Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Law and Lawlessness

The culmination of human struggle seems to be manifest in Beirut today. Chaos has been imposed on the Shia quarter and IDF missiles and bombs (more on the way from the US, doublequick) have reduced it to a smear of ash. The region is flooded with refugees and exploded cars. Does law rule here, or is this an episode of blunt circumvention? As a US citizen it is hard, if not impossible, for me to understand the Israeli perspecitve on this, for or against. Yet to hear Ehud Olmert invoke Jewish legacy as he defends the unrelenting barrage of civilian targets is something that gives me pause. This legacy is from Abraham and the promise made to Abraham that his offspring shall inherit the world. What we would seem to be witnessing now is a ruling body acting in the spirit of that promise.
Paul of Tarsus, writing to Rome, reminds the Jews of that time that it is faith rather than the law that makes those chosen by God righteous. For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
With a recent nod from the Administration giving Israel one more week in which to carry out its scorched earth campaign, the rule of law is being severely tested. Yet the actors defend their actions by invoking the law and, by extension, the Abrahamic promise. How to communicate to them that they are in fact nullifying their legacy?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Listen to the Air Raid Sirens

The YouTube revolution keeps picking up speed. Latest is POV during missile raids in Israel, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbE08G_CTuI

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Upcoming Films

Jeffrey Overstreet is talking about new and upcoming films over at his lookingcloser.blogspot.com. Not only is this a shameless plug for his page, but it also gives me an excuse to display the poster for the film I am anticipating the most, Darren Aronofsky's long-delayed adventure epic, The Fountain.

Revisiting the Upper Room

The sequel to Half Life is one of my favorite games and I recently found out that the mod community has been having a blast with its engine. The above example vaults onto stage with pizzazz, though I have two complaints:
1. Where is Gordon Freeman? Not only does he possess a stronger resemblance to Christ, but he's the lead character in the story!
2. Why not fashion a backdrop if you're going to make such a fancy table?


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Children of Dune

It never occurred to me that Star Wars might owe a huge debt to Frank Herbert -until today! A cohort here at ye olde cube farme passed on a link that delineates the numerous points of comparison between the Star Wars' and Dune series. For anyone with even a passing interest in either, it makes for a good read: http://www.jitterbug.com/origins/dune.html
I am a huge fan of the Dune books. They are without equal in science fiction literature. I am also one of those rare humans that likes David Lynch's film adaptation. With the exception of the atrocious finale, it brings Herbert's galaxy to vivid life and captures, in my opinion, each character perfectly.
I believe that like Tolkien's ring quadrology (you have to include The Hobbit), the epic saga of Dune will survive in new and updated forms throughout human history. As we see iterations and interpretations of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Dostoevski and other giants in current forms of the arts, so too will Dune continue speaking to us generation after generation. Personally, I would pay money to see David Cronenberg take a stab at Heretics of Dune, my favorite from the series.

Friday, July 21, 2006


I could hardly believe it when I saw it, but when I looked again it was still there: a videogame for finding peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict. ImpactGames is developing PeaceMaker, an interactive PC strategy game intended to find ways toward a peaceful resolution between the warring sides. From the website: PeaceMaker is currently transitioning from a project at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center into the first commercial title of ImpactGames... Video games are a revolutionary medium for entertainment and education. They transport players to new places and allow them to explore, experiment, and learn at their own pace. In the past, many games have dealt with conquest, war, and destruction. PeaceMaker, however, is a game for the future– a game which will teach the player that peace and cohabitation, not war and annihilation, are the real strategies worth fighting for.
While this seems more suitable for a classroom environment, I am very excited to see how this game will appeal to PC players. It is a departure from World of Warcraft, perhaps even a necessary one!
For more information, or to join the mailing list, go here: http://www.peacemakergame.com/TheGame.htm

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Deadly Diet

When asked how Israel should deal with the new Hamas government in the occupied territories of Palestine, the senior adviser to Israel's prime minister, Dov Weisglass, answered, "The idea is to put Palestinians on a diet but not make them die of hunger." For the people living in Gaza, these words undoubtedly had the sound of a death sentence. Already suffering under poverty and unemployment before Hamas, they now are told they are going on a diet. I do not think Mr Weisglass means to improve their health.These heartless words from the government of Israel came earlier this year; anyone glancing at the news will know that the situation in Gaza is now profoundly worse than it was in January, when Hamas was democratically elected to office. A series of events since then have created a profound humanitarian crisis throughout Gaza.
In his most recent op-ed, the ever reliable Alexander Cockburn describes the desperate situation. He writes, "Israel has kept shut the Karni (al-Muntar) industrial crossing into the Gaza Strip for weeks at a time, locking out medicines, food and goods... affecting the lives of at least 700,000 people. Doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants, policemen and others return home empty-handed each day to families whose overall levels of poverty and malnutrition have grown dramatically. Save the Children UK Program Manager Jan Coffey reports that in Gaza now 78 percent of the population lives below the poverty line ($2 per day) and that 10 percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition."Clearly Hamas has not improved this situation with its violent stance against the occupier. Though their leadership oscillates daily about whether or not to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, they are adamant in their demand that Israel recognise their own right to exist. This demand extends to the international community, which has responded with economic sanctions and silence in the face of devastating violence against civilians. By association, the entire world appears to have turned its back on Gaza, leaving them to perish from sheer negligence. Ehud Olmert's statement before a joint session of the US Congress a few weeks ago, in which he stated that he believes "in our people's eternal and historic right to this entire land," was met by applause and an outpouring of financial gifts, therefore aligning our government on the side of -dare I write it?- manifest destiny.
Around the same time as this proclamation of intent -Olmert as much as announced his intention to eradicate the Palestinian population- the World Bank published a report in which the economic outlook for the occupied Palestinian Territories is assumed based on a scenario in which tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority are withheld, trade and labor restrictions are imposed and foreign aid reduced. Under this scenario, "real GDP per capita declines by 27 percent, and personal incomes by 30 percent -a one year contraction of economic activity equivalent to a deep depression. Unemployment hits 47 percent and poverty 74 percent by 2008."
Sadly this is no longer a scenario: it is happening in Gaza as you read this.The growing crisis is also the subject of a press release last month from the International Committee of the Red Cross: The ICRC is deeply concerned about the growing needs and the worsening security situation in the occupied territories, caused in large part by the decision earlier this year to withhold funds and other aid from the PA. The occupying power -in this case the State of Israel- is responsible for meeting the basic needs of the civilian population of the territory it occupies. Those needs include sufficient food, medical supplies and means of shelter."

Aspirational Retailing

I am a happy Starbucks employee. Working south of downtown Seattle in the historic, massive Sears building (it is the largest corporate building in the city, as long as two football fields), I enjoy being part of a positive enterprise. What makes it positive? Admittedly, the company's stated goal is to provide the global consumer with product for every aspect of life. Starbucks sells coffee, as every one knows, and in addition offers a certain mindset and lifestyle. Customers at the siren are not only getting caffeinated when they purchase a latte, they are buying into holistic values based on respect for farmers, the environment and the human body: this type of business model has recently been coined aspirational retailing and slowly but steadily it is catching on in the capitalist arena.
How does Starbucks sell aspiration, you ask? In several ways, not least of which is through its leading product, the cup of joe. (Incidentally, how did coffee come to get the name "Joe"? Why not Susan, Arthur or Ringo?) Perception at the consumer level is that by purchasing a (recycled) cup with the siren on the side, we are participating directly with a way of life. This perception is hardly accidental. It has been cultivated over a period of years, as a result of guiding principles within the company geared toward better living and bigger profits. While these two ideas might seem mutually exclusive at first glance, Starbucks as well as other successful companies in the Pacific Northwest are showing the contrary to be true.
John P Mackey, chief executive at Whole Foods Market, calls this fusion values-driven capitalism. Last year in an article in Reason magazine, Mr Mackey stated that he believes in a form of capitalism "that more consciously works for the common good instead of depending solely on the 'invisible hand' to generate positive results for society." With over 180 stores and $5.7 billion in sales, his idea is successful. More people are buying the organic products he sells because it would seem they want superior products in health, taste and nutrition."The appeal of Whole Foods is that it is a place where food is celebrated," says Bill Bishop, president of a food retail consultancy, "food is romanced, food is presented in a fashion that is in opposition to how it is sold in the vast majority of supermarkets." Arguably the same could be said of another west coast staple, Trader Joe's; both companies write their ticket on brick-and-mortar values, the grassy principles of people that root themselves in sustainability and humane treatment of fauna. By the same token, Starbucks participates in aspirational retailing also, insomuch as it promotes water conservation, fidelity to small farms and healthy living.
Starbucks imports the bulk of its beans from South American and African farms. Because it does not produce locally, the siren is often the target of vicious slander; not only this, but there is a perception as well that it should export sound values to the regions where it buys. To a growing extent, Starbucks is doing so. Can the same be said of Whole Foods? They import a great deal of produce from overseas. Asparagus, for example, is brought in from New Zealand. Yet the kiwi farms are hardly paradigms of sustainable agriculture, and clearly the produce, once it appears on a rack in the US, is not fresh.
Were Whole Foods customers to understand this disparity from what could be called "organic values", would they lose faith in the enterprise? Somehow I doubt it, but the question is valid. What if they knew Whole Foods is a wholly-owned subsidy of General Mills? My point is not to denigrate the company; rather I merely wish to draw a comparison with Starbucks. Both companies represent a pelagic shift in economic seas, one that aims, I think, toward positive growth. This kind of aspirational retail is quickly gaining cachet. John Heinbockel of Goldman Sachs calls Whole Foods "one of the best businesses in retail today."
At risk of stating the obvious, Starbucks is also described by Wall Street in such jubilant tones.
During the 2004 campaign season, there was a lot of talk about values and how important they are to voters when choosing who to elect. At the time I did not give this talk much credence, but it appears I should have. While the results of that season are less than ideal, we can yet depend on this manifest paradigm bringing about a good harvest. Here's hoping we continue to see the trend grow.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Coupe de Boule

Zizou's headbutt has apparently inspired a new dance hit. In an effort to raise France's spirits in the wake of an ignominious World Cup defeat, three associates at Plage Records, a small label that specialises in ad music, wrote a Caribbean zouk-influenced dance track and posted it on the 'net. Since then the song has gotten heavy airplay on the French radio station, SkyRock, as well as inciting a rights battle between record labels and ringtone sellers.
The chorus can be heard in dance clubs across Europe: "Zidane, il a tape" (Zidane, the hit man). The title -Coupe de Boule- is French for headbutt.
Check out the track for yourself: http://www.blog-football.net/tag/coupe-de-boule/

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Road to Guantanamo

I have yet to see this film, though my interest in the topic is keen. This is a vital subject for US citizens. If ever one of us has asked how our forebears could stand by while Japanese were needlessly interred during the Second World War, this film may go some length to preventing the same thing from continuing today. At the very least it will inform and provoke, both measures by which citizens in our fine country can take stock and upon which our constitutional liberties depend.

'Wide' Again

The NYTimes is consistent: second day running they headline the word wide in an awkward context, this time concerning "Wide Strikes by Hezbollah". As with yesterday's "Wide Flaws", the usage here is distracting; I would have used "regional", "retaliatory", or "relentless".Nevertheless, we are seeing Beirut bloom into a state of conflict not seen since the Three-Day War in 1967. At that time, Israel repulsed attacks at nearly every point on its borders, from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt; now Hezbollah is taking advantage of the chaos in Gaza and showing itself to be sympathetic to Hamas by performing incursions and rocket sallies from its stronghold in Beirut. In retaliation, Israeli Defense Forces have sent punishing airstrikes deep into Lebanon, disabling Beirut's international airport, and have established a naval blockade. Are we seeing the foment of war?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bye Bye War Profiteers

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Army is ending Halliburton's exclusive, no-bid contracts in Iraq. This is tremendous news for US citizens: no longer will our taxes be going to finance shoddy, unfinished civic projects and ludicrous overbillings. Seriously, we are talking about 15 billion dollars that have gone to pay for delivering food and fuel that more often than not never showed up, and construction for housing US troops that is flimsy at best and unfinished at worst.
The person I am happiest for is Bunnatine Greenhouse, who blew the whistle on Halliburton's profiteering and consequently lost her job because of it. In the wake of her complaints, the Pentagon actually awarded Halliburton for its performance! Meanwhile this honest, brave woman was exiled to the margins. Disgusting.

Rights for Detainees

The debate of late about detainees' fate at Gitmo has provoked a spate of boilerplate from the administration. The official line appears to be: "We are sticking by our guns."
The prevailing climate at the White House, at least as it is transmitted through the media -when is the last time I was at the White House to see how things actually are run?- is to agree with decisions by lawmakers, then to amend those decisions with an executive spin. For instance, pertaining to the recent Supreme Court decision that detainees held at Guantanamo Bay have rights consistent with international standards for civilisation, as represented by Common Article 3 in the Geneva Conventions, a statement went out that the administration stood by the Court's ruling. That was two days ago.
Today administration lawyers are arguing that the "best solution" for Congress moving forward will be to adopt the military tribunals that the president has been pushing now for four years. In other words, Congress is free to abide by the Court's ruling... so long as it is in line with the design already laid down by the executive.
This kind of top-down thinking does not appear to be in line with democratic values, at least so far as those established by the US constitution. The impression instead is of a ruling cabinet that dictates national policy and then waits for legal aspects to fall in place.
Is this not operating outside the law? I don't mean to ask rhetorically, but literally: is the executive making up a new form of constitional rule, one that falls outside the parametres of the constitution itself?
As you might imagine, I am following developments in this case very closely... desperately, one might say. After all, I love my country and do not wish to see it overrun by Machiavellian Mayberrianism... or anything resembling it.

Headline Magic

This headline in today's NYTimes intrigues me: Wide Flaws Found in Boston Tunnel After Death
How can a flaw be "wide"? Now, if they had found wide claws -as if from some kind of tunnel beastie- that I could believe.
Obviously it is horrible that a woman died because of these flaws. Even so, I would expect editors at the esteemed daily would have a better command of language. Since a flaw is a diagnostic term, how can it have physical properties? Can a flaw be "immense" or "tousled"?
I would have gone a different way, describing the flaws as "endemic", "perilous", or "extensive".

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Summer Rain Brings Tempest in Gaza

Published on Monday, July 10, 2006 by the Boston Globe
My Life in Gaza
by Mona El-Farra
The irony is almost beyond belief. Since the capture of an Israeli soldier on June 25, the Gaza Strip has been subjected to a large-scale military operation, what Israel calls Summer Rain. Because Israel bombed the power plant, and the area needs electricity to pump water, most of Gaza now has almost no access to drinking water. In the heat of summer, rain would be a blessing far more welcome than the ongoing bombings.
I am already starting to lose track of days and nights, of how many bombs have dropped. Since the main power plant was destroyed, we have had to live with no electricity. What we do get is patchy, and barely enough to recharge our mobile phones and our laptops so that we do not lose all touch with each other and with the outside world.
As a physician, I fear for our patients. Twenty-two hospitals have no electricity. They have to rely on generators, but the generators need fuel. We have enough fuel to last a few days at most, because the borders are sealed so no fuel can get in. The shortage of power threatens the lives of patients on life-support machines and children in intensive care, as well as renal dialysis patients and others. Hundreds of operations have been postponed. The pharmacies were already nearly empty because of Israeli border closures and the cutoff of international aid. What little supplies were left have gone bad in the absence of refrigeration.
Food too is spoiling without refrigeration, and food supplies are low. West Bank farmers threw away truckloads of spoiled fruit after sitting for days and then being denied Israeli permission to enter Gaza. Children grow hungry as we watch the food that could nourish them thrown into the garbage instead. More than 30,000 children suffer from malnutrition, and this number will increase as diarrhea spreads because of the limited supply of clean water and food contamination.

Monday, July 10, 2006


PARIS (Reuters) - Zinedine Zidane said on Wednesday he was provoked into head-butting defender Marco Materazzi during the World Cup final because the Italian insulted his mother and his sister.
In an interview with French television channel Canal Plus Zidane also apologised to children and fans but did not regret the attack that led to his sending off.
"He (Materazzi) pulled my shirt several times and I told him that we could swap shirts at the end of the game if he wanted to," Zidane said in the live interview.
"He, then, pronounced very tough words about my mother and my sister. I tried not to listen to him but he kept repeating them," Zidane said.
"I knew it was my last game and I knew that there were only 10 minutes to play but things happened very swiftly," he said.
"I am a man before anything else," he added.
Zidane, widely regarded as the greatest player of his generation and playing the last game of his career, was shown a red card, leaving his team mates finish the match without him.
Zidane denied Materazzi called him an Islamic "terrorist," as was reported by a Paris-based anti-racism group.
Zidane is of Algerian origin. His parents were born in the village of Aguemone in the Kabylie region.
FIFA decided on Tuesday to open a disciplinary investigation into the incident and Sepp Blatter, head of soccer's ruling body, hinted that Zidane could be stripped of the tournament's best player award.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Armageddon Flowchart

Got this hilarious piece of spec from http://www.fullyramblomatic.com/features/armaged.htm
(click on the image to see it full-size)


O sudoku... I'm late getting "on board" with this puzzler, but it has me by the scruff. Here at the cube farm, where we cube monkeys rant and rave on behalf of Starbucks, when there is a quiet moment it is time for sudoku.

As any of my past girlfriends will attest, my powers of logic are feeble. Will solving these puzzles help to sharpen them? Is that my hope? Undecided, but decidedly a question.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Other "zeitheists"

And here I thought I was so original with my little madeup name for a blog. Google the word zeitheist and other manifestations of this syllogism pop up:

An EBay entity (in Japanese): http://feedback.tw.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewFeedback&userid=zeitheist

My original attempt at a blog: http://zeitheist.blogspot.com/

A website by the same name: http://www.zeitheist.com/

A definition from the New York Review of Magazines:
7. ZeitHeist With Magazivo’s patented celebrity-removal feature, you can program the machine to edit all references to celebrities du jour. Don’t ever want to read about Rosie O’Donnell, Ben Affleck or Paris Hilton again? A quick hit of the “Z” button and they’re gone. Set it and forget it. It’s just that easy!

And my old LiveJournal account! Which is kind of fitting, since that site was a sort of proto-blog: http://wngl.livejournal.com/profile

...and a bottle of rum!

I emerged from the theatre three hours after going in, exhausted, panting for breath, holding my sides... and very gratified! Seeing the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel was so much fun I could barely walk afterward. There are some uproarious sequences that will keep you glued to the screen and waiting with anticipation for the next stunt, and you will cheer as Cap'n Jack Sparrow does his cartoony best to make it through yet another gauntlet of epic, Warner Brothers-esque peril. Seriously, this is the best cartoon movie in a long time! (At least since The Incredibles...)
Personally, I loved the Kraken. Ever since I was a wee lad thrilling at the Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I have loved monster squids rising up from the fathoms and with a thousand tentacles pulling down helpless frigates, freighters and Flying Dutchmans. Even so, I was totally unprepared for just how monstrous this beastie could be: Cap'n Jack has a very memorable encounter that still has me laughing.
Obviously Johnny Depp was born to play Sparrow. While he has reduced the character to a few familiar tics, he is still a joy to watch, especially when the Cap'n has to get out of a scrape. The escape sequence wherein he does his best impression of a runaway shish kabob is unforgettable. Keira Knightley is gorgeous and spunky and a great actress; she manages most of the "heavy lifing" character-wise with panache. The less said about the bland Orlando Bloom the better -though the ladies with us at the movie didn't care a whit about his performance.
Lots of familiar characters return. My favorite was Norrington, the stiff commodore from the first movie. A scene where he is caked in mud and vomit and simply standing swaying, rum bottle in hand, is priceless. Nice to see some character evolution -or, in this case, devolution.
Bill Nighy as Davy Jones is precious. You will believe a squid has a heart. And his crew-! A bevy of mutated fishmen that are worth the price of admission. If I see this movie again (once I recover my energy), I will be watching the crew to try to figure just what exactly they are. You have never seen such a motley bunch, and I mean that as praise. One of the strengths of these movies is that the pirates really look like pirates, even when they are CGI!
Whatever you do, if you have yet to see this, avoid the cast list: seeing it in advance will spoil some of the movie's best surprises.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Viva Venezuela!

Go to Venezuela, You Idiot!
by Jeff Cohen

I don't usually take the advice of rightwingers. But I did this time. After receiving inflamed email messages from dozens of angry rightists that I should get the hell out of the USA and go to Venezuela, I accepted their challenge and flew to Caracas.
"Would you like me to start a fund to ship your ass down there, Comrade Cohen?"
What had provoked the often-abusive emailers was my 2005 Internet column urging U.S. residents to buy their gasoline at Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company. I called for a Citgo BUY-cott, to protest Bush's interventionist foreign policy while supporting innovative anti-poverty programs in Venezuela. (Last winter, Citgo started a program that provided discounted home-heating oil to low-income families in the U.S.)
"Hey moron, if you hate America so much and love Venezuela, why don't you go there?"
I'm glad I listened to the conservative chorus. In late June, I headed to Venezuela with a fact-finding delegation sponsored by the respected U.S. human rights group, Witness for Peace. The grueling trip covered much ground and all sides of Venezuela's social/political landscape. It is a complex country, headed by sometimes volatile President Hugo Chavez, a leftist and harsh Bush critic who was first elected in 1998.
As soon as I returned home, I headed to the nearest Citgo to fill up my tank -- more committed than ever to send a few dollars toward Venezuela's poor.
"You, sir, are as un-American as they come."
For decades, Venezuela's vast oil wealth had been squandered and hoarded by its light-skinned elite, while most Venezuelans -- largely of indigenous, African and mixed descent -- lived in dire poverty. Today, oil revenue from Citgo and elsewhere is funneled into social programs (called "missions") to benefit the country's poor majority. They're reminiscent of FDR's New Deal programs. . .born of our economic bust. But Venezuela's missions are fueled by a boom -- a boom in oil prices that is likely to persist for years.
"Because of Chavez, communism is thriving in South America."
From what I could see, capitalism is thriving. Foreign oil interests continue to profit handsomely from Venezuelan petrol, but they now pay a fairer share of taxes and royalties. So do the 80 McDonald's restaurants in Venezuela, which were briefly shut down last year over alleged tax cheating.
Multinational companies and the old elite are doing fine in today's Venezuela. So well that some Venezuelan leftists denounce Chavez -- despite his talk of building "21st century socialism" -- as a tool of corporate imperialism.
Like other oil-exporting countries, Venezuela in the past allowed its domestic productive economy to atrophy. Besides oil, it produced little -- with food largely imported. Today, people in poor areas are organizing themselves into productive and agricultural co-ops, supported by low-interest government loans. We visited a federal bank that underwrites women-run businesses nationwide.
My guess is that if Chavez succeeds in Venezuela -- a big "if" in a country of endemic corruption, poverty and crime, in the backyard of the U.S. superpower -- its economic system will end up looking more like Sweden than Cuba.
What's not debatable is that the poor have found hope in the Chavez administration -- which is why he's perhaps the most popular president in our hemisphere. So popular that Chavez critics in the U.S. government and Venezuelan opposition concede that they won't be able to defeat him in December when he seeks reelection.
"The trouble with all you liberals is that you're anti-American and hate democracy."
Participation in democracy is booming in Venezuela under Chavez. That's partly due to polarization, but also because so many poor people feel empowered enough for the first time to get active in politics. A massive 2005 Latinobarometro poll conducted in 18 Latin American countries showed that Venezuelans are among the top in preference for democracy over all other forms of government, in satisfaction with how their democracy is functioning, and in belief that their country is "totally democratic."
"The oil money never gets to the poor. . . . You must have been paid by Chavez to write what you wrote."
Across Venezuela, it's hard to miss the new investment in public education. Schools are being upgraded in urban and rural areas and are required to offer free breakfasts and lunches, arts, music and after-school activities. Unlike the U.S., these are well-funded mandates. Illiteracy has been virtually wiped out, according to UNESCO, thanks to adult education that has penetrated the poorest neighborhoods.
In poor communities, federally-subsidized stores called "mercals" sell food at half the market price. In the capital of Caracas, thousands of government-funded soup kitchens offer free lunches every weekday to the indigent; our delegation was headquartered in a church that served 150 free lunches per day. Across the country, new housing is being built to replace shantytown "ranchos" that so many Venezuelans live in.
Thousands of free ("Barrio Adentro") medical clinics have been built inside neighborhoods that never had doctors before -- so many clinics that you can spot them from the highway. These are staffed largely by doctors from Cuba; in return, Cuba receives Venezuelan oil. When we asked a community leader how local residents reacted to the Cuban doctors, he explained that most Venezuelan doctors won't serve in poor barrios: "People in our community don't care whether the doctors are French, German, Canadian, Mexican or Cuban -- as long as they're here to help."
"Go to Venezuela and kiss up to the anti-American dictator."
If Venezuela is a dictatorship, it must be the first in world history in which the opposition controls most of the media. And the first in which demonstrations occur regularly outside the presidential palace (organized by various groups, especially low-income activists complaining about broken promises and government inefficiency).
Dissent is alive and well in Venezuela. Any casual viewer can see anti-Chavez criticism all over TV, the country's dominant medium and largely in the hands of conservative business interests. The opposition used its power on TV to support a short-lived military coup in 2002 (strike 1), an employers' oil lockout in 2002-3 (strike 2) and a failed recall election in 2004 (strike 3). Chavez won nearly 60% in the recall vote -- which was monitored closely by international observers.
Efforts to bring down Chavez -- through democratic and undemocratic means -- have been supported by the Bush administration. Which makes it ironic that the American Family Association, a U.S. religious ultra-right group, has organized a Citgo boycott on the basis of its Internet hoax: "Venezuela Dictator Vows to Bring Down U.S. Government." The headline tends to reverse reality; Chavez has made no such vow. But AFA true believers have targeted my email inbox for months with the hoax.
"Try Jesus. If you don't like Him, the devil will always take you back.. . . .What terrorist group are you affiliated with?"
If you think the U.S. is politically polarized, you haven't been to Venezuela. Clinton's impeachment by the religious right over sex is child's play compared to what's gone on in Venezuela, where Chavez has survived near-death experiences at the hands of a conservative opposition that has never accepted his presidency.
Columnist Paul Krugman talks of a "New Class War" in our country. In Venezuela, it's old-fashioned class war. Political and media confrontation between Chavez and the opposition is vicious, personal and bare-knuckled. While independent human rights monitors in Venezuela complain about isolated cases of government intimidation of opposition figures and journalists, they scoff at claims that democracy is in jeopardy or that dictatorship is coming.
Today, Chavez is popular (his approval ratings dwarf Bush's), rambunctious in whipping up his base against both domestic opponents and Bush, and prone to hyperbole in his hours of extemporaneous speaking each day. He has waged a war of words against U.S. Empire and Bush, whom he calls "Mr. Danger." But that's polite in light of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld having compared Chavez to Adolph Hitler. Or Rev. Pat Robertson having called for Chavez to be assassinated.
"You can write your articles about how great he [Chavez] is, but I know, as well as other true Americans, that he is not a good man and he does need to be taken out of power as soon as possible."
To me, the issue is less about Chavez than about the social initiatives his government has unleashed. When I first wrote about Venezuela 14 months ago, I urged a simple economic action: filling up at Citgo so that our money at the pump helps Venezuela's poor instead of Middle East oiligarchs. That remains a good idea.
Nowadays, I also urge political action: that we contact Congress to demand that the U.S. stay out of Venezuela's political contest. That's up to Venezuelans to decide. Not us. The U.S. should stop its efforts to back the conservative opposition and cease all ("National Endowment for Democracy") funding of Venezuelan groups.
And finally, I want to join my rightwing critics in one recommendation: Go to Venezuela. If you can arrange it, examine the social transformations for yourself. Study Spanish there. See the decades of poverty, neglect and corruption that led to the election of Hugo Chavez -- and whether his government is improving things.
There's an added bonus for anyone who can get down there: gasoline at 18 cents per gallon. Expect to hear Venezuelans complaining that the price is too high.

Jeff Cohen is a media critic and former TV pundit. His newest book, "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media," can be pre-ordered at http://jeffcohen.org/.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Visit Cal Anderson Park this summer! (if you're in Seattle)

The plan yesterday was to catch an advance screening of A Scanner Darkly, the new animated adaptation of Philip K Dick's novel. I read the time of the screening wrong and ended up at the Harvard Exit, Capitol Hill's finest theatre, 4 hours early! My friend Jonathan Shaw met me and we decided to tromp around a bit, ending up at a wonderful, green location right in the center of the Hill.

This location was once a water reservoir and a notorious magnet in its day for nighthawks and itinerants. Recently it was shut and transformed over the course of a year into a beautiful urban park. We stopped there and sat watching from a bench as people bicycled, frisbee'd and hackeysacked under a golden, cloud-streaked sky. The water fountain is particulary impressive to me, because it has stepping stones that allow you to leap and stand at the base.

If you have a chance, give this park a visit. It's a brilliant spot for a summer sojourn, if you can't get away from the city. I found myself glad that we were able to spend the evening here rather than inside a theater -though I am still very much looking forward to seeing the film.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Soon to appear in a Pirates sequel?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Superhero Mashup

While I cannot understand the hubbub over the new Superman movie -it is a poor remake of the original, if you ask me- it does make sense to me that audiences are concerned about how our icons are portrayed. After all, isn't that the source of the latest interest in costumed heroes, a recognition of mythical figures for our time and culture?
To prepare for watching Superman Returns, my housemate Danny and I viewed the first film the evening prior. We are Seattle's bonafide biggest fans of this film and once again we were reminded of our great affection. Unfortunately, since it was so fresh in our minds going into the theatre the following day, we were acutely aware of how recklessly the new movie steals material from the original. I mean, entire lines of dialogue are hijacked intact! Rather than honoring the source material, Bryan Singer (I have to blame the director, whose adoration of Superman the Movie is well-documented) allows it to bind up his own film and render it a static piece of shallow entertainment -a colossal disappointment, considering how typically insightful he is to his material.

In order to recover from my disappointment, I threw in the Spider Man sequel last night. Now, if it were not for the first Superman, this film would stand out as the all-time greatest about a superhero. What works in both movies is that the directors (Richard Donner and Sam Raimi) utilise a "mash up" approach. That is to say, they liberally mixup genres and constantly switch tones, a method that is uniquely effective for, if you will, costume drama. One scene is straight drama, followed by screwball comedy, followed by a heartstopping action sequence, which leads into a romantic setting... and so on. It shouldn't work, yet the results are clear: both films did bangup box office and are considered peaks of the form.
Now, you look at other films of this type -Batman Begins (which is a fine movie), Daredevil (horrible) or Fantastic Four- and they are rendered in a straightforward fashion. This works to their detriment, I believe, because we in the audience have too much of an opportunity to realise how absurd these characters really are. And it isn't that they are absurd that works against them -these are iconic, mythological figures who (ideally) serve to fire our imaginations- it is the presentation.
In music when various genres are sampled in a song, this style is called a mashup. The cinematic form has been compared to music many times, most recently by director Steven Soderbergh, who describes the action of film as "rhythm and release". I think in the superhero genre we can see the mashup technique works quite effectively -when it is utilised. When it is not, the story suffers. By extension, the audience is made to suffer too.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Palestinian Ice Cream

I really like this Palestinian artist, Laila Shawa:

Golden Oldie

In 1982 Michael Golden was in the middle of introducing a new level of excellence to Marvel Comics. His brilliant covers were wonderfully illustrated; what's more, they introduced a new palette of color to a four-tone medium. This poster was like the lost ark to me that year, one that I never found. It was available by mail order only and I did send out for it... but alas it never showed up in my mailbox. Recently I found an image of it and thought it would be nice to share.