America the insane

It’s not easy for a mass murderer to get to the front of the news cycle nowadays. Just shooting a handful of innocent people isn’t enough. They have to do it in a really spectacular or public fashion. And then, like clockwork, the president comes out and sighs and shakes his head and tells us we choose to live (and die) like this and that we can do better. Then someone proposes something logical like stricter background checks or limits on magazine sizes or whatever and, invariably, those on the other side say…

“But that wouldn’t have stopped Sandy Hook / Colorado Springs / Charleston / Washington Navy Yards / San Bernardino / (pick your favorite from the ever-growing list).”

But that isn’t the damned point. As tragic and heartbreaking as these punctuation marks on the 2nd Amendment are, they aren’t the real tragedy. Since 2001, more than 400,000 Americans have lost their lives to gun violence. That comes in lots of flavors we rarely if ever hear about on TV. Random drive-bys, suicides, accidents, etc. The point of trying to pass what are really common sense checks on who can buy and own a gun is to try and make a dent in that massive pile of bodies, not necessarily stop the banner headline makers.

Today, twenty-four hours after 14 people were killed in San Bernardino, the Senate rejected a bill opposed by the NRA that would have expanded background checks and disallowed the mentally ill, felons, and those on the federal terror watch list from buying guns. How in the name of all that’s right in the world do you oppose that? Somehow, all but one Republican in the Senate (along with one Democrat) found a way.

That’s obscene. It’s repulsive. It’s nihilistic. It’s fucking un-American.

We used to be able to look at hard problems and find a way to fix them. We prided ourselves in doing the things nobody else could do. But that American resolve melts like butter in the face of this issue. The mighty NRA has weaponized the fear of Americans. Terrified them so much that they vote against anyone unwilling to tow the absolutist 2nd Amendment line. Not to defend the rights of Americans, but to defend the ability of gun manufacturers to sell their wares on the American market.

What in the hell will have to happen to change this? The killing of 20 little children didn’t do it. Dead cops and military members didn’t do it. The god-fearing shot down in their own church didn’t do it. What kind of horror will it take? How awful must things get before we do even the most simple and logical thing about firearms?

I have no honest idea. But whatever it is, we’ll deserve it for having done nothing before then.

Originally published on Medium.

Irreligious

I don’t believe in any religion. Note I didn’t say I didn’t believe in God. I don’t, but I think of them as separate issues. As someone who styles themselves a pragmatic empiricist, there’s just no way for me to know if there’s a supreme being or not. Maybe there is, but there’s no evidence that supports the premise. “Faith” is something I have a hard time with, especially when it comes to something as improbable as God, and I’ve never been willing to take someone’s word on the matter.

But I don’t have a problem with someone who wants to believe there is a God. That’s up to them. For me, the problems stem from groups of people believing all the same thing (more or less) about their version of God. Because that invariably leads to them looking askance at those in other groups who believe something different (even if only slightly). And that leads to the kind of bullshit we’re dealing with today.

From Vox:

On the Tuesday after the Paris terror attacks, a Virginia civil engineer named Samer Shalaby carried a few poster boards into Spotsylvania County’s small, low-ceilinged community forum room to present plans to replace Fredericksburg’s aging Islamic center. Shalaby’s presentation was meant to formalize his application for a zoning permit — the very dullest sort of dull civic meeting — but as a crowd filed in, filling every seat and standing shoulder to shoulder along the walls, it became clear that they were not there to discuss zoning.

“Nobody wants your evil cult in this town,” one of them shouted at Shalaby, pointing an outstretching finger. Many in the crowd clapped and cheered their affirmation.

“And I’ll tell you what,” he went on, “I will do everything in my power to make sure that this does not happen. Because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists. I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what you think.” He later added, to cheers, “Every Muslim is a terrorist, period. Shut your mouth.”

As the crowd grew more hostile, a city official stepped in, first to ask them to calm down and, when they wouldn’t, to abruptly cancel the meeting.

You don’t need to be a crackpot to believe, as the owner of the outstretched finger does, that Muslims are inherently evil, violent, and seeking “our” destruction. I have friends (like, actual people I know) who feel the same way. Who say Islam is a religion that teaches hate and intolerance and is fundamentally incompatible with a free society. This boggles my mind, truly.

From where I sit, apart from both Muslims and Christians, both religions looks pretty much the same. Their acolytes profess theirs to be a religion of peace yet in both cases it’s not hard to find justification for deadly acts in their holy texts. Those books, like all works of men, are contradictory in places and teach love and acceptance alongside vengeance and violence. An unhinged individual could easily find a passage to hide their actions behind if they needed to.

Over on the Facebook, I posted a link to an article describing how a Christian evangelist named Joshua Feuerstein (whose Facebook page has nearly two million likes) called on fellow Christians to “punish Planned Parenthood” and make those who work for the organization fear for their lives. This is after Robert Dear killed three and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs. I asked if Feuerstein should be considered a “radical Christian” and why moderate Christians hadn’t “cleaned house” the way Muslims all over the world are called to do each time someone commits an atrocity in the name of their religion.

A friend of mine who identifies as Christian and whom I respect very much said Feuerstein “gets a little fired up sometimes and ends up putting his foot in his mouth.” Apparently, that he shouldn’t be taken seriously because his emotions get the better of him and we should expect another statement recanting his call to violence. Great, but what if that never happens? Or, if it does, that some unhinged person allows his first words to radicalize them into terrible action? We are to let this go without response because…? He’s a fellow Christian? That’s all?

Even in our own media, we seem to have a blind spot regarding people like Dear. I’ve yet to see The New York Times refer to him as a terrorist. Critics like to call out the president for refusing to say we’re battling “radical Islam” but there’s no criticism from those same people when the nation’s paper of record won’t call a spade a spade and use the president’s preferred term, “religious extremists.” Why won’t The Times call Dear and all the others who firebomb and vandalize and shoot up clinics what they are? Is it perhaps because we live in an overwhelmingly Christian nation and therefore have an understanding of the gradations of tolerance that exist within that faith? That few Christians (in fact, the vast majority) are like Feuerstien or Dear or would take up arms against innocent law-abiding health care workers or incite others to do the same?

There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world and the overwhelming majority totally reject the actions of the religious extremists who claim to act in the name of their religion. They say Daesh is not following the tenets of Islam when they kill the innocent. Ironically, on the subject of Robert Dear who, by all accounts considered himself to be a devout Christian, my Christian friend says Dear was not one. That Christians don’t do such heinous things. That he would not defend or condemn anyone since Christianity “needs no defense.” In other words, he sounded like nearly all the Muslims on the face of the planet who disown those who would wrap their actions in faith.

Less than one percent of Americans are Muslim. Chances are, you know few if any unless you live in a large, non-Southern city. To vast numbers of Americans, Muslims are “those people” who do terrible things and hate us. They have no other frame of reference besides what they see on the TV or read on the web (and, if they’re religious conservatives, that information pool is small and shallow and invariably negative regarding Islam). It’s all too easy to demonize them as “the other.” In the exact same way radical Muslims demonize Christians and all those in the decadent, irreligious, and secular West. And it works for exactly the same reasons, only in many Muslim countries and communities poverty and hopelessness allows the hate to fester and concentrate until it lashes out explosively.

To me, Christians and Muslims are nearly identical. Untrusting of the other, scared, and in a constant crouch. All because of a mutual ignorance and unwillingness to see the other as a human first and a potential enemy second due to the other having learned about God from a different book written by different men.

And this is why I don’t believe in religion. And I never will.

Originally published on Medium.

The Good Dinosaur

It would be unfair to simply write off Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” as “The Lion King” with sauropods but, by the third or fourth scene that are direct recalls from Simba’s adventures, you realize that once you’ve seen one story about an anthropomorphized young male quadruped on a journey of discovery and growth, you’ve kinda seen them all. Where “The Good Dinosaur” fails to live up to “The Lion King” is the generally smaller scale of the story, perhaps made to appear even smaller from being told against such huge, sweeping, and grand backdrops.

Simba’s tale was epic and nearly Shakespearean in scale while Arlo’s is much more personal. Rather than return from the apparent grave to fight his deceitful uncle in a battle to reclaim his rightful place on Pride Rock, Arlo just needs to return. To his corn farm. So he can make a muddy footprint on a wall. It’s not without wit, to be sure, and the vistas are some of the most beautiful CG landscapes ever seen on screen (the water effects, in particular, are remarkable — especially when compared to the pathetic splashes seen in “The Incredibles”). There was a moist eye here and there in the theater by the end, but “The Good Dinosaur” fails to spark any real threat for these seemingly indestructible dinos. Even when they fight the way dinosaurs really did (with their gnashing teeth and ripping claws), there’s a notable lack of wounding or blood (but not scars go figure). So much for the Circle of Life, I guess.

This is the first Pixar movie in which the main protagonists are children and the adult characters play minor or supporting roles. They exist only to threaten or teach or protect or look worried when it comes to Arlo and his pet human, Spot. They don’t have real stories of their own. The villains, in particular, while starting out as creepy psychopaths end up being flat and rather easily dealt with.

“The Good Dinosaur” is not a bad movie (not like “Cars 2”—ugh). It’s biggest issue is it’s a Pixar movie so the stakes are that much higher. My family watched “Inside Out” the day after seeing “The Good Dinosaur” and that only made it look more tepid in comparison. In all the ways “Inside Out” was original and clever and funny, “The Good Dinosaur” was ultimately flat and derivative and predictable. But with stunningly beautiful scenery.

Originally published on Medium.

Vin Scully and all the rest

The Dodgers are in the postseason again and that’s a good thing. Third time in a row, actually. Something they’ve never been able to do in their 132 years in existence. But it’s also a bittersweet time for Dodger fans because it means the easy, clockwork cadence of summer baseball is overtaken by the frenetic and grandiose energy of October. The games get tossed to national broadcasters who’ve paid millions of dollars to show them to you. And it means Vin Scully gets demoted to local radio.

It isn’t until postseason that the lucky souls in LA who were raised on Vin get to know how truly barren of quality the field of TV baseball commentary is. The talent runs the gamut from merely OK to non-offensive to pretty terrible. The NLDS games between the Dodgers and Mets are on TBS (a well-known sports broadcasting powerhouse if ever there was one) and will be called by Ernie Johnson along with color commentary by Ron Darling and Cal Ripken, Jr. Darling and Ripken are OK as these guys go (though Darling has a fairly well established bias against the Dodgers), but Johnson is just plain bad (and difficult to listen to due to always sounding like he has a tablespoon of mashed potatoes in the back of his throat).

The object of their coverage is apparently to talk ALL OF THE TIME. Problem is, since they don’t really know these teams and have only followed them superficially all year, what they have to say is often pretty basic or just plan silly and focuses on the names everyone’s heard of to the exclusion of guys who get their jobs done day in and day out. They tend to inflate the games into match-ups between the most popular, well known players as if everyone else is there to support them in their singular quest (like when ESPN used Alex Rodriguez as their Yankees poster boy in the AL Wild Card game even though he, as usual in postseason play, was essentially invisible at the plate).

What got me thinking about this is a wonderful piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the unique talent that is Vin. 

You can listen to Scully for hours and never hear a familiar platitude or a half-­baked thought. His technique, however, is rather simple. He describes the action in front of him just as he encounters it. His demeanor is jovial, neighborly — Mr. Rogers goes to Chavez Ravine. He quotes Dylan Thomas and offers old-­fashioned homilies about the weather (Scully still refers to a breeze as a ‘‘zephyr’’). He coos over children and leads viewers, his ‘‘friends,’’ through stories about everything from the time he went ice-­skating with Jackie Robinson to the time he dreamed of being chased by a giant clam (he had just shared an Italian dinner with Tommy Lasorda, you see). In his voice, you can hear traces of radio plays, New York’s prewar slums, Broadway — a lifetime of experience spent in what, in its more romantic era, was called show business.

Vin’s regular season schedule is limited to home games and a few road trips in the Western Division (usually to San Francisco) so, at best, he’s calling half the games. On the radio, he only does the first four innings and leaves the rest to guys like Charley Steiner and Rick Monday — a team on the OK side of the scale. Steiner calls the away TV games along with Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra. Except for the fact that Charley complains excessively about the weather and having to travel and can’t ever seem to know when a ball is going out of the park, this is an above-average team. Orel and Nomar were outstanding players on either side of the plate and have the ability to relate what they know. But they’re not Vin. Nobody’s Vin. (Monday, by the way, does play-by-play for radio when Steiner is on TV and it’s a task he’s uniquely unsuited for.) 

As far as I can tell, these are the basic tenets of what makes Vin great:

  1. Don’t play favorites. Ever. He’s been calling the Dodgers since Harry Truman was president and truly loves the organization, but it never comes through. In fact, I grew up assuming he hated the Dodgers, he was so hard on them. If he has favorites, they’re guys from all over who play really well and are fun to watch, but most of them don’t wear blue.
  2. Don’t try and show everyone how clever you are. Vin just calls the action and tries to explain the nuance of the game. He doesn’t second guess the managers or predict their next move. I’ve never heard him say, “This next ball will be a cutter.”
  3. Love the game more than the personalities. Vin admires great players, but you can tell he loves baseball more than any one person who plays it. And he’s known nearly everyone who has since World War II.
  4. Stop and smell the roses. Vin calls out cute kids in the stands and describes the beautiful views and the pleasant weather. This is all part of the game and people at home like to hear about it.
  5. Shut the hell up when something amazing happens. Just…shut up. Let the crowd do the talking, even on radio. If Vin can’t come up with something good to say in these moments, what are the odds anyone can?

Of course, nobody can tell the stories Vin can. Those only come from decades in the business. And not everyone can be as lyrical as Vin can. That’s a gift more than a skill. But with perhaps the single best man to do his job around to observe and learn from, it only seems like the guys calling these games are getting worse. When he stops at the end of next season, it will be one of those times when “end of an era” is a factual description. 

There is nobody else like Vin Scully. And there may never be again.

The Martian

“The Martian” is unlike any movie I can recall seeing in recent memory. There are no bad guys. Everybody (in the world) is trying to do the same thing together. It’s a celebration of only the best things about us: scientific achievement, human ingenuity, dogged determination, and teamwork on a massive scale all in the service of a single, noble goal. While there is zero pessimism in this film, it never gets maudlin or sentimental. Nor does it seem to follow any of the rules found in The Big Book of How Hollywood Movies Are Made™. It also has to be the most magnificent piece of propaganda ever produced in the service of NASA and science in general.

If it’s ever said when this story takes place, I didn’t hear it. The iPhones all look like ours and the clothing styles are about the same, but as the movie begins we find ourselves at the beginning of the third of five manned missions to Mars using spacecraft and other tech that feels like it’s about 20 years in the future and had to have cost trillions to build and launch and assemble on another world. The implication of this is “The Martian’s” most unbelievable premise. That the divided and gloomy United States in which we live would find a way to get behind such an endeavor and allow it to happen. Even though it feels ever so slightly futuristic, it doesn’t feel like any magical technological leaps have been assumed by the storytellers. There’s no warp drive or phasers or sentient computers. Just an extrapolation of things already possible and even familiar applied on a massive scale. 

What I loved most about this movie is that it’s basically a two-and-a-half hour showcase for cleverness. It’s like a glass of icy cold water in the desert of denial and outright hostility to science we’ve been crawling through in recent years. It’s a celebration of figuring shit out and not letting hard problems win and having faith in the things we know and can do. It’s about a world reaching for great discoveries for the sake of the discovery. And it’s about the simultaneous fragility and power of a little flicker of life where it doesn’t belong.

I left “The Martian” feeling something recent news and those who make it and even those who tell it have taken from me: optimism. Even inspiration. It’s a reminder of all the great things we’ve accomplished and how close we are to doing even greater things. I hope everyone sees it, especially young people. This is the future I want to live in.

Nothing will be done

I am, by nature, an optimistic person. I feel like intractable issues can be solved with enough information, education, and dedication by honest people who want to find solutions in the spirit of pragmatic compromise. I wholeheartedly believe in the promise of representative democracy. But I feel nothing but a nihilistic fatalism when it comes to the issue of gun violence in the United States.

Many of my friends in social media are calling for nothing less than the eradication of guns in our society. Several others refuse to acknowledge we even have a gun problem. Our problem is with violence and insanity, they assert, not firearms. 

Everything against nothing. There is no middle ground. 

Just five days ago, Hillary Clinton said, “We are smart enough, we are compassionate enough, to figure out how to balance the legitimate Second Amendment rights with preventative measures, and control measures, so that…we will not see more deaths.” I do believe we’re smart and I do believe we’re compassionate, but more than anything else we are distrustful of ourselves. And that distrust eats our intelligence and blots out our compassion so that nothing ever happens. 

The closest analog I can think of regarding an issue so divisive and seemingly immune to reasoned discussion was the discord over slavery in the 1850’s leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s election. Just the election of someone who felt slavery was wrong was enough to drive southern states from the Union. Even before he was inaugurated and before he could advocate any action at all, and in the face of his specific statements to the contrary of their fears, pro-slavery advocates assumed the very worst, gave up on democracy, and took the most drastic action.

Try having a conversation with someone on either extreme of the gun issue and see how far you’ll get. There is no common ground and those who might have it are either not willing to speak or are shouted down while trying to make their point. As I read my Civil War history, I see many parallels. 

I don’t think guns will lead to a civil war, but I also don’t think anything of real significance will be allowed to transpire. Not in this generation and probably not the next. All the greatness of our nation and all the grand ideals we supposedly represent are balanced by this poison in our soul. The guns themselves are not the poison. Our unwillingness or inability to talk and compromise and find a way forward is. It’s as though we are required to make this regular payment of innocent blood in exchange for being who we are. 

We will do nothing about gun violence until we can do something about our fundamental mistrust and unwillingness to empathize with those with whom we disagree. Our media and our politics conspire to ensure that will never happen. 

Nothing will be done. It will happen again and again. And I hate that I feel this way about it.

iPhone 6s

I’ve had the iPhone 6s now for about 24 hours. It replaces an iPhone 6 which replaced an iPhone 5S which replaced an iPhone 5 which…well, you get the idea. I’ve had every iPhone going back to the first one. Here are some random observations after my first day with it.

  • To my hand, it’s noticeably thicker and heavier than the 6. Not by much. Only .02 mm thicker, according to Apple, and just 14 grams heftier, but I could tell when trying to. My cases all seem to fit, however.
  • The damned thing is fast. The “s” is thought to stand for “speed” and it’s noticeably quicker in things like app switching, web page loading, and camera functions.
  • The TouchID is now essentially instantaneous in unlocking the phone. So quick, it’s nearly impossible to read the notifications on the screen before it brings up the home screen.
  • The home button is a little clicker than the 6’s. Crisper and sharper.
  • The Taptic Engine creates a much more authoritative vibration than whatever made the 6 vibrate. Like the difference between a ’78 Cylon and a ’04 Cylon. 
  • 3D Touch is pretty nifty, though I admit I’m still training myself to use it. There aren’t a lot of apps that support it yet, but I’m sure there’ll be more soon. Next time I’m using my iPad I’ll probably press down on the screen expecting something to happen in the same way I used to wait for my iPad Air to unlock just by leaving my finger on the home button. 
  • It may be my imagination or that the new phone has arrived during a slightly less greasy moment of my life, but it seems like the 6s screen doesn’t get as smudged as much the 6 screen did. 
  • I can see the difference the 12 megapixel camera makes. I’ve only taken a couple of shots but the detail seems sharper. Still a hell of a great camera.

Needless to say, my ninth iPhone is the best I’ve ever had. Should a normal person upgrade from the 6? I dunno. 3D Touch is cool and the camera is better, but not having 3D Touch means not missing it and the 6’s camera is already pretty damned good. Most of the speed increases are incrementally small and the kind of thing you soon adjust to either way. If you’re using any other iPhone, upgrading to the 6s is a no-brainer.