new column: olympic fever...kinda-sorta

8-8-8. The number of the Games of the 29th Olympiad. The Olympics. I should be excited, right? Isn't this a hopeful season, sports and goodwill to all people? Yet I am ambivalent...the choice of China to hold the Olympics is unsettling to me. The reason isn't so much recent events between China and Tibet, although these are disturbing in their own rights, but a much larger issue involving...well, you'll just have to read parts 1 and 2 of column to find out. Part 1 posted at TFPO today; part 2 will post next week.

Olympic Fever...Kinda-Sorta


new review: the happening

Wall*E is opening this weekend, fresh after a trailer campaign that is arguably the best of the blockbuster season so far. The first trailer – a tease, really – was simple and elegant; the cute little robot passing the time on a lonely junkyard planet until, suddenly, the rocket ship lands. Next up: a bit more detail, a soupçon of plot. Finally, a trailer that reveals some of the film’s other characters. Kudos to Pixar’s marketing folks for sparking and sustaining a level of excitement that is genuinely exciting without quite reaching the frenzied, much-dreaded level of hype.

Compare Wall*E to Hancock’s confused marketing. First we get comedy. Then we get a plot overview. Now we’re getting some boo-hoo to go with the ha-ha – and more spoilerish plot revelations. Sure, Hancock still seems like an extra super-duper spiffy. It might, praise all the saints in Hollywood, even be different kind of superhero movie. But the marketing proves one of two things: dramedy is harder to market than Two-Face at a dating service, or marketing wonks are deathly afraid of surprising audiences.

Speaking of Two-Face I had to say that running a close second to Wall*E in terms of quality marketing is The Dark Knight. The viral campaign featuring Harvey Dent’s bid for Gotham City’s District Attorney was, from the little I saw, pretty slick. And we even got a glimpse of other characters from the movie. But what’s particularly great about the Dark Knight is that this is a movie that stands on its own. All the elements from the first movie are in place, and the decisions Chris Nolan and his team have made so far have been spot-on. Aaron Eckardt as Two-Face? Outstanding. Heath Ledger as a chaotic, psychopathic Joker? Brilliant. The look of that bat-cycle? The buzz writes itself. The key has been to manage expectations, and I think while the bar is set quite high, everything pouring out from the film ahead of its release says the same thing: quality.

Too bad none of the above applies to the subject of this week’s review, The Happening. The trailer was intriguing. Shyamalan’s name still had (emphasis on had) shine…but it turns out that quality just isn’t a word applicable to this wreck of a movie.



And I apologize for the less-than-happenin' title for my review over at TFPO. Sometimes, the mojo just doesn't go.


eric schwartz still said it best

The song is called "Keep Your Jesus Off My Penis," and yes, it's funny as all hell and yes, it's as indelicate as the title suggests. Eric Schwartz released this a few years ago, but now seems like a good time to dust it off. And wouldn't you know it, this also marks a blogging milestone here at The Recreational Nihilist: I finally figured out how to embed YouTube videos in a post. Amazing what you'll discover in the help section.


mormons join the fray

So the Mormons are wading into the fray surrounding gay marriage in California. They’ll join a coalition of churches and “other conservative groups” in pushing for the passage of the “California Marriage Protection Act,” which would amend California’s constitution to define marriage as being solely the union of a man and a woman.

But a group of gay and lesbian Mormons called Affirmation is rejecting the Mormon church’s political action, rightly calling it “interference.” Affirmation’s executive committee phrased it well in a statement to California Mormons:

“As Mormons, we believe that respect for civil law and acknowledgment of individual freedoms is sacred. The California law affects civil marriage; it has no effect on any religious institution or religious official. To seek to revoke these basic protections in the name of God denies the fundamental freedoms on which our country was built. Constitutional law has always been about protecting civil and religious freedoms, not the denial of those freedoms.

We urge California voters to act in favor of freedom. Vow to Vote No.”

The key word is freedom. Freedom to live. Freedom to love. Freedom to marry. With a government defined as being by the people and for the people, using government to tell individuals who they can or cannot marry is contrary to valuing freedom. And Affirmation is absolutely correct in pointing out that this is a civil matter, not about how private religious institutions handle their own affairs. No one is telling churches what to do.

This is a as good a time as any to hint at a activist project I’m hoping to launch once I know what the amendment’s proposition number is. I (tentatively) call it the Always Choose Love Initiative, and it’ll be my way of raging a guerilla campaign to let people know what’s really at stake with the so-called California Marriage Protection Act: true love and meaningful freedom. Stay tuned!

BTW, here’s the official text of the proposed amendment – a lonely line prefaced by several letters. And here is a listing of the propositions slated for November 4.


new column: global warming - science, not faith

In response to my open letter to global warming skeptics, my editor at TFPO - a global warming skeptic - fired a shot of his own in which he compares global warming educators with Evangelical Christians:

Global Warming Evangelicals - Whom Do They Remind You Of?

Naturally, I couldn't let it lie. Hence, this week's topic:

Global Warming: Science, Not Faith

It's an uphill struggle, methinks.


new film review: get smart

It looked iffy for a while. The most recent trailers were a bit worrying, and I really thought I'd stumble into a "Home Alone" movie. But no: "Get Smart" really surprised me, and I'm still rather buzzed by how silly and fun it was.

Got Funny? Get Smart!




inspirational quote of the day

"At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt.”
-John McCain to wife Cindy, 1992


freedom of conscience: pharmacists and county clerks

I am jubilant, absolutely jubilant, about marriage finally being opened up to gays in California, although my happiness is tempered by a concern I share with many folks about gay marriage's current legal limbo. Not knowing the outcome of the constitutional amendment proposition on the November ballot makes for turbulent emotions, and I worry about a repeat of what happened with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's bold activism. Still, I can't help but feel that love is in the air. And love, I hope, is stronger than the hatred embodied by opponents of gay marriage.

But then, there's Ann Barnett, the Kern County Clerk whose office suspended officiating services. That's right: no weddings for you! Straight or gay, although licenses will be issued as required by law, $30 civil ceremonies are out. If it seems fishy, that's because it is. Her reasons for suspending officiation services - insufficient funds to handle the supposed overload of weddings - are suspect at best, and the conclusion that she is letting her own personal preferences interfere with her public job is hard to deny. (Read about it here and here.) Given the nature of her job - serving the public in a specific legal framework - I would argue that her freedom of conscience ultimately manifests itself in a relatively simple choice: do the job or resign. Or get fired.

There's an interesting contrast to this situation in the private sector: "pro-life" pharmacies that refuse to stock contraceptives like the pill, or emergency contraceptives like the morning-after pill. An umbrella organization called Pharmacists for Life International have, on their website, a quote from Pope Benedict XVI that summarizes their stance:

"It is not possible to anesthetize the conscience, for example, when it comes to molecules whose aim is to stop an embryo implanting or to cut short someone's life... I invite your federation [of pharmacists] to consider conscientious objection which is a right that must be recognized for your profession so you can avoid collaborating, directly or indirectly, in the supply of products which have clearly immoral aims, for example abortion or euthanasia..."

-Pope Benedict XVI, address to Catholic Pharmacists, 29 Oct 2007 AD

As far as I'm concerned, the ethics of contraception is concerned is a non-issue. Contraception is not abortion, an embryo is nothing more than a collection of cells, and this every-sperm-is-sacred viewpoint works against the very real personal and social problems associated with unplanned pregnancies. But a more interesting question involves whether or not pharmacists really are entitled to conscientious objection in the conduct of their profession.

On the one hand, pharmacists are not government employees subject to the necessity of serving the whole taxpaying public; however distasteful their own personal views, they should be free (like everyone else) to act in a manner consistent with their conscience provided they cause no harm. But here's where it gets tricky. Suppose a pro-life pharmacy is the only pharmacy in town. Could the pharmacist's refusal to stock contraceptives interfere with a woman's ability to choose for herself, to control the sexual and reproductive aspects of her life? If there's another pharmacy in town selling the pill, the issue is moot. A woman can choose which drug store offers her what she needs. But without that choice, a woman is left without options. I have to agree with critics of pro-life pharmacies that they represent a obstacle to women's own freedom of conscience.

Of course, the pro-lifers wouldn't feel too sorry. They'd be happy if a woman, whether she accepts it or not, can't use contraceptives. In their view, this would be "saving a life." And so we're back to that pesky right of individuals to act according to their conscience. The nature of freedom dictates accepting that some pharmacists will not dispense the pill and other contraceptives. If they can't be obligated to offer medicing in the first place, then there isn't much basis for obligating them to offer a particular medicine. Or is there?

Pharmacology as a profession doesn't exist in a vacuum. In essence, it is a support to medicine. Pharmacists do not prescribe medicine; they carry out the prescriptions determined by doctors, and they carry out these prescriptions with the knowledge necessary to ensure patient health and safety. This is why there are licensing requirements, academic requirements, and so on. This means that the practice of pharmacology isn't a strictly individual affair. It's not up to individual pharmacists to act as they see fit. For public safety and trust, pharmacists must adhere to a professional standard. The argument would hold true even if we were to leave governmental regulation out of it. In an unrestricted market in which meaningfully informed consumers exert credible influence over product/service providers, voluntary certification through guilds or professional associations would be a badge of professionalism not shared by uncertified individuals. We see this in practice already with the various professional associations that exist, many having code of ethics that members - who are free to join the association or not - must adhere to. As consumers, we'd be mostly like to trust the association-certified pharmacist than the lone operator.

And so the choice facing pro-life pharmacists in a quasi-private capacity is ultimately not all that different from the choice Ann Barnett faces in a public role, given the nature of pharmacology as a profession: do the job or don't do it. It's still a choice. There is still freedom to act according to one's consicence, even if isn't a middle ground preferred by pharmacists who love their job - you know, handing out blood pressure pills and viagra for impotent men - but don't want to deal with contraception.


new column and new book review

The various posts and comments over at Tim Lambert's excellent science blog, Deltoid, show just how dedicated global warming skeptics are at "debunking" the science underlying climate change. But where Lambert's foes tend to fight on the battlefield of statistics and nitty-gritty details often beyond lay persons, the trend in general forums has to been to focus less on scientific minutiae and more on big picture attacks . Hence, Al Gore and the environmental movement are accused of fraud. But what is the motivation underlying this hostile skepticism? That's the question I ask in this week TFPO column:

Letter to Global Warming Skeptics

And over at Morbid Outlook, my review of the graphic novel The Nightmare Factory - an adaptation of Thomas Ligotti's work written and illustrated by different folk - has posted. Note to self: write future blog post singing the praises of Mike Mignola and Hellboy.


welcome back, mr. braga

Brannon Braga got seriously beaten up when running Enterprise. The Trek masses bandied about pitchforks and torches. To some extent, the ignominious end to the Star Trek franchise was a result of the artistic decisions made by Braga and Rick Berman. But I think the problem began long before Enterprise aired, with Deep Space Nine. Veering away from the vision of the future presented in classic Trek and The Next Generation, DS9 went into full-on battle mode, complete with the shady Starfleet organization Section 31. While there is apparently some disagreement as to whether or not Gene Roddenberry himself would have like DS9’s turn, I didn’t recognize Star Trek in the war stories and the ruthless, unethical actions of Section 31. And like many, I distinctly saw in DS9 the shadow of Babylon 5, a vastly superior series in many ways.

Then came Voyager, which had really interesting characters, very good actors, and a willingness to shake things up a bit. Unfortunately, the series overall represented a missed opportunity. There were some great episodes, but after the misfire that was the Kazons and, later, the over-reliance on the Borg, Voyager ended up rehashing familiar material instead of truly embracing the concept of exploring unknown space.

The off-kilter vision of the universe presented by DS9 combined with a Voyager’s play-it-safe approach were, in my view, the two factors that kept Enterprise from reaching it’s potential. And it did have potential, despite the problem posed by setting the series earlier than classic Trek. Manny Coto’s involvement in the last season teased at what could have given Enterprise stronger leg muscles from the get-go: a stronger tie-in to the familiar Star Trek universe and plots that go beyond the usual “conflict-with-enemy-X” formula.

Naturally, the deteriorating quality of the movies didn’t help either. Nemesis’ re-working of Wrath of Khan, complete with Data’s death and possible “resurrection” in the body of Beta, cemented the view that Star Trek was getting a bit tired. I don’t think it was the fans who suffered from franchise fatigue: it was the franchise itself that was fatigued.

Back to Braga: there’s no doubt that he shoulders some responsibility for some of that fatigue. In all fairness, however, it’s rather harsh to condemn him as the villain who killed Star Trek. For one thing, he was behind some of the best storytelling in Trek – TNG’s “All Good Things,” for example, which he co-wrote with Ronald D. Moore And with a monolith as big as Star Trek, with oversized fan expectations to match, it’s worth remembering that Braga did not work alone, but in a hugely political environment chock-full of competing visions.

To his credit, Braga is remarkably self-aware about the whole situation. In an interview with The Fandom, he avoids arrogance and defensiveness and candidly accepts the bad with the good. In regards to the Enterprise finale, he acknowledges the mistakes that were made and expresses understanding with dissatisfied fans. That’s hardly the mark of a villain; I think it speaks highly of him – and reflects poorly on his most vicious critics.

It’s regrettable that Threshold, the series he started with Paul S. Goyer, also failed. (Regrettable, but not entirely surprising for a variety of reasons that don’t really involve Braga.) I suspect that along with the burnout that came with Star Trek’s end, he either lost his cachet in TV land, chose to recharge his batteries, or both. However, after a few years out of sight, it would seem that he’s become a staff writer for seasons 7 of 24. Welcome back, Mr. Braga.

new film review: shorts for cats

A new review of a film (six short films, actually) distributed by Echelon Studios. And no, I have no idea what the cat thing is all about.

Who Let the Cats Out of the Mixed Bag?



Next week: a review of Get Smart. Hancock should, in theory, follow after that. After all, it's blockbuster season!


the joker is not an anarchist

So far, it looks like Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger's take on the Joker is dead-on; a chaotic individual more like a force of nature than a theatrical, yet ultimately common, criminal. Influences cited included Arkham Asylum, a gorgeously drawn book that plays on the twisted-mirror relationship between Batman and Joker. The Joker is no mere antagonist, but a foil that questions where and how Batman draws the line. But in comments to Sci Fi Wire, Nolan makes a rather common but extraordinarily irritating and ignorant mistake:

"This commitment to anarchy," he said. "This commitment to chaos. So he's not just a bank robber or an ordinary criminal who is out for material gain. His chief motivation would be that of an anarchist."


"I talked to Heath a lot about it, even [while] we were finishing the script, and we both agreed that that is the most threatening force, really, in a way, that society faces: ... pure anarchy of someone who wants to do harm purely for its own sake and for his own entertainment," he said.

Anarchism is not chaos, the motivation of someone who wants to do harm purely for its own sake. That's psychopathy. That's chaos. Anarchism is a political philosophy predicated on means of organizing society without government or centralized authority. While some anarchists have resorted to violence to overthrow governments, many more realize the futility of using violence to overcome the violence implicit in government.

To give the Joker any sort of political motivation for his actions gives the character inappropriate rationality. It is precisely the lack of reason, the insanity that may be a sort of warped existential hyper-sanity, the incomprehensible chaos, that makes the Joker so formidable an opponent for a man who, despite dressing as a bat, represents the struggling triumph of morality over evil.


new column: when confronting homophobia, always choose love

I'll give Dennis Prager credit. For a self-declared conservative, he doesn't have the stridency of folk like Bill O'Reilly or Michelle Malkin. But that only make his intellectual dishonesty that much worse; he sounds reasonable, yet his arguments are as seriously flawed and reactionary as anything his fellow commentators can come up with. Case in point: he tries to stave off accusations of homophobia by saying how much he values gays and agrees it's unfair they can't marry the person they love. It's hard to view him as sincere, however, when his previous hundreds of words are dedicated to arguing how gay marriage will create apocalyptic confusion in young people and play into the "secular left's" agenda of erasing all gender concepts into meaninglessness.

I read his work every so often. But as with his debate with Sam Harris, it amazes me that he can get almost all of his arguments wrong, even the ones that, on the surface, should be right.

In light of the November proposition to ban gay marriage by amending California's constitution to define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman, this week's column is a critique of Prager's perspective. this is the attitude we much overcome so that everyone, gay and straight, can marry the person they love.

When Confronting Homophobia, Always Choose Love


a flag to march under

I've been feeling for some time the need to do something. And by something, I mean Something Important...something that can help deal with the serious, even critical, problems we face. But what? The environment? Gay rights? Abortion rights? The war(s)? There are so many Big Issues that it's hard to know where to start and what to do, especially given the time constraints that come from having a j-o-b.

To some extent, I'd like to think that my work as a columnist for The Front Page Online is achieving something, anything. I'd like to think that, however modestly, I'm genuinely reaching out to people. Maybe I even succeedin changing a few minds or offering some genuinely tasty food for thought every so often. But even the most generous and reality-defying metrics require me to admit that I'm not yet a major voice in the chorus. This isn't intended to indulge a woe-is-me kind of attitude, but merely to say that I'm feeling the need to pull an Emeril and kick things up a notch. Hence the dilemma of which flag to march under.

I'm already resolved to make a major effort to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage here in California. And I'm also determined to get more active in regards to global warming. But I'm still overwhelmed by how interconnected a lot of these issues are. It seems that working to resolve one set of problems requires making progress on another set; a vicious circle.

This lead me to thinking that perhaps there is a fulcrum around which all the Big Issues move, something which, if changed, would make it easier to move forward several critical areas. Then, on hearing some discussions associated with the National Conference for Media Reform put on by a non-profit called Free Press - it's in Minneapolis this year - I realized what that fulcrum is: the media. From the revelations that the Pentagon was propagandizing the American people through the use of friendly analysts embedded in the media to the media's grand failure in asking critical questions regarding the lead-up and execution of the Iraw war, there is something seriously wrong with the media. And when people are getting corrupted information from a corrupted, profit-driven, highly consolidated media, it's no wonder we have difficulties making informed, rational decisions involving hugely complex issues like global warming.

Since I already have a foot in the media, media reform advocacy makes a lot of sense. Now the trick is to take this notion, this need to DO something, and actually translate it into actions.

film review: futile attraction

The mockumentary trend continues. After Crap Shoot and the 4th and Long comes a really funny New Zealand film financed through Internet donations. It starts out like a run-of-the-mill parody. But with a surprising and nuanced po-mo critique of reality TV, it ends up deserving far more credit than the weak rating at IMDB (4.2 out of 10) suggests.

Futile Attraction: Nothing Futile About this Kiwi Comedy




close encounters of the tribal kind

Pictures from an uncontacted tribe in Brazil:

What were they thinking when they saw the camera? How do distant planes and close encounters play into their lives, their culture, their worldview? It boggles the mind that there are still tribes out there – roughly 100, according to this article in the Toronto Star – that haven’t come into contact with the larger world.

And there are so many questions: why haven’t they developed technology the way our ancestors did? How is it that the same culture can go unchanged for so long? Is it even true that the culture is unchanged?

Whether or not to contact these tribes is a fascinating and critical question given how contact has tended to harm the tribes. Yet, of course, the world is shrinking all the time and Amazon expert Thomas Lovejoy may be right in saying that "The right answer is to have the kind of contact and change that the tribes themselves manage the pace of it."

I have to say that as amazing as it is that Hillary Clinton still can’t concede the nomination to Obama, I’m quite glad the world still holds amazements of a richer, less cynical kind.


the all-seeing eye

Remember Total Information Awareness? Here's it full-bore Chinese equivalent, made possible by US technology, as described by Naomi Klein over at Rolling Stone magazine: China's All-Seeing Eye. There is the fear that the surveillance systems implemented by China in the service of totalitarian capitalism could find it's way here. It's not paranoia, as evidenced by revelations of NSA spying on Americans...


new column: prop 98 - don't give hay to trojan horses

Yes, I squeaked by at the last minute with my take on California Propositions 98 and 99 on tomorrow's ballot:

Prop 98: Don't Give Hay to Trojan Horses