Archive for March, 2012

Quote: Carl Sagan
March 31, 2012

All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.

Buzzkill: How “Project X” is Killing Kids
March 15, 2012

(Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film Project X. Not that anything I could say would really spoil it.)

The movie Project X  has been getting headlines not for how good it is (it’s not) but rather for how many kids are throwing copycat parties with dangerous, and in one case, deadly consequences.

Produced by Todd Phillips (The Hangover), Project X  depicts a birthday party that spirals out of control, causing massive property damage, in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Pasadena, California. (The movie even has an apology to the Pasadena Police Department onscreen just before it begins.)

Right now, a lot more people may feel the filmmakers owe them more than just an apology. Teens inspired by the movie are throwing Project X parties trying to recapture the “fun” being had by the kids in the movie. I place fun in quotes because, while the party does indeed look fun, the police in riot gear flashbomb-grenading the kids later in the movie does not. I apparently have an ability to connect dots which these teens lack.

In the most recent development, a Houston teen was murdered at one of these parties, shot by an assailant who opened fire at the party “for no reason”, according to another partygoer. (See the link to the news article below.)

So the question becomes, as it always does, what responsibility the filmmakers of Project X  have to the people whose property is damaged or to people who have lost family or friends to the violent and out of control behavior at parties directly inspired by the content of their film.

This question is not new, it comes around every so often, just as it did several years back when a man was burned by someone emulating the criminal actions depicted in the movie The Money Train. This time, however, I think there is weight to the argument that writers Matt Drake and Michael Bacall and director Nima Nourizadeh, as well as Phillips, do bear some responsibility for these damages. Not because they’ve chosen to depict this scenario of the party spiraling out of control; movies depict stories, and sometimes stories are about things we wouldn’t want to happen in the real world. That’s not something we should hold against filmmakers, or storytellers of any kind. With that attitude, we’d lose a huge amount of our ability to tell stories of any kind, but comedies would be next to impossible. No. The problem here is their choice to end the film with a lame back peddle, showing us the horrible consequences of a party gone wrong, but then giving us reactions that sell the idea of how good the outcome is for those involved.

Party-promoting teen Costa is seen being interviewed on TV dressed like a suburban pimp. Birthday boy Thomas has a scene with his father, fishing out dad’s Mercedes from the pool no less, where dad can barely contain his glee that his loser son did something “cool”. There’s the walk of triumph through the school halls, being cheered like heroes for nearly getting everyone burned to death. And of course, in the end, Thomas gets the girl.

Yes, of course the movie has some little print captions that say the kids are up on charges or dealing with minor problems resulting from their foray into absolute bedlam. But still…that ending. It’s no wonder kids keep trying to recreate that legendary party, to give themselves that makeover into coolness that will get them the hottest girl in school and keep bullies from picking on them for all time. Who wouldn’t want that? And Project X gives it to them, despite the fact that’s the most unlikely scenario of all time.

Perhaps that’s the thing kids are most imitating: the irresponsibility of Phillips and company. Where the kids in the movie hand out alcohol and pills, the filmmakers themselves are the ultimate enablers, handing out an irresistible fantasy. And in this case, a deadly one.

As the neighbor in the film says, it’s time to shut this party down.

Read the article and watch video here.

The Wrong Hands
March 13, 2012

I was listening to NPR the other day and they were discussing military drone strikes. The host brought up the possibility of drones either falling into enemy hands through accident or being sold to terrorists and then being used against Americans. The guest (I’m sorry, I missed the beginning of the show and don’t know his name) made a comment to the effect that yes, the threat of drones falling into the wrong hands is a growing concern.

The words that latched on to my mind in his reply were “the wrong hands”. It gnawed at me, and as I reflected I realized why. It implies that our hands, i.e. the United States’ hands, are the “right” hands for such a weapon. Of course, this is because we are Americans and thus presumably consider anyone else’s hands the wrong hands for any kind of weapon. But I reject the premise that there exist “right” hands for a flying killer robot.

The person who would conceive such a thing has the wrong hands. These machines were designed, built, and are used daily by people with the wrong hands. Anyone who thinks drones are a good idea and an excellent tool has, in my mind, the wrong hands.

Wars have always happened, and will likely always happen. But they’re never a good thing. Luckily, they are limited due to the terrible human cost they produce. Lives lost, or destroyed, due to the horrors of war inevitably produce a pressure, especially in democratic societies, for wars to end. They become less and less popular until rulers are forced to bring troops home and stop the fighting. But drones exist for one reason: to remove the human cost of war.

The war in Iraq lasted ten years. The war in Afghanistan is ongoing for eleven years. And we appear on the brink of starting another war with Iran. And this is with only the reduced human cost (to us) stemming from a giant technological advantage over those countries. Imagine how life will be once we have removed that cost entirely. We will live in a state of perpetual and popular war. Someone does something we don’t like, send in the drones. Until, of course, others (those with “wrong” hands) have drones too.

There’s an episode of the series Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Arsenal of Freedom”. In it, the crew of the Enterprise-D discover a planet where they developed and sold programmable drones for use in war. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you where a science fiction show was going with this: all the people were gone, and only the killer robots remained. There are lots of sci-fi shows that have this premise of course, but “Freedom” hits closest to home in my view, because it’s so close to what is happening right now. Sure, fiction exaggerates. I don’t think our drones are going to come alive and kill us all. But what they are doing and will continue to do is foster a world environment in which you can kill without risk to yourself. And that is a dangerous and evil world in which to live.

The genie’s out of the bottle now, as it is with respect to nuclear weapons. We can’t un-invent military drones. All we can do is use our voices to deplore and discourage their use. It’s up to us to be the responsible ones, those of us who are against perpetual and senseless violence. We, who would never use drones, are the only ones with the “right” hands.

Like a Strategerious
March 8, 2012

On “Super Tuesday”, Mitt Romney emerged the winner. Yet I heard some pundits commenting on his inability to win southern states. It’s true, Tuesday Romney lost Oklahoma and Tennessee to Rick Santorum, and Georgia to Newt Gingrich. But if you think this lack of a “Southern Strategy” is a problem for Romney, you’d be dead wrong.

The fact is, Romney’s lack of a “Southern Strategy” is a huge plus to his campaign, and the best strategy he could possibly have in the south is to ignore it completely, and have no strategy at all. After all, he can get to the necessary number of delegates to win the Republican nomination without ANY states in the south, and why bother with them anyway?

In the general election, the Republican party is going to carry the south. Most of those states (including my own state of Texas) are solid red states already. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it started when the Democratic Party backed the Civil Rights Act. The racist South, long a Democratic block, turned Republican instantly and never looked back. Add to that the large constituency of evangelicals and the NRA gun rights folks, and you have a solid block of people who will NEVER vote for President Obama, no matter who is running against him.

Thus, Romney need not waste energy on the south. In the general election, he wins those states without ever setting foot in them or spending one dime. What he must do is prove he can win the contested states: in the midwest, and on the east and west coasts. Once he has the nomination, and he will have it, he will need to focus all his energy on flipping some of those states that voted for President Obama in 2008 back to the Republican advantage.

There are a lot of tools the Republicans can do to achieve this, largely to do with voter suppression, and they are gaining ground. Killing ACORN, which helped organize and get out the African-American vote, was a big victory. Changing the rules in states to stop early and absentee voting is also helping. Discouraging young people from voting, as Ann Coulter did this week, is another tactic. But none of these have anything to do with southern states. Those states are already won, and smart Republicans know it.

Romney is doing exactly what he needs to do in the South, leaving it alone to focus on more important electoral battlegrounds. And his opponents are doing exactly what they need to do: crowing about their pyrrhic victories and losing the overall war, while whipping up the base so Romney can count on them in November. Some of them, like Gingrich, probably hope to parlay their delegates into some kind of breadcrumbs Romney might toss to them at the convention.

Meanwhile, southern Americans dance to the Republican tune and are seemingly loving every minute of it. Their own strategy, I guess, is to go on getting played.

Blowing the Birther Whistle
March 6, 2012

When dangerous loon Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his tax-dollar-wasting posse unveiled their “evidence” against President Obama, it got me thinking: Have we finally reached a point where Birtherism is a good thing? I think so. In the beginning, it was a reflection of the racist need to discredit the first African-American President in history, and as such it became a touchstone to like-minded people throughout the country. (Not shockingly, though, it seems primarily a southern phenomenon.) After their ridiculous conspiracy theories were thoroughly debunked, it entered more of a distraction phase, used by fools to get attention. But now, I believe it has morphed into something that can serve a vital purpose: as a dog whistle heard only by laughable idiots.

Sound the Birther whistle, and they stick their heads up like predictable prairie dogs, making themselves presentable so we can see who they are and take note to never listen to their opinions again. You can even use it as a kind of outside-hosted social networking filter. Just try it: Wait until Arpaio’s nonsense is shared or retweeted, then unfriend/hide/unfollow at will. That’s one more fool you need no longer worry about.

Of course, some of you may think your friends could be swayed to reason. They can’t be racists, they even say they like Obama personally, don’t they? I tend to think this is a deflection, like saying “some of my best friends are Presidents”, but who knows?

I am skeptical that you will have any success, but feel free to try. I recommend first educating them about Brother William of Ockham, and the rule known as Ockham’s Razor. It tends to be the deciding factor against most conspiracy theories. Then perhaps work your way up an analytical chain, taking some logical baby steps to get them acclimated. Bigfoot isn’t really wandering the world’s forests. UFOs aren’t really abducting rural alcoholics. Gradually move up the ladder. Shakespeare wrote his own plays. The moon landing really happened. 9/11 was not planned by the U.S. government. Then maybe, just maybe, they’ll be in mental shape for the big leagues.

If all should fail in the end, don’t take it too hard. Restricting the movement of such people through social circles serves an important function in society. It limits the damage they can do, both literally and metaphorically, in terms of spreading their crazy ideas. Think of it as quarantine for thought disease. Besides, they’ll be happier out there in the wild, where they can frolic with their own kind. They’ll be happy as little gun-toting clams, plotting secession and discussing the paradise state they’ll create, where pregnant teen moms pray in home school before dying in botched back alley abortions.

Try to remember, though, they’re human beings too, of a sort. Sure, they lack critical thinking and have only rudimentary social awareness and reading comprehension, but genetically at least they are our family. They deserve to live with whatever shreds of dignity they have not already cast aside left intact.

So blow the whistle. But when you point and laugh, do so with compassion.