Saturday, December 27, 2008

Favorite Discoveries of 2008

I have completed my Favorite Discoveries write up to accompany my 2008 Top 10 list.

The second list are my favorite non-2008 films that I discovered for the first time last year.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

2008 Top Ten List

Okay, I finished my write up for my favorite films of 2008.

In the next day or so I'll try to include a write up of my favorite discoveries.

Most of the films on my list are ones I have previously reviewed, so I linked to the full reviews where possible.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 Top Ten List -- Happy-Go-Lucky

7) Happy-Go-Lucky -- Mike Leigh

I haven't seen this film topping many (any?) end of year lists, but it sure feels like the film on all the lists that everyone is talking about. Of course, everyone is saying different things about it, which is what makes it so interesting.

My meta-pondering about the film has focused on whether or not that is a good thing. One school of thought (very New Critical that) is that I film should mean what it means, and if it is effective, most people ought to watch it and get mostly the same thing out of it. Another way to think about it, though, is that a film that gets people disagreeing gets people talking about it.

Thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky as a hot-button, provocative film is interesting. People (at least the ones I've talked to) don't seem to merely disagree about whether or not Poppy is happy; they seem to disagree passionately. Which leads me to the question of why we care so much whether Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is truly happy or just putting on a happy face. For me, the answer is somewhat obviously the latter, and the real question becomes whether her ability to do so is healthy, unhealthy, or inconsequential.

If this argument is stacked, it may be because the antagonist who delivers the accusation that Poppy's carefree attitude is calculated and contributes to his poisonous hatred of the world may be such a hostile and negative character that we reflexively go the other way just to disassociate ourselves from him.

Even so, I couldn't shake the feeling that the film's post-coda resolution, with Poppy and friend literally rowing around in circles is dripping with irony. Perhaps it does not have the same hostile contempt that Poppy's driving instructor has for her life, but it does (at least for me) still contain a strong whiff of, "If this is the life your philosophy has gotten you, what does that say for your philosophy?" Poppy is unquestionably happier than the habitually growling inhabitants of her circle, and if the film suggested that she was better off than she might be if she gave in to grousing, I could agree.

But...and this is a big "but" for me, there is a part of me that kept saying perhaps unhappiness is not always an inappropriate response to all situations. Just as physical pain makes Poppy seek out a doctor who treats the cause of her pain, so too can emotional unhappiness spur someone to address the causes of their unhappiness.

Is it better to settle? Is having a relationship that is limited to the current moment with no promise of (nor impetus for) anything further better than being alone? It's not that I think there is anything wrong with clinging to those pieces of good within a sea of bad. It may actually be noble. But there is something wrong with saying "peace, peace" when there is no peace. So the question becomes, which is Poppy doing?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

2008 Top Ten List -- The Visitor

8) The Visitor -- Thomas McCarthy

The first thirty-five or forty minutes or so of Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor is just sublime. It is measured. It reveals itself gradually. It is anchored by a sad and beautiful performance by Richard Jenkins. It's leisurely. It doesn't try too hard to be about anything.

If the second half of the film is a bit too relentlessly expository and tries a bit too hard to rise to a level of social and political significance, well...the first half of the film was still sublime. The second half doesn't ruin the film, exactly, but it does slow its momentum, which is, I realize, an odd thing to say about a film that I was complementing for being so leisurely.

When the film is primarily a character study, than the leisurely pace allows us to observe Martin (Jenkins), and the pace gives us an opportunity to observe the layers of his personality. When the camera reverse zooms and we see not just Martin and his new friend, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), but the New York skyline sans Twin Towers I immediately said, "uh-oh." And it didn't take long for the film to announce that it wasn't just going to be about the difficulty of people connecting to one another but about people connecting to one another in a post-9/11 world. In case we didn't get it, there is a mural of the towers at the detention center where Tarek ends up, the deportation lawyer talks about how things have changed in a post-9/11 world, and we generally feel with a sense of rising dread that what has begun as a great film will end as a rote civics lesson.

For all that, though, the film does keep providing genuine moments of human contact, mostly provided by Jenkins's ability to inhabit rather than merely perform. There is a moment when he brings a letter to Tarek who asks him to put it up against the glass so he can read it. Jenkins holds the letter at arm's length and then turns his head away to give his friend some modicum of privacy in a place that has none. It is a moment that is instinctive, not actorly, one that the film doesn't draw our attention to but which is typical of the way the film keeps us grounded in people rather than situations.

Reading back over this, it sounds harsher towards the film than I feel, perhaps because the disappointment one feels at a near miss is proportionate to the level of expectations created. And it isn't even as though I disagreed with the political sentiments. I'm just saying I was more interested in Martin's attempts to learn the drums than I was in his education into the vagaries of our legal system. So, yes, it misfires, but when it is working, it is so wistful and engaging and true we end up just being happy to spend some times with these characters that we are willing to follow them into the land of conventional melodrama just to see how they inhabit it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Our Sad Tale of Woe

While having lunch this afternoon--biting into my lightly breaded coconut shrimp dipped in mango sauce with just a touch of ginger--it occurred to us that reports of our trip might mistakenly be read with a tone of gloating. To correct for this, we decided it was important to put out a blog post cataloging the numerous hardships, obstacles, and bad things we have had to overcome on this trip, showing that our success has only been through a Herculean effort of maintaining a positive attitude.

--The first key Cindy got didn't work on the rental car.
--The second restaraunt we went for sushi didn't serve lunch on Saturdays.
--Sherry scraped her leg on a rock.
--It took us most of the first day to figure out how to heat the spa.
--The second time the group went snorkeling we saw only a lot of fish instead of a huge number of fish.
--Cindy was the only one who saw a live Honu.
--The remote control to play the DVD player in the minivan was missing, meaning we could only play one episode of "The Shield" on our drive to Hilo.
--Since Kona is not an ACC market, the CBS affiliate cut away from the Duke-Xavier game after Duke went up by 30 points.
--I forgot to pack pants. (Contrary to what is being widely [and I think libelously] reported, I did not forget to bring pants. I was, in fact, wearing pants on the plane. I just didn't have any additional pants (except my swim trunks).
--I lost my Star Sidewinder playing Safari golf in Hilo.
--One of the games we played didn't have instructions, forcing us to make them up.
--The local mailbox store had a note that said Western Union was "temporarily unavailable" and when we asked when it would be available again they said "next year."
--The time difference meant that people occasionally called or texted us at weird hours.
--Sherry had an allergic reaction to some mascara and had to wear sunglassess for all of one whole day.
--I fell asleep half way through Don Cheadle's "Traitor" and so didn't have brownies until the next day (when they were no longer hot out of the oven).
--After going through a whole meal at the Kona Brewery, Cindy was informed that Beer-a-misu was no longer available (even though it was still on the menu).
--The multi-disc DVD player that is hooked up to the home entertainment center with stereo sound only has a next disc function (instead of skip disc function) on the remote, meaning you have to either get up and walk to the unit or let one disc load for 10 seconds if you are on disc 1 and actually want to watch something on disc three.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hawaii Disc Golf

Well, Hawaii became the thirty-eighth state in which I have played disc golf when Todd, Cindy, and I played Safari golf at Wailoa State Park in Hilo yesterday. There is an official course listed in the PDGA website, but you need a local guide and the number was out of order. So Safari golf will have to do. And I lost a disc.

Hawaii has some big rough.

Cindy's hole had a double mando (which she missed and had to play from the drop zone).

My form isn't the greatest...but we still had fun.

Hey, I bet if I threw from half way across this bridge, the water hazard would be no problem...

Yeah, well, maybe not.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I'm working hard on my vacation. Here's the sunset from my lanai (that means balcony for all you mainlanders):

In other important news, I've tentatively scored an invite to play disc golf with some locals at a private course on Sunday.

Monday, December 15, 2008

View From My Window This Morning

Aloha to all my friends.

Todd, Sherry, and I arrived safely at Kona yesterday and met up with Cindy.

The house has such a beautiful, peaceful quality. It's so nice to be here after a long, stressful semester. I was meditating this morning on how much nicer some blessings are when you can share them with people you love and who care about you.

Here are some pictures from the house I took this morning....yeah, it's good to be me!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema--Free Preview

Cambridge Scholar's Publishing has upload a free preview of the book that includes Mike Hertenstein's introduction and the first chapter (Bill Scalia's essay on Bergman).

Link is here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"F" is for Frequency

What's the frequency, Kenneth?

That seemed to be the question worth asking as I perused the 56 songs beginning with the letter "F" in my Itunes library.

The playcount feature on the right column is an odd thing--I don't remember listening to these songs proportionately more than any others (I tend to only really listen to stuff on shuffle play), but here's what the counter says are the five most frequent songs that came up when the shuffling stop:

1) "Fast Car" -- Tracy Chapman. Weird story about this song. I always assumed it was a guy. I had heard it on the radio but never knew who sang it. I had heard of Tracy Chapman but never listened to any of her music. Then I downloaded "Change" after hearing it on a commercial for HBO DVDs and searched for other songs by the same artist.

2) "Find Us Faithful" -- Steve Green. Honestly, I don't remember listening to this song ten times in the last decade, but the counter says...Must have come up when I pulled the earbuds to pay my bills. Fairly well made if conventional CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) that I've always liked since a guy sang it at my church when I was in college. (Though I confess I liked the cover better he did better.)

3) "For Your Eyes Only" -- Sheena Easton. Personally, I think this is far and away the best Bond theme song. (No offense to Carly Simon.)

4) "Further to Fly" -- Paul Simon. You know, I remember playing Graceland during a Spades game in Marye House and Cindy (who was just a friend at the time) asking me who it was. That was the first (and last, really) time anyone who was at all cool artistically ever complimented me on my taste in music. I thought Rhythm of the Saints was a great follow up, but I haven't heard much from Simon after that, have I?

5) "First We Take Manhattan" -- Leonard Cohen. I actually have no idea what this song means. But I kind of like the lyrics: "They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom /For trying to change the system from within."

Graduation Kvetching

By which I mean graduations in general, not any particular graduation I've attended. (They do all blur together, don't they?)

Graduations rival department meetings for the least pleasant aspect of my job. They are the Prufrockian coffee spoons in which my life is counted out.

In no particular order, here are some things that are wrong with graduations:

1) Graduation speakers. Students have had to spend four years (at least) listening to lectures. Nobody, and I mean nobody is there to hear the speaker. And most ceremonies are long enough. I'm not complaining that graduation speakers are always bad. What I am saying is why have them at all? Think back to any graduation you've ever been to...and try to remember something...anything the graduation speaker said. I think, perhaps speakers are a means of trying to lend seriousness to an occasion that is already wrapped in over-seriousness (more on that in just a second).

2) Honorary Degrees. These are bogus. They tend to diminish the presenting institution rather than elevate the conferee. I'm not saying that awards or honorifics are always bad (but they are overdone), just that awarding someone a degree is not an appropriate form of reward. Could you imagine if, to honor me for my service to the city of Washington, the Redskins awarded me a Super Bowl ring? Or, worse, yet, how about if the Carolina Panthers did? (I've seen some institutions award honorary versions of degrees they don't even award, let's say the Panthers made up a special Super Bowl ring and gave it to me even though they've never won a Super Bowl and my achievements had nothing to do with football.)
Let's say that for writing a film book the Academy of Motion Pictures gave me an honorary Oscar for Best Director even though I've never made a film and then I insisted for the rest of my life that everyone refer to me as "Academy Award Winner..." In fact, hey, Peter, Todd, Cindy, I hereby grant you Nobel Prizes for Beer Brewing and Tasting. From this day forward, I shall refer to the three of you as Nobel Laureates. (I'm soooo jealous!).

3) No cheering rules. When and where, exactly, did this happen? Why have academic institutions become such sourpusses all of a sudden? If you've worked four years to achieve a monumental lifetime goal and friends and family have gathered around to see you get it...don't they have a right to give expressions of joy? I'm not saying be crass or rude or obscene, but whoop, holler, cheer, yell bravo, whatever. If I'm the person before or after you to receive my degree, that doesn't diminish my achievement. Are we so anxious to be taken seriously that we've lost the ability to be genuinely celebratory? I wish university presidents across the country would all read the celebration chapter in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline...and try to make graduations a celebration for the degree recipients rather than a statement of high seriousness for the degree grantors. Let's have a big spread with some good food and music, put on the the cap and gown and give graduates an opportunity to get pictures taken with friends or mentors.

Or why not have micro ceremonies (by discipline or something) throughout the campus...where people can graduate with their friends and have a more intimate setting with their families.

Or something...there's got to be a better way to do this.

I'm trying to imagine what it would be like if the pastor interrupted my wedding for twenty minutes in order to give some elder deacon or donor to the church an honorary wife.

Friday, December 12, 2008

1,169,466 with a bullet!

So someone somewhere bought a copy of my book. I know this because earlier in the week I logged on to the Amazon page and it said they had 2 in stock and today they said they had 1`in stock.


I also see that I am now ranked

"#1,169,466 in Books"

Gee, I do wish I could see what was 1,169, 465. (Turns out from a Google search, that it was at one time a kid's book called The Droll Troll: A View from Under the Bridge. No shame in losing to that. Could be the next Neil Jordan film.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Wanted Rant

Here are the opening intertitles for Wanted:






Now I forget if it was Siskel or Ebert who said one key test of a film is whether or not its plot sounded more or less interesting than a documentary of its actors having lunch. I would certianly say another is whether or not the plot was formed by MadLibs (TM).

Try picking a friend at random and asking them to play MadLibs and then see if your movie premise sounds more or less the same or even better than Wanted's:

A __Number__ OF YEARS AGO...

A CLAN OF ___Profession (Plural)__ FORMED A SECRET SOCIETY OF __Dungeon's and Dragons Character Type__.


THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE __Type of Group or Organization___.

__Number___ WEEKS AGO...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Obama (TM) Administration

In the wake of last month's election, I read several articles pondering how the Obama (TM) campaign's ability to marshal and utilize volunteers might translate to his administration.

One opined that the incoming Obama (TM) administration would have at its disposal a built in PAC constituency, as the campaign had collected data from citizens who had been willing to donate and to volunteer time. The thinking went that perhaps Obama (TM) could appeal directly to citizens to contact local and state representatives demanding support for legislation. Think of all those donation requests you get from various PACs asking you to sign petitions or contact your senator or congressperson. Now think of them as coming from the White House.

This sounds good, but the reality thus far has been that it is not the PAC model that has dominated the Obama (TM) administration's use of donor and volunteer lists but rather that of multi-level-marketing (MLM). Obama (TM) has become a brand name, fit to be put on tee shirts, coffee mugs, or whatever. And brand names are not so good at getting people to do stuff--they are primarily about getting people to buy stuff.

Earlier this week, I got a campaign from the Obama (TM) administration. It might have explained why the president elect thinks we need a new stimulus package. It might have explained his cabinet picks or tried to stump for Jim Martin in the run-off in Georgia. It might have outlined Obama's (TM) thoughts about a why a bailout for Detroit's big three is a good thing. It might have done a lot of things.

What it did was ask me for money. Again. This is roughly the sixth time that Obama (TM) for America has asked me for money since the election. If I send them $35, they will send me (I am not making this up) a four year calendar, decorated with pictures of the campaign trail.

Look, I like Obama (TM).
I voted for Obama (TM).

I just wish that Obama (TM) for America treated me a little bit more like its constituency rather than its customer base. And I wish that Obama (TM) for America acted a little bit more like leaders and a little bit less like vendors.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Shield

I have an appreciation of FX's The Shield in this month's The Matthew's House Project. There is also a companion piece by M. Leary about the wrap of that show.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Destiny (1921)

Some Screen Grabs; I'll try to talk about these later/elsewhere. Right now, I'm just trying to get them uploaded:

Friday, November 28, 2008

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death

That's right, trampled to death.

In stories such as this one, there is often a rush for corporate blame. Yes, places such as stores and stadiums should have processes in place that anticipate mad rushes, but...well, I just don't know what to say. We are not capable of controlling ourselves enough to avoid killing someone? For a sale at Wal-Mart?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hope in Time of Abandonment

In that tritest of trite movie cliches, Anthony Hopkins tells Zorro that when the pupil is ready, the master will appear. Part of what this means (but only part) is that you may only be able to understand some teaching when you've arrived at a point where that teaching is meaningful to you or has some point of application or interest.

Earlier today I happened to pick up Jacques Ellul's Hope in Time of Abandonment. Ellul's works have been meaningful to me at various times, but I had poked around in this one (or tried to) several times without really getting anywhere. Yet this time the introduction seemed to jump off the page at me.

Here are a couple of quotes:

I have arrived at hope by an altogether different route. My purely sociological and historical intellectual approach had led me into a blind alley. There was nothing to say to a person of my society beyond a stoic exhortation to keep going in God's abandonment. I was up against a wall, against a finality, against the insoluble, against the inescapable. After that--nothing.

And after that--everything was given me, but by a different route. No intellectual step prompted this conviction, apart from that by which I took note of the concrete situation. (vii)

Another quote:

I knew all too well, in true orthodoxy, that it is very wrong to look to the biblical revelation for an answer to the question one is asking or with which one is faced. I knew, in true orthodoxy, that it is God who questions us and who awaits a response from us, not the other way around. No consoling formula or solution was to be sought in the Bible. That was simply the way things were. When the response is called for, one has to make up one's mind. (viii)


We must learn to hear what the question is which is really being asked by the person of this age. It is not being asked in the public square, nor in speeches and parades. It is not being asked by the actor facing his audience. It is being asked offstage, in the secret places of the heart. It shapes the architecture of the other questions. Unseen, it is gnawing and killing. (ix-x).

Ellul says that he was given a gift, that we all have been. That we do have the answer to the question.

If I know one thing about Ellul from previous readings, it is that he doesn't trade in platitudinous hot air, so I look forward to reading more.

Oddly, I haven't been reading too much Bible recently. But I do find myself drawn to those who can and have drawn from the Bible and can help me to do so as well rather than those who simply point me to it as a spiritual chore to engage in that will help me but they know not how.

I've also been listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Who is more obnoxious?

Awhile ago I ran a series of "What's Better?" challenges in honor of the now defunct website.

Today, I wanted to momentarily cross that game with the (as far as I know) still running "Am I Annoying? Dot Com" web site to form the "Who is More Obnoxious?" game.

Today's question pits fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer against fans of The Wire.

I should admit I have friends and colleagues among both groups.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans tend to have to reduce everything to the fact that Buffy was and is the greatest show of all time. Therefore the principle fault and meaning of every other show (except, perhaps, Firefly) is that it isn't Buffy. Recently at, Laura Miller trashed the Twilight books. She did a good job, too, describing what sounds like an insipid series. But, of course, it wasn't enough to simply state why the books are (in her opinion) no good. The whole story has to be framed around the contention that Buffy is a real story for feminists, the real complement to Harry Potter, the real thing we ought to be addicted to. Ask a typical Buffy fan to name the five greatest television shows of all time and you'll probably get a reply along the lines of..."Well, there's Buffy, and then maybe Firefly and Angel, but beyond that, I don't really watch television because it is an inferior medium that has never produced anything culturally relevant...."

In the other corner we have fans of The Wire. Now, I happen to like The Wire. I watched all five seasons on DVD. It was great. But I totally, totally snarfed in laughter when Slate's culture gabfest compared the relative indifference of fans of Mad Men (who shrugged and said "yeah, you're right" when one host complained that the show was a little slow) to fans of The Wire (who get that crazed look and said "It is a cultural imperative that you must watch this show! Baltimore is suffering!")

Whenever I hear fans of The Wire speak, I always have visions of the Dauphin in Henry V. Yes, it is truly a most

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the only show, play, novel, or art work that is truly feminist.
The Wire is the only show, play, novel, or art work that is real about the modern city.

If you don't like Buffy you are a misogynist snob.
If you don't like The Wire you are a racist homophobe.

Oh, to be able to lock all the Buffy fans and The Wire fans into some room at MLA until only one came out.

So, my question for today is...who is more obnoxious? Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans or fans of The Wire?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's Here!

Well today I received my contributor copy of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema.

This is a book I edited (and contributed a chapter for) about representations of faith and spirituality in films from directors such as Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, and many others.

I am very grateful to the contributors who helped make this process more than I dared to hope for. I am especially thankful to Doug Cummings and Mike Hertenstein who went above and beyond the call of duty (and, perhaps, what they signed up for) by not only helping me select essays but providing the cover design (Doug) and writing the introduction (Mike). The latter really put the book over the top, in my opinion, helping to solidify a unified vision and make it a whole, not merely a collection of parts.

To order a copy of the book, try:


Cambridge Scholars Press

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"E" is for Eclectic

Okay, so I haven't been working through the Ipod recently. I think my trek through the alphabet got stuck on "D." Hard to find new ways of sorting the list, and I figured anyone who sees an ample amount of The Police, The Pretenders, or Billy Joel in letters "A" through "D" will no not be surprised to find "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," "Every Mother's Son," or "The Entertainer" on my Ipod's list of "E" songs.

I have 46 songs beginning with the letter "E" in my Itunes library. For this letter, I decided to focus on the eclectic--songs from artists of whom I have less than one entire album. This generally means that there was something about that particular song that caught my attention even if I didn't normally listen to the artist. Here are the "E" songs that qualify:

"Ebudae" by Enya. This is from the Toys Soundtrack. I sort of liked a few other songs on that album, but once I had it, the Enya song grew on me. I think we got one of her albums once, but it all sounded the same to me (sort of like Liz Phair, right Sherry?) so I didn't upload it to the Ipod.

"Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks. Well, I do have a Fleetwood Mac album, so I wonder if this one qualifies. Strictly a nostalgia piece. There's no music quite like the music that was popular when you were in high school.

"Eli's Coming" by Three Dog Night. Blame it on Sports Night, if you must.

"Even if My Heart Would Break" by Aaron Neville and Kenny G. I cannot tell you what this song sounds like. It was apparently on the soundtrack for The Bodyguard that I uploaded to get some Whitney Houston songs. Since I just made a folder for "E" songs to put in shuffle play, perhaps I will actually listen to it this month.

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears. They aren't quite one hit wonders (I do still have "Shout" on Itunes as well). Great theme song for Dennis Miller's show and used quite effectively in Real Genius.

"Eyes on the Prize" by the Emmaus Group Singers. From the Green Card soundtrack. See, now this is what I love about my Ipod. I never much listened to that song because there were like two or three good cuts on that CD. Now I can take those two or three and put them in rotation.

Other "E" notes:

--I have four different artists (Dixie Chicks, Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, Dar Williams) that have songs beginning with the words "Everybody Knows" (yeah, the one is a cover, but, still, that's weird).

--Since I have an entire album of The Nylon's their version of "Eli's Coming" doesn't count.

--My (current) five favorite "E" songs (in no particular order):
"Easy Silence" -- The Dixie Chicks. Just a beautiful song with beautiful sentiments.
"Eat for Two" -- 10,000 Maniacs. Not sure what to make of the lyrics, but I love the haunting tone of Natalie Merchant's voice. (It is Natalie Merchant, right?)
"Everybody Knows" -- Leonard Cohen. Call me perverse, but I like Cohen's voice. What a consummate lyricist.
"Everybody Want to Rule the World" -- Tears for Fears. I make no claims for it musically, but it I can listen to it a lot and not get tired of it, which is something.
"Every Day" -- Don MacLean. Very easy to listen to.

Juror's special prize: "Embassy Lament" from the Soundtrack to Chess: "Oh my dear, how boring/He's defecting/Just like all the others/He's expecting..."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Of Motes and Beams

It used to be that John 3:16 was the most ubiquitous Bible verse, but these days I think I've been hearing Matthew 7:3 a lot. I think it may have become our favorite verse. It goes something like this:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in Ted Stevens's eye?

Oh, is that not the way you learned the verse? Me either. I mention this because Republican Mark Sanford invoked this verse in response to the recent presidential election.

Sanford said:

I believe in the Biblical notion of taking the log out of your own eye before worrying about the splinter in someone else's. Accordingly, let me focus on my own party and the way Ted Stevens personifies what went wrong in the election.

It's hard for me to disagree with his personification of Stevens, but I do find myself quibbling a bit over his application of the Biblical verse. Particularly when the verse says to not focus on your "brother's" fault. Clearly Sanford is trying to identify with corporate errors, but he does so by focusing on some other member of his party and saying the fault is theirs. In the same piece he insists that the lost election is not a repudiation of his party's principles--and certainly not of him.

Sanford begins the piece by saying that as an American he wishes the new president "every success." By the end of the piece he is speaking not of the faults of the GOP but of what he "fears" the Obama administration will become.

Is it possible the American electorate rejected the GOP not because of (alleged) corruption of one Alaska Senator (who still has an appeal pending) but because of the a blanket failure to offer alternatives to trickle-down economics and members who simply bad mouth the other guy? I don't know, I'm just asking.

What I'm saying, though, is that whether or not Sanford's piece is poor politics, it sure seems like poor Biblical exegesis. How the taking the "log out of your own own eye" became a synonym for scapegoating Ted Stevens is not exactly clear to me.

It's funny to me how many people these days have taken to citing this verse aggressively, as a means of telling others that they have beams that they should take care of before criticizing someone else (usually the person citing the verse). Isn't doing so--attacking someone else with this verse--the very opposite of what the verse admonishes us to do? Isn't it, in the semantic sense, a perversion of this verse?

Thank You, Soldier

I read a lot of articles this political season about people dissing yard signs. Well not yard signs exactly, but the notion that yard signs persuade or comfort others and create a bandwagon effect.
Part of what allegedly helped one campaign was direct contact. I've been thinking about that this morning when it comes time to ponder the call to "support" our troops. I'm sure there is a value to flag pins and yellow ribbons, but I know, too, that when I'm around military people the thing that I do that most consistently gets a positive response is to say "thank you for all that you are doing and sacrificing for me and our country."

That's not to say that we do not need to support our troops in tangible ways as well. We need to honor our commitments to them, whether it be for Veteran's care or by providing the tools they need to do the job we ask them to do.

We should also pray. Regardless of where we think our military personnel should or should not be, when they answer the call of duty let us pray that they would soon be rejoined with their families.

I was reminded this month of what a great privilige it is to be an American and of how many freedoms I enjoy, including the freedom to cast a vote for who will lead our country. These rights were obtained for me and preserved by citizens and, at times, soldiers, who gave of themselves for the good of the whole.

Thank you, solider.
Thank you, veteran.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What is "Christian Fiction"?

The new reference encyclopedia, Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Literary Genres is now available (see link below). It includes an entry written by yours truly on "Christian Fiction."

The essay contains a definition of the genre, a history of its development, common themes, current issues, and selected authors who participate in it. I do manage to cite M. Leary's "How Should we then Review?" essay as well as E.J. Park's essay about commercialization (in Christianity Today) and my own essay in The Matthew's House Project on evangelical pornography).

While the price of a three volume set of reference encyclopedias would probably be prohibitive for individual buyers, I do recommend the essay if you have access to a reference library and (if you work at or in conjunction with an academic institution) think it would make a good addition to a school reference library that could be recommended to your acquisitions department.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Do You Believe in the Power of Prayer?

Just catching up on some pre-election shows on DVR, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Colbert made fun of some clip of a guy praying for a McCain victory and reminding God that His reputation is at stake because members of other religions "for various reasons" are praying to their gods for the other guy to win.

I asked Cindy if she ever prayed for Obama to win. She said, "not specifically."

I thought back and realized that, well, neither did I.

So here's my questions to anyone who wants to answer:

1) Did you pray about this election?
2) What was your prayer?
3) To the best of your understanding, was your prayer answered?
4) What inferences, if any, do you draw from the answer to #3?

Just the Luck of the Draw?

Harvard political historian Barbara Kellerman made headlines over at CNN by suggesting that history will be kinder in its assessment of George W. Bush's presidency than his current low approval ratings suggest.

Her quote:

"I think it's possible when people have stopped being as angry at the Bush administration as they are now ... that they will realize that some of this is just ... the luck of the draw."

Kellerman, author of the book "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters," noted that Bush has not had luck on his side for the past eight years.

"He [Bush] has been a quite unlucky president. Certain things happened on his watch that most people don't have to deal with -- a 9/11, a [Hurricane] Katrina, the financial crisis, being three obvious examples," she said.

"And yet they happened on his watch. He is being blamed," she said.


Was Bush blamed for Hurricane Katrina or for how he handled Hurricane Katrina? Does Bush have low approval numbers because he is being blamed for 9/11 happening or for what he did in the wake of it? Is Bush unpopular because the financial meltdown just happened on his watch or because deregulation and a culture of greed contributed to it?

I certainly don't think President Bush has a top secret weathermaking machine in the basement of the White House that he unleashed on New Orleans in the secret hope that red-state Lousiana would learn a lesson. But I do totally understand how, in the wake of it, someone like Kanye West might draw the conclusion that George W. Bush "doesn't care about Black people."

I, of course, don't think that George W. Bush had anything to do with 9/11, but I certainly find persuasive the argument made in No End in Sight (and elsewhere) that his advisers and think tanks wanted to go to war in Iraq even before 9/11 and I don't think history will view the Iraq war as something that just unluckily coincided with Bush's time in office nor view it as a necessary response to events that did (i.e. 9/11). I do blame him for pushing the Patriot Act through and eroding our civil liberties in its wake and empowering people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Alberto Gonzalez to torture first and ask questions later. I don't think those things just "happened" on his watch.

I'm reminded of some people I used to play Euchre with online--who would win about 42-48% of the time over literally thousands of games (a good euchre player wins on average about 52% of the time, great ones make 53-54) and complain about how unlucky they were and how they never got good cards, especially at the key moments.

Yeah, that must be it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A More Perfect Union, Still Imperfect...

I've gotten away from blogging about film or much else besides politics in the past few weeks. I hope to change that soon.

Last night was a time of renewed hope more me; it was a time that reaffirmed my hope in the American people and reminded me of what it means to be an American and what a great honor and privilege it is to be relatively free.

While watching President Elect Obama's speech, I commented to my wife that the mood was more sober than triumphal and that they audience was not going wild. She responded: "They're listening."

Maybe that was Obama's real victory. He got us to listen again, to believe that there is power in the exchange of words and ideas, that a politician might actually be saying something that we needed to think about and not just responded to when "Applause" went up on a teleprompter.

There were a number of things that alloyed that joy. Some were selfish, others were and are more things that made me somber about the challenges the new president elect faces in bringing a divided culture together. They are:

1) North Carolina still hasn't been called. I wrote at another venue:

According to results posted at Fox News and ABC and CNN, Obama is ahead by 12,160 votes. (Fox says 99.8% have reported, ABC and CNN say 100% but haven't called it.)

This is a difference of 0.3%. (Obama 49.84; McCain 49.54; Barr 0.59%). Bob Barr's 25, 181 votes was double the margin of victory.

Every vote matters

The outcome of the national election isn't in dispute, but (this is one of the selfish ones), it matters to me that my state goes blue. It will be bittersweet to me if the general election is won but North Carolina lost by the slimmest of margins.

But how must my friends and colleagues who voted Republican feel? Intellectually, I understand that winner take all is no different at the state than national level, but there seems something odd about all the electoral votes going one way when the margin is less than 1/2 of 1 percent. Will there be a recount? I hope not, but state law allows for a candidate to request it in a margin this close. I sincerely hope that some day we can do away with the electoral college. It is a remnant whose time has passed, that served its function but is not the best way, I think, to elect a president.

2) Not All Life is Equal, Apparently.
A lot of Americans care about the long as they aren't born and grow up to be gay.

Whatever bittersweetness I might feel at North Carolina being so close, I can only imagine it is a small sliver of what gays and lesbians must feel while watching the results come in. African-Americans have waited so long for the practice of America to approximate its promises that I can only be thrilled and happy for them and for us. But I did feel some hackles raised when both William Bennett (on CNN) and John McCain gave variants on the spin that this historic election means that no longer should Americans tolerate the "excuse" that achievement is impossible for some individuals because of insurmountable barriers. Unless, of course, that achievement is marriage and the individual is not black, but gay.

With between 96-100% reporting, clear winners seem in place for these ballot iniatives:

Arizona 102 (Ban on Gay Marriage)
Yes--56% No 44%

Arkansas 1 (Ban on Gay Couples Adopting Children)
Yes--57% No 43%

California 8 (Ban on Gay Marriage--only 92% reporting)
Yes--52% No 48%

Florida 2 (Ban on Gay Marriage)
Yes--62% No 38%

Over the last eight years, I've often chided the Republican party for being schizophrenic in its pro-"life" stance...of talking the talk on opposing Roe v. Wade but not walking the walk when it comes to respect for all human life. So, too, the Democrats seem to have chosen a candidate who embodies hope and inclusion and tolerance, who includes talking about gays in his speech, while on the state level telling that candidate that they want equality, but not, apparently, for everyone.

We must crawl before we can walk, I suppose.

3) You know, in spite of the fact that I kept hearing about record turnout, I was surprised to hear from that the youth turnout only went up about one point. According to the North Carolina election board site. Approximately 67% of registered voters voted. I suppose there are reasons that might prevent someone from voting, but consider this--in an historic election, facing two wars, a financial crisis, the possibilit of several supreme court appointments, etc. nearly 1 out 3 registered voters in North Carolina didn't vote.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King quotes Saints player Scott Fujita yesterday:

"A lot of people think their vote won't make a difference, or that their voice will never be heard,'' Fujita texted. "But if we all felt that way, then the system would be broken. There's a lot more good than bad in this country, and the only way to begin to fix what's bad is to get out and vote. Also, suffrage rights didn't come without incredible struggle for a lot of people in this country -- women and blacks in particular. To me, not voting would be a huge slap in their faces.''

How many people fought and died so that I could cast my vote? How many didn't give the ultimate sacrifice but gave of their time, talents, and income? How many lawyers fought for my rights? How many politicians put the ideals of democracy against expediency? How many that walked before me had to give of themselves or sacrifice so that I could be free? How anyone could take that for granted or receive that gift with anything other than awe and respect is something I simply cannot fathom.

Come on North Carolina....

...make me proud of my adopted home.

I get to spend Christmas with friends and relatives from California and Ohio.

Don't make me be the only one hanging my head.

ABC NEWS Says 100% reporting:

McCain (R) 2,088,670 49%
Obama (D) 2,102,175 50%


Even though I am a Duke fan, from this day forward the phrase "Tarheel Blue" will have a special place in my heart.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

One Voice Can Change the Room...

View From the Trenches in a Swing State

I spent 3-4 hours this morning volunteering at the local Obama precinct house in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.

They said what they needed was canvassers. People to go door to door with their lists of voters in high priority districts to ensure they knew where to go (election day precincts are different from early voting precincts), that they had voted, or whether they needed any assistance getting to the polls.

It was raining steadily all morning, but the turnout in the precinct house was impressive. Some of the people I rode or worked with said that in comparison to previous elections, a high percentage of people indicated they had already voted (early or earlier in the day) or were heading out to do so.

I've heard over and over that voter turnout favors Obama. If that is the case, things look good in these trenches. I was worried about the weather, but, again, many had already voted and those who were on there way were not to be deterred. Just about any model for a McCain victory that I've seen depends upon polling seriously mismeasuring voter enthusiasm or turnout.

A side note, too.

This is the first time I've felt strongly enough about an election to donate time or money. Participating in the process does make such a difference. I would urge many of my friends or colleagues who are indifferent or undecided (God knoweth how) to be a bit more engaged rather than taking the "I'm undecided CONVINCE me" posture. That low level of interest tends to lead to apathy. Getting out, even if it is just a couple of hours (I spend 2-3 hours on two different days canvassing neighborhoods and disseminating information) takes you away from your Internet or neighborhood bubble and shows you how people live. It moves the consequences of an election (local or national) from the category of the abstract to the real.

To my friends who want to vote Obama but are concerned or influenced by Republican rhetoric regarding Roe v. Wade, I make a last minute appeal:

If all you cared about were legalized abortion on demand, you wouldn't be undecided, would you? The fact that you are struggling tells me on some level, in your heart of hearts, you really want to vote for Obama but are afraid--of your (sub)community, friends, maybe even family. It's okay. God gave you a mind to reason and a conscience to listen to. There is more than one commandment and we all fail every day to be perfect. There are people who are great Christians in both political parties--who disagree about how to reduce abortions (and unwanted pregnancies for that matter). I won't repeat all of the arguments here, because most of you have heard them before.

What I will say is--I give you permission to vote for Obama. If you lose your credibility or respect as a Christian because of your vote, then your friends and community don't care about the sum total of your relationship with God and development of your faith, they only care that you are either "with us or against us."

George MacDonald wrote in Wilfrid Cumbermede:

The upper hand of influence I had over him I attribute to the greater freedom of my training, and the enlarged ideas which had led my uncle to avoid enthralling me to his notions. He believed that truth could afford to wait until I was capable of seeing it for myself, and that the best embodiments of truth are but bonds and fetters to him who cannot accept them as such. When I could not agree with him he would say with one of his fine smiles, "We'll drop it then, Willie. I don't believe you have cuaght my meaning. If I am right, you will see it some day, and there's no hurry."

Many will tell you there is a hurry, and urgency. That you agreeing with them is a matter of life and death. That may even be true, but I'm not sure that it is God's way. Even in the matters of life and death truth must be truth to the listener or it cannot carry the force of accepted fact. Don't let others decide for you or spiritually bully you into going against your beliefs.

MacDonald also wrote in The Hope of the Gospel:

If then we go wrong, it will be in the direction of the right, and with such aberration as will be easier to correct than what must come of refusing to imagine, and leaving the dullest traditional prepossessions to rule our hearts and minds, with no claim but the poverty of their expectations from the paternal riches.

Trust yourself, but more importantly, trust God. Believe that if you will but move in the direction of the right as you see and feel it (even if that is not the direction that seemingly makes sense to your friends or comrades) that you will train your heart to be obedient to the convictions God places there and any errors you make will be "easier to correct" than will be the results of refusing to imagine, refusing to think that you could be right and those who are so very sure could be wrong. Easier to correct, indeed, than the results of substituting someone else's conviction for your judgment, and taking the path of least resistance rather than the one that you think to be true.

Monday, November 03, 2008

New Article

The November issue of The Matthew's House Project just went live, and they included my essay, "I Am a College Professor (and I am not Ashamed)."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Understanding Poetry...err, I mean Torture

My English 101 class is working on critical thinking skills by analyzing a series of pro and con arguments about controversial topics. One of the issues the students selected to discuss was whether or not torture is ever morally justified.

The affirmative is argued by Mirko Bargaric and Julie Clarke in a strange article entitled "Not Enough Torture in the World?" They argue, following Alan Dershowitz's lead, that harm minimization can be attained by making torture legal so that oversight can be made. In a section called "The Formula" they set out the circumstances in which torture would be acceptable. And let me just say before I quote, that I am not making this up and it is not a piece from The Onion:

The strength of the case in favor of torture can be mapped as follows:

T x O


W=whether the agent is the wrongdoer
L=the number of lives that will be lost is the information is not provided
P=the probablility that the agent has the relevant information
T=the time available before the disaster will occur ("immedicacy of the harm")
O=the likelihood that other inquiries will forestall the risk.

Whew. Where to start?

I find it funny that "W" is represented as an either/or quanity but "P" is a probability and hence on a sliding scale. One wonders whether or not the numerical value of "W" is such that it can be "0" and the numerical total crossing the threshold could still be reached? If it isn't, then is it so high as to make L and P irrelevant?

These are, of course, ridiculous questions for a ridiculous formula. My real question is this. Where is Robin Williams when you need him?

Disc Golf Life Lessons

I played disc golf today at Buckhorn. My lifetime average on that course is about a 54, though I've been getting steadily better in the last few years. Since I hadn't played the course in a while and it was a bit cold, I set a goal of 54 (par) for my round.

Things went bad pretty quickly.

I lost my yellow, special edition Leopard during warmups, a key disc in my bag. I spent a good 45 minutes to an hour looking for it since that disc is not manufactured any more. My the time I gave up, some muscles had tightened up, I had stepped wrong on a sore ankle and pushing off with my knee was was a bit painful. I also didn't have one of my key drivers. After holing out for a birdie on the first hole, I proceded to bogy the next five holes to put me at +4. Holes 7 and 8 are birdieable, but I went a bit deep on 7 and missed my come back for biride when I hit the lip of the basket. On hole 8, the shortest hole, I hit a tree, leaving me a little short and again hit the basket on my birdie bid for a tip in par.

So I stepped to the ninth tee, almost half done, without a key disc, sore, and having bogeyed two of the easier holes on the course (2 and 5).

I have been trying to work on not giving up on rounds when things don't go well, but this wasn't even really a matter of a few weird breaks. The wheels were off. Nevertheless, I tried to imagine myself in a competitive round where each stroke mattered. I made a long drive on 9 but went a little deep and left, but I finally made a long putt for birdie. A good drive on hole 10 was ruined by hitting a tree, but another booming drive that actually went dep on 11 had me set up for a long putt. I made it, and all of a sudden I had that inexplicable thing called momentum.

Not for long, though. Hole twelve is a 297 foot right turning hole, and I set myself up for a decent par bid. I delivered my putt square in the chains and reached down to pick up my marker when the hole literally spat the disc out. Very rarely in disc golf you can hit a putt too well. It can be so centered that it pushes the chain into the pole and bounces off the pole and back. Or, it can, as in this case, become tangled in the chain and fall out when the chain rattles. (Picture a swish in basketball that doesn't hit rim but has so much back spin that the net curls around the ball and then backspins it back up and out of the rim. I couldn't have placed the putt any better, and 99 times out of 100 it would have stayed in. That my 1 in 100 bad break came at the worst possible time seemed to give credence to that part of me that said, "Today's just not your day."

I had six remaining holes and was back to +3 and three of the remaining holes were ones I usually used my Leopard for. On hole 13 I threw a Sidewinder low with a cut slice rather than trying the long anhyzer with a dive back at the end and managed to skp low up to the hole for a birdie putt. On hole 14 I threw a DX Sidewinder and while it didn't turn right as much as my Leopard, it left me to the left of the hole and deep for another birdie putt. A part on 15 left me with one remaining birdie hole, and I threw a perfect left to right slice for a birdie tip in to, miraculously, find myself back at par.

Here's the thing, though. Holes 17 and 18 are no gimmes. 17 is a long shot over water that I have to lay up on and try to approach over water close enough to get a par putt. I've gotten a five on it (for going in the water) more times than I've gotten a three, but today I managed to gut out a 20 foot putt to come to the 18th. Here again I made a good throw, but I got just too much turn and hit a tree, which kicked me away from the hole and into some rough.

Golf is like life in so many ways. A friend of mine once said bogeys are like trying to lose bad hole can take a lot of work just to get you back to where you started. Or, it's like the stock market, which doesn't care what you had to do on the last few holes to finally pay off some bills only to tax your resources once again. Well, I made about a 120 foot approach, snaking through some sparse, skinny trees and laying up for a twelve footer to save my par and a round of 54--hitting my goal on the nose.

Cindy is fond of reminding me that you don't know what kind of round you are having while you are having it. That's a hard life lesson to learn as well as golf lesson. I've had better scores, but I'm not sure I've had much more satisfying rounds. I had to fight not just the course but myself and the human tendency to just throw in the towel when things get tough and say, "Life was against me today."

Turns out it wasn't.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

I'll Have the Chicken

David Sedaris sums up my feelings on this year's presidential election.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel was many things to many people. He was an oral historian, cultural chronicler, and journalist.

For me, he was a model of listening, and a reminder that all people, big and small, from all walks of life, have stories worth telling and worth hearing.

In high school, one of my fonder memories was being in a production based on the musical Working, which contained many of the interviews from Terkel's work, as well as others, presented as monologues or set to music. Together, they wove a tapestry that expressed the variety that was and is America. (I played Joe, the retired guy.) The opening number borrowed from Walt Whitman..."I hear...America singing/I hear.../The varied carols, I hear...America singing." [I remember how excited Mary, our pianist was, when I finally came in on key.]

There were and are other great lines in various numbers, great because they were born from the truth of real interviews with real people.

"Millwork ain't easy/millwork ain't hard/millwork is most often times...a god-damn awful boring job."

"It's an art, it's an art to be a fine waitress, each evening I treasure the test..."

"Un mejor dia vendra/cuando dios de los pobres, un lugar dara"

"All I am is someone's mother/All I am is someone's wife/All of which seems/Unimportant/All it is is just my life."

"If I could've done what I could've done
I could've done big things
With some luck to do what I wanted to.
I would've done big things
Swam a few rivers,
Climbed a few hills,
Paid all my bills..."

There were some of the acting persuasion who, I'm pretty sure didn't like Working as a show because it had no signature show stopper and hence wasn't really a star (nor a star making) piece. But every piece was strong, and real, and poignant, because every piece was grounded in listening and letting the words of real people convey the human drama better than some scripted sentiment.

Studs Terkel was 96. He will be missed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Okay, Here's Something that Annoys Me About the Obama Campaign

I doubt it should come as any surprise to anyone who reads this blog when I say that I sent $20 to Barack Obama's campaign. Earlier I had volunteered some time and canvassed my neighborhood to get out information about early voting, but I hadn't given any money, and on the heels of the $4 million dollar infomercial, I figured that every little bit helps.

It took approximately 30 seconds for me to receive an e-mail confirmation and thanks for my contribution:

From the beginning, this campaign has been built and funded by supporters like you giving only what they can afford.
It took less than 2 hours for me to receive a request for further donations:

Kenneth --

I'm the Chief Financial Officer for Barack Obama's campaign. I track the donations coming in and the expenses going out.

I asked for the opportunity to write to you directly so that I could try to explain what's happening right now.

This organization has thousands of employees and spends millions of dollars a day -- and at the moment we're doing it without a safety net.

Our spending plans have been stretched by John McCain's negative attacks and the overwhelming resources of the Republican National Committee.

As of October 15th, John McCain and the RNC together had nearly $20 million more in cash than the combined total of Obama for America and the DNC. And just this week, we're facing new and unexpected spending against us in Montana and West Virginia.

Your incredible generosity has gotten us this far. But right now we need your help more than ever to get this campaign across the finish line.

Please donate $25 or whatever you can afford right now

That's not really what's bothering me though. John McCain and the RNC have 20 million more than they do? Really? What about this at CNN (not exactly a McCain shill):

"It's evidence, if you needed any, that the Obama campaign has more money than there is ad time left to buy," said Evan Tracey, director of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "This is flexing the muscles."


The Obama campaign reported last week that it had raised a record-shattering $150 million in September.

Obama has outspent McCain by a huge margin, according to CNN's consultant on ad spending.

Between the time the two candidates clinched their party's nominations in the spring and October 25, Obama spent more than $205 million on TV ads. McCain spent more than $119 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Believe me, I'm the wrong one for McCain to approach with the Obama lied about taking campaign financing argument. If he can raise more money through contributions than through public financing, God bless. But don't try to have your cake and eat it, too. Don't turn down public financing because you can raise more money without it, outspend your opponents by a wide margin and then complain that they have so much more money than you do.

Believe you me, I'd happily drop another $20 if it could guarantee I didn't ever have to hear the words "President McCain" (and maybe another hundred if I could be assured of never, ever hearing the words "Vice-anything Palin"). I might begrudgingly drop a few if I thought it was really needed. But by being disingenuous in its appeals, the Obama campaign keeps itself from being able to make me believe them when they make the most effective appeal. I'm not saying they are the boy that cried wolf, exactly, but I am saying if it walks like a boy that cries wolf, and quacks like a boy that cried wolf...

How John McCain Will Win

I guess since Homer was the one who finally killed James Bond, it shouldn't be surprising that he got John McCain elected:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What I Am Concerned About...

Last weekend, I was talking to my friend Peter and to my sister-in-law Laura, and I opined that I wasn't much worried about the "Bradley" effect. When Peter asked me to assess the confidence points I had behind my pick, I said "14."

Still, nothing is over till it's over. So, in ascending order, here are the things I'm most worried about still.

6) Barack Obama lets slip that he is a Duke fan while speaking in Raleigh tomorrow. (I don't know if he is, but I just hope one of his handlers makes clear how fanatical and illogical UNC fans are.)

5) Frivolous Lawsuits.
Honestly, I think we still don't know who won Florida in 2000. The documentary Hacking Democracy said that Kerry had lawyers in place to challenge results in New Mexico. In both places the democratic candidates chose structural integrity over prolonged or continued legal battles. If John McCain were to lose the election by less than four states, do you really see him doing the same? Neither do I. [Reason this isn't higher is because I don't think he will be close enough to matter and so won't pursue it.]

4) Block the Vote.
Remember that lawsuit last year where Indiana wanted to demand photo identification and the Supreme Court said no? Well, Indiana is (in some polls) back to being a toss up, and now, after the Supreme Court backed the Ohio elections chief in the GOP's attempt to get newly registered voters purged, will Indiana be deterred from asking for the same thing? Of course not.

We all understand that the reason ACORN handed in registration cards that they themselves flagged as fraudulent or suspicious is because they are required to do so by law, right? And we all understand the reason that law is in place is because the Republicans have a long and storied tradition of purging legally registered voters? Hey, it worked in Florida in '00, why not give it another run?

3) Optical Scanners in New Mexico
The film Hacking Democracy demonstrates how easy it is to hack and fix memory cards on Diebold voting machines. According to one witness in the same film, John Kerry noted that every precinct in New Mexico that had optical scanning machines came back for Bush, and he carried the state by a close margin. New Mexico has been in the solid blue camp on most electoral maps for quite some time now...based on polling. I don't trust those Diebold machines, and I find it unfathomable that public elections are cloaked in proprietary secrets from compaines whose CEOs, board members, and runners are often big contributors to the GOP.

2) The weather.
Good turnout is supposed to favor Obama, particularly in states like Georgia where the best chance of a Democratic victory would be a strong turnout by new voters. Most weather reports I've seen predict rain in key battleground states including Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. Dems seem to be voting early, but will voter turnout be hurt by the weather?

1) The unexpected
What's new in this election? Massive turnouts. If lines are hours long for early voting, what sorts of turnouts will we have on election day? Historically, enthusiasm in early voting usually crests with enthusiasm for turnout on election day rather than less voters on election day. Will some precinct(s) in key states have machine malfunctions, sufficient paper ballots, run out? Will people in line be turned away? Will lines still be several hours long when precincts close? If so, will people be voting well into the night?

How to Bilk the Consumer

So, in response to a temporary heating outage, I went to the local Dollar General Store to get a portable space heater for my office. I bought a Comfort Zone Radiant Heater Model CZ500 for $18.

Only problem--it didn't work. It ran for about two minutes and shut off. I checked the manual and it said if it did this to unplug the unit, wait twenty minutes and plug it in a different outlet. I did. Same problem. Figuring the thermostat was broken, I took it back with the receipt, exchanged it for another unit, brought it home. Same problem.

I perused the instruction manual in further detail. It said:

"If you still notice the same defect above mentioned, remove the plug from the socket and call the customer service department."

I called the customer service department and got voice mail for "The Howard Berger Company." I connected with customer service and told them that the manual told me to call customer service. They told me to take it back to the store and exchange it for another unit or ask for a refund.

Okay, here's a couple of points.

--The wording and placement of this in the instruction manual would seem to indicate that this is a common problem. Rather than fix it or do a recall or test the units, Comfort Zone and Howard Berger no doubt did a cost benefit analysis and figured it would be cheaper to send out all the units and tell people if it didn't work to return it to the store. Nice.

--It's probably not a coincidence that they also place the units in Dollar General stores, i.e. venues that are more known for servicing lower income customers...that is, exactly the sorts of customers that may not have as much freedom to call a non-toll free number between 8-5 on a work day only to get the instructions to take it back to the store (assuming they have the receipt). It sure seems like part of the cost benefit analysis was that Comfort Zone and Howard Berger figured (hoped) that some people would just take the write off either for the nuisance value or because it's hard to go to the store three different times and deal with all the delays when you are trying to get something like heat.

I googled The Howard Berger Company and found this message on their web site:

The corporate mission of Howard Berger Company is to provide our customers with quality merchandise at the lowest prices available in the industry. We are a value source that sells basic products appealing to broad segments of the population. All of our products have high sales and turnover potential. The best of the best.

Yeah, right.

According to the web site, the company was founded by Howard Berger. Howard, if you are reading this, you should be ashamed that the company that bears your name is bilking the weakest consumers out of hard earned dollars for products that don't work.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Voters are Fickle

No, not political voters, who are also fickle.

I mean sports fans.

I bring this up because ESPN.Com has a feature that allows fans to give approval ratings to the head coach of their favorite football team. I noted today that Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher has an 89% approval rating. Not bad, huh?

Fisher, of course, is coach of the last undefeated team in the NFL. The Titans are a perfect 6-0. Fisher has lost approval points each of the last three weeks, despite winning. Crazy voters in Tennessee, huh? No wonder they are voting for McCain.

Friday, October 24, 2008

D.L. Hughley Breaks the "News"??

Okay, I've been pretty critical of the conservative notion that the American media is biased. And I've been pretty critical of Governor Palin's false eschewing of labels when she in fact indulgences in labels and stereotypes all the time.

So I had to cringe when CNN's newest show was D.L. Hughley Breaks the News.

Hughley, on a cable news network, gave a monologue that included such gems as were Obama to have a place for Colin Powell in his administration, it would be the first time two black people were in the White House "since Thomas Jefferson had a three-way" and then went on to say the Election had somehow influenced the world series because the reason the Boston Red Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays was that the were "all white." Of course, no monologue would be complete without some reference to John McCain's age; Hughley opined that McCain was especially disappointed that a 106 year-old nun recently endorsed Obama because "they used to date" (he somehow didn't realize or care that this may be insulting to the nun, making light of her vows, as it was of McCain). He also suggested that McCain's legacy would be historically tarnished if he lost because he would be forever known as the guy who couldn't even beat a black man. Oh yeah, and in riffing about Obama's cholestrol level, Hughley trotted out the old ethnic stereotypes about eating fatty foods. It was all positively cringe worthy.

There are, I suppose, a lot of comments one could make about this. It's hard to call out Hughley for cheap remarks when the GOP and McCain's follows are full of them, but, "They started it" is hardly a convincing disavowal.

Really, though, the main thing that jumps out to me is why the heck was this on CNN? If Hughley had given the same monologue on Comedy Central, or Fox (hah, fat chance) or the WB, or NBC (like, say on SNL), I'd still find it offensive, but I wouldn't find it disingenuous. This show was on CNN, though, and the clip above was linked not to the "Entertainment" page on CNN but to the "Politics" page on CNN. This isn't news and reporting, it is a showcase on a major news network for a "comedian" to engage in partisan satire. Whatever credibility CNN has as a respected news network just took a big hit.

Sarah Palin and Labels

Sarah Palin can't decide whether or not she is a feminist. When asked if she considers herself a feminist by Katie Couric, she said "I do." When asked if she was a feminist by Brian Williams, she said:

"I'm not gonna label myself anything, Brian. And I think that's what annoys a lot of Americans, especially in a political campaign, is to start trying to label different parts of America different, different backgrounds, different … I'm not going to put a label on myself. "

Yeah, that really annoys a lot of Americans when you start trying to label different parts of America different. Like when you call some parts the "real America." She's not going to put a label on herself, but she doesn't mind throwing around labels, like, oh, terrorist, socialist, elitist, liberal, ultra-liberal, and "real" America.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Vote is Cast

The North Carolina Votes Early precinct at Fuquay-Varina opened today (others in Wake County opened last week) so I went by to cast my vote so that if anything happens to me between now and election day, I'll have gotten my vote in. I was voter number 339 for the day at that location, which had been open from about 7 to Noon. It was about a 10 minute wait, with a steady stream of people.

Okay, I've done my part. Now the wait begins.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

GOP Spends 150 K of Donations on Palin Clothes and Make Up

In the wake of an unpopular financial bailout bill, candidates made hay out of the fact that AIG continued business as usual by sponsoring a rewards junket for top sellers.

In response to growing deficits, Senator McCain has repeatedly cast himself as a pork and perk eliminator, suggesting that the best way to get control of deficits is to cut spending, and saying that he and his party have the discipline and principles to freeze spending enough to reduce deficits without rolling back the Bush tax loopholes for corporations or the so-called "super-rich."

This just in: The McCain campaign has spent approximately $150,000 of campaign contributions on make-up, hair styling, clothing, and "accessories" for Sarah Palin.

I'm tempted to let it go at that because this one spins itself, but...oh, I can't help myself.

The reformers that will "fight" for me and stand up to free-wheeling liberals could think of nothing better to do with the campaign contributions that "real America"ns send them than to send Sarah Palin to Neiman Marcus with a charge card and then off to the Tresame hair salon. [Given her recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, can a guest spot on Project Runway be far behind? I can just see Hedi Klum now..."The winning look will actually be worn by Governor Palin at a rally where she explains why none of you can get married because you're all gay--all of you, if she is elected, will be out...]

The linked AP report about notes that:
Federal campaign finance law prohibits the use of campaign funds for personal
use, but it defines personal use as any expense "that would exist
irrespective of the candidate's campaign or duties as a federal

The Republican campaign argues that spending this campaign money (whether via individual donors or publicly-financed allocations, does not constitute a preach of campaign finance law. (Remember when John McCain was actually one of the guys that wanted to reform campaign finance abuse?)

I guess then that this legal argument boils down to the claim that Sarah Palin would not need a whole new wardbrode and public fund financed makeover if she wasn't a campaign member. I don't know, personally, I tend to think that, you know, being CLOTHED is a personal expense that exists for all of us, not just those of us traveling to real America to sniff about elites.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

McCain Campaign Concedes Colorado, New Mexico

According to John King at CNN, the McCain campaign has quietly and privately conceded New Mexico (no big surprise there)Iowa, and Colorado. Take all non-attributed reports with a grain of salt, but CNN was right about the GOP conceding Michigan.

Why is that so significant? Because if Senator Obama wins every state that John Kerry won plus Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado, he would win the election--even if Senator McCain were to pull out wins in Florida, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, and Nevada.

Everyone assumed that the McCain campaign would have to put Virginia back in the Red column at some point, but it looks like the demographic change in that state has made that unlikely. Now, if the McCain campaign has essentially conceded Colorado and Iowa, even that would not be enough. Instead, their new strategy seems to be to fight for wins in Nevada (still neck and and neck), Florida, and Ohio and to try to flip Pennsylvania instead.

Pennsylvania has been in the "leaning" Obama to solid Obama in most projections. CNN's poll of polls shows Obama with a thirteen point lead there. Even were McCain to somehow flip Pennsylvania, win Ohio and Florida, but lose Virginia, he would still have to sweep Missouri and Nevada to eke out an electoral win.

Why Pennslyvania instead of Virginia? The story doesn't say but I suspect two reasons:

--Some polling data suggests that Colorado voters raised John McCain's "negatives" because they felt he was running a negative campaign. I suspect the GOP believes that it would have a greater possibility of success with a negative campaign in Pennsylvania than Virginia, where the Northern Virginia demographic (educated, middle to upper class, politically informed) has grown and helped tip the state AND doesn't like negative campaigning. [Does that sound "elitist"? Yes, just as the Republican strategy seems to pander to a reverse elitism--because we are willing to listen to smear campaigns we are the "real America" and hence better than those informed voters.]

--Senator Obama, of course, was beaten badly in the Pennsylvania primary by Senator Clinton, despite campaigning heavily in that state. It was that primary that led Senator Clinton to make the argument that Senator Obama could not win white, working class voters and carry the states needed to win the electoral college. Obama proved otherwise, but prepare for the GOP to resurrect that argument. Also Senator Obama's self-proclaimed biggest campaign gaffe was the infamous "cling to guns and religion" comment, which was taken out of context to reinforce the stereotype that he was an elite. I would expect the GOP to run that quote over and over in robocalls and ads in Pennsylvania.

On the one hand, this news depresses me because its more of the cynical same from the McCain camp. On the other hand, I suppose one can argue that if the other side is throwing a "hail mary" that means they are behind and getting increasingly desperate.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"We're Going to Have an International Crisis..."

I'm sure these speeches of politicians are vetted, sound bite test, test grouped, and purposeful, but after reading the substance of Joe Biden's most recent remarks, all I could think of was...WTF??

I'm operating on some basic assumptions here:
1) The game ain't over 'til it's over.
2) The purpose of a campaign speech is to encourage people to vote for you.

Biden said that within six months of an Obama administration there would be a "generated crisis" to "test the mettle" of Obama.

What the heck is a "generated" crisis? This appears to mean either manufactured in some sense, like an October surprise, hinting that political opponents might try to generate a know, some scenario out of Thirteen Days or some such. Either that or he's suggesting that the world community will think America is weak and be more likely to attack or press some political advantage because it believe Obama doesn't have the "mettle" to stand up to the world.

Both sound like something that would be coming out of John McCain's mouth--did Biden read the wrong teleprompter?

More strange still, Biden didn't exactly use this gloomy scenario to say that such a notion would be foolish. Instead he seemed to suggest cynically that Obama's popularity would take a hit in office because the American people wouldn't be able to distinguish between what is right and what is popular:

"I promise you, you all are going to be sitting here a year from now going, 'Oh my God, why are they there in the polls, why is the polling so down, why is this thing so tough?' We're going have to make some incredibly tough decisions in the first two years," said Biden. "I'm asking you now, be prepared to stick with us. Remember the faith you had at this point because you're going to have to reinforce us."
I like Biden, and it's no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I intend to vote for Senator Obama on the first day of early voting in my precinct, but...well, this sure read like a colossal gaffe to me. One it borders on arrogance, assuming the election is already won, after his own running mate cautioned against getty cocky. Two, it bizzarely seems to concede that an international crisis is more likely under an Obama presidency than a McCain one. This plays right into the "too risky" strategy of the Republicans. If I were on the McCain campaign--well, first I would kill myself by drowning in a sea of self-loating, but after that--I would make sure that Biden's clip was in just about every ad I ran between now and the election.

I honestly have no idea what the heck Biden is getting at. I assume that he is trying to lay the groundwork for a public relations war should Senator Obama be elected, but it seems like a strange, strange, strange campaign strategy, telling other people that if your running mate is elected an international crisis will happen within six months.

Said Biden, "I promise you it will occur" and "I promise you, you all are going to be sitting here a year from now going, 'Oh my God, why are they there in the polls, why is the polling so down, why is this thing so tough?"

The timing is atrocious, too, as it takes the news cycle voluntarily away from the Colin Powell endorsement and effectively negates the argument of, "See, even their guy [Republican] thinks he is better for foreign affairs." Now the Republicans can counter with, "See even their guy [VP] thinks an Obama presidency will spur an international crisis."

Expect to hear the latter from now until election day. "Why is this thing so tough"??? Senator McCain couldn't have asked for a better gift.