Thursday, December 14, 2006

Christmas Letter 2006


Every year our family writes a Holiday Newsletter to insert into our Christmas cards. Here is this year's letter formatted as a blog entry. I have previously blogged on several of the topics mentioned and clicking on the links will bring up additional information even longer and more dreary that the letter itself.

Your faithful corespondent has been told, quite clearly, that this year’s Christmas letter is to be completed in time for Christmas. I think last year’s went out in February (or was it March?) Please check the date on the postmark for this letter: if it doesn’t say December, 2006 please pray for me -- I may be in big trouble.

This year has been good to the North Carolina branch of the Haslup clan… for the most part. It did see the passing of Irene’s father, Allan Croft, in August. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1998 and was given less than two years to live. He managed to add five more active years to that span and he passed away comfortably, having beaten the odds, at least for a while. His ashes were scattered at sea at his request. He is remembered by the Winter Haven, Florida, Little Theater and Public Library, two organizations for which he did years of volunteer work.

lee at pilotirene at pilot

Lee – aka. “faithful corespondent” – is working on a contract at the North Carolina Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources. With a team of other programmers, he is working on a system to track the environmental impacts of DOT road projects to make sure they are offset by comparable environmental cleanup projects in the same part of the state. Irene compares it to the medieval church selling indulgences, an analogy which Lee does not altogether support.

After struggling with his weight for forty years Lee has finally found a way to control it and he is down 75 pounds from this time last year (over 100 pounds from his heaviest). He must now resist the urge to stop random strangers on the street and give them advice about weight control. “Hello,” he is tempted to say, “I can’t help noticing that you are really fat. Let me tell you about the viscous fiber supplement that – when combined with a sensible diet – has helped me lose a hundred pounds.” It is an ongoing disappointment to him that such valuable advice is so often badly received. So… he has learned his lesson and there will be no mention in this Christmas letter of PGx fiber (a blend of Glucomannan, Xanthan Gum and Sodium Alginate) nor will there be even the slightest suggestion that readers visit http:// and follow the link to his blog entry about his diet. That would be tacky.

In that spirit, no mention will be made that Irene has recently joined Lee in the diet and has lost 20 pounds. Instead, we focus on her prize-winning Halloween costume – The HOT FLASH: Mistress of Thermal Incongruity – which edged out Lee’s OBSTRUCTO: The Human Roadblock to take first place at a Halloween party hosted by our friend Calvin. The theme of the party was “Your Inner Superhero” and Irene’s costume needs no explanation. Lee is convinced that this is how she beat him since his costume tends to require rather a lot of explanation.

photo by cspowers.
In her secret identity – Irene Haslup, mild-mannered cheese specialist at Harris Teeter – the Hot Flash has also enjoyed a good year. She was chosen as one of six outstanding cheese sellers, and was flown to Wisconsin in the corporate jet to tour several cheese factories and be schmoozed by management. Apparently they have their eye on her as someone who might be tapped to run the cheese department in one of their new superstores. This is quite a feather in her cap, especially since her super powers are only occasionally useful for selling cheese – when she has to go into the cooler for another wheel of Brie.

In her other poorly-kept secret identity – docent at the NC Museum of Art – she is giving tours of the Monet in Normandy exhibit which is the biggest, most highly attended show ever at the NCMA. Irene will continue to do several tours a week until the show closes Jan 14th. If you hope to attend you might contact Irene for advice: the show sells out every day, usually before noon.


Our children continue to do well. Chris is a Junior at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, does a weekend a month with the Army Reserve and works as a barista in a local coffee shop. He formerly worked at Barney’s – a large chain coffee shop – but when Barney’s sold out to Starbucks Chris finally yielded to the requests of the owner of his favorite local coffee shop to come and work for him. As a Junior he has been talking to recruiters who visit the campus. The two he has mentioned are Hallmark Cards and the CIA. If next year’s newsletter has random parts crossed out with black markers you may feel free to conclude that the Hallmark thing didn’t pan out.

Amber works at the Carolina Living and Learning Center, a home for adults with Autism in Pittsboro, NC. She is currently applying to medical schools where she hopes to specialize in psychiatry. Her scores on the MCAT test were good and she is hopeful about acceptance but, as of now, she hasn’t heard back from most of the schools. She lives in Chapel Hill with a roommate, her two ferrets, and a cat she found as a newborn kitten in the middle of the road on her way to work. I suggested that she should name the cat “Speedbump” but Amber let her roommate pick out the name: Annie Teacup.

This past summer included two family reunions. The first was the 100th annual Fahl-Motts family reunion in Canton, Ohio. (see this and this and this) The Mottses are Lee’s paternal grandmother’s people and the reunion gave us an opportunity to catch up with second and third cousins. The Carlisle Inn in Walnut Creek, Ohio, is run by the Amish and was charming. The furniture in the hotel was all locally-made Amish work and was beautiful.. The site of the hotel is quite picturesque, in the middle of an Amish agricultural area outside town. One young lady stepped out onto the balcony to check out the view and asked her Aunt Irene: “What’s that smell?” Irene grew up on a cattle ranch in Florida and she knew. “Those are cows,” she said.


Dad and I with assorted nieces at "Beach" Week.

The other reunion was the Haslup family “beach week” reunion, held at Disney World (with no actual beach time this year). We stayed at “Pop Century” – one of the more reasonably priced Disney hotels. It was very enjoyable and Irene was able to get away to spend some time with her father. (See this and this.)

I will not mention of our two dogs, Cello and Jaxon, this year. They simply haven’t done anything interesting. But please don’t tell them. They are quite content with their humdrum lives. Why spoil it for them?

Most of the topics mentioned here – reunions, Halloween costumes, etc. – are covered in more length in my weblog. Links to the postings are available at http:// I’ll be glad to provide paper copies to anyone who asks.

With warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas and the Happiest New Year,

Lee, Irene, Chris and Amber

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Toast


Unless you act quickly you will probably miss your opportunity to purchase the wine pictured above from since they are having a "woot off" and things sell out fast. By the time I post this the wine may be gone.

I occasionally post quotes in my blog from Woot's ad copy which has a quirky sense of humor that I love. I was struck by their description of the white:
The 2005 Summertime White captures the fading luminescence of the season with a blend of old-vine French Colomard and Viognier. Sweet, sexy notes of nectarine and peach are spritzed with a metaphorical squeeze of lime to create the perfect counterpoint to spicy south-of-the-border cuisine. As the label illustration indicates, Jepson 2005 Summertime White is best consumed in a deck chair, under an umbrella, amid the orange hills of Mars.

I like to think of that deck chair among the orange hills of Mars as being occupied by science fiction writer Jack Williamson, who died this week at the untimely age of 98. Perhaps he is accompanied by The Girl From Mars and by Robert Heinlein, author of The Green Hills of Earth.

Friday, November 10, 2006


candygramA number of people I know are conservatives who either sat out the recent elections or voted for the Libertarian candidates (the libertarians were write-ins in NC this year.) They did so to send a message to the Republicans that they were fed up with them. My position is that you should vote in such a way as to maximize the likelihood that the actions of those elected will be beneficial for you, your family and your community -- and that any messages you want to send to the candidates should be sent through some other channel. All of which is to say, I held my nose and voted for Republicans.

Now that the election is over -- and everyone and everything for which I voted has been nicely defeated -- I have done my duty and can admit that I will not shed a single tear for any of the losers for whom I cast my ballot. I am deeply worried about the welfare of the country now that the party that cares only for power has replaced the party that cares mostly for power in the House and Senate, while we are at war, but let me make myself clear: It is a bad thing for the country that the Democrats have assumed the majority in Congress -- but that doesn't mean that the Republicans deserved to win. Clearly they did not.

So here is my message that I want to send to the Republicans:

I am tired of the shrillness and the polarization in American politics and I want it to stop. I don't care that the other guys started it or that they are another octave shriller than you are. Someone has to be the grownups in this and I expect it to be you.

Why on earth are you guys so obsessed with wedge issues that split your own base? I stand politically well to the right of 95 percent of the US population and yet, because there are one or two issues on which I differ from other strong conservatives, I constantly find myself lumped in with the "moderate" Republicans and on the wrong side of the Republican message. The campaign felt more like an effort to purge heretical Republicans than an attempt to get anyone but the "select few" to vote for the Republican candidates. As an example, I support a border fence and strong enforcement of the border, and at the same time, I support a guest worker program and a way for hard-working illegals currently in the country to earn the right to stay. We need to crack down on illegal immigration because, at its current level, it constitutes way too much of a good thing. The anti-immigration Republicans seemed to feel that they could "energize their base" by playing on their fear and resentment of illegal immigrants. Maybe they were right with some of their base but they were pumping a dry hole with me. The specter of hordes of Mexicans spreading pine-straw, flipping burgers and picking strawberries just doesn't scare me like it seems to scare some other Republicans.

The mainstream media have a double standard for ethics. When a Democrat takes money from agents of another country and hides it in his freezer with last year's freezer-burned turkey soup the New York Times will talk about how, on the other hand, he has been a champion of the poor and the oppressed. When a Republican appears at a fund raiser for an issue-based organization any funds raised will be suggested to be clandestine contributions to his campaign. When a Democrat goes on a Brokeback-Mountain camping trip with an underage congressional page he is praised for his courage in challenging homophobic Puritanism, but when a Republican sends a creepy and pathetic instant message the press digs their old Jeffrey Dahmer articles out of the archives, changes the name and runs them again. All of this means that life isn't fair. The press sets different ethical standards for Republicans... and so do I. You guys have been acting like a bunch of Democrats. This is unacceptable and must stop. I expect more from you.

And speaking of acting like Democrats, what's with all the spending? It's hard to buy votes from Republican voters. They have a long memory for taxes and when you hand a Republican a dollar that you have snagged for him out of the pork barrel he is likely to be struck by the sense that there is something familiar about it. Say, he will think, that looks a lot like a dollar I had in my wallet last April 14th.

Finally, now that you have p*ssed away your majority please play nice with the Democrats. They are coming into power having made promises, and raised expectations, that they would do a number of impossible and/or foolish things. Many of them are now looking for a graceful way to weasel out of those promises and to disappoint those expectations. Please help them. For the good of the country don't remind them of their agenda -- and for God's sake don't hold them to their promises.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My Halloween Costume Explained.

Originally uploaded by cspowers.
Have you ever seen someone walking down the hallway carrying a heavy bulky object and when you stepped into a doorway, to let them pass, you found that you have stepped into the doorway that they need to go through?

While you are studying the canned tomatoes in the supermarket does your wife ever point out that twelve other shoppers have queued up behind you waiting to get by?

Well it happens to me. All. The. Time. I have something of a genius for being in the way. I am big. I am absent minded. I tend to be hard to get around.

When my friend cspowers invited me to a Halloween party with the theme of "your inner super-hero" there was simply no quesion of who I should be.

O B S T R U C T O -- The Human Roadblock.

On the back of the flags on my hat it says "WIDE" and "LOAD".

The Teleospouse's Costume.

Originally uploaded by cspowers.
The H O T F L A S H -- Mistress of Thermal Incongruity

Monday, November 06, 2006

Election Day...


... is tomorrow.

See you at the polls. I'll be the one wearing this sticker which I have customized slightly to perfectly reflect my endorsement of the GOP.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Cheap Critic: Talladega Nights.


Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a very likable film with a good cast and a good heart. It stars Will Ferrell who shares the writing credit with fellow Saturday Night Live alum, Adam McKay, who also directed. Rather than write another summary of the film when there are hundreds of servicable ones available online I will simply quote one. Here is the summary that Cartman Kun wrote for the IMDB:
NASCAR stock car racing sensation Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is a national hero because of his "win at all costs" approach. He and his loyal racing partner, childhood friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), are a fearless duo -- "Shake" and "Bake" by their fans for their ability to finish so many races in the #1 and #2 positions, with Cal always in second place. When flamboyant French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) challenges "Shake" and "Bake" for the supremacy of NASCAR, Ricky Bobby must face his own demons and fight Girard for the right to be known as racing's top driver.

Most of the castmembers are very familiar faces from television with John C. Reilly being the standout exception -- the token film guy. In cinematography, pacing and overall style the film owes a lot to television. This is particularly striking in the race scenes where a production crew with less of a television mindset would pull back, using wider shots to show more of the environment and count on the audience to focus on the action. The race scenes in Talladega nights are are shot tightly and simply with the camera always a participant and never an observer. The film is at the end of its theatrical release as I write this but with its TV roots it should work fine on DVD -- even for those with no fancy "home theaters."


In recommending this film I should confess to an idiosyncrasy of taste. There are a number of vastly popular modern comedies that I just don't like very much -- films that are funny enough but that are so larded with crassness and alienation that in the end you find yourself with nothing to like about any of the characters, or about the film itself. Talladega nights is not such a film.

Instead, it is a broad but affectionate parody of NASCAR and the redneckish NASCAR community. The film gets inside the heads of its subjects and, from that perspective, asks "what do we think is funny about us?" Ferrell and Reilly really nail their characters in loosely-scripted, mostly ad-lib scenes where half the actors are NASCAR luminaries playing themselves. The resulting comedy is broad enough to suit almost anybody -- our hero is contractually obligated to mention Power Aide whenever he says grace before a meal -- but with almost no bite of Switfean satire. If you are addicted to that bite, and cannot enjoy gentler comedy, then this film -- and most of Ferrell's work -- is not for you.

I've seen other reviewers complain that this film "offers nothing new," that the theme of a driver who loses his nerve and must face his demons to return to competition is old hat. I suspect that those reviewers miss the sarcastic bite that I mentioned above and that they simply find the film too bland. Of course the film follows the formula for a racing film. All good parodies conform to the rules of the genre they are spoofing. The best parodies are themselves good examples of subject type. Talladega Nights is quite enjoyable as a racing film. The racing scenes are well done and exciting. And of course our hero has an accident half way through the film and has to struggle to regain his nerve -- but that is not really what the film is about.

Talladega Nights is about the trancendent power of unconditional love -- the ties of family, romantic attraction and lifelong friendship that somehow cannot be destroyed despite the considerable efforts of our clueless, vain, greedy, bumbling, yet strangely likable "heros." None of the characters deserve to be loved -- but they are -- and the sport of stock car racing itslef also does not deserve to be loved -- it is loud and dangerous and highly commercialized -- but it is loved by millions. Perhaps this film does not deserve a good review. But here it is. Deal with it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

jokedoctorThe Joke Doctor

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman walked into a bar. The bartender looked up exasperation. "What is this?" he asked.
Funny, huh? ...? No? Sorry, I must have botched the joke. Let's call in Kate Zernike, the Joke Doctor from the New York Times. Here's what she might say:

Mr Haslup's prepared joke on his blog, The Teleoscope, on November 2nd called for him to type "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman walked into a bar. The bartender looked up in exasperation. 'What is this?' he asked 'some kind of a joke?'" In his delivery, Mr Haslup dropped the word "in."

First, I would like to apologize to the bartenders of America if my botched joke is interpreted to mean that they don't know the meaning of the word "exasperation" and can't understand it even if they look it up. As someone who has personally provided a certain amount of exasperation to bartenders across the country I know their familiarity with it firsthand.

Second, I would like to point out to Ms. Zernike that, while it is true that I left out the word "in", I also left off the punchline of the joke and the second omission does more damage to the joke than does the first.

For those of you who have not a clue what point I am belaboring, I am talking about John Kerry's botched joke and Ms. Zernike's analysis in the New York times in which Kerry's joke is repeated in a heavily redacted form while giving the impression that in his telling it he omitted only a single word. Of Kerry's joke she said
Mr. Kerry’s prepared remarks to California students on Monday called for him to say, “Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.” In his delivery, he dropped the word “us.”

This is true, as far as it goes. It is also a damnable lie. Assuming that Kerry's prepared remarks were prepared before he told the joke (and not as damage control after the fact) then he did omit the word "us." He also omitted the words "in a war" and "Just ask President Bush." You'd think that a joke doctor who did any fact checking at all would notice the omission of the punchline.

Poor Kerry. He has no sense of humor and it is painful to watch him try to tell a joke under the best circumstances. This time he bolluxed the joke and came out sounding like a pompous, haughty, elitist windbag making a snide and irritating joke about the troops in Iraq. I am prepared to give him credit for his claim that he misspoke. He intended to sound like a pompous, haughty, elitist windbag making a snide and irritating joke about the commander in chief of the troops in Iraq.

And as for the New York Times, there will be those who see this story as one more instance of the Times' pathetic eagerness to carry water for the Democrats but I am prepared to believe that it reflects a new policy. From now on all public figures will be allowed to change their quotes in the "newspaper of record" to show that they almost said what their handlers wish they had said. I guess it is too late to save Dan Quayle but this will be a big help for the president who occasionally fluffs a line or two.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


instapiffftI check out Glenn Reynolds' blog, Instapundit, almost every day -- often more than once a day -- but I seldom quote it here since Instapundit is itself mostly links with very brief comments -- often merely the patented Reynolds' "heh".

When I checked it this morning I found something funny that, in my role as the President of our local Java User's Group I thought I would pass along.
Parse error: parse error, unexpected T_STRING in /home/instapun/public_html/index.php on line 103

To be fair, I checked back in half an hour and the site was back up. If the site used the full J2EE framework instead of PHP it would serve pages 60 percent faster but when it went down it would be down for a week while a team of 17 coders tried to figure out why...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Modern Times

Bob Dylan: then and now.

Modern Times

A friend gave me a CD a couple of weeks ago on the occasion of my sixteenth annual thirty-ninth birthday*. I had to try to conceal my disappointment when I unwrapped it. Bob Dylan... great. Truth be told I have never liked Bob Dylan very much. Years ago I formed an opinion of him as a nancy-pants pretty boy folk rocker who wrote annoying songs he couldn't be bothered to sing, instead standing at the microphone and alternately shouting, as if the whole world is deaf, and sawing away at his damned harmonica. For thirty years I have pretty much gone with that impression. Every now and then I would hear someone else sing one of his songs and I would like it well enough but that did little to change my impression of Dylan as a performer. Friends would try to tell me that he was somehow a great poet but the lyrics they quoted always sounded like the unpaid-for angst of a city-boy folk singer holding forth on hard times he had only heard about third hand.

So, imagine my surprise when I popped Modern Times in the player in my car and was hooked on it after about twenty seconds of the first song. The album varies a bit in style -- mostly blues and western but with Hawaiian, folk and crooner elements thrown in -- and all the elements in the mix are rooted in the thirties and forties. Aside from that heavy-retro aspect the other thing that all the various numbers have in common is that none of them sound like the Bob Dylan that I don't like. It's a fabulous album and it has been the soundtrack of my daily commute ever since.

I have hesitated in writing this review while I worried that despite the fact that I liked the album musically there might be some sort of a gotcha in the lyrics that would make a full endorsement embarrassing -- Bob Dylan is often referred to as the voice of my generation and my generation often seems to consist mostly of idiots. So I have (quite enjoyably) listened to the album several times and have read the lyrics on the web and tracked down some of the obscure references and am finally able to say that the songs are pretty much what they appear to be -- songs about love and loss, anger, disillusionment and the hope of redemption.

This is not to say that the album doesn't touch on politically-charged current events. It does so repeatedly. The flooding in New Orleans is never mentioned but is alluded to continually in lines that link trouble to rising water, most particularly in The Levee's Gonna Break
If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Well, I worked on the levee, Mama, both night and day
I worked on the levee, Mama, both night and day
I got to the river and I threw my clothes away

I paid my time and now I'm good as new,
I paid my time and now I'm as good as new.
They can't take me back unless I want 'em to

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break
Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take
I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
You say you want me to quit ya, I told ya, 'No, not just yet.'
When I'm with you, I forget I was ever blue
When I'm with you, I forget I was ever blue
Without you there's no meaning in anything I do
Put on your cat clothes, mama, put on your evening dress
Put on your cat clothes, mama, put on your evening dress
Few more years of hard work, then there'll be a 1,000 years of happiness
With all of the songs on this album, and at the risk of buying into the idea that Dylan is some sort of a poet, I find it interesting to try to figure out who the first- and second- person references might be. That is, as who is Dylan singing and to whom? One possibility with Levee's Gonna Break is that when he says "you" he is talking to the city of New Orleans. This makes the line "You say you want me to quit ya, I told ya, 'No, not just yet'" make a sort of sense.

Another song where it is interesting to try to figure out the players is Working Man's Blues which starts like this --
There's an evenin' haze settlin' over town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's gettin' shallow and weak
Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory
It's a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf
Come sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see
While I'm listening to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping it's way into my gut

Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the frontline
Sing a little bit of these workingman's blues...
I have seen the lyrics for Working Man's Blues criticized, both as being clumsy and as being excessively political but I find neither to be true. My take on it is that it is a song of disillusion and loss about politics not a politicized song about something else. Remember that the album draws from sources in the thirties and forties and take another look at the first verse. By his odd choice of words Dylan is clearly identifying his first-person voice as belonging to the old-fashioned left (of which he himself is undoubtedly still a member). Bearing this in mind the song becomes a sad love song to the American heartland from "the God that Failed" -- a suitor who has not just been rejected, but has been nearly forgotten.
I can see for myself that the sun is sinking
How I wish you were here to see
Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking
That you have forgotten me?
So, why do I like this album but dislike Dylan's earlier work? I think it has something to do with his shift to the blues. Dylan's "protest" songs of earlier years had an element of sanctimony about them: He found himself surrounded by wickedness and error that he, and his enlightened circle, did not share, and this wickedness and error could be corrected if only consciousness was appropriately raised and the people were motivated to act. With the passing of more years living in his own skin while he struggled with drugs, alcohol and dissipation, Dylan seems to have more of the attitude of a blues man that while he is surrounded by sons of bitches it an inescapable part of the human condition, and that he is quite an SOB himself. Consider this from the edgy song Ain't Talkin':
They say prayer has the power to heal
So pray from the mother.
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell.
I am a-tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain't going well.

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
I'll burn that bridge before you can cross.
Heart burnin', still yearnin',
There'll be no mercy for you once you've lost.
So, despite my expectations I find that I like Bob Dylan's new album a lot. Who'd a'thunk it? Thanks, Calvin, for buying me a CD I didn't want.

* About my age:I'm not that old. You are off by one year: check your math.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Sanctuary! Sanctuary!

hunchbackHave you noticed that whenever a politician gets into trouble with his behavior his handlers check him into rehab to get him away from reporters in much the same way that Quasimodo took Desdemona to Notre Dame?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

POST-NATIONALISM: George W Bush as President of the World -- a review.

My friend Brad Linaweaver has written a new book. He gave me a copy at a convention we both attended over the Labor Day weekend. My review of his book will start in a few paragraphs, but first, by way of background, a bit about Brad and Me.

My Friend Brad

linawebThis is a photo that Brad is bound to like. I stole it from his DragonCon bio page. Brad is on the right (as always) and the young lady is, ummm... Where was I? Oh yes, Brad. Brad is one of my oldest and best friends. I struggle a bit with that designation since Brad is almost exactly my age and it costs me to call him an old friend, and what's more, calling him a good friend puts even more strain on a word that struggles a bit to meet the requirements of being used several different ways. But anyway, Brad is among my closest friends and has been for 36 years. I mention this to dismiss any notion of objectivity in my review, which I will get to directly.

Brad is not a patient person. He gave me the book on the first day of a four-day science-fiction convention -- one of those events where the participants do pretty much everything but sleep -- and every time I ran into him for the next few days he would ask if I had finished it yet. I was carrying the book with me in my Big Bag o'Stuff, thinking I would read a page or two if I ever found a quiet moment but truth-be-told, I hadn't finished the first chapter by the time I hit the road to drive home on Monday afternoon. But by then I had a pretty good handle on what the book was about because Brad had borrowed it back from me several times to read me his favorite parts. I had one third of the book personally read to me by the author, late at night as we argued politics in his hotel room where we had gone to escape the noise of the younger generation and their noisy, black-clad goth bands.

I like to tease Brad that he is my evil twin because, despite very different modes of reasoning, he and I tend to wind up with more or less the same positions in the end. I tend to see political issues as represented by tensions between opposing ideas and seek a balance point; Brad likes to find diametrically opposed ideas, way out there on the edge, and see what happens when they collide. Brad is a natural radical -- he spends a lot of time out on the fringes and has many friends there. He speaks their language. I have a good reading knowledge of the languages of the political fringes but I can't pass for a native; Brad can and does.

Last year, when Brad told me he had decided to call himself a conservative, once and forever, I suspected that it wouldn't last. Brad likes to "think outside the box," so to speak, and the orbits of the inner planets are too small a box for Brad to feel comfortable inside. As it turns out he was just passing through on a highly elliptical orbit, coming in from the Libertarian asteroids and heading in the general direction of the then-planet Pluto. So, it was only a very slight surprise this year to find him whooping and hollering as he rides in on a fast-moving Paleo-comet from well right of Centauri.

As I said, Brad is not a patient person. He will most likely read this review and he will have undoubtedly had enough of this introduction by this point. Yeah, yeah, fine he will be thinking but what about my f***ing book!? So, without further ado...

bradsbookPOST-NATIONALISM: George W Bush as President of the World is a rather short book and a very easy read. In length, style and spirit it reminds one at times of the writings of Thomas Paine, particularly his pamphlet, Common Sense, which he wrote in 1776 as an argument for a war of separation from England. It was during this period, and particularly in Common Sense that Paine's bent for ideology was blended with an almost-Burkean patriotism based on a love of place and affection for his compatriots. [Paine went on later to disagree famously with Burke, especially on the French Revolution and would undoubtedly dislike my calling him Burkean.] You can feel Paine's warmth for the nascent nation in this passage:
I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity, —that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.

Similarly, for all of Linaweaver's incandescent rhetoric, one senses the same underlying affection for the American nation and people.
Freedom is what makes America work, both socially and economically. Religion has thrived here because of freedom, not the other way around. That's why the Islamic Theocrats call us the Great Satan. Their limited minds cannot grasp what Paul Johnson writing in First Things celebrates as the "libertarian plurality in religion" that makes America the greatest country on God's green Earth. Smart atheists and agnostics love how America handles religion. The ACLU is not America.
It is difficult to find parts of Linaweaver's POSTNATIONALISM to quote that fairly represent the sense of the book. The passage above was chosen because it worked with the Paine quote and served to illustrate Linaweaver's affection for the American nation. But in fairness I could as easily have quoted other parts that give quite another impression. Here's one:
...Maybe when Bush says that our Islamic foes hate our freedom he's using the word to mean something different than is usually intended. Is he implying that if we gave up all our freedoms and burned the Bill of Rights (around the time of Patriot Act Five) the Islamo-Enemy would no longer hate us?

Seems to me we'd still be infidels and they'd hate us whether we're enslaved or free. See how tricky it is when you think about the actual words? Now, it's true that the Communists always made a fetish our of hating our freedom. But they are a different kind of enemy from the -- what shall we call them -- people of faith who die for Allah.

Maybe our current enemies hate our plastic. We have a lot of plastic over here.

Such thoughts could drive one mad! ...
Such thoughts could indeed drive one mad -- and perhaps they have. It is equally easy to find yet other quotes that give still other impressions of Linaweaver's ideas. No matter who you are, or what your position is on the Bush presidencies or the wars in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, you can find something to agree with and much with which to argue in Linaweaver's book.

After the attacks of 9/11 Linaweaver surveyed the reactions of the various political groups and identified the mainsteam Conservatives as the least idiotic of any of them. He had previously identified himself as a Libertarian but he found the foreign-policy position of the Libertarian Party establishment -- eyes screwed shut, fingers jammed the in ears and shouting "LA LA LA" to drown out any discussion -- to be unhelpful and insufficient. So, he climbed into the Conservative Mainstream box and pulled down the lid. Then he discovered that he shared the box with the dimbulbs of Right-wing Radio and the pressure started to build. It is to his credit that he held out as long as he did but finally the pressure became too great; the sides of the box could not hold and Linaweaver exploded out in all directions. Thus the seemingly contradictory nature of his book.

If you trace the tragectories of the fragments back to establish the exact location of the explosion you would find it somewhere in the vicinity of Sean Hannity. This is not to be taken as suggesting that Hannity was the cause of the explosion -- he wasn't -- but that Linaweaver's position was quite near to Hannity's just before the box let go. The center of gravity of the Linaweaverian debris field is quite close to Hannity's position.

I mention this central point because, despite Linaweaver's rhetorical explosion, that point is still where the bulk of his thinking is to be found. After any explosion the highest concentration of residue is at the point of origin and, despite his repeated claims that he no longer supports the War -- or the President -- he spends about half the book debunking, point-by-point, all of the arguments one hears made day-in and day-out by the routine anti-War and anti-Bush pundits.

This is not to say that he doesn't offer his own criticisms of Bush the younger and his handling of the war. Here's one:
President Bush has his virtues. Unfortunately, he has more weaknesses. At a time when America needs a visionary leader such as Ronald Reagan, we're stuck with a public servant named George W. Bush."
Or in the next chapter:
The Bush style was John Wayne but the Bush policies were Elanor Rosevelt.
Those who know him will realize that these are stinging rebukes coming from Linaweaver -- and quite possibly more damning than is entirely fair -- but those passages will leave the general public scratching their heads in puzzlement.

That was Linaweaver's most difficult challenge in writing this book: explaining the reason why he felt the need to change his position. Despite his white-hot rhetoric and his repeated assertions that he can no longer support the president or the war, the actual offences he sites that forced him to decamp will strike most readers as evidence of a Princess-and-the-Pea sensitivity. He now opposes the War on Terror, except for the part about sending the military to blow stuff up and kill people we don't like -- he's ok with that part -- and he opposes the policies of the President, except for, well, most of them. He opposes the War on Terror, not because it is a War but because "Terror" is not a rational enemy with whom to fight and he no longer supports the President because the President has taken to using the sloppy, poorly thought-out rhetoric of the Pro-War Right.

Consider this quote from President Bush from a recent press conference
I said the other night [this is] the ideological war of the 21st century, and I believe it. And I believe that if we leave that region, if we don't help democracy prevail, then our children and grandchildren will be faced with an unbelievable, chaotic and dangerous situation in the Middle East.
Bush's argument for the war in Iraq has some nice parallels to Paine's exhortations to go to war with the British. Both speak of a conflict which cannot be avoided but can only be delayed to be faced later at greater peril. Paine's phrase about "leaving the sword to our children" has more of a ring to it than Bush's "leaving our children with a dangerous situation" but we live in an age with a tin ear for prose and no one has ever called Bush a great orator.

What drives Linaweaver mad about such statements is not that they are wrong, on the face of them, but that they are not the best arguments that can be made and more particularly are not the right arguments for a US president to be making. Bush is absolutely right that we are engaged in "the ideological war of the 21st century" but Linaweaver is also right in asserting, in effect, that we are marching into that war in cardboard armor carrying wooden swords.

I believe that my position is close enough to Linaweaver's here that I can paraphrase his argument which, flatly stated, would go something like this: The primary motivation of the proper foreign policy of a republic is the self-interest of the republic and not some sort of vague, ill-defined internationalist benevolence. The actions taken in pursuit of those goals must meet the tests of international justice -- the citizens of the republic do not wish to see their nation play the role of the villain on the international stage -- but such considerations are enablers, not primary motivators. While the initial positions offered by the Bush administration after the attacks of 9/11 and during the runups to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were properly based in concepts of the self-interest of the American Republic, as the nation has grown frustrated with the progress of the wars the administration's rhetoric has increasingly relied on the secondary considerations of legalistic internationalist justification.

The quote from President Bush at the press conference is typical of the policy line of his administration in recent months. The primary motivation for US involvement -- creating a situation in the Middle East that is less dangerous to American interests -- is inferred but the notion of "spreading democracy" is the lede. "Democracy" is used as a lightning rod to divert criticism, as are invocations of other liberal Shibboliths such as Religious Tolerance and Women's Rights.

There are a number of problems with this attempt to coopt the language of the internationalist left. First, it fails altogether to serve its intended purpose which is to deflect criticism. The anti-war left and their allies in the media care deeply, of course, about such things as Women's Rights, Religious Tolerance and Democracy, but only when it serves their underlying purpose -- which is to get their power back. They correctly assume that when the Bush administration talks about Democracy there is some other goal that is left unstated. Since the president is coy about what that other goal might be his opponents are free to imagine it to be anything they like. For the more radical that would be paranoid theories about Blood for Oil [(c) Democratic Party USA] but most of them see it more in light of Tom Lehrer's song Send the Marines!
For might makes right,
Until they've seen the light,
They've got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
'Till someone we LIKE can be elected!
Actually, a fairly good argument can be made for the Tom Lehrer version. It's expensive to go half-way around the world and topple a government. We'd just as soon not have to do it again in the same country right away. And there is also this to be said for actual democracies: when you send your cruise missiles to dig out military facilities hidden in civilian areas you can console yourself that over 50 percent of the collateral casualties probably voted for the guys that have pissed you off.

But, I've wandered off, haven't I? I was reviewing a book. Sorry. Back to it then.

I said above that almost everyone will find something they support and much with which to disagree in Linaweaver's book. I am no exception to this rule. We both agree, for instance, that many of the bad decisions made by the Bush administration have been made following suggestions from "neoconservatives" among the president's advisers. Both he and I are somewhat skeptical about neoconservatives -- former liberal intellectuals who have converted to conservatism for utilitarian reasons -- because we worry that their "conversion" may be either temporary or superficial.

But, as it turns out, Leinaweaver and I worry most about different subgroups among the "neo-cons." Linaweaver's dastardly neo-cons share the mindset of the bureaucratic "permanent" government and are currently right-wing because the Republicans are in power. They are government insiders with a State Department mentality. They have something of an internationalist, or at least a diplomatic outlook. They tend to be moderately hawkish because they feel that the sparing use of military force gives their preferred diplomacy more traction -- rather like a bit of sand under the tires on an icy road. Their vice is a tendency to become so wrapped up in the complexity of their manipulations -- their pragmatic alliances and triangulations -- that playing the game becomes a goal in itself, loving their strategies more than their country. Or, as Linaweaver puts it:
Neo-conservatives hate nationalism. That is one of the reasons they simply aren't convervatives. Their very name rings false. They use the tropes and symbols of nationalism to achieve internationalist results. They are for capitalism only if it serves the big picture. They are the direct descendents (sometimes literally) of the New Dealers who used socialism (e.g., the Four Freedoms) when it served the big picture. Capitalism and Socialism are interchangeable tools in the hands of what T. S. Elliot called men without chests.

The Democrats were to play the role of gods during World War II and in the immediate post-war period. Then the gods were expelled from Olympus when the Republicans took over. Sure, the Republicans could be manipulated but that was not as much fun for the globalists as when they drank the elixir of absolute immunity at the feet of FDR.

Then Reagan screwed up everything as the last Nationalist President who had the temerity to win the Cold War.

Now, in the current period, the neo-cons want the Republicans to be the new gods in precisely the same manner that FDR once wore the celestial crown. When they speak of democracy the blood of every honest man should run cold as ice.
I share Linaweaver's idea that there is something oxymorinic about the name "neo-conservative" but my critique would come from my belief that "true" conservatives are, or ought to be, to a large degree traditionalists. This gives the term "neo-conservative" something of the irony of the rock band in the film This is Spinal Tap that considers the name "The New Originals" when they find that the name "The Originals" is already taken. On another matter of more consequence, I believe Linaweaver has mis-attributed the "men without chests" reference. T. S. Elliot wrote of "Hollow" men stuffed with straw. I believe Linaweaver was thinking of C. S. Lewis. Here is Lewis from The Abolition of Man.
...It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which [modern theorists] could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
I share Linaweaver's concerns to a large degree and I share Lewis' concerns entirely. But there are other things to worry about.

I also worry about a different set of neo-cons. My problematic neo-cons are former left-wing jewish intellectuals who have become right-wing jewish intellectuals so they can form alliances with the religious right. They easily pass the Lewis chestlessness test: they are genuine American patriots and their affection for the nation cannot be questioned. But when they formed an alliance with the Christian Right both sides were forced to jettison enough of their intellectual superstructure that it is tempting to call the resulting coalition the Men without Heads.

Many of the more annoying aspects of what Linaweaver likes to call Reich-wing Radio stem from the tendency of this coalition to take their talking points as revealed truth that cannot be questioned. Discussion can go so far, but no further. Beyond that point additional questions simply receive the same answers as before only said a little bit louder and more forcefully, and with the maddening assertion that a true conservative wouldn't be asking such questions.

Some of the spokesmen for the coalition latched onto these simplistic formulations because they lack the intellectual depth to go to the next level. Others had their personal reasoning but knew that not all coalition members would agree with it. An atheist Zionist and an evangelical Christian may both feel it is crucial for the US and Israel to show a united front -- but they would very likely not agree on why. Aware that the enemies of America were listening (as were the enemy's willing accomplices in the caves of Afghanistan and the bomb factories of Iraq) these more-intellectual talking heads were reluctant to discuss their personal reasoning for fear of exposing cracks in the coalition to those looking for wedge issues. From that viewpoint the denunciations of heretical ideas -- as not reflecting true conservatism -- can be seen as nervous demands that dirty laundry not be aired in public. Right or wrong, these attempts to cut off debate made Linaweaver's departure from the coalition inevitable.

For most of Linaweavers short book I found myself in general agreement with the points he was making -- or at least with what I perceived to be the central direction of his often zig-zag reasoning. But I must admit that he lost me in the chapters that describe the run-up to the schism that split the coalition and allowed him to escape the box he had shut himself into. There were a number of issues that strained the coalition before the one that caused the rupture. First there was the Harriet Meyers nomination for the Supreme Court... (For my position see Cronyism.) And then the immigration thing... (see Wetbacks and Quien es Juan Galt and Juan Enrique was a Tomato Pickin Man.) And finally (per Linaweaver)...
The Dubai Ports World deal marked the point at which Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and the right and center coalition flew into a million pieces. Reich-wing radio and the Fox News hacks have been trying to repair the old egg ever since but so many real voices on the right have defected that the old rhetoric is losing its charm.
It's interesting that Linaweaver and I found ourselves on opposite sides of all three of these issues, despite going into them with very similar positions. (For my position on Dubai see Jimmy and Me and Left Behind Again.)

On each of those three issues that split the conservative coalition I found myself in agreement with the President and at odds with many of the pundits... and, apparently, with Linaweaver. I didn't necessarily agree with the arguments provided by the administration in all cases. It is a sad requirement of office for most politicians that they must say ridiculous things from time to time to get anything done. Reagan seldom did but he's dead. Every time I hear Bush speak I miss Reagan. But the president we have is the president we have. Whenever Bush argues for his policies he will offer a number of supporting reasons -- one or two are good reasons (I find them compelling reasons) and the rest are rubbish he has stolen from the opposition. Linaweaver takes all the president's statements at face value. I do the president the courtesy of assuming that when he says something idiotic he is doing so for effect. Much of the president's famous verbal fumbling can be seen as his choking on the twaddle that he, rightly or wrongly, believes he must say for the good of the nation.

In the course of explaining his opposition to the Dubai ports deal Linaweaver sets up and knocks down a number of strawmen which he claims to represent the arguments of the opposition. In the best (and most irritating) part Linaweaver lapses into a literal dialog. The first voice you hear -- the one that enters with the word "Hello?" is Linaweaver. Feel free to consider the other voice to be a caricature of me since it makes a number of my arguments only in the clumsiest possible way.
It's not about security, we were told. Security will still be in the hands of loyal illegal immigrants from Mexico. Or maybe a few Teamsters, actual citizens, might be allowed on the docks. Not a problem. Not to worry. Only three percent of the cargo is inspected here anyway. It's all inspected in mysterious foreign ports.

"Hello? What was that about a small percentage inspected here?"

"Look, don't get hung up on the numbers. The point is that American docks are part of international business and a small mishap like 9/11 is no reason to panic. Besides, you're not against capitalism, are you?"

"Well no, not when you put it that way. Can you tell me something about the business practives of the UAE?"

"Well, sure, it's over a billion dollar deal. They bought it from the British."

"The British? Do Americans own anything in this country of strategic importance?"

"Hey, watch it buddy. Next you'll be saying the ANWR oil belongs to Americans. What makes you think if it's ever drilled you'll see any of it? The environmentalist wackos serve their purpose for now, keeping Alaskan and offshore oil away from the Americans who'll never pay enough for it. The stuff will be sold elsewhere. Heh, heh, heh." [This paragraph is NOT a caricature of me, or of anyone else for that matter. It is something Brad made up to read to liberal women in hopes of getting laid.]

"What the hell are you saying?"

"Just kidding. Anyway, you wanted to know about the UAE. It's a perfect example of the free market. Of course it's a State-owned company."


"Are you hard of hearing? Maybe if you take those American flag pins out of your ears..."

"Dubai Ports World is the property of an Arab government?"

"Capitalism at its finest. You don't believe in outmoded ideas like private ownership, do you?"

"You're not describing capitalism. You're describing..."

"Don't say it, pal, if you want to do business at the old stand. Dubai Ports World is a State-owned company but not to worry. It's all in the family. Isn't that private enough for you? These are good guys and they are with us in the War on Terror despite what they might wear on their heads."

"But have they ever been involved with any of our current enemies?"

"Don't be naive. What are you, a Utopian? Sure, they've had dealings with some bad people. Who hasn't? What are you trying to get at? Don't you support the War on Terror? This is a good strategic deal, bub. Don't you trust the geopolitical strategic wisdom of Bush? Iraq is Dick Chaney's personal Bug Zapper and the bugs have gone there to fight instead of elsewhere.
The dialog goes on but that gives you the sense of it. It consists of the character who speaks with Linaweaver's voice asking sensible questions and the other character giving unsatisfactory responses. But there are, in fact, better answers that could have been given.

Dubai Ports World is owned by the Emir of Dubai. Dubai is a very small part of the Unitied Arab Emirates. Dubai has a non-desert land area of about 100 square miles, which is just over twice the size of Disney World. While other Emirates in the UAE derive their wealth from collecting rent for oil production -- oil they cannot drill, or pump, or transport -- Dubai has made its money by providing services, such as port operations, and increasingly by tourism. Dubai is a modern, moderate islamic country and very much wants to be the Hong Kong of the Middle East. It has a very strategic location, immediately across the gulf from Iran, and is the home of a major US naval base. Of course, it is an islamic country; The bars that serve pork ribs and beer to US sailors, for instance, are required to post a warning sign in Arabic by the door.

Because it is owned by a monarch, of sorts, Dubai Ports World is difficult to hold up as a model of capitalism. On the other hand, I wonder how much of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, the British firm that Dubai Ports was trying to buy out, is owned by the queen. She's one of the wealthiest people on earth. Hmmmm... Still, DPW ia not a model of capitalism, to be sure. More like mercantilism. But in a part of the world that hasn't worked out the fine points of feudalism yet they do stand out. And their customers speak well of them. The head of the biggest shipping company in Israel spoke for them, for instance, and supported the deal.

None of this contradicts any of Linaweaver's strawmen but it does, I think, offer a different perspective from which to view some of them and perhaps explains why I come to different conclusions than Linaweaver does on the issue of the Dubai Ports World deal.

There are thousands of other aspects of Linaweaver's book with which I could either argue or agree -- and generally in much more length than their treatment in the book -- but I have already overtaxed the patience of my readers and will have to call a close to this review with a recommendation that my readers read the book for themselves and compile their own lists of agreement and opposition.

My copy of Brad's book is inscribed: "To Big Lee -- Well, no one will accuse me of LIBERALISM! I'm sure you'll agree on that." and I am sure he is right.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Cheap Critic: Monster House



Monster House is a nearly perfect little film -- macabre, funny and charming -- and made with a surprisingly light and deft touch for a creative team with so little filmmaking experience. It opens with a tight shot of a single brightly-colored autumn leaf fluttering on a branch and then letting go to fly away with the wind. We follow that leaf as it swoops and swirls, mixing with other equally colorful leaves in a scene undoubtedly intended to show off the 3D computer animation to best effect. [Note: I saw a flat print; I'd love to see it in 3D.] The leaf finally settles to the sidewalk and is then sent swirling again when a little girl on a tricycle goes by, singing along with the orchestral theme that opened the movie and saying hello to all the things she sees. "Hello leaves... Hello mailbox..." We follow the little girl and her wake of beautiful swirling leaves until suddenly, not watching where she is going, she runs off the sidewalk and gets stuck in the grass in front of a creepy old house. She pedals franticly but cannot get any traction in the oddly-perfect lawn in front of the decrepit house. The door to the house opens and a frightening, desperately-angry old man comes out and yells at her. At no point in the film does any character mention the fact that the lawn of the old house has not one leaf on it. The film went to some trouble to establish the time of year and the omnipresent falling leaves but then trusts the audience to notice that they stop at the old house's property line.

The main plot involves a boy who lives across the street who has become obsessively convinced that there is something terribly wrong with the old house and the man who lives there. The boy cannot convince his parents, who are leaving on a business trip, that he is not just imagining things, nor can he convince his babysitter, who he is almost too old to need -- or even his best friend "Chowder". Still, Halloween is only a few days away and it would be dangerous for trick-or-treaters to ring the doorbell on that old house. Chowder is all about planning for their own trick-or-treating but our hero is convinced that something has to be done about the house.


I won't spend a lot of time reviewing the rest of the plot; there are lots of reviews of Monster House you can find if you look for them. I will remark on a running theme in some of the reviews I have seen that say Monster House offers little that is new. This is, by and large, a fair observation but also one that misses the point. Yes, Monster House is a coming of age story where three young people -- two boys and a slightly-precocious girl -- become aware of a problem that the adults in the story won't believe in. Yes, it makes use of the standard tensions of the form -- two boys just entering puberty, long-time buddies, admit an attractive young girl to their club. Yes, it is a spooky Halloween story released so that it will come out on DVD a week before Halloween. Yes, it has potty humor and fart jokes, a haunted house, a scary old man, moronic cops -- all the standard elements of the form. So what? the point is: it all works. To complain that the film is assembled from stock elements is like going to a really good French Bakery and complaining that the croissants contain nothing but the usual flour, butter, salt and chocolate.

Steven Spielberg is one of the producers and you can see why he liked the idea enough to put some of his money in it. This film has the magical element that Spielberg always reaches for in his films. But where Spielberg often fails to capture the magic by trying too hard this film nails it easily. In a Spielberg film when the Magic Machine {tm} is started up one can hear the clunk as the blade slams home in the switch, the lights dim for a few seconds as the machine starts and the power grid struggles to keep up. An electric hum is easily audible, and then... the theater is flooded with too-sweet, treacley goo. In Monster House there is no hint of strain -- the film simply is magical and there is no need for the manipulation machine.

Monster House is due out on DVD a week before Halloween. Some parents may find it too scary for small kids but the small kids in the audience when I saw it would probably disagree. The young man sitting in my row was probably six or seven. He spent the whole film on his mom's lap. After one of the film's many genuinely scary bits I heard him tell his mom "That was awesome!" and after the film, as they were leaving he confessed to some initial misgivings: "It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be."

For the most part young kids will respond to the film as a macabre adventure story. The film has some genuinely creepy bits but young children won't notice them. They give the grown-ups something to thing about. For instance, remember that first shot with the leaf letting go of the branch? Think about that in the context of a ghost story...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


A few random photos taken at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Disney World while waiting to be called for our supper reservation.





Click on any photo to see original in various sizes

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

True Confession: I Reuterize my Family Photos

Question: What does this photo I took a few weeks ago at Disney World...

[Click on any photo to see original in various sizes]

... have in common with this photo of war damage to Beirut from Reuters?


Answer: Both images are the result of clumsy manipulation using digital photo editing tools to alter the original appearance for effect. In my case I was faced with a difficult lighting situation where the foreground subjects (the Teleospouse, my brother, my sister and my dad, respecetively from left to right) were even more dimly lit than the background (the Main Street area in the Magic Kingdom) and I couldn't get a decent picture of both in the same shot, at least without spending more time tinkering with setting up the shot than is sane while vacationing at Disney World. So, I took an existing light shot of the scene and immediately took a flash shot with the idea that I would use the best bits of both. Here they are:



The shot without the flash is dark but contains usable images of the buildings along the street and of the castle in the background. The flash shot is well exposed (if slightly unkind) for the family members but the background is lost in the dark.

Here is the existing light shot adjusted to bring it out a bit -- lighter and a bit more saturated:


This is actually a fairly likable photograph. I had to lighten it so much that the faces of the subjects are starting to get blotchy and they are still too dark. The background details came out nicely, though.

Finally, since I didn't really ask the family members to stand with their backs to the fireworks while I took their picture we need one more shot for our composite:


I assembled my composite by starting with the too-dark version of the existing light shot and then pasting this and that from the other shots over it. First, I grabbed the fireworks and pasted them in the sky in the background. Next I grabbed the castle and the buildings on the left and right of Mainstreet from the lightened existing light shot and pasted them over their too-dark versions. I had to tinker a bit with the smoke around the castle to keep the edges from showing too clearly. Finally, I grabbed the figures from the flash shot and pasted them in the foreground.

I am mildly happy wiht the result. The result looks professional, I think, but it does look manipulated. It looks a bit like a blue-screen, your-photo-on-a-tee-shirt "professional" photo one might have made in a mall. But, hey, it's Disney World and it's not about reality anyway.

Which brings us to the Reuters News Service photo which was supposed to be about reality. You can read about seventeen times as much as you need to know about all the clumsy ways the photo was manipulated in this story [Warning: photo of dead child] from the Little Green Footballs blog which is famous for exposing this sort of thing -- but you don't really need to. The photo just looks bogus because it is bogus. After a number of feeble excuses for the manipulation of the image Reuters wound up retracting the photo and firing the photographer. On the other hand, gentle reader, it is my sincere hope that you will not decide to fire me for my equally clumsy manipulations.

Reuters subsequently offered the following image as the unmanipulated 'original' of the retracted photo. A stickler might point out that the new photo has at least been cropped from another even-more-original shot since the manipulated image includes a few more buildings on the right-hand side. But news photos are almost always cropped, for reasons that will follow, so this probably doesn't matter.


There is a difference between using photo editing software to create a family group photo where everyone has his or her eyes open and using it to create an alternate-universe Beirut where an Israeli airstrike left the city in rubble and oddly-textured smoke blackens the sky. There is a difference -- but it is not as easy to pin down as you might think.

Press photography has a long history of being at least half darkroom work. Before the advent of digital cameras a press photographer was expected to use fast film and a sharp, wide-angle lens. The image on the negative didn't need to look good; it just had to be there. While in the field the photographers job was to get the shot -- it didn't matter how it looked. Later, in the darkroom, there would be time for aesthetics. Dodging and burning and cropping were used to pick this or that bit off the negative and make it look as good as possible.

This process of 'improving' an image isn't necessarily dishonest, unless carried to extremes. Just about every would-be photographer, shortly after he or she picks up that first camera will see a beautiful sunset and take a photograph of it and, when it is printed, they will wonder what they thought they were photographing. They will pick up the print and think "Why did I take this? Was there a bird that flew off before I clicked the shutter?" Later, if they learn to use photo editing software they can tinker with the lightness, the contrast and the color saturation and find a way to put back that something that eluded the camera -- to produce an image that people react to the way the photographer reacted to the scene when the picture was taken.

Sometimes you don't need to do much. This image -- of me, dad and four of my nieces -- was very lightly manipulated -- just a little tinkering with the contrast and saturation to correct for the backlighting.


Sometimes you need to to more. This photo of my son on the Tomorrowland People Mover has been tweaked extensively. This image is barely salvagable. He was in the shade and the futuristic thingamabob I wanted in the background was in the bright sun. In the unmanipulated original he appears as a silhouette. I should have used a fill flash but, since I had exactly half a second to set up the shot it didn't happen. I've lightened and resaturated the shadow areas as much as I could but I can only do so much.


Actually, he has a better camera than mine (see below) and better editing software -- or at least, a more expensive camera and more pricy software. He is a graphic design student and he can justify such things as tools for his trade whereas I must budget them as toys for my toybox.


On the other hand, he is a full-time student, has a girlfriend and three part-time jobs and he has no time to tinker with his photos.

Using the same line of argument you can argue for making composites of group photos to eliminate subjects that had their eyes closed. People blink constantly but the percentage of the time their eyes are closed is quite small and we tend to ignore it. Sadly, we haven't taught a camera to ignore it and in any large group photo there is bound to be someone caught in mid-blink. That's not what the photographer saw when he snapped the photo but thats what the camera got. A well-assembled composite that replaces the blinkers with images from a second or two later is a much more accurate recording of the scene.

This photo (which I ran before in teleoscope: Motts Reunions) is such a composite.


Building composites is the point, I think, where a news photographer has gone too far. The same photographer who produced the manipulated photo of Beirut also took the famous photograph of a "rescue worker" holding up the body of a child pulled from a building destroyed by an Israeli air strike. If you look closely at that photo it is fairly clear that he edited the photo to emphasize the color of the blue plastic pacifier pinned to the child's shirt. That represents a bit of editorializing on the part of the photographer but is probably fair. The fact that the same "rescue worker" appears in dozens of similar photos suggests that the events were staged for the camera which is more quesionable. But with the Beirut image he had clearly crossed the line -- not only adding more smoke but actually adding additional buildings to the damaged area.

To a certain extent what one thinks of such manipulation depends on what one thinks of the motivation of the manipulator. I tinker with my photos to make up for my shortcomings as a photographer and also to present my friends and family in the best possible light. The photographer sacked by Reuters was trying to produce photographs that would appeal to the mildly anti-American and fashionably antisemitic photo editors of his news organization.

Once one starts tinkering it is hard to stop. I may not be done with the photos I have included here. It is tempting, for instance, for me to substitute a different image of the Teleospouse in my composite since the flash caught her while she was saying something funny and it made her look retarded. She actually doesn't generally look like that so a bit more tinkering might be justified. I might try using part of the photo below -- a more carefully posed (and, yes, deliberate) shot taken in line for the Buzz Lightyear ride in Tomorrowland.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Engagement at Epcot

"Engagement at Epcot" -- sounds a bit like the title of a Star Trek book, doesn't it? But it's not. It is just the title I came up with for a couple of photos I took at Disney World and promised the people in it a copy. Here they are --


Each of the above photos is a link to a page in my photo-sharing account. These are the best two of a set of six. Click here for the whole set.

Background: The Teleospouse and I were walking around the lake at Epcot after the fireworks and had stopped to admire the view from the Venitian-style bridge in the Italian section. We were approached by a young lady who told us that she had just been proposed to and needed to have a photo taken of her and her new fiancé. As you might have guessed from the photo, they are not native Floridans; they are from Tennessee.

She handed me her camera and I snapped a photo or two of her and her young man, and while I was doing that my wife told her that I had a better camera than hers and that I would be glad to take a photo or two and send her copies. This is all true, as far as it goes, but it gives the false impression that my several-year-old, high-end point-and-shoot Kodak can reliably take wonderful flash pictures of subjects standing in really-dark places. *sigh* But, the young lady was very excited about the idea and I can usually take salvagable photos and I am pretty good with photo editing software so I can usually get something presentable out of the effort.

Without a tripod, and not wanting to take half and hour to set up the shot, relying on ambient light was not feasible so I needed to use the flash. I stood a bit too far away from the subject for the flash hoping that when I adjusted the exposure later some of the background would come too. I took several shots because my camera has trouble autofocusing in the dark and, after we said goodbye to the couple I took a few better-exposed photos of the backgrounds (the same shot, more or less, withoug the couple in the foreground and without the flash) so I could put them in later if I needed to (which I did).

The two photos above are composites made by adding a shot of the couple to a shot of the backgrounds taken a few minutes later. The photo on the left has the same building behind them as in the original photo while the photo on the right shows the Epcot lake (on the opposite side of the bridge.)

100_4741The wife and I really enjoyed running into this newly-engaged couple. It had been a rather long day by that point and we were starting to fade. Mooching off of their excitement brought back the zing in our evening.

They seemed like a very nice couple and The Teleoscope wishes them well.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Richard Simmons Syndrome

me_n_pigletOne of the unforseen side-effects of my diet (see teleoscope: The Magic Feather Diet) is that I have to resist the temptation to turn into Richard Simmons. This photo shows me discussing weight-control strategies with Piglet who, despite being quite svelte for a pig, would present a more atheletic figure with a bit less cotton fluff on the hips.

I will be attending DragonCon (a science fiction / media convention) in about a month and if I can't whip the Richard Simmons thing by then I am afraid I will be accosting Klingons -- who are almost all fat -- telling them that if they just follow my diet plan they can lose their fear of Spandex and join Star Fleet.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006



I attended an unusual conference this past Saturday. It was the Raleigh-Durham BarClamp. A BarClamp is a sort of an "un-conference" where, according to the BarCampRDU Web Page
...people interested in a wide range of technologies come together to teach and learn. Unfamiliar with the un-conference format? Here's the idea in a nutshell. Rather than having scheduled speakers, everyone pitches sessions the morning of the BarCamp. Those sessions are put on a schedule, and lots of little groups form for intense group learning. Everyone is expected to teach, to talk, to participate....
The lack of a formal structure to the content is quite liberating. Each session has the feel of a really good panel discussion where everybody in the room is on the panel -- or like an interesting talk where you skip the presentation and get straight to the question and answer session at the end, which is usually the best part.

It... Wait a minute... [Note to self: There is no L in BarCamp... No wonder that Yahoo Image Search couldn't find the logo. Hmmmm...] Where was I, Oh yes: BarCamp!


For those of you who are, as I am, both computer jockeys and semi-fannish SF fans a BarCamp combines the better features of a technical conference with those of a small regional con with no Klingons. It is a geek-fest par-excellence and, what is even more astounding, it was free. RedHat provided the space in their offices in the NCSU Centennial Campus and other worthy organization provided food, books, web hosting, coffee, t-shirts, etc.. (See the BarCampRDU site for a full list of who provided what.)

Someone has gone back into the BarCampRDU wiki ( ) and entered the session grid. If you are interested its about half-way down. The sessions I attended were 1C: Reputation Online, 2E: Sex and Death of Advertising, 3A: Social Networking, 4G: Future of Social Browsing, 5C: Ajaxifying Your WebApp with Dojo and 6E: Multi-User Blogging.

I am way, way too lazy to summarize the subjects discussed but I will mention a few ideas that struck me during the day.

Online Identity and Online Reputatuion were recurring themes, probably because they (especialy identity) represent unsovled (potentially unsolvable) problems. How exactly can one decide who one can trust online? Is the other person who he or she claims to be and can that person be trusted? In order to make any decision about the second part -- reputation, or whether a person can be trusted -- one must first be sure of the first -- identity, or who exactly are we trusting? There are a number of approaches to these problems and none of them quite work. The reassuring thing about rubbing elbows with PhDs and researchers in these areas is to find out that it's not just me -- nobody knows how to solve the problems completely.

Social Networking and Online Collaboration Systems were another frequent topic. It was nice to be able to discuss these without the odd paranoia that surrounds more mainstream discussions. The discussions helped me sort out my theory that people use social networking tools to meet different needs, depending on who they are, and that certain features of the different systems are targetted to meet those needs. College kids use Facebook and MySpace to meet people and each user's page is their own personal advertisement. They tinker with their pages -- trying to create the 'perfect' page to attract the kind of person they hope to add to their circles of friend -- but their pages change very little from day to day since today's vision of perfection tends to look pretty much like yesterday's.

Most of the participants at BarCamp are college age kids and so this was the general notion of what Online Social Networking is all about. Since my age is approximately twice the average age of the participants I was able to offer another set of needs that are met by another set of tools. People my age tend to already have friends and we use social networking tools to keep track of the friends we already have. Because of this, instead of tools that tell who we are we prefer tools that tell what we have been up to. We expect that most of the people who visit our pages will be our friends who already know what we are like. We tend to gravitate to tools such as LiveJournal that have more of a journaling nature.

Ajax is a client-side scripting system based on Javascript. It is all the rage these days among web developers looking to add some bells and whistles to their pages. It is slightly less horrible than other client-side web-browser-based scripting languages and I expect I will be learning more about it soon. Whoopee!

Noisy Bars are a problem I think about often. People will say they are going to a bar "to talk" but talking is almost impossible in most bars because the music is always ear-damagingly loud. The night-before party for BarCamp was held in Tylers in Durham -- a nice bar/tavern that would be nicer still if they turned the volume down to "merely painful." I mentioned the loud-bar-music thing to one of the BarCamp participants the next day and he suggested that bars do it because when people shout it sounds like they are having fun; but my theory is that the music in bars is kept loud so that men can interact with women without having to talk to them -- an ordeal which all men instinctively hate and fear.

So, in conclusion, BarCamp was fun. If they do another one I will notify my readers... just after I sign up myself -- attendance is limited and I almost missed out this time, being saved only by the waiting list.