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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Review: The Ice Harvest

Question: How do you put John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton in a movie directed by Harold Ramis and end up with something les appetizing than uncooked tofu? It’s a serious question because it takes special talent to ruin those ingredients.

The Ice Harvest tries to be a black comedy/crime caper in the same style as the far superior Fargo. It starts with a simple crime job that quickly grows complicated, is splashed with more than a touch of violence, and ends up with a respectable body count. But it isn’t funny and it doesn’t seem to have much to say about crime, criminals, or family.

Cusack is serviceable as a dirty lawyer, rotten ex-husband, and nervous criminal. Thornton is reasonably convincing as the town smut peddler and the vicious animating force behind the crime. But, really, who cares? The scenes with their respective families are so truncated as to seem to be afterthoughts and neither of them has that fun-loving criminal aspect that might encourage the audience to root for them regardless of their felonious activities.

People show up, people die, people occasionally do vaguely humorous things, and then the movie is over. Perhaps the problem is that this entire genre has been pretty well mined in recent years; it was hard to escape a feeling of over-familiarity with the characters, the plot, and the jokes. Or maybe the problem is that the script isn’t particularly witty or interesting. The worst possibility--and one that may, sadly, be spot-on--is that Ramis direction is pedestrian. The Ice Harvest really isn’t his style.

Whatever the cause, one of the only consistent bright spots in this disappointing film is Oliver Platt as a pathetic, loudmouth drunk. He’s the only character to get much more than a chuckle, but, given his limited screen time, it’s a sad commentary that he manages to steal the spotlight.

For a genuinely funny movie with a high body count, see Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. For a movie with more of a moral edge, see the superb and underappreciated A Simple Plan. But don’t bother wasting your time on the tepid, uninspired The Ice Harvest.

Mr. Answer Doesn’t Know (And The Attention is a Little Unnerving)

Over the last few days, the site has seen search results come in from people wondering what might be the penalty for possession of crystal meth. All because of this sentence:

In essence, Advil is marijuana is crack is crystal meth is aspirin.

Let’s get this clear: Mr. Answer (who might very well know it all (or, at least, significant bits of it all)) doesn’t like the implication that he knows the answer to this question. It might be inviting the wrong sort of Web traffic to the hallowed halls of Resurrection Song, a site of exemplary exemplariness.

And, anyway, Mr. Answer always preferred the less harsh high of cocaine to the jarring highs and lows that came with crystal meth. Or so he’s heard…

Talking Iraq, You Know, Like Adults

Fareed Zakaria has a good article on the current situation in Iraq. He’s never been a pacifist, shrinking from the idea of using military power when necessary, but he has been a sharp and consistent critic of the administration (and one who has been willing to admit that his judgment might be less than perfect--a rare and refreshing trait in politicians, journalists, and bloggers). This recent article is worth the time to read for its insight and its candor.

Why and how we got into this war are important questions. And the administration’s hands are not clean. But the paramount question right now should not be “What did we do about Iraq three years ago?” It should be “What should we do about Iraq today?” And on this topic, the administration has finally been providing some smart answers. Condoleezza Rice, who is now in control of Iraq policy in a way no one has been, has spearheaded a political-military strategy for Iraq that is sophisticated and workable.

Many Democrats are understandably enraged by an administration that has acted in an unethical, highly partisan and largely incompetent fashion in Iraq. But in responding in equally partisan fashion they could well precipitate a tragedy. Just as our Iraq policy has been getting on a firmer footing, the political dynamic in Washington could move toward a panicked withdrawal.
[...]
If Washington’s strategy is more aggressively pursued, it could actually be compatible with some American troop withdrawals. For obvious political reasons, it would be far better if the “hold” part of the policy was done by Iraqi forces. And, in fact, this has been happening. Najaf and Mosul are now patrolled entirely by Iraqi Army forces. Even Kirkuk, which is politically sensitive, has fewer American troops in it than it did six months ago. This trend could accelerate, which would mean that three or four brigades could be withdrawn in the next year.

Thoughtful stuff. Combined with Senator Lieberman’s WSJ article, it seems that there is still a core of people willing to talk about Iraq like adults. That is, without either blindly and uncritically trusting the administration or blindly and hypercritically hoping to tear apart the administration. (And, before I go on, the subheading to Lieberman’s article--"America can’t abandon 27 million Iraqis to 10,000 terrorists"--is a powerful moral statement about the United States’ obligations in Iraq.) His words resonate deeply with me even while stirring up the anti-Bush left.

It is a war between 27 million and 10,000; 27 million Iraqis who want to live lives of freedom, opportunity and prosperity and roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam revanchists, Iraqi Islamic extremists or al Qaeda foreign fighters who know their wretched causes will be set back if Iraq becomes free and modern. The terrorists are intent on stopping this by instigating a civil war to produce the chaos that will allow Iraq to replace Afghanistan as the base for their fanatical war-making. We are fighting on the side of the 27 million because the outcome of this war is critically important to the security and freedom of America. If the terrorists win, they will be emboldened to strike us directly again and to further undermine the growing stability and progress in the Middle East, which has long been a major American national and economic security priority.

See, the first thing we all need to agree on is that supporting American (and, by extension, Iraqi) success in Iraq does not mean giving the administration a pass on its mistakes and misjudgments. It simply recognizes that for our own security, for progress in the Middle East, and for the people of Iraq, it would be far better if we can find a path to helping them establish a representative government that respects individual rights. It means acknowledging that Iraq can be better off without Saddam Hussein.

Anyone who reads Resurrection Song with anything other than partisan blinders will realize two things: I like George Bush and I’m disappointed by his mistakes. I don’t hide either of those facts and I don’t use one to obscure the other--I remain free to criticize when he screws up and praise when he makes choices that I like. In supporting the US in Iraq, I believe that I am supporting that most important of American goals: ensuring that we are safe, secure, and prosperous so that we can continue to debate Social Security reform (for), gay marriage (for), the death penalty (against) and the relative merits of hybrid cars (undecided).

So, if I may echo Mr. Zakaria: now is no time time to panic. Now is no time to turn the good that we have done (and the good that we can still do) into ashes and surrender.

Rocky Strikes the Right Note

Denver’s Rocky Mountain News on the question of whether Deborah Davis should have been forced to show ID as she rode the bus to work:

Here’s hoping the threat dissolves once those attorneys put their heads together. They might recall that Americans are under no obligation to carry an ID - at least not when heading to work by foot, bike or bus. Most do, of course, and the vast majority probably wouldn’t mind flashing it at an officer engaged in routine security for a federal complex. But why should iconoclasts such as Davis be punished for defending our liberty just because the rest of us are trouble-averse sheep? 

We’re not arguing that Davis has a constitutional right to decline a request to produce an ID at the Federal Center. It’s a complicated matter, and perhaps a close legal call. We’re just saying that when someone boards a bus, she does so with the understandable expectation that she won’t be confronted by police with a demand for her “papers.”

Nicely said.

For more background, here’s my previous post (which links to Publicola’s opinion) and here you can find Jed’s thoughts on the subject.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Being a Man is a Terrible Thing, Indeed

“What a mess we’ve made of things.”

Update:

If having a penis is a crime, then I am a criminal!

When penises are outlawed, only outlaws will have penises!

Chris Whitley: A Sad Passing

Chris Whitley
I first heard Chris Whitley on a compilation blues CD that I bought at Starbucks. The song was “Ballpeen Hammer” from the album Dirt Floor, a concise album that featured little more than his voice and a guitar or a banjo with some foot stomping. It was a glorious helping of back-country acoustic blues.

“Ballpeen Hammer” is a spare and angry song over plucked banjo--an oddly belligerent thing with clenched teeth and a bad attitude.  “I put the ballpeen hammer right through that door / and I don’t pretend to understand no more...” The words come out a little clipped and you can tell that the glare behind the words from the intense, wiry singer were meant to convey a person who had finally run out of patience. And on the same album--only nine songs and not quite 28 minutes of music--is “Scrapyard Lullaby”, a song as sweet as “Ballpeen Hammer” is acid.

It would be a stretch to say that the rest of the album is as good, although “Indian Summer” is gorgeous and “Altitude” (”...by and by we won’t need no forgiveness...") may be my favorite. But, like all of his albums, it’s a mixed affair with a few songs that don’t quite work for me. A few songs that just sound off.

I kept buying his stuff because there were always gems scattered in the mix, even on his recent anti-war album, War Crime Blues. His latest, Soft Dangerous Shores was a compellingly bigger sound. “Last Million Miles” and “Valley of the Innocent” proved that he still had songs to share. But I never found that one transcendent album; that album that I loved all the way through without reservation.

Sadly, I won’t have the chance to keep searching. Chris Whitley passed away last week, just 45 years old, from lung cancer. He leaves behind his loving family, his fans, his albums, and a legacy of fearless (and sometimes brilliant) music.

I don’t know that he was a great musician, but he was a musician who had some greatness in him. He will be missed.

“The Right and the Wrong Cannot Live Together in Peace…”

Offered without comment from Scott Atran’s review of Membongkar Jamaah Islamiyah in the November/December 2005 Foreign Policy. Scott Atran recalls interviewing the “spiritual leader of the Southeast Asian terrorist organizations Jemaah Islamiyah.”

...I found a smiling, bespectacled lecturer eating dates and surrounded by doting acolytes. “It’s true there’s a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West,” he explained politely, “because Islam and infidels, the right and the wrong, cannot live together in peace. The jihad against the Jews and Christians is destiny.”

And from this morning’s headlines at Yahoo! News.

Nine people were killed and 65 wounded by suspected suicide bombers in two Bangladesh cities on Tuesday, apparently the latest in a wave of attacks by militants fighting to turn the country into a sharia-based Islamic state.
[...]
Bangladesh has been hit this year by a wave of bombings blamed on militants demanding Islamic law in the mainly Muslim democracy.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Rot in Zimbabwe

elephants

We moved to Zimbabwe when I was just a boy. When we arrived, and before my father had to begin his work, we saw Hwange National Park. My family stayed in rustic huts and drove during the day seeing the wildlife--hyen, lion, elephant, giraffe, and so much more--in the vast grassland and forest. Those sites, along with the majestic Victoria Falls, still count as some of the most beautiful things that I’ve been lucky enough to see.

If you were willing to travel to Arkansas and sit through the little family slide show, I’m sure that my parents could drag out hundreds of pictures of the wildlife. You’d have to sit through my dad’s favorite story about Zimbabwe, too--a dramatic story involving an underpowered Isuzu, an angry elephant, and a quick escape down a bumpy road.

It’s a pretty good story, but it’s his and I’ve never been able to do it justice.

Inside my head, I keep all of these memories of a Zimbabwe that has died--of the people that I met, of the parks that we lazed in on Sunday afternoons, of the jacaranda trees in bloom, and of a nation that I always thought I would meet again. Many of the people that my family knew have died or left, the cities and the parks are falling into disrepair, and though the jacaranda still bloom, Zimbabwe will never again be what it was.

Sadly, even the wildlife is paying the cost of the destitute country’s slide into corruption and apathy.

The stench of decay rises from the bush just outside of Main Camp, the dilapidated, near-deserted head-quarters at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Only a few months ago, the acacia groves, savanna grass and mopane scrub ran thick with wildlife. But now a visitor can drive for miles without seeing anything alive. There’s plenty of death, though. A few miles beyond headquarters, the corpses of two male elephants rot in the heat, not far from a watering hole that dried up in October.

I still love the idea of Zimbabwe and the country that it could have become. But every year, the memories and the land grow more distant. I still hope, but hope is such a small thing.

Jacaranda

The picture of the elephants in Hwange National Park was taken from this site.
The picture of the jacaranda trees in bloom was taken from this site.

Ramsey Clark: Still Nutty

In August of last year, I wrote this about Ramsey Clark:

Not only is Clark an unsavory fellow, but his choice in compatriots leaves little doubt as to where his sympathies lie, and those sympathies are far from the interests of America.

Today, Ramsey Clark is back in the spotlight. It’s almost comforting to know that some things never change, and it will be interesting to see if any of the anti-war left will rush to ally themselves with the old Attorney General.

To mistake Clark for a sane, rational American would be making the same mistake as to mistake former Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Paul Hellyer of being something less than delusional.

“The United States military are preparing weapons which could be used against the aliens, and they could get us into an intergalactic war without us ever having any warning,” says Hellyer.

Blame it all on the Bush administration, which Hellyer says has “finally agreed to build a forward base on the moon, which will put them in a better position to keep track of the goings and comings of the visitors from space, and to shoot at them if they so decide.”

Clark and Hellyer should get together and go bowling. The insane duo would be utterly hysterical if there weren’t drooling idiots out there willing to take them seriously.

Does Tookie Williams Write Unmaintainable Code?

I had written a grand analysis of “Tookie” Williams, the death penalty, and what it means to earn clemency. I had driven deep down into my anti-death penalty soul to come to the conclusion that while I, private citizen, would happily argue against the death penalty, I, pretend governator, would not rise to commute the sentence.

If I were Lord Ruler of Californialand, Tookie would die, and I would feel extra guilty for a bit.

Of course, it took thousands of words to get to that point. When I’d arrived, I looked around at that pile of political thought, and said, “Screw it.”

Even I wasn’t interested in my views on capital punishment and Tookie Williams today.

So, instead, for all my geek friends, I offer a link to a rather lengthy essay:How to Write Unmaintainable Code.

A taste.

To foil the maintenance programmer, you have to understand how he thinks.  He has your giant program.  He has no time to read it all, much less understand it.  He wants to rapidly find the place to make his change, make it and get out and have no unexpected side effects from the change. 

He views your code through a toilet paper tube.  He can only see a tiny piece of your program at a time.  You want to make sure he can never get at the big picture from doing that. You want to make it as hard as possible for him to find the code he is looking for.  But even more important, you want to make it as awkward as possible for him to safely ignore anything. 

Programmers are lulled into complacency by conventions.  By every once in a while, by subtly violating convention, you force him to read every line of your code with a magnifying glass. 

Notably, I’m pretty sure that most programmers would support the death penalty for anyone who actually follows the guidelines suggested in the essay. And they would be fully justified.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Before Getting to Other (Arguably More Important) Stuff…

So I just got home. Sat down and turned on the TV to watch a football game. The game is going to commercial.

And they’re playing Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You.”

It’s gonna be a good day.

Update: And, after diving into my email, I have a client who is asking me to increase my invoice by about 40% because they felt that I did far more work than I billed. They’re right, but I still try to live by the estimates that I give at the beginning of a project.

Not that I won’t turn my nose up at money when it’s earned.

Now I’m getting a little nervous about my good day, though.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thankful for Retirement (Of Sorts)

Since you’re dropping by on a freakin’ holiday, I thought I’d tell you a secret:

Zombyboy is going away.

Not that I won’t still be writing. Here. On this site. It’s that I’m going to stop being Zombyboy.

See, I was suddenly realizing that while the fake bloggy name sounded pretty cool for ten minutes, those ten minutes ended a number of years ago. Besides which, Zombyboy? I mean, I’m 35 years old and Zombymiddleagedguy just doesn’t have the right ring to it, does it?

So, Zombyboy is retiring, but I’ll still be here. As myself, more or less.

I’m thankful today that Zombyboy and ResurrectionSong built a readership; I’m also thankful that it’s time to start changing things up a bit.

Update: Bryan recognizes the brilliance that is TBFKAZ.

Thankful I’m Not Mark Morford

Sure, Mark Morford has awards and a full time job doing what I wish I could be doing for a living. He has the adulation of deluded fans. He even lives way closer to a beach than I do.

But Mark Morford’s stunted soul isn’t a thing to envy. It’s not that he disagrees with my politics and my religion and my belief that Wal Mart isn’t the root of all evil; it’s that he believes the absolute worst about his opponents. It’s that his world is a twisted one where his professional mandate seems to revolve around vicious personal attacks and cruelty.

Example:

Barbara rules. Owns the house, despite how she hasn’t lived here in over 13 years. Laura can only look at her in numb awe, her own stiff skirt pleats appearing humble and small in comparison to Barb’s massive teal dress ensemble, so epic and balloon-like it would seem to envelope all it comes near, like a giant ocean algae bloom, a massive amoeba, a cloud of righteous know-it-allness that makes easy mockery of Laura’s little beige blouse of meek sexless humility. Barb is a force of nature, commanding the staff and chatting up the various heads of state and smiling at everyone with that glassy omnivorous stare. They all hate her.

See what I mean? It’s bad enough that the SF Gate considers Morford worthy of employment, but he’s like a bloodthirsty miniature poodle. In the long run, all his barking and biting don’t actually do much harm, but it irritates the hell out of the neighbors.

So, at 1:43 AM, while I’m saying my first “Happy Thanksgiving” to all y’all, let it be known that I’m thankful I’m not Mark Morford. At least there is some thread of decency still nurtured in my being whereas he seems to have gone right ‘round the bend.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It’s a Thanksgiving Miracle!

Okay, the post title might be overstating my case somewhat, but the sport of football is better off today:

Terrell Owens’ season is effectively over after an arbitrator ruled Wednesday that the Philadelphia Eagles were justified in suspending him for four games.

Arbitrator Richard Bloch wrote that the Eagles clearly proved that the suspension was justified, and were within their right to pay their All-Pro receiver but not allow him to return “due to the nature of his conduct and its destructive and continuing threat to the team.”

Now, my stance isn’t just mindless anti-Owens hatred. I think that the sport is better when players know that they can be held accountable for their actions in the ways that hurt them most: their wallets and their stats. Owens will miss the spotlight and the dollars while the Eagles pay him the remainder of his salary (minus the four game suspension) and will, hopefully, have learned a lesson: he doesn’t get a perpetual free pass just because he runs good routes and has good hands.

Good.

Read the story.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Runt, Pt. II

Go say congratulations to Andy and Mrs. Andy on the second successful passing of the World Wide Rant genes.

For the Crime of Using Public Transportation? (Updated)

Read this:

Meet Deborah Davis. She’s a 50 year-old mother of four who lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Her kids are all grown-up: her middle son is a soldier fighting in Iraq. She leads an ordinary, middle class life. You probably never would have heard of Deb Davis if it weren’t for her belief in the U.S. Constitution.

One morning in late September 2005, Deb was riding the public bus to work. She was minding her own business, reading a book and planning for work, when a security guard got on this public bus and demanded that every passenger show their ID. Deb, having done nothing wrong, declined. The guard called in federal cops, and she was arrested and charged with federal criminal misdemeanors after refusing to show ID on demand.

She hadn’t been accused of a crime--in fact, there was no cause to believe that she had committed or would commit a crime. Where is her obligation to produce identification, and the private information contained on the ID, to a security guard on a bus? And for what cause? Seriously, why did that security guard need to see her identification? Was he going to remove her from the bus if he didn’t like her name? What was the cause requiring him to check the ID of every person using public transportation?

Real security is taking measures to ensure that bombs, guns, and knives don’t get into the places where they will do the most harm. Real security is not capricious demands of citizens for no discernible cause.

The bus that she was riding did travel across Federal property--the Denver Federal Center--but the request for ID at a checkpoint is nothing but a compliance test. It’s a meaningless show of power since the only “pass” is producing the identification. The IDs aren’t checked for veracity or against any list of dangerous figures, and producing ID allows you to pass through the Federal property.

From another part of the site:

Through these charges, it appears that the Feds are claiming that people were on notice that they had to show ID.  Nowhere is this evident, unless ‘Public Welcome’ flags are bureaucratese for ‘Papers, please’.  In addition, Deb wasn’t even visiting the Denver Federal Center.  That the public bus transits the facility isn’t her fault.  If the Center really is Denver’s answer to Area 51, then public buses should be driving around — not through — the Center.

Sounds about right.

To tell the truth, after reading through the complaints and the site supporting her cause, I’m guessing this isn’t a person I would like. I’m guessing that she really was a little rude and not entirely respectful; that isn’t relevant when discussing whether she had the obligation to produce ID on demand.

The Supreme Court has recently said that police have the right to demand a name from a person who isn’t suspected of a crime (in this case that would seem to be similar), but I don’t have to believe that they decided correctly.

And, frankly, even that seems like a stretch since there was no accusation of criminal activity--with the exception of her refusal to show ID--on the part of Davis. Consider this, about the earlier case, from Talk Left:

The ruling arose in the context of a Terry stop—a (supposedly brief) detention for the purpose of investigating suspected criminal behavior.  The police are required to have an objectively reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing before making a Terry stop, but experience shows that officers conjure up all sorts of reasons for demanding that individuals halt and answer their questions.  The detained persons have the right not to incriminate themselves, but as of today, they don’t have the right to refuse to identify themselves—except in those states that have independently protected that right as a matter of state law.

Let’s be honest: I’m not a lawyer and my knowledge of law is limited to what I read on Volokh Conspiracy (since I automatically discount anything I see on TV or in the movies as being more based in drama than in fact). In fact, I’m sure that there is more to this than I could find with a few simple Google searches. For that matter, maybe someone can articulate a compelling reason that police should expect citizens to produce identification on demand, regardless of suspicion of illegal activities or any demonstrable security purpose.

I realize that my understanding of the intricacies is limited. So, hey, I’m listening.

Update: And don’t forget to read what Publicola has to say.

And be sure to read De Doc, too.

Observations from the Drive Into Work

Is it just me or does the impending holiday seem to have robbed the majority of drivers of at least a few IQ points? And imbued them with some extra-special assholiness?

Seriously.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Random Faux Drunken Blogging from a Reformed Drunken Blogger

Dude, you guys are the best. Seriously. I mean, you guys are freakin’ awesome, you know? I mean, the best.

Shots?

Office Irritants

I just spent lunch talking with a person who believes that oil companies should be “held accountable” (read: punished) for their “excessive” profits over this last year. I really should just learn to keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself. Not only does it not change anyone’s mind and not only does it end up with me rolling my eyes in frustration, but the arguments are almost invariably with one of my boss’ sons.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: why should an industry be punished for selling a product at a price that consumers are willing to pay?

Feeling Contrary I

I’ve used American Express for over a decade and I love them. Every time I’ve had to call customer service, I’ve been met with polite, helpful people who handle my problems and concerns in a quick, professional manner. The two times that I’ve had fraudulent charges posted to my account (one for a computer and another for four tickets to a Cleveland Cavs game), the charges were immediately removed and the company without undue worry.

Every year I use the accumulated rewards points to buy plane tickets, concert tickets, and gift certificates. Given that I spend a pretty good chunk of money on American Express every month, those rewards points add up quick.

I’ve had a number of cards over the years and still have at least one of each of the big cards (AMEX, MasterCard, and Visa) and American Express still ranks right at the top of the list along with Capital One for customer service and services.

So, while some peoples’ experience may have been negative (click on through), I would simply say that American Express followed typical procedure for most credit card companies that I’ve dealt with through the years. And to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a Rocky Mountain Blogger Bash shot with me, chances are that your booze was paid for with an American Express.

AMEX, the choice of classy drinkers everywhere.

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