Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reel To Reel: Tron: Legacy

Time for an upgrade.

Going Rate: Worth full price and 3D.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Electronic violence, a few curse words

The original Tron ranks as one of my favorite childhood movies. It hit screens as I was programming a Timex/Sinclair 1000 in my bedroom and a Sanyo MBC-3000 in Dad's study. It's among the great geek movies, embodying the hacker catechism of free information and cooperative operating systems. But if you saw it as a kid, it was just a cool flick where people killed each other with glow-in-the-dark frisbees.

Tron: Legacy is to the original what Windows 7 is to 3.1. It's faster, sleeker, geekier, and optimized for 3D, although some scenes are shot in 2D by design. Tron began as an experiment in backlit animation which required multiple passes through an optical printer to render its cybercitizens. Scenes generated with help from a revved-up PDP-10 cemented its place as a pioneer in computer animation, but much of the film was analog: live action footage and sets. This is the recipe for the new Tron, but CGI has sent the optical printer to the spare parts bin.

When we left Kevin Flynn (Bridges), he had just liberated his company's mainframe from the evil MCP and gained the corporate position he deserved for writing some killer arcade games. But you know, some people just gotta have more. Turns out the cyberworld he freed was just too promising to leave alone, so he created a software utopia led by a code clone of himself named CLU. Flynn, though, continues to dart in and out of the system using a laser beam. I always wondered how that system was smart enough to digitize someone and put them back together without killing them.

So one day, Flynn gets trapped in his own system (again) and doesn't come home to his young son Sam (Hedlund). While Flynn lingers in cyberpurgatory, Sam grows up to be the kind of hacker his father would admire, gleefully ripping off code from Dad's enterprise, which has evolved or devolved -- take your pick -- into a Microsoft clone. Is Dad dead, missing, or just having a really long day at work? Nobody's really sure until his co-worker Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) gets a page on a beeper Flynn told him to keep by his side. To paraphrase a line from Ghostbusters, no human would send a page like that.

Sam decides to follow in his father's laser beam, leading him back to the game grid where, surprise, CLU is doing the same things the old MCP used to do: pitting programs against each other, gladiator style. We learn, however, there's a new twist: somehow inside the grid, an cyberorganic life form came about, something that's supposedly the greatest thing to happen to computers since the mouse. I have a feeling my system does that sometimes, but that's called a memory leak.

Tron fans, your old favorites are here with upgrades: the light cycles, the killer discs, the "Space Paranoid" ships or whatever they're called (a Wikipedia article calls them "Recognizers"), and the Solar Sailor. The new film adds light flyers, more neon, and a soundtrack from Daft Punk. Derezzing is messier; programs shatter like glass instead of dissolving into bits. Even with CGI, the movie embraces analog like a DOS prompt. It also embraces more than a few plot holes, just like the original.

This and Avatar are two movies where 3D is actually worth the extra three bucks. Tron: Legacy's world pops out and surrounds you, even if those glasses make the dark electronic world a shade darker. See it in IMAX if you get the chance. Better, see it with a geek who can explain it to you if you're not up to speed.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pork Wars

The next big government fight is setting up over earmarks. One gigantic spending bill has already died. This one is pitting the Tea Party against the people they elected. As I have said before, one person's pork is another person's investment in the community. Even Ron Paul has waffled on earmark reform.

Three things need to happen, but they won't:

1) Make Congress vote on each individual earmark. No more "omnibus" spending bills that force lawmakers to take all or nothing. If spending $300,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii is truly good for the entire nation, it needs to get a majority vote. Lumping the pork together allows your elected officials to hide behind a camouflage of disbursements they can honestly say they supported even as they held their nose at the rest because they had no way to cut it out. Furthermore, who wants to vote on an endless stream of earmarks? Breaking them up will cut the number down out of time constraints.

2) Give the president the line-item veto. If Congress won't reform its spending habits, it should be up to the President to step up and do it for them. Remember, the override still applies; if two-thirds of your lawmakers in the House and Senate approve an vetoed earmark, it goes through. All but six states have the line-item veto. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all asked for it. It's high time we got it at the national level.

3) Pass a balanced budget amendment. Maybe we could push this off in the past, when our national debt was below $1 trillion. Not anymore. But I don't expect our leadership to spend with one hand and cut off the other one. Many have tried, few have succeeded. Let's make it a law and hold everybody to their waste-reduction promises.

As I said, I don't expect any of these three remedies to catch on. Remember, we're dealing with Congress.

Hanging Up The Gloves

As I write this, President Obama is about to sign the tax cut compromise into law, the one that drew gripes for its deficit-inflating costs and its breaks for the rich. But ultimately most people weren't in the mood to fight with Christmas coming and the economy still stinking.

Libs are still fuming about the deal, saying they've been hung out to dry, betrayed, thrown under the bus, whatever metaphor you want to use, so the president can buddy up to the GOP. I have a different theory: after the prolonged fights over the stimulus and health care, your president wasn't in the mood for World War III. Having former president Bill Clinton stump for the deal should tell you something: if he's leaning on old Democrats to sell, Obama doesn't have much left in the tank, and he's trying to conserve what he has to get him through the next two years.

You can argue the prez is crazy like a fox, that he's simply using this as a second stimulus plan knowing he can pin it on Republicans if it fails. Maybe. Perhaps he's taking a course on triangulation from Bill Clinton. We'll see what happens when the GOP majority is sworn into the House and the new Republican senators get to work.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Card-Carrying Bachelor

White canopies winding around the parking lot of a shopping strip in Carefree mean the annual Christmas spectacular is underway. It's not unlike what I see at Tucson's Fourth Avenue Street Fair (and the same weekend, coincidentally): handmade jewelry, scented candles, sweets, government agencies doing some goodwill, a satellite TV dealer... and the “Big Skinny” wallet salesman.

A lone man with silver hair peddles a device that promises to slim your pocket device down by at least 50 percent, easier on the pockets even though I have none at the moment. I'm wearing my golden "Earl Of Suffolk" mid-18th Century outfit -- long weskit, skirted coat, knee breeches, white stockings, lace jabot, gold-trimmed tricorn, and no working pockets anywhere. My friend Madame Noire is clutching my right hand, dressed in her candy-striped 18th Century dress.

We've just come from the English Rose Tea Room, where I celebrated an early birthday lunch with soup and scones and a Christmas tea blend. When I ordered lemon cake for dessert, Madame arranged it so our servers carried it out to me with a lit candle and a song. I knew what she was up to, yet I didn't expect the involuntary blush response.

“Your face turned bright red,” she said with a warm smile. I marveled at how she could see it by the light of a single candle.

Now we were walking off all those hearty calories among the Christmas peddlers, occasionally walking into a few shops along the way. The owner of the local Tommy Bahama store insisted on snapping photos of our anachronistic presence. A lady at a salon invited us in for sparkling cider while she styled a gray-haired lady rolled up in curlers. I was content to just bask in the atmosphere until I met the wallet man.

I show him my aging tri-folded money receptacle. “Velcro,” he scoffs, unleashing his orneriness. “That easily adds to the bulk of your wallet.” He spots all the tears in the black canvas fabric. “And this,” he says, pointing to the plastic slip over my ATM card, “is no good.”

“I think you need a new wallet,” Madame remarks.

Wallet Guy recommends a four-panel model with enough pockets to hold all my charge plates along with the business cards I've absorbed over the past few months. He lets me try it out, and immediately I run into trouble as I start moving things over. The business cards don't want to fit into the pockets.

“Try putting them in corner first,” he advises. I do and they still don't slide in without a fight. I turn it over to the salesman and let him have a go.

“First, you oughta put those back here if you're going to collect them,” he says about the business cards, scolding me like a father scolding his offspring about the pitfalls of life. He stuffs them in the same pocket as the cash, and with a little work, all the credit cards are tightly shoved into the four panels of the wallet. It looks tighter but not necessarily thinner. I start folding it up into fours and the nearly gives birth to a heifer.

“No, no, no, this way!” he corrects, showing me how it folds into half. I'm not sure if it will fit into my pocket when I get one back.

“I think I'm gonna need a bigger boat,” I observe and motion to another, slightly larger model. I move my money and cards over for a second time when I notice I don't have any room left for coins. I pour a handful of change into the bill slot.

Wallet Guy gives me another hairy eyeball. “You're putting your coins in there?”

“They have to go somewhere,” I point out stiffly, reaching my limit. I'm purchasing a wallet, not curmudgeonly advice on what to put in it.

Before I walk away and spare him my wrath, Madame makes the save. “Here, try this one.” She shows me another style with an outside pouch for coins and numerous wider pockets. I slide the cards and money from one wallet to another yet again while Madame talks up our fashion statements.

“We love history, and he's a historical re-enactor,” she says. “He does Revolutionary War and Civil War, and he takes me out to dance.” She can't help but tell him how much she likes gentlemen who love elegant historical things like she does.

Wallet Guy shares some insight on his relationships, muttering that his women have “always wanted more” as I finish up arranging the bank plates in their generously spacious slots.

“Are you two married?” the man asks.

“No,” she answers.

“Why not?”

The question catches us both in an awkward moment. We could've fooled a lot of people, walking about arm in arm like a married couple, her gushing over me like I'm her dear husband, me discreetly kissing her hand every so often. We stand there speechless until an explanation dribbles out of our mouths.

“I don't think he wants to be married,” she says.

“I'm not ready yet,” I add sheepishly.

Of all the people to ask that question, it comes from a person who chides me for poor wallet habits. I pay for my early birthday present to myself, and Madame and I continue on our merry way, greeting and occasionally bowing to the people who pause to notice our festive fashions.

We stay as long as we can, enjoying each other's company and a cup of coffee away from the crowd until the sun sets behind the mountains surrounding Carefree. We don't discuss the future or our future together.

“I enjoy spending time with you,” she says. I kiss her hand again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

I Came, I Saw, I Said Nothing

Homeland Security is teaming up with Walmart to fight terrorism. "If You See Something, Say Something," is the theme of the campaign, referring to anything that could be indicative of some impending violent event. Yet the slogan is so broad, I could report dozens of irregularities without even leaving the store:
  • In the pet section, I find goldfish and guppies, but why aren't there any kissing gourami?

  • Why is Sam's Cola always understocked when I do my shopping? Granted, it's usually 11pm on a Thursday night, but the regular brands don't require me to crawl under a shelf to retrieve a 12-pack.

  • Why did someone let this car (at left) park outside?

  • Why, in a store that doesn't sell porn mags, is Cosmopolitan freely accessible right under the National Enquirer with article teases too racy to name in a blog that wants to avoid being caught in people's Net Nanny filters?

  • Why does the Walmart I shop at leave dozens of expensive cameras sitting out unguarded after 11pm, just begging to be lifted by some amateur thief?

  • Why is the staff constantly waxing the floor?

  • Why can't I use self-checkout in the late night hours?
And I haven't even mentioned all those suspicious characters documented by Warning: this site may not be suitable for your eyes, your workplace, or your stamina, but it makes my point. Click at your own risk.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Reel To Reel: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1

He-who-shall-not-be-named strikes back.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Fantasy violence, some teen sensuality

Walking out of the latest edition of the Harry Potter saga, I had a flashback to the second feature of the original Star Wars trilogy, the dark chapter setting up the big finish. The first part of Deathly Hallows is that kind of picture, although at times it also reminded me of The Blair Witch Project with scene after scene of young people fending for themselves in the wilderness against some unspeakable evil.

By breaking the finale in half, screenwriter Steve Kloves gets to do something his other Potter scripts haven't allowed: take a breath. So we spend more time absorbing the angst of Harry (Radcliffe) and his pals Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) as they deal with the weight of saving the world amidst teenage hormones and rebellion. I remember how cute and lovable these characters were as tweens in the first film. The last of that innocence is gone now.

The young wizards face a world where they can trust few people, if anyone. The Dark Lord's allies have taken over the Ministry of Magic, renovating it into a neo-fascist organization to repress muggles (non-wizards). It's printing up all sorts of propaganda and instruction manuals and summarizing everything in a disturbing monument labeled "Magic is Might."

Death Eaters are constantly searching for Harry and company, who have to disguise themselves at times using a potion that morphs them into other people. Hermione, always the spell prodigy, has also figured out how to make herself and others invisible without the cloak from the first picture. It kind of begs the question why she didn't figure that out sooner, but you have to remember, these kids are still in school.

While trying to outrun Death Eaters, the three protagonists also have to find and destroy evil lockets called "holcruxes" that give you-know-who his power. As you would expect, just finding and offing one is a job big enough for a single movie. Having one around you is also not good for your mental health, sort of the wizarding equivalent of Superman's kryptonite.

At times the picture seems aimless, but maybe that's because the Potter pictures up to now have been so heavily distilled that only the good parts are left. Or maybe the tone is so much darker and heavier. We don't even journey to Hogwarts this time around, nor do we witness a single game of Quidditch. News from the outside world is relayed to our characters through a special shortwave radio. It made me think of life in Great Britain during World War II. This... is London, with dueling wizards swarming around it and an axis of evil about to engulf it if all is lost. I've long theorized the Harry Potter series is so popular because it draws primarily from reality while weaving its tale of fantasy.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Prancing Puritan Calls The Ball

A tale of making merry from the American Heritage Festival.

It is a less-than-formal affair, under the moonlight, between the rows of tents, with only a few candles to help us. But we have musicians: dulcimer, two fiddles and a bass, and a guitar. They don't know a lot of 18th Century dance songs, and I don't know a lot of Civil War dance songs. But I tell our dulcimer player that if she can give me something 4/4 and 3/4 when I need it, I can make it work.

"I am Christopher," I introduce, "better known as the Prancing Puritan!" I'm dressed to match in my brown tunic, baggy breeches, brown socks and a steeple hat. John Playford, that old English dancing master, was indeed a Puritan, if anyone needs reminding.

I lead the group through an opening promenade. People are still dressed in their Civil War or Colonial attire, although a young friend of mine has switched to Victorian formalwear and a stovepipe hat. We designate him and a gorgeous Georgian-era lady to lead the winding march through the narrow road.

I start off with the Gallopede. I picked the dance, and our players pick the tune. It only takes a couple of moments to teach because the steps are so simple: long lines forward and back, a turn, another forward and back, another turn, a do-si-do, a sashay.

I try "Come Haste To The Wedding" next, but that necessitates a crash course in 18th Century longways set dancing. It's the easiest Colonial dance I know, but it still has a progression many people aren't used to. I have to explain the details of "1's" and "2's" in the line.

"If you're a 1, you're moving down this way through the set. If you're a 2, you're moving the other way," I clarify, walking in the proper directions. And so, everybody must remember their number, if they even know that number in the first place.

"Why don't we count off?" a soldier suggests.

A great idea, I observe. Let us do it the military way.

"One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!"

Our players didn't have the tune I was used to for this dance, but it didn't matter. Neither did the way people mixed up the steps among the right- and left-hand stars and turns and circles. Everybody looked like they were having fun, and I kept calling it to keep everybody on pace, walking around the long set like Mills Lane refereeing a heavyweight fight.

"It's a rowdy crowd," a friend tells me quietly. "We have a lot of kids who aren't listening."

Of course they're rowdy. They want foot-stomping action, not elegant affectations. I threw in a Colonial Dance to honour our Colonial friends, but now that tribute is done... for good.

"How about something easier," I announced, "like 'Chase The Squirrel!'"

We dance it next, and everybody is back into it.

"Can we have a waltz? a young lady asks.

"Of course," I say.

I throw in a waltz to the tune of "Ashkotan Farewell."

The rest of the dance card reads like a list of We Make History ball favorites: "The Apple Dance," "Virginia Reel," another waltz, and then "The Road To Richmond" before General Washington and the officers showed up from their social to greet us in camp.

"For our prancing Puritan!" says General Washington as he tosses me a bag of kettle corn.

What follows is a moment of supreme peace, where we sing Christmas Carols and give thanks for all we have and all who are participating in the historic weekend.

The Kids Are All Right

A tale of triumph over shortcomings on School Day at the American Heritage Festival.

Two Continental Soldiers will have to do the work of four or eight today.

We are on the battlefield, George Washington to my side along with our Sergeant and two buckskinners. We have no standard bearer. We have no French commander. We barely have any militia to help us. Across the field are our friends the Catalonian volunteers, transforming into the role as Brunswickers -- German regulars fighting for Great Britain. The Redcoats have vanished.

"We've got a breakthrough," Gen. Washington notes. An overflow of children is spilling out onto the battlefield in back of the Brunswicker artillery. They're filling in along the fence, out of the way, but not out of danger unless we take extra care.

Hundreds and hundreds of young spectators are in the bleachers and behind the rope pennant line. They are already rooting us on, cheering from the second we stepped onto the battlefield.

"Wash-ing-ton! Wash-ing-ton! Wash-ing-ton!"

His Excellency is quick to encourage them, and never disapproving of their enthusiasm. We'll take the support. We'll take a few artillery pieces, too.

The Sergeant and I have just spent more than an hour answering questions from the waves of children roaming through the camps with their teachers and parents.

"Does that gun fire?"

"What's in that box?"

"How much does that gun weigh?"

"Who are you?"

"When did the war end?"

"What side are you on?"

"Are you gonna get killed?"

A few of the youngsters carry papers with them, doing class assignments in the field.

"Describe the Continental Army Soldier," one reads to me.

"What do you see?" a teacher prompts. It's a good prompt for me to talk about my uniform, the red white and blue with the white weskit, breeches and stockings topped with a tricorn. "This was worn in the early part of the war," I explain. "Eventually soldiers would wear overalls." Not me. I prefer my breeches, even if they've shrunk considerably since the first time I put them on five years ago. A gusset sewn in by a kindly schoolteacher has relieved the tension and protected my circulation, even if they are a tad baggy.

As always, though, the children want to know about the musket: what it shoots, how it shoots, what I pour down the barrel to make it fire. If the colorful uniform doesn't attract them, the silver shine of the musket will catch somebody's eye in a flash.

"And it came from the French, along with this uniform."

It's a tip of my cocked hat to our friends the French, Le Comte and La Comtesse, manning their tent and explaining what their aristocratic airs have to do with the American Revolutionary War. Le Comte takes delight in showing the children his special cane, the one with the built-in spyglass.

If we had it with us now, maybe would could spot the Brunswickers' weaknesses from far, far, away. Instead, we will have to be content to send our buckskinner militia forward to taunt and annoy them with a few shots before we advance and achieve the equivalent of a shorthanded goal.

BOOM! Their artillery fires first. We will wait to start our march until our cannons respond. One more boom and we're off.


I know the drill and I've done it many times. Tear open the cartridge, dump some in the pan, dump the rest down the barrel and come to the ready.

"Take aim! Fire!"


Nothing. Not even a pan flash. I've just put a new flint in my beloved 1777 French musket, and this is how it shows appreciation. "Misfire," I whisper.


I fake going through the motions again for the children. I need to ham it up. They're rooting us on and they deserve everything I can give them, but I don't need to double load.


Click. No spark. "I have a flint issue," I whisper. The kids don't notice, but I can only hope. I'm timing my actions to make it look like I fired, even if I didn't.


More pretend motions.



"We need to take a hit on this next volley," His Excellency indicates.

"I got it," I said.

"After this next volley," says the sergeant. One adversary fires, but then he falls back. I'm still loaded and going down doesn't seem right now. Or perhaps I want just one more crack.



HUZZAH! An orange blast from the muzzle. One final shot before we move in on the Brunswickers and their guns. Somehow we've managed to take out their superior numbers. They're lying all over the ground, in front of the cannon, muskets by their sides. The children are cheering. Our mission is complete as we call for the dead to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. GOD Bless the Catalonians. They're willing to be our fall guys in the cause of liberty and education.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to stay and answer more questions from the children, having to change uniforms and leap forward 100 years to join my 1st Virginia compatriots for the next battle. Still a few crowd around me for high-fives and pictures as I leave the battlefield, eliciting a few healthy huzzahs.

More Continentals would join me on Saturday and Sunday, improving our odds and evening the lines, but that fickle flintlock would continue to torment me with its clicking. I would fiddle with flints and muse about the lack of spark. Even Baron von Steuben couldn't solve my soldiering dilemmas, all the more reason I count my blessings among an understanding brotherhood of the Continental Line.

Remember This Moment

Photos by M. Cynecki

Anybody who warned of Confederates bearing gifts never met me at the Victorian Christmas Ball. Slung around my shoulders is a haversack full of cards written out to every family I can remember who touched my life in some way during the past year. The process is like a rosary, counting blessings and prayers in ink before the signature.

I flirted with the idea of coming in my kilt -- my Stewart tartan has a better Christmas look and feel. Yet I know I'll be summoned to take part in the annual 1st Virginia Christmas skit, which requires the proper attire. One must sacrifice. And yet the gray wool doesn't reflect the joy of the season or the light which I long to be.

Coffee has lifted my energy, but man doesn't live by Folger's alone. It takes something more to dance every number on the card: "House Of Burgesses," "Chase The Squirrel," "The Road To Edinburgh," "The Cookie Dance," "The Candy Cane Dance," a Virginia Reel and then another Virginia Reel... thirty... minutes... long.

"It's the hardest dance I've ever done," my friend and partner Madame Noire observes. She cannot believe my stamina. I can hardly stand at times, but I will endure.

"There's harder dances," I point out, noting she took to contra dancing with barely a catch.

"All the hoopskirts," she notes. She is fascinated by how the Victorian ladies carry themselves so well through so much liveliness and still stay so beautiful.

This time of year kicks off a holiday madness we beset upon ourselves, a whirlwind of shopping and parties and decorating and giving and serving. You would think such a gargantuan level of celebration would connect more of us to JESUS, like it's supposed to. Yet New Year's Day rolls around, and by mid-January we're unplugged once more in the fields of frost and snow, fully exposed to the emptiness of winter when so much is dead around us, including our spirits. The job is done, and we're exhausted, depleted people. Our work is finished until next November.

"Do you decorate for Christmas?" a friend asks.

"Not really," I explain, then correct myself. "Not at all. First, I just don't have the storage space in that apartment for all the decorations, and even if put up a tree, it doesn't have all the decorations my brother and I made as kids all those years ago. Some of those are paper, and I don't know how they continue to hold up. My parents' home is where the tree is." And also the manger scene, and the winter town on the fireplace mantle with the stockings hung in the other room, and the holly and the lights wherever they may fit.

Great joy, true joy, comes from above... and from a few lively dances, dear words to dear friends, and the warmth of all of us caroling together.

"Silent night... Holy night... "

"Take a look at all the people around you," our host says, "and remember this moment."

Friday, December 3, 2010

We Are In Control - Do Not Adjust Your Sets

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps laments the state of television news, telling the BBC it's in "grave peril." Peril for him, perhaps, but let's dig a little deeper.

As quoted in the L.A. Times:
American media is not "producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue," Copps said in an interview with the BBC's Katty Kay. That trend, he added, has to be reversed or "we are going to be pretty close to denying our citizens the essential news and information that they need to have in order to make intelligent decisions about the future direction of their country."
I have to chuckle a bit. Obviously Copps hasn't been watching the cable news opinion shows. Of course they're partisan. Of course the hosts have their agendas, but they're talking up hot issues with plenty of viewers, who are watching and hungry for more. And what about the Internet?
Though Copps acknowledges there is much to celebrate, he notes, "Increasingly, the private interests who design and control our 21st century information infrastructure resemble those who seized the master switch of the last century’s communications networks." Furthermore, he argues that though there may be many more platforms both on TV and online, the news itself is coming from fewer sources.
Er, Mr. Copps, you ever hear about bloggers? Last I heard, most of them weren't controlled by big media. This blogger isn't, either.
In his remarks [to Columbia University], Copps paints a grim picture of today's media. He notes that more than half of the 50 states have no full-time reporter covering Capitol Hill. He cites a study by the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism's Norman Lear Center showing that the average 30-minute local news broadcast has less than 30 seconds devoted to local government news. (The research was focused on Los Angeles news broadcasts.)
Here we have an assertion formed by somebody who doesn't work in the business and doesn't understand it.

First, many local stations don't have a Capitol Hill reporter because they don't need one. The Associated Press and the network news services provide adequate Capitol Hill coverage with little extra expense. You may argue that having your own man in Washington will provide you with the ability to localize a national issue, but you don't have to have a Washington bureau to do that.

Secondly, shouldn't any study of government coverage in local newscasts focus on places in addition to Los Angeles? In Tucson, KOLD News 13 gives an average of two minutes in the 6:00 newscast alone to government-related stories. We love our political specialist Bud Foster, and we're not giving him up. I work government stories into the 10, and the other producers do so with their 'casts according to news of the day. Imposing a quota system on government news content smacks of regulation... which is what Copps is aiming for:
Copps wants stations to commit to covering more debates and issues-oriented programming during election years. He also wants stations to be more in touch with the communities they serve.

Writes Copps: "Nowadays, when stations are so often owned by mega companies and absentee owners hundreds or even thousands of miles away — frequently by private equity firms totally unschooled in public interest media — we no longer ask licensees to take the public pulse. Diversity of programming suffers, minorities are ignored, and local self-expression becomes the exception."
Yawn. Here are the same old complaints from regulator types: TV stations need to be doing more "public service" programming. The companies that own them are too big. They aren't in line with the communities they serve.

When is the last time you watched one of those local Sunday morning public affairs shows? I'm not talking about "This Week," "Face The Nation," or "Meet The Press," but a talking-head interview show featuring a host, a guest, and a table between them. If you don't have one of these shows in your area, I'll let you guess why they're not on, and it's not because the evil conglomerated TV station wanted to suppress community voices.

Community service by a TV station is a highly malleable concept. Some people would define it as those public-affairs shows. Some people would define it as having "CSI" on three nights a week. Some would define it as providing emergency information. When we at KOLD break into programming for severe weather bulletins, we will often hear a few grumbles from viewers about interrupting "Oprah" or their favorite show. We work hard to minimize those interruptions, but we're still going to serve our community in ways people expect of us -- and our license requires of us -- while balancing out the desires of other viewers.

Ask a general manager who was around in the 70's about FCC regulations, and you're bound to hear about the grind of public-service and news quotas spiced with the perils of the Fairness Doctrine, all of which fly in the face of the First Amendment. The FCC essentially programmed part of stations' schedules under the justification that the public airwaves should reflect the public interest when there's a limited number of viewing choices.

All of us know those days are gone, decimated by cable and the Internet. We have the diversity and local viewpoints he's pining for, just not on TV like he wants, or in the form that he wants it. More regulation is a solution in search of a problem.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

At The Judges' Table On "Desert Diamond Lucky Break"

I think it has been about eight or nine years since I last set foot in the Desert Diamond Casino on Nogales Highway. That was back when it was not much more than a bingo hall and a small casino, when it didn't have a lush hotel or nightclub, or a grand entrance with token specimens of Tohono O'Odham culture to remind us the Native American nation that built all this once lived in more primitive settings.

I'm here to be one of the judges on “Lucky Break,” a local version of “American Idol” taped at the casino's Monsoon nightclub. I wander past row after row of video slot machines and gray-haired people stabbing their fingers down on buttons. The beeping from each machine spinning reels blends together into a gigantic drone. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air, a reminder this is one of the few public places where you can still light up indoors.

It's at least 45 minutes before tape time when I arrive, but the line to get in is already snaking well outside the door. Each singer has their own fan club, and each fan club has their own signs. I walk up to a woman who's assisting one of the contestants. After she finishes the conversation, I tell her I'm here to judge.

“Great!” she explains, identifying herself as one of the show producers and quickly showing me inside. She notices I'm dressed in a dark suit with a bow tie, giving me a faux tux. Under one arm is my trademark tricorn hat, something I hope they will let me wear on camera.

“I brought it along tonight because I used to wear it when I sang karaoke,” I tell her. “I hope it will inspire people.”

Those were my scoundrel days, the days when when I produced weekend newscasts at KOLD and we'd hit our favorite bar after Sunday's 10pm show. One of the anchors and at least a few crew members would down adult beverages and belt out bad renditions of country standards and a few rockers. Then I'd take the mic, and people looked up from their booze and smokes. This guy could sing -- well. And he performed. He knew the words. He had a few moves.

I had a broad repertoire, running from rock to soul. Earth, Wind And Fire's “September” was my very first song on the first weekend of January, 2000. I did Lionel Richie's “Easy” and Dire Straits' “Money For Nothing.” I had enough falsetto to handle Prince's “Kiss” but enough growl for Dr. Hook's “Cover Of The Rolling Stone.” My version of James Brown's “Get Up” brought down the house, but the one song people wanted to hear again was AC/DC's “Dirty Deeds.”

I'm not Bon Scott, but one of my colleagues swears I have his voice. It's this evil whine, like the Wicked Witch of the West with a hormone imbalance, and I could wrap my throat around it without straining myself, save for a grunting shout at the very end. One occasion, I bellowed so heavily I threw out my back in front of half the station during someone else's going-away party. I had to lie down on couple of aging chairs hoping the pain would subside as I held onto my crown –- that three-cornered hat, the one I wore because it made people happy, even if they called it a pirate hat instead of a patriot hat. That was all before I Got Right With GOD and found other things to lift me up besides a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade followed by a chorus of the Staple Singers' “Respect Yourself.”

One hour before showtime, I'm sipping on a straight Pepsi, wandering about the showroom as crew members prepare the stage and check cameras while the contestants get their briefing and publicity shots. I'm told I will actually be judging two shows tonight, something a co-worker advised me could happen, so I've brought a change of clothes for the second taping.

I also learn I'm judging one of the semi-final rounds, meaning all the singers I'm about to hear already won earlier contests. The scoring for these episodes will be kept secret: judges will offer commentary to each singer but not reveal the 1 to 7 point figure they've written down next to each contestant. Each of the three judges' scorecards will be added to a master sheet, just like in a boxing match. Out of the eight or nine contestants we're going to hear in the first episode, at least half will advance to the next round.

Another judge arrives: the head chef from the casino's fine dining establishment. He's worked a long day, but he's one of the regular judges, and he's eager to get in the game.

“I'd wear my chef hat,” he says upon noticing my tricorn, “but then I'd just look like all the other chefs.”

Soon I'm joined by my other colleague: Mike, a personality from the local country music station, which is also supplying the hosts: Max and Shannon. The producer has told them about the hat, but not the reason I'm wearing it. Max would have to deduce that during the judges' opening statements.

“I'm looking for somebody who's going to connect with the audience and who's really gonna sell that song and win it,” I say after briefly explaining my tricorn's karaoke heritage.

The first singer goes on for two-and-a-half minutes, and she nails her record, a rockin' country hit. I'm second in line to offer commentary behind Mike.

“Boy, it's hard being first out of the gate,” I tell her.

She hopefully can't see I'm a touch nervous. I have never judged a talent competition in my life, and even though I've volunteered for this, just before tape rolled, I prayed to GOD for the wisdom to get through it. I'm also having to crane my neck down towards the microphone on the judges' table. During sound check, the production folks told me I needed to get my mouth closer to it while also projecting a lot more. I feel like they want me to both shout into the mic and eat it. How that makes for quality audio is beyond me.

“You were hitting your marks perfectly,” I critique. “As they said in Colonial times, HUZZAH!” I tip my hat.

Cheers rip through the packed Monsoon nightclub. Max remarks it's becoming more obvious why I'm wearing the hat. Later, he'll remark that he keeps expecting the British to show up, but he passes on a chance to compare me to Paul Revere and The Raiders.

With that first contestant out of the way, I settle into a comfortable routine: a singer comes on, I scribble down notes and a possible one-liner during the first thirty seconds of the performance. It's tough on the performers, and twice as tough on me. The contestants know the words. I have to make mine up as I go along, and there's not a bad singer in the bunch. I have already resolved many weeks before that I don't want to be a Simon. I can't simply say, “nice voice, nice moves, nice performance” every time. I'm not seeing much to criticize, and at this stage of the competition, I shouldn't. I don't want to nitpick, but I don't want to overlook flaws or slough off constructive comments.

An older gentleman dressed in a sharp suit comes on and does Sinatra's “Fly Me To The Moon” with the kinds of spin moves Frank wouldn't have dreamed of doing. The crowd laps it up. This guy gets a 7 -- no questions asked. Mike says all he needs is the cocktail and a cigarette.

“Can you take me to Mars and Venus, too? Can you take this whole room with you?" I comment. "I close my eyes and I hear Ol' Blue Eyes!”

One lady did a tune by Selena, and I had flashbacks to my Rio Grande Valley days. “You got that cumbia thing down,” I say. “Muy bien! Viva!”

I'll give out plenty more Huzzahs before the night is over and get a few cracks about the tricorn.

“Nice hat,” I say to a contestant donning a cowboy topper.

“I wish I could return the comment,” he kids back.

“Ooooo,” I grimace, laying my head down on the desk in feigned disgust. “What's the lowest score I can give?” Great television.

Between the first and second shows, people come over to gush on my judging abilities. I can't believe it. I don't think I'm a star, even if I'm trying harder to show personality. If anything, I'm afraid of stealing the show.

I change into a blue button-down shirt, no tie, no jacket. But the tricorn stays, and so do my zingers.

“Hold on,” I say with my Blackberry up to my ear after one woman's rendition of Aretha Franklin's “Natural Woman.” “The Queen of Soul called and just made you a princess!”

“Mullet,” a personality from K-HIT in Tucson, is amazed with my performance. Mike is back for the second show as the third judge, with Chef heading home after a long day.

The final performer of the second show actually gets to do her song twice. A buzz in the audio forces a re-take. Our producer asks us to clear our minds and focus only on the second performance, but it doesn't matter. She's as good, if not better, the second time around, and either way, she gets high marks for her version of Oleta Adams' “Get Here.”

I don't give anybody below a 5, which makes sense since we're in the semi-finals. I don't think I'd want to be the judge for the final.

The taping wraps up around 11, and just in time. I race to the bathroom after downing two bottles of water throughout the contest.

Shannon from KIIM comes over and is ecstatic. “You were so flippin' funny!” Everybody on the production staff I meet with wants me back. I tell them I want to be back, only I have to see what our general manager wants to do.

After a lot of compliments and hob-nobbing, I walk out the door and was approched by an elderly man who called himself “Blackie The Blues Man.” He's from Chicago, and he looks the part: porkpie hat, white goatee, light brown suit and pants. For the next five minutes, we talk about our musical backgrounds, and he admires my judging abilities.

I can hardly hear him over the din of the slot machines, but I stand fascinated by how he seems to have enough life in him for at least two people. His voice is low and gravelly, one of somebody who's paid their dues and been all over the place. He is a man of GOD, and I can tell it. I don't know why he takes such a keen interest in me, but I have a few good guesses.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"You Shall Enjoy Yourself Tonight, Mr. Ebenezer, That Is An Order!"

The 1984 version of A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite versions of the Dickens classic -- the other being the Alastair Sim version. George C. Scott is cranky and miserly to the hilt. I remember watching this two years in a row when it was originally broadcast on CBS (and sponsored by IBM, which showed off its PS/2 line of computers).

Here's a lively scene, in honour of tomorrow night's Victorian Christmas Ball:

I love the Regency fashion... and the breeches... and the dancing.

"How long since you've danced, Ebenezer?"

"A waste of time, dancing."

"You didn't think so then."

"There was a reason then."

There still is.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

To Grandmother's House We Go

In the days of my youth, Thanksgiving dinner rotated amongst my parents and my relatives. One year, Mom and Dad would do the cooking, or Grandma and Grandpa Francis, or Uncle Bob and Aunt Judy, or Grandma and Grandpa Lawson. We had the Norman Rockwell family tree, and we still do: no dysfunctional relatives or people we couldn't stand to be around. If we did, Mom and Dad did a darn good job of hiding them from me all those years. That alone is enough to be thankful.

When my folks hosted, the table nearly filled the entire dining room. We had just enough space to sit down, especially with the china cabinet behind one side. Forget getting up for seconds. The bun warmer always sat on that cabinet, hopefully next to somebody with good aim.

"Hey, throw me a roll!"

We kidded Uncle Bob about how he downed mashed potatoes. But nobody was immune to indulgence. I once asked Grandpa what a "glutton" was. He said to ask my father. Grandma Francis made the best cranberry ice. It coated your mouth in richness. Mom still makes it, with her recipe. We always had plenty of pie.

One year, as I approached legal drinking age, Mom let me have a few shots of cranberry liqueur. It tasted just like Ocean Spray. Several hours later, I was in the throne room kneeling before the porcelain altar. I never figured out if I was sick drunk, or just sick. Maybe it was food poisoning. Whatever it was, I needed Compazine, that miracle drug that turns off nausea like a switch.

We had traditional pre- and post-meal rituals: watching football on the tube, digging through the Kansas City Star to see what the Jones Store Company had on sale tomorrow, putting our Christmas lists together. Dad's side of the family developed the lottery system for Christmas, where we drew names to determine who was playing Santa for whom. It cut down on the expense and grind of the holidays.

I haven't been home for Thanksgiving in more than 15 years. All my grandparents are gone. Turkey Day will find me stacking a newscast instead of a plate, but I can treasure the memories. And after the shows are done, you will see a person dressed in Puritan clothing gobbling up turkey sandwiches at a Tucson-area Denny's. While some traditions end, others endure.

Mr. Fezziwig Gets Reel

Read A Christmas Carol and you'll see a mention of "Sir Roger de Coverley," which is a Virginia Reel minus the reeling part. Couples "lace the boot" instead.

But not these lively dancers at the 2009 Fezziwig Ball during the Riverside Dickens Festival:

And that's how we'll do it at Saturday's Victorian Christmas Ball!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Glad Tidings

The following carol is brought to you in honor of the Victorian Christmas Ball this weekend!

Gray Thursday

Not too long ago, Thanksgiving was for giving thanks, and the Friday after was for hitting the stores.

But now with the Great Recession leaving us in various states of either joblessness or desperation, the old rules are gone. Kmart, Sears, and other national retailers will be open on Turkey Day. That feast will just have to wait for thousands of shoppers and thousands of store employees who will be waiting on them -- people who are thankful to have a job in spite of their bitterness of pulling holiday duty.

Truth be told, a lot of workers have always had to rearrange feast day around their job life: police officers, firefighters, hospital workers, doctors, journalists, and yes, television news producers. Your humble servant has fond memories of Thanksgiving at Whataburger instead of with family.

In the matter of disposable income, however, we have choices. We also have time. Twenty-eight days sit between Thanksgiving and Christmas, more than enough available moments to buy and give and imbibe our consumer desires. You will miss a few doorbuster deals, but if you're spending time with the people you love breaking bread and remembering all GOD has done for you, it's worth it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

That's No Joke

Fox News chief Roger Ailes doesn't seem to mind when Bill O'Reilly makes a crack about decapitation, especially when it happens to people he doesn't like.

As Howard Kurtz reports in The Daily Beast:
I asked Ailes about a recent crack by Bill O’Reilly that seemed to envision a violent end for Dana Milbank. The Washington Post columnist had criticized Fox’s election coverage as biased and neglected to acknowledge that numerous Democrats had appeared as commentators.

“Does Sharia law say we can behead Dana Milbank?” O’Reilly asked his colleague Megyn Kelly. He added: “That was a joke for you Media Matters people out there.” Milbank wrote a follow-up column objecting to the violent imagery, saying he was a friend of Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in that fashion in Pakistan. O'Reilly then accused the reporter of casting a bit of humor as a serious threat.

So should O’Reilly be joshing about beheading Milbank?

Ailes couldn’t resist: “Well, I would have cut a little lower.”

He quickly got serious: “No, he shouldn’t joke about beheading… Bill knows he probably shouldn’t have said it. He just shot off his mouth.”
Hardee har-har. Very funny.

Of course Bill "knows" he shouldn't say it. He knows he shouldn't say a lot of things, but yet he says them anyway because they draw viewers and make angry conservatives happy. It's a page right out of Rush Limbaugh's playbook: yank the media's chain, especially media critics' chain, then sort-of-apologize or complain about the media later if it goes too far.

Now compare this incident with a Twitter comment from British barrister Gareth Compton about a muslim journalist: "Can someone please stone Yasmin ­Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing really."

Compton was arrested for what he later called an "ill-conceived attempt at humour."

It's not funny. It shouldn't be. But I don't expect Ailes or O'Reilly to get a reprimand. They should be thanking GOD Americans love their liberties, even if Sen. Jay Rockefeller wishes Fox News would go away.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reel To Reel: Secretariat

Betting to win... no "place" in this "show."

Going Rate: Worth full price admission.
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language

Again, I'm catching up on movies I've been meaning to review but haven't.

Everyone loves a winner, so the cliche goes. It's not hard to understand why a powerhouse chestnut colt captivated a nation in 1973, even before this sensational 31-length win at the Belmont Stakes that cemented Secretariat as the greatest race horse of all time:

Secretariat, however, is not a horse story any more than Titanic is a boat story. It is the true story of a woman, Penny Chenery (Lane), who knows little about horse breeding but is tough and focused enough to pursue a goal to the end, especially in a field dominated by men.

Chenery takes over her father's suffering horse farm in Virginia, partially uprooting herself from her family in Colorado. She quickly figures out what's hurting the operation and begins to make changes, dismissing a double-dealing trainer and learning the secrets of successful breeding. Secretariat (played by several different horses) comes Chenery's way via a coin toss as part of a breeding agreement. She's on the losing side of the flip, but we learn it's exactly what she wants. Secretariat amazes nearly from birth, getting to his feet surprisingly quickly.

Looking for an ace trainer, Chenery recruits French-Canadian Lucien Laurin (Malkovich). He is trying to retire, if only he can get his golf swing right. All the training in the world, however, can't guarantee money -- or victories -- which is what those around Mrs. Chenery insist. Her father's farm slides deeper into financial difficulty, but Secretariat's owner knows she's got a sure bet. The Colorado housewife's decisions lead to friction in her marriage, but the movie does not harp on them. Why should it? Victory is just down the stretch. Furthermore, Lane's character has no time for melodrama. Strong women aren't sucked into that.

The film's racing sequences are amazingly intense and accurately recreated, partially shot with small digital cameras that allow us to go along for the ride. Director Randall Wallace, however, opts to let us see one via the actual TV footage, cutting us in on what Americans saw in 1973 and sidestepping a risk of monotony.

Secretariat is one of those films where you know the ending before the first frame, so the journey better be good. It is, but not in the conventional sports-movie way. The roller coaster of triumphs and setbacks is there but not involving its principal character, who just loves to run.

ESPN ranked Secretariat 35th on its list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th Century. When he died in 1989, a necropsy found his heart to be two-and-a-half times as large as the average horse, meaning it performed better and more efficiently than his competitors. "He is moving like a tremendous machine!" called broadcaster Chic Anderson during the Belmont Stakes. How true he was.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Vote, My Voice, My Secret

Some people think transparency is the fix-all, cure-all for the problems we're having in government. No more dirty little secrets. No more cover-ups. No more lies. That's the operating thesis behind WikiLeaks, which is proving there's a good reason some secrets remain secret.

I hear the same cure-all being proposed to fix journalism. Rather than strive for total objectivity -- which is impossible given human nature -- let's just make reporters reveal their political leanings and get on with it. The cards are then on the table, and you can't accuse anybody of bluffing.

But Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine -- an excellent media blog -- proposes taking this into uncomfortable new territory:
And I agree with Matt Welch that news organizations should reveal the votes of their staffs. When I retweeted that thought, some tweeters twitted me, saying that keeping one’s vote confidential is a right. Yes. They should not be forced out. But self-respecting journalists should consider it an obligation to be transparent. Self-respecting news organizations should be honest with their communities and reveal the aggregate perspectives of their staffs. It’s relevant.
Yes, it is relevant. But requiring journalists to start curtailing or sacrificing rights for the good of the profession sets a dangerous precedent. Likewise, we should not think less of those journalists who keep their votes secret -- as is their right. No journalist should developing a guilt complex over failing to give up that right.

Furthermore, I don't know where we would draw the line. It seems silly to hold bloggers to the same disclosure standards as the network folks. I don't know if the guy who does the garden segment at noon has to disclose he voted for McCain. I find something inherently creepy about flashing "Voted Republican" or "Voted Democrat" underneath every TV reporter's name.

I think the people who desire this the most are the people who love taking shots at Big Media. They want more ammunition. They want more reasons for us to shoot the messenger and defect our eyes and ears towards more partisan news sources. Taking the away the claim of bias through transparency won't help. The argument will now read, "Why should you trust those [Democrats/Republicans/Tea Partiers/Socialists] over at [news organization]? Trust US instead?"

Transparency isn't the wonder drug. Just like any medication, there's a risk of overdose.

Friday, November 5, 2010

We Didn't Mean For You To Be That Opinionated

MSNBC "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann is on suspension after Politico found he donated to three Democratic candidates, including Southern Arizona's Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords.

NBC News policy, as quoted by Politico, says:
"Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee."
This makes sense for reporters, but Olbermann is not an "impartial journalist" -- he's a commentator. He's paid to be un-impartial, and his stance is no secret to anybody. In fact, he's pumped up MSNBC's ratings with his left-leaning show. Still, the peacock acts like Olbermann committed a capital sin after finding out his money followed his mouth. Gasp! A liberal supporting liberals!

"I did not privately or publicly encourage anyone else to donate to these campaigns, nor to any others in this election or any previous ones, nor have I previously donated to any political campaign at any level," Olbermann told Politico. If he had, then we have more of a ethical dilemma, given the host would be crossing the line from commentary into campaigning.

Olbermann spent private money spent on private time for people we would expect him to support. The only people who should be surprised are those who demand all talk-show hosts turn in their citizenship cards.

UPDATE: Upon his return, Olbermann says NBC's policy towards political donations needs debate. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine argues more transparency is needed -- even going as far to reveal how journalists vote!

Post-Partum Election 2010

Thousands of early and provisional ballots still await the counter's hand, and some races are still too close to call, but I'll go ahead and put on my amateur pundit hat.

Probation Revoked. It took only four years for Democrats to lose control of Congress. That was after Republicans held it for 12. And so it continues: the partisan oscillation fomented by an electorate that runs to the opposition party every time they're stiffed by the one in power. The Dems were on probation the minute they took the gavel. Now they're back in the pokey. The GOP will be there, too, if it doesn't deliver.

I don't mean to discourage anybody from holding our elected officials to the fire; that's what we're here to do. Yet the back-and-forth over less than two decades has me a bit concerned about the future of our two-party system. I saw a t-shirt the other day that expressed it a little more bluntly: "The more I see of people, the more I love my dog."

From The Top. The Dems can lay most of their suffering at the feet of the commander-in-chief. President Obama overestimated his political capital from the start, ramming through a bloated stimulus package and flawed health care plan. Now he's facing a Republican house and a barely Democratic senate. Whatever agenda he had for the rest of his first term, he can throw it in the trash.

The president offers a mia culpa on Sunday's "60 Minutes," admitting he was so focused on legislation, he forgot about leadership.

As for his plans to make amends with Republicans... wait, is that snide laughter I hear?

By A Nose (or, A Mustache). I secretly predicted Rep. Raul Grijalva would win a squeaker after his hissy-fit call for a boycott of Arizona following the signing of SB1070. Sure enough, he ended up in a tight race with Ruth McClung. As of this writing, the AP and MSNBC are calling the election for him. A 12th-hour loss is still possible but not trending that way.

Given the trend holds, Grijalva has one of two interpretations before him:
1) It's time to make amends and start listening to the people who nearly booted him out.
2) The base saved his behind and he owes them, much the same way Sen. Russell Pearce says Gov. Jan Brewer owes him.

The books are now open for bets on which option Grijalva chooses. My money is on #2, given that Grijalva went ahead and declared victory on Election Night.

Red State Blues. With their ranks continuing to dwindle in the state legislature, it won't be long before Arizona Democratic lawmakers end up on the Endangered Species list. The GOP picked up three seats in the Senate, giving them 21 out of 30 -- a two-thirds majority. In the state House, they'll hold at least 37 out of 60 seats.

Perhaps the state Democratic honchos are considering a statement like this:
Dear Electorate,

We realize most of you consider us a dadgum nuisance rather than the loyal opposition, but allow us to remind you that a healthy democracy requires people willing to hold others accountable. In the months to come, we expect to see a lot of bills come down the pipe ranging from sensible to guano insane, and there will be times when our conscience forces us to speak. You won't like our words, but we kindly ask that you at least hear us out before you vote us out.

If the above does not agree with your persuasions, we are currently examining a large plot of land in rural Montana.

Arizona Democrats
Take This Tax And Shove It! On the local level, Tucsonans thunderously rejected Proposition 400, which would have hiked the city sales tax a half-cent to pay for core services like police and fire protection. For months, TPD and TFD warned of layoffs and cuts. Now the voters are saying, "Go cut yourself!" We'll see if any dire predictions of a lawless city come to fruition.

Prop 401 also tanked. It would've changed the city charter to give the mayor more voting power and raised council salaries, among other things. Do you get the feeling we have a large slice of local citizenry eager to pay our leaders 25 cents a day and feed them dog food for what they've done to the budget?

You Can't Win 'Em All. The Tea Party proved it can't be ignored, but among its victories on Election Night, a glaring loss stands out. In Maryland, Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell found a certain body part handed to her by Democrat Chris Coons. The GOP brass warned she was no match for Coons, even with her primary victory and the tide turning against the Dems, and they didn't endorse her.

We can go back and forth over whether that lack of support doomed her, but you can't ignore this: she may not be a witch, but a big loss after a big win is certainly a word that rhymes with it.

And In Closing... How many of you would have voted for the Libertarian candidates if they had bothered to run TV ads? How many of you even knew they were on the ballot before you saw their lines underneath the R's and D's?

We have a lot of people in America who are spitting on both parties right now. You would think this would be the time for the LBT's to capitalize on it and get their alternatives out there. Yet once again, they are comfortable being the protest party instead of playing to win.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


My friend Elizabeth tipped me off to this blog post on bullying from Dan Pierce of "Single Dad Laughing." It's long, but it's heartfelt. I invite you to read it and then come back here...

This post illustrates a chronic problem endemic to the bullying epidemic: abdication of responsibility. Parents aren't parenting. Teachers aren't teaching. Leaders aren't leading. Simply saying to a bully -- as Dan's teacher once did -- "John, that's enough," is not discipline. It is telling a child, "That's enough for now." The adult is not drawing a line on what is acceptable behavior but simply postponing the matter until later.

Now, if that teacher had said, "John, we don't make fun of people's weight, and if you do, young man, you will be spending time after school writing a five-hundred word essay on bulimia," perhaps that would've adjusted his attitude. Or maybe he would have seen Dan as the new teachers' pet. Dan, however, would've known he had an ally.

As Mr. Pierce points out, many people will say "I never knew," when they're close to a bullying tragedy like the death of the Rutgers student or the four students who took their lives in Mentor, Ohio. Of course you didn't. The bullied built themselves a castle with a moat and drawbridge, and they wouldn't let you in.

The bullied realize everybody around them fails them, torments them, or burns them through false friendship. They don't go to their parents, because those parents have told them to be strong. They don't even trust GOD, because they can't understand why they're suffering under a loving GOD. I found this paragraph from Mr. Pierce's memoir telling:
"In ninth grade, the girls started getting involved. The popular, "hot" girls started doing things like asking me out, then laughing in my face before I could answer. They would invite me to come to parties or hang-outs and then laugh some more when they saw that I had hopes that their invitations were sincere. It only took a few of these moments before I believed that any desire, by any girl, to hang out with me would always be a joke."
Up go the stone walls and the heavy wooden gate. Yet the turrets have no archers, nobody to defend against the attackers who pound at the door, and somehow the combatants keep getting in. When the castle is compromised and nobody is there to defend the king, his majesty might decide it is better to die by his own sword than to be humiliated by the enemy. Abdication is not an option, even though everybody around them did.

It's time to pick the scepter back up. Parents, it means you talk to your children, using some of the suggestions Dan Pierce mentions in his post. You have a relationship with your children's teachers, which means you attend those parent conferences religiously. Don't be disappointed if your children say, "Nothing much," when you ask what they did at school. This is more a matter of fatigue than repression; would you gladly tell the kids what you did at work all day?

But above all, dearest readers, you must draw lines. Tell a child who starts heckling, "We don't do that to other people. Would you want somebody doing that to you?" We don't need more laws. We don't need more counselors. What we need are people willing to stand in the gap.

Reel To Reel: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Greed is still good unless you're holding a mortgage.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language

(I'm a little late to the screen on this one. I'm catching up on some movies that have been on my list but unworkable into my schedule until now.)

I recently heard Rush Limbaugh railing about the Obama Adminstration's "assault on free market capitalism." You could argue the takeover of General Motors was a huge broadside, along with forcing people to buy their own health insurance, among other things. You can argue for or against the government's course, but you can't deny this: there wouldn't be an assault on free markets if they hadn't assaulted us first. I'm talking about allowing people who had no business owning a home to take out mortgages. Then financial gurus inconceivably package those loans into investments. Now we're all paying for it, and I can't understand the lunacy that got us here.

Gordon Gekko can't, either. Michael Douglas returns to his Oscar-winning role a little grayer and poorer but not bereft of insider market knowledge. After getting out of prison for high financial crimes and misdemeanors, he is pedaling a book, "Is Greed Good?" I dunno, Mr. Gekko, is it? As he works the lecture and autograph circuit, he finds his estranged daughter being courted by up-and-coming investment banker Jake Moore (LeBeouf). Moore has a fixation on cold fusion as the next big score, and he's relentless at digging up millions to fund research. Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) wants nothing to do with her father, whom she blames for a family meltdown while he was locked up. She's writing for a Huffington Post-like blog, as if she were doing penance for Dad's sins.

Moore is working for a firm that's running out of cash and time. Rumors are hitting it hard, leading to a disaster that jumps from the business section to the front page. As he tries to build a relationship with his future father-in-law, Moore turns to Gordon Gekko to sleuth out what's really going on. We don't see Gekko exerting any serious effort, but he doesn't have to. He's Gordon Gekko, fercryinoutloud. It doesn't take long for him to find an icy corporate kingpin, Bretton James (Brolin), is at the heart of the problem and up to some very dirty dealings, if only somebody could unmask him. At the same time, we sense G.G. wants to get back in the game.

That would be enough to power this sequel, but director Oliver Stone and company throw in the financial meltdown as a principal character, as if we all need to be reminded that the economy is stinking right now. He runs wild with CGI illustrations of plunging markets against cityscapes and tangled streams of stock tickers to pick up film's meandering pace. The original Wall Street moved at the speed of an action picture, even in its soliloquies on money. Some of those lines ("Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.") are classics. I don't see anything like it here.

Yet if you're a fan of the old Gordon Gekko, complete with that brick cell phone, hang in there. You will not have forked over your $9.25 in vain. The film that begat this one was a parable about money and power, but this one is more of a financial procedural, a money mystery with romantic and familial sidebars. The original Wall Street loved money; its offspring makes us choose between love and money.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How To Manage A Rescue In 33 Steps

Chile's emotional, uplifting, and nearly flawless rescue of 33 trapped miners will surely be studied for years as a model in crisis management. Watching each miner rise from the depths made for incredible reality television, impossible to turn away from.

Yet before those glorious moments, hundreds of people were constantly caring for them, sending food and goodies -- including personal music players -- down a tube to keep the trapped miners healthy, happy, and sane. Knowing someone dearly loves you in the darkest hours is powerful motivation. Knowing an entire nation is behind you amplifies that all the more over the course of two dark months underground.

Chile went all out for the rescue. I balk at using the term "party atmosphere" in describing a dangerous rescue operation, where any number of things could have gone wrong, but how else do you describe an event where people gathered to watch the miners on a big-screen television, shouting and singing as each miner emerged from the rescue capsule? I can't find the words to describe the love and tears of joy pouring from the relatives who embraced the ones they could have lost. The emotion spread far and wide. On our KOLD Facebook page, one person said she cried every time a miner came up.

"They have experienced a new life, a rebirth," said Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who was at the rescue site in hardhat and work coat to greet each miner. "We aren't the same that we were before the collapse on August 5. Today Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world."

No kidding. The rescuers did everything right, or as right as they could. They didn't skimp or turn the process into a finger-pointing political squabble, at least not to the rest of the world. They made the process incredibly transparent, with cameras everywhere they could reasonably place them. What we saw were 33 trapped miners knowing they were going to make it and a nation that was going to make it happen.

A miracle? Perhaps. But you also have to remember Romans 8:28.

Monday, October 11, 2010

It Is A Truth, Universally Acknowledged...

...that a gentleman who loves historic dance might one day aspire to lead others in it. Thus, a young naval officer is invited to teach and call one of his favourite dances at the Pride & Prejudice Ball as presented by We Make History.

From the memoirs of Lt. Christopher of His Majesty's Navy.

Colour daguerreotypes provided courtesy of A Gracious Gentleman to be named forthwith!

The first few dances have put me in the most elegant of moods. The assembled ladies and gentlemen are beautiful, as always in their Regency attire. The music of Mad Robin is perfect. We have danced “Sellingers' Round,” “Christchurch Bells,” and “Jamaica,” among other dances, to the guide and teaching of Madame Tussant.

And now my big moment is arriving.

“We have a special guest caller,” our host announces. “Formally of Lord Nelson's fleet, the HMS Victory, Lt. Christopher!”

I cautiously step forward and take my place in front. I call for the gathered to arrange themselves in groups of three couples each. “Make sure that you leave plenty of room between your sets because you will be using the outside of your set as well as the inside.”

“The name of the dance?” our host prompts.

“'Come, Let Us Be Merry!'” It is my favourite 18th Century dance, one I know by heart, which is why I chose it.

“We have a first couple, a second couple, and a third couple!” I announce, making things clear for the uninitiated. Now I must demonstrate the moves.

I ask a gentleman in the first set nearest me if I may displace him for a moment. He graciously agrees and I walk through the first two moves with his partner, turning my lady twice, each of us bowing to the second couple in the set after each turn.

“Now, you try it!”

I figure our novices need to walk this through. It is not an easy step to master, and even I have trouble with it after five years on the floor. When I am satisfied that at least most people are understanding it, I move on.

“Now, the first couple will cast off to the middle of the set, then cast off again to the end of the set,” I say as I walk the moves through with my demonstration partner. “Now here is where you have a choice. You will lead your lady up through the middle, but you may do it in one of three ways. The first way harkens back to the minuet... “

I lead the lady up the set, our inside hands joined high, stepping in and out in three-quarter time. “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.”

We return to the end of the set. “Or, you can also try a hesitation chasse.” I demonstrate it again, holding both my partner's hands as we face each other and slowly slide up the middle to waltz time.

“And if you are feeling really adventurous,” I caution, “there is also a third way. You may waltz up the set,” I say before proceeding with a waltzing twirl with my partner up the middle.

“If you are ever in any doubt about which option to use, let the lady decide.”

Not many moves are left: just a cast off to the middle again, and then six hands round halfway in an in-and-out step, ending with the couples all doing a two-hand turn to end progressed and proper.

“And we have a new top couple!” I announce. “Remember, if you are ever lost, simply right your ship and carry on, as my captain would say. Are there any questions?”

Now, the test. Have I taught it well enough? Can I call it well enough?

“If our players are ready,” I signal. Mad Robin begins.

“First couple turn and honour!” I call.

Throughout the hall, first couples are turning and honouring as well as they can. Some understand which way they have to turn. A few are lost but quickly recover. I have barely any time to keep track of any one set, for at least two dozen sets are dancing at the same time and I must call again...

“First couple turn and honour again!”

My focus is on the sets closest to me because they're the closest to me. I move around, half dancing with them, half anxious to make sure I can spot a set that may be having trouble. Yet if they are, what am I to do? I dare not stop and correct people. I do not want to single people out or embarrass anybody, above all things, and besides, I must now say...

“First couple cast off to the middle... and the bottom!”

If some sets are getting behind, I can not see it. A light din of conversation is rising from the crowd. Is is confusion or laughter? I am not sure. I begin walking between sets, looking for signs of trouble even though I know I have limited time and abilities for correction before all must...

“Lead up the middle!”

Some people are not bothering with the first method. The minuet is not for them. Or they simply lead up without synchronization to the three-quarter time. Their goal is to arrive safely, as is the goal with those in fear, when the journey is anything but the reward.

“Cast off to the middle!”

They do so, as far as I can tell.

“Six hands round halfway!”

I try to coax people back into the rhythm. “One, two, three! One, two, three!”

And then the last move. “Two hand turn!”

I so relieved to have gotten through the first iteration of the dance I almost forget to begin again. “First couple turn!” I call in shorthand. That's not completely what our dancers need to do, but experience and advice in my working life has taught me to shorten commands during a live performance for the benefit of all. I hope the dancers know what I mean.

I go through another cycle of the dance, and another after that. Some sets are speeding up, decoupling with the phrasing of the music, much as what happens during the Virginia Reel, so that they're ahead three or four bars when other sets are behind or with the time. What have I done? What haven't I done? Yet I look around and nobody appears to be giving up. People are still dancing and smiling. I think I can hear some laughter somewhere. Standing among the sets I cannot see everyone. I can see our designated caller dancing for a change, but what is our host thinking? He seems to be enjoying himself. He gave me this opportunity. Am I living up to his expectations or will I go down with the ship?

I am concerned but carrying on.

I continue calling while walking amongst the sets looking for signs of trouble. Mad Robin's beautiful music and my multi-tasked attention cause me to forget a step or two, but the dancers, bless them, keep right on, improvising where need be. Hopefully, nobody is giving up or dropping out. That would break my heart.

A few more rounds and I realize I need to bring things to a proper close. I hold one finger up to our players, signaling one more time through the music. They do so.

“And honours all!” I call, reminding them to bow and curtsy. I hear applause.

“Thank you!” I say in a stew of gratitude and relief. I had done it.

Many are complimentary, including our dancing mistress for the evening who only had one slight piece of advice: let people know it's a waltz. It is valuable information for next time.

I know there will be a next time when our host pats me on the back. “A good first time at bat,” he says, smiling. I hoped to hit a home run, but I will settle for a double, or at least a base hit.

I also wished the person in the stands who inspired me to step up to the plate had seen it. My dancing friend Madame Noire had been in the powder room during my debut as dancing master.

“I know you did fine!” she reassures me. Still, I wanted her to see it.

“I'll just have to call another one,” I say. I will, at another ball, in another era. This is but just the first step. I pray there will be may more to come.

For now, it is time for me to dance again...

More pictures and recollections of this evening here!

Friday, October 8, 2010

All The Right Moves

Here we are, the night before the Pride and Prejudice Ball, and it is time to go out with the proverbial big finish.

My Dearest Dancing Friends, I have oft wondered what it might be like -- to borrow the vernacular -- "mash up" an 18th Century dance with modern music.

Perhaps it might look something like this compilation assembled by a fan of period films:

Stuff Louie Puroll Says

Pinal County Deputy Louie Puroll's feisty news conference yesterday -- where he defended his version of the shooting incident that injured him in April in the Arizona desert -- had all the ingredients of great live television: a compelling character, great dialogue, and an intriguing storyline.

Puroll was a soundbite machine, ranting off more quotes than we could fit into 120 seconds of evening news time. He reminded me of the popular Twitter feed by Justin Halpern with the name I can't mention on a family-friendly website, the one that's now a CBS sitcom starring William Shatner.

Some of the money bites:

"No Sir, I didn't have any anxiety. I didn't need a test. I was there. I did not shoot myself."

"I'm a range deputy. I'm trusted to keep myself busy. I don't have a corporal, or a sergeant or a lieutenant looking over my shoulder every five minutes."

"As I was bringing my rifle up, it flashed in my mind, this is where I'm supposed to holler out, 'stop, police,' that's when his muzzle flashed and that bullet struck me. So I decided it was not the time to strike up a conversation."

"I shot that man, I saw him fall down. He didn't stay there. I can tell you this: he's the first man I shot that didn't stay there."

"I never at any point lawyered up and refused to answer questions. I have answered every single question asked of me by every single investigator involved in this. Anyone who says I lawyered up is a damn liar."

"I had an M-16, a pistol, and a badge. If you need more than that you need to pack your stuff and go home."

"You know how much paperwork's involved if I generate a story?"

"Real life is not a made-for-TV movie."

"Alright, pay close attention cause you're not going to believe this, Until this shooting happened and I got home that night and was watching the news, I'd never heard of 10-70. I do not watch the local news. I don't read the newspapers and I don't care about politics."

"It's not that ordinary, but it's not that far out of the ordinary. I could tell you stories that would make this seem like eating lunch at the Dairy Queen."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Ball In Bath

Miss Jane Austen was quite fond of Bath, England, which greatly influenced her writing. Why not hold a ball there? And this one is a beautiful example:

And we shall do our best to create such merriment at the Pride & Prejudice Ball!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

From England To Italy

Dearest Friends of the Dance, as the Pride & Prejudice Ball draws even nearer, I direct your attention away from England for the moment to Italy, where some friends of the Regency staged a ball a few months prior and did capture the spirit of Jane Austen's time spot on:

And so did our Italian friends here:

My goodness, they do enjoy a lengthy dance. But note the laughter and grace all around!

Your humble servant is especially enamored with those gentlemen wearing the military uniforms. I am still trying to acquire more accurate Regency attire: a task not easy in this day and age, which is ironic given the popularity of Miss Austen's work!

Sinners And Soldiers

The Supreme Court just heard arguments in a case that sorely tests free-speech rights. Snyder v. Phelps pits a family who lost their Marine Corps son to the war in Iraq against Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe congregation in Kansas that protests military funerals and sees the deaths of American troops as GOD's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

The father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder wanted his son buried with dignity. What he got was protesters standing outside the memorial with signs saying "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." It didn't matter that Cpl. Snyder was straight. For Westboro Baptist, the truth never gets in the way of a good temper tantrum.

I wonder what Westboro pastor Fred Phelps teaches about separating the sinner from the sin. According to the model GOD and JESUS set for us, we are to love the sinner but hate the sin (1 Timothy 1:15-16, Luke 19:10, Romans 5:8). This doesn't mean we give sinners a pass; it means we help them repent. We pray for them. We encourage them to change. Sometimes we punish them. Sometimes we cut them out of their lives until they straighten out.

Nowhere in the BIBLE does it command us to make innocents pay for the sins of others. Sin often has collateral damages -- which is the straw the Westboro followers are grabbing at -- but GOD doesn't punish innocents (Hebrews 6:10).

I don't like it when Christians play snobbish games, calling some followers real and others fake according to how religious they are. Yet I hesitate to call the followers of Westboro real Christians when they distort GOD's Word so flagrantly and hurtfully. Their sense of decency is warped. They continue to protest military funerals and it doesn't bother them a shred. I can't understand how they can thrive on so much anger and not be deeply miserable inside. I'm sure they justify it in their own minds as doing the LORD's work. Rationalization is such a deceptively powerful tool; it lets us get away with anything.

The Supreme Court, however, can't rationalize their way out of this. It has to draw the line somewhere. Previous rulings have stated the time, manner, and place of free speech can be regulated, if not the content of the speech itself. Still, it agonizingly ruled in favor of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt when he ran an obscene parody ad mocking evangelist Jerry Falwell. Sometimes the law isn't equipped to handle obscenity. That's the trade-off of having a First Amendment: it protects the speech we love as much as the speech we hate.