Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It all makes sense now ...

This post from Andrew Sullivan's blog finally makes sense of Caroline Kennedy replacing Hillary Clinton as NY Senator.

The whole thing was confusing me - why would anyone want this person as their Senator?

Ah, but it's so simple. The Democrats were jealous of how close Sarah Palin came to the Vice Presidency. So, they're one-upping the Republicans. They've found someone even less qualified for public service to gift with a Senate seat.

Well played, cynical Democrats, well played.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I read the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali a few months ago, and just noticed I had this half-written review in my drafts folder. Unfortunately the book is not still fresh in my head so I won't do a full review, but I will offer this one point.
From the forward by Christopher Hitchens:
Here is the very encapsulation of the sado-masochosm of religion; it makes impossible demands on people and then convicts them of original sin when they fail to live up to them.
Via wikipedia, an excerpt from an Economist review:
much as she tries, the kind of problems that Ms Hirsi Ali describes in Infidel are all too human to be blamed entirely on Islam. Her book shows that her life, like those of other Muslims, is more complex than many people in the West may have realised. But the West's tendency to seek simplistic explanations is a weakness that Ms Hirsi Ali also shows she has been happy to exploit.
I'm with Hitchens, and I couldn't disagree more with the Economist review.

Ali clearly describes an array of liberal vs conservative interpretations of Islamic law. Her mother forbade the women and men of the family from praying together, but her father insisted they do pray as a family. Kenya was more liberal than Somalia, and the Islamic sub-culture in Holland was more liberal still. Some women were allowed to attend school, others not.

But in all cases, women were to be subservient to men, and were considered less valuable. And they were punished when they behaved otherwise. This culture was supported by both men and women, particularly in the older generations. The description of Ali's female circumcision is particularly harrowing. She was 5 years old, and her grandmother held her down during the procedure.

And don't even get me started on honor killings.

The only reason the issue is complex is because the Middle East is blinded by faith and the West is blinded by cultural sensitivity and moral relativism (plus, you know, all the oil they have). Muslim men treat women this way because it is tradition and because it is written in the scripture they hold sacred. And they know their neighbors will back them up.

So, I'm a closed-minded Westerner with a "tendency to seek simplistic explanations" if I violently oppose this behavior, and recognize the obvious connection with religious faith?

Fuck that shit.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Today I blog about cute baby animals

I know I'm a guy but, come on, is this not the cutest thing ever? And this one is just up the road from me.

http://www.zooborns.com/ is a cool site. For those times when you want to see something adorable, but you're just sick of house cats.

The Christmas Tree Rant

Following is an email message I received yesterday. It was sent to a group of about 10 of the sender's friends and family, plus me by mistake.


This is NOT a Holiday Tree

This is a Christ mas tree.
It is not a Hanukkah bush,
It is not an Allah plant,
It is not a Kawanza shrub
It is not a Holiday hedge.
It is a Christmas tree.
Say it... CHRIST mas , CHRIST mas , CHRIST mas
Yes. CHRIST mas - celebrating

The Birth of Jesus Christ!!!

Take a stand and pass this on !!

Jesus is the reason for the season... Amen!!!!!
Merry CHRISTmas to You!


'tis the season for the War on Christmas. It always amazes me how a group comprising 85% of the United States can manage to consider itself maligned by the minority.

I could understand if someone were referring to a nativity scene as a "Hotel Overflow Moment". But, pine trees covered with lights, anthropomorphic snowmen, "squishy winter huggies"" - it's silly to take offense that these don't prompt a "praise Jesus" from the congregation.

Anyway, here's the response I sent. And yes, I selected "Reply All".


First, I know this wasn't intended for me but I've received it and I'm going to respond. I'm not a Christian - shame on you for trying to make me and others feel like our beliefs are less compatible with this holiday than yours. I don't believe Jesus rose from the dead, but he seemed a decent fellow who never would have engaged in this type of rhetoric.

Second, [my email address] is NOT [RECIPIENT'S NAME]. Please, remove the errant entry from your address books. I'm sure she's a lovely lady who does the Tucker name proud, but I get an unwanted message intended for her about once a month. And think how sad it is that she's missing out on her share of divisive propaganda this holiday season.

Merry Christmas,

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Auto-detecting gamma ray bursts

Check out this bit of coolness:

That energy swept over the Earth just before sunrise on December 3. The gamma rays from the beams were detected by the Swift satellite, which promptly determined the burst’s position and sent the coordinates to Earth. Sent out via the Internet (srsly), telescopes across the planet responded to the call, and in northern California GORT swung its eye to the position of the gamma-ray burst. Within minutes of Swift’s detection of the burst, GORT began taking its images. The picture above was from just 7 minutes after Swift triggered.

To recap, a satellite detected gamma rays and sent a "hey, check this out" email to a bunch of photo-telescopes around the world, and 7 minutes later they captured the image. With no human intervention.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

W. Kumau Bell Curve

I attended a comedy show in San Francisco last night called the W. Kumau Bell Curve. He was named 2008 comedian of the year by SF weekly. Most of his material deals with racism in America. A sample:

The Climate Theater is a tiny venue - I doubt it sits more than 50 people. He had a laptop hooked up to a projector and worked some multi-media into the presentation - online news stories, youtube videos (he opened with the latest from O. J. Simpson). I liked the intimacy and relatively low-tech nature of the production. He even played us a voicemail he received right off his phone. He interacted with the audience, and even responded to specific comments.

I thought his strongest material was his personal stories. One moment I liked was comparing his own heritage to his white fiancee's. She's a mix of various European ethnicities, but she learned to speak Italian growing up, had visited Italy, and was particularly close to her Italian grandfather. So she described herself as Italian - to which he responded, "oh, you just get to choose ... must be nice". He juxtaposed this with his own experience as the only black kid in school, and his earliest realization that his classmates all saw him as belonging to a certain group whether he liked it or not.

The saga of getting along with his finacee's racist grandfather was well done. There's a whole segment involving his attempt to introduce their family to his culture through sweet potato pie. My mom made this every year for Thanksgiving - I always thought it was just a southern thing, not an African-American thing.

Much of the show addressed racism in current events, the bulk of which related to Barrack Obama's election. It was all funny, and most of it was insightful, but I disagreed with a couple things.

He related an experience while waiting to vote (at Starbucks - apparently they do that in some neighborhoods). A guy in front of them in line - a white guy Bell described as a stereotypical San Francisco hipster - began to accuse Bell of wearing a pro-Obama t-shirt, in violation of campaigning too near a polling station. When Bell pointed out it was actually a Richard Pryor t-shirt, the guy backed off.

Now, it's certainly funny that the guy mistook Pryor for Obama. And he was being an ass since he wasn't working for the polling station, just acting as "the hall monitor", as Bell pointed out. But I didn't hear anything in the story suggesting the hipster wouldn't have done the same thing to another white guy - I didn't get why Bell thought this was racism instead of simple asshole-ism.

He made some pretty sweeping statements, like all white people are responsible for racism (his argument is that we've all benefited from it even if we don't practice it), and white people should show appropriate pride and shame for actions of others of their race (at one point he put up a pic of Bush and asked if the white folks in the audience were ashamed of him).

First, is there an easier way to get applause than criticizing George Bush in San Francisco?

Second, I just didn't get this. I'm ashamed of much the current administration has done - I'm ashamed as an American, not as a white dude. I'm not any less ashamed of our state department's actions because it's headed by Condoleeza Rice.

I liked the show overall. Even the points with which I disagreed, I enjoyed being challenged in my thinking. As is often the case, humor is an excellent vehicle for engaging in controversial issues, and W. Kumau Bell does it better than most. Check him out if you get a chance.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

State mottos

I just read this story about an atheist group trying to change a Kentucky law that "requires Kentucky's Office of Homeland Security to acknowledge it can't keep the state safe without God's help". Some of the comments from the atheist group are laughable, the worst being:

It is one of the most egregiously and breathtakingly unconstitutional actions by a state legislature that I've ever seen".

Guys, I'm on your side, but you lost me with that one. I find the language distasteful, too, but don't equate it with state laws that tangibly impinge on civil liberties.

Part of Kentucky's defense is that the state motto refers to God (this is an example of what we like to call "begging the question"). The state actually has 2 mottos. The "Offical Motto" has been United we stand, divided we fall since 1942. In 2002 they added an "Offical Latin Motto", Deo gratiam habeamus (Let us be grateful to God). The bill was the project of a group of home schooled latin students:

The bill, HB 857, was the project of a group of Lexington homeschool Latin students. They wrote the bill with help from State Rep. Tom Riner, (D-Louisville) the bill's sponsor. Several of the students came to Frankfort once a week to meet with legislators, and guided it through the process themselves, learning about state government as they went along. The bill passed with votes of 88-0 in the House and 29-0 in the Senate with several members from each chamber not voting. Signed April 11 into Law by Governor Patton.

Not a single dissenting vote. Not surprising, I suppose, but disappointing this happened as recently as 2002. The whole thing seems pretty laughable to me (got a big Latin-speaking population there, Kentucky?). Clearly a sideways attempt to get religious language into state laws.

I don't really have much else to say about this. But it did make me curious about state mottos, so I looked them up on wikipedia. Only 6 states explicitly mention "God", Kentucky plus:
  • Arizona - Ditat Deus (God enriches)
  • Colorado - Nil sine numine (Nothing without God's will)
  • Florida - In God We Trust
  • Ohio - With God, all things are possible
  • South Dakota - Under God the people rule
Two others make what are apparently references to a supreme being:
  • Connecticut - Qui transtulit sustinet (He who transplanted sustains)
  • Maine - Dirigo (I direct)

I'm surprised there are so few. Of course, I found many of the ones that did not reference God more inspirational. But, it seems to me the secular ones would be just as inspirational to anybody, regardless of religious beliefs. Even when I was a Christian, I would have preferred strong sentiments like "We Dare Defend Our Rights" (Alabama) or "The people rule" (Arkansas) to the passive (and not terribly related to the role of state) "God enriches" or "In God we trust".

A few interesting ones:

  • Kansas - Ad astra per aspera (To the stars through adversity)
    It would make a better motto for Starfleet Academy. It would be cooler if Kansas had anything to do with NASA or space exploration.
  • Michigan - Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice (If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you)
    This one just cracked me up.
  • New Mexico - Crescit eundo (It grows as it goes)
    Was Dr. Seuss from New Mexico? It grows as it goes, as everyone knows, from Carlsbad Caverns to Los Alamos. Probably doesn't rhyme in Latin.
  • Washington - Al-ki (By and by)
    If brevity is wit ...
  • Maryland - Fatti maschi, parole femmine (Manly deeds, womanly words)
    This is the worst one of all. It's clearly offensive to women, but I'm almost as offended as a man. What the heck is wrong with manly words?

My favorites:

  • Massachusetts - Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty)
    Are you listening, G. W.?
  • Minnesota - Quae sursum volo videre (I long to see what is beyond)
    The star of the North is the actual state motto. This is the territorial motto, but I like it better.
  • New York - Excelsior (Ever upward!)
    To infinity, and beyond!
  • North Carolina - Esse quam videri (To be rather than to seem)
    Both poetic and intellectually satisfying.

In the spirit of manly words that, apparently, aren't welcome in Maryland, my winner goes to ....

  • New Hampshire - Live Free or Die

Hell, yeah.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Let The Right One In

I went to see Let The Right One In last Tuesday. I probably should have written this review when the film was fresher in my mind, but it was an interesting movie so I'll do my best with week-old impressions.


Some disclaimers:
  1. It got 98% on rottentomatos.com, 192nd best movie of all time according to imdb.com, and two friends of mine highly recommended it. So, my expectations might have been unreasonably high.
  2. The film is in Swedish with English subtitles. I found some of the dialog and acting to be weak, but some of that might be in the translation.
  3. I must confess to an anti-vampire bias. Yeah, they're kind of cool - they get to stay up all night and live forever, they kill people but really they're just misunderstood. But how many friggin' movies do we need about them? I know this one's edgy and foreign and arthouse, but still ... again with the vampires?
Synopsis: Oskar, a 12-year-old social outcast and subject of school yard bullying, befriends his new neighbor Eli whom he sees only in their apartment's courtyard at night. She also is 12 years old, "more or less" - it turns out that's her age only insofar as she was 12 when she became a vampire. The movie focuses on the friendship between these 2 misfits.

When Eli first moves in she is in the care of an adult named Håkan. He's basically her Renfield, a loyal servant who protects her during the day and gathers fresh blood for her at night. Unfortunately he's incompetent. At first I thought this was lazy storytelling, since he couldn't have been providing for her very long acting this way. He etherizes people then hangs them upside-down to drain their blood, but fails to do so in secluded locales. Later it becomes clear he no longer has the stomach for his role in her life, so I chalked up his behavior more to weariness than incompetence.

Problem is, the other adults in the film behave as stupidly as he does. We see news reports of the killings, and on at least 2 occasions witnesses identify a young black-haired girl. But law enforcement is almost non-existent, and not until very late in the film does anyone connect her with the creepy new guy and his waifish daughter who just moved in next door. And at that point a guy marches into her apartment (which is inexplicably unlocked) toting only a pocket knife.

Eli also behaves carelessly when she takes to feeding herself. If she's really a 20-30 year old (the film is purposefully vague on this point - she could be centuries old for all we know), she'd have to be dense not to have learned better. I got the impression, though, that no matter how old she is, she's still stuck at 12. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically.

In a needless subplot, Eli bites but does not finish the kill on a woman. This, of course, turns the poor woman (subtly named "Virginia") into a vampire. We see her get attacked by a throng of cats then commit suicide by exposing herself to sunlight and bursting into flames. Both scenes had some interesting special effects, but were laughably over the top and out of sync with the rest of the film. They added nothing to the story. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to expand on the trying life of a vampire, but isn't one of the advantages of making a vampire flick that you don't have to explain all the rules?

One strength of the film was the creepy-cool special effects used on Eli. When we first meet her she jumps of the top of a jungle gym onto the ground, and I'm not sure but I think some film trickery makes her almost imperceptibly land softer than would be natural, as if she floats to the ground. Her eyes grow slightly larger when she's in vampire mode, her skin tone changes based on how well-fed she is - she is sometimes a sweet little girl and sometimes a grotesque predator. All very well done visually.

The heart of the film is the friendship arc between Eli and Oskar. They bond in part because neither has any other friends. She agrees to be his girlfriend in a scene that is sweet because neither of them really know what it means, and ironic because she's not a girl (down to the anatomical level, the film later makes graphically clear). When Oskar learns her true nature, he is at first cruel and petty, but softens when confronted with some of the suffering she must endure.

She convinces him not to judge her for her murderous ways. She kills to feed herself, while he constantly fantasizes about killing for revenge. This argument works on Oskar, but not on me. She could feed without killing (she has plenty of money she could pay folks for blood transfusions). At the very least she could drain more blood out of each victim so she doesn't have to kill so often. And she makes absolutely no attempt to choose her victims discriminantly - she could act as a vigilante if she wanted to make her kills win-win. Either she's lying to him and her behavior is cruel and selfish, or she's just too immature to see an alternative. I'd lean toward the latter.

In the film's climax, Eli saves Oskar's life from the bullies, killing 4 more victims in the process. It's clear she can stay safely in this town no longer. The film closes with Oskar taking Eli (safely encased in her daytime crate) on a train to start over somewhere else.

I basically saw the film as the completion of Eli's parasitic cycle. Not necessarily in a malicious way (although one could view it that way), but more likely as a consequence of her nature to which she willingly submits. There's a seen between Eli and Håkan early in the film where she gently caresses his cheek. This, combined with his portrayal as a man who's had the life sucked out of him, and Eli's inability to say how long she's been a vampire, had me interpreting their relationship as having started many years ago when Håkan was young, perhaps Oskar's age. Oskar and Eli's relationship is sweet when they're 12 (at least, as sweet as a pair of pre-adolescent serial killers can be), but he'll age and she won't. Someday soon he's going to have a sex drive that she can not satisfy. She's saved his life, so his guilt will never let him leave her. Eventually he'll be old enough to be her father and the whole relationship will just be awkward.

Another way of looking at it is that Oskar, as an outcast kid filled with impotent rage, has found the only lifestyle with which he can safely fulfill his homicidal fantasies. Maybe bloodlust and vampire companionship is all he'll ever need to make him happy, and that makes them a perfect match. Ah, kismet!

Either way, it's a dark tale even for a vampire flick. It was good, excellent in parts. It could have been much better with smarter writing for the adult characters. And they should have snipped the Virginia subplot. But I had fun interpreting the ending in different ways.

I recommend it, but it's over hyped. No way this is one of the best 200 films ever made.