Democracy shut down

I’m beginning my third day of furlough as the federal government is shut down.

There are those who take issue with the term “shutdown,” arguing the government is not truly closed, just limiting its operations. Which I tend to agree with, in the the sense that  government operations cannot simply be abandoned if we plan on ever coming back to them. As a case in point, NPR reports how National Parks are physically closed, with park rangers  enforcing the closures, though other public lands like national forests are not. How lovely if poachers and looters and could get a break from the onerous preservation laws in national parks! Alas, those laws are still in effect, therefore the parks are closed.

The shutdown is more like a conservative fantasy: environmental regulars and tax auditors are sent home while border guards and the people who spy on us are not. It amounts to an evasion of laws Congresses have already passed and the usual procedure of repealing unwanted laws. In other words, nothing more than a subversion of our democracy.

End of the dynastic cycle

October is upon us tomorrow and it brings the promise of a federal government shutdown and me being furloughed from work. There are things to look forward to, though, like autumn colors (if any; it was a very dry summer) and postseason baseball.

The Yankees didn’t make into the playoffs this year. They tied for third place in a tough division, and actually won 85 games despite an it-would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-serious epidemic of injuries that wiped out the core of their lineup, some of their backups, and a handful of pitchers.

Their record might give the illusion that the Yankees pulled off something of a moral victory with a makeshift roster of castoffs and spare parts a la Major League or Moneyball. In fact, they were quite bad much of the year. They owe their winning record to a strong start wherein everybody was firing on all eight pistons before the prolonged summer collapse, to the relocation of the 111-game losing Houston Astros to the American League, and Yankees’ repeated thrashings of the hapless Toronto Blue Jays (last in the American League despite an expensive retooling last winter). The Yankees simply did not win games against good teams and played even worse down the stretch. Even the Jays played the Yankees tough in September. Had they squeaked into the playoffs I can’t imagine them getting very far.

The season ended on a sort of warm note. Two of our favorites, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, retired at the end. Rivera had a season-long send-off, with each city they visited celebrating his storied career. Following his appearance at Yankee Stadium,  he declined to pitch during the last three games in Houston, letting the heartfelt hometown farewell be his last game. Throughout all that, he put together another all-star season, performing indistinguishably from any of his other 18 seasons.

This leaves Derek Jeter as the last connection to the late dynasty. He didn’t play most of the year, frustrated by slow rehabilitation and repeated injuries. He will probably return next year, but part of me wishes he’ll retire so the Yankees can move on, because the Yankees have become victims of their own successes. They expect themselves to contend every year, so rather than take chances on promising young players, they staff themselves  with high-priced free agent mercenaries. The young players never get a chance to fail.

Phil Hughes is a case in point. Joe Girardi yanks him from the mound every time he gets in trouble and replaces him with a revolving door of middle relievers visiting from Scranton. After seven years Hughes has no confidence, shows no improvement. And it’s possible he’s just not a good pitcher or will never recover fully from the injuries he’s had but I think he’s never really learned how to pitch. He’d be better off on some lousy team that’s happy to have him throw six or seven innings once a week, no matter the outcome.

So I hope the Yankees don’t go out and try to buy another championship like they did in 2009 (it sounds like they won’t; the owner is trying to keep the payroll from inflating further). Maybe they can develop some exciting home-grown players that we’ll actually care about when they take the field.


Crying twister

Speaking of bad weather, its been a stormy week so Johnson County has been blowing its tornado sirens with wild abandon. A tornado actually touched down near Tiffin on Monday, but our emergency managers don’t limit themselves to warning about actual danger. They blow the sirens for severe thunderstorms, and probably partly cloudy skies, too. The other night at three o’clock in the morning, the siren, which is right across the street, woke us up. I checked the weather and it was just for a severe thunderstorm. In other words, go back to sleep.

Winged scourges

Whatever kind of year 2013 turns out to be when it’s over, half-way through it’s been one of bad weather. We had a mild winter to start— bad only if you like snow— which devolved into a sort of prolonged early March that lasted right through Memorial Day, wet and rainy and overcast and cold. I can’t even pinpoint when it actually became summer, it’s been mostly rainy and humid without excessive heat.

And the bugs. Maybe it’s the successive warm winters or the drought last year or this spring’s rain or some combination of those, but the gnats are out in legions. To date I’ve found Iowa the least buggy of several places where I’ve lived. I don’t even own a can of Deep Woods Off anymore. It’s  probably because of all the farmland. Most wetlands have been drained and the vast acreages are bombarded with pesticides. But this year is totally wild with little black gnats that fly right into to your ears, eyes, nose, and mouth.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Spoilers! Spoilers! Spoilers!

So, Star Trek: Into Darkness didn’t go as far down into the “darkness” rabbit hole as I feared it would. It was fun and exciting with lots of explosions and CGI effects (especially the warp trail), and the Klingons finally appeared, briefly. Unlike the previous installment, though, it doesn’t connect with the core competencies of Star Trek. The story only barely takes place in space; much of the time the characters are on Earth or in orbit around it. The characters don’t have many opportunities to show much depth; so the film missed the familiar triangular dynamic among logical Spock and sensual McCoy with intuitive Kirk providing the leadership that holds them together.

It turns out the main villain really is Khan, though his identity isn’t revealed right away and when it is, it’s supposed to surprise us. Khan’s character has been described as “Northern Indian,” Benedict Cumberbatch, the whitest Englishman anybody could find, plays him. After reintroducing Khan, the story takes an interesting twist I didn’t expect, and didn’t dislike, though I have mixed feelings about it. There’s better discussion of it at the A.V. Club than I can offer here.

That the movie recycles Khan’s character and even some parts of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan makes me feel like the filmmakers were abandoning the “reboot” in favor of a “remake” (and, of all the Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan needs remaking the least). The preceding movie supposedly freed the franchise of its canonical baggage, and I was hoping for something new. At the end, though, the crew finally embarks on its “five-year mission,” providing what Gene Roddenberry always intended: hope for something better in the future.

Glass Yankees

I can’t believe the Yankees— let’s call them the Glass Yankees— are in first place with all their injuries. Even the players replacing injured players are getting hurt. It’s insane. As usual they’ve done a great job of finding spare parts (Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, Kevin Youklis, Lyle Overbay) and squeezing some extra life out of them, but some of the young call-ups are doing nicely too.

A good part of their first place record is due to their total domination of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays, who made a bunch of big deals over the winter, need to beat the other teams in their division if they’re going to make a play for the pennant.

Into… darkness?

I’m puzzled by trailers for Star Trek: Into Darkness. Star Trek isn’t about darkness. It’s about a better future. Gene Roddenberry’s original series was definitely a creature of the late 1960s, but the franchise’s persistent popularity proves its optimism isn’t outdated. From what I’ve seen, this year’s film is about James T. Kirk struggling with his ethics and summoning up the inner strength to face down a nihilistic villain of the Dark Knight trilogy variety. (Is it Khan? Played by a Brit instead of a Mexican this time? Isn’t Khan ever going to be played by a Punjabi, like his character is supposed to be?)

Now that he’s going to direct the Star Wars movies, J.J. Abrams has admitted to not liking Star Trek very much. That makes me feel bad about liking his 2009 movie. Which is unfortunate because I thought he had rediscovered something that made the original series so cool: for all the space adventuring and Klingons, the main characters were interesting. Abrams’ alternate timeline seemed refreshing, a creative way to break free from the tyranny of the “canon”. Now, all the heresies I was willing to overlook just grate on me. Was he too lazy to understand or did he just not care?

I wonder if Gene Roddenberry would have let someone who thinks Star Trek is so lame direct his movies. But there’s the problem: Gene Roddenberry is long dead, and without somebody who really loves the franchise and what it stands for it’s become just another derivative cultural commodity. Another assignment for some Hollywood brat director to pad his resume.

I get that sometimes trailers are misleading, and that the Star Trek: Into Darkness trailers might be trying to invoke the Dark Knight movies to attract audiences. I’ll not hesitate to watch when it’s released. I might even like it.

Here are some of my repressed gripes from the 2009 movie (which I still like), sparing you the more geeky stuff:

  • Dr. McCoy’s nickname “Bones” seems to come from a throwaway comment he makes, as if none of the writers knew or cared that it came from “sawbones,” 19th century term for a physician.
  • I haven’t seen any Klingons yet. What gives?
  • Zoe Saldana doesn’t look like someone who grew up speaking Swahili and John Cho doesn’t look like anyone in any samurai movie I’ve ever seen. There, I said it.
  • I like Simon Pegg, but his Scotty lacks some of James Doohan’s deadpan martial gravitas.


Avoid spoilers by not reading on.

Oblivion is a good example of a fun sci-fi adventure movie that falls a little short. It looks very cool (especially the guard drones) and there’s some fun action but it draws a little too heavily on other, better movies like The Matrix, 2001, Independence Day, and Star Wars. There’s even a crew of post-apocalyptic rebels in standard-issue Mad Max dress. I’m trying to decide if the same story could have been told without the movie slipping into so many familiar territories. I’ll venture a “yes” but leave it someone better qualified to figure out how.

A few observations about the science of the fiction:

  • The moon wasn’t really gone, it was just smashed up. There wouldn’t be a net loss of tidal force.
  • With all the vegetation dead and the oceans sucked up, I’m pretty sure the atmosphere wouldn’t be breathable.
  • Why were humans needed to fix the machines? Wouldn’t there be machine-fixing machines? And machine-fixing machine fixing-machines? Seems like a ready excuse to cast Tom Cruise, though the characters were so shallow anybody could have played his part.

Explosion Week

It’s Explosion Week here in America. If you’re keeping score, that’s one terrorist attack in Massachusetts and one industrial accident in Texas.

And as usual, we’re freaking out about the wrong things. Boston was deserted today because the cops lost track of one 19 year old kid who they think can make kitchen appliances explode. We don’t know hardly anything about the sickos who did it but whoever they’re working for just got handed a quick little victory and an important lesson in the efficacy of blowing stuff up in the United States. That dumb Hitler, he wasted all his effort on his mighty war machine when he could have shut us down with a few well-placed pressure cookers.

Yet I doubt cops in tanks will descend on West, Texas looking for the probably negligent operators of the fertilizer plant that exploded (if they weren’t incinerated in the blast). Not only was that explosion more deadly and more destructive, but tragedies like it (Texas City Refinery, Upper Big Branch Mine, Deepwater Horizon) occur far more often than disgruntled Chechens register their disgust with long-distance running. But don’t let that distract you from the fugitive drama unfolding in Beantown.

Arrested development

Checking in on today’s game: I am officially sick of Phil Hughes. He’s in his seventh season and still can barely pitch five innings. He’s never going to develop into the starting pitcher the Yankees hope he can be if they don’t leave him in the game, even when he’s not doing well, and let him learn how to pitch. That’s big gripe I have about the way the Yankees handle their young pitching.

The Descendants

We finally got around to watching The Descendants, a favorably reviewed George Clooney movie from a couple years ago. In it, he plays a wealthy landowner with a little bit of native Hawaiian blood. So you know he’s really part native, he sports a Polynesian unibrow. Inexplicably, unlike the brief phase when all the big-time actors wanted to wear mustaches (see The Men Who Stare at Goats for how they met their quota in bulk), the Polynesian unibrow hasn’t caught on.

Two take-away messages from the movie:

  • Rich people can have serious problems at home, even when they are wrestling with rich people matters like how to dispose of the islands they own.
  • Even if you’re dying tragically you still have to own up to all the bad stuff you did.

Global undemocracy

Of interest to the curious part of me are news stories about how the Holy See selects a new pope. The process is opaque and undemocratic. The Roman Catholic Church has the additional distinction of being something of a medieval principality, but the selection process is not unlike how other, more modern global organizations— the UN, World Bank, IMF, corporations, and other NGOs— select their leaders. And I wonder if the church, for all its 3rd century baggage, might provide a window into our future world. As we achieve globalization without also pursuing global democratization, can we look forward to global institutional leadership that is just as distant, inflexible, reactionary, and unaccountable?