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March 2011

Mali Journal

M, my older daughter, is in Mali with the Peace Corps.

Today we did our first field trip into Bamako.  I was in a group of seven that visited a restaurant.  It was much sleeker than the average village restaurant.  The young woman who owned it had gotten training and support from a nonprofit which some of us may be working with, and she was actually on the grounds of a government run women's training center.  She had a nicely maintained little building with a real stove and refrigerator, and there were pictures of her and the food she served on the side.  She even had a brochure to give us afterwards.  She specializes in traditional Malian dishes.  She takes samples to big organizations like Peace Corps or the embassies hoping they'll place bigger orders, and she also has walk up customers.  It was interesting to see, but the highlight was probably afterwards going to "Off Broadway Cafe" the best American restaurant in the country (apparently, obviously I don't have much to compare it too just yet), but I got a bacon cheeseburger, a beer and ice cream.

We've almost been in Mali for three weeks.  Initially I wasn't super excited to be coming back and having to be surrounded by other volunteers, but it has turned out to be a needed break from village.  I played some soccer and volleyball last night with the guys, and went for a run this morning with two other volunteers.  It is just generally nice to understand and be understood.  I'm not as big a fan of the cultural and Peace Corps philosophy classes as the language classes, so I am looking forward to getting back to the Bambara classes, but again, since we are doing those six days a week at homestay, along with having to use it with our families, the break has been nice.

I just tested out my "new" bike.  It is kind of janky, but I'll be happy to have it to cut my commute to class down to a third.

Today I got bitten through my clothes by the mosquitoes.  In general, they're not terrible, but today they were merciless.  I don't know if it was the fieldtrip or here at Tubaniso.  They supply us bug repellant, but I'd only been putting it on exposed areas, I guess I need to be even more liberal.

Political Briefs: News from Wisconsin



2.5 stars out of 5
Normally, I would give this action/thriller a 3, but Vicki pointed out to me it suffers from Sean Connery disease; in real life, Liam Neeson is 58 and January Jones, the vapid blonde, is 33. He's not quite twice her age, but almost. In an amusing touch, we see his passport in the film, and 10 years are taken off his age. Anyway, if you're a fan of Neeson in silly action mode, this is the film for you. Its greatest virtue is its unpredictability. I don't know Didier Van Cauwelaert's novel, Out of my Head on which the film is based, but I assume the screenwriting team of Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell (son of spy novelist John LeCarre) got some of the more clever twists from the book (you can tell they are a team because they are listed with an ampersand in the credits. Sequential writers are credited with the word "and"). The thing that made me like this movie was the fact that I never knew what was going on and could never predict what's coming next. I can't share the plot without spoiling it, but I guarantee you will be surprised and I assure you that you will be entertained. Unless you can't get past the age-inappropriate co-stars.

Neal Vitale's Oscar Picks

Best Picture - The King's Speech

Best Actor - Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Best Actress - Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor - Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best Supporting Actress - Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Directing - David Fincher, The Social Network

Best Animated Film - Toy Story 3

Best Art Direction- Alice In Wonderland

Best Cinematography - The King's Speech

Best Costume Design - Alice In Wonderland

Best Film Editing - The King's Speech

Best Foreign Film - In A Better World

Best Makeup - The Wolfman

Best Original Score - The King's Speech

Best Original Song - "If I Rise," 127 Hours

Best Adapted Screenplay - The Social Network

Best Original Screenplay - The King's Speech

Best Sound Editing - Inception

Best Sound Mixing - Inception

Best Visual Effects - Inception

Best Documentary Feature - Restrepo

Best Documentary Short - Strangers No More

Best Animated Short - Day And Night

Best Live Action Short - Na Wewe


King's Speech, Abe Lincoln, Dan Grobstein File

Bob Nilsson writes:

This mainly behind-the-scenes controversy over the historical accuracy of “The King’s Speech” is fascinating. From a PR standpoint, it shows the trouble you can get yourself into when you respond with a lame defense as David Seidler did; rather than just letting the criticism lie.

The King's Speech Revisited
The movie's screenwriter goes too far in defending his version of history

A friend of Kent Peterman's wrote an article about Lincoln.

Dan Grobstein File

  • But I Thought Union-Busting Solved All Educational Problems!
    Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:
    South Carolina – 50th
    North Carolina – 49th
    Georgia – 48th
    Texas – 47th
    Virginia – 44th
    If you are wondering, Wisconsin, with its collective bargaining for teachers, is ranked 2nd in the country. Let’s keep it that way. This isn’t to say that the lack of collective bargaining explains these poor outcomes, of course, but it is true that the evidence that breaking teacher’s unions improves educational outcomes is somewhere between “exceptionally weak” and “non-existent.”
  • Koch Brothers end game in Wisconsin. It isn't really about the budget, it is about busting the unions.
  • Forget the cheese --- Wisconsin is now the land of fruits and nuts. So the fight over collective bargaining is a smokescreen. No new taxes forever & sell off state assets to your friends is the important part.
  • Times does half-assed job on major fraud story
  • Free Oil!
  • Don't Blame Facebook.  So blame the internet, which has made competition from other professionals far stiffer than in the past. But the amateurs chattering away on Facebook? Not so much.

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is in Mali serving in the Peace Corps:

I've been living in a village for the last two weeks without electricity or running water called Djiallakorobugo, half an hour outside of the capitol city Bamako. My host family has forty people, 35 of them children from the age of 3 months to 24 years old. There are three wives, an aunt and an uncle, but the host dad is dead. My Malian name is Fatimata. My favorite brother is M, and my favorite sister is O, both 18, both most willing to speak French or slow Bambara with me.

We are back at Tubaniso, which is the Peace Corps training center. It is half America/half Mali. By American standards it is rustic, kind of a nice camping site, but by Malian standards it is incredibly plush, I now know. Here we have internet, electricity, fans, and toilet paper provided in all the squat toilets. We have separate spaces to shower, and pump water on tap, as well as cold treated water to drink. In the village we have a combination of pump water and well water that we can fetch or have a child fetch for us. And we have to filter it.

We just had Mexican food for dinner. In the states I would have been judgmental of the quality, but here it was delicious. Mmmmm, guacamole. I'm not actually super thrilled to be back surrounded by Americans. Everyone wants to talk about their own experience over the last couple of weeks, which makes it hard for them to listen to your stories. Also, I hate to hear people bitching, although I've been doing some myself.

It is really hot. And this is winter. Hot season starts to ramp up in a couple of weeks though. And then after that of course is rainy season. And no one works during either of those. So my first six months here should be pretty relaxed in pace. Time definitely feels different here. Without modern distractions, time passes slowly, but with eight hours of language class six days a week, my time is also pretty heavily scheduled and not my own.

Even though everyone here is pretty fit (because they don't really have a choice), they look pretty developmentally stunted too. Everyone is short and looks a couple years younger than I would have guessed for their ages.

I'm going to find out my region and what type of project I will most likely be doing the second week of March. I'm very excited for that. Once we find out we'll get to meet our Malian counterpart and go do a site visit and meet our new host families. I'm enjoying my current situation, but I'm more excited to know where I'll be spending the whole 2 years to follow.

The meals have been VERY carb heavy. I've asked my teacher to ask my family to provide more vegetables, so the last couple of days it has been better. Initially a standard day was a third of a baguette and eggs for breakfast (actually very good) with Lipton tea, potatoes and a couple chunks of beef for lunch, and rice or pasta with a couple chunks of meat for dinner. Since I asked for more vegetables I've been getting my couple chunks of meat on top of greenbeans rather than carbs. I also like the fish here, it is smoked and except for the bones, kind of delicious.

Trouble With Labor, Trouble With Capital

Trouble with Capital

Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?

"You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players. But for stealing a billion dollars? For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure? Pass. It's not a crime."

 "The mental stumbling block, for most Americans, is that financial crimes don't feel real; you don't see the culprits waving guns in liquor stores or dragging coeds into bushes. But these frauds are worse than common robberies. They're crimes of intellectual choice, made by people who are already rich and who have every conceivable social advantage, acting on a simple, cynical calculation: Let's steal whatever we can, then dare the victims to find the juice to reclaim their money through a captive bureaucracy. They're attacking the very definition of property — which, after all, depends in part on a legal system that defends everyone's claims of ownership equally. When that definition becomes tenuous or conditional — when the state simply gives up on the notion of justice — this whole American Dream thing recedes even further from reality."

 The failure of justice is a continuation of the ethic which refused to prosecute Nelson Rockefeller and one of his family's companies for supplying fuel to the Nazis for cash (and thereby fueling the war machine which killed American soldiers and sailors and many others) while Rockefeller was in a State Department position during World War II which enabled him to facilitate the sales, the ethic which granted a pardon to Richard Nixon, the ethic which refused to prosecute Ronald Reagan for selling arms to a nation he described as a terrorist nation and using the proceeds to import drugs into the United States, and the ethic which refuses even to investigate (let alone prosecute) George W. Bush for the war crimes and torture he has in writing in his own published book admitted committing.

 Trouble with Labor

  • Wisconsin Gov. Walker Creates A "Crisis" Then Uses Alleged "Crisis" To Attack Unions. Also here.
  • Assault On The American Worker
    " If you weren’t aware that the tea party push [n.b. financed by the Koch interests] to elect Republicans was more about union-busting than liberty or freedom, you weren’t paying attention"
    "The asymmetrical warfare, where Republicans keep to their goal of total destruction and Democrats seek to make nice and negotiate, has to stop. It has to stop first in Wisconsin."
  • Roger Ebert Tweet from Dan Grobstein: My dad was right. "The Republican Party is against the working man."
  • Labor's Last Stand  As that great Republican Abraham Lincoln said: "United we stand, divided we fall." Or maybe it was: "A house divided against itself can not stand."

Oscar Shorts

As usual. I went to see all the animated and live action shorts, in an annual festival organized by

Normally, I see it in Berkeley, at the Shattuck Theater. But this year I happened to be in Portland, and the shorts were showing at the Hollywood Theater, a 1926 movie palace that is my dad’s neighborhood theater. (Did you know that movie palace actually has a definition? More than 1,000 seats…) I love to know enough to have a rooting interest in these two categories. If you want to see it yourself, all the venues are listed at the web site. In each category, I list my favorite first, then some brief comments on the others.

Director/Writer/Producer: Geefwee Boedoe
Announcer Jim Thornton does a letter-perfect sendup of all the announcers of all the educational films of the 1950s and 1960s, in this cunning put-down of America’s consumer society. This is my favorite kind of short: funny, clever, well-written and thought provoking. Like those educational films, this should be the first of a series.

Director/Writer: Teddy Newton
Another fine, slick, amusing Pixar effort, but it didn’t knock my socks off.

Directors: Jakob Schuh, Max Lange
Writers: Julia Donaldson, Max Lang, Jakob Schuh
Cute. A spectacular all-star cast of voice talent. Its roots as a children’s book are crystal clear. Sometimes adaptations are amazing; this one is merely good.

Directors/Writers: Andrew Ruhemann, Shaun Tan
Lovers of visual splendor and complete and utter whimsy will like this film, which offers a sly commentary on people’s capacity for observation and the importance (or lack thereof) of fitting in. This is my second favorite. The people who made it should be encouraged.

Director/Writer: Bastien Dubois
Sweet, winsome, lovely and pointless, unless you care madly about either the directort or Madagascar. I don’t care about either.


Director/Writer: Luke Matheny
I always like to laud commercial films with “normal” or “ugly” actors in service of an amusing and clever script. That is what we have here—a funny fantasy. The writer/director/star is, I think, the ugliest person I’ve ever seen in a film. But like Susan Boyle he has a lovely voice and unlike her (as far I know) he is a talented writer and director.

THE CRUSH Ireland/15 MIN
Director/Writer: Michael Creagh
Producer: Damon Quinn
If, like me, you constantly find yourself guessing what happens next, and are disappointed when you are always right, you’ll love this little utterly Irish short story about a second-grader with a crush on his teacher. If you figure out where it is going, email me. I had no idea. This is my second-favorite film.

WISH 143 UK/24 MIN
Director: Ian Barnes
Writer: Tom Bidwell
For me, live-action is almost always harder to judge than animation; I find there are more good films in this category. This is definitely the third-best film, as it tells the story of a 16-year-old male cancer patient whose wish is exactly what you’d think it would be.

Director: Tanel Toom
Writer: Caroline Bruckner
This dark and scary film mixes elements of horror and whimsy in a way I simply did not find appealing.

NA WEWE Belgium/19 MIN
Director: Ivan Goldschmidt
Writers: Ivan Goldschmidt, Jean-Luc Pening
Here’s another very scary one, about a checkpoint in Africa during one of its periodic upheavals, as the passengers of a bush taxi are sorted by race—with great difficulty (which is the point of the film).

Just Go With It

4 stars out of 5
This Adam Sandler/Jennifer Anniston romocom truly surprised me.  Sandler was not an exaggerated jerk or clown, and Anniston was not annoying or scary. Who knew they had it in them? By the way, Nicole Kidder has an amusing extended cameo. It was a perfect romcom in the sense that after several false starts their only kiss takes place about 30 second before the end of the movie. This is of the "web of lies" sub-genre, in which plastic surgeon Sandler's assistant/ receptionist, his "office wife" turns out to have an unexpected hold on his heart. There is a lot of humor, just a touch of pathos, some intelligent dialog and some garbage as well as a few juvenile toilet jokes. You could write an outline of the entire film, including the appearance of Kidder, within one minute of the film's start, but there is comfort in genre well-executed and interest is generated in how the journey occurs, even when you know how it will end.