Friday, August 29, 2008

Stupid 9/11 truthers again...

I regularly download The Rachel Maddow Show on my iPod. For the last few months, the hostess has been a regular panelist on "Race for the White House" on MSNBC, and so the first 40 minutes of Rachel's Show show are a simulcast of the audio portion of "Race."

Anyway, I tried to listen to the episode from yesterday, which was broadcast live from the convention, but I found myself was unable to hear the discussion. Some guy with a bullhorn had parked himself next to their table and was screaming "9/11 was an inside job! 9/11 was an inside job!" repeatedly throughout the entire show.

Holy geez, you people are assholes. Even if I didn't believe self-described "truthers" were complete nutjobs, what do they even think they're accomplishing by making public annoyances of themselves? Do they actually think there are some people in America who aren't already familiar with their claims? Or do they think the skeptics will be convinced if only they could hear some mindless phrase chanted over and over again at a higher volume?

I mean, seriously, it's not much more effective than hearing an infinite loop of Spongebob Squarepants laughing that stupid laugh of his for 30 minutes.

Barack Obama's convention speech

Last night I went with a friend to join the Great Hills Democrats at Baby Acapulco's watching Barack Obama's speech. There was a fajita buffet, and four TVs facing outward from the center of the room.

The speech was absolutely sublime, that's all I can say. I already know Obama is a good speaker, but I was very impressed even with my high expectations. He hit most of the right notes, didn't pull any punches on McCain, and had a lot of well received jokes. Watching Obama work the crowd, I was very much reminded of seeing Bill Clinton live at UCSD at my graduation. I continue to be impressed by his qualities as a speaker, and desperately wish to again have a president who can string coherent thoughts together.

Because Bush sucks so much at public speaking, Republicans make the mistake of dismissing this ability as "He's good at reading a teleprompter." Nonsense. Certainly being a good speaker doesn't automatically make one a good leader; the skill of demagoguery can be used for either good or evil. But as someone who enjoys public speaking, I am adamant that the ability to read is a necessary but not sufficient skill. You have to really grasp what you're saying in order to emphasize the right stuff at the right time. Anyone who thinks otherwise is making a claim similar to believing that you can be a great comedian by going out and reciting someone else's jokes.

Like comedy, it's all about timing, and timing is one thing Obama has in spades. For instance, there's the way he worked the applause. When he first came on, the crowd kept cheering for several minutes. Obama acted sort of exasperated, pretending to speak and then looking like he couldn't get them to shut up. But he was clearly in complete control, it was all showmanship. When he really wanted to talk, they shut up. And I loves me some good theater.

The crowd of about 30 people watching the speech with me was mostly older; in fact at one point I wondered if my friend and I were the only attendees under forty. But they were full of energy, cheering, laughing, and shouting regularly.

After the speech, we somehow wound up getting in a discussion with with three marginally drunk, marginally right wing, off-duty Austin cops. The topics ranged from the situation of the homeless in Austin to property taxes to the war (even Republican cops are against it now, it seems). I don't feel like any of them will switch up their vote to Obama, but I may have perhaps depressed one or two of them enough to keep them home on election day. >:D That's a useful accomplishment, although in Texas it probably doesn't amount to much. Although drunk, they were all friendly, thought we made some good points, and said they enjoyed the discussion. And I got out without getting punched -- so hey, an evening well spent.

Since you asked: my take on Sarah Palin

Hank the Tank says:

Waiting with baited breath for your take on John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin for VP. I've already put mine up on my blog.

You know, the guy has actually won back my vote. Hey Russell, you've got quite the brainpower, come on over to the Good Side of the Force (pardon the Star Wars jingo).
Cost you less to fill up your tank as well.

So fine, here's what I think...

Eh. She's not terrible. I never heard of her but that doesn't necessarily matter. Picking a woman was a good move. It may pick up a little of the disaffected Hillary vote, but probably not as much as you think, since Hillary has been so effective in throwing her support behind Obama. Her speech and Bill's at the convention were both pretty impressive.

On the other hand, this choice signals that he's pretty much abandoning the line of attack that Obama is weak because he's "inexperienced." In Palin, you have a one term governor of one of the smallest states (population-wise). Daily Kos is humorously referring to her as "Sarah Quayle Palin." Plus, she's a creationist, and you know how much I love THAT. ;)

Nevertheless, I think countering McCain's "old white guy" persona with a young woman is a good call, and it kind of takes some of the "historic moment" exclusivity out of Barack Obama's hands, by providing Republicans a chance to vote for the first woman veep. And considering some of the much worse choices I HOPED he might make, this seems to be dodging a bullet. I was picturing Giuliani (one of the most universally hated political figures of our time) or perhaps Lieberman (Hey, let's alienate both Democrats AND Republicans!!). So all in all, this was probably one of the least bad choices he could have made.

But I will say this: I am dying to see the VP debate between Biden and Palin. That's going to be way fun.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Joe Lieberman, then and now

"I want Democrats to be back in the majority in Washington and elect a Democratic president in 2008. This man [Ned Lamont] and his supporters will frustrate and defeat our hopes of doing that."
07/06/06, Connecticut Primary Debate

Lieberman will deliver a speech when Republicans gather in St. Paul, Minn., to nominate McCain for president, a party official told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The official requested anonymity because a formal announcement had yet to be made.

Whew! As a Democrat, I thank my lucky stars that we dodged the bullet of getting Ned Lamont elected to the senate, and frustrating our hopes of electing a Democratic president. Good thing we have Joe-mentum working for us.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Deaths are sad

How's that for a headline?

Within the last few months, a couple of people whom I cared about died. One was the edgy comedian George Carlin. The other was my grandmother, Miriam Hoffman Wain, whom I knew for most of my life as "Greemie." While the two deaths seem unrelated, in a funny coincidence, I own one George Carlin book (Braindroppings) and I got it by liberating it from my grandmother's bookshelf. I don't know if she ever read it; she certainly didn't seem like a likely Carlin fan, but she saw me reading it and said I should take it.

A week after Carlin died, fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote a tribute in the New York Times, claiming that "George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy in many ways. Every comedian does a little George." Seinfeld told a story that I found very funny and even a little bit meaningful.

THE honest truth is, for a comedian, even death is just a premise to make jokes about. I know this because I was on the phone with George Carlin nine days ago and we were making some death jokes. We were talking about Tim Russert and Bo Diddley and George said: “I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.”

See, that's funny. Carlin himself would have greatly appreciate the irony. An atheist like me, George Carlin almost certainly didn't BELIEVE the superstitious nonsense that he was saying to Jerry Seinfeld on the subject of death. And sure enough, right after he said it... he died. Much comedy is built out of irony, and this is exactly the sort of dark humor that I love.

If I had to analyze this as a joke, I would say that part of the reason it's funny is because, in reality, nobody knows when they'll die. Making a prediction about how "safe" you are based on unrelated events is just ridiculous, and almost nobody really has a chance to prepare for it.

Almost nobody. Greemie knew.

She had been sick for many years, undergoing chemotherapy. She was also much older than George Carlin, and it was obvious near the end that she was a little tired of being alive. I would call her occasionally, to cheer her up and update her on my life, and after only a few minutes it would be obvious she was trying to politely get off the phone.

I didn't take that as a slight against me. She had trouble hearing, and forgot things, and it seemed like she was embarrassed about people hearing her like that. Greemie took care of her own mother, Bess Hoffman, until she died at the age of 103. She'd had personal experience with how frustrating it can be to communicate with someone in her own condition.

She was my last living grandparent, and I'm afraid I wouldn't be truthful if I said that she was my favorite. I always felt that she was very cranky and hard to get along with, even when I was young. On the other hand, she was a financial wizardess, and often unbelievably generous when she was alive. Apart from occasional gifts, toward the end of her life she started flying the entire extended family to California, at her own expense, every year, so we could all be together for a catered Thanksgiving dinner. She was still a bit standoffish and uncomfortable even when we were all there for her, but it was obvious how happy it made her to see everyone else enjoying each other's company.

The last time I was there, I had a feeling that it would probably be the last time we could make it. So I said how much I loved her, and she accepted my hug but told me to stop being silly, or so concerned.

Her memorial service, which I attended two weeks ago, was almost like having one last Thanksgiving bash. Keryn and I stayed at her house, along with two cousins, and we were treated to dinners by our aunt Nancy (now manager of the estate), and there was one heck of a party after the service at her favorite temple. (For certain definitions of "heck of a party." If you like lots of family with catered items like smoked salmon, it was very enjoyable.)

At the service, my aunt Robbie told a very funny story and I learned something new. I'm a lifelong atheist, but I've always assumed that my grandmother was a devout Jew. I never really asked her much about her religious beliefs, and had no idea if she thought about an afterlife.

Robbie's story went something like this: Robbie asked where Greemie thought she would go when she died. Greemie said: "The Hills of Eternity." This sounds like an unusual but reasonable answer for a religious person -- until you learn that "Hills of Eternity" is actually the name of a local cemetery. So Robbie pressed further: "Yes, but I mean after that." Greemie thought a bit more, and said: "An urn." Finally, exasperated, Robbie said: "No no, I mean what do you believe in after you die?" And Greemie said "Oh, this is a serious question... Tinkerbell!"

That's her answer. It doesn't mean anything; but it was good for a laugh among all the gathered family. I guess that means that Greemie didn't know if she believed in an afterlife, but she sure believed in family, and she believed in making others happy. So that's pretty good to know.

As it happens, she had family all around her when she died. My mother tells me that she and her two sisters were at the hospital for the final few days, and that they had been singing her their favorite songs from childhood as she was lying there dying. I don't think that I would describe anything as a good way to die; but if I had to rank the possibilities, that would probably be pretty high up on the list.

One last thing I can say is that she was a huge technology buff, just like me. I neither understood nor appreciated this fully while she was alive. She was one of those people who would always forward every urban legend and "business opportunity" that she received by email, along with added information about how this seems really valuable and/or insightful. To be honest, it drove me crazy, and I even corrected some of the things she said from time to time.

But when you think about it, it's pretty unusual for someone her age to have caught on to computers and taken advantage of them so effectively. I introduced her to computer-based card games, and at the end of her life I found that her computer was stuffed with little games of her own. Not the kind of games I would play, obviously, but lots of goofy simple solitaire-type games that she downloaded from the internet or paid for.

I also remember arguing with her about CD-ROM drives when they came out -- she thought there was no important program that wouldn't fit on a floppy disk. And also, when Windows 3.1 was popular she asked me why her computer was running slowly even though she kept adding memory. So I looked, and told her it was because she had about eleventy billion windows open at the same time, and she should close some. She said she WANTED all those windows open at once, and wouldn't listen to me when I said she should just run one or two programs open at a time.

Actually, she was ahead of her time. I'm looking at my task bar right now... I have well over 30 windows open myself, including 4 folders, 8 documents, several emails, and a few dozen web sites. She just wanted to do stuff that computers weren't ready to do yet. She also, as I said, was a financial wizardess, and most of her money came from carefully managing her stock portfolio and rental properties. Online. She got it about the internet revolution. And she may not have understood spam, but she forwarded those junk emails because it was one small way to keep in touch with her family, without having to expose her vulnerability on the phone all the time.

So, that's the end of a life. I don't believe that there's anything left of Greemie except for an urn, and the memories of her that are held by me and others. But I don't know everything. Maybe she's off somewhere, enjoying herself now... at Tinkerbell. Wherever the heck that might be. And if she's not, then I'll still clap my hands a couple of times for her, and enjoy the good memories she left me with.