Saturday, December 30, 2006

Wagstradamus Predicts!

Ten predictions for 2007:
1. The economy attains a soft landing, but the housing issue lingers and prevents a new takeoff.
2. The bloodiest month on record in Iraq happens in the spring, as the U.S. military takes on two fronts: the Sunnis and the Madhi army.
3. By the end of the year, Republican moderates arrange an 'intervention' with President Bush on Iraq.
4. Health problems muddy John McCain's prospects for the nomination.
5. Mike Huckabee emerges as a dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination.
6. By the end of the year Hillary is no longer the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Her opponents have had a fundraising bonanza on the internet, neutralizing her advantage. Name-recognition is no longer enough to lead the polls. Most critically, her tedious speaking style is exposed -- and seems even more boring when compared to two of the most charismatic pols in the country, Obama and Edwards.
7. The Spurs win the 2007 NBA Championship. Mark Cuban flips out completely.
8. Apple releases the iPhone, iTV, the Leopard OS, and introduces Blu-Ray compatibility in their professional desktop machines. All products are rapturously reviewed but their real hit is a strategic partnership with Google in online video.
9. Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren and (finally!) Martin Scorsese win Academy Awards.
10, Ratatouille and The Rise of the Silver Surfer are the movie hits of the summer.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Bush Less Popular than Satan!

Beating out Osama for top villain of 2006 is bad enough, but actually trouncing Satan?
I suggest Satan hire Tony Snow to get his message across more effectively:
SNOW: The Prince of Darkness is very pleased with how things are going in Iraq.
DAVID GREGORY: But all the mayhem over there is because of Bush's invasion.
SNOW: Well, that's your partisan spin, David.
GREGORY: Partisan!?
SNOW: Sure, there are other bit players, but the Devil is the ultimate inspiration behind the carnage.
NORA O'DONNELL: How do you respond to the recent poll results?
SNOW: Look, we don't pay attention to polls here in hell. People might underestimate Satan's role now, but history will return him to his proper place among evil-doers.
HELEN THOMAS: Did Satan take a week-long nap while an American city went under water?
SNOW: (Sighs heavily, then exasperated... ) Satan sent the damn hurricane!
VOICE FROM THE BACK: I thought that was global warming.
(Snow throws his papers in the air and staggers off.)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Terrible Event, Beautiful Image

This photo by Akintunde Akinleye from Reuters was taken in Lagos, Nigeria after the terrible pipeline explosion that killed 260 people.

Click on the photo to see a larger image.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The American Foreign Legion?

Foreign nationals already serve in our country's armed forces, but the Boston Globe reports that plans to enlarge the military have forced Pentagon officials to consider expanding the allotment of foreign nationals, inducting illegals for the first time, and even -- get this -- opening recruiting offices in foreign countries.

I don't have any doubt that foreigners would make fine U.S. soldiers. In the thick of battle soldiers are usually fighting for their buddies in the foxhole with them, not any abstract concept of patriotism. But a move like this smacks of hiring mercenaries, and worse, exploiting them as cannon fodder. These people would be risking their lives in order to have an opportunity to earn a living in the U.S. Now I suppose this would be their choice, but internationally it would be a public relations disaster. We would be delegitimized: the world would hear our leaders rage about wrongs that our people would not risk righting themselves.

Voyage into the Jungle

I recently saw Apocalypto and quite enjoyed it. It's a well-made action film -- essentially a revenge narrative dressed up with some thematic ambitions that don't quite hit home. Still, I think it's one of the better films of the year, and I'm convinced it would have gotten far better reviews if Mel Gibson weren't carrying quite so much baggage.

Apocalypto has got me thinking of some other films that have been shot in a jungle. There's Herzog's classic Aguirre: The Wrath of God with its unforgettable performance by Klaus Kinski. Later, Herzog would venture back into the Amazon and make Fitzcarraldo, again with Kinski. And Fitzcarraldo, of course, was the subject of one of the best making-of documentaries of all time, Les Blank's Burden of Dreams. But my favorite jungle picture is John Boorman's The Emerald Forest. I hadn't seen the film for about twenty years and after recommending it to a couple of people (apropos of Apocalypto) I thought perhaps I should reacquaint myself with it. I netflixed it. I'm glad to say it still holds up.

Boorman is a badly underrated filmmaker. He has made a lot of really interesting films: Hell in the Pacific, Point Blank, Deliverance, Hope and Glory. His trademark is the mythic sweep of his stories -- perhaps that's why I'm a such sucker for him.

The Emerald Forest is based on a true story. An American has come to build a dam in the Brazilian jungle. His son (played by Boorman's own kid, Charlie Boorman) is kidnapped. We cut to ten years later: the father has spent the intervening time looking for his son. Finally, he finds him, now completely acculturated to his adoptive tribe. The film is about their re-encounter.

The writing and performance in the first fifteen minutes is a bit plastic, but as soon as the story gets into the jungle it comes to life. Boorman and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg pay careful attention to the ethnographic details of an Amazonian tribe, but this is primarily a great adventure yarn and ultimately, a very effective environmentalist allegory. Really worth renting if you haven't seen it (and maybe even if you have.)

Monday, December 25, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Wiki Search Engine?

The London Times writes of how the founder of Wikipedia is working with to create a user-edited search engine to challenge Yahoo and Google. The idea is to leverage user contributions as Wikipedia does in order to better rate the quality and relevance of search engine hits. Maintaining the integrity of such a system will be a challenge, but this could well be the next great idea.

Advice for the Bedbug Victim

A surprising number of people think that bedbugs are a mythical insect that live only in the cutesy phrase “don’t let the bedbugs bite.” They are actually a very insidious pest. Brought close to eradication in the U.S. by the now-banned use of the DDT, bedbugs have made a comeback in New York recently, sparking somewhat hysterical press accounts like this one. They can affect everyone: young, old, rich, poor, neat freaks and hopeless slobs.

At their biggest they are a little under a 1/4 inch wide and very flat, but even as recent hatchlings they are easily visible to the naked eye. Bedbugs like to nest in a sleeping area and at night, attracted by the carbon dioxide humans emit when they breathe, they will find that sleeping person and feast on a meal of their blood. If you find yourself scratching constantly bedbugs might be one reason why. If there are little dots of blood on your sheets then you have almost certainly been infested.

If bedbugs ever happen to you, here’s some advice:

1. Acknowledge that you are entering a life emergency. I am not being over-dramatic. Bedbugs are hard to get rid of. They don’t present any health risks but they are very corrosive to your psychology, perhaps because they attack when you're sleeping -- a moment of great value and vulnerability.

2. Go nuclear early. I’m going to outline a strategy for dealing with bedbugs – you might also get ideas from other places. Whatever you do, don’t go for the gradual escalation. Go full-bore early and make sure you get the little beasts out of your life quickly.

3. Don’t put all your trust in the exterminator man because there’s only so much he can do for you. Legal insecticides only have a half-life of about a month; bedbugs can live up to nine months without a blood meal. Even if the exterminator managed to bring every bug in your apartment into contact with the poison, there would still be the eggs waiting to reach maturity. Insecticides are part of the overall solution, but they aren’t a cure-all.

4. Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. That is the only way to get rid of the eggs. Vacuum high, vacuum low. Vacuum under the baseboards. Vacuum in the cracks around your windows. Take out your clothes and sheets and blankets and shake them all out one by one and then vacuum the cracks in your dresser. Vacuum everything. Then either apply the insecticide yourself or have an exterminator do it. Repeat this process at least once, and more than that if you see it’s not being effective. Oh, and after every vacuuming, discard the vacuum bag.

5. Create a sterile area around your bed. A lot of people advocate throwing away your mattress. Just as good and a lot cheaper is if you buy a mattress liner from an allergy supply store. These liners are meant to block dust mites, which are far smaller than bedbugs. Make sure there are no places for the bugs to nest in your bed. If you have a wooden bed, put rubber compound in any holes or cracks. If you want to make absolutely sure there are no places for bedbugs to nest, buy a brass or an iron bed.

6. Protect that sterile area. Put little tins or aluminum bowls at the base of your bed legs. Fill these with baby oil, which will evaporate a lot more slowly than water. You have now created a double obstacle course for the bedbugs. They can’t climb up slick surfaces like aluminum and they can’t swim. If you want to go all out smear some Vaseline around the bed leg too – bedbugs can’t get through that stuff either. Another wise precaution is if you keep your linens in a sealed plastic container once you get them back from the laundry. (Bedbugs cannot survive a washing cycle.)

7. Don’t tell your family or friends. I’ve heard stories of people being forced by their parents to change and shower before they enter their house. Others have had quarantine areas created for them at work. Of course, this is ridiculous. Bedbugs have been known to stowaway in luggage, but they don’t travel on people… for one thing, they would shake loose. For another you would see them. However, bedbugs are so mysterious and they provoke such irrational reactions that you really should keep your problems to yourself until you have it resolved.

8. Take heart: victory is possible. It takes a concerted effort, but it is within your reach. I say that as someone who has been bedbug-free for more than two years now.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Empathetic Warrior

Kevin Drum points us to an important article in the latest issue of the New Yorker. In it George Packer profiles David Kilcullen, an Australian Army Captain currently ‘on loan’ to the U.S. Department of State. Kilcullen is an anthropologist who has made his reputation by applying his academic training to the so-called war on terror.

His primary insight is that our strategy should be one of disaggregation. This isn’t a war on terror but rather a global counterinsurgency. We should be working on countering the insurgents' narratives and preventing their movements from congealing together. Kilcullen prefers the term insurgent to terrorist:
A terrorist is “a kook in a room,” Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror” has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required.
It is at these political and informational battles that the U.S. is lagging. Twenty-first century information technologies, which we invented, have been a powerful catalyst working against us. The U.S. is like an elephant trying to play hopscotch.

Kilcullen advocates a ‘granular’ knowledge of the cultural battleground. But if that makes you think he must be a bleeding heart getting ready to give terrorists ‘therapy’, then you’re mistaking understanding with a lack of ferocity:
Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”
Despite that dark view, it's remarkable how full Kilcullen’s empathy with his enemy is:
“If I were a Muslim, I’d probably be a jihadist,” Kilcullen said as we sat in his office. “The thing that drives these guys—a sense of adventure, wanting to be part of the moment, wanting to be in the big movement of history that’s happening now—that’s the same thing that drives me, you know?”
Of course, every military theory guru from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz has told us that we should know our enemy. But Kilcullen has willed himself to understand the emotive and interpersonal life of not just his enemy, but also the common quarry that he shares with his enemy: the indigenous populations in the conflict areas, populations which can act as the insurgency's supply line, shield and home base… or can strangle it to extinction. Think of how far such an imaginative leap is from President Bush’s formulation that ‘they hate us because we love freedom.’

This is why the so-called war on terror is a bad fit for the Republican Party. The values that conservatives hold dear – nationalism, individualism, moralism – lead them to be actively repulsed by attempts at empathy. The reason they cite Churchill so often is because his attitude is so appealing to them – every war should be won with just pugnacity and principle. But Churchill did not need to win over the German population in order to crush Hitler.

In this war, understanding is the weapon that will make the biggest bang.

Bush vs The Brass

The Washington Post has an important piece this morning. Apparently the White House is pushing the Pentagon for a surge strategy, but the Joint Chiefs are pushing back just as hard; they are reported to be opposing the idea unanimously. It's important that they're standing up to the White House, but it's also important that the story got leaked to the Post.

If the Joint Chiefs keep this up, the political risks to the administration of a surge strategy are magnified exponentially. It probably wouldn't happen.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Trouble With a Surge

There is talk that President Bush has chosen a 'surge' strategy in Iraq. The reasoning is that Baghdad security is the problem that underpins all other problems: that until Iraqis feel that their streets are safe all the political and economic issues are intractable. It is said that Bush will sign on to a two-year strategy raising the level of troops by perhaps 30,000 and concentrating them in Baghdad. There the mission will change from primarily training to primarily security. Neighborhood by neighborhood Baghdad will be cleared and held.

There are likely negative consequences to this:

  • Security means increased checkpoints and house searches. These will exceedingly unpopular with the Iraqis.
  • This frustration is going to be transfered to the Iraqi government, which will be seen as giving away national sovereignity. The government's standing will be eroded.
  • The U.S. will have to choose a Shiite faction to back -- the SCIRI or the Madhi Army. They will choose the Iranian-backed SCIRI, deepening the schism within the Shia and making it more difficult to put the country back together again.
  • The Mahdi Army will be a new and troublesome foe to U.S. forces.
  • U.S. casualties will shoot up. In order to hold neighborhoods U.S. forces will be far more exposed than they were before. This will further erode political support for the war in the U.S.
  • U.S. military force will be stretched close to a breaking point; our flexibility to respond to other threats will be diminished.

By the end of 2007, fearing the annihilation of their party at the 2008 polls, a group of moderate Republicans will enter the Oval Office and threaten to revoke funding for the war. Given that political cover, Democrats will be willing to vote with them. That's probably what it will take to change Bush's direction in this war.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Spirit of the Season

I was a little keyed up last night and knew I would have trouble sleeping, so I took the subway into Manhattan with no plan other than to just walk around town.

Going north on Ninth Avenue I spotted a cel phone on the sidewalk. I picked it up and glanced around dumbly for its owner -- as if someone might be hiding, waiting to see who would pick it up. No one came out of the shadows.

Losing a cel phone is expensive, annoying and inconvenient. It immediately became apparent that my task now should be to return the phone to its owner. I opened up the phone; the screen was in Spanish. The owner was hispanic like me. As I continued to walk up Ninth Avenue, I called the Sprint operator to see if they might have any suggestions for me. She said she didn't have any information about the phone available to her, but if I found out what the number was -- by turning the phone off and turning it back on -- and called customer service they might be able to help me.

I ran through strategies in my head: calling people from his address book at random; getting an address from Sprint and mailing the phone to the fellow; or maybe just waiting for a call. I didn't have to think about this problem all that long: about twenty minutes after I found the phone I got a call.

At first a woman was on the line, but when I answered there was a pause, and a man came on. He was tentative. "I lost my cel phone." He spoke with a Spanish accent, but his English was fairly decent.
"Yes, I have it," I said. "Where are you?"
"59th and 10th."
"I'm at 57th and 5th. Want to meet somewhere in the middle?"
He agreed, thanked me profusely, and we hung up. I began to walk west.

While I waited for him at 57th and Broadway, I saw a young couple running across the street. I thought maybe it was them: they were attractive and affluent-looking. They looked like they were in a hurry -- was it so that I wouldn't have to wait long? They looked happy -- was it because they had been reprieved of a misfortune? But they rushed past me.

A few minutes later I got a call -- he was at 57th and 7th. I told him to stay there and I'd walk the short block over. It turns out it was the couple that had walked by before.

They both beamed at me and thanked me. I thought of speaking in Spanish to them but decided not to. The fellow took a folded twenty and stuffed it in my hand. "Buy yourself a beer." I waved him off. "No, I mean it," he insisted. "Buy yourself a beer!" He stuffed the bill in my jacket pocket. I acquiesced.

After saying goodbye to them, however, I felt a little less good about the experience than I had a couple of minutes earlier. I thought I was performing an act of kindness to a random stranger. The quid pro quo aspect put an edge of the metallic in the experience. I don't begrudge the fellow for making that gesture; I'm sure he thought he was being kind. I can even see that in certain situations I might do something similar. And also there's this: perhaps if I hadn't taken the money he would have felt a little less good about the episode instead of me.

I tell you this story because it has two morals: a light one and a dark one. The light moral is that it truly is better to give than to receive. The dark moral follows inexorably: there are situations where altruism becomes a zero sum game, and even kindness becomes an opportunity for aggression. Don't let the other bastard out-nice you.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Cheney Visit

Perhaps this is obvious, but I haven't heard anyone mentioning it, so I'll say it. The New York Times reports that during Cheney's visit to Riyadh the Saudis told Cheney that if the U.S. withdrew from Iraq it would back the Sunnis. Fine, but why summon Cheney to Riyadh to tell him that? They could have given the same message to the U.S. Ambassador or Condi Rice or any number of other people. Instead, they summoned the major White House advocate of the so-called '80% solution', a strategy whereby the U.S. would stay in Iraq but back the Shia, writing off meaningful Sunni participation in the government.

My guess is that there was another message sent -- one these reports aren't covering -- about what the consequences would be if the U.S. adopted such a strategy.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Iraq - In Retrospect

When those of us who opposed the Iraq war discuss the decision to invade it is hard to avoid a tone like the one found in this Kos diary. We should be angry – the price this country is paying for the Iraq misadventure is breathtaking. But the attitude here is quite recognizable – this sort of writing seeks to fill its author with the warm flush of virtue and righteous anger. The blogs of both left and right are filled with this sort of sentiment; in fact, it’s the dominant note. Writing like this has other benefits – it mobilizes people, for one. Ultimately, however, it fails to build our understanding.

Many who supported the war now seem to be urging us to be forward-looking, for obvious reasons, but it is not too early to go back and review the decision to go to war. The scenario we faced in 2003 will never play itself out again exactly, of course, but we can learn something about our decision-making process and what went wrong.

To do so, we cannot judge decisions based on information we have now but did not have at the time. The commonest justification for the invasion was the WMD argument. Memorably, Colin Powell went to the UN and made a strong presentation arguing for their presence in Iraq. Those of us who opposed the war would be dishonest if we pretended that there wasn’t a strong circumstantial case for the presence of WMD. However, if you took it as far as Richard Cohen took it…
The evidence he presented to the United Nations -- some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail -- had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise.
Well, only a fool or a Washington Post columnist could think the case for WMD was a conclusive one. It wasn’t, and we must remember how uncritical the media was of this conclusion.

The point, however, is somewhat moot because the real reason the Bush administration took us into Iraq was not because of WMD. If it had been they would have given more time and support to Hans Blix and his team. The real reason we went was because the administration saw a chance to make the long bomb pass – to plant a friendly square in an expanse of unfriendly ones – in a region vital to our interests. It was the domino theory of old revived, with liberal states playing the part of the communist pieces.

How realistic was this vision? We know a lot about early stage democracies: we have seen them thrive and falter in South America, Africa and Asia for about a century. We know what are the risk factors that are likely to make a young democracy unstable. Having the foundational institutions already in place helps: an independent judiciary, a vigorous press, civil society organizations. On the other hand, a democracy is less likely to make it if its GNP is low, if its population is too heterogeneous or insufficiently educated, if the country has few democratic neighbors and no democratic history. When you look at these risk factors, Iraq scores badly. Establishing a self-sufficient democracy there was always a poor bet. This is true irrespective of the bungles made after the initial invasion.

Still, a weak government can survive if a strong occupying force backs it up. The true oversight was not foreseeing the insurgency. How would we rate the risk there, given the information we had at the time? We knew that civil strife between Sunni and Shia was a risk – we did not know enough, and nobody knew enough, to guess how likely that was. We knew that a Sunni/Baathist insurgency was possible – after all, Saddam built a regime not just on benefiting himself, but on benefiting a whole Iraqi class. But the third element of the Iraqi strife – the jihadist element – was not just a risk, it was a certainty. I cannot understand how the Bush administration could believe its own rhetoric about being in a death struggle with radical Islam and not anticipate that these guys – who after all had proven in Afghanistan years ago that they would gladly travel to fight their enemies – would not come and stir things up in Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, in Iraq they would be ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from the population.

But even if there was no insurgency, and even if Iraq proved to be a stable democracy, the idea that liberalism would spread by osmosis to neighboring countries was still far-fetched. More likely, the adjacent populations would see the new country as a US puppet rather than a newly empowered Arab population.

So how did we come to make such a gross misjudgment of the likely risks and benefits of an Iraqi invasion? Partly, it was George W. Bush. It was famously said of Franklin D. Roosevelt that he had a second-rate intellect but a first rate temperament. George W. Bush is a man of a second-rate intellect and a tenth-rate temperament. Pride rather than reason is what steers him. And it doesn’t help that he was surrounded by men whose ideological proclivities are at the outside margin of our usual political discourse.

Finally though, it was allowed to happen only because of 9/11. The shock of that day left us with a sense of grief and grievance. Ultimately, our greater population as well as our elite wasn’t thinking of cost/benefit calculations. We were thinking: “if we go over there and kick some Arab ass they are going to think twice about messing with us again.” Never mind whether they were the right Arabs, or whether it was the right fight for us. As a nation, for a stretch of several months, we went collectively insane.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

La Seduzione - Music

It will be a long time before I work with a composer on the soundtrack for La Seduzione, but when I make a film I find that I start referencing music very early. Usually I'll discover a song that captures the mood of the piece, particularly the feeling at the end of the story -- the feeling I want to leave the audience with. Then I'll play that song over and over again while I match it with the images in my head. When I made my student film at NYU it was Frank Sinatra singing That's Life. With It's About My Brother it was Buddy Holly crooning True Love Ways.

I'm not sure what "The Song" will be for La Seduzione but I've been listening to a lot of stuff from the sixties and seventies: Perez Prado, Tom Jones, Brigitte Bardot, Tijuana Brass, Les Baxter. It's stuff that feels deliciously dated but at the same time is genuinely witty and playful and fun to listen to. I've become particularly fond of some Italian soundtracks from the sixties, especially a composer called Roberto Pregadio. He wrote music for the so-called giallo, the Italian exploitation pics of the era.

Here's one piece of his called Iena Sequence. And this other one's called Eva, La Venere Selvaggia, which I think means "Eva, the noble savage". (Doesn't that make you want to see the movie?)

If you want to hear more of this kind of music I would suggest Beat at Cinecitta, a sampler of soundtracks from Italian movies of the era.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Iraq Study Group Report

I’ve just finished reading the Iraq Study Group report (PDF.) The New York Times presents a persuasive critique from a military point of view and Kevin Drum highlights their astonishing revelation that the report’s military recommendations were not discussed with the group’s own military advisory panel. The Washington Post presents some unenthusiastic reactions from Iraq. Most importantly, President Bush has already splashed cold water on the major ideas in the report: a more aggressive attempt at regional diplomacy, a pullback of troops, and a conditioning of further support on Iraqi performance.

It’s still early but at this point it seems unlikely that the Iraq Study Group report will attain the credibility that the 9/11 Commission Report earned. It just doesn’t seem probable that this will be the seed around which a consensus will crystallize. That is a national tragedy.

As I have argued before, it is critical that we forge a bi-partisan approach to this problem because if we do not then our Iraqi strategy will almost certainly not survive this election cycle.

The report says that a ramp-up of forces in Iraq is unworkable, and most military experts seem to agree. The McCains and Kristols of the world are just not able to explain where they would find the troops. Also, the experience of Operation Together Forward II -- where a build-up of troops in Baghdad resulted in nothing more than a continuing escalation of the violence -- puts in doubt how much good a mere 20,000 more troops would do.

The Study Group believes that splitting the country into three regions would be risky, and again I agree. Ethnic cleansing would be accelerated in the short term, and we might well wind up with an Al Qaeda-influenced Sunnistan and an Iranian client state Shiastan.

I am also persuaded by the report’s arguments against an immediate withdrawal. At this stage it would very likely lead to a broadening of the conflict. These words are foreboding: “Such a broader sectarian conflict could open a Pandora’s box of problems – including the radicalization of populations, mass movements of populations, and regime changes – that might take decades to play out.” We probably can’t stop a civil war in Iraq, but our presence can dissuade the incursion of Iraq’s neighbors.

Where I differ with the Iraq Study Group’s conclusion is in the political approach they choose. Conditioning support on performance sounds good, but it doesn’t matter how many carrots you put in front of an Iraqi politician to entice him. When the stick he’s looking at is his political demise and maybe his death, then the treat in your hand is irrelevant: the gestures the report looks for may not be possible for a Shia leader in Iraq today.

We might be better off drawing down our troops over a 12-month period and redefining their mission: act as a trigger force on the border; defend the oilfields from sabotage; protect the green zone, the airport and the road to it; be available as a quick-reaction force; and provide air support to government forces when necessary. Other than that, we should give up on national reconciliation and let the Shias rule Iraq as they will. This would help us maintain our influence with them and prevent them from falling too far into the Iranian orbit. It would speed the probably inevitable result: a Shia victory over the Sunnis after a bloody civil war. On the negative side, it would also cause outrages that we would be ashamed to be part of. And it would hurt our standing with the Sunni states of the area -- and perhaps western states too. But I can’t think of a better way to bring about a stable Iraq. From both a moral and a geopolitical perspective, that should be our highest priority.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Imprisonment of Jose Padilla

What Glenn said:
The most astounding and disturbing fact over the last five years -- and there is a very stiff competition for that title -- is that we have collectively really just sat by while the U.S. Government arrests and detains people, including U.S. citizens, and then imprisons them for years without any charges of any kind. What does it say about our country that not only does our Government do that, but that we don't really seem to mind much?
And here is the New York Times article describing a videotape of Jose Padilla being taken to a dentist.

The day is coming when there will be an accounting for the government's behavior in this case.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

DeVito on the View

By now you might have already seen this clip of Danny DeVito on The View.

I'm outraged about the outrage. The Post and the Daily News were moved to use the same sneering pun -- Danny DeVino -- showing that mediocre minds also think alike. Press flacks had to work overtime to spread word of Danny's remorse. Barbara Walters was said to be upset; poor Danny had to call her to apologize.

Please tell me, what is the sin? Is it making great television on a program like The View? Is it poking silly fun at our Dear Leader? (Actually, when the President is Bush, making monkey faces counts as a cogent and intellectually rigorous satire.) Is it pulling down Lemoncellos with George Clooney all night? Is it enjoying sex with his wife? Is it almost forgetting to plug the silly Christmas movie he's in?

Danny DeVito should get thanks not finger-wags.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Predictions for 2008

We're barely past the 2006 mid-terms, but it's never too early to engage in pointless electoral speculation.

My prediction: there will be a surprisingly successful insurgent candidate on both sides... they might not win, but they will give the front-runners a bad scare.

Why would there be an insurgent on the Republican side? There are three major candidates today: Giuliani is a moderate, although he conducts extramarital affairs with a certain liberal flair. McCain isn't a moderate, but he's perceived to be one because of his maverick streak. Romney is trying to sell himself as a religious right guy, but the real religious right is not going to buy him. Even if they get over his Mormon faith, they won't get over his abortion flip-flop or his gay rights record. So we have three major candidates that are hogging up the center when the real energy in the Republican party usually comes from the right. That's a big space for a conservative candidate to run in: Brownback might get the conservative mantle, or it could well be Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Why would there be an insurgent in the Democratic race? Well, insurgents are a little more common on that side. Furthermore, the left blogosphere is more organized than the right, and they are able to make insurgent candidates plausible. In 2004 it was Dean -- the internet raised around $50 million dollars for him. Who will it be in 2008? Not Hillary -- she voted for the war. Not Obama -- he is not strident enough for the netroots. If Gore runs, he will be the overwhelming favorite of internet left -- he would easily raise $75-100 million online, enough to let him to go toe-to-toe with Hillary or anybody else. However, Gore probably won't run, and Feingold has said he's not running. Wesley Clark could well wind up being the progressive favorite.

Macs and Liberals

The idea that liberals are more likely to choose the Mac platform has been around for a while. I had always thought that it was probably because creatives are over-represented among Mac users, and liberals are over-represented among creatives. But Kevin Drum goes to a progressive conference and reports that about 70% of the laptops are Apple. There might be more to this than that.

Maybe it's because living in Mac-land is like living in a socialist utopia. Everything has been pre-planned and designed for your comfort. Owning a PC, on the other hand, is like being stranded in a capitalist jungle: products are sprouting everywhere, dangerous tropical viruses are in the air, lots to eat and lots to be eaten by.

UPDATE: Drum says Apple has a 4% market share. That's true of computers in general, but they have a much stronger position in the laptop market: around 12%.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Veil Is Lifted

When I began this blog I was somewhat hesitant about revealing my identity on it. I'm pretty sure all of my multitudinous half-dozen or so readers know who I am, but I do link to here from some political sites I comment on, and my fear had always been that some right-wing wacko whom I had served a little too much snark to would hunt me down and shoot me.

I've realized, however, that one of the therapeutic effects of this blog is that it forces me to show the same face to everyone: friends of different stripes, family, business associates. Like perhaps most people, I had projected slightly different images to different groups in my life -- depending perhaps on what I thought they expected of me. This blog says: this is who I am and this is what I think. That act isn't complete unless I say my name. It's William Gadea. Everyone calls me Will.

And by the way, I just updated my professional website. You can see the animated short I recently finished over there: it's called SuperMadge.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Casino Royale

I went to see Casino Royale at the Ziegfeld last night with my friends Keong and Tom. Given the critical acclaim the movie has received I had high hopes for it, but I must say I was a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, there are wonderful things in the film: the chase at the construction site was one of the best I've seen in years -- and Daniel Craig is a fine new Bond. However, the pacing in the second half seemed a little slow and the storytelling is often patchy, with missed steps and turns that haven't really been set up well.

Still, I'm glad the series has stepped out of the camp parade. Maybe if they get Christopher Nolan to direct the next one...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Good Stuff

I remember the day I realized. It was when I got home from the zillionth disappointing Woody Allen film and saw one of the better episodes from the first season of The Practice. It was hard for an unregenerate film snob like me to admit, but the best TV was -- on its own terms -- as good as the best films, and a whole lot more reliable.

Here's what I'm watching now:

Rome: I know it premiered a while ago, but I'm only now catching up to it on DVD. The period of Roman history beginning with Caesar's return from Gaul contains some of the most colorful narratives in all history. Shakespeare was able to squeeze not one but two plays out of it. Rome keeps its end of the bargain. Although some of the performances bug me a little bit -- James Purefoy as Mark Antony comes off as a bit too melodramatic for my taste -- it still works and it's as addictive as popcorn. Rome is crowding the top of my Netflix queue.

Entourage: I have a feeling it might have peaked in season 2, but these bad boys are still damn entertaining. Think Sex and the City with boys instead of girls and fancy cars instead of shoes. Smart, funny, and Jeremy Piven is in the role he was born to play.

Weeds: I have an insane crush on Mary Louise Parker, so I would probably see this show even if it wasn't brilliantly written. An ordinary suburban single Mom starts dealing weed to make ends meet. It's The Sopranos meets Desperate Housewives.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: I know it's not that good, but I keep watching anyway. Maybe it's because I'm hoping it will get good. Maybe it's because I miss The West Wing and still need my fix of Aaron Sorkin characters jousting verbally and occasionally pausing to remind each other of how smart they are.

Drawn Together: My friends Susan and Zach turned me on to this show. A bunch of cartoon characters, all parodying well-known animated figures, live together in a mansion so they can be filmed for a reality show. The episodes are a little uneven, but at its best this show is as maniacally inventive as The Simpsons at its peak and more outrageous than South Park at its wildest. Funny, funny, sick, sick.

What are you watching?

Friday, November 24, 2006

La Seduzione - The Story

The story of La Seduzione is very simple: A guy walks into a cafe, sees a girl and immediately decides he's going to pick her up. She's a bit put off at first by how strong he comes on, but he manages to recover and smooths things over. They leave the cafe together.

Well, it's not quite that simple. These aren't really human forms... they're disembodied eyeballs, eyebrows and mouths that are hovering around in front of geometric shapes: an oval for the girl's face and a triangle for the guy's. And they don't talk -- at all. They express their ideas, intentions and moods by rearranging their face elements into new configurations.

Of course, as the title suggests, the movie is set in Italy. The go-go Rome of the sixties, to be precise. I'm thinking of my characters as Marcello and Sophia, in honor of my two favorite Italian actors (not that they ever get a chance to use each other's name.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An Amazing Statistic

The costs of U.S. occupation in Iraq is roughly equal to the entire Iraqi GDP. Why don't we just bribe them instead of fight them? We can say, "hey, we'll double what everybody in the country earns if you just chill out, okay?"

Democracy and War

The Iraqi conflict is now the third-longest foreign war in our nation’s history, after only Vietnam and the Philippine-American War. President Bush has urged us to maintain our resolve. I’m not going to advance an argument about our options in Iraq (at least not today,) but I do want to make a narrower point: if we choose an option that, in order to attain success, requires a commitment of more time than is left in Mr. Bush’s term, then we need to be reasonably assured that the public support will be there to maintain that commitment.

From the evidence of polls and the recent mid-term elections, that support is not there and is unlikely to grow. If troops levels stay where they are and the Republican candidate in 2008 is forced to defend an unpopular war, then even John McCain – perhaps the most popular politician in the country – would be a certain loser. To say that this is a good war to fight if only there were public support for it is like saying this would be a great car if only the engine worked.

I’ve noticed that the farther right you are on the political spectrum the more likely you are to embrace principle-based ethics: “does this action follow my principles?” Liberals and moderates, on the other hand, tend to prefer utilitarian calculations: “does this action lead to the greater good?” While a principle-based ethics may have many advantages on a personal level, on the world stage it is potentially disastrous. It should be of very little consolation to President Bush that he is following his principles if doing so leads to a greater amount of death and misery.

Now there may be a way to bargain with the public. If the Iraq Study Group comes up with a plan that at least reduces troop commitment, and if bi-partisan support can give that policy cover, then maybe we can embark on a strategy that is sustainable. But to ignore political concerns is to deny the peculiar nature of a democracy at war, and to spurn the lessons that reasonable Republicans have tried to impart.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman, RIP

Robert Altman has passed away. It's remarkable that he spent twenty years directing documentaries and TV episodes before breaking out in 1970 with MASH. At the age of 45 he became a youth market icon! Well, more power to those late bloomers; they're encouraging.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why Make an Animated Short?

One of the things I'd like to do on this blog is chart the progress of the animated short I'm working on, La Seduzione. Perhaps the first question to tackle is why I am making it to begin with.

In the romantic imagination an artist isn't motivated... he is possessed. Inner demons (or angels) compel him to create, and nothing -- not hunger or sickness or the cold indifference of the world -- can prevent him from doing so. Right. (My first instinct is to insert that bit of sarcasm, but there are people like that -- and I do sort of envy them.) The more jaundiced view is how Samuel Johnson saw his craft: "No man but a blockhead wrote except for money." Good for you, Mr. Johnson. Personally, I've long since stopped judging my motivations, or other people's. There is no bad reason to create: money, fame, food, sex, the exaltation of God, or just plain fun... if it works it works.

The most honest answer to why I'm making La Seduzione is because I'm happiest when I'm working on a project which I conceive myself and where I have final say on all creative decisions. However, there are other rationales (or maybe rationalizations) that I need to uphold before I can commit the enormous amount of time necessary to complete a project like this. They are these: it will improve my skills in 3D animation; and it will hopefully be a good portfolio piece, exhibiting and promoting those abilities. There. With the pragmatist in me satisfied that I'm not doing something too stupid, I can go ahead and play for a few months.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

No Second Acts?

There is a famous adage often ascribed to F. Scott Fitzgerald: "There are no second acts in American Life." These words are in the air these days because Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader who left his post in disgrace after making remarks that were interpreted to be racist, has returned to the Republican leadership. "There are second acts in American life," says George Will on the tube this morning. "That's the most untrue truism ever" says David Brooks on another show, becoming quite exercised. Of course, Brooks is right. Google the term and you find that practically all the hits are debunking the saying rather than quoting it affirmatively.

How did we come to adopt an adage we so thoroughly disbelieve? Where does the stickiness factor for this saying come from, to borrow Malcolm Gladwell's term? We cite these words not as a truism but as a horror story: nothing scares an American more than the possibility that self-invention is impossible. To disprove such an idea is infinitely comforting.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Theatre and Drinks with Vaclav and Madeleine

I received a tip from a friend last week. Vaclav Havel and his friend Madeleine Albright were to attend a performance of one of his plays being featured in the ongoing Havel Festival. The occasion was the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. If you’re imagining red carpet and velvet ropes, you’re way off. The venue was The Brick, a tiny little black box in scruffy, hipster-packed Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

There might not have been red carpet, but there sure were a couple of flashes going off when the guests of honor pulled up to the theatre. They arrived together, along with Mr. Havel’s pretty wife (who was on crutches – hopefully not for long) and a small retinue. They sat on the front row.

The theatre made sure the house was packed… they even had people sitting on cushions, at the edge of the risers. Emails had been sent to the theatre’s stalwarts: show up, but don’t tell the cast who’s coming! Depending on your point of view, this was either a gesture of mercy or sadism. As I arrived to the theatre a little earlier than usual I met one cast member outside who I knew socially; she seemed veritably nonchalant about the evening. Later on, when I spoke to the lead after the show he confirmed that he didn’t know who was in the audience until intermission, and that he was glad he didn’t. I’m not sure whether everyone in the cast felt that way or not. I spoke to an actor who was not in the play, and she said she might have found it extremely disconcerting to be in performance and, out the corner of your eye, catch sight of the very famous author of the words you’re speaking.

The play is called Temptation and was written in 1986. It’s a retelling of the Faust story, but your sympathy is definitely with the devil. A scientist, appropriately named Foustka, labors by day in a research institute where power plays and sucking up are the main order of business. Foustka has developed a secret interest in the occult which, if it were known, would threaten his position at the institute. A Sorceror comes to visit him and attempts to seduce him into the ways of black magic. The tension between these two worlds puts strains on the Foustka’s kinky affair with an office-mate, in which they play-act scenes of betrayal. Finally, we discover that the Sorceror was really an informer for the institute; Foustka’s fate is sealed. No doubt the play had special resonance in 80’s Czechoslovakia, but its message of struggle against orthodoxy retains a universal punch.

The production had enough credible performances that the audience was with the piece all the way through its three-hour length. Yes, the pacing could have been a little faster, and the show suffered from that scourge of off-off-Broadway: moving furniture during the blackouts between scenes. Nevertheless, like a rolling snowball, the evening seemed to accrete power as it went along, so that by the time we see Foustka’s fall we are surprisingly moved.

After the performance and the curtain call, the director came onstage in a fireman outfit and invited everyone to stay for the reception. A band playing Velvet Underground covers was coming on, he said, so please clear the aisles so they can get through. The faces of the cast curdled at this point. Someone whispered in the Director’s ear and he got out of the way: Mr. Havel joined the cast for another curtain call and everyone was happy again.

The band came to play, bringing all acoustic instruments including an accordion, a violin, and an upright bass. Mr. Havel and Ms. Albright drank beer from the bottle. The band leader onstage asked the Havel retinue what an appropriate Czech greeting would be for the Velvet Revolution anniversary (which he kept mangling into “Velvet Underground Revolution Day”). Mr. Havel came to the microphone, more as a shy playwright than a retired politician. He uttered a few un-sonorous words in Czech, which we were glad to hear even if we couldn’t understand them. It seemed like that would be that, but of course, Madame Secretary knew what was the right greeting, and of course she was self-possessed enough to let us know. “The correct greeting for this day is ‘Havel na hrad!’. Havel to the castle!” said the Prague-born Ms. Albright. So Havel na hrad it was.

They stayed for a couple of songs, but by the last chords of Waiting for My Man the slight figures of Ms. Albright and Mr. Havel were pushing up the aisle. All the actors, the playwrights, the hipsters in the audience turned to face Mr. Havel as he exited. Most of that crowd were young people trying to create an artistic legacy of their own; they said goodbye to a man who had done that, impressively… and also freed his country from despotism without firing a single shot.

A Beginning

I'm not sure what this blog will be. A journal of my creative projects? A collection of my political rants? An account of my goings-on? Perhaps it will just be my random thoughts and observations. I know there will be long stretches when I will not post. But I hope the writing will be decent and entertaining, and I hope this will diminish complaints from friends and family that I am insufficiently communicative. Grand ambitions, I know.