Kish and I are up in northern Michigan for a vacation.  The other day we went to visit “Fishtown,” which is a part of Leland, Michigan.

“Fishtown” is an area that used to be used by commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan.  There is still a functioning smokehouse there and lots of fishing vessels that you can charter, as well as a boat you can take over to some nearby islands, but most of the structures are occupied by gift shops, t-shirt emporiums, restaurants, bars, and other businesses that cater to the tourist trade.

Fishtown is small in size, but is still a real treat for the senses.  The structures are wooden and weathered and gray with age.  There are some unusual objects here and there, like a rack used for drying nets, a metal fish windsock, and various nautical items.  The smells are the kind of smells you associate with the waterfront, like the smell of fish and of decaying plants, intermingled with the very enticing smell of whitefish being smoked.  And the sound is the gentle slap of the water against the pilings of the pier and the occasional cry of a seagull.

Fishtown is a good example of the kind of pleasant and interesting surprises you often find when you travel through America and are willing to go off the beaten path.

Hard To End

The Washington Post has an editorial today urging Congress to end corn ethanol subsidies.  The subsidies cost $6 billion, and their value in encouraging corn ethanol use is questionable in light of other government requirements.

What the Post editorial does not say is that these kinds of subsidies, and other government programs that seek to encourage or discourage other forms of economic activity, distort the market and have a much broader ripple effect than Congress typically intends.  If government subsidies encourage a farmer to grow corn when he otherwise would grow something else, the result will be an outflow of government money and, because the farmer is not growing the other crop, less competition and therefore higher prices in the market for that other crop.  If the subsidy encourages maximum production of corn, the farmer may use special fertilizers and other forms of chemicals to increase yield that may have an unexpected environmental impact.  The farmer may buy otherwise unnecessary types of equipment and build otherwise unnecessary silos or other structures, thereby making him and his farm economically dependent on the continuation of the subsidy and increasing the risk of an unsustainable debt burden and foreclosure if the subsidy is ended.

Once subsidies are started, they are difficult to end.  The alliances that caused the subsidy to be created in the first place grow stronger as subsidy money flows in and part is then contributed to politicians to encourage them to keep the subsidy in place.  In the case of the corn ethanol subsidy, the alliances presumably would be between farming states, large corporate agricultural concerns, and groups seeking to end our dependence on foreign oil.  Any effort to eliminate the corn ethanol subsidy — or any similar subsidy — therefore would likely face very stiff political opposition.  Occasionally, however, forces coalesce that make the elimination of such programs possible, such as happened when President Reagan was elected and Depression-era farm commodity price support programs were ended.

For anyone serious about deficit reduction, a careful examination of government subsidies, tax breaks, and other methods of interfering with the economy would be a good place to start.  We don’t need the government to pick winners and losers and to waste our tax dollars in doing so.

Attention And Accountability (Cont.)

I’ve posted on several occasions about the ethical issues surrounding Democratic Representative Charles Rangel, the former head of the House Ways and Means Committee — see here, here, and here.  The House Ethics Committee has now announced that Rangel will be tried on ethics charges before the Committee.  The bipartisan nature of the finding of “substantial reason to believe” that Rangel has violated ethics rules suggests that he has reason to be concerned.

I am glad to see that the Ethics Committee is showing that the ethics rules have some teeth.  Let’s hope the trial actually goes forward and sheds some light on the unseemly practices that seem to be all-too-common in Congress.

Should The Bush Tax Cuts Be Extended?

Beginning on January 1, 2011, the tax cuts enacted under President Bush will expire and significant tax increases — affecting Americans of different income brackets and many American businesses, and involving income taxes, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, and other forms of federal taxes — will automatically take effect as a result.  The Springfield News-Sun has published a helpful chart showing the changes in income tax rates that will occur if the Bush tax cuts are not extended.

Now Republicans and some Democrats are raising questions about whether raising taxes in the midst of a recession makes much sense.  The Obama Administration, through Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, says the tax cuts on the highest-income Americans should be allowed to expire, and they should pay an even larger portion of their income to the federal government.  As the Springfield News-Sun chart indicates, higher earning Americans already pay a significantly higher percentage in income taxes to the federal government.

Treasury Secretary Geithner refers to the higher-income earners as “the most fortunate” — as if the income they earn was the result of dumb luck, rather than hard work, opening their own businesses, developing a successful new product, intelligent investment risk-taking, or other activities that are rewarded in a capitalist economy.  That sort of bureaucratic attitude is infuriating, but typical.  If you’ve never held a job in the private sector where your hard work is rewarded, you tend to think that being successful in business is the result of happenstance as opposed to thoughtful effort.  That same attitude underlies the notion that, if the tax cuts expire, the highest-earning Americans will heedlessly continue to act as they have before and just pay more in taxes — as opposed to modifying their behavior in recognition of the fact that their hard work will put less money in their pocket.

In reality, of course, individuals and businesses do modify their behavior in response to tax rates.  That is why so many Members of Congress, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, think that extending the Bush tax cuts would be helpful for our struggling economy, and that ending those tax cuts could potentially shove the economy into a deeper recession. Americans will have less to spend, and therefore the consumer spending that is one of the foundations of our economy will be weaker.  Businesses, too, may stay their hand on hiring or other activities because the tax burden is too great.

The battle over how to deal with the expiring tax cuts will be interesting, because it will play directly into the standard themes of the parties, with the Democrats saying that the Republican Party is interested only in business and the wealthiest Americans and Republicans saying that the Democratic Party is interested only in economic redistribution.  In the meantime, Americans will again be caught in the middle, wondering whether they should expect a significantly higher tax bill come January — and how they should plan their affairs given the continuing uncertainty.

Who’s Playing Politics? (Cont.)

CBS News has an interesting take on the issue of who is playing politics on the extension of unemployment benefits for out of work Americans.  It turns out that President Obama, in signing a prior extension bill, specifically noted that it was fully paid for and therefore fiscally responsible — which is all that Republicans were asking to be done in connection with this latest bill.

Every voter understands that there is a galling hypocrisy in political leaders of both parties.  But does the games-playing have to be so flagrant and duplicitous?  Given this kind of phony about-face, are the President’s advisors really scratching their heads about why his approval ratings are plummeting?

The new extension bill, by the way, adds $34 billion to the federal deficit.

Developments At Stonehenge

When I visited England after graduating from college, I went to Stonehenge.  It was a very cool place — evocative, ancient, mystical, and unknown, even with the assistance of modern science.  Like Easter Island, the Sphinx, and other monumental parts of the world of long ago, Stonehenge has carefully kept its secrets.

Now scientists are looking more closely at Stonehenge, and are making new discoveries.  The most recent discovery is of another “henge” located near Stonehenge itself, and research teams expect that additional finds will be made as the area around Stonehenge is fully explored and excavated.

Still, the essential mystery of the place remains.  I hope that will always be the case.

Reflections On “JournoList” And Journalism

I’ve been saddened by the recent stories about the JournoList on-line listserv, which allowed a number of prominent reporters and writers to share information and viewpoints.  Although JournoList was intended to be a private listserv, some of the exchanges have been leaked to the press.  One led to the resignation of a Washington Post blogger who was to cover the conservative movement.  More recently, leaked JournoList exchanges deal with helping the Obama campaign deal with the issues raised by the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and other topics.  (I always hate to see messages that are intended to be private made public, but that is the unfortunate reality of the modern world.  No one should put anything in an email that they would not be comfortable seeing disseminated to the world at large.)

The sad thing about the JournoList stories is that they confirm that journalists have lost their way.  When I studied at The Ohio State University School of Journalism in the late 1970s, our professors emphasized objectivity, multiple sourcing, and fact-checking above all else.  Those were the hallmarks of a competent professional journalist, and we all strove to achieve them.  My professors would be appalled at the thought of journalists getting together to help politicians, or anyone else.  Indeed, we were taught to have a healthy skepticism for everything we were told — hence the multiple sourcing rule — and hard-bitten, cynical reporters typically had contempt for all politicians because a skeptical review of their statements often revealed half-truths and omissions.

Journalism has changed a lot since those days.  At some point the decision was made to write stories from a “viewpoint,” rather than trying to set forth objective facts and let the reader draw her own conclusions.  Once objectivity was cast aside and “perspective” was introduced, journalism has seemed to lose its moorings.  Now, you see reporters on TV, trying to be personalities, doing nothing other than regurgitating the conventional wisdom and then offering speculation about what might happen.  Very little actual newsgathering seems to be done any more.

It makes me wonder — what actually is taught in journalism schools these days?

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VII)

At the intersection of walkways at the southwest corner of the Statehouse is the Christopher Columbus Discovery Plaza, which features a rendering of the intrepid explorer, and the capital city’s namesake, atop a granite base and fountain.

The Christopher Columbus Discovery Plaza came together gradually.  The hollow copper statue of Columbus was created first and initially was found on the old campus of the Pontifical College Josephinium.  It was donated to the state in 1932 and erected on the Statehouse grounds at that time.  In 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, the granite base and fountain were constructed.  In front of Columbus appears the statement:  “The spirit of discovery has the power to change the course of human history, as demonstrated by the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whose imagination shattered the boundaries of the western world.  Modern history has been shaped by one man’s courage to pursue a dream.”

Statues of Columbus all seems to look the same, with old Chris looking down on a sphere, usually with a frown on his face and some seafaring instruments nearby.  The Statehouse statue is along the same lines.  It doesn’t make Columbus seem like the kind of person with whom you’d like to share a long sea voyage.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (VI)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (V)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (IV)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (III)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (II)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Robin Hood Cream Ale And Other Cheap Beers Of the ’70s

My post on summer cider, and particularly the picture of Errol Flynn in iconic Robin Hood garb, inevitably reminded me of Robin Hood Cream Ale.

The corner grocery store about a block and a half from my college apartment at 101 West 8th Avenue in Columbus specialized in cheap beer.  How surprising in a campus community!  On any given Friday afternoon, a stroll down to the store would find a frenzied press of students of The Ohio State University rushing to buy as much beer — that is, as much dirt-cheap beer — as the wallet could bear.  The store’s stock of foodstuffs consisted of three categories — (1) various forms of beef jerky, (2) Hostess Bakery products like Twinkies, Ho Hos and cupcakes, and (3) beer.  Approximately 99.7 percent of the store’s available footage was devoted to beer.

The ’70s really was the golden hour for cheap beer.  A visit to the corner grocery might find several cases of warm Billy Beer laid in, or Burger Beer, or Blatz, or even a totally generic brew in a white can with the black-stenciled label “BEER.”  Of the various choices, however, the preferred selection was Robin Hood Cream Ale.  A six-pack of 16-ounce cans cost $1.19, which meant that you could properly greet the coming weekend in style for an amount that usually could be cobbled together by carefully checking the sofa cushions.  Unlike, say, Billy Beer, which really was undrinkable except in extremis, Robin Hood had a decent taste.  It also featured a guy who looked like Woodrow the Woodsman lifting a flagon of frothy brew, and a slogan that had “Ye” in it.  What could be classier?

It went down easy on a Friday afternoon as you watched a Star Trek rerun and waited for the Friday night party to begin.

The Follies of Dudism

When we meet The Dude, he’s paying for a carton of milk with a check for 67 cents. A TV behind the cashier shows George W. Bush declaring that Iraq’s aggression toward Kuwait won’t be tolerated. The Dude glances at the President setting the moral ground for a new war, makes a vague expression of disillusionment, and returns to the business of buying milk so he can drink more White Russians.

This is a man who once helped write the Port Huron statement, a manifesto of student activism; who describes his college experience as “occupying various administration buildings and heckling the ROTC.”

In the 1960s, he was a member of the Seattle Seven, a radical group that protested the Vietnam War. In 1991, his greatest political statement is his extreme laziness and apathy. He drinks and smokes weed in his grungy apartment. He bowls with his friends in a league tournament, but he doesn’t even seem to care much about that.

I love The Dude as much as any other fan of The Big Lebowski, but I find it strange that his “philosophy” is celebrated so much these days at the Lebowski Festivals that have sprouted all over the United States and Europe, and by fans who quote him incessantly. The Dude’s decrepit, aimless lifestyle is a tragedy, not an ideal. He represents the sad fate of the spirit of the ’60s.

I used to wonder why the Coen brothers set The Big Lebowski in the early 1990s, a time that isn’t particularly memorable or meaningful, but upon reflection, it’s the perfect setting for The Dude’s troubles. The cultural upheaval of the 1960s that The Dude participated in has become a distant memory after the disillusionment of the 1970s and the conservative Reagan era of the 1980s. Even Reagan’s movement is fading, with George W. Bush as its last, weak figurehead. The Dude is about to watch America settle into the moderate Bill Clinton era. No wonder he spends so much time fogging his brain with weed and White Russians.

It isn’t enough that The Dude’s ideals have been crushed. He is still under attack by the forces of conservatism, greed, nihilism, and yuppieism.

At the beginning of the movie, a pair of toadies invade his humble apartment to collect money they mistakenly believe he has, and piss on the cheap rug that The Dude earnestly insists “really tied the room together.” The man these guys were looking for, the titular “Big Lebowski”, a pompous, patriotic, patrician over-achiever, tricks The Dude into becoming his sucker in a scheme to get rid of his wife. “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! The bums lost!” he tells The Dude after screwing him over.

Later, he’s abused and manipulated by Big Lebowski’s yuppie artist daughter, who even steals his seed. Her nihilist friends get their turn at him too, setting his rust bucket car aflame and killing his friend. He can’t even smoke a joint in his bathtub in peace – they break into his apartment, drop an agitated marmot into the tub with him, and rough him up.

Indeed, each of these parties forces their way into The Dude’s apartment at some point, destroys his crappy stuff, and beats him up. He’s defenseless against them. The revolution of the ’60s that once seemed so formidable and terrifying is now as weak and vulnerable as a stoned man in a bathtub. He can’t even get these guys to call him “The Dude”, the name he has chosen for himself because it embodies his hippie philosophy.

Instead of fighting these evil forces, The Dude is content to let them have their way as long as he can keep bowling and mixing his White Russians. If it weren’t for his crazy Vietnam vet buddy Walter, who forces him to try to take advantage of The Big Lebowski, The Dude would have willfully acted as a pawn in their schemes in the hopes that he could return to his comfortable spot at the periphery of society after the dust settled.

I like The Dude, but is he the role model many consider him to be? I don’t think so. The Dude is a rotting leftover of the failed revolution of the 1960s. A once passionate man turned into a chump by conservative America. The Big Lebowski is a dark comedy that, instead of celebrating The Dude, makes fun of him, albeit affectionately. Quote him with caution.

Keeping Things In Perspective


Chelsea Handler adjusted.jpg

I just finished the third of three books written by Chelsea Handler who is a stand up comedian. All of her books were hiliarious and I enjoyed them all.

Her first book titled My Horizontal Life was my favorite. The book consisted of a collection of stories about her one night stands and there was one particular story about her underwear that made me laugh out loud.

She has also written two other books, one titled Are You There Vodka ? Its Me Chelsea that features stories about her drinking and partying and her last book Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang which was released earlier this year details her up bringing by her Mormon mother and her Jewish father.

Chelsea also has a television show that airs on the Entertainment Network at 11 p.m and 12 p.m each week nite, usually the 12 p.m. show is a rerun. I am a big fan of her show and look forward to it each night.

Her show consists of a brief monologue and then a roundtable where she discusses current events with three other comedians. The roundtable is my favorite part of the show and you can check out a couple of clips below.

In a time when almost everything in our daily life seems to be stressing us out a show like this one that makes me laugh helps me keep things in perspective. Life is Good.

Insidious Inception

At Richard’s urging, we went to see Inception on Sunday.  Whew!  What a terrific movie!  It insidiously works its way into your consciousness, and during idle moments you find yourself thinking about certain scenes or basic questions raised by the serpentine plot.

The movie is just about perfect summer movie fare because it has something to appeal to just about everyone.  Those who like human drama will be hooked by the emotional backstory of Cobb, the anguished central character played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Those who like devious plotting will appreciate the multiple layers and numerous twists and turns of the story line.  Sci-fi freaks will enjoy the concept of people invading the dreams of others to extract information — or possibly implant it.  Action movie fans will revel in the shooting, kung fu, hallway fu, and snow fu scenes.   Special effects geeks will like the crumbling cities of the mind, the fighting in a tumbling hallway, and the patient, weightless collection of sleepers, among many other visually stunning scenes.

Leonardo DiCaprio was great — is there any actor in Hollywood right now who plays deeply troubled characters better than DiCaprio? — but the performance that was a real revelation to me was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, DiCaprio’s key partner in dream invasion.  At once sharp, imperturbable, humorous, reliable, wise, and a total action stud, Arthur was a tougher character to play than Cobb, and Gordon-Levitt pulled it off beautifully.  He was totally believable as a sharp-dressing intellectual who could devise complicated yet successful extraction schemes and then more than hold his own against subconscious manifestations in battles to the death in zero gravity.

I totally agree with Richard’s take that Inception is a must-see-on-the-big-screen movie.

Who’s Playing Politics?

It seems like, on every point of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, each side accuses the other of “playing politics.”  (Of course, to this Midwesterner it seems like every decision by every elected and appointed official in Washington, D.C. involves “playing politics.”  Isn’t that why they are called “politicians”?)

So it is with the latest dispute, about extending unemployment benefits.  Today President Obama suggested that Senate Republicans were playing politics by opposing a bill to extend the benefits because it doesn’t have offsetting cuts to pay for the extended benefits.  Republicans say that they don’t want to contribute even more to the rapidly growing federal deficit. Democrats say they want to help the long-term unemployed.

This is one of those issues where the inability of politicians to reach agree is a bit maddening.  Democrats say they are concerned about the deficit; that is why the President has appointed a commission to recommend deficit reduction measures.  Republicans say they are willing to extend unemployment benefits if offsetting spending cuts are made.  Why can’t the two sides just agree on the spending cuts that they both say need to be made, and thereby agree to the extended benefits that they both say should be provided?  It is as if politicians play a gigantic game of chicken with the American people.

In the meantime, we will wait forever to get an answer to this question — is there a point at which we should stop paying people extended unemployment benefits?  If two years is not a logical cutoff point, what is?

Recognizing Taxes As Taxes

The New York Times recently carried an interesting article on the Justice Department’s arguments against claims that the “health care reform” legislation is unconstitutional.  The “linchpin” of the argument is that the individual mandate, which requires people to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, is constitutional as an exercise of Congress’ broad taxing power.

The Justice Department’s argument is interesting because, while the “health care reform” legislation was being debated, President Obama and many of his congressional allies denied that the individual mandate was a tax.  For example, Congress did not cite its taxing power as a basis for the legislation.  Now that the legislation is being challenged, however, the Administration’s lawyers have recognized the individual mandate for what it is — a tax on individuals and their individual decisions — in order to buttress its prospects for being upheld.

Just another example of how duplicitous the legislative process can be.

Review: Inception

Ah. Nothing like seeing a movie you’re really excited about, that you have really high hopes for, and walking out of the theater with your expectations exceeded.

I expected Inception to be very good. After all, the cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, and Ellen Page. It was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who made some of the best and most original movies of the 2000s. Sounds like a recipe for a good, entertaining summer flick.

But Inception went beyond that. It’s one of those rare movies that grasps your attention so firmly that it dominates your thoughts for hours after the credits roll, and there’s no doubt you’ll see it again. I felt the same way after seeing The Matrix and Memento, Nolan’s first movie.

Like The Matrix and Memento, Inception uses good writing, directing, pacing, and special effects to draw you into a fascinating alternate reality so completely that you almost forget you’re watching a movie. The first time I saw Memento, when the movie ended it felt strange for me to go back to my normal life of not forgetting everything that happened more than five minutes ago. The movie’s unusual structure, with the plot moving backwards in time with every scene, put me in the amnesiac hero’s state of mind so effectively that I had to readjust after it ended. I felt the same after Inception ended, except I had to adjust to not being in multiple layers of dreams.

Multiple layers of dreams – sounds like the basis of a complicated plot, doesn’t it? Indeed, the plot is a doozy. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page are members of a team that invades the dreams of others to steal their knowledge for paying clients. This time, however, they are hired by a Japanese businessman to plant an idea into the head of his rival, a much more delicate task. They plan to accomplish this by designing a multi-layered dream for the rival, full of oblique, personal imagery that will put the idea in his head while convincing his subconscious that it is his own.

In case you slept through Oneirology 101, let me explain how dreams work. Time passes much more slowly in a dream than in reality – an hour passes in a dream for every minute of real time, or something like that. Time passes even more slowly for a dream within a dream, and even more slowly in a dream within a dream within a dream. If you get stuck in too deep a layer, decades could pass for you in what is only a few minutes of reality.

It turns out that evolution has provided us with subconsciouses that protect against futuristic dream-invaders. If your subconscious senses that a foreign agent is messing around with your dream, it will get angry at it and, if it goes too far, kill it. The subconscious manifests itself through the “extras” in the dream. If you manipulate the dream too boldly, you get stares from people passing you on the sidewalk or chatting at adjacent restaurant tables. Cross a certain line and they will tear you apart. This makes for some very scary and paranoid scenes.

Layers of reality. Incarnations of subconsciousness. Different speeds of time. The ability to construct worlds with your mind. Nolan uses these intriguing concepts to form amazing scenes and images. You see characters return to reality, wide-eyed and sweaty, after being stabbed to death in a dream. Characters driven mad after spending too much time in a deep dream layer.

Nolan also takes advantage of the lawless nature of dreams to make some wild action scenes. In one scene, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a member of the subconscious rabble are fighting in a hallway when the car carrying Gordon-Levitt’s real-life body drives off a bridge and twirls multiple times in the air; of course, the dream world itself is turned topsy-turvy, and the fight becomes a zero-gravity one, then a reverse-gravity one, etc.

If my explanation of the plot is making you confused, wait until you see the movie. You will probably leave the theater with lots of unanswered questions. But with lots of cool images and ideas to mull over, as well. And don’t worry, you’ll want to see it again anyway.