NSA Data Recovery Program

NSAI was emailed the following image, which I think is pretty clever. I have two reasons for thinking it is almost certainly created by a conservative. First, the line about it costing Republicans more. Only conservatives think that they alone are the targets of government intrusion. That was what the whole IRS scandal was about. Of course the government isn’t going after those big government liberals! The fact that liberals are generally against exactly the government programs that directly limit freedom never seems to occur to them. The second reason is that the graphic quality is low. I don’t know why it is, but bad Photoshop work is more associated with conservatives than liberals. And I say that as a bad Photoshopping liberal. Anyway, it is well done:

NSA Data Recovery Program

How We Treat Real American Heroes

OutbreakI just watched Outbreak with my father. He was interested in it, because he had heard that they used the little California town of Ferndale as the primary location. He has fond memories of the town and I figured he would like the movie anyway. So we watched it and he did indeed like it—a lot more than most movies I make him watch. I’d seen the movie a long time ago, so I spent most of it thinking about people like Bradley Manning.

The main character in the film is Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman). He is a typical kind of American movie hero: he does what’s right rather than following orders. But because he is so brilliant, he gets away with it. What I find fascinating about this is that we just love this kind of character on the big screen, but we do not give half a shit about him in real life. In this regard, I don’t think so much of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. The Daniels character seems more to me like John Kiriakou. He’s the guy who disclosed the CIA torture program who is now serving two and a half years in prison for this “crime.” Meanwhile not one of the people who authorized or performed the torture has even been indicted.

This is what Kiriakou said about what he did, “I am proud that I stood up to our government. I stood up for what I believed was right, conviction or no conviction. I mean they can convict anybody of anything if they put their minds to it, but I wear this as a badge of honor. I am not a criminal. I am a whistleblower. The thing that I blew the whistle on is now the law of the land. Torture is illegal and it’s officially abandoned in our country and I’m proud to have had a role in that.” That’s the sort of thing that Daniels would have said.

I was thinking about what would have happened to the characters after the end of Outbreak in the real world. Not only would Daniels have been court-martialed, so would his subordinate helicopter pilot Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr). And so would the two pilots who dropped the bomb over the ocean. Oh, sure: the evil general (Donald Sutherland) would have been held to account. But all the other guys would be told that it didn’t really matter that what they did in the end was right, they broke the law of the military. They didn’t follow orders. And in the end, the evil general would probably end up with a slap on the wrist. At least, that’s how it seems to work in the real world.

Also in the real world: the only part of the society that gets really high marks from the public in the military. I have no particular animus against it. It is sadly necessary for a country to have. But it is a dirty business and one that we should never romanticize. And it is already (in proportional terms) at least a 100 times larger than any of our founding fathers would have been comfortable with. But we just love our huge army. Most Americans would like it even bigger. Combine that with the general belief of Americans that one should always follow the law—always follow orders. This country of ours increasingly gives me the creeps.


There is a really positive portrait of the government in Outbreak. That is in its portrayal of the Center for Disease Control. The truth is that all those bureaucrats that Americans mostly think so ill of are working every day to keep us safe. And they don’t do it at the barrel of a gun.

What We Inherit from Gregor Mendel

Gregor MendelOn this day in 356 BC, Alexander the Great was born. Or maybe it was tomorrow. It was a long time ago. Memories fade. I’ve never thought much of him and his pointless life. His was a very typical story: conquered a bunch of stuff, die, and it all falls apart. I don’t mean to say that had his accomplishments lasted it would have made his life more meaningful. But it surely is the case that the only real purpose of his conquests was power. In this regard, Genghis Khan comes off a lot better. The one thing that’s always interested me is that Aristotle was his tutor. In general, it tends to lower my opinion of the philosopher who regardless was never one to question existing power. I do hope he was paid well to teach the little bastard.

German impressionist Max Liebermann was born in 1847. He thankfully died before the Nazis got to kill him. The same cannot be said of mathematician Otto Blumenthal who was born in 1876. He managed to escape to the Netherlands. Unfortunately, that was not far enough away as the Nazis took over control of the country in May of 1940. Blumenthal was deported to Theresienstadt, where I assume he was simply murdered in 1944.

The great songwriter Cindy Walker was born in 1918. She wrote many songs you know and love, but especially this one:

And Natalie Wood was born in 1938. For the record, I tend to think she was not murdered. But I think we can all learn an important lesson from her death. It is a really bad idea to get drunk at sea. I’ll go further: it is a bad idea to go to sea at all. I’m not a huge fan of hers, but here she is pretty much holding her own with Rosalind Russell (who kills it) in Gypsy:

The oldest living cardinal, Ersilio Tonini is 99 today. Novelist Cormac McCarthy is 80. Diana Rigg was born on the same day as Nattalie Wood and is 75. Larry “Wide Stance” Craig has a birthday today, and other than hoping he spent it in an airport bathroom, I have nothing to say. Kim Carnes is 68. She is best known for her cover of “Bette Davis Eyes.” I like her performance, but I can’t listen to the song. That whole period of quasi-new wave production is almost unlistenable. But here is Jackie DeShannon’s version of the song (which she co-wrote):

Thomas Friedman is 60. I mention it only so I can present this very funny and accurate analysis of him:

“Big Brain Brett” actor Frank Whaley is 50. And “Say goodbye to these, Michael!” actor Judy Greer is 38.

The day, however, belongs to the father of genetics Gregor Mendel who was born on this day in 1822. There are two reasons that I really like him. First, his was about the only stuff I ever understood in biology class. Everything else was far too complicated with lots of memorizing. Typical of the way science is taught at the low levels, they remove almost everything interesting. But Mendel’s theory about inheritance with peas was simple and elegant. Second, he’s one of those rare thinkers who truly are ahead of their time. But it doesn’t show that the “great man” theory of history is right; it shows just the opposite. If the intellectual soil around a great man is not fertile, his work just won’t be noticed.

Happy birthday Gregor Mendel!

Snowden Causing Distrust of America!

Eric AltermanIt’s a funny country, America. You can launch a destructive, expensive, self-defeating and dishonest war that (predictably) leads to hundreds of thousands of senseless deaths, millions of refugees, trillions of wasted dollars, an explosion of global hatred, etc, and apparently everything’s still cool. But expose the behavior of the US government behind closed doors and suddenly you’ve got cynicism, corrosive distrust and a frayed social fabric…

—Eric Alterman, The MSM and the Snowden Affair: Where True Loyalty Lies

Christian Left?

American Christian FishSteve Benen brought my attention to a report by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute. What it found was that there is a growing Christian Left movement. Not surprisingly, it is younger and more diverse compared to the old white Christian Right movement. A Christian Left movement would be most welcome, but I’m not as hopeful as Benen seems to be.

The big problem is the two sex issues: abortion and homosexuality. These are what give the Christian Right 99% of its vitality. It is all identity politics too. Those people who have casual sex are not good Christians like we. As I’ve argued in the past, there is nothing particularly Christian against abortion. There is nothing in the Bible, and the arguments against it are detailed and not particularly compelling. At least the Old Testament is against homosexuality. And before someone says anything, yes, abortion really has been around that long.

There are all kinds of things that Christians could have elevated to sacred status in terms of their politics. Just looking at the New Testament, one would predict that Christians would focus on eliminating poverty. But they don’t. And I think it all comes down to a small minded fear of sex and hatred of women. In that way, things do look better. I don’t see younger Christians getting older and suddenly developing all of the sexual hangups of their parents. Just the same, I don’t see them forming a strong political movement. After all, pretty much all modern religions believe in some form of life after death. Given that, why care about the suffering of others, especially when they are the other?

Benen also mentioned another fact that I thought was very interesting. Roughly 51% of Americans think that the United States Constitution set up “a Christian nation.” This is good news, because it used to be higher. This bit of ignorance ought to cause outrage on the right as an indication of our schools’ complete failure to educate children about our country. But they won’t. And there is a very good reason why people manage to go around thinking something so wrong. If any school teacher mentioned that the Constitution was created specifically to exclude God from it, he would be pilloried by conservatives.

The question is, are these polls believable? Almost 40% of Americans say they go to church each week. But research of actual attendance found that only 20% actually attend church each week. I think to the vast majority of Americans, saying that they “believe in God” or are “religious” is just another way of saying that they are good people. A self-proclaimed Christian once told me that he didn’t believe that Jesus was the savior. That struck me as particularly American. Christians like to complain that Christ has been removed from Christmas; I would say that Christ has been removed from Christianity.

For most Christians, it is just like a club. And they believe what they believe because that’s what people in the club believe. There is very little of the sacred in modern American Christianity. I know this from personal experience. I talk to Christians all the time and the one who knows anything about the real basis of their religion is as rare as a wheat penny. And so in order to signal tribal loyalty, they grab on to anti-choice and anti-gay hysteria. What will these younger, liberal Christians grab onto? If they stay in the church, I’m not at all certain they won’t develop similar cultural signaling mechanisms. In general, being a member of a church makes a person more suspicious of outsiders. And that leads to the same old in and out group politics that has poisoned the older generation of Christians.

There is, of course, a more pleasant take on all of this. The younger generations could be far more open to real spiritual thinking—to reaching out to the sacred. But in my experience, that kind of thinking leads a person to what might as well be secular. There is no sense of “us and them” when there is no dogma. All the major religions are little more than dogma. So my hope is not that there will be a Christian Left movement. It is more that the young would demand an expansive religion that speaks to our modern needs. None of the Abrahamic religions come close to qualifying. And I fear they will always lead to exclusionary (that is, conservative) politics.

Why Screenplays Suck

Save the Cat!I was on Slate this morning, and I saw a link to another article asking the question, “Why Does Every Movie Released These Days Feel Exactly the Same?” I had to click. For one thing, I thought I already knew. The link brought me to an article by Peter Suderman, Save the Movie! Its thesis is that movies (or summer blockbusters, at least) were killed by Blake Snyder’s screenwriting how-to book, Save the Cat! Unlike other screenwriting books, Snyder provides 15 plot points (Snyder apparently calls them “beats.”) for a film script and the page numbers on which they should occur. According to Suderman, all the blockbusters now use this formula.

The biggest problem with this analysis is that Suderman seems to think that Snyder is doing something different from other screenwriting gurus like Syd Field. I’ve read a couple of these kinds of books; this is exactly what they all preach. Snyder is only different in that he provided a handy list with page numbers. For example, the 11th beat is the “all is lost” moment. Syd Field may not say (as does Snyder) that it ought to go on page number 75, but he does say that it goes at the end of the second act. And that, my friends, is exactly the same thing.

All that Snyder has done is to derive the details of script structure given the three act structure. A write needs to use the first act to set things up. He needs something to happen that propels the story into the second act. He needs all the trials of the second act to lead to a point where all looks hopeless to set up the third act. (In a tragedy, it is the opposite: he needs a point that looks like the hero might just pull it out.) He needs the hero to figure out a way forward that pushes towards the conclusion. There is nothing new here. It is all standard dramatic structure. And it is notable that Snyder’s list contains far less detail about the second act than the other two—just as in the other screenwriting handbooks.

We’re not just talking action films either. Consider, for example, quite a fine film, The Verdict. It was written by David Mamet, who is generally considered a great writer. I wouldn’t go that far, but there is no question that he is a highly accomplished playwright with a good sense of drama. Of course, he wasn’t using Snyder’s list, since the script was written about the time that Snyder was in college. Mamet was just doing what script writers have done for hundreds of years.

The problem with any list of plot elements is that we humans are really good at finding patterns, even where none exist. I remember in one of the screenwriting books I read, the author claimed that anything could be put in a three act structure. As an example, he presented the joke, “Take my wife… Please!” I forget the reasoning, perhaps because I thought it was lame. If anything, it is a two act structure. But the main thing is that if you work hard enough, you can find three acts or 15 beats in anything at all.

Suderman is right that screenwriting in modern Hollywood films is all technique and little creativity. (For a good parody of this, see Adaptation.) It is also true that it is mostly geared toward adolescent men. And it is sexist, homophobic, and many other things that the culture claims to be beyond. But that has been the case for a very long time. It isn’t the formula that is making the scripts bad. It works the other way around. Producers require bad, formulaic scripts. Snyder comes out with yet another book that says, “This is what everyone is doing.” Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the screenwriting team that brought us Star Trek Into Darkness) have been writing trite, formulaic action films since before Snyder wrote his book. It really isn’t Snyder’s fault that Hollywood screenwriting is bad and getting worse.