Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fear of Election Fever

I'm voting for Barack Obama for President, and for Jeff Merkley as U.S. senator for Oregon. If I haven't said much about that recently it's out of FEAR - the fear of sounding like some of these people, who seem to represent the norm these days:

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Web Sites That Will Take Over Your Life: Pandora

Spending too much of your time being productive? If you like to listen to music - and who doesn't? - Pandora can take care of that.

Pandora, a site created by the Music Genome Project, claims to be using information from its users to create “the most comprehensive analysis of music ever”. A swell idea, and it’s good to think I’m somehow adding to our knowledge of music, even as I sink deeper into addiction.

The concept is deceptively simple. You create your own music “channels” by specifying the artists and songs you want to hear, and then voting on the songs presented to you. Simple, yet surprisingly compelling. Do it right, and you’ll soon find you’ve created several channels you’ll want to listen to all the time.

The friend who recommended this site warned me about the addictive side-effects, but I thought I was immune, at least at first. What you quickly realize is that you’ll build amazing channels perfectly reflecting your tastes once you figure out how to pick the right starter artists or songs for each channel.

For me, Townes Van Zandt was one perfect selection. Van Zandt was a folk singer, an outstanding song-writer, and enough of a cross-over artist to attract attention from the rock world, so the channel plays folk singers like Woody Guthrie, country singers like Johnny Cash, and folk-rock people like Neal Young, Bob Dylan, and Wilco. Best of all, the channel plays a bunch of contemporary artists covering the same musical territory, people I might never have discovered otherwise. Other songs and artists wouldn’t have produced that kind of diversity or quality, but Van Zandt has a distinctive style, so picking him seemed to tell the Pandora database a great deal about what I like.

By contrast, starting out with REM proved to be a mistake. Pandora took that to mean that I like random pop music - again, not an unreasonable assumption given REM's long history on pop radio, but I wanted something more specific.

So check it out, select carefully, and make sure you've got good food and a comfortable chair near your computer. You're going to be spending some quality time there.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Good Advice

Lovely Muttley

One sign of wisdom is knowing when and how to listen to advice. It’s especially important to give careful consideration to advice provided by experts on a topic. I know that, but seem to have forgotten it last night when I repeatedly ignored some very insistent signs from our household expert.

The dog in the picture is my Shepherd-Chow mix, Muttley. Both German Shepherds and Chows were bred as watch-dogs, and Muttley lives up to her inheritance with her even-bigger-dog bark and with a strong determination to protect and serve not likely to be rivaled by any real-life law enforcement agent. Thanks to her constant vigilance on the landing next to our front door, I tend to respect rather than resent any salesperson persistent enough to stand there while I open the door, since she could get out.

She loves our fenced in back-yard too, and protects that as well. But the stairs down from our deck are steep and rickety, and since Muttley’s getting older she’s starting to have some mobility problems; so I don’t want her climbing up and down them anymore. Instead, I try to take her out the front door and let her through a side gate into the back yard. She usually likes going that way, although she often climbs up the back stairs to come back inside. I was thinking of putting up some kind of obstacle so she’ll stop doing that.

Anyway, last night was warm, and so we closed just the screen separating the kitchen from the back deck to let the cool air in, and when I walked into the kitchen I found all three of our dogs sitting there waiting to be let out. I went up to the landing and called Muttley, thinking I would let her out first. But she wouldn’t even come when I called. So finally I called all three and they came and sat at the top of the stairs going down to the landing, looking at me. I tried to call Muttley to come down to me, but again she wouldn’t budge. The other dogs finally came down though, so I took the two of them out front and then let them into the backyard.

When I came back, Muttley was again sitting at the back door, now whimpering to go out. I tried to let her out two more times through the front door but she wouldn’t budge. It was the back door or nothing. Now Muttley has a special bond with my husband, so of course when she misbehaves I refer to her as “his dog”. I confess to stooping so low as to think it would be fun to tell my husband (who had already gone to bed) in the morning that for a change his dog, normally the paragon of her little pack, was misbehaving and acting kind of dumb. Couldn’t she figure out that she would end up in the same back yard as the other dogs no matter which way I took her out? I understand that she probably doesn’t think of space in the same way as a human, but surely after many trips in and out she must know that the destination is the same. I should add that every time I got up to try Muttley again, I had to put on my socks and shoes back on and pause my DVD. Hey, I was trying to enjoy the Final Cut of Blade Runner, and this was getting really annoying.

But the whimpering wasn’t stopping so I tried one more time, and this time, very reluctantly, she cooperated. I figured by now the other dogs had been out long enough and I should let them in to avoid further interruptions. I slid open the screen, and there stood a big fat rat. I would like to say he scampered away – that’s normally the appropriate cliché to use in such situations. But this rat, who really did have pretty good rat judgement, instead sauntered slowly and defiantly (I thought) off. Oh, also he was kind of a fat rat, so sauntering probably came more naturally to him. He realized that finding the best exit from our porch was the highest priority, what with 300 pounds of dog wondering the back yard. An apparently catatonic human, standing there ineffectual and horrified, would present far less threat to him, as he correctly assessed.

Now I understand what Muttley was trying to say. She’s the best hunter of the three, and she wanted to grab that rat before it could find an escape route. She probably also wanted to protect her house, her pack, and her human, however undeserving, because that’s what she does. But somebody had been acting kind of dumb, and it sure wasn’t her. I can’t plead ignorance either because I knew that rats had started to come into our yard again. We recently hung up bird feeders on our deck, and not long afterwards the dogs started to take a renewed interest in the space underneath the deck, sure signs.

I’ve been punished further for ignoring her too. Today from the basement window that looks out beneath the deck I saw not one but two rats, one kind of chunky, making their way up onto our deck. So what have I learned? Well, clearly she’s the expert. She knows her backyard at night, she knows her rats, and she knows how to protect the house from creatures of all sizes, from mice to UPS men. I should’ve listened, and we’d already have one less rat. Rats scare the crap out of me, but I hate to think of them suffering. Muttley would have either chased it off or at least killed it quickly, something I’m not sure can always be said about traps.

The Decadent Vegetarian Diet

Pink-and-White Cookies from, one of the best professional baking sites on the Internet

Nope, the title isn’t an oxymoron. Vegetarian food can be decadent, even downright fattening. I should know - I was a vegetarian for years at some time in the distant past. Lately I’ve been a carnivore, but right now I’m starting a new vegetarian diet for health reasons. So I’m writing this post to remind myself of the ways in which even vegetarian diets can go woefully wrong.

First, to succeed at losing weight or becoming healthier on a vegetarian diet, I would advice that you eat or drink strictly limited amounts of the following: beer, baked desserts, frozen desserts, and cheese. My problem with each of these foods is about the same. Eating some leads to eating a lot.

Notice that beer is the only non-fat food in this list, and also the only food containing no animal by-products. Yet beer-drinking has other consequences, and the phrase “beer belly” speaks for itself. I find it particularly difficult to limit beer because the more I drink the less I care about calories and other such mundane considerations.

Among the many baked desserts that threaten my diet, cookies are a particular problem for me (see photo above, which has haunted me for a couple of days now), especially since I like to bake. Speaking of baking, I always like to warn non-bakers that it’s futile to eat commercial muffins and scones in an attempt to escape fat and calories. I promise you that one of those gigantic muffins contains as much fat as a piece of cake or a donut, and if you don’t believe me you should go read some recipes. But with baked goods, at least, I practice what I preach. Why only today I ate a donut to avoid eating a cherry-almond scone instead. Okay, I confess that this particular donut was not a good example. With chocolate icing and cream filling, it had to be more fattening than a muffin. But before you judge me consider that it also had a vanilla happy-face iced onto its top, and that put me over the edge – I can only resist so much.

Moving onto our next food group, it’s important to remember that frozen desserts are tricky. I’m always tempted to think I can simply replace ice cream with frozen yogurt, buy smaller containers, and therefore escape harm. Right. That’s a very good idea for people who have never found themselves accidentally eating a whole pint straight from the box while watching TV, but not such a good idea for me. Many commercial frozen yogurts are still high enough in fat, even if they don’t quite compete with ice cream for the most lard per ounce, and contain ample calories besides. As for substitutes like sorbet, they’re good, but they don’t satisfy the same craving.

Finally we come to cheese, the other inspiration behind my return to vegetarianism. You see, as I was researching how to change my diet to lose weight and lower my cholesterol, I came across copious advice telling me to moderate my intake of foods such as meat, nuts, and oils, and to eliminate certain problem foods like fatty desserts and cheese. Eliminate CHEESE? Who do these people think they’re kidding? I am more open to abandoning my home to go live in the brush, subsisting only on berries and cactus. So something had to be done, and by that I mean something other than giving up cheese. Besides, the brutish barbarians who would recommend such solutions need to be taught a lesson (and should also be given some free high-quality cheese, I think, since they’ve clearly never tried it or they wouldn’t run around talking like that). So I remembered how skinny and healthy I used to be as a cheese-eating vegetarian, and there you have it. Sure, I’ll moderate my cheese intake as best I’m able, but each of us must draw some kind of line between eating well and preserving the pleasure of excellent food, and this is mine.

But there is still one more looming threat to the vegetarian diet. It’s not a specific food but a process, and an insidious process at that. If you work to control your intake of beer, frozen and baked desserts, and cheese, and you eat lots of healthy fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans instead, you will soon discover one of the wonders of the vegetarian diet. Suddenly, you’re not so hungry at meal time anymore. You feel content with smaller portions. You feel healthier. But beware. If you get too overzealous about limiting your meals, the consequences creep up on you. One night you’ll suddenly realize that you absolutely must have a glass of stout beer and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia with a chocolate donut on the side, followed by a cheese course, a box of crackers, and several nice Lambics. You will wake up bloated and hung over the next day, missing the good old days when it was just a pint of frozen yogurt you had to worry about (and by “you” I continue to mean “me”). Ironically this happens because you’ve not been eating enough. Of course, that’s the goal of most diets, or at least for diets that don’t work. By contrast, the goal of a vegetarian diet is to eat and get full so that you’re not blind-sided by sudden cravings.

You know, this is all pretty good advice if I do say so myself, and I hope I take it. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Is Logic Over-rated?

One of the curses of modern times is the beaten-up and sorely used intellectual baggage we still carry around from the Enlightenment. No, I don't mean the ideas generated by thinkers at the time of the European Englightenment, I mean the mutated, dumbed-down versions of those ideas created by modern pop culture.

In particular, I got pretty disgusted today with the idea that Logic, now elevated to the status of a god, is the solution to everything, and that furthermore, it was non-existent before the European Enlightenment.

Logic solves an incredible range of problems, as I'm sure almost everyone would agree. However, it's sad to watch sentient adults act as if political, personal, or religious questions can always be resolved by logic. Logic, in this mythology, replaces morality in that we can all look forward to a magic time when everyone becomes totally logical. Then and only then will humanity achieve the heaven of total agreement. Has some human being perhaps already attained perfect logic? Is he or she even now sitting around, sad and lonely, yet patiently waiting for the rest of us to catch up? If so, I can't imagine it. The reality is that each of us believes our ideas are generated by reason, while everyone who disagrees with us is woefully confused by a combination of emotion, faulty psychology, rickety logic, and too much junk food (too much junk food - yummmmm).

Okay, now I should site an example of some Enlightenment thinker who saw a limit to logic. I know for a fact that David Hume wrote about that, and I know approximately where he said it, but I don't feel like looking it up right now. Also, I should prove how important logic was in the middle ages, for instance, but same excuse. I'm tired, I'm cranky about the whole business, I don't even feel like typing in the facts I already know, and I'm going to go to sleep instead.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

High Hopes, Little Faith in "The Uniter"

Remember the Barack Obama who began his campaign for president as "The Uniter"? Well here's a review, courtesy of an article from the Washington Post:

"Obama Says He Can Unite U.S. 'More Effectively' Than Clinton"

MANCHESTER, N.H., Aug. 14 -- Drawing a sharp contrast with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama said in an interview that he has the capacity she may lack to unify the country and move it out of what he called "ideological gridlock."

But talk is cheap, especially for politicians, and even more so for politicians with a short public record. Now Obama actually has the power to unite the Democrats. I like to think he's more than talk and that he'll soon use that power to do something for Senator Clinton and all of the people who've supported her. But I'm too old to place my faith in anyone who's asked us to believe in him but has yet to do much to earn our confidence. So while I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for him to live up to the image of himself he's spent so much time promoting, I'm ready to be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Election '08: My Plan to Never Decide Ruined by Indecisive People

Voters in other states have failed to do their duty, and now for the first time ever I’ll have to cast a vote for the Democratic nomination for president in the Oregon Primary that may actually matter.

I couldn’t be more disgusted. I remember a time, recorded in this blog, when I wanted to think about Democratic politics. That inclination has since been thoroughly squashed, and since approximately late March I’ve just wished to hell it would all be over.

But nooooo, now I need to think about it whether I want to or not, because I need to decide who to vote for, Clinton or Obama. I confess that I kind of want to vote for Clinton just to thwart Obama supporters in Oregon. I suppose that makes me sound anti-Obama, but if that were so my choice would be easy. And I stated my objective accurately: it’s some of his freaky supporters I can’t handle. Supporters aside however, I like Obama more each day because his economic message sounds increasingly like Edwards: he wants to encourage businesses that provide work for Americans, and clean up corporate corruption. But then too I’m angry over the sexist way people have treated Clinton, and I’m impressed with her abilities and truly incredible determination. On the really negative side, however, she’s a bit of a corporate suck-up, and Obama’s a bit of a snob masquerading as an underdog.

So back and forth it goes, and you people from states that have already voted are to blame. Couldn’t you have been a little more decisive? I hate it when people can’t make up their minds.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

My Favorite Movies: A Reluctant List

Au Revoir Les Enfants

A friend emailed me recently with a list of his favorite movies. We’re both movie fanatics, so I understand the impulse to make such a list, and I appreciate receiving it. I like to peruse other people’s favorite movie lists for films I might like to see, especially if the writer is a critic I admire or a friend with either similar or admirable taste. So I feel compelled to warn people that my own list, posted below for your perusal, is not useful in the same way.

I have to admit I would hesitate to recommend some of the movies on my own list. First of all, some of my favorite movies come from critically despised genres. Zoolander, for instance, is intentionally stupid. I like it because I like really stupid comedies, and in the stupid comedy genre it shines, at least for me. Other movies are favorites because they appeal to me for personal reasons or because of excellent cinematography. Signs is not even director M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie, and while I love the movie I don’t care so much for the ending, even though the ending is probably supposed to be the profound part. The first two Batman movies are simple action-hero stories, but I had trouble not adding even more Tim Burton movies for the same reason: I love the way his movies look.

On the other hand, I intentionally didn’t add many critically acclaimed movies to the list because, however much I admire them, they just aren’t my faves. I admire Citizen Kane, for instance - what serious film snob doesn't? - but I don’t enjoy watching it all that much, probably for the very reasons it’s such a remarkable movie. Citizen Kane is complex, even at the technical level, and that makes it difficult for me to simply sit back and enjoy it without analyzing it to death.

As for a movie like The Birds, a film most people would acknowledge as excellent, Hitchcock obviously made better movies. But I must have been about eight years old the first time I saw The Birds on TV, and not only did it scare the crap out of me as a kid, it left a lasting impact. It’s impact changes depending on my age, but every time I’ve watched it since, it seems a different and remarkable movie. It's also no coincidence that many parts of Signs can be viewed as a tribute to The Birds.

In short, my list of favorite movies is in no way equivalent to the movies I would put on a list of the most excellent movies, and I don’t necessarily claim to love each of them for rational reasons. Actually, my admiration for these movies isn’t even internally consistent. For instance, some of the movies on my list are complex, like Citizen Kane, but somehow they still grab me and engage me in a way that Citizen Kane cannot.

One last warning for anyone who might want to see some of these movies. I’m not even willing to stick by my list, or at least not for much longer than a day. Some of these movies, like The Birds and The Wizard of Oz, I’ve liked since I was a kid, and I will no doubt still love them years from now. Others I began to doubt shortly after adding them to the list. I saw Y Tu Mama Tambien for the first time quite recently, and I’m not yet sure if it’s one of my favorite movies of all time or just another excellent movie from Alfonso Cuaron. So here is my list, which simply shows my favorite movies as of March 1, 2008.

The Wizard of Oz
Wings of Desire
Eyes Wide Shut
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Wild at Heart
Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
Mountains of the Moon
Dersu Uzala
Say Anything
Moulin Rouge
The Grifters
The Shining
Breakfast at Tiffany's
The Birds
Nights of Cabiria
Y Tu Mama Tambien
A Little Princess
True Romance
Dark City
Batman I and II
Edward Scissorhands
The Fisher King
American Beauty
Prospero's Books
Night on Earth
Children of Heaven
Terminator 2
The Quiet Earth
Shaun of the Dead
Donnie Darko

Friday, February 8, 2008

Now You Too Can Think Just Like the Mainstream Press!

"Facts are stupid things."
- Ronald Reagan, Former U.S. President

While it’s difficult for me to pick a new presidential candidate, it’s easy for the press. They are all very busy these days telling us just how easy it is. They are also busy telling us what we should think about the candidates, so that it will be easy for us too. Perhaps it’s time, then, that I help them out. So I’ve thoughtfully provided the following EZ list of stuff to think, according to the mainstream US press. So save yourself some time. Ignore mainstream news and just memorize this handy list.

My own smart-ass comments follow in parentheses.

* McCain stands for HONESTY. Clinton stands for COMPETENCY. Obama stands for HOPE. (I wish they would just get t-shirts with the words on them. That would save us from most of the “political analysis” we have to otherwise endure.)

* Clinton and McCain stand for the OLD. Obama stands for the NEW. (That is, Hillary and JM have reached their pull dates. When will you reach yours, or have you already? Or do you imagine yourself exempt from such judgments? But it’s good to know that we’re all just products – it gives me a nice, democratic feeling of unity with the rich and famous.)

* The candidates are all pretty much identical. (Yep. The press also convinced us there was little difference between Al Gore and GW Bush. Thanks US press.)

* There was sexism in the campaign, but the press stopped it. Now they avoid discussing what Hillary wears and they rat out anyone else who mentions it. (Yep, now we've finally defeated sexism in the world, since that's all that was left of it. We women want to be paid less and given fewer opportunities by choice, apparently, but when somebody comments on our clothes, by gosh, those are fighting words!)

* If anyone says someone is racist, they are racist. (This is very different from a witch hunt. If it were a witch hunt, we would say “they are witches”! It is very different from a witch hunt.)

* We should pick the next President based on the impression created by their public performances. Does Hillary seem trustworthy when she says something? Does Barack seem sincere when he says something? Does McCain seem friendly when he says something? (What candidates say is actually quite unimportant. Let’s see, who have we elected lately based on the same theory?)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Who Moved My Candidate?

Dartmouth Debates

HANOVER, NH - SEPTEMBER 26: Democratic Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appear with unidentifed bystanders.

My candidate was John Edwards, so the answer to my question is obvious. The press, and network news in particular, ignored Edwards right out of the race. As I look back on their performance, I’ll always cherish, in particular, two memories of Edwards’ press coverage. The first occurred after the Iowa caucus where Edwards placed second. The news commentators mentioned briefly that he was second and then moved quickly on to the real story: an analysis of the contest between Obama and Clinton. The second magic moment was just after the debate preceding the critical New Hampshire primary. Commentators mentioned briefly that Edwards seemed to have the best and most moving performance in the debate, and then moved quickly on to the real story: an analysis of the contest between Obama and Clinton. I’m not talking about FOX news here either. The major networks consistently ignored Edwards, and even most PBS programs seemed to fall into lockstep with this agenda. And I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say that it’s harder to get votes when the television news organizations don’t seem to notice you’re in the race.

However, since I still believe that this election is of major importance to the future of our country, I need to pick some other candidate to back for president now that Edwards has dropped out. I realize this announcement will send many campaign organizations scurrying to hustle my support, but just to let them know: I won’t send off my $25 contributions or cast my pointless vote in the Oregon primary or the general election for just anyone. It will be a tough call to make, since I like all the remaining major candidates.

So how to decide? Since I’m a Democrat, I’ll need to pick between Obama and Clinton before the primary, but for the final election I’ll consider the Republican candidates too. That leaves a lot of candidates to choose from. Does anyone have any recommendations?

Time permitting, I would like to eventually write some more about the Missing Candidates on both sides. I want to discuss Edwards’ candidacy some more, and also people like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich (if Edwards was ignored by the press, Kucinich was brutalized and buried by them). The race won’t be the same without the Missing, although the TV news, predictably, barely noticed they’re gone. Since you won’t hear it from a network news show, I’ll state the obvious. What’s missing along with them is our right as voters to pick the candidates who go on to the final primaries. Does anyone really think the press is qualified to decide for us?