Thursday, December 4, 2008

Complete sentences

'Dammit, this guy is cool'

Benicio Del Toro in CheBenicio Del Toro is Hollywood's finest mumbler since Marlon Brando. He is never better than when mumbling his lines. Except, possibly, when he has no lines to mumble at all. He loves nothing more than paring a script down to nothing. No one can grunt, wince or wheeze their way through a movie quite like Del Toro.
Which makes his new film, Che, the perfect vehicle for him. In the movie, to be released in two parts (The Argentine and Guerrilla), Del Toro's Che Guevara grunts through five hours of action. This is a walking, rarely talking, gun-toting revolutionary wheeze machine. His performance makes Che in turn one of the most boring and most captivating films I have seen.

Politician, writer, traveller, biker, doctor, guerrilla and poster boy: few people have a more fascinating story than Guevara. But director Steven Soderbergh and Del Toro as good as refuse to tell it. There is hardly any narrative - we simply watch him hacking his way through the jungles of Cuba in part one and Bolivia in part two. It is a sublimely contrary piece of film-making. Only in the last minute does Soderbergh even attempt to humanise his protagonist as he reveals that he has left his four children at home. Hollywood trade paper Variety said Guerrilla had all the excitement of a military training documentary. And yet such is the physicality of Del Toro's performance, the way he inhabits Guevara, that you can't take your eyes off him.

Del Toro, who co-produced Che, is taller than I expect. Despite being 6ft 2in, he has a habit of hunching into roles. He's wearing a Molson Light cap, trainers, jeans, jacket, slightly stained top. He is unshaven, his eyes are heavily lidded, and he looks like the world's sexiest hobo. He wears an outsized silver ring with a face resembling the Grim Reaper carved into it. "Everybody likes looking at it and talking about it," he says. "Especially the girls."

Gates: Military looking at quicker Iraq withdrawal

Set to move ahead with Obama goals

By Lolita C. Baldor

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled a willingness yesterday to forge ahead with two key priorities for the incoming Obama administration: accelerating the US withdrawal from Iraq and shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

As the only Republican Cabinet member asked to stay on by President-elect Barack Obama, Gates told reporters that military commanders are looking at ways to more quickly pull troops out of Iraq in light of the 16-month timetable that was a centerpiece of the Democrat's campaign.

He also said it will be a high priority to work with the new Congress on legislation that will enable the United States to close the detention center at the US naval base in Cuba, where about 250 terrorism suspects are still being held.

In a blunt and occasionally personal briefing, Gates acknowledged his unique position in the new Democratic administration.

"I guess I would say that I was engaged in my own form of strategic deterrence," said Gates, who for two years has talked of his desire to return home to Washington state. "It was my hope that if I made enough noise about how much I did not want to stay here and how much I wanted to go back to the Northwest that I wouldn't have to worry about the question ever being asked."

Back to Reality

President-elect Obama already has a long to-do list. But here's another item for it: to restore science in government.

The most notable characteristic of the Bush administration's science policy has been the repeated distortion and suppression of scientific evidence in order to fit ideological preferences about how the world should be, rather than how it is.

In his disturbing book "Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration," the journalist Seth Shulman describes case after case of intimidation of scientists in government posts, the suppression of scientific evidence and the perpetuation of misinformation.

The fields affected range from climate change to public health. Although some incidents are small in and of themselves, the cumulative effect is horrifying. Shulman also catalogs a long list of established government scientists who, during the course of the Bush administration, resigned their posts in despair.

The distortion and suppression of science is dangerous, and not just because it means that public money gets wasted on programs, like abstinence-only sex "education" schemes, that do not work. It is dangerous because it is an assault on science itself, a method of thought and inquiry on which our modern civilization is based and which has been hugely successful as a way of acquiring knowledge that lets us transform our lives and the world around us. In many respects science has been the dominant force — for good and ill — that has transformed human lives over the past two centuries.

Holes in Our Socks

Why it's so hard to predict how bad the recession will be.

Right about now, most businesses are trying to work out how their customers are likely to respond to the recession. Looking back to the last really nasty recession—the early 1980s—isn't much help for low-cost airlines, cell-phone companies, Internet retailers, producers of organic and fair-trade food, and many other businesses barely imagined at the dawn of the Reagan era. The economy has simply changed too much since then for experience to be a reliable guide.

In the United Kingdom, we are blessed with tabloid newspapers to explain what's going on. Apparently, sales of aphrodisiacs are up, and so are sales of maternity dresses: Not everything slumps downward in tough times, it seems. Elle MacPherson's underwear is said to be doing well; so, too, is a budget store called Poundland. Some stories are frankly bizarre: The crunch is alleged to have given a fillip to sales of cake, wooden "gravestones," musicals, and feel-good films. The quality press has not resisted the temptation to join in the guessing game: My own newspaper, the Financial Times, found evidence that physiotherapists were in demand to perk up stressed investment bankers.

All this speculation is an engaging diversion, but it tells us little. Even the more solid reports are often based on anecdotes; many are simply spin or wishful thinking. I've heard a food retailer muse that fair-trade-branded goods are recession-proof because once people have seen the light about the importance of fair trade, they never turn back. A travel industry expert told me that the worse things get, the more people feel in need of a vacation. Perhaps he is right. I would not bet on it.

Countdown: Michael Moore on the Auto Bailout

Interview: Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle on Mumbai Before the Terror

By Miller, Brian

English director Danny Boyle was visiting Seattle a while back, raving about the inspiration Mumbai provided during the filming of his acclaimed new Slumdog Millionaire. Then, last week, we all know what happened in that city.

Boyle accepted maximum chaos in Mumbai.Though at press time we can't be certain of the terrorists' identity, Islamic extremists are strongly suspected. And without giving too much of a Slumdog spoiler, its hero is a Muslim from the very lowest social stratum—one who loses his mother in a violent Hindu-led riot against his people. His response to adversity and discrimination is much different than today's headlines, of course. And while Slumdog is a film rooted in realistic poverty, it's also a Bollywood fantasy, a love story unburdened by politics or revenge.

Never has the film business been more international. And Boyle, born in Manchester, has the passport to prove it: Transpotting up north, The Beach in Thailand, outer space for Sunshine...and now, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) for this adaptation of the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup. Which, he tells me, was perhaps less important than another book about the booming, newly global city.

"I'd never been [to Mumbai], and then I read the script," says Boyle. "It's a great narrative, but also a dazzling picture of the city. Then I read Maximum City." Author Suketu Mehta's 2004 nonfiction account compares his experience in New York and Mumbai, two teeming metropolises with much in common. What New York has become, the book suggests, Mumbai (population 18 million and growing) will become. And perhaps surpass.

Ausie pilot Steve Smith saved 30 in Mumbai restaurant

by Bruce Loudon

MUMBAI: An Australian helicopter pilot emerged last night as an unsung hero of the Mumbai massacre, credited with saving the lives of more than 30 people he jammed into a storeroom as the jihadi terrorists embarked on their murderous rampage.

"Aw, it probably all sounds more dramatic than it really was," Steve Smith told The Australian.

"I did what any Aussie would do in the circumstances. It would have been nice if there'd been another Aussie around and we could have done more."

The 43-year-old from Port Macquarie, NSW, who served for seven years in the Australian Army, was with his Japanese model girlfriend Yumi having a drink in Mumbai's Leopold's Cafe last Wednesday night when the armed terrorists struck.

"We were up on the mezzanine floor having a drink when I suddenly heard the sound of a grenade exploding in the downstairs of the cafe, under us. Then there was another one, and almost immediately there was the distinctive sound of almost constant automatic fire from AK-47s," he said.

"There were about 30 people upstairs with us - a few Europeans, but mostly young Indians - and I knew immediately that I had to do something."

Having been in the cafe the previous night, he was aware of a small storeroom off the mezzanine floor. As the firing continued, he grabbed his girlfriend, shoved her into the room and then pushed the rest of the 30 or so people into the tiny space, packing them like sardines into a can and forcing the doors closed once he had got them all in.

"It was like jamming 30 people into an elevator," he said. "They were all on top of each other, all packed in. But there was no alternative. It was either that or die. The firing was going on constantly. I knew that if we didn't hide, we'd be killed.",25197,24737994-5013404,00.html

The Bush legacy!


The Five Stages of Collapse


by Dmitry Orlov

Hello, everyone! The talk you are about to hear is the result of a lengthy process on my part. My specialty is in thinking about and, unfortunately, predicting collapse. My method is based on comparison: I watched the Soviet Union collapse, and, since I am also familiar with the details of the situation in the United States, I can make comparisons between these two failed superpowers.

I was born and grew up in Russia, and I traveled back to Russia repeatedly between the late 80s and mid-90s. This allowed me to gain a solid understanding of the dynamics of the collapse process as it unfolded there. By the mid-90s it was quite clear to me that the US was headed in the same general direction. But I couldn't yet tell how long the process would take, so I sat back and watched.

I am an engineer, and so I naturally tended to look for physical explanations for this process, as opposed to economic, political, or cultural ones. It turns out that one could come up with a very good explanation for the Soviet collapse by following energy flows. What happened in the late 80s is that Russian oil production hit an all-time peak. This coincided with new oil provinces coming on stream in the West - the North Sea in the UK and Norway, and Prudhoe Bay in Alaska - and this suddenly made oil very cheap on the world markets. Soviet revenues plummeted, but their appetite for imported goods remained unchanged, and so they sank deeper and deeper into debt. What doomed them in the end was not even so much the level of debt, but their inability to take on further debt even faster. Once international lenders balked at making further loans, it was game over.

What is happening to the United States now is broadly similar, with certain polarities reversed. The US is an oil importer, burning up 25% of the world's production, and importing over two-thirds of that. Back in mid-90s, when I first started trying to guess the timing of the US collapse, the arrival of the global peak in oil production was scheduled for around the turn of the century. It turned out that the estimate was off by almost a decade, but that is actually fairly accurate as far as such big predictions go. So here it is the high price of oil that is putting the brakes on further debt expansion. As higher oil prices trigger a recession, the economy starts shrinking, and a shrinking economy cannot sustain an ever-expanding level of debt. At some point the ability to finance oil imports will be lost, and that will be the tipping point, after which nothing will ever be the same.

This is not to say that I am a believer in some sort of energy determinism. If the US were to cut its energy consumption by an order of magnitude, it would still be consuming a staggeringly huge amount, but an energy crisis would be averted. But then this country, as we are used to thinking of it, would no longer exist. Oil is what powers this economy. In turn, it is this oil-based economy that makes it possible to maintain and expand an extravagant level of debt. So, a drastic cut in oil consumption would cause a financial collapse (as opposed to the other way around). A few more stages of collapse would follow, which we will discuss next. So, you could see this outlandish appetite for imported oil as a cultural failing, but it is not one that can be undone without causing a great deal of damage. If you like, you can call it "ontological determinism": it has to be what it is, until it is no more.

I don't mean to imply that every part of the country will suddenly undergo a spontaneous existence failure, reverting to an uninhabited wilderness. I agree with John-Michael Greer that the myth of the Apocalypse is not the least bit helpful in coming to terms with the situation.

We Can Do It Again: Repealing Today's Failed Prohibition -- TAKE ACTION!


December, 2008 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of alcohol prohibition. You can help teach a lesson from history by asking your representatives to repeal today's failed prohibition of drugs.

When America's leaders repealed alcohol prohibition,it wasn't because they suddenly decided that liquor was safe and that everyone should drink. Rather, it was because they were tired of gangsters raking in rich illegal profits and terrorizing neighborhoods. And we simply could not afford to keep enforcing the failed prohibition during the Great Depression, our nation's worst economic crisis.

Today, America is in the grip of a new economic crisis, but we keep paying for an even more devastating prohibition, the "war on drugs."

If you're tired of paying for laws that only make our streets more dangerous, take one minute to let your federal and state elected officials know how you feel by adapting our pre-written letter below.  We can do it again!


Plug-in vehicles

Why the Automakers Won't Make Fuel-Efficient Cars, Even as the Price of Being Bailed Out

My PhotoTelling automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars as a condition of being bailed out is like telling Citigroup or any other big bank to issue more affordable loans to Main Street as a condition of being bailed out. It won't happen. Conditions like these make the public feel better about using their tax dollars to bail out private firms, but they're useless. Automakers, like the big banks, will do the minimum required, and you can bet their lawyers and lobbyists will find ever more clever ways of avoiding even that minimum. Without lots of buyers who want fuel-efficient cars, automakers won't produce them, period. (Without credit-worthy borrows able and willing to pay the costs of bank loans, they won't be issued, either.)

You might think that the recent memories of $5-a-gallon gas would transform nearly everyone into prospective buyers of hybrids that get more than 30 miles a gallon. Think again. Consumer memories are dreadfully short. With gas prices settling down to half that sum, buyers (to the extent they still exist in this recession) are moving back to SUVs and pickup trucks, which automakers are all too happy to provide given the larger profits that come with gas-guzzlers. We're witnessing a repeat of what occurred immediately after the oil crises of the 1970s. As soon as cheap gas was readily available, consumers who had said they wanted fuel efficiency went back to their old ways -- and so did the Big Three.

Gag Me With a Candy Cane: The War on Christmas is Back

by Meg White

With the economic crisis and a historic presidential election, it feels like we've forgotten something, some sort of time-honored media tradition... oh yeah!  The war on Christmas.

Well, it's been less of a story this year compared to previous ones. In fact, News Hounds reports that Bill O'Reilly has allegedly watered down his crusade against those waging the war on Christmas (although it was just, after all, temporarily) by referring to his "holiday reading" (note, not Christmas) on his own website. Indeed, that doesn't mean he can't continue to hatch plans to make money off the movement he spearheads annually. And he hasn't, according to Keith Olbermann on the December 3 "Countdown."

Still, the diehards always find a way to bring it back to this yearly battle between supposedly morally superior Christians and secular liberals. This year, they may have to scream a little louder to be heard over all the actual news going on in the world. For example, Daniel Henninger wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal actually suggesting that the reason we have a financial meltdown is because people refuse to say "Merry Christmas."

"A nation whose people can't say 'Merry Christmas' is a nation capable of ruining its own economy... Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions."  

Seriously.  I couldn't make this stuff up. But in a way, Henninger might be onto something.  There is a connection between Christmas and the economy. Too bad he -- much like all the other "Save Christmas" reactionaries -- had it all backwards.

Winning the War on Christmas

santa on cross