Archive for May, 2009

The Unstoppable Susan Boyle Juggernaut lost in the finale of the Britain’s Got Talent competition. I’ve commented before on her not-that-amazing singing and the inexplicable fame that accompanies it. So it’s interesting to watch the performance in the first link, and to see how the performance in the new video doesn’t match the first, due to the lack of camera closeups on faces, warm production values, surprise, etc. It turns out she got second place, losing to a ten-person dance crew. I won’t even begin to try to guess why the public voting turned out that way (backlash, realization, whatever), but still, it kinda makes me happy.

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One of the funny things about history is how quickly we forget what the history was. We often assume that the way we do things is the way we have always done them, but this is generally far from the truth. As in my previous post about prisons in America, we assume that prisons have been around since forever (see: depictions of prisons pre-Enlightenment in films), but in fact, the penal system as we understand it is quite new.

Which brings me to one of my favorite terms: “traditional marriage.” With the Prop 8 upholding by the California Supreme Court and another possible marriage equality bill on the way in New Hampshire, we have been subjected to another round of “traditional marriage”-ites.

But of course, traditional marriage is very, uh, untraditional. Traditional marriage has included everything from polygamy to forced remarriage to required dowries to arranged marriage. No marital system in recent years, it would seem, has lasted a very long time before it has been upended by another. Victorian marriages were beset with accepted mistresses and courtesans, while the idealized 1950s nuclear family only lasted a short period before being uprooted by the sexual revolution. “Traditional” all depends on which tradition you’re talking about.

That doesn’t mean that same-sex marriage is traditional; it just means that almost no marriage today is traditional. Our historical viewpoint is skewed by our inability to see the world at a truly historical perspective; we always see the previous world through our own.

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In between grading today, I’ve been reading a Helen Epstein piece from the new New York Review of Books (ostensibly a review of Sunny Schwartz’s must-read book) concerning America’s prison complex.

The program detailed in the article, a violence-prevention program called RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Project) implemented by Schwartz at the San Bruno prison that hearkens from the restorative justice movement. The movement has an eye towards the kind of rehabilitation common in many new prison programs, with an added component of restitution to society in general. In a program based on anger management clinics, convicts must discuss their path towards violence and recognize the damage that they cause. If this all sounds lovey-dovey, I would point out its startling effect on recidivism, lowering rates sharply at the San Bruno prison where the program was implemented (link here: warning PDF).

After reading the piece, I recalled a conversation I had recently about Thomas Sowell and his view of systems and processes. I’m not a fan of most of his work, as I am not a fan of many economists who take a “government = bad” view of the world. Nevertheless, I agree with him in that properly designed and implemented systems can control for human error and are more likely to produce proper outcomes than good intentions. The prison system in America demonstrates that the inverse happens to be true as well.

The whole system is problematic because it relies of exclusion as punishment. Our society of punitive justice has done almost nothing to remove criminality from the prison population. I see this every day in my school; students, particularly those who are already on the “bad track,” do not fear failure or negative consequences. In fact, they often welcome them. Their reaction to detention/suspension/expulsion is often relief, as if they have completed a predesignated assignment. We have arranged the risks and rewards in such a way that the people punished once have little to no reason to expect anything else for as long as they live. Once excluded, the individual has no choice but to continue on the excluded path — “an institution man,” as Red puts it in The Shawshank Redemption.


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From a literary analysis essay on One Hundred Years of Solitude:

As you can see from his greed with the ice, it’s clear that Jose Arcadio Buendia is sucka fool.

Apart from every convention of writing essays, the author’s conclusion is at least correct.

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Ranking Pixar’s movies

Because I just love to list and rank stuff.

In honor of Up‘s release today, here is my ranking of the Pixar movies (with the caveat that I have not seen A Bug’s Life).

8. Cars – The comparative “dud” of the bunch. But let’s consider what that means. It was the worst reviewed, but was still at 75% on Rotten Tomatoes (all other Pixar films are above 90, I believe). Maybe it’s just because I don’t like NASCAR, but I couldn’t get into the story as much as I could the others.

7. Monsters, Inc. – I feel a little bad for ranking this one so low, considering it has one of the greatest final scenes ever. I think the difference between my #7 and #8 is greater than the difference between my #7 and #3. In other words, this and the next four are nearly tied.

6. The Incredibles – Brad Bird might just be the best animator, between this, Iron Giant, and the film that claims my top spot. But still, for some reason I prefer my Pixar movies to feature humans as little as possible.

5. Toy Story – The Original. It gets bonus points for being a trailblazer, but if you go back and watch it, the animation doesn’t hold up as well when you compare it to more recent efforts. The characters are terrific, and I’m glad to learn (today) that there will be a Toy Story 3.

4. Finding Nemo – Dora has to be one of the greatest Pixar characters. The beautifully rendered ocean scenes are the most compelling backdrop in any of these films. Bonus points for opening with a tragedy but avoiding the Bambi comparisons.

3. Toy Story 2 – I once made my mom cry simply by describing the plot of this movie. And to think, it was almost relegated to the dustbin of history with direct-to-video status. The rare sequel that is better than the original.

2. Wall-E – The first 40 minutes are art of the highest caliber film can offer. It was bold and daring to make such a long stretch of the movie rely on no dialogue, and I love when movies take risks. The rest of the movie, however, was merely “very good” in comparison. I almost put this #1, but the tiebreaker is the ending. I prefer as my #1 a film that saves its strongest parts for last.

1. Ratatouille – Another bold and daring film. They made the hero a rat, and one that touches your food, no less. As A.O. Scott gushed in the NY Times:

“Ratatouille” is a nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film.

The film is, at its heart, a story about a struggling artist. And it has one of the most earned endings I have seen, one that was legitimately in doubt. Anton Ego’s speech at the end should be required reading for all critics – of movies, food, music, or whatever. It’s not simply my favorite animated movie, but one of my favorite movies period.

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Because this alone has me psyched:

Pixar is awesome.

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One of the problems with the United States’ role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the unwillingness for the United States to tighten the reins on the diplomatic relationship with Israel.

Now, it appears that Obama is willing to hold the line on settlements, and although he hasn’t said “or else,” the threat is implied. Netanyahu’s response? “What the hell do they want from me?”

His response and the signals out of Israel show both alarm and disbelief. After all, the United States has always been behind Israel’s government, no matter which government it happens to be. This has only served to galvanize the right wing of Israel and demolish what remained of Labor.

It seems strange, then, that the United States seems to have used almost none of its leverage with Israel, and the situation has only gotten worse as a result. Take a look at the results of the Israeli political system (the rise of Avigdor Lieberman), and it’s clear that an unwillingness to use more diplomatic leverage has not dulled the force of the Israeli right. On the contrary, American policy of carte blanche for 60 years has created the increasingly right-wing Israeli state we see now.

Perhaps the most important change in the Obama administration stance is a recognition that Israel itself is a democratic system, in which the government can change:

“What I’m beginning to see is that the Obama administration may be less concerned with actually getting to negotiations and an agreement and more interested in setting new rules and rearranging the furniture,” said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Institute. “They may have concluded that they can’t get to a real two state solution with this prime minister [Netanyahu]. Maybe they want a new one? And the best way to raise the odds of that is to demonstrate that he can’t manage Israel’s most important relationship: with the U.S.”

Playing with another country’s domestic politics is always a dicey game, but when that country’s actions can help or hurt America’s perception in the world dramatically and when that country has an unchallenged link to the American domestic political system, I think it’s only fair game.

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