket next to where I was sitting.

Yes, for a long time my theme song was “You Light Up My Life.”

Ipso facto, of course, since I’m here writing this decades later, I survived my error and my mother’s. I was introduced to the concept of putting butter on a mild burn. I still do; I don’t know if it does any good, but it sure feels nice.

The statistics (you can read them yourself at the website for the Statistical Abstract of the United States) clearly show that more children die in accidental drownings than from accidental gunshots. Yet there is no hue and cry to outlaw personal swimming pools. (Oops, sorry! A little political rant slipped in there!)

When I was living in the Pacific Northwest, every year people would go swimming in some of the local rivers and their children would drown. I would be amazed when I would read about one of those tragedies. Talk about willful negligence! The rivers in the Pacific Northwest actually have water in them, and that water is colder than most people keep their refrigerators set to. Then, no matter how strong you are, how healthy you are, your body goes into the beginning stages of hypothermia and it takes prompt medical intervention to save someone.

*sigh*

Accidents like these are tragedies. Parents lose their children, some even die trying to rescue them. Sometimes it’s good-hearted bystanders who die. Tragedy, you know? An awful thing for everyone.

I’ve always thought that while there should be laws mandating some sort of penalties for the most egregious negligence. However common humanity would have to take note of the personal consequences to most parents who were negligent: they lost a child. No one could impose a penalty on a person or persons that harsh in a court of law, not for simply being distracted, or simply making a stupid mistake. What possible good could a prison sentence accomplish? The death of the child is what hurts, and if that death didn’t hurt, what harm is a short prison sentence?

No, Jennifer Wilbanks is going to suffer. She will have to face her family and fiancé. Her friends who worried about her, the people of her town who not only worried about her, but who turned out to search for her. She has to face the police, public safety officials who, while searching for her, probably let less important cases slide. I think Ms. Wilbanks got in over her head and any penalty society might mete out in the criminal justice system would be wholly inappropriate. Civil suits, lamentably will abound.

I feel sorry for someone like Ms. Wilbanks; I hope she can get a grip on her life, talk to family, friends, husband-to-be, her pastor... anyone who can help. I wish her the best, not the worst. But anyone who thinks she is getting off scot-free if she doesn’t get fined, put on probation or slapped in jail must hold her in deep contempt. I don’t feel like that, not at all.

There are people I feel disgust for. The news media, particularly the “all news, all the time” cable channels praying for another Laci Peterson. I am disgusted for investigators for the police who, when her fiancé was asked to take a lie detector test, objected to the interview being taped.

Now and then the world throws curveballs at some of us. Ickie, nasty, not uncommonly terrible curveballs. We are born into this world and we’ll die in it. Most people are content to live quiet lives of personal and private accomplishment and pleasure. Better for all of us to realize that a stupid decision isn’t criminal, and to temper our desire for justice with awareness that what society hands out, frequently isn’t really justice at all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

American Idol Results 4-27-05

Once again Fox shows the other networks how to package nearly zero content into thirty minutes. Again, one of the excuses was a song sung by the six survivors. Ryan made a comment about how it had been done on the weekend. Most of the singing was adequate, Vonzell stood out, in my mind for being all over the place, music-wise.

Once again, two groups. Once again, Bo didn’t move to one side in particular; this time it was Bo and Scott, and they picked the same side. I can’t help but think that it’s done deliberately, pushing Bo, while casting Scott as a follower. I say this, considering what happened last week. I tried several clever ways to punctuate this paragraph; none worked except straight forward.

The bottom three were Vonzell, Constantine and Scott. The good news (for me) is that I had two of the three again, but it’s hard not to do that, since there are only six contestants and I listened to how they sung. Constantine was a bit of surprise when he got the hook. Regrettably, American Idol doesn’t extend to exit polls. Was it the hideous over-performance that turned off voters? Was it Constantine “kicking” the camera? Something else? I dunno.

One last thing is Paula Abdul. I’m sorry Fox; there is a place for a bright cheerful soul amongst the judges. Paula has long since lost my vote for the position. I don’t know how deliberate it was, but Paula was obviously shaken (or a world-class actress, obviously in the wrong career-path) when Constantine got the hook.

No matter what people think, Simon Cowell is an essential adjunct to the show, particularly in the early rounds. Paula has shown, over and over again, her inability to carefully judge. Time, I think, to give a judge the hook.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

American Idol Review 4-26-05

ABC is working on an “expose” of American Idol. Since it hasn’t broadcast yet, it wouldn’t be fair to criticize something I haven’t seen. But, the buzz on net is that it will focus on Paula Abdul and how the three judges play favorites. Given the context that the ABC program hasn’t broadcast yet, I want to make a statement about general principles, then a few observations of my own about the show.

First and foremost, all of us have things (and people!) that we like. It’s human nature to favor those people (and things!) we like. The judges on American Idol are paid to give their opinions. Now, we could assume that because they are paid for their impressions that they aren’t going to have favorites… but that would be contrary to all human experience. Not to mention, there’s that little matter of each playing their individual roles.

To me, the words of the judges are almost superfluous in the final stages of the show. Everyone knows Randy is going to say, “Dawg” a few times, everyone expects Paula to gush unless the performance was the deep pits and everyone expects Simon to trash talk the contestants at one time or another.

More subtle, but one thing I’ve noticed this season, is the camera work on the contestants during their performances. It’s clear that contestants have assistance with wardrobe, hair styles and makeup; I’m almost as sure they have vocal coaches. I don’t know for sure, but I’m confident that the contestants have a broad degree of latitude on how they will appear. What I have no idea about is how much, if any, control they have over cameras and camera coverage.

One last thing. There are legitimate reasons to investigate contest shows, as we first learned from The Million Dollar Question to Milli Vanilli. Er, wait, cancel that last. There could be manipulation of the votes, the voting protocols, real fraud, in other words. Complaining that a judge (or two or three) has a favorite just doesn’t rise any further than a cheap shot grab at ratings.

The show theme this week was “Songs From 2000 Forward,” thus being the modern music philistine that I am, I had very low expectations. The show had no trouble fulfilling those low expectations.

First up was Carrie, back to country-western, wearing a country-western outfit. Straight, rather plain hair that made her face look unflatteringly fat. It seems that a hallmark of modern singing is to make the lyrics of a song unintelligible. Carrie has that style down perfectly. Randy thought she was pitchy, Paula didn’t like her song choice and Simon, for a change waffled about his opinion.

Then came Bo. Shades and what I would call a “hippie” shirt. That’s not meant as a pejorative, but instead is intended to be descriptive. At least he wasn’t wearing “peace beads.” Maybe the last was a little pejorative. The song wasn’t over-performed as is Bo’s usual style. I’m sure I would have liked the song much better if I’d understood more of the lyrics. Randy said Bo was a true rock star, Paula more or less dittoed Randy. Simon said Bo was the strongest contestant so far [tonight] although he didn’t like the shades. Duh! Simon! This was the second of six contestants! At least you didn’t say that about Carrie!

Next up was Vonzell. I didn’t like the song (what I could hear of it) or her performance. There seemed to be a disconnect between the words she was singing and the emotions she was emoting. However, Randy loved her performance, Paula said she nailed it, but Simon didn’t like it. Bizarrely, Ryan Seacrist's contribution was to mention that she doesn’t talk on Tuesdays, preferring post-it notes.

Along came Anthony. Who would have thought! I could actually understand most of the lyrics! Obviously he doesn’t have what it takes to be either a rocker or American Idol. Anthony did better sitting down -- once he stood up and started moving around, the lyrics were less intelligible. Randy said “Dawg, you brought it home!” That was one of three “dawgs” from Randy tonight. Paula didn’t think his vocals were good and Simon was waffling once again, saying it was terrible, but that Anthony’s fans would love it.

Constantine appeared a little better groomed than last week, but not much. Then he launched into a full-blown rock performance of whatever song that he was singing. I doubt that if I'd been able to understand the lyrics that it would have made up for the awful performance. What part of “this is a singing” contest doesn’t he understand? That said, Constantine was aware of the camera, and played to it, not the audience. Not only did he play to the camera, it played to him with a lot fancy angles, pushes and pulls. Randy, amazingly, agreed with me, saying that Constantine was “high on performing and low on vocals.” Paula said it wasn’t her favorite song, but that it was an amazing performance. Simon said Constantine had “crossed to the other side, the dark side...a bad imitation of the original.” A final word about Bo/Constantine: Rockers, I guess, are supposed to be bad boys. I know I’m a relic fossil from times past, but Bo’s hair is nicely combed and brushed and looks recently washed. Constantine’s hair looks like he needs a shampoo (too oily) and then it needs to be brushed out. I adapted to a son having hair longer than my wife, I’m just not able to adapt to what appears to be poor hygiene.

Scott came last. His lyrics were intelligible, and I like his voice. The song though, just wasn’t a very effective vehicle for his talent. Randy said it was Scott’s weakest performance in weeks, Paula said he didn’t connect with the audience and Simon told him “Pack your suitcase tonight.”

After my less than stellar guesses last week on who stays and who gets the hook, I was wondering if I’d be cautious. Nope, I think Carrie, Constantine and Scott will be in the bottom three, with Carrie looking to get the hook. Carrie is one of two women left in the competition, and that might work in her favor, in which case I suspect it will be Scott that gets the hook. How's that for a waffle myself?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

France -- The European Lady of Ill-repute

Here is the link to an article today from Deutsche Welle, pointed out by the Instapundit himself.

Here are a few words from the article, detailing some of the comments made during the visit to China of the French Premiere, Jean-Pierre Raffarin:

During a state visit to China, French Premier Raffarin threw support behind a law allowing China to attack Taiwan and continued to push for a lift of the European Union arms embargo.

At the outset of a three-day visit to China, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said he supported Beijing's "anti-secession" law on Taiwan, and vowed to keep pushing for an end to a EU arms embargo that could open the door for Paris to sell weapons to the Asian giant.

Raffarin also signed or finalized major business deals with Beijing valued at around $3.2 billion (2.4 billion euros).

Appearing to put his government at odds with the European Union, Raffarin said at the outset of the three-day visit that Paris had no objections to the anti-secession law.

There’s a very unflattering word for behavior like France’s, and you wouldn’t like anyone who referred to any of the female members of your family using it. The French must truly hate the United States to be willing to sacrifice one of the leading democracies of the Far East and one of the top twenty economies in the world so that they can sell a few aircraft and some military equipment. Well, maybe a lot of aircraft and a lot of military equipment.

Oh, and the unified European voice we’ve heard so much about? Well, imagine how the other EU member nations must feel to hear France speaking with their voice, saying something I seriously doubt that many other European nations agree with (it looks like Germany does). Of course the EU foreign minister, Javier Solana, said not so long ago that the embargo was outdated and that China had changed since the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

At the end of May France will be voting on a referendum to approve or disapprove the EU Constitution, which in my .pdf version is about 240 pages long (in fairness, there is considerable white space in the document). Personally, I’d vote against such a constitution based on length alone. The American constitution is much shorter and has been interpreted rather liberally over the years by the courts. What the EU version of the Supreme Court could do to a document thirty times longer beggars the imagination.

I think it is time for the Europeans to take a long hard look at what the future means to them and just what they want the world (and Europe) to look like twenty years from now. I don’t think the French solution of selling anything to anyone is a model I’d like to follow. Nor is the German model of following just about everywhere the French lead much of a way I’d want my country run.

I will conclude with one thing, just one word, that I think the French should consider before they sell too much to China: Japan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

American Idol Results 4-20-05

American TV has been called a vast wasteland; it’s certainly true that the content of some programs isn’t particularly great, either in terms of size or quality.

But, not trying to sugar coat this, the nonpareil of zero content has to be an American Idol results episode.

Try as I might, I don’t think I’m going to be able to use many more than a hundred words to say that Anwar got the hook, with Scott and Anthony rounding out the bottom three. This time was the reverse of last week: I picked just one person in the bottom three and the person I picked to get the hook wasn’t in the group.

Oh my God! Almost one hundred and twenty-five words!

The Durfur Puzzle

One of the advantages of being retired is that you have some time to kill. So, I was visiting some blogs that I don’t visit very often and in doing so I came upon a piece in the Belgravia Dispatch blog, posted by Joseph Britt entitled
The Darfur Puzzle's Missing Piece.

Mr. Britt asks the question: “How much do Arabs know about the Arab genocide in Darfur?” Joseph Britt is quite right to suggest the Arabic language news media is opaque to most westerners, and what he could find on a few media sites wasn’t much.

Since he didn’t mention MEMRI, I hied myself off to MEMRI’s website, www.memri.org, and did the simplest search, using “Darfur” for a criteria. That came back with four articles, and the first is, I’m afraid, the typical Arab belief on the topic: it’s an Egyptian government paper describing the events in Darfur as an American plot to control Sudanese oil, another is a translation of an appeal by the Muslim Brotherhood published in two London Arab-language newspapers in August of 2004, describing Darfur as an “American-Zionist” plot against all humanity. The other two items were Arab editorials talking about how little coverage Darfur was getting in the Arab media.

So, I think the answer to the question is that the Arab street doesn’t know much about Darfur, and much of what they know is sourced from the biased propaganda of the Arab media. While one might find some ray of optimism from the fact two editorial writers decried the lack of coverage, it’s hard to imagine why one would write that sort of editorial and not cover events in Darfur -- yet no articles seem to have appeared.

Oh, and one has to wonder once again: just why is Egypt the destination for so much of our foreign aid money?

Read the whole article, but Mr. Britt concludes with the following two sentences: “I see no way to complete the puzzle of stopping genocide in Darfur without the Arab piece. It is a wonder that no one seems able even to acknowledge that this piece is missing.”

I heartily agree with the second sentence: lack of coverage of the Arab lack of coverage (or sensationalized coverage) is a blind spot for American media. Sometimes I even wonder if the MSM would cover Darfur at all if it weren’t for the alternative media sources these days.

On the other hand, I completely disagree with the premise of the first sentence. The solution, since diplomacy hasn’t seemed to be of assistance is yet another intervention by the West. It would be nice if Europe would do it: they talk big, but instead of carrying a big stick Europe wields limp linguini. America will probably have to do it, with once again the bleating chorus from the moral cowards of Western Europe. Why should Americans have to put their lives on the line for Africans? The same reason we’ve put American lives on the line around the world since James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine. This is 2005, not 1823; the world is a smaller place now. Kitty Genovese shouldn’t have had to die alone; neither should Sudanese villagers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

American Idol 4-19-05

Every now and then we do things for no other reason than we’ve always done them that way before. I grew up in the 50s, went to high school in the early 60s and college until 1975. There was a four year gap in the middle, where, among other things I hand-wrote notes listening to taped telephone conversations. The emphasis here is that term: “hand-written notes.”

Yep, I started to watch American Idol tonight, rather dreading the tedious conversion of my chicken-scratches to the typed word. I looked up and saw my laptop across the room, the one I’m loading up with my writing.

A classic Duh! moment. Gee, why not try to type it directly into the computer? What do people mean by “simul-blogging” anyway?

I guess it’s never too late in your life to get an epiphany -- but hey, I was raised Presbyterian. So long as you get the epiphany before that great-come-and-get-it day, you were predestined to be saved. Or in this case, saved from having to retype your notes.

Last week I chortled about how the show started with a banner saying “Live” instead of the more common “Taped from an earlier broadcast.” Today, we are back to the latter. I’m not sure; if I were paranoid I would think Fox has it in for Arizona. Phoenix is one of the ten largest metro areas in the country. Does Fox ever show Phoenix’s forecast temperature on a national weather map? Nope.

The theme this week is 70s dance music. They are too mealy mouthed to come out and say disco, but that didn’t stop the laser lights and spinning mirror globe... Maybe I misunderstood, but once we got past it, didn’t we all agree disco was the worst, most insipid music ever? Except for maybe the clothes of the period, the lamest social trend in American history?

So, Constantine got the tip to go first, singing “Nights on Broadway.” Well, he moved his lips and words came out of his mouth, unintelligible words, but hey, who pays attention to rock lyrics anyway? I know I’m old-fashioned; I’m getting on towards sixty, but let me explain about this expectation I have about singing for the younger generations. When I listen to a singer, I want to admire the musical qualities of their voice singing words that mean something.

If the words are meaningless or unintelligible, how is that different from an instrumental piece? And why, oh why, when I’m listening to a singer, do I have to watch them cavort around the stage? I suppose we should admire people who can multi-task like that, but we come back to why I tuned in: I wanted to listen to the singing. I do like dance, but not so much as singing. When I watch people dancing the Philistine in me wants to concentrate on the fluid and grace of the dancers’ movements in concert with the music -- music someone else performs, because I prefer my artists to be undistracted.

Oh yeah, Constantine. Dude: fire your barber, he didn’t even bother to shampoo or brush your hair! Ugly! As usual, I’m not fond of the over-performance of rockers. But hey, it’s just my opinion, which is that Constantine did okay but failed in the looks department. Of course when it comes to rockers that’s a “dog bites man on ankle story” isn’t it? Randy thought he did okay, Paula gushed, Simon thought it was the equivalent of a ghastly nightclub performance. Me and you, Simon!

Constantine was followed by a commercial break, one of which was Ryan Seacrest and William Huong (among others) touting a $9.99 American Idol DVD available at your local Singular Wireless store with a purchase. Yep, Fox is going to milk every penny from its viewers humanly possible. Nothing else justifies charging so much for so little and paying Huong so much as another penny.’

Next came Carrie singing “MacArthur Park.” Carrie, speaking as a guy, I’m always in favor of women wearing dresses that are transparent when backlit. I don’t think it conveys quite the impression you wanted to leave, though. I thought she started off okay, and then went into a steep dive. Randy though, thought she was “brilliant... that was beautiful.” Paula said “Wow!” and Simon put it the best “you look like Barbie meets the Stepford wives.” I too said "Wow" when Carrie was backlit -- probably the first time ever I've agreed with Paula.

Scott was up next, singing “Everlasting Love.” Of all of the voices of the remaining contestants I like his the best, but I think he knows the knives are out for him and his heart isn’t in it like it once was. The camera angles this time were mainly looking up at him. I suppose you could say that was an attempt to minimize his size, but Ann Coulter wasn’t terribly flattered by similar photography on the cover of Time magazine. Randy said it was hot, Paula liked it and Simon said “...you’re an ordinary guy doing well.”

After Scott was Anthony singing “Don’t Take Away the Music.” I thought he was improved over the last few weeks and Anthony did say he was feeling more relaxed. Randy said he liked the song, Paula said it was soothing and Simon said it was “pleasant, safe... a little insipid.”

Then came Vonzell singing “I’m Every Woman.” I admit the song title put me off. Yes, I’m one of those conservatives who think that the way to redress discrimination is to end it... not change the direction of the discrimination. I thought her performance was trite and boring. Another singer doing another ghastly song from the disco era and over-performing it on top of her other sins. At least this week even though she was wearing stiletto boots, she had less trouble getting around the stage. Of course, she didn’t move off it, either. Randy thought she started off rough, but “worked it out at the end.” Paula said “You rocked the house, the best performance tonight.” Simon said it was “right on the edge vocally.” It wasn’t terribly clear on which side of the edge Simon meant, but I got the impression it was the good side.

Anwar sang “September.” He had a nicely understated wardrobe, and while he sounded artificial and looked artificial (his shirt became progressively unbuttoned during the performance, showing more and more of his manly chest. If it had been one of the women, we’d have seen the show on tape delay and... Wait! We did see the show on tape delay!) Randy thought he was good, Paula said he was “awesome” and Simon didn’t think it was that good of a performance.

Last was Bo, singing “Vehicle.” At least his hair was combed, but he performed with quintessential rocker verve. Like I said, it leaves me wanting to be able to understand more than a few percent of the lyrics. Randy said, “Bo is back” (Duh! They showed his name, they ran a little blurb... Randy: we noticed Bo was back!). Paula said she got chills (someone offer the lady a coat) and Simon said it was “the most authentically good performance of the night.” I admire Simon’s words, because of course, they leave room for the notion that not all of the good performances are authentic.

So, my take on the night: I think Carrie, Vonzell and Scott will be in the bottom three... I think tomorrow Carrie will get the hook. As I’ve said before, usually I get two of three of the bottom three, but last week was the first time I successfully predicted who got the hook... but this week it was pretty clear too.

And, most amazing of all this week: Randy only said "Dawg!" twice!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Results from American Idol

Amazing! I watched the premiere of Revelations, instead of the hour results show for “American Idol.” Instead, afterwards I tuned in to Ann Althouse to see what she’d written about last night’s show, and found out she’d already blogged about the results. Cool!

Nadia, Scott and Bo made the bottom three; Nadia got the hook! Goodness, once again I get only two of the three in the bottom tier, but at least I picked Nadia as the one to leave!

I keep thinking I should give my guess about who should win; the problem is I think they should all lose. The music style that the judges (and audience) of “American Idol” just isn’t mine.

Who do I like on vocals? Sarah Brightman comes to mind. Charlotte Church! What pipes that girl has! Loreena McKennitt and Enya. Even such obscure people as Aselin Debison, the Heathers, Alexander and Dale. I like show tunes and movie themes, I like classical music. Shucks, I even play Avril Lavigne’s “Let Go.” I like the Golden Oldie rock and roll, from the mid-50’s to the early 60’s. In truth the latter is the musical equivalent with “Poodle Yaps at Passerby.” It’s what was playing when I was in junior high and high school. Not that we knew what a junior high was, back in those days.

After the mid 60’s I found less and less to like about rock. By 1975 there just wasn’t much left I found interesting. Just remember one thing: these are my tastes. I don’t dictate yours; please don’t tell me how blind and ignorant I am with mine.

A last word: I don't know about trackbacks and permalinks and all that. Real soon now, I'll learn more about it.

American Idol

One reason I took up blogging was seeing others writing about “American Idol”, and I wanted to do the same.

I come at it from a very different point of view, though, than most. You see, I don’t much care for what “rock” music has become. It has, in fact, been decades since the last time I heard a rock song I liked. Did I mention I’m slightly hard of hearing and haven’t much of a musical bone in my body? But that isn’t to say I don’t love music! I do! Unabashed and unashamed, with all of my heart.

No, the reason I watch “American Idol” is simple: Simon Cowell.

To me, Simon performs a public service that family and friends of the wannabe singers haven’t done: he’s the sharp and bracing appraisal of a person’s skills as a singer. Since I don’t sing, you’d think that wouldn’t mean much. But it’s not true, not true at all.

What I would really like to do is be a successful writer. I have a wife who has read my work and didn’t have much to say about it. Other people have read my work too, and aside from saying they really liked it, they didn’t say much. However, a long time ago, I had a decent critic, and his words have stuck with me a long time. My college freshman English composition scrawled on a paper (long since lost) “Your writing is interesting. You grammar and punctuation are an abomination before Jehovah.” Hey, it was a church-sponsored college, back in the early 60’s and the PC world; you could say things like that.

I had, I thought learned my lesson. I studied grammar and punctuation; I kept writing. My family and friends told me how wonderful my stories were, and eventually I sent some off. They were rejected. Over and over again until finally (as so many others have) I stopped bothering.

Fast-forward many years. I was looking towards retirement, and decided, as an exercise, to try writing a screenplay. Ah, now there’s exercise! The internet had been there all along, but now there is a Web, and on the Web are various and sundry places where people are free with their criticism. I did relatively well there, sent out some scripts and had some modest early success, but that tapered off as well.

Eventually, I wrote another narrative fiction piece and posted it online. The reception was good, and among other things, I got an email from someone claiming to be an editor and telling me that I’d made a lot of grammatical and punctuation errors. He liked what I’d written, did I want to see what I’d done wrong.

I did. He’s much nicer than Simon Cowell, polite and not acerbic. But there were hundreds of errors in six thousand words. More than five hundred, I know, because I counted them. I could say a lot of things right now about family and friends who have read my work in the past. I was even in a writer’s group, back in Portland before I moved back to Arizona. Lots of nice comments about writing, not a word about grammar and punctuation.

Dirty rotten pond-scum-sucking bottom-feeders. Er, no, wait. No, they were kind and gentle people, who thought they were doing me a favor... even though it was no favor at all.

I was outraged at the bleeding on the pages of my story. I have a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style; there are all sorts of online compendiums of grammar and punctuation rules. By now, I’m sure you’ve figured it out: ouch! Do you know what it is like to reach fifty-five years of age and find out that you have a fifth grade understanding of English? Humbling!

So I have a great deal of respect for Simon Cowell and the public service he provides to singers, particularly in the early stages of the competition.

So, with the understanding that I just don’t “get” rock music any more, here are my thoughts on the “American Idol” show of April 12, 2005.

First, a first this year. Instead of being on tape delay, we here in Phoenix got it live. One day I will take some time and discuss my contempt for adults who move their clocks backwards and forwards to help them get up in the morning; suffice to say, I think it’s stupid.

Oops! Off track again! You might as well relax and enjoy it! I do it a lot!

The theme was “Songs From the Year You Were Born.” Alas, I didn’t like songs from 1945 very much, I really felt for the contestants, having constrained choices again.

First up was Nadia, singing a 1977 song. She wore a hideous dress; at least her hair was back to being big. She had long dangle-bangle earrings, that aren’t nearly as flattering as her dressers told her. I thought her singing was mediocre and unimpressive. Randy thought it was okay; Paula, usually nicey-nice had a very unkind cut: “I come to see how you look...” Hey Paula, this is a singing contest! Simon thought it was musical wallpaper.

I should say a few words about Randy and Paula. I suppose Paula is there as a counterbalance to Simon. The only thing she really provides is the kiss of death: if she says you were terrible, you no longer have a shred of hope that maybe Simon or Randy might have been suffering from menstrual cramps when you sang your song. Randy Jackson is a total mystery to me. I suppose he represents the middle ground, but he is too much like Paula, willing to excuse mediocrity with mild praise.

Next was Bo, singing a 1975 song. My first impression of him was that he was wearing enough jewelry to open his own store. Myself, the song was done in the “rock performance” style, which is 98% physical performance art and 2% about the music. I didn’t like it. Randy and Paula loved it; Simon thought it was okay.

Anwar followed Bo, with a 1979 song. His performance wasn’t overdone, but he certainly over sang the song. Nonetheless, the judges scored him almost the same as they had Bo.

After Anwar was Anthony, who is, I think, on shaky ground. He sang a 1985 song without much conviction. Early on, I rather liked Anthony’s singing. Lately, it’s awful. Randy damned with faint praise: “You did your thing, dog!” Paula thought he was “much better” and Simon said he was very good.

Then Vonzell sang a song from 1984. She was wearing high heels, and had to look down every time she moved her feet; it left me very distracted; plus I didn’t like the song at all, or the way she sang it. Randy thought she was great, Paula called her a “bright light” and Simon said the song was a “good choice.”

Then came Scott. If Anthony is on shaky ground, Scott is in quicksand. I’m interested in screenwriting and movies; maybe someday I’ll make one. I was interested enough to take a six week class in filmmaking, where I learned a lot. They are doing Scott no favors with the camera work. I like Scott’s voice, but his choice of song from 1976 was mediocre at best. It’s like many Olympic sports: you get extra points for doing something difficult. It wasn’t difficult and Scott got nothing extra. Randy said he was pitchy, Paula liked it and Simon thought Scott was “very pitchy.”

I haven’t mentioned that a couple of times the audience tried to mau-mau Simon into silence, with boos. Considering his thoughts about the first few performers, and the ones after that, I think the audience succeeded. If so, it’s a terrible thing.

Then came “Country Carrie” singing a song from a year I didn’t catch. The lyrics weren’t understandable a great part of the time. Turns out that isn’t a surprise, as she forgets most of them. Randy thought she was pitchy and messed up the words. Paula thought it “rocked,” and Simon said she was a “kitten who wants to be a tiger.” I think that was a dig.

Last was Constantine who sang a song from 1975 called Bohemian Rhapsody. I despised the lyrics; I despised the “rock performance” that he put on. On the other hand, while Scott had the worst camera angles and the worst coverage of anyone, Constantine got nothing by candy from the cameras. Still, Randy thought he was just okay, but Paula thinks “you’re the one to beat” and Simon simply said “Astonishing.” Again, I think that was praise, but the audience was burying him with sound.

If it was up to me, I’d gave all eight the hook. One thing that drove me was the previous weeks performances, based on songs from musicals. The performances were uniformly awful, and it was clear from the comments of the performers and judges that they all thought it was a hideous mistake.

Well guys, let me tell you, you’re right. Most of us think modern rock music is just that. The contestants chose some great songs, songs that have stood up a lot longer than anything Clay Aitken will ever sing, or Rueben Stoddard will. And they were just hideous.

I have keep track of who I think is going to be in the bottom three each week. So far I have picked two of the three, and have yet to correctly guess who gets the boot. With that, my bottom three this week are Nadia, Scott and Vonzell, with Nadia the most likely to get the hook.

One last thing to the producers of “American Idol.” How stupid do you think the American people are? Sure, a great many people will watch the one-hour “results” show this week, but that says less about them than it says about you. Eli Wallach said it best, years ago when I was in high school, in the movie, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”: “If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” If you’re going to give someone the hook, give them the hook. If I never hear Ryan Seacrist say “We’ll find out, right after the break,” again, it won’t be too soon.

Filibusting

I’ve been musing lately about judges and what to do about the fact that the judiciary of this country has pretty much decided that they are laws unto themselves. One thing that would be good is if the President’s choices for judge had hearings held for them in the Senate, and then were voted on. Once upon a time, that was the paradigm.

Lately there is much talk about the Republicans using the “nuclear” option to break the logjam. Too much hyperbole! Changing the rules on filibusters for one type of vote isn’t that big a thing. Stupid, but not that big a deal.

No, I was thinking, it would be salutatory for the American people to see the senate in action, ala “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Advise and Consent.” I guess I left out the 50’s and 60’s filibusters of civil rights legislation. Anyway, distracted again!

Nope, I think it would be cool to see a real filibuster! Yep, see a senator up there, kidneys whinging about when the next bathroom break will be, talking about just about anything but the issue at hand. Read a few issues of the Federal Register and remind people just how mind-numbing bureaucracy can be.

Then today I read a short piece by Jonah Goldberg on NRO today:
Disrobing Our Masters”.

I’m happy to report that Jonah and I are in agreement. I’ve always admired the man who coined the phrase “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys.” Anyone who can come up with such a unique description of the French deserves agreement!

Monday, April 11, 2005

What the Republicans Should Do

There’s a short piece in today’s NRO Online by Robert Moran titled “The Sandy Berger Bind” with a suggestion for how the Republicans in the House should react to Berger’s rather mild sentence for stealing classified documents and destroying them.

My first thought on reading the headline NRO had on it’s index page, “What Republicans should do about Sandy Berger” was that Republicans at this point in time should put it behind them and get on with their lives.

On reading Moran’s suggestion, ie, increasing the penalties for such a theft, from a misdemeanor to a felony, I found myself scratching my head. It sounds reasonable, but...

Martha Stewart spent time in federal prison for lying to Federal investigators about what was arguably no crime at all. Sandy Berger lied to federal investigators about what was a true crime -- and received a $10,000 fine, no jail time and a three year suspension of his security clearance. If a Democrat wins in 2008, Berger would be eligible to resume some sort of national defense duties once again.

A long time ago, from 1967-1971, I was in the US Army, assigned to the Army Security Agency, which monitored communications in a similar fashion as the National Security Agency. One of the many things we had to swear and affirm to secure our clearances was that we understood the penalties for releasing classified material was a $10,000 fine and up to ten years in jail.

At the time that particular form was a laughing stock amongst us because politicians violated it with impunity practically every day.

The point I’m trying to make is that our justice system has become a farce, where crimes and penalties increasingly have no relationship to each other, and conviction or acquittal for offenses is haphazard at the best of times. The rich and famous essentially live in another country, where the rules don’t apply to them like they apply to the rest of us.

...Unless you’re Martha Stewart and the public is howling for someone, anyone’s head over the corporate financial scandals.

My advice to the Republicans? We don’t need another law that prosecutors and defense lawyers will simply plead down anyway. What’s the point?

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sahara -- Movie Review

Directed by Breck Eisner, Screenplay finally credited to Thomas Dean Donnelly, with additional credits to Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards and James V. Hart, adapted from the novel “Sahara” by Clive Cussler.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Dirk Pitt, former Seal, current treasure hunter, with Steve Zahn as his sidekick Al Giordino, Rainn Wilson as junior assistant sidekick-in-training Rudi Gunn. William H. Macy stars as their boss, Admiral James Sandecker, and Penelope Cruz as WHO doctor Eva Rojas. Additional white hats are Glynn Turman, another WHO doctor and Delroy Lindo, a CIA agent. The bad guys are Lambert Wilson as the evil French businessman and Lennie James as General/President Kazim.

This is an unabashedly action-action-adventure movie. Car chases, fights on tall buildings, bombs and bullets -- all there for fans of the genre. There’s even a spot of sailing over the desert for “Flight of the Phoenix” holdouts.

The story details Eva Rojas and Glynn Turman (who is the actor, I didn’t catch the character name nor could I find the name easily online), WHO doctors trying to track down a mysterious disease. Eva is attacked by Muslim ninjas (sorry, I’m a fan of ninjas and not a fan of assassins) and is rescued by Dirk Pitt.

The storyline has many parting of the ways. Dirk Pitt is obsessed with finding the CSS Texas, a Confederate ironclad, said to be carrying gold. Probably of the entire plot, the story of the how the Texas ended up in the middle of the Sahara requires you to suspend disbelief, suspend your judgment, common sense and assume nothing you’ve ever heard about the geology and climate of the Sahara desert in modern times is true.

After Dirk rescues the lady doctor, he hauls her part of the way along with him as he and his cohorts head to Mali to check out where an old coin is from. In Mali they part, she and the other doctor to find out more about where the plague is coming from. Dirk and his sidekicks continue in their speedboat a little further up the Niger River, run into local Coast Guard types... and kill them all. Dirk sends Rudy for the cavalry, while he and Al continue, now mounted on camels.

I’m not sure why Mali got picked to be the evil bad guy country, but they did. One part of the story is accurate enough: it doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re a tin-pot dictator in, the French will sell you weapons, helicopters and the odd industrial plant, if the price is right. The price to them, of course. The fact that you get a lot more than you pay for is entirely secondary -- but then, that’s the French. Wonderful folks, throwing in so many extras for free.

I digress... Dirk is suddenly concerned about the doctor. Mind you, he’s hot on the trail of millions of dollars worth of gold bullion, but he instantly knows the bad guys aren’t chasing him -- it’s the pretty doctor they are looking for. Okay, true, true... action adventure movies aren’t long on logic.

Of course, he arrives too late the save the male WHO doctor, or the native guides, but he saves the girl! What a shocker! Dog bites man on ankle!

Along the way they make friends, they find the bad guy, learn the true nature of the nefarious plot. They find the gold; they make abundant use of the natural and unnatural resources they find along the way, escape with ease when caught. Oh yeah, they dish up proper justice to the bad guy at the end of the movie.

From this you would think I hated the movie. Nope, when you are fond of action-adventure movies it’s like being a fan of Star-Trek. You ignore the cheesy sets, worse costumes and generally poor production values, and concentrate on which poor red shirt Captain Kirk is going to get killed this time... Sahara has pretty sets, nice costumes (or lack thereof, when it comes to Ms. Cruz) and great production values. This counts for a lot. Of course, I recently watched the George Pal classic, “War of the Worlds,” and winced at the cheesy sets, bad costumes... you get the drift. I’m spoiled.

This is, IMO, a three out of five stars movie. The violence doesn’t dwell on spurting blood or body parts. There wasn’t, so far as I could tell, a single bathroom humor joke. Nobody farted, even. Penelope Cruz is easy on the eyes, even if at times her accent slips. Oh, yeah. Screenwriting guys: I’m a wannabe screenwriter myself. I know how easy it is to assume something and be wrong, which is why I’ve learned to check things out even if I think I’m sure I know the answer.

Guys, Dirk and Eva talk about ending up on a beach in Monterey. You can’t tell from the dialog how it’s spelled. Monterey in the US is a beach town, but there are no nice beaches for swimming because the water is frigid and the rip tides deadly. Besides, Penelope is playing a Hispanic doctor. Monterrey in Mexico, dudes, is more than a hundred miles inland.

A Longer Introduction

I am going to try to post at least once a day. I am an eclectic in all things, my interests are catholic, my vocabulary a pain-in-the-you-know-what for most people. Tough, the solution to that is:

http://dictionary.reference.com/


I’m going to write about what interests me -- and my interests are legion. News and current events. Politics. Science and technology. Books and authors, movies and music. We live in a time where we are awash in the some of the finest art that has ever been produced in such a myriad forms that it would dazzle someone from bygone times.

I’ve had a life that’s spanned nearly sixty years now. I’ve traveled to other countries, courtesy of the US Army. Learned a foreign language, also courtesy of the US Army. I’ve been in about half the states in the US, Canada and Mexico.

I was born in Illinois, spent most of my childhood in Phoenix, recovering from recurrent pneumonia. After Phoenix I spent two semesters going to college in San Antonio, Texas, then a bunch of years going to Arizona State, when I got my BA degree after a thoroughly-out-of-nominal twelve years. I spent a couple of years trying to become a teacher, a couple of years learning about computers. Teaching might have been rewarding, except for the kids, parents, administrators and the union; computers were much easier and far more rewarding (at least in dollar terms) to work with.

As well as four years in the army, listening at keyholes, I’ve been a cab driver, pizza delivery man, general laborer (and eventually foreman) in a factory, substitute teacher and general clerk, doing accounts payable, payroll, accounts receivable... if you know what I’m talking about, well, you understand.

Now, well, now I’ve given all that up. Retired, pretty much. My idea of a hard day’s work is having to do vacuuming and laundry on the same day.

I’ve lived in Illinois (don’t remember it at all), Michigan (remember a tiny bit), Arizona, Texas, Germany (Berlin), California and Washington state. Now I’m back in Arizona again, where there’s an occasional lightning bolt mixed with the rain, and it’s sunny for days on end, not raining for days on endless day. Oh, and warm. Did I mention warm?

I read history and science fiction and fantasy. Tom Clancy and John Ball. I’m a fan of Clarence Mulford’s Hopalong Cassiday and ten thousand other books by nearly as many authors. I’ve wanted to be a writer myself, and who knows, if I work at it long enough, I might succeed. I’m fond of classical music, ballads, and Celtic music...

I could go on and on... what I’m going to do instead is write over the coming weeks and months and show you, rather than tell you.

A last thing. Be patient with me for a bit. I’m new to blogging and I don’t know what half the terms mean or much about anything beyond writing my thoughts down. I’ll get there, I promise! If, in the meantime, I offend or step on your toes, send me an email. I suppose at some unforeseeable time in the future I will be so swamped with email that I can’t keep up... but I’m not going to hold my breath. In the meantime, you can expect a prompt reply.

Thanks!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Very Brief Introduction

I've always been fond of better results (although I might recommend to A-1 sauce's copy writers that fewer, pithier words bring betters results too) so here I am, trying something new.