Sunday, June 29, 2008

Los Angeles

I've now been in Los Angeles five days and have enjoyed it very much. After arriving mid-day Wednesday, I rented a car and drove to Westwood where my friend Russell, with whom I'm staying, lives. I was pretty exhausted, so I took it easy that day. Since then I've visited a number of places, in addition to doing some work here at the apartment:

The Getty - A beautiful museum perch on high ground overlooking the city. The architecture and the gardens were stunning, and there were several exhibits I enjoyed. In particular, there was a retrospective on the museum's collection of photographs, ranging from the earliest days of photography through modern techniques and works.

Pico-Robertson - Over Shabbas, Russell and I walked to have lunch at the apartment of Erica Farbar, a very good friend of mine at Harvard. There were a dozen people, and there was both good food and good company. The area where she lives is a predominantely Jewish area of the city, and I returned on Sunday to have a kosher hot dog at Nathans. It was pretty good. Also in Pico-Roberston is the Museum of Tolerance, described below.

The El Capitan Theatre - a Disney owned flagship theater, it is used to premiere films and promote their brand. They have a VIP option which includes popcorn, a drink, and reserved seating. I went with Russell and his cousin to see WallE, which had just opened the day before. The show opened with a mixed live/film performance of a variety of Disney/Pixar films, with costumed characters dancing onstage while the films they were in flashed below. I'm no fan of Disney as a coroporation so the Disney love-fest was not exactly my cup of tea. There was also something more subtle happening: the shots from Finding Nemo transitioned directly into The Little Mermaid, and the scene from A Bugs Life into a similiar one from The Lion King. Disney is appropriating the films it had not part in creating.

On the other hand, Wall-E was a fantastic film. As with past Pixar films, it combined skillful storytelling with breathtaking animation. It also had a pretty stark vision of the future and was a cautionary tale about material waste and automation.

Venice Beach - Sunday morning we went to Venice Beach with Erica and Dave, who I met at Shabbas lunch. The beach is a Los Angeles landmark, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to get a little sun. After brunch on the boardwalk, we lay out and discussed the merits of different systems of metered parking. At brunch, Dave had suggested that free parking was bad because it subsidised the relatively wealthy (those with cars) over the relatively poor (those who could not afford cars) and had many negative side effects, namely people circling for a parking spot and emitting additional greenhouse gasses. After lying out for a while, we walked along the boardwalk, which was a lot of fun, and generally enjoyed our day.

The Museum of Tolerance - Entering the museum parking lot, I had my trunk searched, something that has not happened to me in the states as long as I can remember. By that point, I'd become so sick of looking for parking that I would have submitted to a strip search to get access to a free covered public lot. The Museum itself was very well produced. I particularly liked a video on the Civil Rights Movement. However, I had some issues with other parts. One interactive exhibit was called the Millennium Machine, which focused on terrorism. I found the whole thing to be very alarmist (for example, presenting chemical and biological weapons as an imminent, grave threat, while ignoring facts that suggest otherwise). I was also a bit upset that the only question it posed as subjective was one on the merits of racial profiling of Muslims to prevent terrorism. While it presented both sides, I would expect a more robust opposition to racial profiling from the Museum of Tolerance. Also, from this and other exhibits (including a Never Again anti-genocide anti-war crimes exhibit), I took the message that terrorism needs to be made a war crime/crime against humanity. A reasonable proposal, but from the Simon Wiesenthal I would have expected a push to fight genocide in Sudan or the arrest of wanted criminals in, say, the Balkans.

The Holocaust exhibit was fairly large, and took about an hour or so to get through. It was similar to, but much small than, the USHMM or Yad Vashem. There were a couple of unusual things about it. First, there were no written descriptions of the instillations. Rather, an automated tour illuminates one panel at a time, while one or more voices narrate. The first several panels, and several more throughout, are told from the perspective of three people designing the exhibit. Whether or not they are fictional characters, it must take a gigantic ego to think that the best way to tell the story of the Holocaust is through a fictional version of you, the archivest. The automated narration also forces the viewer to keep to their pace.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Southwest Chief

I've arrived in Los Angeles and made my way to my friend's apartment. The train arrived 7 hours late, which was caused in part by the flooding in Iowa which forced Amtrak to uses buses in place of trains. There were other factors, though, one of which is the regular stopping of the train to allow freight trains coming the opposite direction to pass where parallel tracks aren't available. There needs to be a good deal more infrastructure before the train can really begin to compete with other transportation options.

As for the 40-some hours I spent on the train, they were better than I expected. I managed to get a fair amount of sleep sitting up in my seat, though it was the kind of discomfort that wakes you up every thirty minutes. You turn over, adjust a little, and go back to sleep. The first night I had a pair of seats to myself, but on the second a young Albuquerq sat next to me and it limited my sleeping space. The seat was comfortable, compared to airplanes with more room and probably three times the leg room. In terms of food, there were two options. One was a club car that was something like a very well stocked snack bar. There was some food the guy would heat up in the microwave (hot dogs, pizza, cinnamon rolls), and a lot of cold options, plus some beer and little mini bottles of booze you get on an airplane. There was also a dinning car, where you would make a reservation (someone would come through the cabin asking who wanted to eat a meal in the car). I had dinner there Tuesday evening, and had a decent vegetable lasagna which included some steamed veggies on the side. There was about four choices, all of which came with salad and a roll.

It was a long ride, but never uncomfortable. I could walk up and down the train whenever I wanted, there were cups and water in every car, and nice people. Knowing I have many more tirps ahead, I'm not exactly thrilled about the coming trips, but I'm not worried about it. I want to reserve judgement until further along in the trip.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Floods and Fires

I'm sitting in the lobby of the Westin hotel, across the street from the train station, waiting for my train and using their wireless Internet. My train will be delayed a couple of hours leaving because of the flooding in Iowa and Missouri. While the trains between Kansas City and Los Angeles are not affected, the trains from Chicago to Kansas City cannot get through, and have been replaced by busses which won't arrive until around 1:00 or 1:30, despite the normal departure time of 10:55. I'm using the extra time to blog.

Weather is periodic, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to directly link any single weather event to global warming. But hearing about the 500-year flood plane makes one wonder. And my delays show that no form of transportation is immue to the whims of mother nature. As forrest fires burn in Northern California (another region of the country I'll be passing through), John McCain announced a $300 million prize for the American who can build a better car battery. This seems unfair, as Tony Stark will almost certainly win with his arc reactor, and he hardly needs the money.

In all seriousness, McCains proposal is an interesting one. I'm inclined to dislike it, not only because I dislike him, but because I feel that if you plowed $300 million into government funded research (or even, say $250 million), it would most likely yield a similar result, and be better institutionally. While the prize might be more exciting, it's hardly a model under which we can have careers for scientists, who cannot support a family ig their only incentive is prize money. That said, I do like the idea of vaccine prizes, and this is certainly similar. Plus, there would be at least some companies persuing the prize, which would offer a more stable work environment. I have to admit, if Barack Obama had prposed it, I'd be a lot more excited. I have to admit it's a good idea, and I hope Barack Obama at least considres it, if he gets elected. I'd want there to be a clause that would forbid selling the patent to oil companies, who've bought up companies with new battery inovations for suspect reasons (i.e. Chevron with Cobasys).

I should head for the train soon, so I'll end the post here. I'll try to blog from the train if possible, but if not will post next when I arrive in Los Angeles.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

John McCain uses the same racist tactics used against him in the 2000 primary

I was going to my local Jewish paper to write a letter to the editor as part of this campaign by J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-Peace lobby. But when I got to the opinion page, I saw the ad by the McCain campaign shown below. On the surface it makes McCain's "point" about negotiating with world leaders openly hostile to the United States. He says Senator Obama's willingness to do so shows his lack of experience. But the truth is, there's much more going on in this ad. By juxtaposing the two faces, it makes Obama look scary, angry, and foreign. It reinforces rumors that he's a Muslim, and uses his race to paint him as alien.

( viewed 2008-06-19)

In the 2000 South Carolina primary, someone who may or may not have been Karl Rove created what is known as a push poll. Republican primary voters received calls asking if they would be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if they knew he had an illegitimate black daughter. This was a particularly insidious canard, as McCain and his absurdly wealthy wife—whose tax returns his campaign refuse to release—adopted a Bangladeshi daughter from Mother Theresa's orphanage. She was about eight at the time and campaigned with them (family values), thus visually confirming for people what they had been indirectly told. This dirty tactic cost McCain South Carolina and the primary campaign. Richard H. Davis, who worked for McCain, describes it here.

The ad I saw was not the same as the 2000 smear. It does raise a legitimate policy question (which I will address later on). One could also legitimately claim that by now anyone who uses the internet has seen (and likely clicked on) dozens of pop up ads that claim to be asking a question, but in fact just want to "give" you a "free" laptop, and this political incarnation is not the same as feeding information as a question's premise, assumed to be true. Finally, the McCain campaign is taking credit for it, unlike the anonymous push poll used against him.

However, when the race for the White House really gets going, the 527s will slither out from whatever rocks they've been hiding under, and they will, undoubtedly, use race as an issue to attack Obama in sneaky, disgusting, underhanded ways. I had hoped that John McCain, having experienced such attacks, would stand up to this. This ad, and the way his campaign and the right wing media machine has presented the issue makes me much less hopeful. The question of whether talking to Ahmadinejad is appeasement is one thing. But it is being used as part of a larger effort to portray Barack Obama as Other, as foreign: using his middle name, describing his school as a madrasah (which is just the Arabic word for school), and asking if he might secretly be a Muslim. All of this is having an effect.

As for talking [to Iran, Syria, et al.] equaling appeasement, it is an absurd argument. Israel, people will say using the Jewish State as a model, doesn't negotiate with terrorists. This is wrong, Israel just negotiated a cease-fire with Hamas. The operative word in the sentence is negotiate. The reason for the don't negotiate with terrorists idea is simple. If you take a building full of people hostage, and I give you what you want, what's to stop you (or anyone else) from taking another building full of people hostage tomorrow? However, when the terrorists your dealing with are the democratically elected government of your neighbors, this strategy falls apart. Had Israel refused to negotiate with Hamas while they were firing rockets into Israel (the position for some time), they would have simply kept firing rockets. Similarly, if we refuse to negotiate with Iran until the stop developing nuclear capacity, they'll keep doing it. And while the effect of Hamas firing rockets (besides Israel's blockade and periodic raids into Gaza) was the destruction of property, constant psychological devastation of it's population, and the occasional, tragic death or injury of a civilians, the effect in Iran will be worse; it will be a drastic shift in power that will lead to a geopolitical pool-pah large enough to make Henry Kissinger plotz. Negotiating is not appeasement. Appeasement (to paraphrase Ayn Rand) is appeasement. The fact that appeasement results from negotiation does not mean we should refrain from negotiating any more than the fact that STDs result from sex mean mean we should refrain from sex; we just have to do it carefully.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who told me he wouldn't vote for Barack Obama because "he [Obama] scares me." This is someone I've known a long time, but have never talked politics with. He says he votes for the candidate, not by party, and that he'll vote for McCain. When I pressed him on what scares him about Obama, he raised the issue of Obama negotiating with "those guys." He couldn't understand how I, and for that matter, how my uncle (much more hawkish when it comes to Israel), could support Obama, who's willing to talk to a man who threatens to annihilate Israel. My uncle, I assume (I haven't much talked to him), wouldn't vote for a warmongering, flip-flopping, antichoice, homophobic, plutocratic, fearmongering, corporation-loving jackass. Actually, that's me; he just like's Obama's charisma, and knows the two parties are identical on Israel.

My friend said another person told him he was racist for this view, but I think that's oversimplifying it. Instead, the Republicans have tapped in to a pervasive climate of fear, that there are those out there—Islamic terrorists, Mexican immigrants, Chinese sellers of poisonous toys—who are different, who are other, and who threaten us like never before (at least, not since the Cold War ended). And Barack Obama may just be one of them. They aren't saying he is, they aren't saying he isn't, they're just asking if you want to take that chance. That's why I couldn't convince my friend to support Obama (yet). That question, never explicit, but kept forever in the back of peoples' minds, is this year's push poll.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Reason to go Back to the Movies

I saw the Incredibly Hulk today. I know, I should be preparing for my trip, not going to the movies, but something came over me and I headed out to the theater. I actually opted to take the bus rather than my car, and had a very pleasant experience on Kansas City's mass transit system, specifically The Max bus line. The weather was perfect for bus travel, and everything went very smoothly.

I've been very excited about this summer's movies, Hulk included (once I found out it was a remake rather than a sequel to the last bomb and included Ed Norton), even after IJ4 was such a massive disappointment. SPOILER ALERT! It sucked. Still, The Incredible Hulk exceeded expectations. The backstory was artfully and silently blast through in the credits (a wise choice because, in the case of The Hulk, it's stupid). Afterward Ed Norton brilliantly led a great cast of characters and actors (I take back everything I said about Liv Tyler the last time I watched Empire Records), with great action, nicely balanced with well-paced story telling.

Most importantly, I fell that the movies Marvel makes now contain some of the best elements of comic books. They are fun and succeed at telling the story visually. Even everything were dubbed in Urdu with no subtitles, I still would have enjoyed the film, and comprehended a good deal of the plot. Yet they are also wry and cleaver, constantly winking past the kids with in jokes, double entendres, and of course the Stan Lee cameos. This nodding done to a new level in the last scene before the credits (I didn't stay passed because I was late for a book signing by David Sedaris); I didn't stay but the scene makes repeated refrence to the recent Iron Man film (which I thought was the best adaptation of a comic book to date).

Finally, the two flicks Marvel has made this summer offer a glimpse into the wider Marvel Universe. I was frankly disappointed that through three Spider Man and three X-Men films, plus a slew of others, the fact that other characters were out their was never even hinted at, unless they joined one side or the other in their respective films. One of the great things about Marvel is the big stable of characters, so that while you may be reading a Spider Man comic, you never know when Wolverine, Iron Man, or Daredevil might show up (or for that matter, Magneto, Doctor Doom, or Kingpin). Yet despite the fact that the Fantastic Four spent two movies living in New York, they never once called up, or even alluded to, their neighbors (I'm actually just assuming this to be the case, as I was too disgusted by the trailers, and justified by the reviews, to see Rise of the Silver Surfer). Hopefully, all of this will lead to more prolific crossing over of the film franchise, better movies, and a revised film industry.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

There is a War Going on for Your Mind

This is primarily a travel blog, but since I'm not leaving for about a week, and I want to get into the habit of blogging (I hope to post something almost every day), I'm hoping to do some writing that reflects on who I am and grounds the blog going forward.

I've been listening to the Flobot's album Fight with Tools. I heard the single, "Handlebars," on the radio, and decided to get the entire album. It's fantastic. I've always liked music with a story or a message, especially a good political one, something too rare in today's music. Fight with Tools is a refreshing exception.

The single that inspired the purchase ("Handlebars") is about how the creativity and drive to achieve that is the bedrock of our society's meritocratic world view can lead to harm and destruction. It also has a strong anti-corporate overtone. The rest of the album, however, is much more political, addressing racism, the war, economic inequality, and other subjects of concern to the modern progressive. The tone of the message ranges from playful to angry to stark to hopeful. The title of the post is also the title of the first song, a poetic but harsh denouncition of marketing and propaganda (between which it makes no distinction). The phrase also comes up again in later songs with messages like "there are no civilians [in the war for your mind]" and "if you are thinking, you are winning." The overarching message is a directive to resist the control of those with a voice, and to battle the hegemony of their ideas.

I also like the musical style that mixes hip hop, rock, and spoken word. I am hardly an expert, so cannot offer solid analysis of how they use the viola and trumpet, other than to say that they're really cool, and I like it. But it does seem to highlight the lyrics rather than distracting from them.

Having listened through a few times, I like "There is a War Going on for Your Mind," "Same Thing," "Stand Up," and "Anne Braden" at least as much if not more than "Handlebars." When I buy a CD for a single, my standard for success is 2 other songs I really like, and this album does that for me. Also, as mentioned above, the different tracks on Fight with Tools will make reference one another, bringing a cohesion to the album. I'd recommend checking it out.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Trains vs. Planes

When I was young, I used to travel a great deal with my parents. As a result, I was so accustomed to air travel that for a long time it never bothered me. Even after 9/11, I was never really nervous, flying out of National about 3 months later. But around the time I turned 18, I started to have a lot of anxiety around flying. It didn't help that I somehow managed to watch Die Hard 2 on TBS the night before every single flight. At the same time, I began to hear about people not flying for reasons related to global warming. This, along with disgust over how the industry was run, led me to swear off air travel in all but the most urgent and important occasions.

At first, I thought this would be like any other self-denial; like a no-carb diet. And though I've never done Atkins, I feel like keeping my feet on the ground has been more radical than that. For many Americans, at least those with the means to do so, there is an assumption that one can travel anywhere, at any time, in a matter of hours. Challenging that assumption not only surprises people, but it changes how I see the country and the world. The two times I've traveled so far: visiting friends in Chicago and attending a wedding in Houston have made me think how we as a country might get away from airplanes and cars as our primary form of transportation.

In the short term, this is unrealistic. Taking Amtrak from New York to Los Angeles takes 61 hours, 45 minutes and requires a 5 1/2 hour layover in Chicago; meanwhile, we have a culture of driving tied into a rugged individualism and a spectacular (though fast and dangerously decaying) Interstate Highway System. Yet for some trips, some of the time, train travel may be viable, and could be even more so with more infrastructure investment. Considering the extent to which airports, airlines, and roads are subsidized by the government, further investment in railroads, a relatively safe, relatively efficient form of transportation.

My plan is to spend the summer (or a large part of it) traveling by train and seeing the country (and bits of our neighbor to the north). I'll be starting in Los Angeles, visiting friends. More importantly (at least for this blog) I'll be taking the Southwest Chief, which has been described as one of the most scenic train trips on earth. Among many other things, I'm trying to find a way to blog a wireless device over 35 hour trip.