Monday, December 27, 2004

Quite literally....

....The Best Page in the Universe!

Read it. Although I must warn you that I don't read Maddox's page at work because I find myself laughing uncontrollably.

Warning contains profanity, side-splittingly funny observations about the stupidity and political correctness (but I repeat myself) permeating American society and pulls absolutely no punches! You've been warned.

"Time" Magazine

You know, for me, reading a Time or Newsweek is like reading a John Le Carre novel. Every time I finish one, I promise myself I'll never read another.

And, yet, like Charlie Brown misplacing his trust in Lucy as he tries to kick the football, here I was again this morning.

I'm posting this from the Austrian Airlines Business Lounge in Vienna. It's quite nice in here and I've quite literally got the place to myself. I've already finished the crossword in the USA Today (America's high school newspaper). There are no Herald Tribunes on the magazine rack, otherwise I'd occupy myself with the New York Times puzzle. As I was perusing the magazine selection, I spied the Person of the Year issue of Time with my hero, George W. Bush, on the cover. So, I picked it up.

I didn't even make it through the "Letters" section before getting so disgusted that I threw it down. There were two letters in particular which disgusted me. The first was from a Michael Foster of Fareham, England. This git feels that Yasser Arafat was given short shrift by Time in their Nov. 22 issue. He asks, "Isn't it somewhat focus primarily on the benefit that his [death] brings to the peace process? ...shouldn't we concentrate more on what Arafat gave to the world during his life?"

And, what would that be, Mikey? Arafat is directly and indirectly responsible for the murder of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis. He helped popularize suicide bombings which are doubly despicable because they incite Arab teens and young adults to murder innocent civilians. Arafat was also a thief on a grand scale. He swindled his own people out of billions of dollars in monies intended for their benefit. Finally, he repressed and terrorized the Palestinians, and precluded any chance at a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is one of the supreme ironies that this murdering, stealing thug died peacefully in his bed, surrounded by his wife and various sycophants at age 75 when he ruined and shortened the lives of so many others. It seems Mr. Foster is upset that none of Arafat's "contributions" were mentioned in the piece about which he was belly-aching. Sounds to me like Time was following the old adage that if you can't say anything nice...

The next letter was from a Deborah Mathijsen in Ghent, Belgium. She questions whether the Palestinians are even a threat to Israel and the need for Israel to build a security wall. She then goes on to establish her euro-credentials by...

(wait for it)

...blaming America! That's right. She writes that she is "...disappointed that Americans don't seem to care about the world outside [our] borders".

Pardon my French, but this really chaps my ass! Where to start? Ok, let's start with the glaringly obvious. Like how Belgium might today be called West Rhineland if it weren't for the United States? How about the several hundred million people who now live under fledgling representative governments because of the American-led (and funded) NATO which opposed Soviet expansionism during the Cold War?

If Americans care so little about the outside world, how is it we are the only country (ably backed by the Brits and Aussies) willing to do something outside our own borders to try and help people? This is what really burns me up about the criticism of America for the War of Iraqi Liberation. The fact that the leading international bodies of the political Left (the American Democratic Party, the European Union, and the United Nations) almost unanimously characterized the Hussein regime as evil and a threat - as long as it didn't mean actually doing anything about it!

Now as bad as the above sentiments are, I think the fact that Time even printed these letters says as much about Time as it does about the letters' respective authors. If I had submitted a letter praising America's actions in either arena, do you think it would have seen the light of day in the pages of Time?

As Merlin tells young King Arthur in John Boorman's Excalibur, "Never again!"

Movie Review: "The Manchurian Candidate"

Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

One of the nice things about traveling so much is that I often have a chance to see a movie that I missed in the theaters back home. Tonight, in Sofia, was such a night. I saw the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. I wanted to see this movie since the original was so good. That should have been my first clue to avoid it. In the last 20 years, when has Hollywood remade a classic and done it justice? (Think Gus Van Sant's Psycho or Jodie Foster's Anna and the King.)

I have a bit of history with Candidate '04. It has been playing on United Airlines (which along with Sheraton is one of my homes away from home) for several months, but every time it looked like I was going to see it, something would happen to make me miss it. The last time was coming home from Melbourne in August. As I was settling in in first class, I looked at the in-flight entertainment magazine and was pleased to see that Candidate '04 was playing. After take-off, the purser announced the start of the in-flight entertainment program. As he announced the movies that were being shown, he mentioned that there would be a slight change. Instead of Candidate '04 this flight would be showing the execrable Around The World In Eighty Days with Jackie Chan (another horror show). Foiled again. Curse you, Red Baron!

So, how was it? In a word, disappointing. Despite a talented cast featuring Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, Training Day), Liev Schreiber (The Sum Of All Fears, RKO 281), and Meryl Streep (Sophie's Choice, Kramer vs. Kramer) and Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), the movie doesn't stand up to the original.

Both movies reflect the political climates of their times. The 1962 original, directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May), is set in the 1950s after the Korean War during the height of the "red scare" and McCarthyism. It draws heavily on the theme of anti-Communist paranoia. Likewise, the 2004 version uses the current War on Terror as its political backdrop. An astute choice by Demme, although a political thriller set in the present day could hardly ignore it.

In the original, Frank Sinatra (From Here to Eternity, The Man with the Golden Arm) plays Cpt. Bennett Marco. (I'm a little hazy on the details of the original, so forgive me if I get some of this wrong.) Marco suspects that he and his Korean War Army unit have been brainwashed by the Chinese (hence the title reference to Manchuria). He begins to suspect that his friend, Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, The Alamo), in probably the performance of his career, has been programmed to carry out a political assassination.

Of course, it is up to Marco to stop Shaw by deprogramming his friend (in the memorable red queen scene). Pitted against Marco is Mrs. Iselin, Raymond's mother. In the original, Shaw's manipulating, ubёr-ambitious mother is played by Angela Lansbury (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Mirror Crack'd) in a tour-de-force, clearly the movie's best performance. In fact, Lansbury was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (losing to The Miracle Worker's Patty Duke).

In the 2004 version, Denzel Washington plays Ben Marco and Liev Schreiber plays Raymond Shaw. In the movie's opening scene, we see Marco, Shaw and their squad in Kuwait in 1991. Their squad is assigned a reconnaissance mission, but are ambushed on their return to base. As Marco is engaging the enemy with his HMMWV's (a.k.a. Hum-vee) M-60, he is knocked unconscious. Shaw takes over, saves the day and is awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits.

Cut to the present day. In the near future depicted in Candidate '04, America is still involved in the War on Terror with no end in sight. Throughout the film, we hear and see news reports of the progress, or lack thereof, in this drawn out conflict (think quagmire, although the word is never used). We hear about U.S. getting involved in the "Indonesian Incursion". Later we hear about a U.S. air strike against chemical weapons facilities in the West African nation of Guinea. This last caused me to sputter in disbelief.

We learn that Shaw, now a congressman from New York, has been nominated as his party's vice presidential candidate. (In one of the movie's few original twists, we never learn which party. Although perhaps this was the case in the original. I can't recall. If so, then disregard my previous comment.) Next we catch up with Marco as he is giving a speech to a group of Boy Scouts. After the speech, he is approached by a soldier from his squad who tips him off that everything that happened that night may not have been as it seemed. Marco professes ignorance, but in the next scene we learn that he has his own doubts about the events of that fateful night.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that Marco and his unit were in fact the victims of high-tech brainwashing by an unscrupulous South African scientist. (White South Africans, with their apartheid past, being one of Hollywood's acceptable "bad guy" groups, along with skinheads, Russian ultranationalists, Colombian drug lords and - up until 9/11 at least - Arab terrorists. Now that Islam has been proclaimed a "religion of peace" - oxymoron that - this will undoubtedly change.) This scientist is doing the dirty work of "private equity giant" Manchurian Global (a bit of a stretch to justify the movie's title - I guess calling the film The Halliburton Candidate would have been too Michael Moore-ish). Manchurian Global is a corporation whose business is the training of private armies, the winning of no-compete government contracts (in a thinly-disguised dig at Halliburton) and controversial genetic research.

Now, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Hollywood feels obligated to make some changes when doing a remake, perhaps to differentiate it from the original . (Although the results when the filmmaker remains true to the original can still be disastrous, e.g. Van Sant's Psycho.) Candidate '04 is no exception.

In the original, Shaw isn't the candidate. Rather it is his stepfather who is the candidate, thanks to Lansbury's manipulations. Shaw is programmed to assassinate the president-elect thereby elevating his step-father to the presidency where presumably he will be the puppet of Shaw's mother and the Communist Chinese. In this version, though, it is Shaw who is the candidate and Marco who is programmed to assassinate the president-elect making Shaw the new president (bought and paid for by Manchurian Global).

Perhaps if I hadn't seen the original I might have enjoyed this movie more. Most of the cast gave solid performances. Washington as Marco easily equals the acting done by Sinatra (not that hard to do since Ole Blue Eyes wasn't that great an actor). Schreiber gave what I thought was the film's strongest performance as Raymond Shaw. (The same would have been true of Laurence Harvey's portrayal of Raymond Shaw in the original had Angela Lansbury not decided to set fire to the screen.) Schreiber made me feel Raymond's anguish over wanting to be a good son, all the while seeing and knowing what a manipulative monster he has for a mother. I really felt Raymond's fatalistic acceptance of his inability to stand up to Eleanor. Perhaps I'm biased since I really enjoy Schreiber's work (especially RKO281 - which if you haven't seen, you should).

Prior to seeing Candidate '04 I had read a review praising Streep's performance. I didn't see it. For starters, she doesn't appear in enough of the film to really be seen as the standout. Secondly, in this version, Eleanor Shaw is a senator herself, and not the behind-the-scenes kingmaker of the original. Lastly, the filmmakers gave a disturbing incestuous twist to the mother-son relationship. This last touch was superfluous and completely creepy. Surely this last was not Streep's fault. However it made me dislike the character all the more while at the same time making me lose any of the begrudging respect I felt towards Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin. In the original, you certainly don't like Raymond's mother but you are forced to respect her political skills - especially given that she is forced to play a man's game with the handicap of remaining behind the scenes. (And, again, I could be displaying my bias since I am decidedly not a Meryl Streep fan.)

There were several other interesting casting choices. The one I enjoyed most was Robyn Hitchcock as the shadowy private contractor Laurence Tokar. (Tokar is the one who delivers Marco and his unit to the brainwashers of Manchurian Global.) Just who is Robyn Hitchcock, you ask? Well, back in the '80s he and his band, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, were part of the British "alternative rock" scene. (Think MTV's 120 Minutes.)

Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home) takes on one of the larger supporting roles as a senator whose spot as the vice presidential candidate on his party's ticket is usurped by Shaw. Another familiar face was Dean Stockwell (Kim, Blue Velvet, Dune), disappointingly underutilized here as one of the corporate directors of Manchurian Global. Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs, Heat), and Miguel Ferrer (Robocop, Traffic) also appear as Marco's Army superiors. Both are more than capable actors, and like Stockwell, are underutilized here. I also recognized Bruno Ganz playing a scientist friend of Marco's who helps him to unravel part of the mystery. Ganz is a well-known German actor, probably best known for Wim Wenders' masterpiece Wings of Desire.

Lastly, Al Franken was fairly prominently featured as a TV political commentator. To be blunt, I hate Al Franken. I never thought he was funny when he was on Saturday Night Live, and I positively loathe him now that he has taken on the role of gadfly of the political Left. I guess he had to find another line of work since he is so unfunny. I'm sure my Bulgarian theater-mates were puzzled as to why this gringo in their midst kept giving the finger to the screen at odd intervals. I couldn't help it. It's almost a reflex at this point.

My advice? Rent the original.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

A Quick Word About the U.N.

Want some insight into the United Nations? Well, they lowered their flags to half mast when Yassir Arafat died - but not when Ronald Reagan died.

As the inimitable Stan Lee says, "'Nuff said!"

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Movie Review: "National Treasure"

As those of you who know me can attest, I am a HUGE movie fan. So, I thought I would start posting reviews of movies I've seen lately. Starting last year, I stopped reading critics' reviews. I wondered if they didn't predispose me to like or dislike a movie. Plus I figured that I am at least as capable of forming an opinion as to the worth (or lack thereof) of a given movie and then articulating that opinion.

This holiday weekend I saw National Treasure starring Nicholas Cage (The Rock, Con-Air), Diane Kruger (Troy), Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Patriot Games), Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home) and directed by Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping).

I'll be the first to admit that my expectations for this movie were very low. From watching the trailers, I assumed this was another big budget Hollywood monstrosity, long on effects and short on dialogue. I am happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.

While the movie is an action flick, it doesn't commit the two cardinal sins of action movies. First, it doesn't try to wring suspense out of each and every frame. For awhile in the 1990s it seemed as if Hollywood had adopted a philosophy that if one or two cliffhangers were good in a movie, then why not 17? Examples of this phenomenon are the Cage vehicle Con-Air, and Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One. It seemed as if Hollywood had collectively forgotten that in order to create suspense, you need to give the audience a breather. So, I was relieved that while, yes, there are suspenseful moments, there aren't too many of them.

Second, Treasure doesn't rely on special effects at the expense of a solid script and a decent story. Cage plays treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates. As a boy, Ben is told by his grandfather (Plummer) of a mythical treasure. Grandpa Gates enthralls young Ben with a story of King Solomon's gold, discovered by crusading knights in the Middle Ages. The treasure consists not only of priceless gems, jewels and objets d'art, but scrolls and volumes from the lost Library of Alexandria.

The knights decide that the treasure is too valuable for any one man to possess. So they form the order of the Knights Templar to guard it. Later (presumably to escape upheaval in Europe), the treasure is transported to the colonies where it comes under the protection of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The last of the guardians dies before he can pass on the one remaining clue as to the treasure's whereabouts to President Andrew Jackson. With his last breath, he passes on the clue to his coachman - Gates' ancestor. The men of the Gates family have spent the intervening years in a fruitless search for the horde. I won't summarize the rest of the movie since I don't want to give anything away. Suffice to say most of the movie is Gates deciphering the clues and searching for the treasure, one step ahead of bad guy Ian Howe (Bean), Gates' former patron and partner in his quest.

Along the way, Gates is joined by Dr. Abigail Chase (Kruger), a curator from the National Archives. Chase also doubles as Gates' love interest. I was glad that the romantic subplot didn't overshadow the main narrative. Also assisting Gates is his research assistant, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha). Poole is a wise-cracking slacker cum computer genius. Normally, I'm not that fond of these kind of archetypes, but Bartha gave an enjoyable performance. Judging from the reaction of the audience, I think most of us agreed. His lines drew the most laughs.

Again, I don't want to give too much away. For what it's worth, I found the movie to be just the right mix of action, humor, mystery, romance and suspense.

Let me know what you think!

Monday, November 22, 2004

Long time, no blog.

Wow. It's been over a month since I posted anything. And that period encompasses the election!

Well, since last we blogged, I returned home from Melbourne, Australia. I went down to Recife, Brasil, for my birthday (October 13) to hang out with my girl, Ana. Previously, I would have described her as my fiancee. Truth be told, I don't think it's going to happen. She is very young and reluctant to move. She has so far been unwilling to discuss custody of her son with either her son's father or a lawyer. So we're in limbo, for now.

I returned to the US on October 14. I spent the following week working downtown at the CA Support Desk. The Support Desk is the help desk that people from consular sections all over the world call for technical help. People like me take turns taking shifts downtown to share our experience from the field with the guys that work the desk. After that I took off for Mozambique.

I left for Maputo on November 1 and flew to Frankfurt, had a long layover, flew to Johannesburg, had a short layover and arrived in Maputo on the afternoon on November 3rd. I caught some of CNN's early morning election coverage in the Baobab Lounge in the Johannesburg airport. It was around mid-morning, so it would have been after 3:00 am in the studio. At that point, it was still close, still undecided but things were looking good for Bush. I had missed all the early exit poll drama! By the time I got to work Thursday morning, Kerry had conceded and all was right in the world. Pheww!

Maputo was all right. Definitely in the "better-than-I-would-have-thought" category. We stayed at an old, colonial hotel, the Polana. It looks out over the Indian Ocean (the Mozambique Channel, as the stretch between the coast and Madagascar is known) and is quite nice. The weather this time of year is quite warm. The hotel had a gym and tennis courts, so one of my colleagues and I hit some balls.

Our first (and only) weekend we went on an outing to Kruger Park, South Africa. Kruger is very large and pretty famous. (I always think of Marlon Perkins and "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" when I think of it.) We spent most of Saturday driving around the park. We were lucky and saw the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, water buffalo) that first day. We stayed at a nice lodge right at the gates of the park. We were up early the next morning for a game drive. After breakfast, we headed back to Maputo.

We worked all that week and then flew out Saturday afternoon, arriving back in Washington on Sunday afternoon. I'll be posting pictures from Kruger on Ofoto later. My next trip is to Sofia, Bulgaria on Dec. 7th.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Debate

The media has once again displayed its bias, declaring John Kerry the winner of the first debate. I just don’t see it. Of course, since I am in Australia, I didn’t get to watch the debate. Instead, I read the transcript. Maybe you had to see it. Maybe Kerry’s hair looked particularly presidential.

Oh, sure. Kerry says nice sounding things. He claims to have a plan for everything. While Kerry has plans, Bush can point to achievements. 50 million people freed from despotism with at least a chance at freedom. The Taliban has been deposed. The Hussein regime destroyed. Libya chastened.

I still find Kerry’s charge of “unilateralism” and "going it alone" infuriatingly arrogant. What about Britain, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Korea, et al.? Don’t they exist? Don’t their contributions mean anything? And yet, in that famously consistent way of his, Kerry favors unilateral action towards North Korea. Well, which is it, Senator? Are you a unilateralist or a multilateralist?

When John Kerry talks of unilateralism, he is basically talking about France and the UN. Can’t John Kerry understand that France is not our ally? France actually withdrew from NATO in the 1966, cynically so, since they still enjoyed the protection of US and German troops from the main threat of the Soviet Union. Recall also how our “allies”, the French, denied our warplanes the right to fly over their air space during the raid on Libya in 1986.

They don’t have our best wishes at heart. For more than 40 years, France has dedicated itself to engaging itself in the Middle East. What has been the result? Has there been an decrease in terrorism, either against Israel or other Western nations? Well, yes, in one country. France. Has there been less war? No. Instead there have been three wars between Arab countries and Israel, a war between Iran and Iraq and an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Basically, France’s track record in the Middle East has resulted in increased sales of French arms and contracts for French oil companies.

There would be nothing wrong with this – if we were in France. But, we’re not in France.

Look at France’s track record in Algeria or French Indo-China (a.k.a. Vietnam). They lost Vietnam and Algeria in two bloody insurgencies. Unlike the US, which lost Vietnam in the media and on the streets of the US, France lost Vietnam militarily, in Vietnam.

The UN? Where to start? First off, let’s dismiss this notion that the UN is somehow legitimate. The UN is a collection of governments. It doesn’t represent people. I think UN endorsement of a policy might mean something if that endorsement didn’t mean approval by such regimes as Cuba, Sudan, Vietnam, Libya, China, or North Korea. Does Senator Kerry seriously suggest that we supplant our own government’s judgment with the UN’s, when the UN is composed of mostly unrepresentative, often brutally oppressive, governments?

Then there is the UN’s track record – or rather lack thereof. I defy anyone to point to a single instance where the UN has successfully intervened to avoid or contain an international crisis. If there is one, I’m missing it.

Let’s not forget, the UN fiddled while Rwanda burned. And before the angry e-mails start, I know the US played a role in not intervening – but let’s not forget who was president then. It was the same guy who had only recently turned tail in Somalia.

Let’s consider the UN’s weapons inspection regime in Iraq. What a rousing success that was, huh? The UN had twelve years to try and disarm Saddam Hussein. Instead Saddam Hussein played Hans Blix and UNSCOM like a tourist at a game of three-card monty. During that time, Hussein’s regime assembled an apparatus of 20,000 people whose sole purpose was to obstruct the work being done by the weapons inspectors. Hardly the behavior of someone with nothing to hide.

The UN refused to act in the Balkans in the face of ethnic cleansing. Oddly enough, though, our European “allies” didn’t have a problem when we (I know it was NATO, but NATO is a shell without the US military) went to war in Bosnia. How’s that for consistency? The UN is also the same body that is, at this very moment, dithering while millions face death at the hands of (surprise, surprise) Muslim fanatics in Sudan.

My own view is that, given the UN’s lack of effectiveness, we ought to start them on a smaller project. Let’s let the UN prove they can re-build a nation and install representative government in Haiti.

Lastly, let me leave you with three words on the UN: Oil. For. Food. Anyone still feel like letting the UN take control in Iraq?

Kerry is so disingenuous and wrong, I don’t know if I could possibly cover all the examples. Still, I’ll try:

Before I get to all the ways in which Kerry is wrong, let me make this overarching statement. Every time Kerry says he has a “plan” for something, he never discusses the specifics of his so-called plans. So, bear that in mind every time Kerry talks about a “plan”. These aren’t plans. They’re wishes.

He says he has a plan to bring together the leaders of the Middle East. To what end? So they can pay lip service to democratic ideals and then go home to their own countries? Countries without a free press. No representative governments. No respect for freedom of religion or for the rights of minorities or women. What makes him think that getting Bashar Assad’s or Hosni Mubarak’s signature on a piece of paper will change anything?

During the debate, he said he has a “better plan for homeland security”. He then went on to say, “I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by strengthening our military…” This is rich. John Kerry has compiled an abysmal record on defense in the Senate by voting against nearly every major weapons system of the last twenty years. I won’t try to list them all. It’s a long list. Plus, Zell Miller already did a masterful job of illuminating this glaring weakness of Kerry’s.

Kerry said that we had contained Saddam Hussein. Sure, contained him in one of his hundreds of palaces. I prefer George Bush’s idea of containing Saddam Hussein – in a cell.

Kerry claims that Bush “pushed our allies aside”. Wrong. Our allies abandoned us. We would have been glad of their support. They hypocritically refused to give it.

Kerry said, “Iraq is not even the center or the focus of the war on terror. The center is Afghanistan.” Wrong. Afghanistan used to be the center of the war on terror. Now the center of that war is Pakistan, a US ally that is working with the Bush administration to end this threat.

Kerry says that George Bush stripped Afghanistan of troops for the campaign in Iraq. Wrong. In fact, there are more troops in Afghanistan now than when the war in Iraq started.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. In the end, I am baffled that such an undistinguished politician could secure his party’s nomination for president. During the debate, Kerry didn’t tout even one accomplishment of his in the Senate. (Of course, he never misses a chance to mention his experience in Vietnam, and this was no exception.) Thank goodness that all the polls show Bush leading Kerry by anywhere from 3 to 16 per cent.

Personally, I can’t wait to watch Vice President Cheney clean John Edwards’ clock.

Reject Reality TV

It’s tempting all right. But, like most things in life, doing the right thing is hard. It’s like walking down the aisle in the supermarket with the ice cream case and not putting anything in your basket.

I’m not saying you should only watch The Learning Channel or PBS. I said you shouldn’t put any ice cream in the basket. I didn’t say you had to eat brussel sprouts.

I make a concerted effort to not watch any reality TV shows. And, while I strive to keep a humorous tone, I’m serious about encouraging you to do the same. There are three reasons why I don’t watch reality TV shows.

  1. Hello! IT’S NOT REAL! The term reality TV to denote this new breed of shows is a gross misnomer. First, while the outcome of a particular show may not be pre-ordained, don’t kid yourself that these shows aren’t heavily scripted. You can be sure that the producers of the shows are working furiously to tweak the dials to produce the highest ratings. To do this, they will often manipulate contestants, pitting them against one another. Hardly reality.
  2. The contestants aren’t real either. Most of daydream or fantasize about being a celebrity. However, most of us don’t dedicate ourselves to attaining celebrity. The same cannot be said of the average reality TV show contestant. For the most part, these people are supreme narcissists. Think about it. Are you so conceited so as to think that millions of people would be interested in the details, intimate, mundane or otherwise, of your life? Do you think that the average person is interested in your every feeling and opinion? (And, yes, I realize the hypocrisy inherent in making such an argument on a blog.) Worse, contestants are selected because they fit a demographic pigeon hole. The best example of this is the gay contestant. It all started with Pedro on “The Real World”. (In addition to being gay, Pedro also suffered from AIDS. Bonus! Two birds with one stone.) This trend really took off with the rise of “Survivor’s” Richard Hatch. (Mercifully, his descent back into obscurity was equally swift.) Now, the “gay one” is a reality TV staple.
  3. It’s bad for you. I say this in all seriousness. This was the kicker for me. I found that when I tuned in to these shows, I would end up disgusted by most, if not all, of the contestants. In some cases, I would end up literally yelling at my TV set. (Ok, I do the same thing with Eleanor Clift on “The McLaughlin Group. But I digress…) Sure, sure, some people tune in to “Big Brother” or “American Idol” to cheer on a particular contestant. But, I believe that most viewers tune in to see who gets “voted off”. There is a German word for this: schadenfreude. It means secret pleasure at the misfortune of others. This is malicious spite, pure and simple. And it’s not healthy.

Worse, the popularity of these shows has begun to snowball. Reality TV shows, as a rule, have much lower production costs. Instead of paying a cast of actors, producers only have to pay one contestant. And since the shows have no scripts, the producers don’t need to hire writers. The lack of professional writers and scripts, combined with the average contestant’s intellect (or lack thereof), translates into an appalling lack of intelligent discourse. Put simply, these are dumb shows.

However, their increasing popularity means that the networks can charge more for advertising blocks. Lower costs + higher revenues = more money for the networks. You’re just encouraging them, folks.

I know it seems that most networks’ lineup consists of either reality TV shows or gory cop dramas. But there are good shows out there. HBO is consistently responsible for excellent series and mini-series (“The Sopranos”, “Six Feet Under”, “From the Earth to the Moon", “Band of Brothers”). Tune in to A&E or BBC America. A&E turns out high-quality productions, many of which have a literary basis.

Speaking of a literary basis, try reading a book. Catch up on your correspondence. Start a blog. Get some exercise. Whatever you do, just please don’t feed the contestant’s egos or line the network’s and producer’s pockets.

Just say no to reality TV!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Why do we let politicians get away with this crap?

By all accounts, the mayor of East Cleveland, Ohio, one Saratha Goggins, is a model citizen - unless, that is, you count her murder conviction from 20 years ago.

As bad as that is, what's worse is her "explanation". Get this. She said that she recalled being convicted, but couldn't remember the charge. (Yeah, I have the same problem.)

She called the murder an "unfortunate incident" in her life. And, I'll bet the victim considered it pretty damn "unfortunate", too - unfortunate that Goggins was stabbing him to death!

Wait, it gets better. Goggins was married with children at the time. So, did she murder her husband?

Uh, no. She murdered her boyfriend.

Details are still unclear as Goggins succesfully petitioned a judge to have her record sealed.

You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.

Don't believe me?

Click here for story.

The Truth About Bush's Guard Service

Ok. We all know that John Kerry served in Vietnam. Four whole months, after which he took advantage of a little-known, little-invoked regulation that allowed him to desert his "band of brothers".

We also know how Dan Rather libeled George Bush and impugned his service in the Texas Air National Guard on a "60 Minutes II" report based largely on forged documents.

During his time in the Guard, George Bush flew the F-102 Delta Dagger fighter-interceptor. The F-102 saw service in the Vietnam theater between March 1962 and December 1969. During this time, F-102 squadrons were based out of Tan Son Nhut, Da Nang and Bien Hoa in Vietnam, and Udorn and Don Muang in Thailand. (Click here for source.)

As far as George Bush knew, he and his unit could have been transferred to Vietnam.

In all this so-called controversy, has anyone considered that perhaps George Bush just wanted to fly jets? And, let's remember, flying supersonic fighter jets is dangerous! They don't let just anybody do it.

Some reporters (you know, the ones with journalistic ethics) have actually uncovered the truth about George Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. For example, did you know that George Bush spent considerably more time in uniform than John Kerry?

What follows is the text of an e-mail sent to me by a friend of mine (thanks to Dave Manzano). Read on to learn the facts.


Bush’s National Guard years
Before you fall for Dems’ spin, here are the facts

What do you really know about George W. Bush’s time in the Air National Guard? That he didn’t show up for duty in Alabama? That he missed a physical? That his daddy got him in?

News coverage of the president’s years in the Guard has tended to focus on one brief portion of that time — to the exclusion of virtually everything else. So just for the record, here, in full, is what Bush did:

The future president joined the Guard in May 1968. Almost immediately, he began an extended period of training. Six weeks of basic training. Fifty-three weeks of flight training. Twenty-one weeks of fighter-interceptor training. That was 80 weeks to begin with, and there were other training periods thrown in as well.

It was full-time work. By the time it was over, Bush had served nearly two years. Not two years of weekends. Two years.

After training, Bush kept flying, racking up hundreds of hours in F-102 jets. As he did, he accumulated points toward his National Guard service requirements. At the time, guardsmen were required to accumulate a minimum of 50 points to meet their yearly obligation.

According to records released earlier this year, Bush earned 253 points in his first year, May 1968 to May 1969 (since he joined in May 1968, his service thereafter was measured on a May-to-May basis). Bush earned 340 points in 1969-1970. [In other words, Bush earned enough points to satisfy the requirements for his entire six year hitch in 1969-1970 alone. - acd] He earned 137 points in 1970-1971. And he earned 112 points in 1971-1972.

The numbers indicate that in his first four years, Bush not only showed up, he showed up a lot. Did you know that?

That brings the story to May 1972 — the time that has been the focus of so many news reports — when Bush “deserted” (according to anti-Bush filmmaker Michael Moore) or went “AWOL” (according to Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee). Bush asked for permission to go to Alabama to work on a Senate campaign. His superior officers said OK.

Requests like that weren’t unusual, says retired Col. William Campenni, who flew with Bush in 1970 and 1971.

“In 1972, there was an enormous glut of pilots,” Campenni says. “The Vietnam War was winding down, and the Air Force was putting pilots in desk jobs. In ’72 or ’73, if you were a pilot, active or Guard, and you had an obligation and wanted to get out, no problem. In fact, you were helping them solve their problem.”

So Bush stopped flying. From May 1972 to May 1973, he earned just 56 points — not much, but enough to meet his requirement.

Then, in 1973, as Bush made plans to leave the Guard and go to Harvard Business School, he again started showing up frequently. In June and July of 1973, he accumulated 56 points, enough to meet the minimum requirement for the 1973-1974 year.

Then, at his request, he was given permission to go. Bush received an honorable discharge after serving five years, four months and five days of his original six-year commitment. By that time, however, he had accumulated enough points in each year to cover six years of service.

During his service, Bush received high marks as a pilot. A 1970 evaluation said Bush “clearly stands out as a top notch fighter interceptor pilot” and was “a natural leader whom his contemporaries look to for leadership.” A 1971 evaluation called Bush “an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot” who “continually flies intercept missions with the unit to increase his proficiency even further.” And a 1972 evaluation called Bush “an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer.”

Now, it is only natural that news reports questioning Bush’s service — in The Boston Globe and The New York Times, on CBS and in other outlets — would come out now. Democrats are spitting mad over attacks on John Kerry’s record by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. And, as it is with Kerry, it’s reasonable to look at a candidate’s entire record, including his military service — or lack of it. Voters are perfectly able to decide whether it’s important or not in November.

The Kerry camp blames Bush for the Swift boat veterans’ attack, but anyone who has spent much time talking to the Swifties gets the sense that they are doing it entirely for their own reasons.

And it should be noted in passing that Kerry has personally questioned Bush’s service, while Bush has not personally questioned Kerry’s.

In April — before the Swift boat veterans had said a word — Kerry said Bush “has yet to explain to America whether or not, and tell the truth, about whether he showed up for duty.” Earlier, Kerry said, “Just because you get an honorable discharge does not, in fact, answer that question.”

Now, after the Swift boat episode, the spotlight has returned to Bush. That’s fine. We should know as much as we can.

And perhaps someday Kerry will release more of his military records as well.

Byron York is a White House correspondent for National Review. His column appears in The Hill each week.

Monday, September 27, 2004

War and Remembrance

Yesterday I finally found time to wander around Melbourne and take some pictures. I headed south, away from the Yarra River and the Central Business District, in the general direction of the U.S. Consulate.

The main drag in this area of town is St. Kilda Road. Running along St. Kilda for a good stretch is a complex of parks and gardens called King's Domain. King's Domain features an amphitheater (Myers Music Bowl), botanical gardens (National Botanic Gardens), an observatory, the Victoria State Government House and the Shrine of Remembrance.

Yesterday was quite overcast, a little windy and it spit rain intermittently throughout the morning and early afternoon, so all in all not the best day for taking pictures. I first walked around Victoria Gardens, which features statues of Victoria (Melbourne is the capital of the state that bears her name, after all) and her son, Edward VII. However, my real destination was always the Shrine of Remembrance.

As you have probably guessed, the Shrine of Remembrance is a war memorial. Originally designed to honor Victorians (some 19,000) killed in WWI, it is now a monument to all Victorians killed in armed service overseas. The monument was dedicated in 1919, just one year after the end of the war. It was conceived to give loved ones a place to go to honor those lost fighting overseas, as the Australians don't repatriate the remains of fallen soldiers. Rather, they are buried overseas; sometimes in cemetaries, other times in unmarked graves.

The Shrine features a long, tree-lined walkway to the steps that lead to the Sanctuary. All around the grounds of the Shrine are trees of various types, dedicated to different units. As you approach the Sanctuary, there is an Eternal Flame and Cenotaph to honor the fallen members of the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force from WWII. (A cenotaph is a monument erected in honor of persons whose remains are elsewhere.)

The Sanctuary is a square building, with a pyramid-shaped roof with a small glass aperture at the apex. All around the inner walls are displayed books listing the names of all Victorians who have served overseas. All names are listed without rank, as all are equal within the confines of the Sanctuary. Set into the center of the floor is a stone bearing the inscription, "Greater Love Hath No Man". The Sanctuary is designed so that on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the sun shines through the opening at the top and illuminates the word "Love" in the inscription.

Downstairs is the Crypt. This name is misleading as there are no remains within. Instead there is a statue entitled "Father - Son", commemorating fathers who had perished in WWI and sons killed in WWII. Also displayed in the Crypt are the banners of all units who fought in WWI. There is a corner of the Crypt dedicated to the Royal Australian Navy and its losses during WWI. There is no special area for the Royal Australian Air Force, as it wasn't founded until 1921.

Exiting the Crypt, one comes to the Visitor's Center. Here one can view a short audio visual presentation on the Shrine. There is also the inevitable gift shop. Adjacent to the gift shop, is a new display detailing Australia's role in the War on Terror. (As I remarked in a previous post, and as columnist Charles Krauthammer noted recently - (Column here) Australia is one of our staunchest allies (if not the staunchest).)

Being a military history buff, especially WWII, visiting the Shrine of Remembrance was quite worthwhile.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

"You fight, we fight."

Last night my colleague and I went out with some of the people from the consulate. We started out in a beer garden next to the consulate. Then one of the folks from the consulate got a call from an Aussie friend, Dave, inviting us to meet up with some people at a bar in the Central Business District (CBD).

The bar we went to, the Deanery, was very much a meeting place for the professional set. Dave and his partner, Linda, are both attorneys. Two of their friends, Deborah and Victoria, are financial planners.

We embarked on the classic "pub crawl", having a drink at each spot before pressing on. Two or three bars later, we found ourselves in La La Land. The bar, not the mental state. It was a nice place, full of comfy couches and chairs.

Dave and I started to talk about the War on Terror. Now, as many of you know, I strongly support George Bush and the War on Terror. Dave does, too. I remarked how most Americans don't seem to realize how staunch an ally Australia is, fighting alongside us in every major conflict since WWII.

Dave said something that really stuck with me:

"You fight, we fight. We know that we're in this together."

Would that our European "allies" had such clarity of thought!

"Footy" Result

Well, the game, er, match is over. The Port Adelaide Power foiled the Brisbane Lions' bid for a fourth straight premiership title. Unfortunately, I didn't really learn much more about the game. I really should have gone out and sat in a pub and watched the match with some of the locals. I'm sure some of them would have taken pity on me and explained some of the ins and outs of the game. Last night I stayed out quite late and had a bit too much too drink (easy to do when you're in the company of Aussies!) and didn't quite feel up to it.

Time to head out for a bite.

"Footy" Grand Final

Today is the Australian Football League Premiership Grand Final. Basically, it's Super Bowl Saturday in Australia. The Grand Final game is being played at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. The "G" as it's known is the largest stadium in Melbourne.

Basically, the whole city is at a standstill at the moment. The hype has been building all week, with all kinds of special events and telecasts all around town. All the pubs are packed and the streets are deserted.

I'm watching the game and frankly I don't really have a clue what's going on. "Footy" as it's called resembles a cross between soccer and rugby. It's the most popular game in Victoria state (of which Melbourne is the capital). (The popular game in Sydney is rugby.) It's a pretty rough game and the players only wear mouth guards. A few wear helmets, but most don't. It's also similar to ice hockey in that there's a lot of fights on the field (or "pitch"). Like in the US, the fans seem to love it!

I know that the objective is to kick the ball (which resembles a rugby ball, which itself resembles an American football) through a set of uprights. I know that accomplishing that is worth six points. I see from the score that it is possible to score single points, but I'm not sure what one does to score a point. I'm hoping to glean more as the game progresses.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Why does Dan Rather still have a job?

First of all, if Dan-o had any, any integrity, he would resign. (Actually, he would commit seppuku on the air - no, wait, that was a dream I had.) And if his superiors at CBS had either integrity or balls they'd fire his sorry Texas ass.

Instead, they have chosen to hide behind one of the lamest excuses since "It depends on what the meaning of is is". Basically, CBS' excuse is: "Ok. These documents are fake. But they are exact replicas of documents that used to exist. Trust us." In fact, The New York Times ran the following headline: "Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says".

(By the way, the typist in question is 86 years old now. When she was first contacted by a Houston paper about the Guard memo story, she couldn't remember anything: couldn't remember Bush, couldn't remember the memos, nothing. Now that she is getting her 15 minutes, all of a sudden she "remembers" all kinds of details about him.)

In this case, every document expert that CBS asked to look at these documents questioned their authenticity. Every document expert but one. Guess which expert Dan Rather (and the evidence points to the fact that it was Rather's decision to air the story) chose to believe? If this doesn't demonstrate that the media has a horse in this race, I don't know what does.

I am going to write to Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and urge him to fire Dan Rather (since I know there is no way they will execute him on the air).

Courage, Dan!

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Greetings from 'down under'. I'm writing to you from Melbourne, Australia. This is my second visit to Australia. In January of 2002 I spent two weeks in Canberra. Melbourne is a lot bigger and more cosmopolitan than Canberra. There looks to be lots more to do as well.

Almost didn't make it here, though. My original itinerary had me leaving Washington on Friday evening and arriving in Melbourne on Sunday morning. Friday, however, the Washington area was feeling the effects of Hurricane Ivan (I think - there've been so many this season) - rain, high winds, etc. As I was sitting in the first class lounge waiting to board my flight for San Francisco, I heard an announcement that there would be delays due to a tornado warning.

Now, normally, I scoff at such warnings. We get them all the time (the Washington area seems to be prone to "weather hysteria") and I've NEVER even SEEN a tornado. Well, not no more! Out the windows of the lounge, we could see funnels forming around the airport. It was hard to tell how far away they were, but they were unmistakenly real-live tornadoes. (Later, I learned that the twisters had torn the roofs off of homes in Chantilly and Centreville, two towns adjacent to the airport.)

So, I go to the gate where I am supposed to board my flight and United announced that the big silver bird that was going to take me to San Fran had been diverted to Harrisburg. United offered to put me on another flight to San Francisco, however, instead of first class they were going to put me in coach. Now, losing my first class seat is a pretty big blow, but I was more concerned that I keep my first class seat on the flight from San Fran to Sydney. So I boarded the other flight, only to find that I wasn't even in Economy Plus. I was in full-fledged cattle class - in THE VERY BACK ROW to add insult to injury! I mean here I am with an $11,000 ticket and they put me in the rear with the gear? And, not even an offer of an upgrade coupon, drink coupons. Nothing.

Needless to say, yours truly is not very happy about this turn of events. However, now that I've boarded the new flight, the captain announces that we will be delayed pushing back from the gate. Our new arrival time is forecast to be 11:30 pm. Well, folks, my connection to Sydney was due to depart at 10:45. So, I called the flight attendant, explained my situation and asked if United could call ahead and have them hold the plane. Negative. Well, then will United put me up in a hotel in San Fran? Negative. The cause of the delay was weather-related. Hence, beyond United's control and not their responsibility. So, let me get this straight. I'm going to sit for five hours in coach, to miss my connection and then have to shell out for a hotel? No thanks.

So, I told the flight attendant that I wanted to de-plane. She called a customer service guy, who proceeded to try and brow beat me into staying on the plane. Now, I have two strategies in a situation like this. The first would be to get nasty as hell and bite back. The second (less often employed) is to put a big smile on my face, be bend-over-backwards polite and firmly stand my ground. Something told me Mr. Windbag would not respond to my default mode, so I just smiled as broadly as I could and insisted he let me off the plane.

I returned to the check in counter in the departure area of Dulles where a very nice woman re-booked me for the following day. The flight from San Francisco to Sydney was great. I slept most of the way. We landed around 6:30 am in Sydney. Connected for an hour flight to Melbourne. Arrived in around 9:30 am. Grabbed a cab to our hotel (a really nice Sheraton), showered, grabbed a quick bite to eat and made it in to the consulate just after lunch. No harm, no foul.

More on Melbourne itself tomorrow.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Thursday, September 16, 2004

I just created this site. I travel for a living. A lot. I used to be really diligent about writing about all the places I visit and e-mailing friends and family. Yeah, that's too much work. Luckily, a lot of the hotels in which I stay have internet access, many in the room. Hence my reason for creating a "blog".

An exit cable is the official record of one of our trips. I work for a company called Stanley Associates. Stanley is a sub-contractor to another company, Harris Orkand Integration Services, on a State Department contract. So, my job is to travel to US embassies and consulates worldwide and work on the computers in the consular sections of all those places. It's pretty much a kick-ass job. I took my first trip in January 2001. Since then I've been to about ...well, let's count:

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Canberra, Australia
Kathmandu, Nepal
Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Tirana, Albania
Ljubljana, Slovenia
Lima, Peru
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Rome, Italy
Kuwait City, Kuwait
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Vientiane, Laos
Banjul, The Gambia
Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Gaborone, Botswana
Tirana, Albania
Seoul, South Korea
Kigali, Rwanda
Baku, Azerbaijan
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Rome, Italy
Kuwait City, Kuwait
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Kuwait City, Kuwait
Recife, Brazil
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Guangzhou, China
Shenyang, China
Vientiane, Laos
Vilnius, Lithuania
Melbourne, Australia (updated December 22, 2004)
Maputo, Mozambique (updated December 22, 2004)
Sofia, Bulgaria (updated December 22, 2004)
Djibouti, Djibouti (updated February 9, 2005)
Recife, Brazil (updated March 11, 2005)
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (updated April 18, 2005)
Tirana, Albania (updated April 18, 2005)
Ponta Delgada, the Azores, Portugal (updated June 17, 2005)
Frankfurt, Germany (updated June 30, 2005)
Luxembourg, Luxembourg (updated November 4, 2005)
Gaborone, Botswana (updated November 4, 2005)
Havana, Cuba (updated November 4, 2005)
Sofia, Bulgaria (updated November 4, 2005)
Shanghai, China (updated December 14, 2005)
Beijing, China (updated December 14, 2005)
Kigali, Rwanda (updated January 20, 2006)
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (updated February 25, 2006)
Tirana, Albania (updated February 25, 2006)
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (updated May 7, 2006)
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (updated May 7, 2006)
Tripoli, Libya (updated July 27, 2006)

Wow, that's a lot of trips! (Okay, so I was showing off a little bit.) 55 trips to post in 54 months. So that's a little more than one post a month. Of course, I've been to some places more than once (some more than that!) but I didn't even list all the places that I lived and visited as a kid.

So, I'm taking off tomorrow for Melbourne, Australia. I'll be flying from Dulles to San Francisco to Sydney to Melbourne. I think I arrive Saturday, er, make that Sunday morning. I'll be staying in a Sheraton in Melbourne and they usually have internet. If so, I'll post again then.

Happy trails, amigos!