Sunday, May 29, 2005

Vernon Jordan

The city nearest to the farm on which i grew up was Fort Wayne, Indiana. To the extent that Fort Wayne is known at all, it doesn't have a particularly good reputation. For example, it's the home town of the fictional character Frank Burns from M.A.S.H. I think it's a decent place though, with some interesting history and geography (the St. Mary's and St. Joseph's Rivers combine to form the Maumee in Fort Wayne).

In 1980, Vernon Jordan, then the president of the Urban League, visited Fort Wayne. At the time, this was a pretty big deal to my family. My parents still had some progressive tendencies since this was before the Reagan era when their brains were replaced. I might have been the only 16 year-old in my rural part of Indiana who was aware of Jordan's visit, but that probably only made it cooler to me. I'm sure i didn't have any appreciation for Jordan's role in the civil rights movement and i wasn't a political wonk, yet by Fort Wayne standards he was a rock star.

But it all went really bad when Jordan was shot by a white supremacist named Joseph Paul Franklin. The first news reports were bleak, suggesting that Jordan had little chance of survival. He did pull through obviously, and Franklin was arrested though later acquitted (he eventually admitted the shooting). I'd like to say that my reaction was one of concern for Jordan, but honestly i was embarrassed. I was embarrassed to live in a place that was going to be forever associated with the assassination attempt of a prominent civil rights leader.

Today is the 25th anniversary of that assassination attempt. Sadly, Jordan is probably best remembered now for his minor role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal (he's alleged to have obtained a job for Lewinsky at Revlon, on whose board he served). I'm not naive enough to think that Jordan wasn't a Washington insider with a lot of connections, but i will always remember him as a man who almost gave his life for what he believed in. He might not be widely remembered, but he's a hero to at least one Indiana farm kid.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


This past weekend was the annual tournament of my martial arts school. Below is a picture of the traditional lion dance performed at the beginning.

I did reasonably well this year, placing first in 5 events in my division (weapon techniques, hand form, broadsword form, two-person hand form, two-person combat staff). The boys also did well, collecting 5 medals between them. This was the 20th anniversary tournament and there were about 900 competitors.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Episode III

I've seen it twice now, and my official verdict would be: eh.

The good: It looks amazing. The detail and richness of the various environments is unlike anything i've seen on film, although one wonders if maybe somewhere in the Star Wars galaxy there aren't one or two ranch-style single family homes. I think Lucas also did a pretty good job on the overall 3-movie plot arc, giving both Palpatine's rise to power and Anakin's turn to the dark side a fair degree of plausibility. The battle scenes in this final movie are decent. All of the loose ends are wrapped up, and a few inconsistencies between this trilogy and the original are covered up (e.g., C-3P0's memory is wiped at the end).

The bad: Bad dialog. Wow. I mean really embarassingly bad. The dialog in the original trilogy wasn't all the clever either, but i don't recall so frequently cringing during the earlier movies. I can only assume that George Lucas has not actually had a conversation with anyone for the last 20 years beyond ILM uber-nerds and sycophants. The only actor who really pulls it off is Ian McDiarmid, who takes the approach of just letting it rip without any pretense of trying to simulate reality (is it just me, or does he remind you of the cartoon version of the Grinch as voiced by Boris Karloff?). The relationship between Anakin and Padme never worked, but in this movie it's painful to watch. I was also disappointed in the General Grievous character. My kids have been talking about this guy for a year now, and i really imagined him to be more substantial and menacing. Instead he's a cyborg buffoon, with asthma and some really useless armor.

After the first prequel movie came out, my reaction was that Lucas had decided to take a more hard-core science fiction approach and that much of the critical backlash was a result of the fact that non sci-fi fans couldn't really relate. The first trilogy, especially the first movie, had that mythic quality that allowed a viewer to step outside of the specifics of the sci-fi milieu and just focus on the characters, or the love interests, or the philosophy, or the very basic good vs. evil story. The prequels never gave you that opportunity. If you weren't interested in the political intrigues, or the galactic droid/clone war, or all of the minutiae of the surroundings, there wasn't much left. I think history will be kinder to the prequels than we now envision, because eventually people will be able to forget that they lacked the magical allure of the originals and they'll judge these movies on their individual merit. By objective standards the prequels were all incredible productions; gorgeous, even monumental creations. They just weren't especially good movies.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Sith

Postmodern Sass points to this article by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker about the latest Star Wars installment. He doesn't like the word Sith; thinks it sounds silly. I do like the word, since for me it brings to mind something both cold-blooded and reptilian (because it sounds like the sound a snake makes), and the Egyptian deity Seth (or Set), who i associate with evil. I think it's one of Lucas's better inventions, certainly better than Naboo or Mace Windu.

I confess though that one reason i like the word is because i like the idea of the Sith. For me, the most interesting part of the original franchise was the Jedi tradition. The idea of a warrior/priest class goes back a long way in both history and story-telling, but like most things in Star Wars, Lucas managed to impart a slight new spin to a very old idea. But since an individual Jedi could be so powerful, the key to making them interesting was the "dark side". Sure, it's a vague, Saturday-morning-cartoonish sort of notion, but without it the Jedi become Dudley Do-Rights. The paradox of the warrior is that no matter how righteous his or her cause may be, he or she must, at least temporarily, become the more aggressive, more efficient, more ruthless killer. To avoid crossing over to the dark side the Jedi has to do this dispassionately, almost like an assassin, whereas on the dark side all of this energy comes from hatred, fear, revenge, etc. I just love unresolvable shit like this. It's kind of like the untranslatable concept of bushido, the code of the Samurai.

In The Phantom Menace, Lucas came very close to destroying the Jedi mystique with the idiotic midichlorian crap (why? why, i ask?). But the Sith saved the day, in particular Darth Maul. The climactic fight scene between Maul, Qui Gon Jin and Obi Wan is the best scene in that movie, and so superior to any other fight scene (so far) in the series that it makes all of the other Jedi matchups look pathetic (and, yes, i'm including the Yoda-Dooku fight in Clones, which i thought was just plain silly).

The main reason why this fight was so much better than others is Ray Park. Ray Park is a person, not a place. He's the actor/martial artist who played Darth Maul. Park is probably not an especially good actor, but he's a very good martial artist. If you watch the fight scene in Phantom Menace you'll notice a few things about Darth Maul that no Jedi displays at any point. Darth Maul moves. He spins, he kicks, he jumps, he flips himself back to his feet. All with balance and his eyes up and focused. He even walks impressively. Yes, it's choreographed. But all of the fight scenes are choreographed, yet this one is so much better. It's like Fred Astaire. Even though you know his scenes are choreographed and rehearsed, you can still tell he's a better dancer than anyone else in the film (except, of course, for Ginger).

So i have to admit that i'm looking forward to the new film primarily because it revolves around the Sith. I'm almost certain that there won't be any fights as good as the Darth Maul fight, and i'm anticipating lots of that electricity-from-the-fingertips effect. But i'm hoping for one last Jedi-Sith battle that looks like what you'd expect from warriors trained from childhood.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Officially Old

They say that you're only as old as you feel. Well, i feel pretty freakin' old. The last couple of weeks have been filled with indications of my inescapable oldness. My younger son just turned 8, the older is now 11. My retired parents were here for the last week, and even though they're still shy of 70 they're beginning to act very grand-parently. Worst of all, i've reached a point where it takes me so long to recover from pain and injury that i never really do recover. I've learned that if i want to continue running and doing martial arts i'll have to accept a level of constant, low-level background pain.

Being old has benefits though. My kids now closely resemble real human beings, so i can converse with them, and i can tease them without worrying that they won't realize i'm teasing them; and they can do all sorts of useful stuff like catch footballs and read interesting books. They're still kids though. They like to play in the yard and eat candy and watch cartoons, and they still think Jar Jar Binks is funny. My older son has reached the age where he's self-aware enough to care about what he looks like and how others see him. Over the weekend we had a birthday party at the house for Henry, my younger son. The mom and sister of one of Henry's friends came by the house at the end of the party, the sister being a lovely young girl who's in the same grade as my older son, Nathan. Nathan and his friend Alex were so tense and self-conscious that i though they might actually explode.

The most appealing yet vexing aspect of reaching middle age (for me) is that, being in the middle, one has a lot of life to look back on and a fair bit to look forward to. I like this because i have enough experience that i can differentiate between the things that make me happy and the things that were meant to meet somebody else's expectations. I can recognize bullshit at first sight, so i don't invest a lot of effort in worrying about the outcome of the inconsequential. I've got a great family and sufficient material comfort so that i'm not driven toward bogus ideas of success and happiness.

The vexing part is that i'm not driven by much of anything. To employ a well-worn metaphor, i feel at times like i'm at the top of a hill. I can look back at the path i came up, and i can see many possible paths back down. But i don't have any motivation to do much but sit and look at this time. I'm not sure what gets people to move on. Maybe it's boredom, maybe you find a path that looks better than the others, maybe you get chased off by a bear. Maybe it starts to get dark and cold and scary on the top of the hill so that getting down gains a sense of urgency. The thing is: i don't know.

But i'm not especially worried that i don't know. The first half of your adult life is essentially all about the constant anxiety of not knowing how it's all going to come out. And then maybe an old friend gets sick in a way that you think only old people get sick. Or a friend dies in a way that could happen only to a grown-up, responsible adult. You reach that age that Arundhati Roy describes in her novel The God of Small Things as a "viable, die-able age". Although everybody knows intellectually that you can't predict what will happen from day to day, when you understand it you are officially old.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Not Waiting For Anything

Yesterday i knocked off early and went for a bike ride with my friends Cathy and Vincent. We didn't go too far, only about 25 miles. It was a beautiful day and none of us had the motivation to ride like we were training for something. In fact, every time we'd reach a turn-around point, we'd all unclip and just sort of sit there and soak up the sun and talk, each waiting for one of the others to start the ride back up. I did not at the time want to be somewhere else, doing something else, and i wasn't thinking about something else other than the fact that i was hungry.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The 4 Stages of Tequila Mockingbird

One of my college roommates had one of those 4 stages of tequila T-shirts:
  1. I'm rich
  2. I'm good-looking
  3. I'm bullet proof
  4. I'm invisible
So, anyway, one of my favorite bloggers reports that Julia Montgomery, author of the Tequila Mockingbird blog, has apparently reached stage 4. No, even worse than that, she seems to have stopped blogging, which sucks because her blog is even way better than the great name would suggest. My personal theory is that she returned to Bali so that she could get out of the blogosphere, but that's probably more in line with my own mid-life crisis fantasy.

So for what it's worth (and it ain't much, let me assure you), this is my small contribution to the search for Tequila Mockingbird.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Bill Simmons (aka the Sports Guy) wrote an interesting piece on steroid use in baseball, in which he argues that steroid use was obvious, everybody cheats, and at least it's a more interesting story than the latest meltdown of the Yankees. I basically agree, but i think that the importance of steroid use depends on the sport. For instance,

NFL Football: Doesn't matter at all to me if the players use steroids. NFL football is more spectacle than sport, and while you can argue that the players are great athletes, there's not much about the NFL that wouldn't apply to pro wrestling. The NFL would be just as interesting, and would attract just as many viewers if the players were replaced by sophisticated robots.

NBA Basketball: Would steroids help? Granted, many NBA players are massive these days, but until steroids make you taller or quicker, i can't imagine they'd help anyone in the NBA much.

Major-league baseball: Apparently, steroids make a significant difference for power players who don't have to worry too much about speed or defensive prowess. Like the NFL and the NBA, major league baseball transformed over the last decade into a bit of a freak show, with all of the emphasis on power and home run records and 100mph pitches. The one reason why i think steroid use in baseball is serious is because of the history. It might be that the last 20 years will become known as the "steroid era" and it'll have it's own set of asterisks along with the dead-ball era, and the expansion years, and the years before black athletes could play. But to me, it would be a shame to see some steroid-enhanced mutant break Hank Aaron's home run record. If you're not a sports fan, or if you weren't around when Aaron broke Ruth's record, it might seem trivial or frivolous to care about such things. But Aaron's accomplishment was, in my opinion, a major cultural milestone. Aaron at the time received death threats from racist idiots who didn't want to see Ruth's record broken by a black man, yet he went out and played (and he admitted that he was afraid). Aaron is still one of my heroes, not only because he was a great player, but because he had a great spirit. Could anyone say the same of Barry Bonds?

Track and Field: This is where i think steroid use is most serious. The reason is that track and field events are completely meaningless if they're not a pure contest of human ability. I've heard people argue that we should just accept that athletes will attempt to take any advantage they can, and so we should treat steroid use, blood doping, and other types of performance enhancement as another aspect of training, no different than better nutrition or improvements in equipment. That's bollocks. I find sprint events thrilling, and i love it when somebody in the 100m breaks 10 seconds or approaches the record. But the thrill comes not from the speed per se, but from the "how can a human being do that?" reaction. Hell, a 10s 100m is only about 23 mph. Similary, running a marathon in 2:05 is an incredible human accomplishment, but not fast for a machine. If we condone drugs, then don't we condone biomechanical enhancements? This struck me when i was reading Neal Bascomb's book The Perfect Mile, about the attempt to break the 4-minute mile barrier. While 4-minute miles aren't exactly mundane yet, they're not rare either. But the story of Roger Bannister and John Landy is still so compelling because of the struggle and the competition, not the time.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Street Tortoise

Many cities have a signature food item and in San Diego it's the fish taco. The fish taco probably would win an award for the largest gap between expectation and reality, because while it sounds repulsive it's actually one of the best things ever. Like most great American foods, the fish taco originated in a different country, in this case Mexico-- Baja, Mexico specifically. The popularity of the fish taco in San Diego is largely due to a local fast food chain called Rubio's, started by a guy named Ralph Rubio who supposedly first encountered this great delicacy while on surfing trips to Baja.

In recent years Rubio's has been trying to expand, which means that in addition to lots of new locations you also get about 9 up-sell attempts with each order (would you like fries with that?) and they've expanded the menu considerably ('cause, i guess they figure that outside of the beach areas the fish taco will still sound a bit disgusting). One of their most recent items is a variation on the Mexican torta-- a sandwich more or less. They call this new item a "street torta", which refers to the fact that a torta would generally be available from a street vendor in Baja. Unfortunately, in radio ads the words "street torta sandwich" are indistinguisable from "street tortoise sandwich"; and native English speakers will, it seems, tend to hear the latter. Now, given that fish tacos are great, i have no reason to believe that a street tortoise sandwich might not also be quite fine. But i can't think of "street tortoise" without thinking of road kill, which is not a good association for a food item.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Post-Reason Age

I spent most of my formative years in rural Indiana, so i have no illusions that the end of the 20th century was a golden age of reason. It's not that the people in rural Indiana were stupid, it's simply that there was no real motivation to explore ideas like biological evolution, the causes of sexual orientation, the separation of church and state, or global climate change. These things require a critical degree of cultural heterogeneity to be worthy of discussion, which is why they tend to play out on a national level.

Still, as a kid and a young adult i was able to believe that intellectual people in intellectual pursuits would converge over time toward reason. I was, as some might put it these days, part of "the reality-based community". That's not to say that i thought the rational approach would ever become popular. I doubt that the majority of humanity will ever accept Darwinian natural selection as the explanation for the origin of species; because frankly it's a difficult concept to understand and most folks won't make the effort. Many (a majority?) believe that the US is a Christian nation and that Biblical text can be applied, however selectively, to support their political beliefs. I know that no matter how much proof is presented, and no matter how credible the presenters, there's a vast segment of the population that will not accept the anthropogenic origin of climate change at least until the hardships caused by ignoring the problem start to outweigh the hardships of addressing it.

I've clung to the idea for decades now that none of that mattered because rational explanations are not subject to popular vote. This idea is naive and elitist, and ignores history. Reason can go by the wayside with dire consequences for relatively long periods of time (the Dark Ages) or for relatively short times (Nazi Germany); but obviously there is no constant, consistent progression of rational thought. I won't go so far as to claim that we're on the cusp of a new dark age, but there are some signs that the future is going to be a bit rocky for Western culture:
  • The idea that reason-based explanations are inherently evil because they detract from the faith-based explanations is gaining prominence (which, i guess, is sort of the definition of fundamentalism). This also manifests itself in greater religious exclusivity (i.e., you can't be a Catholic/Baptist/Anglican unless you believe X).
  • There's a sense that economic progress for the middle class has peaked, and that the decline is in part due to a push by the elite to promote globalization for their own economic benefit.
  • We've got a new enemy whose key differences arise from religious and cultural differences, rather than from political ideology (and we're willing to spend ourselves into economic distress to prove we're right).
  • Other parts of the world are better prepared to take advantage of the information-based economy.
  • There really is a large and sincere community of people who believe that faith will overcome reason, and they are now politically active and powerful.
  • Adam Sandler
  • Lots of nationalist sentiment, with outrage directed at "activist" judges and moderate politicians who factor the rest of the world into decision making.
Whether or not this stuff constitutes a problem depends on perspective. I think it does because it will tend to make the US less economically prosperous and less culturally tolerant (there are good reasons why i left rural Indiana after all). For others, these things aren't problems at all, but key steps on the road to paradise.