Wednesday, September 29, 2010

BP pledges better safety -- again

The incoming CEO of the company that gave the world the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher, BP, is making high-profile moves to make safety a higher priority. According to the New York Times:
[Robert] Dudley announced that BP would set up a new global safety division and make other changes to the way the company operates as it seeks to absorb some lessons from the explosion of a oil rig five months ago.
As much as one might wish to be optimistic about these changes, it's easy to be skeptical:
BP has made similar pledges in the past to improve safety and its reputation.

In July 2006, chastened by a string of safety, environmental and legal problems in their American operations, BP pledged to restore credibility by bringing in outside experts, being more transparent and investing more heavily in safety and maintenance.
BP also replaced then-CEO John Browne with Tony Hayward, himself now the outgoing CEO.

Yet as the Center for Public Integrity noted in May:
Two refineries owned by oil giant BP account for 97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years ...

Top OSHA officials told the Center in an interview that BP was cited for more egregious willful violations than other refiners because it failed to correct the types of problems that led to the 2005 Texas City accident even after OSHA pointed them out.
In other words, BP's 2006 pledge went unfulfilled. Now, in 2010, we again have a BP pledge to improve its safety -- and again, this pledge is accompanied by a change in CEOs.

It's too early to call it a pattern: Dudley deserves a chance to show what he can do. But don't hold your breath. You don't get a whopping 97% of "egregious willful" OSHA violations in your industry because you had a single bad apple at the top of the company. You get that dubious honor because you have a corporate culture that makes safety a low priority, and you don't fix that problem by making a new safety division. You have to change the corporation's values, and that is not always easy (although you'd think that killing people, as both the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 2005 Texas City refinery disasters did, would help you bulldozer over any internal pockets of stupid inertial resistance).

BP's press release announcing the formation of the new safety division doesn't give me much hope for real change:
In his message to staff Dudley said: “As I take up my new role I am aware of two things. First, there is a pressing need to rebuild trust in BP around the world. Second, BP’s people have both the commitment and the capability to rebuild that trust.
[BP chairman Carl-Henric] Svanberg added: “I believe the changes which Bob is introducing today are vital steps in the rebuilding of confidence and trust in the company. I recognise there are still difficult challenges ahead. But we have assembled a strong and able new team and are developing a robust strategy to deal with them and to deliver our ultimate goal – the restoration of shareholder value.”
I guess Tony Hayward is not the only tone-deaf executive at BP, because these two gents clearly just don't get it. BP's first task is not "to rebuild trust in BP," and the company's "ultimate goal" isn't "the restoration of shareholder value." Let me spell it out for you, guys:

BP's first task and only goal is to stop endangering its employees and the public.

The lack of trust in BP is an effect of your corporate illness, you cretins.

Messrs. Dudley and Svanberg, this is not a public relations problem: this is a cultural problem within BP. As long as you keep thinking of your corporate image first, your employees will continue to be at risk. (So will your stock options, if that's what motivates you.) Get your heads out of your posteriors and fix your company, not its image.

For crying out loud, what will it take to drive this point through your thick skulls?

Question for Tea Partiers

You're angry. We get that.

Just answer this simple question for the rest of us who temper our own anger and frustration with a measure of understanding that the world doesn't always behave the way we want:

What the fuck do you want?

You're loud, you're proud, you're mad as hell and you aren't going to take it any more, don't tread on you, blah, blah, blah. How the fuck does that translate to doing anything constructive, for yourself or anybody else?

That's my version of Thomas Friedman's op/ed column of 28 September 2010. Read Friedman's column. It makes my point far more eloquently than I did.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2010 MacArthur Fellow: David Simon

That's the David Simon who created The Wire, among other great TV series. The MacArthur Foundation has a short video interview with Simon. All of this year's Fellows are listed on the Foundation's "Meet the 2010 Fellows" page.

(Thanks to Kottke.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Too much information

In a thoughtful essay, Joshua Benton muses on a side effect of our information-soaked modern environment. It's the kind of writing of which I don't see enough online, boasting a perspicacity that contrasts refreshingly with the dryly factual, often snarky technical and political writing that makes up the bulk of my reading. You should read the whole thing, but if you want to get to the crux of his thinking:
How many people think the tragedy of 21st century America is that there isn’t enough information to consume? How many people feel a desperate need for more “content” in their lives? If they consume much online news, there’s a good chance they experience some version of the anxiety Chee and Sontag talk about, the hyperinformed, undercontextualized mind. The major news organizations are engaged in a massive land grab, spreading their sites as wide as possible, adding in more blogs, more citizen journalism, more slideshows, more everything. I get the pageview-driven economics behind that. But have we made much progress in figuring out ways to present news in structures that reduce the information anxiety of our readers, not increase it? That have a satisfying beginning and end, not just an endless stream of “content”?
"The hyperinformed, undercontextualized mind." What a wonderful phrase.

Sontag's argument, according to Chee as related by Benton, is that novels are a way of making sense of the larger world: they reduce that world to a microcosm that is more readily comprehended by the mind. Benton argues that journalists ought to consider taking a larger role in that process of making sense of bigger things.

I think he's right, but is it too difficult a job to make it profitable? I worry that not enough people have the patience to pore through essays that do their subjects real justice, because the inescapable truth is that such pieces tend to be long. How many people really will read Jane Mayer's profile of the Koch brothers (it amounts to fourteen 8.5"x11" pages on my computer)?

I also worry about how trustworthy those pieces will be, or at least how trustworthy they'll be perceived to be. The context of information is rarely as free from controversy as the information itself. Quoting what the President said in a speech is straighforward; reporting how that speech jibes with the President's policy, or how it squares with the Administration's actions, invites rancor.

Yet we absolutely need to spend more time and energy making sense of what we see, hear, and read, rather than seeking more of it out.

I think a lot of people spend time following "news" that is actually bad for them. Going back a ways, was it really necessary to follow the O.J. Simpson case? The murders were unquestionably heinous, but when it came down to it, what difference did it make in your life?

Did the disappearance of [name of girl] from [place name] really matter to you, other than as a topic of conversation over lunch?

At some point, was there anything more to learn from [overseas disaster]?

These things are all important to someone, but in an age where we're bombarded by information from all sides, you have to be your own filter. Just as you have to watch what you eat, you have to watch what information you absorb. Only then do you stand a chance of making sense of it all.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Kochs respond

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch's privately-held company, Koch Industries, has responded to Jane Mayer's New Yorker article about their alleged covert support for anti-government political movements. (Thanks to Daring Fireball for the links.)

From the Kochs' response:
[Mayer's] article also smears the good name of Koch Industries, whose companies employ more than 50,000 Americans at hundreds of sites around the country. Those companies and employees have received more than 180 environmental and safety honors since President Obama took office. No mention of those honors – or of Koch’s commitment to complying with environmental regulations – is included in the article, even though we provided this information to the publication. Instead, the author asserts that Koch is the tenth-largest “polluter” in the nation. The more accurate and less sensational term is “emissions.” Those emissions, which are all regulated and legally permitted, are generated by the industrial processes that enable us and other companies to provide Americans and the world with essential products – including the very ink and paper needed to publish periodicals, such as the New Yorker.
Of course they're committed to complying with environmental regulations. Every business and businessman is (in public, anyway). That doesn't mean they wouldn't love to weaken and to eliminate those regulations, which those businesses and businessmen almost invariably call "onerous."

You'll also notice that the company's statement says nothing about attempting to reduce its overall emissions footprint. I don't know whether it is trying or not. However, most companies that give even the tiniest damn about their environmental image emphasize their efforts in that regard. Silence speaks volumes.
The Kochs have steadfastly supported the benefits of economic freedom, the importance of the rule of law, private property rights, the proper and limited role of government in society and warned against the perils of excessive government spending. We see escalating efforts to discount and mischaracterize important and authentic citizen efforts, as well as dismiss and degrade our support of education and human services programs.
Translation: we like the anti-government rhetoric the Tea Parties spread.

But if the only problem were that people like me disagreed with people like the Kochs, we wouldn't be in this fix. No, the real trouble is that the Kochs and their ideological allies have debased the debate about the role and the size of government to the point where the rest of us -- the folks who aren't billionaires and therefore have a bigger stake in whether our government works well or not -- can't discuss the matter rationally any more. Too many people blame "big government" for a range of ills, real and imagined, and they aren't willing to think: they're angry and They Want A Solution. Well, guess what: it's not that goddamned easy. And the Kochs have made things a lot harder by making sure their money generates a lot of heat and very little light. That's not a smear. That's just how it is.

Great show you're not watching: Terriers

Remember The Rockford Files? James Garner as a private investigator with a strong sense of self-preservation was one of the more enjoyable rogues with a heart of gold to parade on the small screen. Well, add two more such rogues in the entertaining but apparently overlooked Terriers on the cable channel FX.

Donal Logue's Hank Dolworth is an ex-cop, recovering alcoholic, and ex-husband; Michael Raymond-James' Britt Pollack is Dolworth's partner in not-quite-crime, a refugee from the shadier side of things. The two are unofficial private investigators struggling to make a living in Ocean Beach, California.

On the face of it, this doesn't seem like the most original or interesting of premises. What drew me in was the abundance of humor throughout the first two episodes (which are all I've seen so far). The plots are meant to be taken seriously (and you do take them seriously), but the way Dolworth and Pollack banter, and a few of the odd situations they find themselves in, raise a smile -- and on a few occasions, draw out a guffaw.

This stumbling attempt at a review is why I'm not a TV critic. Fortunately, the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman has a much better-written review of the show which you should check out. (Goodman is the reason I'd heard of it at all.)

I'll admit, I have an ulterior motive here: I like the show, more than I've liked any non-HBO show in a long time, and I'd like it to stick around. I'm therefore spreading the word about it in the hopes that the ratings will rise.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gulf gusher toll: Kemp's ridley sea turtle

Vanity Fair has a short piece on the plight of the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, an already endangered species before the BP Gulf gusher.

As the piece concludes:
So the crisis isn’t over, as BP and the government would have you believe. It’s only beginning.

Warners cartoon pastiche

An inventive soul with alleged access to every single Warner Brothers cartoon produced between 1930 and 1969 put together a video that includes one frame from each of those cartoons. I don't know if it includes the Censored Eleven, since I can only recall ever seeing one of them, and that only once 'way back when.

Notice how character design got more sophisticated as the studio ramped up cartoon production in the late 1930s. Note, too, the increased angularity and decreased exaggeration as the 1950s wear on. By the 1960s, it seems all the animators and directors knew how to do was to draw cleanly: there is little evidence anybody ever heard of an extreme. (If you actually watch the cartoons, you'll see they lacked any sense of timing, or energy, or fun.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

New York Magazine on Jon Stewart

A profile of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart appeared in New York Magazine, datelined 12 September 2010. Not as comprehensive as the Rolling Stone article of a few years ago (which focused on Colbert as well), but by way of compensation, it gives more details of the writing and show-prep process:
Stewart and his team go on a nonstop, rapid-fire jag that tears up and rewrites nearly three-quarters of the script. The typist transcribes, cuts, and pastes; as visual gags pop feverishly into Stewart’s brain, Hopf calls down to the art department, ordering up new video montages and a collage of an “Anchor-Me Terror Baby” to go with a reference to the “birthright citizenship” debate. Many of the new ideas will be scrapped only moments later.
Note that this rewriting process starts at 4:00, or a scant two hours before the show is taped. Imagine being in the midst of that kind of deadline pressure.

Much as I admire him as a performer, though, it's his ability to see to the heart of our hysterically overblown national debate that I think we need most. Poll results show the public opposes the so-called "Ground Zero mosque," for instance, but polls don't address the real issue:
“The wisdom of the masses is not always … wise,” Stewart says. “You could put a lot of things to a vote—-you could have put anti-miscegenation laws to a vote, and that would have passed pretty handily. Either all people are created equal—-or they’re not. You’re either buying into the original premise of America—-or you’re not.”
Court jesters are permitted to tell the ruler the awful truth, but it only matters if the ruler hears. Not enough of us are hearing our preeminent court jester, Jon Stewart. We need to pay attention.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to be alone

I don't know how Kottke finds this stuff: a video meditation on how to be alone.

I can't help commenting on this artistic exercise. First, it's long enough that around halfway through, it starts to sound a little desperate -- like the author/composer is trying to convince herself that it's okay to be alone. That doesn't sound like it was her intention, but unfortunately, that is what happens when you go down the "list all the wonderful things" path of discursion.

Second, at one point (and maybe more: my attention wandered a trifle about two-thirds through) she used the word "lonely" in place of "alone." The terms are not interchangable: "lonely" describes a state of mind; "alone" has no such emotional connotation. As Aztec Camera put it, "They call us lonely when we're really just alone."

Finally, she says that striking up conversations on park benches is a nice benefit of sitting by oneself. Well maybe, but as a habitual loner myself, I don't often care to strike up conversations with total strangers. I'm choosy about my company, for one thing, and people who are alone often are alone for good reason, I'm sorry to say: they have difficulty behaving in ways that make others comfortable around them. (I'm not excepting myself from that category, by the way.) And then there's the other side of the equation: who's to say that the other person is interested in my intrusion?

Being with other people is hard for some of us. Obviously practice might make it easier (I'll admit, I think I'm better at it now than I used to be because I've forced myself to be a little more sociable), and in any case the fact that something is hard shouldn't dissuade us from trying to do it. Nevertheless, sometimes you have to understand yourself and your predilections. As a borderline misanthrope (there's a trustful and romantic streak in me that stubbornly refuses to wither away), I've come to terms with the fact that I spend, and will continue to spend, much of my time alone. It's no more terrible a fate than spending much of one's time with others, if that's how you're wired.

Bands I Useta Like

Thanks to a fellow radio volunteer for pointing me at this: The Mike The Pod Bands I Useta Like Page.

I liked Asia, too. In fact, I still do. Don't hate: it's bad for your complexion.

Blockbuster bankrupt

Blockbuster Inc. has filed for bankruptcy protection as of today.

This doesn't affect current operations at present: open stores will stay open. However, "the closing of hundreds more stores" is in the company's future.

This move doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Netflix and services like it, offering rentals online and via mail, have made Blockbuster, even with its thousands of locations, a lot less necessary, while Blockbuster itself is burdened by the costs of those thousands of physical locations and employees.

I have a different reason for cheering Blockbuster's woes. In the 1980s and 1990s the chain was notorious for offering versions of movies that excised what the company deemed offensive content, but without telling customers the movies had been edited. This arrogantly moralistic behavior by a company that had shuttered all competitors in many of its markets disgusted me. Blockbuster may not have gotten into its current predicament as a direct result of that earlier misbehavior (and to be fair, I don't know if the company still does this), but I like to think karma is playing out here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gen Y and cars

A rare bit of good news, environmentally speaking: so-called Gen Y-ers are buying fewer cars.

They’re likely to see autos as a source of pollution, not as a sex or status symbol.

Motorists aged 21 to 30 now account for 14% of miles driven, down from 21% in 1995.

There's a change in lifestyle, which is critical to changing how society works:

“It’s a matter of mind-set far more than affordability,” says William Draves, president of Learning Resources Network, an association that studies consumer trends and provides education and training services.

“This generation focuses its buying on computers, BlackBerrys, music and software and views commuting a few hours by car a huge productivity waste when they can work using PDAs while taking the bus and train,” says Draves.

Current electronic hardware carries its own environmental burden, of course, but we have to fix the big problems first, and getting less reliant on the private car is fixing the much bigger problem here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

First reaction to Boardwalk Empire

HBO's new series Boardwalk Empire looks good, really good. Steve Buscemi is compelling as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, although I can't help thinking how weird it is that the nervous freak from Fargo is so calm and well-dressed. The pilot held my interest from start to finish, quite a feat given my lamentably short attention span.

The one thing that bothered me was the introduction of Chalky White, portrayed by Michael K. Williams. Five seconds of screen time and one inconsequential line? Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, this be Omar, yo. That's how you show respect?

(What do you mean, you never saw The Wire?)

Max Raphael

When I grow up, I want to have Max Raphael's voice.

Raphael is probably best known for narrating the History Channel reality/science series Modern Marvels. He can adjust his voice to the perfect tone for voicing very serious copy (for, say, a documentary about the tragedy of 11 September 2001) or more lighthearted fare (say, for a program about manufacturing snack foods). Having done voiceover work on an amateur basis, I can tell you that pitching your voice to be appropriate for such a variety of narration styles is not easy.

Maybe not a Christian nation

I think I'd heard a reference to this passage before, but didn't have a reference to it until I read the enlightening article "Notes on the Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State," courtesy of the Quartz Hill School of Theology. Now, I'm not going to claim sufficient knowledge of things religious to know whether this is a well-reasoned article or not, but the reference to the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli seems valid enough. Said treaty states, in Article XI (translated from Arabic):

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This treaty was initially signed on 4 November 1796 and later ratified by the U.S. government on 10 June 1797.

Why should we care about this seemingly insignificant document? Well, Article XI would certainly seem to put the lie to the assertion by various conservative commentators, including the singularly uninformed but relentlessly glib Sarah Palin, that the United States was "founded as a Christian nation" and that the Founders intended the nation to be Christian. The treaty, after all, was signed during the presidency of one Founder (George Washington) and ratified during the presidency of another (John Adams). The very inclusion of Article XI in a treaty that otherwise focused on maritime issues suggests that both sides were anxious to avoid Crusade-like hostilities arising from religious fervor. And while the phrase "is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion" in a speech could be passed off as overcompensating hyperbole, a treaty is a legal document; the phrase thus carries tremendous significance as an expression of policy and intention.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Flying words

Modern movies have a lot to recommend them, but in one respect they've become much less sophisticated. Dialogue, though presented in a more naturalistic fashion, isn't anywhere near as smart as it was back in the 1930s and 1940s. It also doesn't have the zip and brio of the wordplay from that period, either.

I've never had, and probably never will have, the problem in any modern movie that I've had with His Girl Friday: the dialogue flies so thick and fast, I can't follow all of it. I didn't think human beings could speak that quickly. I doff my hat to Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who made it sound ... not natural, but realistic within the context of the world of screwball comedy.

It will be a pleasure to puzzle out every high-velocity syllable through repeated viewings.

Muni fare gate glitch

San Francisco's Municipal Railway System spent $30 million on a new fare gate system that lets you wave your hand to enter, no fare required. That wasn't the intention, but that's how it works.

The short-term solution to deal with the glitch? Stepped-up enforcement by Muni's transit-fare inspectors and police to catch the fare cheats. The offense carries a $75 fine.

Yeah, right.

As someone who rides transit all the time, I can tell you what will happen. Violators will figure out which stations are least patrolled, and they'll enter there. Even if an agent is on duty, you can bet he or she won't risk his or her neck to stop a gang of teens waving their hands at the exit sensors.

Or that gang will just keep using the "authorized-personnel-only" gates as they do now.

Montana GOP wants homosexuality to be illegal

Montana's GOP wants to make homosexuality illegal:

The party adopted an official platform in June that keeps a long-held position in support of making homosexual acts illegal, a policy adopted after the Montana Supreme Court struck down such laws in 1997.

Public sentiment across the nation is growing for granting gays equal rights, or at least for leaving them alone.

But going against the grain is the Montana GOP statement, which falls under the "Crime" section of the GOP platform. It states: "We support the clear will of the people of Montana expressed by legislation to keep homosexual acts illegal."

Montana GOP executive director Bowen Greenwood said that has been the position of the party since the state Supreme Court struck down state laws criminalizing homosexuality in 1997 in the case of Gryczan v. Montana.

Nobody has ever taken the initiative to change it and so it's remained in the party platform, Greenwood said. The matter has never even come up for discussion, he said.

That nobody has gotten around to changing it speaks volumes about Montana Republicans, or at least their party's leadership.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Raymond Scott, 2010

A belated happy birthday to Harry Warnow, better known as Raymond Scott. The name may mean nothing to you but you likely know his music, thanks to the equally unknown Carl Stalling's licensing of Scott's compositions for use in Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1940s onward. Scott was born on 10 September 1908, so I'm exactly a week late; sorry about that, Mr. Scott. However, I was a fan before Ren and Stimpy made you hip (again): I was collecting the Jass vinyl compilations of your best-known works back in the early 1980s.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Who

Somebody said of the Who that they were the band you listened to when you wanted to break free. Bingo!

I've always wondered why I was drawn more, a lot more, to the Who than to their arguably more popular cohorts, the Rolling Stones. That one observation explains it. I've always paid more attention to lyrics than to melodies, and Townshend's lyrics, dealing with big themes and ideas, must have attracted me immediately. Even so, the melodies, too, were big, and soaring, and seemed to open to the sky (I'm thinking of several songs from Who's Next as I type). By comparison, the Stones were grimy honky tonkers -- not a putdown, but the best way I can express my impression of their far more R'n'B-inflected music.

Aspirational and inspirational -- that's what the Who are.

[EDIT: misspelled Townshend's name. Oops....]


Watching a "Top 100" special on a cable TV channel that shall remain unnamed because I don't care to promote it, I was surprised that R.E.M. checked in as low as number 71. Then I was outraged that Def Leppard had taken the number 70 spot.

I'll admit, I don't think much of Def Leppard, but I still think that most music fans would agree that putting it above R.E.M. is a travesty.

The music that most of us take for granted today would not exist were it not for R.E.M. Arena rock dominated the scene when Murmur was released, and while by itself the album didn't turn things around, it was incredibly influential for the band's peers and soon-to-be followers. You didn't have to sound like Led Zeppelin to be a hit any more. You didn't have to be bombastic or pretentious or any of the other bad things that had hardened the arteries of the musical remnants of the '60s. That realization, plus the new viability of the college radio and touring circuit -- a viability that R.E.M. helped to establish -- paved the way for the legion of indie rock bands that eventually took over mainstream music.

Can Def Leppard claim such a legacy? Are you kidding me?

Bourdain in SF

Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations visit to San Francisco underwhelmed me, perhaps inevitably, considering that it's the city with which I'm most familiar. He visited some good restaurants and ate some good meals, I don't doubt, but aside from overindulging in the inevitable veganism riff, he didn't really convey anything about the place. Ah well, you can't please everybody, and I don't suppose he'll be losing any sleep over my carping.

The episode is months old, so why comment on it at all? Only because of a couple of grace notes I noticed today: (1) as far as I can recall, the only featured span in the show was the Bay Bridge, which is generally given no air time by visiting film crews even though it's arguably the most important bridge in the Bay Area; and (2) at Red's Java House, he ordered and prominently displayed an Anchor Steam. The label was so perfectly turned toward and framed by the camera that it must have been a paid placement, sad to say, but I hope he tippled at least a little of the local brew.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I always wondered where my money for HBO was going. Now, thanks to an article about the forthcoming series Boardwalk Empire, I have an inkling: "The pilot alone cost nearly $20 million."

Wow. You can make a decent non-blockbuster movie for that amount.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Nick Drake and the AT&T ad

Love me some Nick Drake, but heaven help me, that stupid AT&T ad is starting to make me dread "From the Morning."

I'll admit that at first, the sheer novelty of hearing Pink Moon's lovely closer, linked to clever imagery, actually made the commercial a pleasant surprise. However, repetition kills. Soon enough, "clever" became "sinister," as it became all too easy to think sourly of the resurgent Ma Bell covering the planet not with sunny orange stripes but a stifling orange straitjacket. Worse, just now I caught myself linking my irritation with the ad to the song for the first time.

My only hope is that AT&T won't display the same destructive instincts as United Airlines. I will never forgive the latter for its incessant and shameless abuse of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," abuse which utterly destroyed the possibility of listening to that fine composition without thinking of that soulless, artistically and financially bankrupt company.

Frank Rich on Freedom and Obama

When Frank Rich criticizes you, you should listen. In this case, "you" would be, er, you, President Obama.

I learn a lot reading Frank Rich, and the whole country would benefit if it would attend to his calm, measured arguments.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Frommer on iPod classic

Dan Frommer wrote an article speculating whether Apple would discontinue the iPod classic, the only remaining hard drive-based iPod it makes. (Thanks to Gruber's Daring Fireball for pointing me at the Business Insider article.)

For myself, I can only quote Gruber:

Some people really do want 160 GB of music in their pocket.

You better believe it.


Oh Lord. Here I thought the greatest indignity to befall a dancer of Hollywood's Golden Age of Musicals was Fred Astaire's turn in the absurd original Battlestar Galactica.

Then I saw Xanadu.

Poor Gene Kelly. At least Fred Astaire got the reputedly decent Ghost Story as his silver-screen swan song (according to my recollection of its reviews at the time, anyway). For Kelly, on the other hand, Xanadu was his last big-screen appearance. And Xanadu is a mess in so many respects, it's hard to grasp all at once.

It's badly reliant on special effects. This was a huge mistake: the effects must have been cheap-looking even at the time (the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica boasted better effects on what must have been a tighter budget) and, unsurprisingly, have not aged well. A movie that promised a spectacle at the time now looks as ridiculous as Filmation's 1970s Saturday morning live-action TV series. Perhaps Hollywood learned an expensive but valuable lesson here: post-Xanadu musicals have largely eschewed effects in favor of traditional song-and-dance routines.

The apparent attempt to satisfy Kelly-era fans with outbursts of pseudo-'40s music and dancing just looks silly, although one of the featured couples performs some impressively athletic maneuvers. And these moments are preferable to the insipid rock numbers. Hmm. Can I say anything more substantive than "insipid"? ... Um ... no, not really. They don't deserve more thought than I've already given them. When you've bet your musical fortune on Olivia Newton-John, you haven't given your audience much to sing about. (As a Jeff Lynne/ELO fan, I give him/them a pass. I thought they acquitted themselves with as much honor on the soundtrack as was possible under the circumstances.)

(Oh, and about the film's incessant linking of Kelly's character to the 1940s -- didn't anybody making this film know that in real life, his greatest triumphs were in the 1950s? If you're going to hire a legend, shouldn't you know how he got to be one?)

Kelly's trademark athleticism is on display here, and this is one of the few treats the movie offers. To see him gamely skating at the end is to get a whiff of his glory days. His performances are even more impressive when you consider that he was more than twenty years past his prime.

The acting ... well, the acting suits the writing. And the writing is execrable. Remember how some teachers would drop your lowest test score when computing your final grade? Every performer in this fiasco deserves to have it dropped from his or her CV on that same basis. It's simply not possible to judge whether any of them can act just by watching this piece of tripe. I'm sorry to judge the writing so harshly (writers are human too, or so I'm told), but it reeks of opportunism. It was an attempt to link a falling music star (Newton-John) with a recognizable eminence grise (Kelly) in a newly revived niche film genre (the much-despised musical, resuscitated by Saturday Night Fever). Only a true fan of musicals could have pulled this off, and based on the results, it's hard to imagine anybody who worked on this (always excepting Kelly) being such a fan.

[EDIT: removed mention of Newton-John as a TV star]

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thought on Gasland

I don't often watch documentaries because they depress me. Yep, I'm a coward in that regard. I know I'll probably learn something, but what's the cost going to be to my emotional well-being?

However, in a fit of highmindedness, I recorded the documentary Gasland a month or two ago, and finally watched it today. The film, aired by HBO, is a subdued and sometimes quirky look at the apparent effects of natural gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing. (Should you choose to perform a Web search on that term, be advised that Google brings up three sponsored links. is a site managed by Chesapeake Energy; is sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, as evidenced by a series of TV ads they're currently running against a purported $80 billion in energy taxes; and is the site of a company providing "Reliable Fracturing Services for Shale Oil & Gas Operators-Since '81." Also, the first E.P.A. page on the topic is virtually inaccessible due to what my browser reports is too many redirects.)

Although I have as much compassion as the next for the little guy (or gal) getting screwed by the big corporation, faux-victimization movements like the Tea Party (if that can be characterized as a single movement) have made me wary of advocacy by camera: it's altogether too easy to tell a compelling story that is nevertheless not accurate. However, it's hard to argue with the image of a flame bursting from a kitchen tap. The reassurances from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection official who appeared on camera were terribly mealymouthed and formulaic, lacking all credibility.

You should watch Gasland if you can. The proven natural gas reserves in the United States, and the exemption from oversight of extraction by hydraulic fracturing that was enshrined into law by the George W. Bush administration under the auspices of former Vice President Cheney, combine to make this an issue that must be examined far more thoroughly and openly than it has been. The potential consequences of ignoring this issue are simply too great to risk. Our watersheds and our health are at stake.

While watching the film, I wondered about a group of people who weren't interviewed, who weren't even mentioned on camera. I'm not speaking of the executives of various energy companies, whose refusal to be interviewed was noted more than once. No, rather, I'm speaking of the shareholders of these companies.

Shareholders don't set the companies' policies. Yet a basic truth about our publicly held corporations is that corporate executives are responsible to shareholders. As shareholders, our chief -- usually our only -- expectation of those executives is that they should deliver a profit. As long as they don't engage in criminal activities to make that profit, we don't care how the executives do their jobs.

Should we?

I don't have a clue about how to make a car, much less how to make money by making cars. Yet if I were a shareholder of a car company, I think I'd feel better knowing that my company didn't make a car that would explode if struck hard enough at just the right spot, as the Ford Pinto did. I think I'd feel better if I knew the company's executives owed me as a shareholder not only a profit, but also a promise that they would not engage in practices that they knew were harmful to the environment or to human life.

I'm an idealist, I know. I don't want to contemplate how unlikely it is that other individual shareholders would feel the same way, much less institutional shareholders like state pension funds. Yet it strikes me that holding executives responsible for a company's actions without acknowledging the role that the unbridled profit motive plays -- in other words, without taking into account the impatience and profit-hungriness of shareholders that drive these executives to irresponsible, environmentally devastating actions -- simply invites us to keep making the same mistakes, over and over again. As long as company shareholders place profit above all else and don't give a damn about the damaging effects of their companies' activities -- effects whose costs, economic and otherwise, we all must bear -- I don't see how we're going to avoid further Gaslands.

UPDATE: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Halliburton plays a big part in hydraulic fracturing (I believe it even claims to be the process' originator). The 2009 Congress pushed the E.P.A. to revisit its 2004 study that purported to show hydraulic fracturing's lack of harmful consequences; Congress acted largely in response to anecdotal evidence of the kind featured in Gasland. As a result of heightened public awareness of fracking's possible dangers, Halliburton launched its own hydraulic fracturing Web site.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Work-play divide

Mike Wise, a Washington Post sports columnist, was suspended from his job for knowingly publishing a fake tweet about a football player. Apparently Wise's tweet was intended to be "a test ... of how fast a piece of misinformation could spread online."

I must admit, it's an interesting question from an academic standpoint. However, Wise's experiment, if that's really what this was, was supremely dumb: you don't invent falsehoods about real people, for crying out loud. How you get to be a professional journalist without understanding how serious an ethical violation that is, I can't imagine.

That's not what this entry is about, though. From further on in the article:

Within a few hours of Mr. Wise’s Twitter post on Monday, The Post’s sports editor, Matthew Vita, sent an e-mail to his staff reminding it of the paper’s guidelines for using social media.

“When you use social media, remember that you are representing The Washington Post, even if you are using your own account,” Mr. Vita wrote. “This is not to be treated lightly.”

My quibble is with "even if you are using your own account."

I believe that a bright line separates work from non-work. When you're working, you're working, and what you do is your employer's business, but when you're not working, what you do isn't your employer's business. There are exceptions to this, but they're few and far between. I don't believe that reporters are among those exceptions, unless, as Wise did, they speak out on the subjects they cover.