Thursday, October 1, 2009

Going Down Rogue

New Rule: If America Can't Get it Together, We Lose the Bald Eagle

by Bill Maher

New Rule: If America can't get its act together, it must lose the bald eagle as our symbol and replace it with the YouTube video of the puppy that can't get up. As long as we're pathetic, we might as well act like it's cute. I don't care about the president's birth certificate, I do want to know what happened to "Yes we can." Can we get out of Iraq? No. Afghanistan? No. Fix health care? No. Close Gitmo? No. Cap-and-trade carbon emissions? No. The Obamas have been in Washington for ten months and it seems like the only thing they've gotten is a dog.

Well, I hate to be a nudge, but why has America become a nation that can't make anything bad end, like wars, farm subsidies, our oil addiction, the drug war, useless weapons programs - oh, and there's still 60,000 troops in Germany - and can't make anything good start, like health care reform, immigration reform, rebuilding infrastructure. Even when we address something, the plan can never start until years down the road. Congress's climate change bill mandates a 17% cut in greenhouse gas emissions... by 2020! Fellas, slow down, where's the fire? Oh yeah, it's where I live, engulfing the entire western part of the United States!

We might pass new mileage standards, but even if we do, they wouldn't start until 2016. In that year, our cars of the future will glide along at a breathtaking 35 miles-per-gallon. My goodness, is that even humanly possible? Cars that get 35 miles-per-gallon in just six years? Get your head out of the clouds, you socialist dreamer! "What do we want!? A small improvement! When do we want it!? 2016!"

When it's something for us personally, like a laxative, it has to start working now. My TV remote has a button on it now called "On Demand". You get your ass on my TV screen right now, Jon Cryer, and make me laugh. Now! But when it's something for the survival of the species as a whole, we phase that in slowly.

Folks, we don't need more efficient cars. We need something to replace cars. That's what's wrong with these piddly, too-little-too-late half-measures that pass for "reform" these days. They're not reform, they're just putting off actually solving anything to a later day, when we might by some miracle have, a) leaders with balls, and b) a general populace who can think again. Barack Obama has said, "If we were starting from scratch, then a single-payer system would probably make sense." So let's start from scratch.

Even if they pass the shitty Max Baucus health care bill, it doesn't kick in for 4 years, during which time 175,000 people will die because they're not covered, and about three million will go bankrupt from hospital bills. We have a pretty good idea of the Republican plan for the next three years: Don't let Obama do anything. What kills me is that that's the Democrats' plan, too.

We weren't always like this. Inert. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law and 11 months later seniors were receiving benefits. During World War II, virtually overnight FDR had auto companies making tanks and planes only. In one eight year period, America went from JFK's ridiculous dream of landing a man on the moon, to actually landing a man on the moon.

This generation has had eight years to build something at Ground Zero. An office building, a museum, an outlet mall, I don't care anymore. I'm tempted to say that, symbolically, all America can do lately is keep digging a hole, but Ground Zero doesn't represent a hole. It is a hole. America: Home of the Freedom Pit. Ironically, it's spitting distance from Wall Street, where they knock down buildings a different way - through foreclosure.

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Dumb doesn't just happen


How Schools Fail Democracy

Leading Schools Astray 1Recent town-hall meetings on health care were contentious and none too civil. Yet there was a bright spot beneath the rancor. Some participants managed to communicate effectively in grammatical sentences, using standard pronunciation, vocabulary, and common allusions like "the bully pulpit." They showed themselves proficient in the language conventions of the American public sphere, and so were able to participate actively in political life.

But what of the mute, unseen people off-screen who cannot wield the conventions of knowledge and language needed to participate in the American public sphere? Brecht described them memorably: "But you see only those in the light/Those in the darkness you don't see."

Too many Americans are in the linguistic shadows now—possibly close to a majority. Despite intense efforts driven by the No Child Left Behind Act, the language abilities of our 17-year-olds have remained stuck at the steeply declined levels of the 1970s, while the language gap between white students on one side and black and Hispanic students on the other remains distressingly and immovably large.

This language gap represents more than a civic disability that prevents full participation in a democracy. It also represents a bar to general prosperity and social justice. According to studies by the University of Virginia economist William R. Johnson and others, the large wage gaps among demographic groups narrow significantly when scores on a language-comprehension test are factored in. I use the word "language gap" because the usual term, "reading gap," is far too narrow. Our schools have made progress in imparting technical decoding skills in the early grades, but that improvement in early technical facility has not been followed by improvement in language comprehension in the later grades.

A principal cause of this catastrophic educational failure has been the dominance within the school world of a faulty how-to theory of language mastery. Full membership in any speech community and in any democracy involves mastery not just of grammar and pronunciation, but also of commonly shared knowledge—often unspoken and unwritten—that is equally essential to communication. All effective writers and speakers have learned the convention of tacit knowledge. They know that a baseball metaphor like "he struck out" can be confidently used, but a cricket metaphor like "he was leg before" cannot. Their audience will know the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not necessarily Harold L. Ickes.

First the candy, then the bullets

Good news, meet bad news. How do you parse and spit and swallow?

Here's what you need to know:

Right now, candy sales are off the charts. There are simply not enough bullets to go around. Far too many people believe Wal-Mart is the one corporation that best symbolizes America. Upwards of 75 percent of students in Oklahoma cannot name the very first president of the United States. Then again, 25 percent can. Maybe we should be impressed.

How many snippets of ugly do you want? How do you sift and sort the various specious spitwads of untoward reality? The machine keeps churning, the news wires keep pumping and it's an endless cavalcade of hope and woe, pain and stupid, divine and beautiful, same as it ever was, except completely different. Shall we dance?

Cancer rates are way down, overall. Did you know? Also, the murder rate in New York City is as low as it's been in nearly 50 years and no one can really understand why, considering how desperate and depressed and murderous everyone is supposed to be these days. Who wants candy?

Somehow, we are living longer than ever. Average lifespans are still increasing, thanks to wonder drugs and artificial pumps and valves and stimulators and the sheer force of will that millions of Americans apparently have to live long enough to watch the finale of "Dancing with the Stars."

Then again, the raw data proves we are also fatter, dumber, generally more miserable than ever. It's a bizarre paradox: prescription meds are more popular than Jesus, self-help is the biggest section of the bookstore, the U.S. ranks near the bottom in public education quality in the world, and the woeful American diet, after all these years of organic this and low-fat that and overall enthusiastic health-food awareness-raising, is just as fatty and sugary and toxic as ever. We have not learned a thing. Or if we have, we forgot it already, due to all the high-fructose corn syrup rotting our brains.

Is there a correlation? Is there some bizarre juncture where those same two opposing ideas -- longer lifespan and worse overall health -- meet and slap each other in the face and move on, pretending the other doesn't really exist? Would it not be simply terrific to someday read the exact same headline, in reverse? "Life spans shortening, everyone healthier, happier than any time in past 100 years."

This is my question: Is anyone keeping score? Is there any way to know for sure if we are, on the whole, making some sort of vague yet palpable progress, advancing the human experiment even a little? Or are we merely regressing into a sticky black puddle of prelapsarian goo? Can it be both? Do you get to choose? I think you get to choose.

Some of my favorite studies to blip across the news wires are always the ones that talk about adding years to your life, about how modifying this or that aspect of your diet or health regimen will either add or subtract a year, two years, a decade to/from your time on this pale blue dot.

I don't quite get it. Are we really enthralled by such information? Is anyone thrilled at the rather obvious idea that if you stop snarfing a family-sized bag of neon-orange nuclear Doritos every damn day, you will die at a ripe old age of 92 instead of a sickly and pallid 89? Should we not be discussing the only thing that really matters: how you live and feel in this very moment, the one right here and now?

Here's the new study: Quit smoking, quit eating garbage, quit drinking HFCS-laden swill, get more exercise, laugh louder, screw longer and, hey, guess what? You get to live better today. You get to climb stairs and keep up with your 22-year-old boy-toy in bed and dance past 9:30 p.m. without your knees giving out. You make these changes not because they add precious years to your life at the end, but because they add breaths and grins, loves and orgasms to your life, right the hell now. Go figure.

Speaking of which: Remember the chorus of whines against the various smoking bans enacted across America not all that long ago? Get this: turns out they actually work. Turns out, insofar as actually reducing the rate of heart attacks, smoking bans are a big, stinking success. It's pretty much straight-out, shut-up, seatbelt-law irrefutable: In towns with the bans, fewer people died. Damn you evil big gummint, stay away from my freedoms! Oh wait.

The most trusted newsman in the kingdom

His initials are Jon Stewart

Mysterious Private Security Firm Gets Control Of Empty Jail In Small Montana Town

A shadowy private security company that has no known clients but claims to have helped foreign governments combat terrorism and will protect anything from cruise ships to Pakistani convoys has taken over a jail in a small Montana town, with plans to build a law enforcement training facility on the property.

The state legislature is looking into the matter and residents of Hardin, MT, were alarmed last week when executives from the firm, American Police Force, showed up in the town, which does not have its own police department, with Mercedes SUVs bearing "City Of Hardin Police Department" decals.

And the town has had to tamp down reports on conspiracy Web sites that APF plans to impose experimental H1N1 vaccines on residents under threat of quarantine in the jail.

Under a lease signed with Hardin, APF, based in Santa Ana, California, and incorporated just six months ago, is now in control of a 400-bed detention facility the town built a few years ago but never used, a town official confirmed to TPMmuckraker today. The town reportedly stands to make over $2 million per year.

Just what American Police Force plans to do with the detention facility, which comes with 50 acres of land in the small south-central Montana town, is unclear. Also not clear is who, if anyone, APF plans to put in the jail. (Watch a video tour of the jail here.)

Beer Fights Traumatic Injury

Beer BootA frosty, cold beer can aid patients before and after surgery, according to the anecdotal evidence in the Journal of Irreproducible Results. The article details the many benefits that beer has over acetaminophen—like Tylenol—including helpful vitamins, minerals, and sleep-aid properties. Drinking beer also involves the physical activity of arm curls, which is largely absent in the administration of acetaminophen. Medicate responsibly.

Biggest, Tallest Tree Photo Ever

By Claire O'Neill

National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols is one of the world's foremost wildlife photographers. But he recently said that he'd happily spend the rest of his life photographing trees. Of course, the folks over at National Geographic would almost certainly never hear of it. Nichols' newfound love developed after a serious, yearlong relationship with redwoods.

giant redwood tree
At least 1,500 years old, this 300-foot giant in California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park has the most complex crown ever mapped. (Michael Nichols/National Geographic)

National Geographic sent Nichols to spend an entire year in California's redwood forest. His mission was to capture the majesty of some of the tallest trees on Earth, some of which date back before Christ. And if you've ever photographed in a forest, you'll understand the challenge this presented. There's no capturing the awe one feels before these monoliths that measure, in some cases, upward of 300 feet.

In a recent lecture at National Geographic in Washington, D.C., Nichols described his frustrations. Eventually, though, he devised a way to do redwoods justice. It involved three cameras, a team of scientists, a robotic dolly, a gyroscope, an 83-photo composite and a lot of patience. (And, OK, maybe it's not the Biggest, Tallest Tree Photo Ever -- but it's the biggest one I've ever seen.) Here's how they did it:

The photograph appears as a huge foldout in the the October issue of National Geographic magazine, which hits newsstands today and is definitely worth reading.


Vitter New

Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a bar complaint with the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel against Senator David Vitter (R-LA) for violating Louisiana's rules of professional conduct for lawyers.

In 2007, it was revealed that Sen. Vitter's telephone number was included in the so-called "D.C. Madam," Deborah Jeane Palfrey's, list of client telephone numbers. The senator confirmed he had sought Ms. Palfrey's services, saying in a statement, "this was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible." Two other women also alleged Sen. Vitter had engaged the services of prostitutes. Jeanette Maier, the "Canal Street Madam," claimed Sen. Vitter visited the New Orleans brothel several times in the mid-1990s. In addition, a woman who worked as a prostitute under the name of Wendy Cortez said Sen. Vitter was a regular client of hers between July and November 1999.

Under D.C. and Louisiana law, it is a crime to solicit for prostitution. CREW filed a complaint against Sen. Vitter with the Senate Ethics Committee, which dismissed the matter without action in September 2008.

Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(b) provides it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to "commit a criminal act especially one that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects." By repeatedly committing the crime of soliciting for prostitution, Sen. Vitter violated the rules of professional conduct for lawyers and should be investigated and disciplined for his misconduct.

CREW executive director Melanie Sloan stated, "Sen. Vitter's zeal to see ACORN criminally investigated for offering advice in setting up a prostitution ring reminded me he has yet to be held accountable for his own role in a prostitution ring. While ACORN's conduct is indefensible, so is Sen. Vitter's and what is good for the goose is good for the gander."

A Confederacy of Geniuses

Book-It Repertory Theatre celebrates its 20th year in business with a production personifying everything that makes them a world class operation, tackling a novel both beloved and untranslatable with uncommon skill and passion for the written word. What the hell, let's call it genius and leave it at that. They've carved themselves a peculiar niche, creating more than spoken novels but less than full-blown theatrical productions, using their small budgets to force you to use your imagination, just as you would be doing if you were actually reading the book instead of having it read to you by a troop of actors. It's an approach that's intrinsically philosophical, where each performer is not just the character they're portraying but the narrator of their own story. This decision to avoid a central narrator, spreading the author's words around to every performer on stage, lets you float in and out of the reality of the narrative. Every production is about people who are omniscient, unable to separate themselves from the person telling their story.

Mary Machala didn't adapt and direct the book so much as get out of its way, letting every idiosyncrasy shine through. If you love the book, you will love this production, and if you hate the book, you will probably hate this production. If you haven't read the book, it's completely entertaining on it's own terms.
Harry Knowles disapproves of this review

It tells the story of Ignatius T. Reilly, a 300 pound adult still living with his mother in New Orleans in the '60s. If it were the '90s, he'd be Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, but the internet hadn't been invented yet so Ignatius has no choice but to take out his snark against everyone around him, including his mother, all her friends, a local cop, his fellow workers in a pants factory, his ex-girlfriend, and a poor hot dog vender who offers Ignatius a job, not knowing he's just given Ignatius carte blanche to eat all his hot dogs. It's a cavalcade of comedy chaos as the audience wonders how anyone on earth can put up with him for one second.

Ignatius is an unforgettable literary creation, much like Holden Caulfield, right down to the deer cap, you come away from the book not with the plot but with the indelible memory of a character so uncompromising and irritating that you don't know what to make of the fact you identify with them.

House M.D. is currently the biggest asshole on television. You can forgive House his idiosyncrasies because he's also a genius who saves lives, but Ignatius and Holden have no such noble qualities. They're both snotty losers who think the problem with the world is everything but themselves. Neither display a single positive attribute. Oh sure, they're both funny, but they aren't trying to be.

The Wikipedia page on A Confederacy of Dunces is a movie unto itself since the story of the novel is as fascinating as the story in the novel, creating its own mythology separate from the book. In a nutshell, John Kennedy Toole wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, killed himself in 1969, his mother took the only manuscript to Walker Percy who convinced the University of Louisiana to print up a few thousand copies in 1980, leading inexorably from good reviews to the 1981 Pulitzer Prize to major cult status. John Belushi, who would have been great, was going to do it with Harold Ramis, but died, then John Candy, who would have been great, died too, and Chris Farley, who would have been great, well, you get the drift.

Luckily, Brandon Whitehead survived the Ignatius curse to give a flawless performance of nuance and hilarity. From the opening second, he owns the stage, looking down his nose at us like the whole audience just cut a fart. Ignatius is a horrible combination of total loser and cultural snob, a wallowing ball of negativity who finds the worst in everything while contributing absolutely nothing. It wouldn't work if Whitehead didn't give Ignatius all the depth necessary for such a deeply flawed character, making him not just massive but massively entertaining.

Ellen McLain is patience personified as Ignatius' mom Irene, who surely deserves, and gets, a life of her own. The rest of the cast are every bit Whitehead's equal, especially the ones in multiple roles. With countless changes of costume and make-up, Samara Lerman is hilarious both as Darlene the sleazy barmaid and as Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' radical college sweetheart. Similarly, Betty Campbell, Cynthia Geary, Bill Johns, Todd Licea, Enrique Olguin, Kiri Nelson, and Kevin McKeon all revel in their multiple characters. Backstage must be a madhouse of costume changes.

One quibble. All have differing mastery of one of the hardest accents to do, the New Orleans. Unfortunately they're all trying to do the SAME New Orleans accent when real New Orleans accents are as varied as New York accents, which is something only an asshole like me would point out. Yeah, you're a liar if you're a critic and you say you don't identify with Ignatius, who should be the opposite of a role model for the rest of us cultural snobs, who have precious little to complain about when we visit Book-It Repertory. Here's hoping for another 20 years.

This is John Kennedy Toole, which means if they make a film
about him, Andy Richter better free up his schedule

Get tickets at through October 11.

You lie!

Operation Rollback

Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon - est. 1971

The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business
A review by Jefferson Decker

In October 2003 employees at more than 800 chain supermarkets in California walked out of their jobs after management demanded pay cuts and a reduction in health insurance benefits. The ensuing strike and lockout were notable for the number of workers involved (59,000), the duration of the conflict (more than four months) and the defeat eventually suffered by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represented the workers. Just as notable was what had ostensibly provoked the showdown. In 2002, the discount chain Wal-Mart announced that it would place at least forty new Supercenters, the largest of its big-box stores, in California. A nonunion company famous for expanding its market share by undercutting its competitors' prices, Wal-Mart had proven hard to beat in the past. And in addition to offering a massive selection of housewares, toys and clothes, its Supercenters were outfitted with a full-service grocery. The mere prospect of losing customers to these new stores convinced Safeway, Albertsons and other large grocery chains that they could seek concessions from their workers on the pretext that wage cuts were a necessary measure for remaining competitive. Wal-Mart, it appeared, had changed the way the grocery business operated in California before it even entered the market.

In The Retail Revolution, Nelson Lichtenstein explains how Wal-Mart could shape, if not dictate, the agendas of so many third parties. And he suggests that the California grocery strike was just one particularly visible example of the profound impact of the Bentonville, Arkansas, chain on the broader economy. A labor historian best known for his biography of autoworkers leader Walter Reuther, Lichtenstein has become something of an authority on the discount Goliath. In 2006 he edited a collection of essays, published by the New Press, on the economics and historical circumstances of the Wal-Mart phenomenon. With The Retail Revolution, he provides a comprehensive story of the corporation's awesome growth and expansion. Drawing on sociological scholarship and reporting about the experiences of Wal-Mart workers in the United States and around the world, as well as information made public by lawsuits involving the company, Lichtenstein describes Wal-Mart's origins, expansion and current business practices, from its relationship with subcontracting manufacturers to its protocol for scheduling night shifts. He respects the company's argument for its own social utility -- that it brings an abundance of goods to consumers at the lowest possible price -- and admires its ability to solve complex logistical problems that have long bedeviled discount retailers. But he is horrified by the dispiriting low-wage, part-time economy that Wal-Mart has helped create.

Children's writer Philip Pullman ranked second on US banned books list

Author of His Dark Materials trilogy included on American Library Association's 2008 list

by Ed Pilkington

His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman.

The novelist and children's writer Philip Pullman has been showered with awards that include a CBE, a Carnegie Medal and several honorary professorships. This week he notched up a new distinction: he is ranked second in the top 10 books that people have tried to ban across America.

Pullman's fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, has leapt to the top of the target list of would-be censors in the new rankings issued this week by the American Library Association. It tracks cases where individuals or groups have attempted to have books stripped from bookshelves in schools and libraries across the US.

Its newly released rankings for 2008 recorded 513 cases where books were targeted for censorship, of which 74 were successfully banned or restricted. Pullman's trilogy was the second most commonly attacked, a result, the ALA believes, of an organised campaign that the anti-defamation group the Catholic League launched against the film version of The Golden Compass.

Several schools across America faced requests from parents to remove the book. One challenge at a school in Winchester, Kentucky was made on the grounds that the book's main character drinks wine and eats poppy with her meals. Another school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin pulled the trilogy because of its "anti-Christian message".

Reached by the Guardian, Pullman quipped that he was "very glad to be back in the top 10 banned books". But he added: "Of course it's a worry when anybody takes it upon themselves to dictate what people should or should not read. The power of organised religion is very strong in the US, and getting stronger because of the internet."

Government run health insurance?