Thursday, October 4, 2007

Heading for a Fall

For anyone who lives in the Northeast, this time of year is one of anticipation. September and October are the months when the foliage promises to turn from various shades of green into a riot of color. Magic is the only apt word for it. When I was a kid, the season's advent also meant that as the leaves fell, the weekends would be filled by hours of raking and then a homey bonfire that would send up an aromatic smoke that always made me think of pipe tobacco. Of course, with environmental rules now in force, and air pollution to consider, leaf-burning is something you see rarely and only in rural areas.

The thing is, diminishing ice floes in the Arctic aren't the only indicators of global warming. It seems the annual foliage season here is also being affected. I drove through the Berkshires in western Massachusetts a month ago and already some trees had turned brown. That could be due more to drought than to global environmental issues, but it was still alarming and disappointing--and an unnerving repeat of last year. I drove through again last week and even more trees had succumbed to the unseasonal heat. For the leaves to turn their bright red or orange or yellow, a chemical process has to take place that depends on an annual combination of moderate late-summer warmth and cool, almost cold, nights. This year, we've been suffering with near-record heat during the day and only moderately cool nights. Those in the know see it as a troubling development.

It's a corollary development to the increasingly-early maple sugar seasons. These annual rituals are seriously out of whack. As a youngster, I can recall September mornings so crisp and cool and evenings almost cold. You needed to adjust your wardrobe accordingly. The light jackets and sweaters came out by mid-September. And October sometimes demanded something more akin to a ski parka. Hey, some years we had snow well before Halloween.

I read in "USA Today" recently that New England was considered one of the best spots for "leaf-peeping" this year. (Yeah, they call it that in some parts of Maine and Vermont.) But based on reports from friends as far north as Bangor, the forecasts for spectacular foliage might have been premature. For one thing, the unusual heat has delayed the onset of color. Here in Albany, some trees are still green while others have already dropped their leaves. I can recall years when everything seemed to change at once. Everywhere you looked, the oaks and maples were in their autumn glory. But this year in particular, everything looks baked and tired. After a miserably humid summer, I was wishing for some sunny and cool days, and a celebration of the season under a canopy of leaves that look like tiny, boldly-colored kites.

There is one consolation: I hear the local apple cider is especially fine, with natural hints of cinnamon.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gray Lady Down

Not that anyone else probably cares, but I am rather pissed at the New York Times because someone within that vaunted news organization has decided the Capital Region (Albany and environs) isn't deserving of regular delivery and/or availability. Twice in the past 30 days, including this week, there were no copies available here in southern Saratoga County. It's not like we're a thousand miles away. Hey, New York City is a little over two hours by car.

The last time this happened, I spent a couple of hours driving around looking for a copy. I finally found a vendor who gave me the phone number for the local distributor. A call to them gave me the information I had been looking for: the drivers from the Times were late getting papers to the distributor in Albany. By the time the Times truck arrived, the distributor's drivers already had left with other newspapers. A sympathetic secretary sold me my own (exclusive?) copy, telling me all the while that hundreds of copies would simply sit in her warehouse because she wouldn't be calling back the trucks to pick them up.

Now I know some will say, "Hey, just read it online." Well, until Tuesday, the Times wasn't available online except by subscription. Besides, I am one of the few who still enjoys holding a real newspaper in my hands. And if you can believe all the latest research about electromagnetic radiation via computers and electric clock radios, well, I feel infinitely safer with a paper copy in hand.

I did write a terse note both times to the president of the New York Times Company. I haven't received a reply from either e-mail, so my guess is Mr. Heekin-Canedy simply doesn't care that his newspaper isn't often available in the capital of New York State. And yet I read all the time how newspaper executives are worried about the future of their business. Maybe all the doom and gloom is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rendering Surrendering

In his testimony before Congress this week, Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee, and specifically Sen. John Warner (R-VA), that he isn't sure America is any safer after all the money and lives sacrificed in the name of national security. It's been suggested that Petraeus's answer was a momentary gaffe. But I think it was his honest opinion because how can it be otherwise?

The general stammered that all he knows is how to guide "the mission." So far, no one has explained to me satisfactorily what that mission is. John McCain, who has completely lost his mind, and much of his support, has decided now to tie his political fortunes to a new slogan, "No Surrender." It's painted on his campaign bus and is the new focus of his sputtering presidential campaign. So in McCain's view, the mission is not to surrender. Surrender to whom?

My best guess is, no one in the ranks of the GOP wants to surrender to public opinion. There's that little mess we call "Vietnam" that some point to as the era when America lost its political will and "surrendered" to the Communist North. I happen to see it instead as a brave acceptance of the geopolitical reality of the region as it existed in 1975.

So here we are, 32 years later, trying again to extricate ourselves from an unwinnable "war" and again the hawks are saying we must not "surrender." The surge is working, they say. Parts of Iraq are safer. But the PR spin, as artful as ever, can't hide the fact that we are digging deeper into a regional conflict that has a religious component we demonstrate almost daily we do not understand.

I agree that Islamic fundamentalism is a very scary entity. And by remaining in Iraq we are stoking the fires of a religious fervor that will take ages to tamp down. It seems inevitable to me that whenever the U.S. decides to remove itself from Iraq that there will be major chaos, not to mention factional killing on a massive scale. Everything we have seen so far will be simply prologue.

But in the absence of a serious drawdown of troops, we are condemned to losing at least 60 young men and women, not to mention $8 billion, each and every month. All the public appeals and photo ops by the president do nothing to change the reality on the ground in a desert country halfway around the world. It's the mathematics of madness. And it doesn't add up.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Smoke & Mirrors

While I have long been one to eagerly anticipate the new "Fall Season" of network television (once gloriously heralded by the once-proud TV Guide), I no longer look to the networks to provide compelling or even interesting TV fare. The heyday of the "Big 3" TV sitcoms like "Frasier," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "Will & Grace" (the early years) is long gone. Only "Two and a Half Men" seems a worthy successor, and sometimes that's debatable, given the show's grating tendency to push raunch over repartee a little too often. I also enjoyed "Becker," which I consider, like its cast, cruelly underrated.

Yes, there are some good dramatic hours. ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" comes to mind. And "CSI: Miami" is almost always an hour of dependable craftsmanship. Never have been a fan of the Law & Order franchises or of "Lost" or "24." Maybe I'll catch up one day on DVD.

For my money, the best stuff on TV these days is on cable. It's a real shame, too, that the off-network shows I've admired all summer are about to end. I'm speaking here of AMC's "Mad Men," a truly superior piece of acting set in 1960 at a Manhattan ad agency. How refreshing that the producers, for the most part, went about casting ordinary-looking actors and not just eye candy for the MTV set. Jon Hamm, movie-star handsome as the lead, plays a mysterious and enigmatic womanizer when he's not the go-to guy at Sterling & Cooper. The art direction deserves a mention, too, for it sets a new standard in TV drama. The women are tightly corseted, the men sleek and the surfaces shiny. It's Brylcreem and Betty Crocker, wrapped in a fog of eye-burning and unfiltered cigarette smoke.

The other show I admired all summer is USA's "Burn Notice," starring Jeffrey Donovan as a spy who gets tossed out of a domestic spy agency for reasons even he doesn't know. In the trade it's called getting "burned." So he's dumped in glittering Miami without money, credit cards or transportation. It's a carnival funhouse of death, with gunmen lurking behind the crazy mirrors. Fortunately for the writers, and the viewers, he was born there, can lean on his mom (the always-good Sharon Gless) and a former girlfriend (the darkly exotic Gabriel Anwar). Some critics have described it as a clone of "Magnum P.I.," but I think that's doing "Burn Notice" a disservice. A lot of the show is done in a noirish voiceover, and Donovan's character provides a running commentary on the tricks of the spy trade. Whether the how-to's are accurate is beside the point. They sound credible and make the show seem fresh. I'm really sad we have to wait another year to see Donovan light up the small screen again. And here's hoping the writers can find Gless more to do than scold her put-upon son.

A footnote: I read somewhere recently that the suits at HBO were given a chance to feature "Mad Men" and passed. Maybe that's why the once-formidable premium cable network has fallen on hard times. I'm not a programing executive, but even I could see the premise as the kind of innovative TV we need more of. I'm thankful, though, for their seeming stupidity, because I don't have to pay extra to watch it. Hallelujah! A fleeting example of the joy of "free" TV.

Friday, September 7, 2007


Okay, so now Osama bin-hittin'-the-sauce decides that he'll allow us all to live in peace and harmony if we simply convert to Islam. Of course, the Islam in his addled brain isn't the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek religion of the ages, but the oppressive, embrace-the-evil, new-age Third Reichian mindset of devil-worshippers. In short, the guy's nutso and so are his legions of dim-witted, Allah-praising acolytes who don't have the collective brain power of snails in a hundred of them. I don't care anymore. These people pretend to adhere to the tenets of historic Islam, and yet have abandoned its every tenet in favor of wreaking havoc in the vain hope of creating a worldwide caliphate.

In short, Osama, while better educated, is no improvement on history's evil-doers like Genghis Khan. His religion of hate is an embarrassment to good people of faith everywhere. The idea that Americans would listen to his ignorant ramblings, let alone adopt them, suggests he's the kind of despot who marvels at the sound of his own voice. In that respect, he's no better than Saddam.

Frankly, there's no form of death on earth yet invented that would satisfy my thirst for seeing him suffer. Although there are pretty good examples in any number of slasher films from the past couple of years. A bear trap to the throat comes to mind. Let it snap shut and cut his head clean off his body. And when he goes, wouldn't it be great if we could send the rest of his stinking, pea-brain followers with him?

Like the scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when Nazi sympathizers have gathered around the Ark of the Covenant and dare to open the gilded vessel. A white light becomes a searing arc of pain and sucks the life right out of them. That's the reward I foresee for these animals. Because they have become less than human. They are dirt. They are germs. They are the lowest form of life God could invent and still call them life. On second thought, Allah himself is recognizing his mistake.

Monday, September 3, 2007

My War, My Timetable

So George Bush makes a secret stop in Iraq on his way to a summit in Australia. And, according to breathless news accounts, deliberately shuns Baghdad to send a message to the Iraqi leadership. Oh, and he lands at a remote base in Anbar province, so Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has to drive into dreaded Sunni territory. It certainly sounds like a page from the White House playbook we know so well.

What I found most laughable in the initial account is that the president asked a commander about morale. The answer--wait for it: "It's very high, sir." So you're an American military man being addressed by the president and he wants to know if his war is going well. What else are you going to say if you want to keep your job?

The supposition about this latest photo op is that the commander-in-chief wanted to see the situation for himself. Like that can ever happen unfiltered. Here's a guy surrounded by people who know he famously doesn't like to be challenged asking for their opinion. In that frame of reference, it's not an honest question in search of an honest answer. Mr. Bush is, after all, on a divine mission, being guided by the Almighty. And his God isn't as pissed as the American people.

His main man in Iraq, David Petraeus, is to give his long-awaited assessment next week in Washington. But the report is already a moot point. Everyone who knows George Bush knows he is sticking to his guns about Iraq and will keep our troops there as long as he's president. He is determined, in the face of a grim reality on the ground and intense opposition at home, to pursue victory, in whichever form works for him at the moment.

And now, with our military stretched beyond sustainable limits, he appears to be ready to open a third front, this time with Iran. More bombings, more outrage, more death and more of that winning wartalk from the grinning bastard who thinks he's on a mission from God. Heaven help us, and soon.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Breast Show in Texas

Regarding Fox TV's "Anchorwoman," now cancelled, it's pointless to be referencing the Apocalypse (Word of the Day), because that time has come and gone. Yes, the TV show was as cringeworthy as I expected. And Lauren Jones's breasts were, as I also expected, as big as Texas. I'm not sure the Fox network producers can be faulted, as reality TV folks unapologetically traffic in being crass and brazen. (And a shout out to the editors who knew precisely where to put pregnant pauses for maximum effect.)

I think here the fault lies with two Tyler news executives who, knowing better, still chose to lead with their--well, let's just say they weren't using their brains when they chose to participate in yet another wholesale trashing of the business they profess to love and respect. I give a great deal of credit to the staff of KYTX for showing unusual restraint and not slapping Lauren Jones into the next county. While the former "Barker Beauty" certainly has enthusiasm to spare, she demonstrated for the unblinking eye of network television yet again why the TV news business is held in such low esteem by the viewing public.

But you can't blame the anchor-wannabe for viewing her role as nothing more than another modeling assignment, but with (insert cringe here) more opinions. This is what young women all over America see as their divine right and purpose in life. Why would any of them aspire to be a teacher or doctor when an anchor job looks like so much more fun? And with free makeup!

No, the blame goes to a management team that wanted it both ways--boost ratings with a sweet, but dim, blonde while at the same time telegraphing to the audience that the effort shouldn't be taken seriously. After all, folks, it's just news.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Quagmire Question

So today George W. decides at last to invoke the specter of Vietnam for his 1000th excuse for remaining in Iraq. Remember, until now he steadfastly avoided any mention of the Vietnam conflict because he hadn't read that far in the syllabus yet. Now he's got the urge to dredge up that awful war to justify one of his own creation.
As I understand his rationale, we can't condemn the Iraqi people to the collective fate of that era's "boat people" or the Cambodians who died in the now-infamous "killing fields."

Of course, what young Americans can't know is that the fear-mongering elite of the 60's and 70's used the near-certainty of Communism's evil spread to justify the enormous expense in lives and dollars to keep us in an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia. At the time Washington policy-makers were embracing the so-called "Domino Theory," in which a victorious, and therefore emboldened, Communist North Vietnam would spreads its tentacles throughout the region and then, in a natural progession seen only by the enlightened at the Pentagon and the White House, to the western shores of the United States. Gee, does that sound familiar or what?

So Mr. Bush decides to re-visit this time-worn and unjustifiable defensive posture to keep us yoked to his appallingly stupid foreign policy blunder that is the current Iraq war. Actually it isn't much of a war as it is a conflict that parallels precisely the Soviet failure to beat back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 80's. Oh, that's right. We schooled the Afghan freedom fighters, including one celebrated leader named Osama bin Laden. But, darn it, we tend to forget that the mighty Soviet war machine was routed by rebels riding horses and camels.

The only bright spot in today's news about Iraq is that--at last--Condoleezza Rice has succeeded in putting career diplomats in positions of power to make the big decisions for the remaining months of the Bush Presidency. Gone are the imbeciles who got us into this mess, people whose only credentials were writing checks and looking the other way while their political golden boy and benefactor proved time and again why on at least one occasion Barbara Bush should have used birth control.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Child of the 60's

There's a terrific drama on AMC this summer called "Mad Men." It's a look at the advertising industry as practiced on Madison Avenue in 1960. The producers did their homework because the art direction is spot-on. I wish more of the plots centered on the actual work, as "thirtysomething" did with the lives of young ad execs Elliot and Michael. There are occasional references to actual ads of the times (the Volkswagen Bug, for example) in "Mad Men," and a few scenes about ad campaigns in conference rooms, but the series, as I guess these things must, focuses more on the dramatic tension of the characters in their personal lives. That's a shame, because as the era recedes in the collective memories of Baby Boomers, a lot of what made the 60's special is also being lost. I was just school-age in 1960 and yet I have vivid memories of growing up in an America without personal computers, cellphones, cable TV, videogames or even regular commercial air travel. Getting on a plane and going anywhere was considered a novelty, and mostly for the rich.

My mom had bought a Plymouth station wagon the previous year and all the men in our neighborhood came over to laugh at its push-button transmission. She was a widow and did the best she could raising my sister and me. I actually thought the car was cool, with its silver-tone dashboard and fins. In those days, cars were a big part of my life. I collected the die-cast models produced by Dinky and Corgi. I remember going to the big department store at the nearby mall and wishing I could afford to buy the ones priced at $3.50. I got an allowance of a buck a week from my grandfather, but a dollar didn't stretch very far, even in 1960. I was also heavily into slot-car racing. A company called Aurora sold big layouts in expensive gift sets that you might get at Christmas if you were lucky. The cars were small but authentically detailed. Today you can find them on eBay for $40 and up. I still have many in my collection.

Playtime required a great deal of imagination. Outside, it was games of kickball in the street or flying balsa wood planes that were really cheap from the local dime store. Woolworth's was the closest we had in my neighborhood to a convenience store. The one in my hometown was quite old, with floorboards that creaked and sagged from decades of use. When you walked in, you were hit by a not particularly enticing smell of stale popcorn and the chirp of parakeets in their cages in the back. But you could find Duncan yo-yo's and hula hoops and the little plastic soldiers that you tied to handkerchiefs. I spent many hours rolling up the soldiers in cloth and tossing them into the air. If you weighted the plastic man just right, he would float back to earth just like the soldiers in war movies on TV.

Roller skates were big in my neighborhood. But eventually, they gave way to a new invention called a "skate board," and that was what it was: a board with skate wheels nailed to the bottom. We didn't have fancy neoprene wheels or fiberglass boards, just a raw hunk of wood that we cut to size. Back then, of course, you didn't have protection for knees and elbows so everyone had fresh scars from tumbles in the driveway.

TV in my house was still black and white in 1960. Color TV was a novelty and not very advanced. The pictures looked fuzzy and unconvincing. I remember later on, when NBC promoted its new colorcasts, there was the famous unfurling peacock logo, the singing harp, and the announcer saying "brought to you in living color on N-B-C." The transition to color, once perfected, was like some sort of other-worldly magic. Thankfully, we had a color set once "Star Trek" debuted in 1964. But black-and-white TV was not as unappealing as youngsters today might think. It was what everyone had and most movies were in color by then anyway.

Looking back, I had a precocious view of the period. I was a big fan of Henry Mancini's music. He scored most of Audrey Hepburn's movies. "Peter Gunn," written for the TV show, is still one of his most famous compositions. And in those days, film music was also popular music. Rock n' roll was around in '60, but it had not yet taken over radio. Instead, solo artists like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and a young Barbra Streisand were at the top of the charts. Broadway show tunes were also getting heavy play on the radio. And record sales boosted the popularity of music from "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady." We had a so-called "stereo" in our house and my mom played the "Warsaw Concerto" until the needle gave out.

In those days, milk was delivered to the house in glass bottles. That was a problem in summer, because the milkman would place the bottles in an unlined metal container on the back porch. If the day was going to be hot, he would drop in a few pieces of ice to keep the milk cold. Sometimes, if our timing was perfect, we could beg him for some ice to suck on. Few of the milk trucks were refrigerated, so they were usually carrying huge blocks of ice. In some neighborhoods even the bread was delivered this way. The local supermarket seemed to do just fine selling everything but bread and milk.

In my hometown, the biggest employer was the United Shoe Machinery Corp., or "Shoe." Nearly everyone's dad worked there. The company, as its name implies, made the machinery that make shoes. I am guessing the machines ended up in nearby Lawrence and Lowell, as well as in many parts of Maine. The last of those factories closed a few years ago when most shoe production was sent off-shore. I think the Caribbean is where most shoes are now made, at least when the labels don't say Bangladesh or China. There's a common belief now that the big factory near the Bass River was a heavy polluter. There's no other way to explain the distinct pockets of cancer deaths in close proximity.

But for the most part, they were innocent times. We played ball and drank Zarex (it was a flavored syrup mixed with water, much like Kool-Aid) and dreamed of becoming astronauts and cowboys. I didn't know of the racism in the Deep South or the coming danger of Communism. My world was one in which the good guys wore white hats and could shoot a soup can off a distant fence. And where Norman Rockwell painted rosy-cheeked kids with fishing poles and moms hanging out the fresh laundry. To borrow a line from a poem, we were soldiers once and young on battlefields of our own devising, fighting dragons and demons with cap guns, and saving the world until supper.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Rapture of "Ratatouille"

To begin with, I am a devoted fan of director Brad Bird, so this can't be an objective review. I have seen it twice now and might go once more before the movie is removed from theaters ahead of its DVD release. I was in Paris just once, back in 1969, and it was a disheartening experience. The city looked gray and dirty and the Eiffel Tower a rusty brown. (I have since learned the tower is painted three shades of brown, from lighter to darker, in distinct thirds, as you move from bottom to top. The gradations are designed to appeal to the eye so that the tower is darker and therefore more distinct against the sky.). I digress, which is the signature of bloggers everywhere.

"Ratatouille" presents Paris as a confection of spun sugar and neon-bright colors. The sunsets are an explosion of pinks and violets that don't really exist in nature, but then you'll never find a rat with the rarified palate of the film's star, Remy. If you don't know the story at all, it concerns the adventures of Remy and his search for a place in the universe, preferably a kitchen, where he can practice his growing expertise as a chef. The movie unfolds with Remy landing in the restaurant bearing the name of his hero and mentor, Chef Gustave. Gustave's motto is "anyone can cook." This is the most democratic approach to cooking since Betty Crocker and her eponymous cookbook. Remy teams up with the charming but inept restaurant custodian, Linguini, who has the backbone and physicality of a wet noodle. Where Bird excels as a director of these animated wonders is in giving us a geography of the place. The layout of the restaurant kitchen is introduced both in a sort of classroom primer and in a death-defying race that nearly flambes the pint-size hero. The associated dangers that a rat encounters in this upscale eatery kitchen are real because the setting is made real. The corners are sharp, the oven hot and dessert cart wheels will flatten anything in their path.

There's a sly tip of the chef's toque to the classic romantic comedy "Cyrano de Bergerac," with Remy stowed in his partner's hat and steering him through classic French cooking lessons as well as lessons in love. All it takes is a strategic tug on the lad's hair. There's also a skewering of contemporary food marketing with the notion that anything with Gustave's name plastered on it can be sold as a frozen entree. (Shades of celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito and his sudden enthusiasm for Bertolli frozen dinners.) What's refreshing about "Ratatouille," aside from bearing a name that required a pronunciation lesson in the ads, is that this story is wholly original. It's a movie a foodie will love and small fry will adore. And Peter O'Toole will never have to apologize for voicing a food critic who can drip with sarcasm the way a frypan leaves its greasy entrails on a shiny linoleum floor. He casts shadows like a J.K. Rowling "death-eater," but is redeemed and reformed by a simple act of courage. Anyone can cook, indeed. But few can direct with as much inspiration as Brad Bird.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Movie Magic

Just to show that I can rant about more than geopolitics, I want to offer some thoughts about the summer's movies. I happen to be a movie fanatic. I don't think the term "cinephile" applies, because I have yet to see all the required titles that make up the syllabus of any decent college film appreciation course. As I write this, film fans all over the world are mourning the coincidental passing of two cinema legends, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. I confess that I am way behind on the Bergman filmography, but was blown away by Antonioni's "The Passenger" in 1975. (I learned this week that the rights belong to the movie's star, Jack Nicholson.) The movie has been recently released on DVD and is worth a look. I happen to agree with those critics who judged it one of the best films of the 70's.

Okay, the summer of 2007. "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" was fun, but proved to be a mild disappointment. It was over-long and could have used more of Johnny Depp, though not as clones of himself (a cinematic vehicle I found disagreeable and head-scratching). I met Depp briefly once as an extra in his film "Benny & Joon." I can confirm he is a nice guy in an industry not know for them.

Since I was not impressed by "Shrek 2," a cynical and sad excuse for a movie if there ever was one, I didn't bother with "Shrek the Third." Yeah, it'll do amazing business and help keep Dreamworks afloat for another year.

"Spiderman 3" was underwhelming. Someone asked me why there were so many villains. All you need do is look at the companion video game for the answer. You have to wonder if the gaming companies assign employees to advise the screenwriters on projects like these. Not bad enough to have prompted me to ask for my money back, but it was a letdown after the first sequel.

"Ratatouille," on the other hand, was a revelation. Brad Bird directed this as a follow-up to his amazing "The Incredibles." It's unfortunate that Bird's work at Pixar is judged by critics solely by the box office grosses. Apparently, "Incredibles" did less than its predecessor, "Finding Nemo." And "Ratatouille" did worse than "Cars" in its opening weekend. Count me as one of those critics who found Bird's movie a lovingly-crafted and original story about bucking the odds and believing in yourself. "Anyone can cook" is the motto of a master French chef at the heart of the story and an ordinary rat takes that motto to heart in his pursuit of a career as a culinary craftsman. For once we're treated to a movie experience that isn't supported by a numeral in the title. The animation is uniformly good and the voice work is superior to anything that's been on-screen in ages. Kudos to Patton Oswalt ("The King of Queens") as Remy and Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond") as Chef Gustave. I've seen this movie twice and expect to go back one more time before the summer ends.

Speaking of movies for foodies, "No Reservations," with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart ("Thank You for Smoking"), is a cute romantic comedy that's getting middling reviews and box office. That's a shame because I found it charming and sophisticated. Apparently, it's inferior to the original German movie, "Mostly Martha," but I haven't seen "Martha" yet so I can't comment. Zeta-Jones, in my opinion, is quite good as the career woman who has no room in her life for anything but haute cuisine. Eckhart is the devilish foil and love-smitten sous chef who upsets Zeta-Jones's life and perfect routine.

"Live Free and Die Hard" would have been my pick as the best action movie of the summer, but I am hearing raves about the third "Bourne" film with Matt Damon. I have a feeling I will be one of those who anoints it as the sleeper hit of the year. (Aside: thanks to Paul Greengrass's expert and no-frills direction of "The Bourne Supremacy," the producers of the Bond films stripped their cash-cow bare of any non-essential CG action and made what is arguably the best Bond film of all time.) At any rate, Bruce Willis is still a force in the action genre and proved worthy of yet another adventure for detective John McClane. The business with the collapsing freeway was heart-stopping and was accomplished, I hear, without much in the way of computerized magic.

Yes, I did see "Transformers." The less said about it, the better.

Don't Know Much 'Bout History

The latest issue of "Vanity Fair" offers a scathing rebuke of the Bush Administration's apparent lack of intellectual rigor and wholesale ignorance of historical precedent vis a vis Iraq. The piece, written by the late David Halberstam (a senseless early death via car accident), takes the president and his "history boys" (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz) to task for stumbling blindly into the Iraq quagmire as the price for doing the "peaceful" business of democracy in a world threatened by Evil. Halberstam doesn't pull punches in his critique of George W. Bush as an intellectually lazy and doctrinaire nincompoop who uses his mis-reading of "history" as a convenient and not very apt excuse for everything he believes, when a nod to God doesn't suffice. In Halberstam's view, the White House, in constant defense of the chief executive, cherry-picks historical references to support his foreign policy view-of-the-week. Halberstam is especially critical of the Bush Administration's bizarre appropriation of Democrat Harry Truman as the latest philosophical Flavor of the Month. Bush, he says, sees himself as the savior of a peaceful world beset by a Nazi-like fanaticism. The fact that the World War II paradigm doesn't fit apparently is of no concern in the West Wing. Simply put, Saddam was no Hitler. Further muddying the intellectual ministrations that pass for thinking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the moronic despotism of the vice president, a man who still sees the world in black and white, when all the brightest minds in Washington urge him to accept that we live in very gray times. If there is any justice in this world, Cheney and his partner-in-war-crimes, Donald Rumsfeld, will get their legal due when the Bushies are run out of Washington. The fact that they continue to profess confidence in the appallingly stupid and insanely expensive campaign in Iraq suggests that the cannibis in the White House is of superior quality, or they are now totally blind to their own incompetence and vanity.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Clash of the Titans

I live in New York State's Capital District, in other words, the metropolitan Albany area. Despite local leaders hell-bent on making the place over as "Tech Valley" (trumpets, please), the business here is mostly government business. I have lived here for nearly five years and in that time have come to realize why our state legislature has been described as the most dysfunctional in the entire nation. Honestly, it often appears to be run like a banana republic, regardless of who is sitting in the Governor's Mansion. You see, there's the governor (right now, Eliot Spitzer, defender of truth and rich kid from Manhattan), Speaker of the State Assembly Sheldon Silver (defender of parts of Manhattan and keeper of the flame for the heavily Democratic Assembly) and, last but not least, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (defender of Saratoga's rich folk, self-made businessman and cheerleader for the heavily Republican State Senate).

In the recent past, state government was run by the triumvirate of Silver, Bruno and former governor George Pataki. Much was made of the fact that the elected members of the legislature never did much in the way of the people's business because the Holy Trinity would occasionally gather behind closed doors to--what--paint each other's toenails? No, in reality, they would hammer our deals that made each other look good, except when they didn't, which was much of the time. Shelly Silver, like his Republican counterpart in the Senate, will not be moved on issues he doesn't like or endorse. So New York State continues to have a business climate that scares away the kinds of corporations we'd like to see here and a tax burden that keeps sane people running for the nearest exit (read, state line).

Enter new governor Eliot Spitzer, the brash Democrat who made his reputation slaying corporate dragons on Wall Street as attorney general. He's considered forthright, moralizing and doesn't spurn the oft-used moniker "Steamroller." He was elected by a wide margin on a platform of campaign reform and good government. However, he is now embroiled in a scandal that threatens to derail his bold agenda before his first year is even up.

Without going into too much detail, a few Spitzer aides were discovered to be monitoring the coming and goings of the senate president as he conducted what could loosely be described as "state business," but which also included much fund-raising. Bruno likes to use state helicopters and state police escorts when he, for example, makes forays downstate. Apparently, he's above requisitioning a state vehicle for a leisurely drive down I-87 to New York City. According to the New York Times, many of these trips were heavy on politicking and rather light on legislative activity. As I understand it from reading articles in the Albany Times-Union and the Times, Spitzer's chief media adviser and two others made liberal use of their clout to investigate and log Bruno's many trips earlier in the year. (At the same time, Bruno is being investigated by the F.B.I. for some suspect business dealings, but that's another can of worms.)

Bruno and his sympathizers, having gotten wind of the Spitzer probe, are now threatening investigations of their own. Spitzer, suddenly in the midst of a political scandal that may or may not be of his own making (what did he know and when did he know it?), has been mostly forthcoming with the media this week, saying he's disturbed by the news reports and has suspended, or otherwise removed, the three aides. One of them, Darren Dopp, the governor's chief media architect, has prevaricated on the reasons he initiated the Bruno probe.

But I am fascinated most by the protestations of Mr. Bruno. While it is true that a lightning-quick investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo found the Spitzer team in the wrong, what many at the Capitol are glossing over is that Cuomo's office didn't let Bruno off entirely. Cuomo's report stated that Bruno had done nothing illegal in using state transportation and state police escorts for what were largely political activities, but also mentioned--and this is what's being lost--that simply because what Bruno does is not yet "illegal" doesn't mean it's ethical.

So here we have a preening, sanctimonious senate president chiding the governor and holding self-congratulatory news conferences to lambaste the new administration. Joe Bruno feigns horror and disgust at every opportunity. Yet he doesn't for a moment see anything wrong with the way he abuses his office for his own financial and political gain. Right now he's enjoying a public game of "shoot the messenger." Something tells me, though, his smug act won't play long in Albany. Just give it time.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Food for Thought

I saw on the network news tonight how the cost of food is soaring. Frankly, I can't recall the price of anything we eat ever dropping. Milk at nearly $5 a gallon? Bread up 14%? I know beef is at ridiculous highs. I guess we can thank the members of Congress from the corn states, right? After all, they are the ones who pushed the use of corn for making ethanol. All those fancy environmental excuses for essentially giving a windfall to their constituent farmers. Now, I am all for helping the nation's farmers, but didn't anyone on Capitol Hill see that in making corn the basis for our new biofuel initiative that we would boost the price of the commodity at the center of that initiative? The price of corn today is up a whopping 52% a bushel! That's why the cost of everything we eat is going up. Virtually everything on supermarket shelves has a corn or corn syrup component. It's utter stupidity on the part of our elected officials in Washington to assume that pushing ethanol use was going to help us.

There's a corollary issue here that hasn't been addressed anywhere that I can see. Let's assume that we can somehow stabilize corn prices. I am wondering what happens when the biofuel initiative meets global warming. What happens when an entire season's corn harvest is wiped out by an historic summer of record heat? What happens when ethanol producers have to punt because they can't get the corn they need? Or, even more to the point, if the corn output is threatened by forces of nature, who gets to decide where the supplies go? If yields are down, is what's left equally shared by energy and food producers? Or does one industry automatically have priority over the other? Maybe I am being naive. Maybe this is being discussed at the highest levels of government or, at the very least, in the corridors of the Agriculture Department. Frankly, given how poorly our federal government anticipates any calamity (Katrina anyone?), I don't think anyone in Washington knows or cares.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Big Oil, Bigger Lies

Okay, here goes. For quite a few years I have studied the oil market, mostly as a professional journalist, but also out of basic curiosity. I'm old enough to remember when you could get a gallon of regular for just 75 cents. I am sure it was leaded gas, but no matter. The process was the same: oil was imported, refined into gasoline and distributed at gas stations, excuse me, "service stations," where you got your windshield washed and your tires checked as part of your purchase. And maybe for few cents more, you could buy drinking glasses or a picnic cooler. The point is, you got a lot for just 75 cents. Now we are paying about three bucks a gallon and we have to do the rest on our own (unless you live in New Jersey or Oregon).

I check the business section daily for the big papers and watch to see how the industry spins the fact that, despite strong inventories, and no real worldwide oil shortage, we still pay inflated prices for gasoline. I am sure some analysts are right that we face a "future" shortage, but somehow the idea of a potential problem always rules what we currently have to pay. Add to that the myriad complaints of political unrest in the oil-producing countries, the accidents and shutdowns at domestic refineries, and the pervasive intrusion of greedy (yes, greedy) and deep-pocketed speculators in the futures market and we have the perfect storm for a continued and artifically-supported increase in retail gas prices.

I remember a few years ago I worked at a TV station in San Luis Obispo and was doing a series of stories about the run-up in gas prices. I can't recall exactly, but maybe the price then was hovering at $1.50 a gallon. What astonished me at the time was that nine separate refineries in California had shut down due to accidents, and seemingly all at once. It seemed impossible that this series of accidents was anything but orchestrated. Consider, too, that California gasoline retailers are required by law to sell a specially-formulated form of auto fuel that can't be produced anywhere but in the Golden State and in Puerto Rico. It has to do with additives and environmental restrictions. Otherwise, California retailers could easily have imported gasoline from anywhere else. Anyway, we drivers were fucked.

I talked with industry reps, retailers and wholesalers and heard the same story over and over. It was just "market conditions" and an unfortunate set of circumstances that so many of the state's refineries were off-line. Mere coincidence. Then one day, I happened to meet a guy who had retired from "the oil patch," as he called it. He had worked for a local refinery. I told him about my conversations regarding the price of gasoline and he just laughed. He told me it was routine, for his company at least, to deliberately allow equipment to malfunction so that the refinery could be pulled off-line. He said he would alert his supervisor to existing, or coming, problems, and the supervisor would just wink and send him on his way. The fact that nine refineries were off-line at precisely the same time was no big surprise to this guy. He said the dirty secret in the industry was that it was a favorite way for the big oil companies to manipulate the market and, hence, prices at the pump.

At still another time, I was told by someone who professed to know that the big oil companies routinely kept oil tankers at sea when gas prices started falling. Of course, this was in the years before the Middle East had become so volatile. I am sure there are experts who will refute these stories as myths and falsehoods. All I can offer is what I have heard. But I am angry that when the major network news organizations do stories about the high price we pay for gas, they always parrot industry excuses as gospel. In the average story, you get upset motorists at the pump, a few angry soundbites, and then a response from some industry flack who says big oil's hands are tied by current market conditions.

Maybe we will never learn the truth. It certainly won't happen as long as the Bushies run things. And maybe the situation won't change even when a Democrat is sitting in the Oval Office. I pray for the day when some courageous journalist (and not likely someone working for the NYT or WSJ) finally blows the whistle and tells the world how we have been lied to all these years. You think Enron was big? Just wait until the curtain is pulled back on Big Oil.