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June 2006

We Bid A Sad Farewell to The Bartlet Administration

Daniel Dern writes for both of us:

After seven years, my favorite science fiction/fantasy television series -- no, not FarScape, Babylon Five, or Buffy, those ended several years ago -- The West Wing, has come to an end.

The final episode aired Sunday, May 14, 2006, preceded by a rerun of the very first episode.

West Wing was the creation of Aaron Sorkin... a logical successor to his 1995 movie, The American President, and his short-lived half-hour television "dramedy" series, Sports Night (a wonderful show -- I have zero or negative interest in sports, and loved the show). (And I should have bought the DVD box set two years ago before the price went up by like 50%...)

West Wing brought to a show about the White House, and the people who worked in it, the same hyperverbal, fast-paced rat-ta-tat dialogue, and complex people interplay, that had graced Sports Night. West Wing was about a admittedly-idealized democratic administration; it was created while Clinton was still president, before the 2000 election, before 9/11.

Arguably, West Wing qualifies as "science fiction" in the "alternate history" sense. So it's no surprise that media reviewer/critic Dan Kimmel led a panel on West Wing at the World Science Fiction Convention held in Philadelphia over Labor Day Weekend, 2000 (1)... not just for the alternate-history aspects, but also (as I said at the panel, from the audience), because West Wing -- like Sports Night -- showed a workplace where everyone knew what their job was and what most other peoples' jobs were, care about doing their jobs, and doing the best to figure out what the right thing do to was and then do it... the kind of places I believe many of us wish we could work at.

Inarguably, West Wing was a great show, certainly while Aaron Sorkin was at the helm, and, after he left, for much of the final two seasons. We (the audience) was treated as intelligent people who were assumed to be paying careful attention to every word, image and pause.

The show wasn't perfect. But it was usually good, often great. Where else on network prime time would you get a one minute complaint in Latin, without translation (from Martin Sheen, as the president), or Rob Lowe, as Sam Seaborn, White House deputy communications director, instantly respinning a NASA dry-as-dust announcement about a Mars mission into an oratorical paean to the marvels of science, engineering and the universe.

Series wrap-ups often go overboard with either sentimentality or excessive violence (e.g. the end of Angel); not enough go out with quiet dignity (e.g. Barnie Miller). I'd like to thank the gang behind West Wing for wrapping up enough loose ends, giving reasonable closure-and-move-on to the characters, and letting us say farewell to an administration a lot of us wish we could really elect.

(1) Note, most science fiction conventions have a nickname, often but not always related to their location. "WorldCon" for World Science Fiction Conventions; WorldCons held in LA are LACon. The 2000 WorldCon held in Philadephia was called -- and the opportunity to do this probably swayed the selection of Philadelphia for that year's WorldCon location -- The Millennium Philcon.

Tears In My Eyes

Well, it was a long time coming. At my school, we use the Center for Civic Education's "We the People" curriculum to teach our students about the U.S. Constitution. It takes six weeks to cover the material and two grueling weeks to prepare the students for two days of presentations before, and questioning by, volunteer parent and community judges. Getting the students going in the same direction is not unlike herding cats, and the logistics of getting more than 60 judges lined up over two days… well, don't ask. But at the end you have one of those moments that helps you understand why you got into teaching in the first place. Every student, even the more challenged ones, comes to school, dresses in a dress or coat and tie and gives a reasonably good presentation. They may not be able to answer all the questions, but they try. Some of the answers bring tears to your eyes. Some of the students do, simply because you had not previously had any evidence they understood the subject.

Nothing left now between me and the end of the school year but a day off for Memorial Day and eight teaching days during which the students will create PowerPoint presentations for each other about the content of the last few chapters. Then my third year as a teacher will draw to a close.

What Brings You Here?

Lots of things brought you here last week; Cleopatra's Ethnicity, State Impeachment resolutions, Spamalot, Mike Elgan's The Raw Feed blog rolling section and the Biobricks Tee-Shirt from Craig's Technobriefs.

Someone wandered around, starting with my description of state impeachment resolutions, stopping off at The Tech's reunion (another person got to that page by searching for Jerri-Lynn Scofield '83 and then gazed at several movie reviews).

Someone was interested in my stories of teaching, and there was a search for the Marvel Comics Civil War which further propogated the analysis of Daniel Dern and Tom Lasusa.

Someone who came for my RSS tutorial stayed for Neal's Over The Hedge review.

What Scooter Saw

Libby Told May Be Called as Witness

Scooter "might" have seen the newspaper with Dick's handwriting on it on Dick's desk? One notes that Scooter also may have noticed that the sun generally comes up in the morning and might have noticed the color of the building where he had an office was white. Sooner or later he "might" also realize that while he and his friends can keep on selling the same line to the press corps they may find that jurires are generally a lot more concerned about the truth and not being misled than your average White House reporter.


  • Internet Ad Seeks Temp Workers to Privately Shuttle Hackable Voting Machines: for California's Upcoming Primary Elections. Electronic Machines, Shown Vulnerable to Easy Tampering -- Yet Said by State Officials to Be Physically Protected Under New Guidelines -- Now Available for Easy Access to Temp Workers! Rationalizations from Diebold Company Apologists Appearing Sillier by the Day...
  • The light at the end of the tunnel. He can't even manage to pronounce (or does not know) the name of the "guy" after over three years of allegedly fighting him. What have George and Laura done to encourage Jenna and Barbara to enlist? When are Jenna and Barbara joining the fight? When will Jenna and Barbara defend the southern border? Bush: Slowly Reaching Turning Point
  • The Republican culture of corruption continues to expand. Former GOP Aide's Ties Make Lewis Case Knottier
  • ''Let me just put it bluntly: I'm concerned about the erosion of democracy in'' Venezuela and Bolivia, Bush said. I wonder what it would be like to live in a country with a corrupt ruling party and a secrecy-obsessed president who liked to meddle in other countries. How do the Bolivians put up with it?
  • Translation of lead article in The Washington Post on 5/22/06. In journalism we call these articles thumbsuckers; at least the last half of that term of art applies to this story.
  • NSA Wiretap Documents Released


by Craig Reynolds

Computers, cheap or pay as you go: pictures of first working prototype of the $100 Laptop (via). Alternately Microsoft and banks float a way to buy more expensive traditional PCs on a pay-per-use basis: World Bank, Microsoft marketing prepaid computers.

Mosquito ringtone: a plausible myth is the natural enemy of the sort of techno-snark about blog-borne memes that we traffic in here at Technobriefs. There was a great-if-true story this week about plucky teenagers stickin' it to the man, about how our world as turned into a science-fiction novel, about the law of unintended consequences. There is in fact a commercial teenager repellent based on the fact that youthful ears have better perception of high frequency sounds. The story goes that clever teens turned this sound into a cell phone ringtone that teens can hear, but teachers and parents cannot. On the other hand there has been much doubt cast on whether the cell phone ring tones are generated with sufficient fidelity to reproduce these high frequencies: Cory has some pros and cons.

Smells like ukulele spirit: while not a big grunge rock fan, I have to admit to a fondness for Nirvana's 1991 breakthrough hit Smells Like Teen Spirit. So I was both delighted and horrified when my wife sent me a link to a video of this performance by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain! In fact it is great fun.  Certainly the juxtaposition is stunning and while Cobain famously mumbles the original lyrics, the UOoGB's emotive singer has great diction. (Those incomprehensible lyrics are lampooned in Weird Al Yankovic's Smells Like Nirvana see the video.) A friend replied with a collection of Teen Spirit covers including, for example, a Gregorian Chant version.

Technobits: WHO Probes Family That Died of Bird Flu, Tamiflu Maker Alerted After Suspected Human-to-Human Transmission --- wrap-up of the various bills: Net neutrality field in Congress gets crowded --- search based on image similarity --- Apple loses court appeal against online journalists --- Satellites Can Warn of Floods, Landslides Worldwide, Scientists Say --- Magnetic sled could hurl objects into orbit --- massive aquaculture project: Free-Range Sushi.

Immigration Debate Humor

Late Night Snark

"President Bush said today he has nothing but respect for Mexico and its people and he will always speak the truth to them. Here's my question: When can we get that deal?" ---Jay Leno


"Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says he's not sure if his grandparents entered the United States legally. As a result, President Bush has sent the entire Gonzales family back to Ireland." ---Conan O'Brien


"The Mexican border will now have surveillance cameras and motion detectors. Our borders will be as secure as The Gap." ---David Letterman


"As part of the ongoing immigration debate, the Senate on Thursday voted 64 to 34 to make English America's national language. Coming in second: '70s jive talk." ---Tina Fey


Clip of President Bush: "America needs to conduct this debate on immigration in a reasoned and respectful tone. We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger or playing on anyone's fears." Jon Stewart: "That's what terrorism and gay people are for."

Art School Confidential

3 Stars

Memo to Art Film Makers: I am sure many people tell you to put more plot into your films. Resist this temptation. The kind of people willing to go to the kind of theater that will show Art School Confidential are the kind of people willing to sit through a foreign film with subtitles, or an English language film without a single murder or car chase. Trust that they do not need a murder mystery tacked onto their coming of age film which features every art school cliché known to man--ironically distanced by having a character in the film point out that everyone's a cliché. This is the team that did American Splendor, and they did a pretty good but not great job. A handful of carefully crafted cameos, plus artistic nudity (including full-frontal male and not full-frontal female, for a change--don't believe the trailers, this is not a skin flick), make for a not-unpleasant afternoon. If I praise with faint damns, so be it.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand

3 stars

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Would it insult this film to call it a live-action comic book? I think not. The Batman TV series at least had the courage of its convictions--it was campy, self-aware, and featured mannered performances with literal sound effects ("pow!") displayed on the screen. Remove the sound effects, and you have X-Men 3. The featured players were not really Ian "Scenery Chewed since 1969" McKellen or Patrick "I Chew What Ian Misses" Stewart. According to the billing it was Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry. They get to fight, kill and kiss, albeit not each other. My nominee for best supporting actor was Kelsey Grammer as The Beast (he actually stole my line, "Oh my stars and garters"), always one of my favorite characters (The Beast, not Grammer. Well, actually, I usually like Grammer too). Cyclops always struck me as too anguished for his own good, but you'll get no spoilers out of me--not that you won't pretty much be able to write the film yourself after the first 10 minutes. Oh, and speaking of 10 minutes, if you can stand watching 10 minutes of credits, you'll be rewarded with a mysterious 10-second scene at the end. My lips are sealed. Suffice it to say that this film aspires to nothing more than loud music, loud explosions, and spectacular CGI, along with showing us Magneto's concentration camp tattoo. Again. Rumor is that Superman really does try to dust off the legend and add some humanity (although Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor may challenge McKellan for scene-chewing villain of the year (shades of Gene Hackman!) based on the preview shown with X-Men. My fingers are crossed. They learned to take Batman seriously, can they do the same with Superman?

Stan Lee would be rolling over in his grave (if he were dead yet, which he isn't) to see Superman, a DC character, promoted at a Marvel film. Welcome to the world of synergy. I mean, they're all just superheroes, right?

By the way, I bought X-Men the first day it came out, written by Lee, illustrated by the late, great Jack Kirby (I bought all the Marvel books back in the Silver Age). I liked the original X-Men, with all that yellow on their costumes and a cast small enough to keep track of. Which, I guess, just makes me a fuddy-duddy.

Lasusa's Links, Dern's Bee-List Idea, Dan Grobstein File

Tom Lasusa, with a little help from his friends, suggests these links: McCain Put In His Place... Meet your Maker (in Wicker)... The Koranic Fish...Touched By An Alien... Lou Dobbs on CNN: Bush, Congress tells working folk to go to hell... The Myth of Superman by Niel Gaiman...Mike the Headless Chicken...Family Guy's Chris Takes on A-HA... iDo or iDon't... Landover Baptist... Bush to Putin: "You're a big Pootie Poot, Nyah Nyah!" Shave everywhere... It's a Star Wars Lego Choose Your Own Adventure.

Daniel Dern checks in:

Bobbi and I went to see this movie, with friends, over the weekend, and like it a lot. Here's the IMDB summary: "A young girl from South Los Angeles tries to make it to the National Spelling Bee." Highly recommended. See it before it goes away. Two random thoughts: Laurence Fishburne seems to star a lot as a mentoring dude (e.g., Searching for Bobby Fisher). The credits didn't list any stunt doubles for the harder words :-)

Turns out this film was made by a friend of my sister-in-law. I am going to try to see it!

Dan Grobstein File

  • From Froomkin's Washington Post column [ed. Note: Washington Post urls have a tendency to expire...]

    The idea of a president actually facing his critics head on sounds utterly alien today, but as I wrote in my February 8, 2005 column -- after Bush himself compared his Social Security blitz to President Clinton's -- when Clinton held his "discussions" on Social Security, he intentionally brought opponents along with him, spoke before a mixed crowd, and let himself get grilled.

    …an April 7, 1998 appearance by Clinton in Kansas City. He invited Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), among others, to join him.

    And while the audience was laboriously prescreened, that was so that it would not be one-sided. Members were selected by a market research company to reflect the demographic and economic characteristics of the region.

    Craig Crawford wrote last month for Congressional Quarterly that Bush's "recent performances in town hall meetings with average Americans show all the signs of a tired show: formulaic scripts, weak jokes and a waning audience."

    Indeed, Bush's meandering, familiar responses to most questions are so unrevelatory, and add so little to the public discourse, that it's hard to see how they're doing the White House any good.
  • Digbyblog: FBI raid on Cong. Jefferson's office: But the bigger issue is something that someone wrote in an email a couple of days ago: This Republican Justice Department, led by a lifetime Bush loyalist and good friend to Karl Rove now has every Democratic strategy memo that ever came across Congressman Jefferson's desk. Trust 'em?
  • Rude Pundit also went to see Gore at Town Hall, reported on here last week.