Wednesday, August 29, 2007


That’s the number of items rated on my account in Netflix. It’s a tally not so much from enjoying rating things (though click click refresh is a easy way to burn time and I do enjoy it), but the hope that whatever recommendation algorithm lurks behind may leads me to something interesting. Of course, with the inherent limitations of 5-star rating systems, the internet’s grade inflations, etc…

As I am of the anal and tedious sort, I’d like a two tier rating system for the quality of work and enjoyment factor. For example:

  • Willow: 2, paint-by-numbers serial; 5, Mad Martigan earns undisguised love
  • Lost in Translation: 4-5, good notes from the WKW class, great Bill Murray; 1, accomplished craft in the service of solipsism earns outright disgust

Well, maybe I do enjoy being judgmental more than most (and that’s why I’m anonymous on the internet). But Izicmo has mentioned something more useful. She advocates for the addition of a 2.5 rating. It’s meant for compelling mediocrity (Born Into Brothels, great kids, great story. Also, the Rough Guide to Poverty) or weakly received craft (Behind the Sun, possibly the prettiest movie ever. Thin as a sliver).

But all that’s a massive tangent bulking up the one item I wanted to blog. After you return something to Netflix, if you haven’t rated it, the website will ask you to rate the sucker and get two recommendations. The first result seems to actually be tied directly to the rating, the second's relationship probably being more diffuse usually results in a generic rec. I returned the first disc of Freaks and Geeks and gave it a 2 when asked.* Thusly, computron said, seek ye Red Dwarf and Band of Brothers. The first is pretty spot on, sloppy black humor being something of the opposite of Apatow’s verve. I decided to like and love the thing instead, but sadly failed to note what should’ve been my heart’s desire (Sunset Boulevard is the agreeable second pick). No, not 40-year-old Virgin. I did note what hate wrought. What am I guaranteed to love with the certification of hate to 70’s high school misfits? This. Ha!

* It’s well made, and has a lot going for it (even as I think it’s obvious why it didn’t hit). Man was I bored.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Good Riddance

I'm not a religious man, but Thank God.

For whatever reason, the flouting of the rule of law has become a real issue for me, such that I was considering not voting for any candidates in the last election because they all supported some legislation stripping FISA of any oversight power. That, combined with the frankly disgraceful search to find some kind of legal justification for the conduct at Guantanamo, black sites, and Abu Ghraib, makes me really glad to see the major architects of these policies kicked out.

They serve the law. You forget that, and you forget the idea
of justice.
Now there was an interesting discussion on Gonzales' resignation yesterday on the NewsHour. However, what really got to me was the comments of a conservative legal theorist - and the general lack of remorse by anyone within the administration or its supporters about Gonzales' blatantly inappropriate actions. The commentator was arguing that Gonzales should be supported for really reorienting the Justice Department on an "anti-terrorism" footing and essentially blaming the Democrats for dragging Gonzales' name through the mud.

This misses several things:
  1. You don't want your Justice Department to be on an anti-terrorism footing. That's for the military to handle. It involves pre-emption. It involves lack of evidence. It is not a judicial process: it's a mode of war. And while investigation into terrorist cells is necessary, the procedures to do that should be kept under the rule of law for fear of damaging civil liberties. After all, what will you do in the absence of these protections? Offer reparations to victims of government abuse? There have been no reports of that happening. Provide apologies? From this administration? And that is the exact problem. The role of war is political: it seeks political ends for political purposes. The role of law is social and systemic. It is meant to be above politics and provide a framework for participation. Once you start confusing that, as Gonzales, Yoo, and others have done, you've completely missed the point of the law.
  2. Many Republicans were calling for Gonzales to step down, and many Republican appointees were contradicting Gonzales' statements.
  3. The anti-terrorism bit, even if valid, wouldn't apply to the firing of U.S. Attorneys. What does that have to do with anti-terrorism? If the firing offenses weren't conduct or performance-related, then what was the issue? Anti-terrorism doesn't cover this scandal, and no one should feel any sympathy for Gonzales screwing himself over in his testimony.

This all goes to the separation of the political and the legal. Gonzales and all the "loyal Bushies" (Goodling, etc.) made the mistake of thinking they serve the President. They don't. They serve at the pleasure of the President. But they serve the law. You forget that, and you forget the idea of justice.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Don't Drink That Water

Elizabeth Economy has a fascinating article on China's environmental crisis and its impact on the economy. Doesn't mention the 50-mile long benzene slick that went to Russia, but it points out that levels of certain heavy metals along the Guangdong cost are 2000 times the regulation limits, the shrimp catch has declined 90 percent in the last 15 years, and around 190 million people suffer from respiratory illnesses.

It's all pretty staggering stuff, but there's relatively little hope that the Chinese government - both in Beijing and especially in the local areas - will take the necessary steps to ensure not just one-off improvements, but a long lasting system of monitoring and evaluation. The economic incentives just aren't there. A case in point: one factory owner said he was ignoring environmental regulations because the upgrade would equal 15 years worth of penalties. And while the central government is concerned about the environment, they're even more concerned about economic development. Unfortunately, that's just not the political environment for protecting the natural one.

EDIT: Additional articles and multimedia on the subject from the New York Times can be found here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad

That’s better than any opening lines I could come up. Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is a manga cum anime that exemplifies the breath of the import flood of Japanese-created diversion that has my homegrown sorts of entertainments offsides lately. In brief, it’s coming of age time for Yukio (aka Koyuki), as an encounter with the bizarre dog Beck finds hi befriending its owner, Ryuusuke Minami. And adventurous hijinks later, in a band named after the dog. And what about Ryuusuke’ss sister Maho? See, interest piqued.

A pretty great premise I think, for a serial of any sort. I’d opted not to pick up the manga before as the art wasn’t for me, but read an interview* with the editor that talked about adapting it to an inevitable anime. A hard sell with manga, what with audio not being a sense that pages can convey, but the music seemed chosen with care—and the 30 volumes (6k+ worth of pages, probably) got compressed to one(!) season. Worth a shot.

And it does have a lot going for it. The characters are rounded, and the story grows naturalistically, if slightly cramped at times. I imagine a smoother revelation of the Olympic class swim coach also being a rock fan and guitar teacher, but maybe it’s just awkward because Yukio learns guitar in one summer, or one episode. But I’m happy not to read the 6 volumes it probably took. It pulls off a pretty hard feat of not being a melodramatic and subdued anime. There’s a moment when Koyuki is having a phone conversation with Ryuusuke early on in their relationship, and maybe because the latter was raised in America (or Holland, I can’t tell) he asks Koyuki not to add –kun and just say it suffixless. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to sound like a kid, and of course he’s all grown up, and Koyuki sits on the stair with the phone silently for a bit, and smiles. And if you know using a name without attachments indicates the closeness of family or lovers in Japan, it’s a pretty sweet scene.

Mind you, pauses don’t always work. Paul Gravett says that the financial constraints of Japanese cartoons sometimes makes animation less than fluid, and quiet moments could just be the studio being cheap. (He says cheap moments can have gravity actually, but I’m of the mind they’re just cheap here). So when longhaired figures mutter things sullenly in the rain, their eyes are covered by sulkiness—well, whatever, they’re teenagers, let’s let that go. The problematic part is the engrish (see: intro song). It’s one thing to have “Coko” instead of “Coke” and the cringe inducing “41nd street” or Ramonne Johnny—trademarks being what they are—but since they decided to “hit in America” and opt for lyrics in english, the misuse of language starts being a liability. The manga can’t do it, but here the music should be a star and not a misfire. I can ignore them in the joyful bop of the intro, but end of the day, some of the music sucks. “Full Moon Sways” (typing this out, I made a little vomitty sound).

Could be that this is just cultural misapprehension, or lack of effort—which is frankly a global game—but they don’t need to be complete sentences. Just you know, make more sense.**

In general, they sound like cheerful grunge, though doubtless the future holds more grand stylistic experiments with blues or punk, which I'm terribly frightened of. (Cowboy Bebop integrated music well, too, but “Real Folk Blues” was neither folk or blues--and that was the succesful anime. Samurai Champloo and Furi Kuri are a mite more successful. ) I don’t think the creators were shooting for the jovial Pearl Jam sound they ended up with in the Beck proper, but they seemed influenced by the biggest bands of the nineties mostly. (Ideally, I think they should go for a cleaner Dinosaur Jr., personally).

Well, I say it's worth watching.

* I’ve lost the link to it.
** I also question the use of foreigners for two incidents of gaijin related tomfoolery in four episodes: One a dangerous encounter with drunk marines(?); another two propositioning tourists (possibly it’s about the angry teen girl, but I dunno), but that might be a bit of national pride on my part. And as always, foolishness abides. Though the first scene is about more than plain idiocy.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Having a Good Time at a Bad Movie

I saw Rush Hour Three last weekend. Yes, the same movie the New York Times called "soul-crushingly bad" or something to that effect. Yeah, it was. But luckily I was able to enjoy it with the use of Ninja mind control techniques. I know what you're thinking. There's only one white man in America who knows the way of the Ninja, and that man is American Ninja, Stephen Hayes.

No, there is another. Me. And I use Ninja mind control to watch Jackie Chan's Hollywood productions. Here's how it works. Ten minutes before the movie starts, you need to free your mind of all thoughts. ALL THOUGHTS. You can't think about anything more complicated than sitting there and/or deciding whether or not you want to go to the bathroom. Any stray memory, emotion, or shopping list, is something that you may subconciously compare with the movie. The movie will not come out of that comparison favorably.

"Did Jackie Chan try to speak jive in the last scene? It is gone."
It goes without saying that you need to empty your mind of all preconceptions. Any hopes or fears you have about the movie will taint your perceptions when you begin to watch it. You need calm. Crystal clear empty calm.

Don't think. Feel. When the movie comes, you should be in such a mind state that you will not be guessing what happens next and will not think about what happened even 10 seconds before. Experience each second as it happens. Don't follow the plot. Every scene should feel unique and new. Did Cris Tucker sing and ham up for the camera five minutes ago, and now he's doing it again and again? It doesn't matter, becuase those previous scenes are gone. Gone. Gone from your mind and gone from existence. With your Ninja mind, each Chris Tucker lip synch is new, fresh, and vital. Did Jackie Chan try to speak jive in the last scene? It is gone. Already forgotten. Characters go to France for no logical reason? That would bother you if you were watching the plot, but you are a Ninja and have no need for plots.

See how easy it is? When I came out from Rush Hour Three, I didn't feel frustrated or angry. I felt liberated. If was the liberation of the Ninja. I recommend it to you.

A word from our sponsor*

Well, I haven't really gotten to what I wanted to get to lately...if it means anything to you three, I've finished the freelance assignment, so we're back in intermittent business here as well. To trumpet and herald the possible return of posts, I bring you something that's here because, to the best of my knowledge, it has never been remotely covered here despite inspiring the blog's name.

Announced at the best reason to go to Minnesota, GenCon: AD&D 4th Edition. It's got rules changes!

But much more importantly, it is Wizards of the Coast incorporating online play, which is ample reason for me to point out the real highlight of the article. Ladies and gentlemen, if it's not online, we're in meatspace. Couldn't have dreamed of a better term myself.

*Edited to make more sense. The whole post that is. I maintain that within 24 hours, wholesale changes may happen without notice to fix things. After that, they aren't mistakes. They are stylistic twitches that make things more better.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

In the Incubator

So, I've been mulling this issue over for some time, so this post is a little dated. Anyway, Washington, DC recently bid farewell to another scion of spin. I had once been asked why politics in the U.S. was so polarized. At the time, I (naively) said it could be the collapse of the Cold War consensus, or perhaps the fact that, with the proliferation of interactive communications technology, the ability to disseminate and enforce message has increased dramatically. That has led to a hardening of political identities, as pundits have been quick (kind of) in using the new media. And of course, there's Penny Arcade's take.

But now I understand the error of my ways. It's not some grand sociological or demographic shift. It comes down purely to the country-dividing and, indeed, soul-corrupting anti-Christ that is Karl Rove. And I must admit that the slew of biographies that have recently emerged have been a fascinating look into his personality, particularly this piece in the Atlantic. The explicitly divisive nature of his politics and strategy, and the impact that has had on the country, is astounding.

All of which makes me wonder why really hard-core conservative Republicans feel that it's the Democrats who are splitting the nation. And not just in hallmark issues like Iraq. No, I'm (or actually, they are) talking about No Child Left Behind and tax cuts. Those bills were pretty much steamrolled over any opposition or, really, meaningful discussion and debate, and it's astounding to me that they feel that there is no room to compromise or just talk things over.

While obviously partisanship has long predated Rove, I think what gets to me is not that the level of partisanship, but the nature this time around. This administration has a curious unwillingness to face the realities of their policies and politics more generally, and it's amazing that they can keep claiming victory when all the signs point to...well, not victory at least. And for that, we can thank Rove, who has been a master of tactical political surprise, even as he leads the nation and the President down to partisan hell. And it's that inability to admit mistakes which, I think, fuels this feeling among the conservative base that it's everyone else's fault. Which is surprising since so many Republicans talk about personal values, responsibility, and owning up to your faults.

Anyway, I really, REALLY want to be able to blame everything on Rove. But that would be wrong. Well, inaccurate more than wrong. It's not completely his fault, but I am not sad to see him go.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Don't Trust the Government

Essentially, that's the whole message of the Bourne Ultimatum. Several images, as the New York Times review recounted, were reminiscent of Guantanamo, and I got chills from hearing David Straitharn talk casually about "rendition" (although I don't think many people heard it for some reason). All in all, slick set-up and choreography of action sequences that really makes you believe Jason Bourne is plotting everything out ten steps in advance, even while dodging punches.

"It puts me in the mood
to go puke."

But my one substantial disappointment from the second movie (also directed by Paul Greengrass) is present in the third (and final?). That man really needs to get a steadicam. As an avid consumer of martial films, I've come to expect steadier camera work so as to appreciate the nuances of the fight itself. Yes, I can certainly understand why directors think a shaky camera "puts you in the action". But they're wrong: it puts me in the mood to go puke. That of course detracts from my appreciation of the scene and overall plot. And the best fight scene in the movie was the one where the camera is held much more steadily than in all the others to allow the audience to witness the brutality of the fight (this was also emphasized by the lack of music). This is in contrast to, say, Children of Men, where there was certainly "shaky camera" work and you felt like you were standing right next to Clive Owen. But the long shots and wider frame mitigate the motion sickness.

But I don't want to go too far here. All in all, a solid movie with a nice, though simplistic, political core.