Saturday, December 30, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Good Shepherd

A spy saga sans soul.

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup
Rated: R
Red Flags: Violence, Mild Language, Four Scenes Of Sexuality

Director Robert DeNiro should know how to make a good movie. He's been in plenty of them. The Good Shepherd would be a good movie if it weren't so long and brooding. What DeNiro has made is a sprawling spooky spook picture awash in shadows and spy games as it jumps back and forth in time and space and fails to explain its motivations.

Damon stars as Edward Wilson, a laconic Yale student turned spy after he's recruited into the Skull and Bones society -- the ultra-secret fraternity that grooms political big shots. Wilson cuts his teeth by exposing a Nazi front organization on campus. That opens to door to intelligence work in WWII England and later with the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. The film's plot revolves around Wilson trying to uncover a leak that led to disaster in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

All of this spy work takes Wilson far from his wife Margaret, a.k.a. "Clover" (Jolie) and his son. Their marriage exists in name only, and Edward's relationship with his boy hardly moves any emotional needles. Wilson's spy contacts show more warmth. He still has feelings for another woman he met in college.

But it's hard to see if Damon has any feelings at all. His character is so dedicated to duty and country, it reduces him to a soulless operative. Wilson is one-dimensional, and one dimension is stretching it. He carries a flat, lifeless expression through most of the picture. This is the kind of person who walks into City Hall with a warped perspective and fully-loaded assault rifle.

All of this could be forgiven if the film delved into what motivates Wilson's character and probed whether great spooks are born or made. We never really know what he gets out of spy work besides some secret sense of pride. I'm not sure he even gets that. Again and again we are reminded of the lonely and unrewarding aspects of intelligence work. Enough already. Many minutes could have been shaved out of the picture by eliminating the plodding moodiness.

One critic compared The Good Shepherd to The Godfather, perhaps seizing on the birth of dangerous organizations as a common denominator. I simply don't see the comparison. The mob picture and its sequel had genuine emotional depth, something sorely lacking in this latest spy flick.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Lightning Round:
The Ford Foundation

We are suspending our usual format this week to offer a few reflections upon the passing of President Gerald Ford. As this page hits the blog, the official memorials are just beginning, ones which will include services in California, Washington D.C., and Michigan. They will unfold with the magnitude and dignity befitting a president but with subtle distinctions. A motorcade will carry Ford's casket instead of a horse-drawn caisson. Your blogmaster finds it a fitting metaphor.

THE PARDON. Gerald Ford found himself appointed vice-president, and then Commander in Chief -- two executive positions soiled by Watergate and sorely in need of a trusted, uncorrupted leader. Even though the governmental processes set in motion by a "third-rate burglary" proved the system of checks and balances worked, the rule of law triumphed with a Pyhrric victory. Ford's gargantuan task lay in convincing a nation all vestiges of an imperial presidency left when Richard Nixon stepped onto Marine One for the last time.

Ford proved he fit the job description within weeks, cementing his legacy by pardoning Nixon. Voters held it against him in 1976, when he tried to win the office he inherited. But the 38th President put any aspirations aside.

From an AP report by Larry Margasak:
Ford knew the pardon could damage his election chances.

"I'm aware of that," Ford recalled snapping at a cautious aide. "It could easily cost me the next election if I run again. But damn it, I don't need the polls to tell me whether I'm right or wrong."
"If I run again," he said. He was already at peace with leaving office.

And he had support. Many agreed Nixon had already been tried, convicted and punished in the courts of media and public opinion. Anything more would needlessly salt wounds. The nation didn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore, and that was good enough.

THE PRATFALLS. The Nixon pardon did not alone seal Ford's electoral fate. Many people still remember two major slips -- one physical, one verbal -- that left him wounded.

Many of us remember the fall down the stairs of Air Force One, parodied relentlessly by Chevy Chase in Saturday Night Live's infancy. And many Ford backers winced when he said the Soviets weren't dominating Eastern Europe.

Still, Ford's everyman qualities refreshed people. From Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times:
Sure, he might not have had the intellect of other presidents. Lyndon Johnson speculated that Ford had played too much football without a helmet.

Barry Goldwater once took him to task for being a dull speaker.

But when Nixon resigned, we didn't want anyone flashy. We wanted someone who was honest, who would avoid doing anything drastic and would keep the Cold War cold.

"His ordinariness was welcome," wrote historian Laura Kalman in To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents.
So what if he lost his balance every so often?

THE PERSON. Over and over again, as the tributes and reflections pour in, a characterizaton of Ford repeats itelf: decency. A "decent man." People speak of him with an honest and unwavering respect. Googling "Ford and decency" brings up thousands of articles.

Here is a segment of one, from the Arizona Republic:
Ford was an unelected executive whose popularity plummeted with the Nixon pardon. He presided over a nation wounded by politics and war, one that was deep in the throes of rising inflation and near-negative growth. Yet, aided by both sides of the political aisle, he served undisputed as the nation's commander in chief. Politics then did stop at the water's edge.
Said Republican Sen. Jon Kyl:
"Having known him for many years, I can say that he was an extraordinarily decent and honorable man who enjoyed his public service. The nation is forever grateful for the reassuring leadership that President Ford provided at a crucial time."
Said Republican Sen. John McCain:
"A man of great moral character and patriotism, he led our country during a time of great distress, and saw us safely through our troubles with grace and courage."
Said Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva, an unabashed liberal:
"Former President Ford stepped into the presidency during a very turbulent time for our country. He handled a very delicate situation, with a grace and humility that is expected of our commander in chief."
Tinges of wistfulness emerge in the condolences, cloaked statements about what democracy should be and what it isn't in our current political environment. The president nobody elected was the president everybody needed. He had no great doctrine or vision or urgency to leave a legacy. He simply provided steady leadership.

THE PONDERINGS. We can argue about whether voters get the presidents they deserve or deserve the presidents they get. We can write books of lamentations on political moderation. We can take cheap shots at the Bush Administration and crow, "At least nobody died when Ford said the Russians weren't running Poland!" We can dream. We can wish and pray for honorable statesmen, leaders of uncompromised integrity who love democracy more than life itself.

The reality is we don't see those people in Washington's spotlight. Okay, maybe Barack Obama, perhaps John McCain, but who else comes to mind?

But before you cry too many tears for your beloved country, remember this: a great number of our leaders go about their lives with the honor and integrity we expect of them. They do their homework, understand the issues, vote with a balance of knowledge and conscience, and still win reelection without sacrificing their souls to the almighty campaign dollar. And we are proud of them. Gerald Ford would be, too.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Reel To Reel: We Are Marshall

It's more than a game.

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language, Football Violence

Calling We Are Marshall a football movie is like calling Rocky (or the more timely Rocky Balboa) a boxing movie. It's not even fair to call it a sports movie. It is a movie about a town left heartbroken by the death of 75 people in a plane crash: nearly the entire football team of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, including the coaches, athletic director, and several boosters. At times it is emotionally raw and overwhelmingly sad. Even the film's triumphant moments are laced with tinges of sadness. The Marshall football disaster in November 1970 remains one of the worst sports tragedies ever, yet it is one that many have either forgotten or never heard about until now.

The film begins with Marshall University's tough loss to East Carolina followed by the unthinkable. Even as the town is mired in grief, acting university president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) makes the gutsy decision to go ahead with the football program. No coach with Marshall connections will touch the job. But Jack Lengyel (McConaughey), coach at a small college in Wooster, Ohio, senses an opportunity to help a town heal.

Lengyel is bombastic and full of energy, a person who smacks of Attention Deficit Disorder back when it was called hyperactivity. Life is simply an extension of football, with a play for every situation. When he comes to town with a folksy swagger, it's easy to see him as disrespectful to Marshall's state of shock. "Don't talk about my son like you knew him," says a football father to Lengyl at one point. But the new coach is determined to rebuild the program however he can.

The new leader of the Thundering Herd soon finds collective grief is just the beginning of his challenges. Promising recruits sign with other schools, and Marshall must fight to get an NCAA waiver to play freshmen. Coaches siphon players from other sports to round out the team, and football returns, albeit under a long shadow.

Director McG (known to his parents as Joseph McGinty Nichol) shows he can handle the depth and emotion of the material with nuance, setting this film leagues apart from his over-the-top Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Still, he keeps the film moving, often to the beat of period classic rock, and he does his best to avoid falling into the sports movie cliche trap, even with the compulsory elements of the Big Emotional Speech and the Great Victory At The End. The film keeps a comfortable focus, limiting most of its screen time to Coach Lengyel, assistant Red Dawson (Fox), and team captain Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie). In many ways, the film is more about Lengyel than the team itself as he works to prove that the hope of an entire town is not dead.

We Are Marshall is on my list of the best football movies ever, up there with Friday Night Lights and North Dallas Forty. It does for football what The Natural did for baseball or Hoosiers for basketball. It's about time. I'm amazed the story of the Marshall football tragedy and re-birth didn't make it to the screen earlier, but the wait was worth it.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Returning The Gifts Of Freedom

We at The Lightning Round constantly monitor the shortsighted, gradual surrenders of liberty in the name of security. Another survey gives us reason for concern.

USE THEM OR LOSE THEM. USA Today reports wilting support for the First Amendment among youth, according to a study funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation:
The new survey finds that 45% of students, up from 35%, believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Yet questions about specific freedoms show that support for some speech and press freedoms is essentially unchanged or up slightly:

• 30% (down from 32%) say the press has too much freedom.

• 69% (down from 70%) say musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that may be offensive to others.

• 54% (up from 51%) say newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval.

• 64% (up from 58%) say high school student newspapers should be allowed to report controversial subjects without the approval of authorities.
The numbers appear to be moving in the right direction, but 54% is much too low for our patriotic persuasions.

Perhaps an educational experiment is in order, in the spirit of the landmark classroom test devised by elementary-school teacher Jane Elliott to teach students about the stigma racism. Perhaps if we took away MTV, banned iPods, MySpace, and blogs for a few days, and installed filters on all classroom computers to limit students' surfing to a few government-approved websites, maybe we'd see a few more minds change.

The Lightning Round honestly believes experience is the best teacher, especially when it comes to our heritage and the rights that evolved from it.

OFF KILTER. Thousands of Scottish troops are sharing kilts because of a shortage of the ceremonial tartans. The problem isn't in the material, it's in the bureaucracy.

From the AP:
New kilts are needed for all Scottish soldiers following the August 2006 merger of centuries-old regiments into a single Royal Regiment of Scotland.

"A planned deployment of kilts will be agreed with the Royal Regiment of Scotland on a roll-out basis with ... the full program being completed by January 2008," a Ministry of Defense spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
And a proper Scottish kilt isn't stamped out in seconds.
The 320 kilts provided so far have been supplied by Argyll Bagpipes and Kilts on a trial basis. The full contract is worth up to $1.95 million, taking two years to complete and will involve 15,000 yards of fabric.
Why not just order something from Sport Kilt?

TOO MUCH A MAN. Indian runner Shanti Sounderajan has lost her silver medal from the Asian Games because she failed a gender test.

From the AP:
There are no compulsory gender tests during events sanctioned by track and field's international ruling body, but athletes may be asked to take a gender test. The medical evaluation panel usually includes a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and internal medicine specialist.

An Indian athletics official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said Sounderajan almost certainly never had sex-change surgery.

Instead, the official said Sounderajan appeared to have "abnormal chromosomes." The official also said the test revealed more Y chromosomes than allowed.
Obviously peeking under her shorts wasn't conclusive enough.

IN THEIR RIGHT MINDS. UPS has a driving tip designed to speed up deliveries in the hectic holiday season: no left turns. The idea is you waste precious seconds sitting around for cross traffic to clear, rather than going with the flow -- even if you have to loop around a block to get where you're going.

That's a rule many Tucsonans have learned already, especially on Grant Road.

THE HEAVE-HO. You can look like Santa. You can dress like Santa. You can even wear Santa's red-and-white cap. Just don't tell kids at Walt Disney World you're Santa, or Magic Kingdom management will treat you like J.D. Worley.

From WKMG-TV in Orlando, FL:
"Kids wanted to hug me and that was great," Worley said. "It felt good."

However, someone complained to Disney officials that some man in a red shirt was pretending to be Santa Claus on park property, reporter Craig Patrick said.

"Her statement was to me was that I either needed to alter my appearance, the way I look, or leave the park because I was impersonating Santa Claus," Worley said.

Worley said he removed his hat but still drew attention.

"I look this way 24/7, 365 days a year," Worley said. "This is me."

A Disney spokesman said Worley did not just look like Santa but when he was asked, he said he was Santa and that is why he got in trouble, the [WKMG] report said.
We at The Lightning Round aren't sure if Mickey and pals will be getting the coal, but Disney's official response -- that they were just trying to protect the magic of the holiday -- hits us a bit odd.

Our patent-pending Corporate Spin Stabilizer translated the above comment as follows: "We have a monopoly on magic in the Magic Kingdom. Please respect our turf."

KING OF THE LAWN. Finally, snow castles shouldn't be a problem in the Midwest for the annual Christmas Vacation backyard battle. The rest of us -- especially here in our home state of Arizona -- are going to need some help.

Mr. McGroovy's happily provides it with instructions for building a castle out of cardboard boxes -- and where to get free boxes too!

Merry Christmas from The Lightning Round!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Town Without Pity

The Christmas season brings friends and families together, but not in Snohomish, Washington, where an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer describes how an entire town has abandoned, ignored, or threatened 16-year-old Brett Karch. His offense was having the gall to nearly lose his leg when a ceremonial cannon malfunctioned at a Snohomish High School football game.

From the article:
According to Karch's medical records, security guards notified police after Karch received disturbing phone calls and visits from parents and students, some of whom threatened to "break his other leg" or worse, if he didn't keep quiet about the accident. Hospital staff had to move him to a secure room where they monitored visitors.

Callers and visitors told Karch they would "make sure his other leg got blown off," and that "there would be retaliation" if the family cooperated in an investigation that could end the cannon tradition, said Mary Bissel, Karch's mother. "That's when I kind of got a little upset," Karch said.

The threats also included mention the family would be "banned from the town," Bissell said. She's been warned not to talk to a lawyer, or reporters.
For the record, the Karch family has retained an attorney, mainly for help wading through legal forms. She has not sued -- not yet.

Karch is a member of the ROTC. He knows how to pack a cannon, and a retired Marine supervised the preparations. As far as we know, Karch did nothing wrong, save for expecting a little sympathy. One get-well card suggested students were more concerned about the destroyed cannon than Karch's mangled leg:
"Football wouldn't be the same without the big boom at kickoff," wrote one student in a get-well card.
Even as Karch recovers, well-wishers are hard to find.
Since his discharge from the hospital on Oct. 23, Karch has had only three visitors -- two of them [from the ROTC]. And despite invitations to school friends, not a single person other than family attended his 16th birthday celebration in November, Bissell said.
No doubt Karch has wondered at times why that cannon didn't kill him outright instead of leaving him in loneliness. But he has no time to mourn.
The persistent hostility, and loss of friendships, make him sad, but he's trying not to dwell on it.

He's working hard during weekly physical and occupational therapy sessions, hoping to regain enough function to qualify for the military.
Surely Karch's soon-to-be comrades in the military will give him the sense of respect and honor. He's earned a Purple Heart even before stepping on the battlefield, unlike the football field where Snohomish High School played on even as Karch was carried off in an ambulance.

If he had died instantly, would they have even called a time-out?

At least God and your family love you, Brett, even if nobody else does.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Do They Know It's Christmas?

The fine, merry staffers of your Lightning Round possess ample evidence refuting claims of the so-called "War On Christmas," which we submit is a wholesale exaggeration promoted by talk-show hosts with too much dead air to fill. Unfortunately for us, something came along this week which gave credence to the critics and spiked our holiday punch with a jigger of foolishness.

WHO SPEAKS FOR THE TREES? Many of you have heard the sad saga of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport's Christmas Trees -- the ones that were removed after a complaint from a rabbi who wanted a menorah installed as well, and then reinstated when he dropped the threat of a lawsuit. For everybody else, here's the executive summary.

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"I think the whole thing is ridiculous and really out of proportion," [the rabbi Elazar] Bogomilsky said shortly before the port made its announcement to reinstall the trees. "People should turn to the Port of Seattle and say, 'Wait a minute, what are you doing? Return the trees and give people the spirit of the holiday back.' Right now, nobody's happy."
We feel the good rabbi should have said that to himself before waving a lawyer in the face of airport authorities.
The tree removal marked an unprecedented interruption to a longstanding holiday tradition at the airport. But the question of whether a menorah should be displayed publicly is hardly new to organizations of local Jews; neither is there agreement in the Jewish community over the practice.

Although some irate people criticized Jews in general for the actions of Bogomilsky, "most of the Jewish community does not really support the putting up of public menorahs," said Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the greater Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
So it appears Rabbi Bogomilsky didn't even have a united front behind him. On the other hand, people would've gladly backed the Port Commission had they the ornaments to let this go to court.
E-mail messages and other comments to the Port of Seattle were running 99 to 1 in opposition to the removal of the Christmas trees, Port Commissioner John Creighton said.

"As a public officials, we need to do the right thing, not the popular thing," he said. "In this case, I think the right thing is the popular thing."
But it's all over now, save for a promise to negotiate and collaborate on holiday cheer for next year.

We at The Lightning Round believe the whole yuletide fracas could have been avoided with a little change in mentality. First, an expression of one's faith does not rob another of theirs. Secondly, an expression of Christmas tidings does not condemn non-Christians. Thirdly, overreaction against traditions and symbols which embody the spirit and meaning of the season is not only sad, it cheapens genuine claims of religious prejudice elsewhere in the world -- which frankly don't involve Christmas trees.

POLITICAL INTRIGUE. Many a Democrat is wringing his hands this week, hoping and praying for the health of South Dakota senator Tim Johnson beyond the obvious reasons. If Sen. Johnson can't continue in office, they lose control of the Senate.

Already, some are floating conspiracy theories -- even in jest. As Joy Behar suggested on Thursday's The View:
"Is there such a thing as a man-made stroke? In other words, did someone do this to him?"
At least nobody's blaming Karl Rove... or John Kerry.

BALLIN'. The NBA is switching back to leather basketballs on New Year's Day, ditching Spaulding's microfiber replacement. Players said it was too soft and sticky and bounced differently. As we noted here, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban commissioned a study backing up many players' claims. But the factor that may have put the old ball back in the net is... you guessed it, litigation.

From the Chicago Tribune:
The NBA Players Association filed an unfair labor practice charge over the change, which annoyed many players because they claimed they had little voice in the matter.
Hopefully this will keep the government's hands off basketballs.

DOES HE HAVE A BOARDING PASS? Ohio State quarterback Tony Smith had to ship his Heisman Trophy home because airport security wouldn't let him take it on the plane.

We at The Lightning Round never got that Homeland Security memo warning about terrorists bearing trophies, but we suspect a more practical explanation is at hand.

From the AP:
Eddie George, the last Buckeye to win the Heisman in 1995, had his trophy get stuck in an airport X-ray machine, losing the tip of its right index finger and bending the middle finger.
Nice to see that X-ray technician got the finger from Mr. Heisman.

BLIND FAITH. Texas State Representative Edmund Kuempel has introduced a bill that would let the blind hunt.

From Reuters:
Under the bill, blind hunters would be required to have a sighted hunter with them and would be allowed to use laser sights and other devices that are currently not allowed.

A blind person can shoot a rifle by mounting an offset pistol scope on the side of the rifle instead of on top," said Terry Erwin, the Austin-based Hunter Education Coordinator with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"This allows their companion behind them to peer over their shoulder and help them sight it, but the blind person can pull the trigger," he told Reuters.
Unfortunately, it comes too late to help Dick Cheney's friends.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Celebrating 35 Years... And The Blessings Of Life

I was originally going to write to you this day about healing from a dark birthday in 1981, when I fell and broke my arm while at a roller-skating party. I had invited my entire grade-school class, and I had only been on the rink for 15 minutes when a couple of boys chasing each other ran into me. My right arm hit the floor... and the party was over.

Instead of cake and presents that afternoon, I received local anesthetic and cheesy jokes from nurses. I dealt with pain. I dealt with sadness. I also dealt with a feeling of doom, that my life was not meant for the kind of happiness others enjoyed, something I would carry into my later years.

But today, I see no need. Not after what I call a Miracle Moment.

I wore my gold-trimmed tricorn to work today, openly expressing the joy of another birthday. (Yes, it's the same one Captain Burgundy wore.) Dan Marries snapped the picture you see here, of studio crew member Nolan stylishly delivering me some birthday well wishes during a lull in the evening shift. While I am thankful and grateful for that moment, the one that highlighted this day came several hours earlier, when an elementary school class toured the newsroom.

They asked me some questions about what a news producer does, and I gladly gave them answers. But undoubtedly, somebody asked the obvious query:

"Why are you wearing that hat?"

"I usually don't, but today is my birthday, and this is how I'm celebrating."

Without prompting or prodding, at least half this class of 30 or more instantly broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Happy Birthday," with others joining in as the song progressed.

I keep thinking back to this moment, realizing how blessed -- not cursed -- I am to be alive. It seems pointless to dwell on the heartbreak of youth when so much has happened in the past year to heal it. Yet it is that heartbreak that underscores the joy and gives it meaning.

Life is worth living, and I couldn't ask for a better birthday present.

Friday, December 8, 2006

The Lightning Round:
The Truth Shall Set You Free (Unless You Lie Like A Rug)

This week the Iraq Study Group came out with the conclusion most of us already knew: "stay the course" is a bloody mess. Some truths are obvious. Others require prosecutorial persuasion.

IT'S AN ACT. Pete Costello is accused of faking mental retardation -- or at least exaggerating it -- for 20 years. Along the way, his mom collected thousands of dollars in disability benefits.

From the AP:
In meetings with Social Security officials and psychologists, [Costello] appeared mentally retarded and unable to communicate. His mother insisted he couldn't read or write, shower, take care of himself or drive a car.

But now prosecutors said it was all a huge fraud, and they have video of Costello contesting a traffic ticket to prove it.
We at The Lightning Round are hearing the foundation of the Costellos' defense: "Those evil Democrats exploited us to further their welfare-state agenda -- just like they did with Michael J. Fox!"

HIS DIS-HONOR. The former mayor of Appalachia, Tennessee has pleaded guilty to 243 felonies, including corruption and vote rigging. According to the AP, prosecutors say Ben Cooper "masterminded a scheme to buy votes with beer, cigarettes and even pork rinds."

At most, he'll go to prison for a little less than two years as part of a plea agreement.

And then he'll start a job with Diebold.

GIVING IT ALL AWAY. Charity has its limits, at least for two of the worlds richest people. Unlike the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, which have long outlived their founders, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend all its money no later than 50 years following the death of the longest serving trustee, according to the Wall Street Journal.

After that, the needy of the world will just have to survive on Windows upgrades.

THE WHIFF OF DISCONTENT. The people behind the "Got Milk" campaign added cookies to the mix, specifically, the smell of cookies to several milk ads at bus stops in San Francisco.

From the AP:
The technology that creates the scent is very similar to that used in magazine ads. Scented adhesives are placed throughout the interior of the bus shelters, including under the benches.
But wouldn't you know, somebody had to complain. From KGO-TV:
But the company with the advertising contract for the city's bus shelters has ordered the strips be taken down.

Muni (the bus company) got complaints from advocates who worried the scent would taunt the homeless and also from people concerned about allergic reactions.
Taunting the homeless? With the smell of cookies?

Forgive me for sounding like Scrooge this time of year, but are there no bakeries, no restaurants? Establishments which emit the tempting taunting odor of food?

IT'S ABOUT NOTHING. British mathematician Dr. James Anderson says he's solved the problem of not being able to divide by zero by creating a new number: "nullity."

From BBC:
"Imagine you're landing on an aeroplane and the automatic pilot's working," he suggests. "If it divides by zero and the computer stops working -- you're in big trouble. If your heart pacemaker divides by zero, you're dead."
I didn't know a pacemaker needed to divide in the first place. But anyway, Dr. Anderson's solution isn't a solution to other math experts. Writes one commenter on the BBC site:
The "problem" of a computer with divide-by-zero errors is not a problem, it's a feature. It's not something you need to or even want to fix. You could easily design a computer that doesn't have an error in that situation if that's what you want. Replacing the error condition with a new symbol accomplishes nothing. The program still has to deal with the issue in order to present a real-world result to the user.
If you have ten apples and divide them among zero people, are you left with ten apples (because there's no people to divide them among) or none (because zero is nothing)? My high-school algebra textbook called division by zero "undefined" -- and now you see there's a good reason why it's undefined. How do you like them apples?

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Ink On Your Face

You're going to make mistakes as a TV news producer -- spelling errors, fact errors, technical errors. Most of the time, they're minute and forgivable. But for crying out loud, don't do what a producer in Baltimore did. WJZ ran a "news" item saying Michael Richards appeared in blackface at a celebrity roast for Whoopi Goldberg.

From the Baltimore Sun:
WJZ's story, broadcast at least twice yesterday afternoon in breaking-news style by anchor Sally Thorner, was attributed to But WJZ's news department was apparently unaware that every story on the Web site satirizes Hollywood.
It didn't take me five seconds to figure that out.

Moral of the story: don't believe everything you read on the Web. And don't use it to fill news time.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Reel To Reel: Deja Vu

We've seen this before somewhere, but better.

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Mild Language, Slight Female Nudity

Deja Vu's premise is not too far removed from Minority Report, which used technology to see crimes before they happened. But whereas the latter gave us much to ponder, the former doesn't want us to think too much. So, the most intriguing aspect of the film is ruined by sloppy execution.

You can't blame it on Denzel Washington. As always, he turns in a charismatic performance as an ATF agent assigned to investigate the terrorist bombing of a New Orleans ferry with hundreds of sailors and their families on board. One would think Washington would tire of these roles, but who cares as long as he plays them so well? Agent Doug Carlin doesn't need a lot of time to get what he needs from a crime scene, which makes him a quick recruit for a specialized investigative unit.

This team of sleuths possesses a killer tool: a massive, heavily guarded computer system nicknamed "Snow White" that constantly processes information from satellites and heat imaging cameras to show what was going on four days ago as it happened. Even in the movie universe it's hard to believe, although somebody will probably tell me the CIA or the NSA has such processing power at its fingertips. Sure enough, Carlin soon finds this technology involves more science than cameras.

Without revealing the plot point, I will simply say it is forced upon us in a way that made no sense to me. When Carlin argues with the members of the Snow White team about this point, it's almost like he's arguing with the writers of the screenplay to give him something that makes sense.

A couple of scenes stand out, including one where Washington's character chases a car he can see on the highways four days ago, making this the trippiest pursuit I've ever seen on film. But unfortunately, many of Washington's actions seem motivated only by a line in the screenplay and not his character. This film reteams him with director Tony Scott from Man On Fire, which also featured a theme of a lone crusader. Unfortunately, Scott can't seem to make the rest of the movie work around Washington, leaving him to go through the motions while we struggle to understand why.

Reel To Reel: Casino Royale

Bond's back and blond.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Some Brief Sex, Male Nudity

As much as I like Pierce Brosnan, and as much as I like him as 007, I have to admit the James Bond franchise was going stale. The only things keeping this series going besides Brosnan's looks were his one-liners and the cool spy toys.

So the producers rebooted with Daniel Craig, who up to his crowning as the new Bond was known for his role in Layer Cake, a movie I have not seen. Whether they made the right choice will take more than one film to answer. From what I saw on the screen, he's giving us more grit than grins, putting him more in tune with Ian Fleming's vision of Bond. He's less hormonal but still can turn on the charm. But Craig's most memorable feature is his piercing blue eyes. They can melt hearts or break bones as required.

Casino Royale returns to Ian Fleming's original material, placing Bond in a big-money poker game -- which conveniently is no-limit Hold-'Em, cashing in on the current craze. He's playing against terrorist financier extrordinaire Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), which makes the World Series of Poker look like the Friday night game at Larry's. Bankrolling Bond is royal financier Vesper Lynd (Green), who quickly becomes 007's desire. She's no disposable Bond girl, matching his wit measure for measure.

But come on, we all go to these films for the action, and Casino delivers. The most remarkable sequence is a long foot chase early in the film which winds all over a construction site as Bond chases a bombmaker onto a construction crane. I wonder if CGI lowered the danger level of some stunts, but it sure doesn't look like it.

Bond shows signs of vulnerablity throughout the film, a refreshing change from previous outings as Bond catches up to brethren like XXX and The Bourne Identity. However, I still miss "R" -- "Q's" successor played in previous films by John Cleese. It is obvious Eon Productions is trying to get away from some old routines -- just don't get too far away.

Friday, December 1, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Dollars And Sentences

A hue and cry echoes through Tucson in the wee hours of the morning among the unsuitably temperate: "Global warming? Ha!" Drop the thermometer below zero Celsius on any night and we'll happily give Al Gore a slice of inconvenient truth. But your Lightning Round offers these morsels instead...

SHOW ME THE MONEY. A federal judge ruled this week paper money discriminates against the blind, because all the bills feel the same.

From the AP:
U.S. District Judge James Robertson ordered the Treasury Department to come up with ways for the blind to tell bills apart. He said he wouldn't tell officials how to fix the problem, but he ordered them to begin working on it.

The American Council of the Blind has proposed several options, including printing bills of differing sizes, adding embossed dots or foil to the paper or using raised ink.
The Treasury Department says changing bills for the blind would cost too much and thwart anti-counterfitting efforts. But cost is a relative term.
In court documents, government attorneys said changing the way money feels would be expensive. Cost estimates ranged from $75 million in equipment upgrades and $9 million annual expenses for punching holes in bills to $178 million in one-time charges and $50 million annual expenses for printing bills of varying sizes.
Nine million a year to punch holes in paper! How do I get on board that money train?

LOOSE LIPS. A San Francisco psychologist is out with a book suggesting what many have long suspected: women talk more than men.

From the London Daily Mail:
In The Female Mind, Dr. Luan Brizendine says women devote more brain cells to talking than men.

And, if that wasn't enough, the simple act of talking triggers a flood of brain chemicals which give women a rush similar to that felt by heroin addicts when they get a high.

Dr. Brizendine, a self-proclaimed feminist, says the differences can be traced back to the womb, where the sex hormone testosterone moulds the developing male brain.
And it appears the good doctor, like the staff here at The Lightning Round, firmly believes in the dangers of testosterone.
There are, however, advantages to being the strong, silent type. Dr Brizendine explains that testosterone also reduces the size of the section of the brain involved in hearing - allowing men to become "deaf" to the most logical of arguments put forward by their wives and girlfriends.
And wait, we hear another of those suspicions about men may be true.
But what the male brain may lack in converstation and emotion, they more than make up with in their ability to think about sex.

Dr. Brizendine says the brain's "sex processor" - the areas responsible for sexual thoughts - is twice as big as in men than in women, perhaps explaining why men are stereotyped as having sex on the mind.
Now it all makes sense. Men are too busy thinking about sex to talk, and women have to talk more to get into their, ahem, preoccupied heads.

MIGHTY MINI POWER RANGER. A 4-year-old in Durham, NC saved his sister from a gun-wielding robber by using some charisma and a quick change into Mighty Morphin' Power Ranger costume.

From the News & Observer:
The robber was holding a gun to 5-year-old Mary Long's head when a 3-foot-tall Mighty Morphin Power Ranger leapt into the room.

"Get away from my family," 4-year-old Stevie Long shouted, punctuating his screams with swipes of his plastic sword and hearty "yah, yahs."
The startled robber and his partner took off with some loot from Stevie's mother's purse but left the family unharmed.
Evans said family members are struggling to help their children understand their ordeal. A counselor said Stevie needs to improve his distinction between fantasy and reality, said Heather Evans, Stevie's aunt.
Oh, we think Stevie knows reality all too well. And the reality is, he's got guts.

TAKE THE WAFFLES AND RUN. An International House of Pancakes in Quincy, Massachusetts flipped off its customers by asking for their drivers' licenses before they were seated. The policy came after an abundance of what is politely called "dine 'n dash," although Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr prefers a more vernacular term.

From the AP:
"(I said,) 'You want my license? I'm going for pancakes, I'm not buying the Hope diamond,' and they refused to seat us," John Russo said. He said he's been a victim of identity theft in the past and wasn't comfortable with the idea.

"The security guard had at least 40 licenses in his hand. Identity theft is rampant. I wouldn't want to give my license, with my address or Social Security number to anyone that I'm not familiar with that ... I'm going just for breakfast," Russo said.
IHOP's corporate office smelled the burning bacon and immediately ended the policy.

We at The Lightning Round note IHOP's 24-hour kitchen attracts some characters and more than a few drunks. IHOP is the convenient after-the-after-party, a way to flush out your system at 4am if you still remember how to use a fork. In one Friday night sit-down last month, we observed a few women devoting 70 percent of their available table space to beading materials, sliding together a few lines before the late plate. And we felt a little anxious gossiping with the relatives wondering if the couple in the booth next door was lifting the conversation like a wallet on Bourbon Street.

So it's back to the drawing board to solve the shrinking problem. Short of harvesting your credit card number up front or chaining you to the table, we don't see a customer-friendly solution.

RUN THROUGH. About two hours north of Mexico City, you can find out what it's like to be smuggled into the U.S. illegally. WOAI-TV reports of a private park in Ixmiquilpan, Mexico where you pay fifteen bucks to run through an obstacle course of riverbeds and underground tunnels while mock Border Patrol agents chase you.

From WOAI's Randy Beamer:
And many of the people who run this park know exactly what it's like as they have crossed illegally. But they insist this is not to train others to do it, but to discourage them. And to get those in a position of power in Mexico to make changes so people won't want or need to leave.

"We try to portray it" one woman tells me in spanish " they'll stay here to work to help our culture and our traditions survive."
Maybe if the Mexican government would "portray" a little less corruption, we wouldn't have to worry.