Saturday, June 03, 2006

Christian Gaming

A new "Christian" video game touts a mission not of mercy but warfare. Kinda scary to see what the kiddies are supposed to do when they jam a "Left Behind" videogame into their consoles:

You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission - both a religious mission and a military mission -- to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state - especially moderate, mainstream Christians. Your mission is "to conduct physical and spiritual warfare"; all who resist must be taken out with extreme prejudice."

More on the game
here, via Bong Boing.

(Should they call this game Right Behind? or just Kiss My Christian Behind?)

Bryant: Top Issue In TN is Illegal Immigrants

Senate candidate Ed Bryant wants the press and the public to know he knows more about the issue of illegal immigrants because he was right there, just a few feet away from the border. In a conference call to the press, Bryant said the 3 things most on the mind of the Tennessee voter was "illegal immigration, three times."

He also claimed illegals were all carrying kilos of cocaine, but the sheriff of Cochise County, standing at his side, disputed that saying instead that more people were engaging in "people smuggling" since it paid more and had fewer risks.

Also at the candidate's side was the VP of the Minutemen group, who he claimed were not vigilantes, but "patriots," because they are not the ones crossing the border.

It's a fascinating interview with the man who wants the one Senate seat up for grabs, viat
The Greeneville Sun.

Oh and he was also making a commercial while he was there too, a busy man hoping to push to the front of the GOP PAC ... I mean pack.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Smell Those Trees or A "Twin Peaks" Guide

It was a marvelous moment, a rare event embedded in memory. I had received a review copy of the pilot episode of "Twin Peaks" in early 1990. Already a fan of filmmaker David Lynch, I was greatly skeptical he would make anyting worthwhile just for television How very wrong I was.

Within minutes of starting the tape, I was ushered into a neo-gothic surreal television mystery, with ghostly music and bizarre language. It was the start of a cultural milestone. As many reviewers later said, the character of Laura Palmer was an instant American icon because she arrived dead to TV screens, and the mythmaking of why and how and who was a central focus of the show.

I was in a rather feverish state of mind as I carefully took that videotape to a friend's house to make sure this program was as exceptional as I thought. We watched, called over more friends, and watched it again. Like millions of other TV watchers, we gathered in groups to watch every episode and debate every oddity of language and image. And the women, too, we talked a lot about them. Shelly and Audrey and Donna.

I still have that screener video. Wouldn't part with it for anything.

Today, via MetaFilter, I found a website that offers an episode guide that so far, seems very well researched and has fascinating commentary. Here's a sample:

But the legacy remains, more striking with each year that passes. The immediate effect was very noticeable—for a brief period, surrealism and experimentalism were suddenly acceptable on American television. Shows like Eerie, Indiana and Wild Palms (both overseen by film directors, Joe Dante and Oliver Stone respectively) attempted to cash in on the craze for all things weird, with varying degrees of success. The show that scooped up most of Twin Peaks’ hungry fans must have been The X-Files, shoehorning familiar Peaks-inspired weirdo FBI agent antics into a more straightforward Sci-Fi serial format to enormous popular acclaim. In recent years the genre-blending aspect of Twin Peaks has been felt time and again, in shows such as Chicago Hope (hospital drama/soap/comedy), Firefly (western/Sci-Fi) and perhaps most notably Lost (mystery/thriller/Sci-Fi/etc.)."

Link to it here. (Note: It is worth remarking that David Duchovny, star of X-Files, was first featured as a cross-dressing FBI agent in Peaks.)

Smell those trees. Have some coffee and a slice of cherry pie. Don't go into the woods. Leo needs new shoes. Break the code, solve the crime. "Laura ... Laura!"

Camera Obscura - District B-13, Aeon Flux and More

Yay Friday! Time for movie news, reviews, DVDs, some hot summer movies just ahead and a few thoughts on the week's entertainment news. This includes a new summer action film based on "Escape From New York" and a kind of street-gymnastic-fu craze that boasts worldwide membership, even here in Tennessee, but more on that in a moment. Let's start with the story of li'l Katie Couric and her jump to the Big Show.

Katie Couric says she's the best, mostest hard-nosed journalist going, and is vowing to end what she called the "pretentious era" in TV news. I have no idea what that comment - or several of the other comments she made to CBS execs, really means. One function she has filled for years is to talk extensively without really saying anything.

She's no Edward R. Murrow and she's no journalist - for instance, the late, great Peter Jennings worked his way from field reporter to bureau chief to anchor, not from Morning Face to Evening Face. We are all better off searching for news on our own. And she might consider the words Mr. Murrow offered to news directors in 1958:

It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other."

Last week, I mentioned that there wasn't much success at the screening for "Southland Tales," and new reports indicate a major re-edit for the movie is on the way so it can find a U.S. distributor. Which also means you'll have to wait for the DVD to see the original cut.

For summer viewing fun, a reader notes his most-anticipated movie is the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel. Enjoy a lengthy preview here. Personally, I am looking forward to the 3rd movie, which was shot simultaneously with part 2, which will feature Chow Yun Fat. Fat is my hero.

Opening today (though not anywhere locally I could find) is the movie "District B-13," which has captured outstanding reviews. It's a sort-of "Escape From New York" story. Set in the near future, Paris has become so ridden with riots and crime (as it actually has been) that the government was walled in several communities and ghettos, including B-13. A cop and a criminal join forces in typical buddy movie fashion and the action in this Luc Besson-produced adventure takes the action of "Transporter" and endless king-fu features and ramps up the intensity several notches, thanks to a recent urban sport called Parkour. Oh, and the presence of nuclear weapons in the ghetto.

The website for the movie has tons of previews and explanations. Parkour-participant David Belle stars in the movie. Parkour is a sport of sorts, where people sort of jump, dance, bounce, fly, leap, in a freestyle extreme sport kind of way. Tennesseans from Bristol to Knoxville to Monterey to Memphis have joined in the action, according to this website.

I also finally watched the movie "Aeon Flux", based on the cartoon series created by Peter Chung and aired on MTV. An attempt to film this bizarre bio-nano-weirdo hi-tech future is an enormous chore and the results are only average. Charlize Theron stars as the semi-naked assassin and she does well as semi-naked assassins go. The movie's design work and effects are excellent, the writing is not so excellent. But it does compete well in the semi-naked babe sci-fi movie genre (see also "Barbarella" or "Fifth Element" or "Terminator:3" or "Danger: Diabolik")

Afraid of catching a true turkey of a movie this summer? Check out The Movie Binge, where a group of bloggers has vowed to watch and review 85 major releases over the summer. Might save some time and dollars for you.

I also found a good collection of movie scripts online, including David Lynch movies, Kubrick, Raimi, Tarantino, teen comedies and modern classics and many more. C'mon, aren't you tired of always quoting "Caddyshack"? There's a world of movie quotes ready for you!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

On Haditha

Not wanting to marginalize or sensationalize the reports from the press concerning the actions of the military in November of last year in Haditha, Iraq, there are a few thoughts I'll offer about the reality of warfare.

The operations in Iraq are not typical military confrontations. It's military versus guerilla or insurgents or militias. The battlefields are streets and houses and neighborhoods. The sad truth of a house to house battle means non-combatants are likely to be killed.

There are ridiculous assertions that the insurgency is in it's last throes, that the media only reports negative stories, and even that this is anything except a continuation of military actions begun in the 1990s.

Good or bad, our troops are engaged in deadly missions each hour. The political strife increases and decreases one day to the next. Recently appointed Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaydi knows too well the situation is chaotic at best:

The way it was reported to me, by word of mouth, seemed incredible," he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace in his first public appearance after being sworn in as ambassador. At the time, he did not have any other evidence and decided that the rumors might have been an exaggeration.

Haditha, he knew, was a chaotic town, virtually run by bands of insurgents. "There were no police," he said, "and, effectively, no Iraqi government." Sunni insurgents were terrorizing the population, even staging public executions of people suspected of opposing them. Residents, he said, were being "squeezed" between the insurgents on one side and, on the other, U.S. soldiers, who were caught up in frequent clashes with the heavily armed rebels. Sometimes, civilians would get caught up in these skirmishes.

Then came a report in Time magazine that as many as 24 civilians may have been deliberately gunned down by U.S. marines during an operation in November. The key piece of evidence was a videotape made by an Iraqi journalism student that shows the apparent civilian victims riddled with gunshot wounds, which contradicts the early accounts by marines stationed in Haditha that the residents were killed by a bomb. U.S. military officials have now launched an investigation into the alleged Haditha massacre, and Bush publicly vowed to punish anybody found to be responsible for killing civilians. Sumaydi says he will await the findings of the U.S. investigation. He has also requested a second inquiry by the U.S. military on the death of his cousin.

At the same time, Sumaydi has a hard-earned appreciation of the difficult challenges faced by the U.S. military. As a former interior minister, he tried to battle both Sunni insurgents as well as shady Shiite militias, who operated both inside and outside the Interior Ministry. He also knows that the militia problem has not gone away.

Just two days ago, another cousin of his was kidnapped in Baghdad from the small supermarket that he owns."

"Core values" training for US troops may help provide some measure of understanding as to how to cope with a house-to-house insurgency battle, but the simple fact remains that Iraq, all of it, is a battlefield and there is no safety for residents or troops.

If the deaths in the Haditha community were unprovoked, it will encourage those opposed to US involvement and erode political support around the world and around our own nation.

A License To Have Kids?

A reader for yesterday's post offered these thoughts for consideration:

Maybe couples shouldn't start a family until they have the resources (however they want to define that)to care for that family themselves. If that means somebody has to stay home, so be it. I'm all for requiring a license to breed. Too many people are having too many kids without a thought of the consequences."

I have multiple responses and perhaps you do too, feel free to add them.

First, if prospective parents had to wait for the Most Perfect Time to have kids, there would certainly be fewer - however how often in the course of living do any of us have the luxury of realizing Most Perfect Moments? Living is an imperfect thing, and often we don't realize our best moments until they have passed. In short, living is all about chances and risk. We are all faced with the unknown from birth til death, and I generally think we cannot ever hope to alter that.

Second, I dread the idea of having to have a license for having children. Are their couples and/or singles who should not have children? Most likely. Yet, a far worse notion is some government or quasi-government agency determining the requirements needed to have children. Go ahead and call me a Darwinian, but sometimes our sheer numbers, increased wisely or unwisely, often offer our best chances for continuation. While any of us can question the wisdom of some who decide to have or not have children, I put far more faith in the individual decision than those made by some appointed committee on procreation.

I do understand a desire to provide some kind of "quality control" over emerging li'l humans - but again, I have far more trust in Nature than in government or rule-by-committee. Imagine the horrors of those who live in China, where both the number and the sex of a child has been given a pre-determined government status.

On a side note, the longer we follow a national ignorance regarding sexuality, pregnancy, STDs, and a foolish concept of "abstinence", the longer we endanger our current and future generations. It's as if we fear the result of an informed and educated population, while I can only see the many benefits of a less repressed and more informed and personally responsible attitude.

It's something I've mentioned before - we are Free to choose are actions, but that does not mean we are free from consequences.

The agenda of the group mentioned yesterday includes some insidious claims - significantly, that most often parents "choose" to both work. In the reality of our economic systems, it is nearly impossible for a single income to provide all the needs of a three or more member family. If a couple has that ability - marvelous! As a rule, however, most couples and individuals struggle mightily to make enough to provide for themselves.

Also, I firmly believe that parents and educators, not administrators, need to be far more involved in creating educational systems in their communities. Endless testing is not a solution - the realization that education is a process and not a means to a career is far more vital.

For all the yearnings of various lobbying cultural warriors, abandoning our own abilities to reach a positive, self-actualized community of individuals is a prescription for tyranny and horror.

Is it hard to live with the bad decisions others might make? Yes. Are parents sometimes the worst enemy of the child? Yes. But attempting to control or constrain nature is a path to far worse outcomes.

That's my two cents. How about yours?

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Preschool Liberation Army?

Stop the War on Toddlers is a cry from kids to voters, demanding an end to Weapons of Mass Instruction, citing studies that show enforced governmental preschool programs do far more harm to kids than good.

Yes, in the state that takes any and all issues to the ballot box via referendum, that wacky California, a call for a preschool boycott and a no vote on Proposition 92 - Preschool For All Act has been proclaimed.

A group called Tykes on Trikes has issued a Manifesto and is urging the boycott. I might be more convinced if I could find a preschooler who could spell "manifesto" or if teen students were better able to find Louisiana or Iraq on a map.

The Manifesto says:

Government propaganda, disseminated through the media, insists that society commit to developing future workforces for the global economy as well as thwart crime and social deviance by confining young children in preschools. We have been brainwashed to believe that in order to protect adult interests, we must deny children their right to childhood.

In the name of education and social reform, young children are now detained in weapons of mass instruction called preschools."

Further, the group makes these demands:

" -- Immediate withdrawal of children ages 0-5 from government daycare and preschool facilities and closure of all government preschool and daycare detention centers.

-- The repeal of all preschool legislation currently enacted or in committee in federal and state governments

-- Disarmament and destruction of all weapons of mass instruction known as government preschools and discontinuing government subsidies of private preschool facilities that are required to brainwash children via state sanctioned curriculum standards and testing delivered by state-credentialed agents (i.e., teachers).

-- Abolishing Head Start and other government universal preschool programs. Forty years ago Head Start was instituted to assist disadvantaged children. It has yet to be shown that it helped the 40 million children it claims to have helped at a cost of 50 billion dollars. Instead, Head Start incorrectly led to the cultural misconception that "institutional programs" were the key to early childhood education. As a result, thousands of preschoolers have spent the most formative years of their lives confined in institutions; scores of innocent children ages 0-5 spent years imprisoned on false assumptions about how children learn; childhoods were smashed to pieces; parental rights usurped; entitlement thinking was reinforced; and families torn apart. This infliction of misery has not improved society. It has caused irreparable damage."

You can learn more via the many links offered on this press release page.

Or you may just want to celebrate the fact you and your kids don't live in California. Or you may want to join the movement. Or maybe this movement will help you get started on a science fiction story or the next Fox/MTV/WB pre-teen soap opera.

Supreme Court Backs Crooked Officials

The new Bush appointees to the Supreme Court reversed the stand previously upheld by the majority including Justice O'Connor when it comes to government employees reporting fraud, waste, abuse or other violations and removes protections offered the rest of the nation via the First Ammendment.

The 5-4 opinion issued Monday is clear notice to those who might have reported problems - if you do, you have no rights to protection by law. This decision protects crooked officials and their behavior and endangers the public good and the public trust.

In dissenting statements, Justice Stevens wrote:

The proper answer to the question `whether the First Amendment protects a government employee from discipline based on speech made pursuant to the employee's official duties,' is `Sometimes,' not `Never.' Of course a supervisor may take corrective action when such speech is `inflammatory or misguided.' But what if it is just unwelcome speech because it reveals facts that the supervisor would rather not have anyone else discover?"

Also, Justice Souter wrote:

"This significant, albeit qualified, protection of public employees who irritate the government is understood to flow from the First Amendment, in part, because a government paycheck does nothing to eliminate the value to an individual of speaking on public matters, and there is no good reason for categorically discounting a speaker's interest in commenting on a matter of public concern just because the government employs him. Still, the First Amendment safeguard rests on something more, being the value to the public of receiving the opinions and information that a public employee may disclose."

From Justice Breyer's dissent:

The speech of vast numbers of public employees deals with wrongdoing, health, safety, and honesty; for example, police officers, firefighters, environmental protection agents, building inspectors, hospital workers, bank regulators, and so on. Indeed, this categorization could encompass speech by an employee performing almost any public function, except perhaps setting electricity rates."

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Web Walkabout

So many oddities and curiosities abound across the internet, many of which defy explanation, such as the first entry -- using the crucifixtion to encourage voters in a bid to combat a proposal to allow for sales of alcohol. (via Joshua Blankenship)

The next entry takes us to Japan to view a new craze, hikaru dorodango I really do not understand how it can be possible to make a shiny mud ball. Then again, it was mostly pity that prompted my geology professor to give me a passing grade.

Some sad news - last Saturday one of the great artists and animators of the last 50 years passed away, Alex Toth. Toth created Space Ghost, Josie and the Pussycats, took the TV show Zorro to the comics and helped create characters for shows like Jonny Quest and many other Hannah-Barbera cartoons in the 1960s. He worked in just about every genre - westerns, romance, adaptions, superheroes, mystery and horror, and much more.

Samples of his style are featured on his web site.

I've noticed some discussions of late about the federal government's Video News Releases programs, often showing up on a local newscast unidentified as a government-created news release. Despite the FCC's memo from April of this year, incidents continue to occur.

Between 2003 and 2005 the Bush administration has spent $1.3 billion on "pre-packaged news."
And, uh ... hint for the DC cabal ... it's not working.

Million Dollar Budget Errors, Growing Deficits

A very real concern for local taxpayers is being mostly ignored and rising costs of operations at almost every level of Hamblen County government indicates a major tax increase is on the way.

One county commissioner has been actively trying to correct the problems in accounting and budget records, literally catching million dollar mistakes, though Commissioner Linda Noe is often dismissed by others on the commission and on county government as some sort of loose cannon. It's obvious however that her efforts continue uncover serious problems.

Commissioner Noe's blog has been focused of late on what she calls a "perfect tax storm" and here are some excerpts:

Our first budget meeting on May 16 got us off to an odd start as we looked at the county debt budget for next year. About midway through the discussion, I pointed out that there was a $1,000,000 error (yes, that's one million dollars) in the debt payment budget we had just been given for the 06-07 budget year.

The budget we had been given showed that our debt payments would be a little over $1,300,000 in 06-07. I asked Finance Director Nicole Epps to check her figures and see if debt payments would actually be closer to $2,300,000.

Nicole looked back through debt information, did some calculations, and then told us that, yes, one debt payment (line-item) was "off" by $130,000 and, yes, another debt payment (line-item) was "off" by $870,000, and, yes, the total general debt payments would be $2,300,000 (instead of the $1,300,000 we had been given).

We got the corrected debt payment budget at our May 23 meeting. What a rude awakening there would have been down the road if we had approved the debt budget with the $1,000,000 error!

We also discussed the overall county debt. The total debt is about $46 million in principal alone (not including yearly interest charges that have to be paid). And that $46 million county debt figure does not include any of the huge M-H hospital debt that is kept in a separate debt fund.

In discussing the county debt, I asked whether the county had just been paying interest only on the four big $10 million dollar bond issues. Joe Ayers of Cumberland Securities answered "yes."

What this means is that over the past 6-7 years, we have added $40 million worth of debt but we have yet to pay a dime toward the principal of that debt. We are currently scheduled to start paying down this $40 million bond debt in 2009."

Here's another entry:

If the revenue and expenditure figures do not change a lot in the next few weeks and if we keep approving all the spending that is in front of us, then we will be looking at a deficit general fund budget for 06-07. We will have slowly approved spending more than we expect to take in.

And that would be a deficit budget before there is any talk at all about pay raises or the school budget!

It's full steam ahead to approve all the spending increases and then saddle the taxpayers with higher tax rates this year on top of last year's higher property appraisals--the old double whammy right in the pocketbook."

And again, it's noted that budget figures presented to the full commission are based on one set of estimates via the county mayor's office versus basing them on the correct audited figures available.

Using the computer records means that we are using unaudited and uncorrected numbers even though Commission adopted audited-based budgeting years ago for the purpose of having the most accurate available record of county spending in front of us during each budget cycle.

All the historical spending (02-03, 03-04, 04-05) that commission has been given comes from unaudited/uncorrected computer records even though audits for all three of those years were available on March 31.

This commission wanted and voted for more accuracy in the budgeting process by adopting audited-based budgeting, but we didn't get it.

It is unfortunate that the County Mayor and his Finance Department have snubbed the entire Commission.

Actually, it is more than unfortunate and it is more than a snub.

Taxpayers, too, deserve to know that the most accurate records available --audited records--are given to their commissioners and are used by the County Mayor and the Finance Department in the budget cycle.

This is just one of the reasons I spoke yesterday of the mess we are in after just three budget meetings."

As I have mentioned before - ignoring these critical funding discrepancies is perilous for taxpayers.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Confessions of a "Lost" American

Confessing my shallow interests in television is not a proud moment, but I'm not alone in my interest in the "Lost" series. It is a rather finely constructed web of deceits and mysteries which can both follow typical TV conventions as well as distort them, reminding me of such other great programs which I became addicted to like "Twin Peaks" and "The Prisoner".

Thanks to Big Orange Michael, I read a most interesting theory about the Real Meaning of the events on the show in Entertainment Weekly. (Side note: Being caught reading EW is akin to someone catching you reading US Weekly and as I rule I read neither. Honest-to-Pete I don't.)

Writing here about a TV show is a feat of sheer Geekiness, but thanks to Bill Gates and bad reality television, Geek is In. Embracing your inner (or outer for that matter) Geek is the hallmark of the moment.

Apologies aside, the above-mentioned theory calls into importance the writings of Charles Dickens, master storyteller and the man who perfected serial storytelling. I'm sure the writers of "Lost" have more than a passing admiration for Dickens, as most good writers do. And you can read the book which the character of Desmond, one-time hatch-inhabitant, holds so dear in the last episode, "Our Mutual Friend", by clicking here.

Speaking of television viewing - I did not realize at the time that I had chosen to watch the 3-hour movie of Stephen King's "Desperation" rather than watch the finale of "American Idol" -- wouldn't watch that anyway, unless someone was holding a gun to my pointed little head. It was a fine peice of work -- and Stephen himself was most annoyed the suits at ABC put his gem up against the Idol finale.

And that leads to one other noteworthy event for summer viewing - TNT has made a mini-series of his "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" which will air in July.

OK, enough of this attention paid to television. A writer has no place discussing it - or does he??