Monthly Archives: December 2009

I went to church for the first time in 10 years

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And may your cringestalgia never be lost

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The lie at the center of ‘Avatar’

'Avatar' is James Cameron's James Cameron-est movie, if you know what I mean. The only thing clunkier than his machinery is his dialogue, and he's always been more interested in the non-humans in his stories than the humans.

'Avatar' is the purest distillation not only of the Cameron approach to filmmaking (lots of non-human character development and 'how it works' scenes, not much zoom on the human population), but also his worldview. During most of the movie, when I should have been shock-n-aweing over the visuals, I was thinking about the narrative. A few things struck me:

  • With all the talk about the 'next generation of special effects', it's funny that they ended up being a delivery device for a storyline that was so retro it could have starred Steven Seagal. There hasn't been an 'Anglo dude infiltrates the natives and finds himself entranced by their simple ways' plotline in a Hollywood movie for decades.

  • James Cameron's ideas of indigenous peoples seem to be informed entirely by corporate diversity training videos and 1980s National Geographic photo captions. They speak with mother earth! They thank the animal for its spirit after the hunt! Their g-strings match their spears! I was pre-emptively cringing in anticipation of the scene where we find out that they use every part of the horse-beast after they kill it.
  • The movie's not remotely interested in the way that complexity expresses itself in indigenous societies. Some of the best movies of the past decade have explored they way that idealistic concepts like paradise and love let us down. The savages aren't always noble.This was, perhaps not coincidentally, the decade where James Cameron took a break from movies to go scuba diving.
  • Not only is 'Avatar' collectively retro, it's individually retro too. Cameron obviously still thinks in Bad Guys and Good Guys. It's not enough that the jingoist soldier destroys a benevolent civilization. He has to say 'drinks on me, boys!' as he copters away. Cameron's not interested in the evil we do when we're driven by good intentions, or poor priorities, or keeping our jobs. In Cameron's world, indigenous people lose their homes because America, and the corporate interests it proxies, hates them.
  • It's also rare in a movie to see a team of good guys motivated almost exclusively by doing the right thingNo one is motivated to save this planet because they might get famous out of it, or rich, or published in Nature. No, they want to save the Navi because, like, we're all connected, man.
  • I take this aspect of the movie seriously because I deal with real-world examples of this phenomenon all day at work. Some of the most abundant mineral deposits in the world really are underneath indigenous populations, and we as a species haven't come up with a just or acceptable way of dealing with this.
  • Of all 'Avatar's' retro elements, the ending may be the one most at odds with reality. If an indigenous or local population in, say, Bolivia rose up against the oil companies operating there, would the companies just shrug and say 'oh well, we'll get the oil elsewhere'?
  • A company in that situation would throw everything it had at the community. The movie got that right. But a company that fails with helicopters on Monday will be back on Tuesday with tanks. And on Wednesday with planes. And so on. In a fight between two entities, one with profoundly more power than the other, the guy wearing the g-string doesn't win in the long run. 
  • And that's the central lie of 'Avatar': That all it takes is rage, willpower and a white guy for indigenous peoples to rise up and resist the capitalist forces trying to uproot their lifestyles. On the planet we live on, though, the bow and arrow loses to the helicopter every time.

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My first trip to Denmark!

My parents sent me a DVD with a bunch of pictures they salvaged from old slide canisters. In the middle of birthday parties, Halloweens and two surprisingly robust and glowing young people who resemble my parents was this:

That's the caption that came with the photo. I'm on the left.

When I was four, my family lived in Sweden for a year (Linkoping, represent!) and apparently we took a weekend trip or whatever down to Denmark once. I knew this when I moved here, in a vague sort of way, but I didn't know that I would be staring at the photoevidence of this trip 23 years later in a rented room in a chavvy apartment in a yuppie neighborhood in Copenhagen.

Things haven't changed much. That castle is still there, same as the vikings and Shakespeare left it. My brother still photographs better than I do. The beanie-hoodie-elastic-pants combo is still alive in near-daily implementation. With the exception of my aging, slightly less Verbal Kint posture, that picture could have been taken last week.

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Pictures of Tasmania that I forgot to post

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Immigration as recruitment


In the middle of a week of Breaking Newses on two topics I care about, global warming and health care, I've strangely found myself thinking more about immigration. Specifically this:

There is a near consensus in America that unlimited immigration via entirely open borders is not viable. What frustrates me is that, among many of the folks who style themselves immigrant advocates or pro-immigration, there is an utter refusal to articulate specific, workable views about what the limits should be, let alone to abide enforcing limits that are duly signed into law. One pernicious effect is that restrictionists are the only game in town for folks who want to enforce some limits on immigration.

I'm always complaining that whenever the topic of immigration comes up, we forget that the reasonable parts of the left and the right are so close on the issue that they're practically spooning. We just don't notice because five seconds after the topic comes up, they get smothered by a duvet of idiocy from the radicals.

So what should America actually do?

…we should reconceptualize immigration as recruiting.

Assimilating immigrants is a demonstrated core capability of America's political economy — and it is one we should take advantage of. A robust-yet-reasonable amount of immigration is healthy for America. It is a continuing source of vitality — and, in combination with birth rates around the replacement level, creates a sustainable rate of overall ­population growth and age-demographic balance.

But unfortunately, the manner in which we have actually handled immigration since the 1970s has yielded large-scale legal and illegal immigration of a low-skilled population from Latin America. It is hard to imagine a more damaging way to expose the fault lines of America's political economy: We have chosen a strategy that provides low-wage gardeners and nannies for the elite, low-cost home improvement and fresh produce for the middle class, and fierce wage competition for the working class.

I never thought of the ability of America to assimilate immigrants as a competitive advantage until I lived in Europe. I totally agree that this is a pretty fundamental competence, and could be utilized far more than it is now. You think of all the well-educated people in the world whose entrepreneurship and talents don't go anywhere because their home countries don't have the capacities, and you wish we would start courting, rather than discouraging, them.

The article mentions Australia and Canada as two countries who have developed skills-based immigration programs, from which they have benefited greatly.

It's amazing toggling between the immigration cultures of Denmark, Australia and America. In America, the attitude is 'well, somebody's gotta clean our toilets and pick our fruit.' In Denmark it's mostly 'They don't belong here! Cloth on head bad!' And in Australia, it seems to be 'bring 'em on!'

There are, of course, nuances to these, but it would be great for a country to really run with the recruitment model and see where it got them. It's depressing that throughout Europe, this is as politically impossible as making Ramadan a national holiday. 

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‘What do we want?’ ‘Not climate change!’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Within a reasonable timeframe!’


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Copenhagen: ‘It’s rather like electing a Pope’


I was talking to my friend Brock, a scientist at Berkeley and the smartest guy I know, on IM last night:

Brock: Dude what's up.

Mike: Brock!


I'm reading nobel speeches! So much nutrition!

what you up to?

Brock: Just shouting you out. How are ya?

Merry Fucking Xmas and all that.

Are we gonna change the world in CPH this week or are we toast?

Mike: I'm going to a big-ass protest on saturday. Though literally no one I've talked to knows what we're actually protesting. It’s the James Deans leading the James Deans.

Brock: Good on ya, man, I admire you.

Yeah, always hard to channel general dissatisfaction.

Mike: seriously. No one knows what the fuck they're doing

I’m just going because I want to be photographed holding a sign that says The Climes They Are A-Changin'

you been following this whole shit?

Brock: Kinda, but it's rather like electing a pope.

All behind closed doors.

Mike: Let's hope this ends with someone from the Hitler Youth as well

Brock: From here, I can only cross fingers.

Write letters, promote discussion, etc, but there hasn't been a whole lot to follow.

Mike: do you particularly care about this issue? Being a scientist and all?

Brock: Fuck it, we need total climate Nazis right now.

I think it's terrifying.

Mike: So you're on board with The Whole Gore Yards

what do you think we should do? Or they should do, or whatever?

Brock: I am pretty convinced that life will change dramatically within our lifetime due to climate change.

And I actually think it's probably way too late.

Mike: Yeah? I defer to your judgement on this, scientifically

what did it for you, originally?

Brock: Hmmmm good question.

I've seen some really compelling data.

If you just measure CO2 levels, that freaks that shit out of me.

Mike: So you're directly convinced by the science . Not through a Bono-shaped conduit, like the rest of us

Brock: It correlates spectacularly well with global temperature.

Mike: I've seen that graph too it's insane

Brock: That it's unlinked is statistically irrelevant.

And if you extrapolate into the future….

That's when it gets really really scary.

Because there is no reason to think that the relationship will change.

Mike: what do you think the politicians should do, particularly?

Brock: Dramatically invest in economic incentives for cleaner living.

That's vague but we need to jump over this hurdle where action for climate impedes economic viability.

Mike: It would be great to point to a country and be like 'lets be like them!' but everyone is kind of dropping the ball it sounds like

you like any particulars?

Brock: Forest credits for tropical countries.

Keep the carbon in trees and out of the air.

oh yeah Brazil's experimenting with that, right?

Brazil is turning their shit around.

If every tropical country did the same it would help.

Mike: any new stuff coming out from the scientific side?

new revelations, new solutions?

Brock: Unfortunately, way too much negative publicity and that's it.

A few dumbasses joking about manipulating data really does a lot of damage.

Mike: Is there a new emerging scientific consensus? Either on the problem side or the solution side?

Brock: Well, I think that's the scary thing, that the scientific consensus is that we really really really fucked up on this.

Solutions seem completely unrealistic at this point.

We need to basically cut in half CO2 emissions immediately.

Mike: no way, it's that bad?

Brock: If you look at the projections, it's really bad.

Mike: Jesus, the Day After Tomorrow is starting to look more and more like a documentary

Brock: I mean, if population change keeps expanding.

It's bad man.

Mike: so as the science emerges, it's actually getting fucking worse? What's the timeline?

Brock: Dunno, I gotta defer on this one.

It's irresponsible for scientists to overpredict.

Mike: true. Especially in these trying times of abundant Palintry

Brock: Yet this causes tremendous understandable frustration on the part of citizens and enemies of science.

Science is not, never has been, never should be, political.

Mike: This conversation helps me know what to protest on Saturday

My sign is staying the same though



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More asterisks, please

This is the best punctuation mark-related sonning ever:


The former attorney general tells Esquire:

All the internal investigations are over with, no finding of wrongdoing, no finding that I misled Congress.* So I'm gratified by that, but I'm certainly not surprised by it. But anyway, it creates impressions. And yeah, it takes some time to work through that. And that's what I'm trying to do now.

And that asterisk?

*Editor's note: A 2008 Department of Justice investigation was referred to a federal prosecutor and remains ongoing.


Can more journalists start putting little stars behind the bullshit quotes they get from their sources? Stories about Cheney are gonna start looking like the fucking Milky Way. 

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‘Things that are against the law in Uganda: Smoking in public, prostitution, driving recklessly…’

It's always nice, and depressingly rare, to read something about a political issue written by someone who knows what the fuck they're talking about.

The most likely scenario, I'd predict, is that the bill gets watered down to remove the death penalty stuff, is passed, and then, like all Ugandan laws, goes on to be rarely and haphazardly enforced.

The whole thing's really good.

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