Monday, June 30, 2008

Regal Cinema's Disregard for Patrons and Films

I love to go to movies. I really enjoy going to a new blockbuster film on opening night. Usually, my wife and I (and our kids, when appropriate) go to the Regal Cinemas Village Park Stadium 17 in Westfield (or Carmel, depending on who you ask), Indiana. The theater is close to our house, has decent stadium-style seating, and ample parking. Unfortunately, the management at the theater has very little, if any, regard for the patrons that pay to see films. This past weekend, that disregard sank to a new low, one that was, I believe, a fraud perpetrated upon unsuspecting patrons and their kids.

On Friday afternoon, we took our kids (8½-year-old twins) to see WALL-E (which they had been looking forward to). We got our candy, popcorn, and drinks and settled into a crowded theater to watch the film. The movie started and everything seemed fine and normal. Then, about 20 minutes or so into the movie, there was what appeared to be an odd-edit and the story jumped forward in the narrative chronology. Having not seen the movie before, I just accepted this as part of the storytelling technique and kept watching, although numerous elements of the story made little sense. But then, about 20 minutes later, the film jumped back to the point in the story where the previous jump had occurred. For a moment -- a brief moment -- I thought that the story was being told through a flashback. Then I realized that this was a Pixar (Disney) film aimed at kids; I wasn't seeing Memento or Rashemon or Pulp Fiction. No, what I was watching was a film that was being shown out of order.

My wife drew the proverbial short straw and left the theater to find a manager to complain. She spoke to a member of the Regal management team who explained that they were aware of the problem. The manager "offered" to let us move to a different theater for a showing of the film that started 30 minutes after the show that we'd purchased tickets for "if we were unhappy" with how they were showing the movie. My wife told the manager that the other patrons should be told that there was a problem with the movie and the manager replied that they were "discussing" what to do about the problem.

So, we moved theaters, missed the first 15 minutes or so (that we'd already seen), and then watched about 30 minutes all over again (in the right order this time). The kids seemed to find the whole thing to be kind of an adventure.

When we left the theater after the movie (which I enjoyed very much, both as a movie aimed at kids and as a more serious science fiction film), we sought out a manager to continue the discussion of the issue. During that discussion, the manager indicated that she had suspicions that the film was out of order the night before yet did nothing. Moreover, she did not make any kind of announcement to those who had not complained and sat through the out-of-order version of the movie. I asked her, rhetorically, how many kids might have been confused by the out-of-order storytelling and she just shrugged and said that she didn't think that people would have a difficult time piecing the story together for themselves. We told her that we thought that the theater's management had, in essence, committed a fraud upon those purchasing a ticket for a film that the management knew or should have known was damaged. Again, she just shrugged, and, in essence, told us "tough shit; I don't really care".

And, lest you think that this was an isolated example of a problem, rest assured that it was not. Several months ago, we saw Cloverfield in the same theater. As those who saw Cloverfield can attest, it relies upon an interesting storytelling and video style. When the film began, a thin green line ran from the top to the bottom of the screen about ¼ of the way across the screen. The green line was very, very distracting, but we thought that it was just part of the video style that the director had intended. It wasn't until about 15 minutes into the film when the line was still present that we realized that it was actually a scratch on the film rather than a part of the actual storytelling. We were about to complain when the line finally went away.

After the movie ended, we asked to speak to a manager. (Interestingly, the manager that we spoke to then was the same manager that we spoke to Friday night.) She acknowledged the scratch on the film and, more importantly, indicated that it had been there since the night before. In other words, she acknowledged that they sold tickets for several shows to see a film that they knew was damaged and that they didn't tell anyone or warn people that the film was damaged. Had I been told, prior to buying my ticket, that the film was damaged, I would have waited and seen a different showing, come another night, or gone to another theater.

Consider, for a moment, if this was a DVD that you rented from Blockbuster. How would you feel if Blockbuster knew that the DVD was scratched, but rented it to you anyway? You get home, pop some popcorn, turn off the lights, snuggle in with your loved one for a night of movie watching, and then the movie skips. When you call Blockbuster to complain, they say, "Oh, yeah. That copy is damaged. Bring it back and we'll let you watch a different copy." Would you be satisfied? Or, imagine if, rather than a movie, the product being sold was a car and the dealer knew that the tires were defective? If the product were a hamburger and the restaurant knew that it was contaminated with e-coli? If the product were a _____ [insert your favorite product here] and the store that sold it to you knew that it was defective. Wouldn't that be a fraud? To knowingly sell a product or service that one knows is defective (especially when non-defective versions are available) is nothing less than the perpetration of fraud upon unsuspecting consumers. It is wrong. It might be criminal.

And, just consider one other thing for a moment. Movies are art. The people at Pixar spent years making WALL-E. Each scene was carefully thought out and composed to look just right. The story was written, tweaked, examined, and revised, so that it worked just right. When the director releases his film, he (or she) expects the artistic integrity of the final work to be maintained. Sure, the director and studio may agrue over final cuts and so forth, but once the film leaves the studio, the director knows that filmgoers are going to see the movie that the director and studio have created. A theater has no right to change the director's artistic vision or modify the artistic integrity of the film. Showing a film that the theater knows is damaged (as in Cloverfield) or showing a film out of order violates the artistic integrity of the film and is probably a breach of the director's moral rights and the studio's copyright in the film. And, while I understand that accidents happen, that doesn't explain either of these situations where the management of the theater knew that the films were damaged before selling tickets.

Why am I so pissed off? After all, it was just a movie and we got to see the whole thing in the right order. It pisses me off because I know that there was a theater full of people who didn't realize that there was a problem. More importantly, there was a theater full of kids who may not have understood what should, to them, have been a very entertaining story (with a message, no less). I'm pissed because the management of Regal Cinemas ruined the experience of seeing the movie for many people. I'm pissed because the management of Regal Cinemas violated the artistic integrity of the film (and, as someone who really enjoys movies, this is something that I take seriously). And, most of all, I'm pissed because the management of Regal Cinemas clearly doesn't give a fuck!

And when I say this, I'm not just engaging in some kind of angry hyperbole. Back in 2005 I got fed up with a number of problems at the theater (from stupidly long lines to filthy restrooms to theaters so cold that patrons would actually bring blankets into the theater [in summer, no less!] to managers who were aware of the problems but did nothing about them). So, I wrote a letter to the CEO of Regal Cinemas (and sent a copy to the local theater's management). After a month or so, I received no response whatsoever. So, I followed up with a phone call to a customer support number at Regal's corporate offices. They promised to look into the matter and get back to me. Of course, I never heard from them again. Thus, from these experiences, all I can conclude is that, as I asserted above, the management of Regal Cinemas simply doesn't care about their patrons. They don't care if they sell tickets to a damaged movie and they don't care about the quality of the experience of theater patrons. And this disregard appears to be a corporate philosophy. It appears to be a calculated decision that, if the theater is convenient, people will show up no matter how bad the experience may be, so there is no reason to make an effort to make the experience better. And when, from time to time, someone complains, just give them a free ticket and send them on their way. No harm, no foul. I wonder what Regal stockholders would have to say about that corporate philosophy?

On Saturday night, my wife and I went to see Wanted. We went to the new AMC theater that opened. It is a bit farther from the Regal theater and parking wasn't as easy. But the theater was clean, there weren't any lines for popcorn, the employees were friendly, and the movie wasn't damaged. I suspect that we'll be spending more of our entertainment dollars with AMC and fewer with Regal.


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LibraryThing: "Nothing to Lose"

I updated my LibraryThing catalog with a review of Nothing to Lose [Jack Reacher #12] by Lee Child (I actually made the update last week, but forgot to mention it here...). I'm currently reading The Codex by Douglas Preston.


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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Irrational Objections to Obama

Several days ago I found myself in the midst of a political discussion with several friends that took a turn that I found quite disturbing. Essentially, my friends were saying that they would either vote for Sen. McCain or not vote, rather than vote for Sen. Obama. It was the reasoning behind their decision that concerned me. Several points were advanced by my friends:
  • They were worried that Obama would be more interested in black issues than issues facing Americans in general.

  • They were concerned that so much of Obama's support comes from African-Americans.

  • They were also concerned that so many young people support Obama.

  • They were concerned that Obama does not have enough experience.

  • They were worried that Obama would not be a friend to Israel (or, and perhaps this was just my interpretation, that Obama would be more friendly to the Arabs/Muslims than the Israelis/Jews).

  • They don't feel as if Obama has said what stands for other than "change".

  • They were concerned by the amount of money that Obama is raising.

  • They felt that the media had anointed Obama as the candidate before the primaries were over (or, said another way, the media was biased in favor of Obama and against Sen. Clinton).

In all honesty, listening to these concerns made me both uncomfortable and worried. Uncomfortable because what I was hearing from these friends sounded like thinly disguised (or undisguised) racism and bigotry. Worried because I wonder how many others are expressing similar sentiments and, thus, will choose to vote for McCain or just not vote.

My friends both affirmed that they want a Democrat in the White House, but they just don't want that Democrat to be Obama. I tried to explain to them that a "protest vote" for McCain would help him get elected and help keep a Democrat out of the White House. Similarly, I explained that by not casting a vote at all, they were essentially doing the same thing as voting for McCain. After all, Indiana is a presumed "red" state; Obama needs every vote he can get (especially from voters who normally don't vote or who vote Republican) to have a chance of winning. If people like my friends sit this one out, then Indiana will be colored red on the network maps within moments after the polls close this November.

I want to go back to the concerns that my friends raised and discuss a few of them. When I told my friends that I thought that their viewpoint was racist or bigoted, they vehemently denied having any such feelings. I suggested that they take the words "black" and "African-American" and substitute them with "Jewish" or "Catholic" or "female" and see if their own sentiments made them uncomfortable and how they would feel if that sort of accusation was aimed at a candidate that they supported. Their only response was that it was "different".

I asked them why it was a problem for African-Americans to support Obama. They responded that African-Americans were only supporting Obama because he is black (of course, later in the discussion, he morphed from being black to being an Arab, but that is a different discussion). I suggested, first, that this was a hypocritical point in two respects. First, I suggested that they had been supportive of Joe Lieberman in 2000, largely because he was Jewish (they denied this charge, but without much force), and had supported Hillary Clinton, largely because she was a woman (this charge was not really denied). I asked them what was wrong with a voter supporting a candidate "like them". My friends responded that voters should make decisions solely on the basis of the positions taken by candidates and not on their race and religion. And, while I agree wholeheartedly with this, I think it is beyond naive to suggest that a candidate who comes from a similar ethnic background or religious affiliation or any of a host of other societal cohort groupings to that of the voter in question won't "speak" more to that voter's issues. I also pointed out to my friends that in the early stages of the primaries, before Obama became more well known, Clinton enjoyed a large lead among African-American voters. But, as voters learned more about Obama (and his ideas), he gained support. As the conversation progressed, it became apparent to me that my friends are of the belief that African-Americans make up a far larger percentage of the electorate than they actually do. And they never had a response for me when I asked what was wrong with a candidate energizing a segment of the population that might not otherwise be engaged in the political process. I also pointed out to them that African-Americans traditionally vote Democratic by large majorities; thus, there is nothing out of the ordinary for those traditionally Democratic voters to support a Democrat; it is not as if Obama is a Republican asking African-Americans to vote against their own self-interest just because he is "one of them".

The notion that Obama's support among young voters is a "problem" absolutely stunned me (even though I've heard this before). Essentially, what my friends (who are, admittedly, much older) were saying is that the opinions of older Americans are more important than the opinions of younger Americans. I told them how truly undemocratic their viewpoint was. They responded that older Americans had more experience upon which to base their opinions. For the sake of argument, I agreed, in part, with the general proposition. But then I asked them their position on issues such as net neutrality, carbon emission credits, alternative fuel development subsidies, and stem cell research. As I suspected, they had heard of a some of these issues, but knew very little about them. I suggested that many young voters were very familiar with these issues. I also pointed out that they would not be asked to fight in Iraq (or Iran or North Korea or wherever), that they would continue to get their social security check, even if the social security trust fund ran out before younger voters reached retirement age, and that they would probably be long dead by the time that the effects of global warming made dramatic changes to our world and lifestyle. Thus, I asked, aren't the opinions of the youth who will be asked to fight or who will forced to work later in life just to have a chance to retire or who will be forced to inherent a damaged planet, in fact more important than the opinions of older voters who won't be around for as long? This rhetorical question was met only with stony silence.

I also challenged the assertion that Obama did not have enough experience. I agreed that McCain had been in the Senate far longer and thus had more legislative experience than Obama. However, I pointed out that McCain had just as much experience as an executive: none. Moreover, I asked whether McCain's years of experience made more palatable his views on such topics as abortion, gun control, separation of church and state, taxation, Iraq, or any of a host of other issues important to my friends. And, I asked, which was more important: experience or intelligence? I also pointed out that some of the Presidents who were often regarded as among the best (Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, to name but two) had very, very little experience before becoming President. By contrast, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush had a lot of experience before becoming President.

When I asked why they didn't think that Obama would be a friend to Israel, they hemmed and hawed, without really giving me an answer. The best that I could deduce from the half-statements and fragments of ideas was that, because people have alleged that Obama is a "closet Muslim" he must actually be a Muslim and that, therefore, he would be a friend to the Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims and not a friend to Israel. How do you respond to someone who is willing to make decisions on the basis of rumors that are spread precisely to try to get someone to take a particular position? The fact that Obama has repeatedly said that he is a Christian, not a Muslim, that he is an African-American (in the most precise sense of that term), not an Arab, and that he views Israel as an important ally ("Barack Obama strongly supports the U.S.-Israel relationship, believes that our first and incontrovertible commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel, America's strongest ally in the Middle East. Obama supports this closeness, stating that that the United States would never distance itself from Israel"), is simply not enough, apparently. I'm at a loss to know how Obama is supposed to even talk to, let alone convince, people who won't listen and who only hear what they they want to hear.

One of my friends seemed very agitated, even angry, that Obama continues to talk about "change" and "hope" without articulating, more precisely, what those words mean. In response to this, I got somewhat angry. First, the statement told me that my friend has done nothing more than listen to soundbites rather than listening to speeches or watching the debates. More critically, this was the second time that we've had this precise discussion (the first being back in April or so). At that time, I told my friend to go to Obama's website and read the positions that are set forth for anyone to read (for example, Obama's position on Israel, quoted in part above). My friend acknowledged that he still hadn't read any of Obama's positions or visited the website. When I challenged him to explain how he can be critical of Obama for not stating what he stands for when, in fact, has has, my friend stated, unbelievably, that it "wasn't his job to go learn about the candidate". Well, then, if it isn't a voter's job to learn about a candidate, then upon what is the voter to base his or her decision? How is a candidate expected to educate a voter who won't make a minimal effort but who is willing to believe smears and rumors?

The next argument also left me a bit puzzled. My friends were concerned by the amount of money that Obama had raised. This concern seemed to take two forms. First, that Obama would somehow be beholden to those who had given him money and second, that much of that money was coming from the African-American community. My friends acknowledged that most of Obama's fundraising was from individuals giving small amounts rather than from rich donors or corporations giving the maximums allowed by law. They had no answer when I asked how he could be beholden to so many people who had given him money, but they still seemed worried that those small donations were somehow more tainted than money from large donors. I had no idea how to respond to that concern. As to the concern that a large percentage of Obama's funds came from African-Americans, I had two responses. First, and most important, was a big "so what"! What's wrong, I asked, with people supporting a candidate that they approve of? I asked them if there was anything wrong with Clinton receiving a lot of support (and money) from women voters or of McCain getting support from rich, white voters or from veterans? Again, the only response that I got was that black support for Obama was "different".

Finally, we turned to the discussion of media bias. My friends seemed almost willing to suggest that the media had never shown bias for or against any candidate before Obama. Moreover, as the principal example of the bias that they complained of, my friends pointed to a Republican commentator (on Fox News, I believe) who complimented Obama. Let me get this straight: Because a Republican commentator on Fox News said something good about Obama, the media (not just Fox) is biased in favor of Obama and against Clinton? I don't discount that the media is biased or even that the bias may have favored Obama, but that "evidence" just doesn't support the theory. They were also critical because the media kept pointing out that Obama had more pledged delegates than did Clinton. Well, didn't he? Was the media making something up? That's like saying that a sports announcer who tells the score is biased in favor of the team that's leading.

The discussion briefly morphed into a diatribe against Obama because the voters in Michigan and Florida wouldn't get their votes counted, in full. As a general matter, I completely agree that it is wrong to exclude those voters or to only give their delegates half a vote. However, the position articulated by my friends that Clinton should get all of Michigan's delegates is also wrong. My friends asked why it was acceptable for Obama not to "play by the rules" and to exclude the Michigan votes. I reminded them that the rules were set before the primaries started by the DNC, that at the time the rules were set, Obama was a long shot and Clinton was the presumptive nominee, and I asked why it was acceptable for Clinton not to "play by the rules" and put her name on the Michigan ballot in the first place? Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately given how heated the discussion was getting), before our discussion could proceed any further, my wife informed us that we were ruining her evening and asked us to stop. We did.

But the issues that we discussed have been weighing on me the last few days. I hope that the positions articulated by my friends are representative of the minority of voters and are the exception rather than the rule. I hope that, come November, my friends will have learned more about Obama and the concerns that they expressed will have been addressed and put to rest. But I worry that more people than just my friends have these same fears and concerns and that their decisions this November will be based more on fear, racism, bigotry, and rumors, rather than upon a reasoned examination of the candidates and their respective views on the issues that matter. I hope my worries are unfounded.


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Friday, June 20, 2008

Voter ID Law Is Bad for Democracy (Update 8)

As regular readers of this blog know, I have been a vocal opponent of Indiana's voter ID law (see my previous posts on the subject Voter ID Law Is Bad for Democracy, and Update 1, Update 2, Update 3, Update 4 , Update 5, Update 6, and Update 7). After the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the law, it looked like the issue was pretty much over (unless a newly elected Indiana General Assembly decided to revisit the statute).

However, today a new challenge to the statute has been raised. This afternoon, the League of Women Voters of Indiana filed a suit to have the Voter ID law declared unconstitutional under the Indiana Constitution. As I've said before, the Indiana Constitution is way too often overlooked and, in this case, it looks like everyone (including, yours truly) forget to see what our State Constitution said about the issue.

Article 2 § 2. Qualification of Electors.

(a) A citizen of the United States who is at least eighteen (18) years of age and who has been a resident of a precinct thirty (30) days immediately preceding an election may vote in that precinct at the election.

(b) A citizen may not be disenfranchised under subsection (a), if the citizen is entitled to vote in a precinct under subsection (c) or federal law.

(c) The General Assembly may provide that a citizen who ceases to be a resident of a precinct before an election may vote in a precinct where the citizen previously resided if, on the date of the election, the citizen's name appears on the registration rolls for the precinct.

According to the Complaint filed by the League of Women Voters of Indiana, in 1917, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the Constitution "precludes the Legislature from modifying its requirements or from imposing ... any additional qualifications which shall be prerequisite to the exercise of the right of suffrage." In other words, the General Assembly cannot take away or narrow the right to vote as established in the Indiana Constitution.

I plan to follow this litigation closely.

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The Fight Over Habeas Corpus

Among the current arguments and accusations being thrown back and forth between the campaigns of Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain is the Supreme Court's recent decision to allow prisoners at Guantanamo to petition a federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. McCain, like the dissenting minority on the Supreme Court, suggests that this will be dangerous to the safety of America. In fact, McCain called the Court's decision "one of the worst decisions in history". Obama, in contrast, noted that the "principle of habeas corpus, that a state can't just hold you for any reason without charging you and without giving you any kind of due process -- that’s the essence of who we are".

First a caveat : Though I am an attorney, I am far from an expert on the issue of habeas corpus (and I know virtually nothing about criminal law). So, if I say something factually incorrect, please let me know.

So, let's consider what the Supreme Court really said. This may be easier by talking about what the Supreme Court did not say. SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) did not say that prisoners at Guantanamo must be set free; that prisoners at Guantanamo can't be held at Guantanamo or at military prisoners; that prisoners must be treated as prisoners of war; or that the US could only hold those prisoners if they were proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Nope. What SCOTUS did say is that those prisoners have the right to petition a federal court with a petition for habeas corpus.

So what, really, does that mean? It means that a prisoner can ask a federal court to hold a hearing in which the government has to present evidence as to why the detention of the prisoner is appropriate. All that the government has to do is convince a federal judge that the detention of the prisoner is warranted; the government does not have to prove that the prisoner is "guilty" and certainly does not have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Given that some prisoners have been detained at Guantanamo for five years or longer without any independent review of their detention, what is so wrong with having a judge examine the evidence?

Sen. McCain and others on the right argue that allowing these prisoners to petition a court to consider whether they are rightfully detained will be dangerous for our nation. The implied threat here is that the courts will free these prisoners and send them back to whence they came so that they can do us more harm. But, if the prisoner was lawfully detained, then the court will have no reason to free the prisoner. So what is the real worry? Could it be that we have imprisoned people who did nothing wrong and who aren't a threat to America (or at least weren't a threat to us until we made them our enemies by imprisoning them)?

The real problem is that Congress has allowed President Bush to create a system whereby anybody that the President or military says is an "enemy combatant" can be locked up and the key thrown away, without a real trial (don't forget that the President tried to use this justification to lock up American citizens, too). Either these prisoners are prisoners of war (in which event certain requirements must be met under the Geneva Convention) or they are something else. But under our system of justice and jurisprudence, we don't leave it up to the President to say who is good and who is bad, who is innocent and who is guilty, and lock up, forever, those that the President says are a danger to us.

The first President Bush said that Manuel Noriega, the President of Panama was bad. So we had a little war, arrested Noriega, and put him on trial. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, we found those responsible, and put them on trial. Timothy McVeigh was tried and executed; he wasn't executed without trial. In our other wars, when we've taken prisoners and we've treated them as prisoners of war. Only in our "war on terror" have we decided neither to try prisoners nor treat them as POWs. Rather, we've allowed the President to simply decide who is bad and lock them up. That is what medieval kings used to do to their rivals and that is why the concept of habeas corpus developed in old English law.

So, we have two positions and concerns to weigh: On one side, we have the fear that a judge might decide that a terrorist was illegally detained and free that terrorist. As I suggested above, I consider that highly unlikely. If the person is really worthy of being detained as a threat to America, it should not be difficult for the government to come forward with some evidence supporting the detention. (And, if the government can't produce a reason to detain the person other than "we think he might be a bad guy" shouldn't the person be allowed to go free?)

On the other side we have the very core fabric of our constitutional republic: People are not imprisoned merely on the say so of the President and Congress cannot abdicate its own authority (or that of the courts) to grant such power to the President. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion makes the point this way:
Security subsists, too, in fidelity to freedom's first principles. Chief among
these are freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint and the personal liberty
that is secured by adherence to separation of powers. . . .

The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in
extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system
they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that
framework, a part of that law.

I am less worried about the potential threat to our nation from granting a hearing given to a person suspected of being a terrorist than I am to the threat to our nation from allowing basic principles of liberty and freedom to be usurped by a President.

I generally support the idea of a war on terrorism. But the Bush administration has waged that war so poorly, with so many bad ideas and disregard for what is right and just, that our standing in the world has suffered. Shortly after 9/11, the world was on our side. Sadly, the Bush administration has squandered that good will and given more people reasons to hate us. What happened to thinking about America as the shining city on the hill, lighting the way to freedom? Now, people around the world look at us as little more than a thug with the biggest guns around. How are we different from others who imprison without trial? Doesn't offering our enemies that which they would not give us make us stronger?

Thus, I side with Sen. Obama in his support of the recent Supreme Court decision. Perhaps more importantly, I side with Sen. Obama in his recent criticism of Sen. McCain and President Bush's approach to the war on terror. Think of it this way: Bush policy (more or less championed by Sen. McCain) has left Osama bin Ladin at large, allowed the Taliban to remain a viable fighting force, and permitted al-Quaeda to remain a threat, while thousands of American soldiers have died in Iraq (not to mention the tens of thousands who have been wounded) as anti-American sentiment has increased throughout much of the world.

Lately, I've been trying to make a point to my kids that doing something the easy or expedient way is not necessarily the right way. It seems to me that a nation that prides itself on being an example of what is good and right in humanity should always be willing to sacrifice expediency for the sake of freedom and justice. And, when we permit justice to prevail, I think that we will find that we are much, much safer than if we permit our leaders to act in a way that is no better than the leaders of those totalitarian regimes or absolute monarchies that continue to operate in a way reminiscent of those countries from which early Americans fled to form this experiment in democracy and freedom.

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Family Fun: Guitar Hero & Rock Band

I'll admit it: I like video games. I always have. Over the last few years, my preference has run to racing games like Gran Turismo, Project Gotham Racing, and Need for Speed. My 8-year-old son also loves video games. He prefers Star Wars Battlefront and Lego Star Wars (and, lately, Lego Indiana Jones). My daughter will occasionally join him in these games, but they're not her favorite pastime. My wife will only play video games occasionally (and then, usually, kicking and screaming). But, other than watching movies or going on a walk, there really aren't that many activities that the four of us like to do together. And then we found Guitar Hero.

For those not familiar with it, Guitar Hero (available for the Xbox 360, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, and Wii) is a video game in which the player uses a special controller (shaped like a guitar) to "play" a song. On the screen, a series of colored "notes" descend from the top of the screen toward the bottom. When the note reaches a line toward the bottom of the screen, the player has to press a button on the guitar of the appropriate color and "strum" another button on the guitar. At the easiest level, there are just three colors of notes (thus, only requiring three fingers). At harder levels a fourth and then a fifth note is added, the notes come more quickly, and many two- or three-note chords are introduced. In short, the game is great fun. And, for the first time, we've found a game that the entire family enjoys playing (but losing to an 8-year old sucks...).

Guitar Hero III (the version that we started with) even allows two players (yes, I bought a second guitar) to play at the same time, either cooperating with each other or competing to see who can do a better job on the song. Watching my 8-year-old kids rock to Paint it Black is a sight worth seeing. Even if I don't love all of the music in the game (a bit too much metal for my taste), it does provide a great counter to the constant barrage of Radio Disney and Hannah Montana...

The Guitar Hero series has been around for a while; I tried it with the kids 9 months or a year ago and it was simply too hard (plus, I'm not sure that we knew what we were doing). Now that they are a bit older and we know what to do, we've all found the game to be fun and enjoyable. And unlike the Dance Dance Revolution series that we've tried and put aside because it is just too hard (even at the easiest levels) the easy level on Guitar Hero are actually playable, thereby allowing new players (and younger players) to get into the game and slowly build their abilities and, more importantly, their confidence.

But the fun doesn't end there. The newest game in the genre is Rock Band and it was my Father's Day present. What is Rock Band, you ask? Simple: It is Guitar Hero times four! Rock Band comes with a guitar (very similar to the Guitar Hero guitar, but with a few more buttons and features), a microphone, and a drum set (four drum pads and a foot pedal with real, wooden drumsticks). With the use of a second guitar (our Guitar Hero guitar works just fine), Rock Band allows our family to be our own little Partridge Family: I play lead guitar, my daughter plays bass, my wife sings (or at least utters sounds approximating the lyrics), and my son plays drums (he's the only one in the family who seems to be able to rub his tummy and pat his head at the same time...). Voila: Instant family fun in the form of a game that engages all of us at the same time (although, I'll admit that watching my kids rock out to Nirvana seemed a bit odd).

If you haven't tried Guitar Hero or Rock Band they might be worth checking out.

(This blog post was not sponsored or paid for by the makers of Guitar Hero or Rock Band. However, I will gladly consider any sponsorship deals that anyone wants to throw my way...)


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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

LibraryThing: "The Deceived"

I have updated my LibraryThing catalog with a review of The Deceived [Jonathan Quinn #2] by Brett Battles. I'm currently reading Nothing to Lose [Jack Reacher #12] by Lee Child.

I had to put In Secret Service aside for a while. The book contians numerous graphics that are intended to be manuscript pages or letters. Unfortunately, the way that the publisher formatted the ebook, all of these manuscripts and letters are completely unreadable; for some reason, the images only take up about 70% of the screen and are simply too small for anyone to actually read. I opened a trouble ticket with Sony and they've sent the book back to the publisher to be (hopefully) reformatted. This is the first bad experience that I've had with a book for my Sony Reader.


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Friday, June 13, 2008

Obama Not Going to Be "Swiftboated"

Remember the 2004 Presidential election? Remember the ads from the swift boat veterans that attacked John Kerry? Remember how Kerry aggressively defended himself from those attacks? Oh, wait. That's right. He didn't aggressively defend himself. Well, it looks like Barack Obama learned a lesson from John Kerry and the swift boat ads. Sen. Obama has set up Fight the Smears, a website dedicated to addressing the smears and unfounded attacks leveled against the candidate.

For several weeks (months?) various rumors have been circulating on the Internet (and, in some cases, on Republican talk radio). Unfortunately, these rumors have often been viewed by many as "truth"; it seems as if to many people, if you hear a rumor often enough it must be true (or, perhaps, if Rush Limbaugh says it, then it must be true). So Fight the Smears has been started, apparently as a first line of defense against some of these rumors. Let's take a quick look at just a few:

1. Michelle Obama's "Whitey" rant.

When I first heard that Michelle Obama had supposedly given a speech in which she ranted about "whitey" and that the speech had been videotaped, I was worried about what this might do to Obama's candidacy. Supposedly, Republican operatives were in possession of the tape, but weren't going to release it until closer to the election. However, I began to wonder how this tape could be kept under wraps (especially in the midst of a sometimes bitter primary fight) and, if it did exist, how Obama and Democratic party leaders could ignore it and its potential for harm to the campaign. Well, it appears that the reason that the tape has remained "hidden" is simple: It doesn't exist. Michelle Obama never delivered the speech in question and never made the statements that the rumor attributes to her.

2. Barack Obama's birth certificate

Just a few days ago I read an article bashing Sen. Obama for refusing to make his birth certificate public. The article implies that the reason that Sen. Obama won't make his birth certificate public is that ... get ready ... Sen. Obama might night really be a natural-born American citizen (even though his mother was American), thus rendering him Constitutionally ineligible to be President. The article points out some of the sordid details of Obama's mother's marital history (are we really going to hold against a Presidential candidate things that his parents did before he was born or when he was a child?). Fight the Smears has a copy of Obama's Hawaii birth certificate. Hopefully, that issue can be put to bed.

Fight the Smears includes information on a few of the other long-standing, oft-repeated rumors about Sen. Obama. However, I will admit that I was underwhelmed with the amount of information shown to counter some of the smear tactics. Hopefully, in the future, much more content will be added to the site to help defend against smear tactics and to give Obama supporters their own ammunition to fight back against these smears. If I hear new damaging information about the candidate during the election season, I intend to use Fight the Smears as a kind of fact-check starting point (don't get me wrong; I won't rely upon everything I read on Fight the Smears any more than I would rely upon anything else; but it will be a good starting point to see if a rumor or smear has any basis).

Perhaps, if both candidates have similar anti-smear websites, we can all spend less time getting worked up about ridiculous non-issues and let the candidates spend more time discussing the real issues facing America. Of course, if 2004 is to be any kind of guide, Republicans may not want us to discuss those issues; in that case Fight the Smears may truly become a valuable resource. It will be interesting to see how Presidential elections will be conducted in the YouTube era.

One final point on all of this. One of the things that has really troubled me in recent years has been the tendency of politicians (and those interested in politics and various issues) to demonize their opponents and to view those with different viewpoints as "enemies" rather than opponents. From my perspective, this kind of destructive politics is the first step down the slippery slope to political violence that is so prevalent throughout much of the rest of the world. Barack Obama's ideas may sound, to some, as just high-minded ideals without substance, but his belief in a better America resonated with me and with others. Thus, I was particularly interested in the following quote from Sen. Obama at the top of the Fight the Smears website:
What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics
that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon -- that sees our
opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize. Because we
may call ourselves Democrats and Republicans, but we are Americans first. We are
always Americans first.

Perhaps more than any other reason, it is the sentiment expressed by that quote that helps to explain why I support Barack Obama for President.

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Organized Bigotry Ready for the Next Round (part 3)

This is the 3rd part of an ongoing series of posts. For prior entries in the series, please see the original post and the first update.

American soldiers are dying every day in Iraq. Millions of Americans face the prospect of losing their home to foreclosure. Gas prices and food prices are forcing average American families to make hard and painful choices and sacrifices. Millions of Americans can't afford decent health care and others have to choose between food and medication. Global warming threatens the future of our planet.

Never fear: Congressman Dan Burton has the answer to the problems facing America! He has signed on as a co-sponsor to the "Marriage Protection Amendment": a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States to ban gay marriage! Way to go, Rep. Burton, way to go (I hope that the sarcasm is literally dripping off of your screen as your read that...). That is certainly the most important issue facing our country today; after all, if we stop same sex couples from marrying, the war will end, gas prices and food prices will come down, banks will forgive mortgage debt, health care costs will come down, more employers will offer quality heath care to their employees, illegal immigrants will go home, green house gas emissions will be reduced, and baseball players will stop using steroids, right?

I'm so proud that my Congressman could come in off of the golf course long enough to add his name to a Constitutional amendment that would, for the first time since prohibition, restrict rights granted by the Constitution (did we really think that it was a good idea to let blacks, women, and 18-20 year old kids vote?). Maybe he can go after that pesky 1st Amendment next or that annoying guaranty of equal protection under the law. I mean, hey, who needs protection from the government or from the majority; after all, we have Congressman Burton and President Bush looking out for us, don't we? Maybe the good Congressman and his golfing buddies can even come up with a Constitutional Amendment to make this fine land the G-d-fearing Christian nation that they all believe it should be.

And, while I plan to continue discussing this whole issue in future posts, in the meantime, ask yourself two simple questions: First, what is it about same-sex marriage that creates such strong emotional opposition in so many people (and am I the only one to whom that opposition often looks more like a manifestation of paranoid fear)? Second, is that objection so strong and so important, that it should be enshrined in a document widely hailed as the foundation of one of the best political systems ever created and, more importantly, perhaps the single most important document enumerating, granting, and protecting human rights? Or, to be more crass, the question could be asked this way: Do we really want to fuck with the Constitution just to stop homosexuals from being treated as equal citizens?

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Tracking Ingredients in Restaurant Foods

As some readers may already know, my wife suffers from a rare illness (idiopathic anaphylaxis). Without going into a detailed discussion of her illness, the best way to describe it is to say that it often behaves as a severe allergy (even though it is not actually an allergy) that can cause her to go into anaphylactic shock. Many of her triggers (but not all) are food related. Thus, one of the places that my wife encounters a fair amount of difficulty dealing with her illness is in restaurants.

It is not uncommon for her to read the menu at a restaurant to find which dishes she thinks she can safely eat. She usually quizzes the server about certain ingredients that frequently find their way into dishes, even if not listed on the menu (garlic and black pepper being the best examples). When she explains that she has an "allergy" the servers usually ask what she is allergic to; her usual response is to say that she is allergic to way too many things to list, and ask, instead, to be told what is in the dish.

Nevertheless, way too often, a dish will be served that includes ingredients that weren't listed on the menu or were supposed to be omitted from her dish (parsley being the worst example of the latter problem; it seems as if many chefs cannot possibly fathom serving their dishes without parsley even if the order ticket says "no parsley"). So, many times my wife will only discover a problematic ingredient in a dish after eating several bites or, when she is lucky, when the dish is served, but before she's eaten any. In either case, she has to stop eating. Sometimes she sends the dish back (but by then, it is often too late to get a new dish as she doesn't want to make the rest of the dinner party wait on her); other times, she just puts her fork down and claims not to be hungry any more (mostly, I think, so as not to go through the trouble or to avoid making a scene when we're out with acquaintances). For my part, I'm tired of watching my wife have to quiz clueless servers, send back ill-prepared dishes or dishes with "hidden" ingredients, and watch me eat while she has a dinner of bread.

I understand that not ever server in every restaurant can be an expert on every ingredient in every dish. And, I understand that it may be difficult for many restaurants to accommodate certain types of food allergies. But there are some accommodations that simply shouldn't be that hard.

Thus, I've been thinking about drafting a bill that I will ask a member of the Indiana General Assembly to propose next year. The bill would simply require restaurants to maintain a list of ingredients in each dish. The list would not need to indicate how much of any particular ingredient was included or how the ingredient was prepared (in order to avoid concerns about giving away recipes). But, if a diner were to ask about the ingredients in a dish, the restaurant would be required to have the information available. And this could be done very simply, perhaps just a printed index card with the list of ingredients. I'm still thinking about some of the details of what I would like to see in a bill like this. For example, perhaps "daily specials" could be omitted from the bill so that a chef could "play around" each day without having to list ingredients in new dishes. Or, perhaps, the bill should exclude certain types of restaurants (fast food? mall kiosk?). And how much detail is reasonable to expect (e.g., too many packaged foods simply list "spices" as an ingredient; well which spices would those be?).

My purpose is to make life easier for diners with allergies (especially parents of children with severe food allergies, even more so than people like my wife), not to make life difficult for restaurants. But if packaged food sold in a store can list ingredients, I don't see why restaurants cannot do so as well.

I'm curious to know if any other jurisdictions have a requirement like that which I'm suggesting. And I'm soliciting ideas for this kind of legislation. Do you have thoughts on what should or should not be included in a bill of this sort? I'd really like to be able to think through the potential objections that the restaurant industry may raise (beyond the obvious "we just don't want to take the time or incur the expense" argument) so that I can try to craft a proposed bill that addresses any legitimate concerns in advance.

Is this a good idea? Am I on the right track? Would you ask your legislator to vote for a bill like this? Let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

LibraryThing: "Devil May Care"

I have updated my LibraryThing catalog with a review of Devil May Care [James Bond #__] by Sebastian Faulkes (the new James Bond novel released to mark the centennial of Ian Fleming's birth). I left the series number blank because it all depends on precisely how one counts (i.e., do short stories count in the numbering?).

I'm now reading two books (one an eBook and the other print). I'm reading In Secret Service by Mitch Silver which involves Ian Fleming as a principal character for a portion of the story (given that I've just finished both Devil May Care and Moneypenny Diaries: Final Fling, the timing seemed appropriate). I'm also reading The Deceived [Jonathan Quinn #2] by Brett Battles. I normally don't read books out of order (I'd intended to read The Cleaner [Jonathan Quinn #1] when it was released in paperback [and thus in a less expensive eBook format), however, I received a free advance reader copy of The Deceived through LibraryThing's early reviewer program. This could turn out to be a cool thing: Getting books that I want to read for free in exchange for writing reviews of those books. Cool.


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