Saturday, March 29, 2008

Brother Thelonious

I love Thelonious Monk. I love robust, heavy, high-alcohol-content beer.

Until recently, these were largely separate obsessions. Then, this came along.

I found this gem, literally, at my doorstep. A few weeks ago, I got a package from a friend of mine in Washington DC. Inside, amidst a few other brews and a copy of the Weekly Standard (we have a strange sense of humor) I found a bottle of Brother Thelonious, a new powerhouse beer from North Coast Brewing Co. Boy did my eyes grow wide. A 9.3%-alcohol ale named after one of my favorite musicians ever, complete with a hugely awesome illustration on the bottle?

Sounds great, right? And here's the real kicker: it's actually damn good beer, too. Not just novelty-good. The beer doesn't really scream "Monk!" when you taste it, but, then again, what would that even taste like? (dissonant? idiosyncratic? staccato?)

Like one of my other favorite beers, Brother Thelonious is a drink to savor. I sipped mine over the course of a two hour movie and that felt just right.

The North Coast Brewing Company really knows how to sell a product. They know that jazz enthusiasts can be punishingly nerdy. Just name any arbitrary product after Bud Powell, Coltrane, or Mingus and we'll be interested. In Minneapolis a while back I stumbled into a coffee house serving only jazz-themed espressos, lattes, and smoothies. You should have seen the look on my face. I got a Monk coffee-drink, an iced, sugary concoction that was basically like anything at Starbucks. But of course I loved it. Seeing the words "Thelonious Monk" on the overhead menu made that drink almost worth the $4 I paid for it. I wasn't just getting a morning dose of caffeine. Those two words made that drink an experience. This is the mind of a jazz listener. Jazz, this thing we love, appears so little in popular culture so, when it does, we pounce. At least I do.

I just noticed a "Merchandise" tab on the beer's website. This is bad news. Posters, hoodies, mugs ... am I gonna be that big of a sucker and buy Brother Thelonious goblet? Almost certainly.

UPDATE: I just called a local beer vendor and learned that North Coast no longer does business in the state of Iowa. Boo-urns. Looks like I might have to cross that creepy threshold and begin buying beer online.

McCain on HIV, sex education

John McCain, I think it's pretty safe to say, has never sounded dumber than he did in this 2007 interview on HIV and sex education. I'm not a total McCain basher, but, really, this is just absurd. The mix of right-wing pandering and plain-old ignorance is truly cringeworthy.

Reporter: "Should U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS?"

Mr. McCain: "Well I think it’s a combination. The guy I really respect on this is Dr. Coburn. He believes – and I was just reading the thing he wrote– that you should do what you can to encourage abstinence where there is going to be sexual activity. Where that doesn’t succeed, than he thinks that we should employ contraceptives as well. But I agree with him that the first priority is on abstinence. I look to people like Dr. Coburn. I’m not very wise on it."

(Mr. McCain turns to take a question on Iraq, but a moment later looks back to the reporter who asked him about AIDS.)

Mr. McCain: "I haven’t thought about it. Before I give you an answer, let me think about. Let me think about it a little bit because I never got a question about it before. I don’t know if I would use taxpayers’ money for it."

Q: "What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?"

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) "Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy."

Q: "So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?"

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) "You’ve stumped me."

Q: "I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?"

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) "Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it."

Q: "But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?"

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) "Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Knee jerk liberal arguments: Installment One

Being a graduate student in the humanities, I experience the phenomenon of knee jerk liberalism far too often. I used to think this was funny, but, more and more, I've become irritated, pouncing on those who pass knee jerk liberalism as debate. It's not a good sign when I, of all people, am the most conservative voice in the room.

What exactly is a knee jerk liberal argument? Well, The Free Dictionary defines knee jerk liberal as "a person of strong liberal convictions who reacts predictably and emotionally to certain events." This is an appropriately vague definition because, as we will see over the course of several posts, there are many varieties of knee jerk liberal arguments.

My problem with these arguments isn't exactly that I disagree with the sentiments. Sometimes I do, but other times it comes down to this: "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." I can probably think of a few things I like less, but I concur totally with the point: There are few things more irritating for a progressive-minded person than hearing brain-dead arguments for your cause. It makes you, and the whole cause, look stupid.

Which brings us to our first knee jerk liberal argument.

Standard knee jerk liberal argument #1: The Crude Comparison. This argument is the most popular and takes on the most forms. In essence, the Crude Comparison model involves interrupting a discussion about a foreign crisis with a variation of the phrase "Really, when you think about it, that's not all that different from what's going on in the United States..." Here are a few examples I've seen over the last year:
  • Warping a discussion on repressive Middle Eastern politics by suddenly claiming that George W. Bush is like an authoritarian leader.
  • Claiming the surveillance thriller The Lives of Others shows a government "not all that different" from the Bush administration because both use covert surveillance on their own citizens.
  • Any and all comparisons between the US government and Nazi Germany.
  • Language comparing George W. Bush to a king or the Bush family to a monarchy (as much as I love the Arcade Fire, "The king's taken back the throne / the useless seed is sown" is textbook knee jerk liberalism).
I could go on. Like many knee jerk liberal arguments, this form of debate does nothing but further caricature the left as the "blame America first" crowd of the Democratic Party. It makes progressives not only look critical of their government (which is fine), but makes them look like they don't even understand the government they're criticizing. Comparing the Stasi's surveillance tactics to Bush's domestic wiretapping is ludicrous (this goes to all the film critics who hailed The Lives of Other as timely and relevant). Claiming that Bush is an authoritarian leader is a bend-over-backwards attack on someone who's not particularly difficult to criticize in the first place.

A significant subset of the Crude Comparison is the Crude Historical Comparison. In an example of this model, a knee jerk liberal would interrupt a conversation on women's rights in Saudi Arabia by "reminding" us to "remember the way women used to be treated in this country." I'm taking a class on Morocco and Bangladesh right now, and -- without fail -- someone makes this argument every session. Again, it does nothing but brand progressives as simplistic, Blame-America-First reactionaries. It's also oddly ethnocentric; why must conversations on foreign affairs, past or present, always refer back to America and its troubled history?

Not all arguments using this structure are patently offensive, but, more often than not, these arguments rely on a superficial, broad-stroke understanding of the United States. There's much to criticize about the Bush administration, but, in the end, a knee jerk liberal argument only helps their cause.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Starbucks in Iran

Starbucks, like other American companies, cannot do business in Iran. Star Box, however, serves the best caramel macchiatos this side of the Karun River.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Iranian bloggers

I'm currently writing two papers on the phenomenon of Iranian bloggers. There's a lot to say about those who've been blogging in Iran since 2003 -- here is a good place to start. Iranian bloggers may very well turn out to be one of the great Internet Age success stories. We'll see.

Mostly, I wanted to share with people one blog in particular. Of the dozens of blogs I've read for these two papers, this one is the one that's really gotten my attention. In order to do this blog justice, you must read it from the beginning, as the diary of bitterly funny, insightful young woman who was born AFTER the Islamic Revolution turned Iran into what it is today. This is enjoyable, painful stuff. I'm floored by the witty, brutally honest way she ridicules her government and her culture. It's almost too far, on occasion. This is the type of derisive, scathing insight I'm talking about:

for me Ramadan means staying hungry for hours and hours, have no energy to work, get headache, and wait impatiently for sunset! it makes no difference if you believe in "fasting" or not, you must be hungry and thirsty because GOD wants so!! this is what living in ISLAMIC REPUBLIC means, this is what stupidity means!

don't need to remind me the old funny story about how Ramadan lets us taste the hunger that hurts poor people!, its just deceiving ourselves! if one of those firm fasting ladies or gentlemen agree to spend even 5% of his/her monthly salary for poor hungry people, then i will beleive they really care for them! but just staying hungry and forcing others fast? has nothing to do with poor people! it is silly!

I'm not even sure I agree, but still -- I'm damn impressed. That's certainly a viewpoint you'd never hear from Iran's traditional media.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mike Huckabee defends Obama

You can read all about it here, or watch the full video below (jump to the 3:30 mark for the relevant stuff).

Here are some snippets of what he had to say: "Obama has handled this about as well as anybody could ... [Obama] made the point, and I think it's a valid one, that you can't hold the candidate responsible for everything that people around him may say or do. You just can't. Whether it's me, whether it's Obama ... anybody else. But he did distance himself from the very vitriolic statements ... "

"As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say 'That's a terrible statement!' ... I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack -- and I'm gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you -- we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told 'you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus...' And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me."

A very classy move from Huckabee, I think. He cuts through the hit-job nonsense a gives a non-partisan answer. Let's hope others catch on. Obama does not equal Wright.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March 18, 2008 ... "A More Perfect Union"

I try hard to avoid hyperbole. I really do. But Barack Obama has made that very difficult, so I'm just going to come out and say it: Today, March 18, 2008, Sen. Obama gave the greatest speech delivered in my lifetime.

If you haven't heard it, sit back, get comfortable, a see below.

I feel like a smarter person after those 38 minutes. To think he wrote this speech. Barack has always talked about how, as president, he wouldn't just tell America what it wants to hear; sometimes he'd tell the country what it needs to hear. For the first time, he gave us a preview of that today, discussing race in a way no has for decades. Not in sound-byte politics, but in a manner both from the heart and academically insightful. I could say a lot more, but I'm trying very hard to not sound like a fanboy. I am not. I am not a slavish Obama supporter -- I think it's stupid, for example, for Obama to criticize Clinton on her Iran vote from last year because, well, he missed the vote.

So, I don't see Barack as a fix-all or a messiah figure. But today, as I watched him give this speech -- a speech filled with nuanced, intelligent views on race, not crowd-pleasing platitudes -- I realized just how close we are to electing a man who could actually challenge us. Even if he doesn't win, this speech, I'm certain of it, will be remembered for a long, long time. For at least one day, we got a taste of an Obama presidency. And it was a good day.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Kristol outright lies in New York Times op-ed

William Kristol, editor of the unapologetically conservative magazine the Weekly Standard, lied outright in an op-ed blasting Obama in the New York Times today. You can read his column here. Like most trying to exploit Obama's pastor in an effort to take down the Democratic front-runner, Kristol bent over backwards trying to trap Obama in a lie; that is, Kristol scrambled to find any shred of evidence that would place Obama at one of the reverend's vitriolic speeches. Obama claims that he has never heard one of Wright's politically-charged sermons.

Kristol, you can tell, really wanted to prove him wrong. And he did. Or, at least, he wanted to think he did.

As reported here, Kristol relied on an inaccurate source to prove Obama attended a July 22nd sermon that featured some of Wrights greatest hits. Barack, in fact, was here.

Nice try, Kristol. You've either 1) published an all-out lie in the country's preeminent newspaper, or 2) practiced inexcusably lazy journalism by not checking your source's claims before sending them to your editor.

Either way, the only reputation you've tarnished is your own.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Manhattan: The Film, The Town

About a year ago, a friend of mine posed a theory about Woody Allen's Manhattan: the film's merit hinges a great deal on one's own experiences with the titular town. Essentially, the more you love Manhattan, the more you'll love Manhattan. This was a criticism of the film I disagreed with at the time, mostly because I liked the film and had never visited the city.

In August, I spent my first few days in New York City.

I had an opportunity to see Manhattan on the big screen there -- to really put the above theory to the test -- but it didn't work in my schedule. So, last week, I finally revisited the film, to see if my real-life experiences had tainted my views of the film.

I can say for certain that I get the film more. More so, I think I get all of Woody's NCY films a little better after having spent an afternoon sitting on a park bench listening to a jazz band in Central Park, or an hour getting lost on the subway. Manhattan is all about romanticizing reality, and I've certainly never been to a place that begs to be romanticized more than New York City. Any serious look at Allen's body of work will reveal this as his main thematic concern: not neurotic comedy, not relationship woes, but the dichotomy between fantasy/romanticism (Manhattan) and reality (Manhattan the place). Just the above image -- park bench, jazz band, Central Park -- is so steeped in romantic NYC iconography it's downright silly. But I really did spend an afternoon doing that. Was I trying to live out what Allen had shown me in his movies? Had I been so intoxicated by Allen's idealized image of New York City that I actually made a pilgrimage to the exact spot of the "I lurve you" scene in Annie Hall? (see above photo)

The answer, of course, is yes. By the time I finally reached New York City at the age of 22, I had been so thoroughly primed by Allen's films that the real city was like a punch to the gut. Allen makes movies to divert himself from reality; for me, visiting the city was to take a five-day vacation into one of his films, to escape wholly from real life into a place I had been cultivated to view with the rosiest possible lens. Sure, the disparity between the rich and the poor was despicable, and it would cripple me financially to actually live there...but, damn, there are jazz bands and cinemas everywhere, and I can get around without a car, and there's the best in low- and high-brow cuisine, and you get the idea. The city seemed as if it were designed in a dream -- or, better still, a movie.

So, how did I view Manhattan after spending time in Manhattan? I liked the film more. The city revealed many shades of the film I had missed in previous viewings. But, as with many of his films, Allen's movies have a sense of universality that transcends a specific place. Just as Bill Murray bemoaned"She's my Rushmore" in that Wes Anderson film, I think you can watch a Woody Allen film and connect his passion for NYC with your own individual passion. The film seems to ask "What's your Manhattan?" What's that thing you're drawn to and repelled by at the same time? What's that thing you long to possess and experience, despite knowing it could very well be the end of you?

After three viewings of Manhattan and one trip to Manhattan, I'm discovering my answer to that question: Manhattan or Manhattan, the city or the cinema, reality or fantasy? I'll let you know when I figure that one out.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Guitar-driven rock records

In the last week, I've purchased these two albums:

I'm not sure what sparked it, but I've been enjoying a lot of guitar-driven records lately. Don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly grooving to Joe Satriani-style banshee-wail solos, but albums like these are beginning to overtake my music collection. Maybe my old love of Pink Floyd -- a love that's been entirely dormant since my junior year of high school -- is returning in a new form. I did bust out The Dark Side of the Moon while making dinner a few weeks ago, but, in my defense, I was fully self-aware of how lame I must have looked.

But yes, these two records are excellent. Keep it Like a Secret makes me feel like I'm in high school again (in a surprisingly good way). I listen to "Time Trap" or "Carry the Zero" and I'm suddenly nostalgic of '90s indie rock, despite having NOT grown up listening to the genre. In 1998, I was spinning Third Eye Blind, not Pavement. But Secret makes me feel like I'm experiencing the formative years of indie rock, when songs meant a lot -- and not just when they were bought.

Marquee Moon is just spectacular. The title track is a mind-blower. The album is somewhere between a punk/classic rock/jam-band record. The tossed-off vocal delivery sounds like the early makings of LCD Soundsystem and other NYC hipster bands, and is complimented by radio-unfriendly guitar solos. It sounds quite unlike anything I've heard before -- which is awesome.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Iowa Wind Power: The Case for Environmental Mandates

The Iowan magazine just published a story I wrote about wind power in the state of Iowa. You can find the article in the March/April issue of the magazine, or, take a gander at the scanned and PDF'd versions below (click to make legible):

Also, as hinted at in my bio at the end of the piece, I made a short wind power documentary to accompany the article. The video is about 11 minutes long and features footage of former state representative David Osterberg, University of Iowa President Sally Mason, and Iowa Governor Chet Culver. If you wish, take a looksie.

Yay for wind power, I say. It's not THE answer for energy independence, but it can and should play an essential role.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Super 2sday: The Bloodening

So we probably still won't know who the Democratic nominee for the presidential election will be after tonight. In Clinton's best case scenario, she'll win Texas and Ohio, regaining some momentum to bring things back to a virtual tie with Obama. Obama's best case scenario is the knock-out punch. This seems unlikely on all fronts: even if he wins Texas (still a toss-up), Clinton has all-but vowed to fight on.

I've been supporting Obama's candidacy for well over a year, and I still want him to win. But, between Obama, Clinton, and McCain, here's how I see it: Obama is the best candidate and has a good shot at nabbing more independent voters than McCain in the general; Clinton runs an inept, ugly campaign, but she would make a good president if she could beat McCain (which is extremely questionable); McCain was great in 2000, but has devolved into a pandering tool over the last eight years -- still, as long as he avoids pandering to ultra-conservatives after inauguration, I think he'd also make a good president.

Most general elections come with the standard lesser-of-two-evils cliché. But this one might be a little different. An Obama/McCain race would be one for the ages, featuring two highly popular figures who've proven crossover appeal. There'd be fewer stark differences in a McCain/Clinton battle, with both candidates one-upping each other over who's the most centrist.
I'd pick the first pairing, but the second option would be far from heartbreaking. We'll see.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Classic Tim Russert

I've always loved the way Tim Russert uses past statements to corner his interview subjects. It's really solid journalism and it's entertaining as hell. This is maybe the funniest example of that I've ever seen.

The Iraq/Somalia comparison isn't exactly airtight, but I'll be damned if it didn't make me laugh.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The King of Kong

Well, it's been a slow night for me (re: friends out of town/busy, general social laziness) so I decided to watch The King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters.

This is a spectacularly tense, well-made documentary that's enjoyable on a number of levels. Most memorably, the film presents two of the weasliest people I've ever seen: Billy Mitchell and Brian Kuh. The former is an American original -- a manipulative egomaniac. The latter, his disciple, is Mitchell with none of the charisma. I loved hating both of them.

As the seeming polar opposite of those two clowns, the directors present Steve Wiebe, an unassuming family man with a passion for Donkey Kong. He's the affable outsider running against the well-established machine (reading election coverage has begun to poison my vocabulary, it seems). Both Wiebe and Mitchell are all-American men in their own ways: Wiebe is a family man looking to go from rags-to-riches in the Donkey Kong world; Mitchell is a businessman (he owns a restaurant with his own brand of hot sauce) married to a trophy wife (I know, it's unfair. I'm sure they love each other. But seriously, to quote one IMDB user, "This guy is a walking, talking 70's graduation photo come to life.").

I was endlessly fascinated by watching how these very different men aim for the same goal. It's a theme that resonates with a lot more than just video games (from sportsmanship to, yes, elections), and it's pretty powerful to watch events unfold in this film, especially because the filmmakers manage to give equal screentime for each opposing figure.

The film's masterstroke was in how subtly it showed Wiebe transform from just a guy playing for fun to a man on a personal quest for vanity and glory. Wiebe's no saint, and he becomes even less of one once he starts to get sucked into Mitchell's world of competitive gaming. Wiebe's the good guy, there's no doubt, but his unassuming innocence certainly seemed less genuine to me as the film progressed. It takes a lot of talent to pull something like that off in any narrative, let alone a documentary.

As I think about the movie, despite all of its structural strengths, I keep coming back to Mitchell and Kuh. If this were a fiction film, I'd knock them for being caricatures. The real joy of The King of Kong, more than anything, is in watching these unreal examples of human ugliness. Competition -- one of the bedrocks of America -- can breed a lot more than just excellence. It can breed Mitchell and Kuh, two slimy men who'll do anything to get -- and stay -- ahead.

Maiden voyage: Be Kind Rewind

Welcome to my first blog post ever.

Today I wanted to talk about the last movie I saw in theaters, Be Kind Rewind.

Currently, this movie is earning a 67% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a pretty dismal 52/100 rating on Metacritic. Here's a sampling of the nonsense offered by three prominent critics:

Anthony Lane: "Most of Be Kind Rewind feels as silly and undisciplined as the mini-movies cooked up by its hapless heroes."

Todd McCarthy: "It's a quick trip from whimsy to silliness in Be Kind Rewind, a notably ephemeral work by Michel Gondry, whose flights of fancy can't overcome the egregious illogic of the premise."

Emanuel Levy: "If you didn't read the credits, you would think that Be Kind Rewind was made by a grad of film School or first-time director--it's that raw and amateurish."

If you couldn't tell already, I disagree. To me, Be Kind Rewind is a superb piece of entertainment. Michel Gondry's film felt like a 100-minute vacation from the worst aspects of my generation. A lot of critics want you to think the film is "slight" or "silly." I'll give them the second, but never the first. Be Kind Rewind tackles media conglomeration, cultural homogenization, fan fiction, do-it-yourself media culture, and the notion of folk art vs. corporate art.

I could go on and elaborate here, but I'd probably be doing little more than paraphrasing one of my favorite critics, Keith Phipps from the AV Club. Here's how he put it (read whole review here :

"Hollywood films have become monoliths. They arrive market-tested and as carefully packaged as a new deodorant, made with bankable stars, safe directors, and scripts that had their edges shaved off long before the cameras started rolling. They're products padded for maximum safety and spoken of in careful talking points before being released to theaters. And then they take on lives of their own. What a film does—or fails to do—to a viewer is much more personal.

The question of who controls popular culture is at the heart of Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, and it's hard to imagine anyone else handling it with such a sure, light touch."

Phipps hits it right on the head. Gondry may be a little heavy handed in how he visualizes his themes, but the film is so earnest that it never even borders on pretentious. Take the film's beginning, for example: After the Fats Waller opening, we get a hovering helicopter shot of a 20-lane highway with a line of skyscrapers behind it. I was immediately put off by this blah opening image. But Gondry's camera moves away from the big-city tableaux, and heads underneath a bridge, where we see Jack Black and Mos Def defacing city property with an image of Fats Waller. In one shot, Gondry moves form the impersonal/macro to the personal/micro. The image is reminiscent of Hitchcock's opening of Psycho, a crane shot through a large city into the lascivious affairs of one couple through their window. In both films, we move from the innocuous to the underground and the seedy -- to see things we don't usually see in Hollywood movies (in Psycho we see infidelity and black underwear; in Rewind we see two men who, again and again, challenge the law for the sake of community art).

It may immediately seem pompous to compare a Jack Black movie to Hitchcock, I know. But, I'd argue, that gets at Gondry's incredible skill here: he's made a film about tangible, socially-relevant issues that's goofy, fun, and crowd-pleasing.

Gondry's movie isn't just a utopian vacation away from the real world. Sure, the film makes no claim to realism, and few would argue that the film's plot could actually happen in the real world, but, more than anything, Be Kind Rewind is a fable meant to get you excited about the idea of folk art. And, to me, it succeeds resoundingly. Gondry uses silliness and music montages to mobilize viewers, to make them want to be a part of the do-it-yourself movement, to make them question why art has to be handed down from companies to citizens.

But, lastly, the film has enough nuance to avoid Hollywood-bashing. One scene, for example, shows Black and Def talking about The Lion King in a small restaurant. Workers and patrons overhear their conversation and chime in with their own stories and opinion on the film. It's an oddly beautiful moment that shows how Hollywood movies -- the same movies that grow more homogeneous and innocuous by the year -- also have the power to connect people in ways only mass media can.

This is the first (and most likely last) Jack Black movie that's made me weep.