Blazing Saddles In A PC America

Tonight the CAPA summer movie series screens the Mel Brooks epic Blazing Saddles.  I’ll be joining a group of guys from the firm who will be going to watch the film that features the greatest fart scene in the history of American cinema.

blazesaddle129It’s pretty amazing that CAPA is showing the movie in this day and age, because Blazing Saddles has to be one of the most politically incorrect films ever made.  Released in 1974, and written by Brooks and Richard Pryor, among others, it tells the tale of an ex-slave in the post-Civil War American West who is appointed sheriff and, with his drunken gunslinger sidekick the Waco Kid, works to save the aghast and unappreciative townsfolk of Rock Ridge from the depredations of a carefully recruited gang of thugs — all as part of a deep scheme to drive the people out of town and allow a corrupt politician to cheaply buy land needed for a railroad.  Along the way, Blazing Saddles manages to skewer every racial and sexual stereotype, insult just about every ethnic group and sexual orientation imaginable, and hilariously spoof all of the hackneyed elements of the western movie genre.

I think Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies ever — which undoubtedly says something about my sophomoric sense of humor — but it’s hard to imagine it being made today.  Our modern time seems like a more brittle, more easily offended America, where colleges have speech codes, comedians are being censored on campus, and people often seem to be actively looking for ways to scale new heights of political correctness.  Perhaps the America of 1974, in the twilight of the ugly Vietnam War/Watergate era, was just more willing to enjoy a hearty laugh at the expense of racist townspeople and gassy cowboys.

So tonight, as Lili von Shtupp cavorts onstage with dancing Germans, Mongo punches a horse and later expresses feelings for Sheriff Bart, the ungrateful people of Rock Ridge list their preferences for different ethnic groups, and a brawl in cowboy movie spills onto the sound stage of a musical featuring prancing, tuxedo-clad dancers, I’ll be mindful of the audience, too.  How many of the people in attendance will laugh at one of the stereotype-bursting lines — and then look around with a guilty conscience for having breached the invisible wall of modern political correctness?

Talking About Trump (Or Conversing About Clinton)

After this week, we’ll begin the final stretch of the presidential campaign between two candidates who have actually been nominated by their respective parties.  I’m glad that the calendar pages are turning, because I just want this election to be over.  I don’t think we can withstand much more of the level of vitriol that’s being hurled back and forth.

I’m not talking about the two campaigns, either.  I’m talking about what we’re seeing from the masses, from our friends and colleagues, from Facebook pages and emails.  You can’t even talk about politics without seeing, and hearing, evidence of it.  Many people obviously find it impossible to talk about the candidates without lapsing into flaming, superheated language — the kind that people don’t easily forget.

hqdefaultThe anti-Trump group loathe The Donald and honestly seem to believe that only utterly ignorant racists and fascists could possibly consider voting for the guy.  The anti-Clinton folks are revolted by Hillary’s duplicity and corruption; they think the media is in the tank for her and the elites are trying to fix the election for her.  It’s coarse and visceral stuff, and a lot of bitterness on both sides is leaking out into our daily discourse.

I don’t care about the two candidates.  They are both egregiously flawed and deserve the strident criticism they’re getting.  No, I’m more concerned about the average people out there who are choosing sides, and doing so in a way that seems to leave no room for quarter or disagreement.  I wonder how many long-time friendships will be ruined and how many families will be splintered by the harsh language and even more harsh judgments.  If you are to the point that you think Trump will be the next Hitler, are you going to want to hang out with a guy who wants to vote him into office — even if it’s a guy you’ve known and worked with for 20 years?

The old saying about the wisdom of not talking about politics or religion has never been truer.  It used to be that people of good will at different points on the political spectrum could have a good-natured discussion about who they were voting for, and why.  I’m not sure that is even possible this year.

In our personal lives, we need to declare a truce, and take politics off the table.  Talk about your kids, talk about your travels, talk about sports — talk about just about anything other than the awful choice that we must make come November.  Hold your fire, folks!  That way, at the ground level of our everyday existence, maybe we’ll be able to make it through this flaming car wreck of an election.

Here’s To Cleveland

I didn’t watch a minute of Republican National Convention coverage, but I have been following news reports about what’s been happening outside the convention hall.  I’ve also talked to friends who live and work in Cleveland area about how things were going.

I had read all the dire forecasts about chaos, and warring protests, and a replication of the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968.  The pundits painted a pretty bleak picture of what they thought would happen on the shores of Lake Erie, and my concern was that poor old Cleveland was going to get a black eye on the national scene, having been unluckily saddled with the most contentious political convention in decades.

IMG_5545By all accounts, though, that didn’t happen.  Sure, there were a few incidents here and there, and there was a heavy police presence that sought to fend off trouble before it began, but the drama (if you can call it that) was confined to the convention hall itself.  One of my colleagues whose office looks out over Public Square happily reported that the protests that were staged were peaceful and respectful.  The predictions about clashes and riots and police beating heads turned out to be nothing but hot air and, perhaps, wishful thinking by pundits hoping for the worst.  I’m confident that, this morning, the Cleveland local government leaders and city fathers are breathing a sweet sigh of relief.

A report in the Washington Post captured the spirit of the city and the convention-goers and the people who came to protest — and for the most part the prevailing mood was to simply get along.  That’s a pretty good way of describing what we’re like in the Midwest, generally.  We’ve got people representing all points on the political spectrum, but somehow we manage to get along, drink a beer now and then, and come together to cheer for the local sports teams or stand up for our home towns.  As the Post report indicates, maybe that generous, accepting, prevailing spirit had something to do with a riot-free convention.

So, here’s to Cleveland, for surviving the doom and gloom predictions and coming through without a scratch.  With the Cavs championship and a successful hosting of the RNC, it’s a city on a winning streak.

In Ted’s Fantasy World

Some mornings, Kish starts the day by reading news stories, and sometimes watching video clips of newsworthy events on her iPhone.  Today was one of those days.

ted_cruz_rnc_cleveland_ap_imgUnfortunately, the clip she chose to watch this morning was footage of Ted Cruz closing his speech to the Republican convention last night to a deafening chorus of boos.  Even more unfortunately, I was able to hear Cruz’s whining voice — which in my view is the human equivalent of a dentist’s drill — over the uproar.  I had hoped that, with the ending series of debates finally behind us, I would never have to endure Cruz’s irritating and overly studied vocal gyrations again.  Alas, it was not to be.

I don’t like Donald Trump, but I like the smug and smarmy Cruz even less.  If I’d been at the Republican convention — fat chance of that! — I’d have booed him, too.

Apparently Ted Cruz thinks his performance, and failure to endorse Trump, positions him to be the presumptive GOP nominee in 2020.  I think Ted Cruz is living in a fantasy world.  The only reason anyone other than Bible-thumpers backed Cruz was because he was running against Donald Trump.  Once Trump is gone — and by 2020, he’ll either be President or yesterday’s old, old news — Cruz’s base will dwindle to back to the religious righters who don’t mind his scripted speech patterns because it reminds them of the cadences they hear every Sunday morning from the pulpit.  By 2020, the world and the United States will be moving in a different direction, and everything that gave Cruz a shot this year will be totally changed.

I seriously hope I never hear Cruz’s holier than thou voice again.  It makes my teeth ache.

Dawn Of The Twitter Bots

Lately I’ve been taking a break from the realm of politics.  I’m incredibly depressed about the choice we’ve been given, and at this point I’d prefer to just enjoy summer rather than focusing on the many flaws in the major party candidates and the lack of an alternative.  I figure I’m going to have to live with one of these guys soon enough.

Then I ran across an interesting article about the role of software bots in modern political campaigns.  It points out that, in an SEC filing two years ago, Twitter estimated that 23 million of its active accounts are generating tweets through the use of bots — defined as software agents or bits of code that are designed to automatically react to news events, always from a particular perspective.  Of course, Twitter users don’t know if the tweets they are seeing come from a real person, or a paid shill — or a bot.  You just can’t trust the avatar that accompanies the post to tell you.

sellingofthepresident1968bThe article reports that bots have been successful in steering the course of elections in South America and, apparently, the Brexit vote.  A study found that a tiny fraction of Twitter accounts generated a huge percentage of tweets about the Brexit election — sustaining levels of incessant account activity that no mortal being could sustain, tweeting their robotic brains out 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and the “leave” campaign generated more of the automated tweets.

Do tweeting bots work?  Some people involved in the bot-tweeting process think that there are many individuals out there whose views are more likely to be swayed by the “spontaneous” opinions of “real people,” rather than news reports or the reactions of paid commentators.  Since Twitter and other social media sites allow for anonymity, then, why not spoof real people, create software that generates a constant flow of tweets that advance your political views, and see if you can’t alter the course of public perception?  (And pay no attention to the sad notion that voters are swayed by opinions expressed in 140-character chunks, either.)

I suppose we should all think about this the next time we are asked to share a Facebook meme of uncertain provenance, or pay attention to tweet counts as supposedly being some kind of indicator of what real people are thinking.  We’ve gone far beyond the innocent days of The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss’ landmark book about how the Nixon campaign was using Madison Avenue advertising techniques to package and market Tricky Dick.  Now we’ve reach the point where campaigns create artificial accounts and flood the Twitterverse with phony tweets generated by automated robots, all in the hope of manipulating the views of the American public to vote one way of the other in the worst presidential choice in decades.

O Brave New World!

Boom And Bust

The New York Times is reporting that the market for high-end real estate in Manhattan may have finally hit the wall.  Developers who are targeting buyers willing to pay more than $10 million for condominiums and apartments — and in some cases more than $100 million — are having to cut prices and repackage their products.

promo-01Even with the changes to meet falling demand in the market, the prices being asked for high-end New York City real estate are beyond the comprehension of everyday people.  For example, a skyscraper at 432 Park Avenue was asking $78 million to $85 million for full-floor apartments; now the units have been divided and are being priced for around $40 million.  Some poor schmucks who are trying to sell properties they bought during the boom are even listing their units for less than the purchase price they paid.  One seller has listed a three-bedroom apartment they bought for $31.67 million in 2014 for the bargain-basement price of $29.95 million.  (Incidentally, isn’t it heart-warming to see that, even at these astronomical numbers, the notion still holds that pricing just a bit less than the next whole number might cause some potential buyers to bite?  Whether it’s $299,500 or $29.95 million, the rules apparently don’t change.)

Why has the market for ultra high-end properties topped out?  Some developers blame uncertainties created by Brexit, some cite Chinese restrictions on cash leaving the country, some point to lower oil prices curbing spending by the sheiks and sultans, and some note that the U.S. government has started to pay attention to people paying cash — cash! — for these pleasure domes.  Note that most of these reasons implicitly acknowledge that a lot of the buyers for Manhattan glitter palaces come from overseas.  Others involved in the business identify more conventional reasons:  real-estate developers have saturated what was always a small market to begin with, there’s little to differentiate the properties, and pricing just hit a ceiling.  In short, the laws of supply and demand still hold, and there are only so many jet-setters in the world who can comfortably drop between $50 and $100 million on living space they probably only use once in a while.

Fortunately for those of us worried about the financial health of Manhattan, the Times reports that the real estate market in lower price ranges remains robust, with lots of competition for homes selling for less than $3 million.  Less than $3 million?  In Manhattan?  What does that get you — a one-bedroom efficiency on the lower East side?

Skeeter-Proofing

Nobody likes mosquitoes under any circumstances, but these days — with the scary mosquito-borne Zika virus very much in the news, places like Brazil and Puerto Rico experiencing thousands of infected people, and Florida reporting hundreds of cases — trying to avoid their annoying bites has become especially important.

IMG_1141So what can you do, other than trying to stay away from South America and the warm, humid states for a while?  This article helpfully identifies 12 potential mosquito breeding grounds that might be found on your property.   Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing, stagnant water.  Birdbaths and inert koi ponds are obvious targets — but the water that collects in the bottom of a tire swing or on the folds on a tarp or on a kid’s toy left out in the yard might pass under the radar screen.  I did the mosquito checklist test at our house and we come out with a good score, and so far, at least, it’s been a mosquito-free summer in our backyard.  Of course, there’s not much you can do about what your neighbors might have by their fence line.

We seem to have a new, frightening public health crisis every year; this year, it’s the Zika virus, with the bites of infected mosquitoes causing microcephalic babies, birth defects, and other health conditions.  It’s not clear how far north the Zika threat might spread, but why take a chance?  An ounce of mosquito-proofing might be worth a pound of cure — and Zika virus or not, a summer without pesky mosquitoes and their itchy bites is going to be a better summer all around.