Activism works

Posted in Politics, Television by Alex L. on December 7, 2016

Political Aside segment header

Political activism isn’t a very sexy topic. The crowds of demonstrators, the clashes with police, the long and slow struggle with marginal gains: these lack the heroic glory of the battlefield. With failure to effect change happening as often as success (if not more), one may be tempted to say that activism is ineffective. But I had a paradigm shift about this issue earlier this year when I watched a TYT interview with Van Jones.

In this video, Van Jones talks about why progressives failed to push their agenda forward after Obama was elected. His claim was that social change only comes in America when grassroots political movements pressure the president and Congress to act on a certain issue. This has been borne out in history with such movements as abolition, women’s suffrage, and the struggles for civil rights. The grassroots groups, says Van Jones, relaxed their efforts after Obama was elected, and so failed to provide the necessary push to effect social change.

This argument made me realize the foundational importance of political activism for progressive social change: electing a president or a congressperson is not enough. Another person who keenly feels this idea is Bernie Sanders. Since the beginning of his meteoric rise in popularity during the previous election season, he had argued that he sought to build a movement rather than just run a campaign. It could only take a social movement, he would say, to effect real change in the United States. Sanders has recently come out with a new book about this struggle, titled Our Revolution. (more…)

Apologetics in the park

Posted in Christianity, Islam, Television by Alex L. on December 6, 2016

To Do With Jerusalem segment header

The internet often seems like one faceless mass of websites and media without any discernible communities. But if you look carefully, one can find micro-communities embedded within this fabric on such websites as Twitch and YouTube. One such example I stumbled into is a small community on YouTube of religious apologists, of different faiths, who often vehemently disagree and try to disprove each other. My first point of contact with this virtual village was the channel of David Woods.

A self-admitted sociopath turned Christian, Woods now practices Christian apologetics on YouTube with abrasive (in my opinion) zeal. But what does it entail to do apologetics on YouTube? I’ve found apologetics videos of generally three different types in my exploration of this community: (a) videos defending certain doctrines of one’s faith, (b) video criticizing doctrines of other faiths, and (c) videos of debates between Christians and Muslims or either of them against atheists. This latter category mostly features formal debates usually on college campuses.

But one interesting subset of this third category are religious debates in the park. I encountered this on the Muslim EFDawah channel, which I found through the grapevine of the apologetics community on YouTube. There, a group of Muslims apologists go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park (London) and engage in rapid-fire discourses with all takers who seek such a challenge (usually with Christians but sometimes with an atheist). I watched a few of these exchanges between Hamza Myatt, an Englishman who converted to Islam, and others.  (more…)

A balanced media diet

Posted in Journals, Politics, Reading, Television by Alex L. on November 28, 2016

Daily Thoughts segment header

Every presidential election cycle, I get interested in politics all over again. This recent election was no different. But apart from conversation with politically-minded friends, something has to fuel and sustain the interest over the long months of the build-up to the election: informative and entertaining media sources. During the many months before November 2016, the go-to media source for me was The Young Turks, an online news show.

TYT is a progressive daily (Monday through Friday) show that is freely available live on YouTube. It has pros and cons for me. The big benefit is the commentary of Cenk Uygur, the outspoken founder and co-host. Like a more aggressive Noam Chomsky, Cenk cuts through the noise of establishment rhetoric to tune into a rarefied perspective about what’s really going on behind the scenes in the halls of power (it rarely looks pretty). The drawback of the show is a lack of intelligent conservative perspectives to provide a counterpoint to Cenk’s commentary. Cenk and his co-hosts (who rarely disagree with him on substantial issues) are always “right” and listening to TYT exclusively can lead one to develop political blinders, in my opinion.

There are intelligent counterpoints out there, though. Recently, I picked up The Economist from the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. I used to read The Economist weekly back in college, but let my subscription lapse some years ago. Like TYT, the magazine has a self-confident tone backed by factual evidence. There are some areas where The Economist agrees with TYT, such as on the threat of climate change. On other issues–such as support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and whether the Democratic Party should go in a populist direction–these two media sources disagree. (more…)

200 mph is the easy part

Posted in American, Just for Fun, Sports, Television by Alex L. on June 28, 2012

Photo from IndyCar.comAs a kid, strong and shining institutions seem immutable: they arise from a misty golden past and will continue even stronger into the future. To see them decline instead of increase is something of a shock and (to me at least) a rallying cry to take up their cause.

I have always loved the instruments of accelerating human movement: automobiles, airplanes, and ships. In the ’90s, IndyCar racing was enjoying a wave of popularity in America: it was our homegrown open-wheel racing series. Not so anymore. On YouTube, which usually squelches unauthorized uploads of sports broadcasts with a silicon fist, videos of full races generously posted by the IndyCar authorities barely manage to scratch together a couple thousand views.

But I’ve a soft spot for lost causes and have been following every race of IndyCar this season. And the drama is truly exciting. During the first couple of races, the series and drivers were still recovering from the death of Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 2011 Indy 500, on the track last year. The cars were redesigned to improve safety (but also reduced speed and style).

IndyCar has also taken cues from the vastly more popular (in Europe, that is) Formula 1 series. They have resolved a long-standing dispute in the series by combining two competing organizations into one. They have been racing on street courses — not just the traditional ovals — for the past several years. In 2012, IndyCar introduced technological diversity to the cars by allowing teams to choose engine and chassis manufacturers. Currently, Chevy and Lotus have jumped into the game in addition to the incumbent Honda (although it’s both comical and sad to see Lotus cars break down so early in each race — their engines need more development). (more…)

“The Pacific” and “The Hurt Locker”

Posted in American, Asian, European, Film, Television by Alex L. on March 9, 2010

I’m glad Avatar did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture this Sunday, and not just because it was over-hyped. The Hurt Locker was genuinely a much better film. I’ve seen many, many war films and The Hurt Locker was unlike any other. It portrayed a type of soldier that I did not know even existed, but, after seeing the movie, seems very real now. The Hurt Locker is about about a specialist in a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team whose personal reasons for fighting in the Iraq War have nothing to do with patriotism, financial need, or even supporting his fellow soldiers. SFC William James is in Iraq because he is addicted to the adrenaline high of high-intensity combat.

The Hurt Locker opens with a quote by a New York Times war correspondent that summarizes the theme of the movie: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For this unique portrayal of war, I think The Hurt Locker deserved all of the Oscars it received.

On another note, I am excited to watch the upcoming HBO miniseries The Pacific. Like the film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), this is another collaboration by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks portraying American soldiers during World War II, this time in the campaign against Japan. I am most curious about from what angle Spielberg and Hanks will approach this series to make it different from the others. Spielberg is such a great artist and storyteller, in my opinion, that this won’t just be “another war film”.

Saving Private Ryan is a monumental film – it’s an icon of the horrific events of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in the imagination of a younger generation of Americans. Band of Brothers is also unique in that it follows a single unit of American paratroopers throughout their combat experiences during the entire war, but in a style similar to another HBO series, The Sopranos, where each episode focuses on a different character to create a portrait of the entire group. What will The Pacific be like? I’m eager to find out (the first episode premieres on Sunday, March 14 at 8p CST on HBO).

On a final note, Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role this year for portraying a Nazi “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds, performed one of the best feats of acting I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie, go see it if for nothing other than to watch Christoph Waltz portray Standartenführer Hans Landa, whom director Quentin Tarantino described as “one of the best characters I’ve ever written and ever will write”.

History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen

Posted in American, Culture, Television by Alex L. on March 6, 2010

You feel a bit silly when you find yourself – an adult man – sitting alone in an otherwise-empty Dairy Queen store, licking a soft-serve ice cream cone. This was the situation in which I found myself yesterday after I deposited a check at my bank and, pulling out of the parking lot, decided to park again and buy some ice cream. I usually don’t have cravings for ice cream during late winter, but this time I couldn’t resist.

I’ve been visiting this shopping plaza biweekly for the past four months, and yesterday (Friday) was the first time I’ve noticed that there was a Dairy Queen store next door to my bank. I usually ignore Dairy Queens for the same reason I ignore Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts: I hate their pink signs and bubbly graphic art trying to convince me everybody’s having a good time inside the store when it’s actually usually empty. It’s inauthentic and corporate and depressing.

Those were my thoughts about Dairy Queen until this Thursday, when I had come home from work and, in lieu of going to the gym, had decided to watch an episode of Modern Marvels about ice cream on the History Channel. I used to think Modern Marvels – a documentary series about modern technology – was an impostor on the History Channel, taking up valuable air time that could be better utilized by a show about the history of the samurai, the story of the Romanov dynasty, or even yet another special about World War II. But I’ve recently come to respect Modern Marvels for doing what good history does as well: make the present artificial world (what humans create apart from the natural world) more understandable.

In his classic book of popular philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig claims that the reason many people in the modern world feel alienated by the sight of technology (imagine the feeling you get driving past an electric power station) is because they don’t understand the “mind” behind the metallic beast. That is, if they only understood how technology worked, people would feel a lot less threatened by it. In fact, they would perhaps even begin to think of the electric power station as almost beautiful.

The Modern Marvels episode I watched on Thursday described the technology of making ice cream, as well as the history of the famous franchise Dairy Queen, the originators of soft-serve ice cream. I was surprised to see a photo of the grand opening of the first Dairy Queen in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois: throngs of families crowding the store on a hot summer day. The franchise spread, and Dairy Queens became almost emblematic of small-town American life in the 1950s and 1960s.

After watching about the technology and history of ice cream in America on Thursday, I felt it fitting and proper on Friday, when I noticed for the first time the Dairy Queen (now known as “DQ”) next to my bank , that I would stop by and take part in an American ritual. The store was empty, as I expected. A women’s college basketball game was playing on a flat-screen TV in the back of the store. The graphic design in the store looked like it was imported from a design agency in New York or California which no doubt held many meetings to come up with a way to convey the message, through bright signs printed on cheap and durable materials, of “zany”.

I ordered a cone with a stack of puffy soft-serve ice-cream layers that I remembered seeing on Modern Marvels. I sat at a booth and enjoyed my dessert while looking at the framed photographs hung on the wall: black-and-white, showing Dairy Queen shops of the past, the only monochrome design elements in the store. I thought to myself that I looked out of place here because a grown man should not be eating ice cream alone, especially in the evening during winter.

Before I finished my cone, a man had walked into the store, the only other customer aside from me. He had graying hair and was dressed in neat business-casual attire. He too ordered soft serve and sat at a booth by the main door. Another grown man buying an ice-cream cone by himself – perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all. On my way out of the DQ, I passed by the man: he was eating his ice cream and typing on a Blackberry.

Walking by his Lexus SUV in the parking lot, I imagined that the man in the DQ had grown up in the 1960s in one of those small towns I had heard about on the History Channel. He would go to the Dairy Queen with his parents and siblings, and there would be neighbors and friends that he expected to see there. I imagined that now, in his 50s, that man sometimes drives by a DQ and childhood memories prompt him to stop, come inside, and partake of a dead ritual. I thought about this while I drove home.

My recent work as a web designer has made me more sensitive to art and design in my environment. I can walk into a zany Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts combo store without feeling sick with myself as I used to feel, because now I understand the design process that went into creating the persuasive graphical monstrosity that permeates such corporate places. But understanding something foreign and powerful doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be on board. Sometimes the bright-and-colorful relics of the present are more dead than the black-and-white memories of the past.

“WWII in HD” — transformative and balanced

Posted in African, American, Asian, European, Television by Alex L. on November 19, 2009

WWII in HDGone are the days when the History Channel disproportionately focused on programs about World War II instead of disproportionately fixating on Bigfoot and Mayan prophecies. Until now. History Channel has a new series which stands apart from the network’s bizarre trend of shows about UFOs, astrology, and monster-hunters. “WWII in HD”, a throwback to History Channel’s roots, is a truly innovative series.

WWII in HD” features almost exclusively rare color war footage. The effect of this is to enliven the 1940s. It feels like watching film from the Vietnam War, which seems more “real” to me because I associate it with color.

The other outstanding element about this series is the dialogue. The show follows twelve American men and women during their service in the war. They are interviewed as elderly veterans, but when the war footage is shown, the interviews transition into voice-overs by younger men and women. This technique is elegantly executed and makes you aware that these aged heroes of an inaccessible age were once the youth of the world. The dialogue is poignant, and the transitional phrases especially are epic.

Finally, the most lasting impression of the series is the footage of carnage. I have heard veterans speak of that shocking aspect of war – the odor of burning flesh, bodies thickly littering the battlefield, disfigured faces. But hearing about it—no matter how vividly told—can not compare to seeing it in color. Short of smelling the awful stench of war, “WWII in HD” portrays the nauseating reality of indiscriminate and grotesque death in battle.

In one episode, President Franklin Roosevelt asks a war correspondent whether he should allow a documentary film about the Battle of Tarawa to be show uncensored to the American public. The reporter, who had been embedded with the Marines in combat, replied that the soldiers wanted the civilians back home to know that the war was not all about victory and glory. The documentary, which featured graphic portrayals of combat, went on to win an Academy Award and significantly increased the sale of war bonds. Like “With the Marines at Tarawa”, “WWII in HD” is a transformative and balanced memorial to the Second World War.

Colbert calls for poetry revival

Posted in American, Culture, Poetry, Storytelling, Television by Alex L. on June 19, 2009

I enjoyed last night’s interview on the Colbert Report of poet Paul Muldoon, especially how Stephen Colbert tried to popularize poetry by reading one of Prof. Muldoon’s works, “Tea”. As Colbert mentioned, poetry is not cool in today’s America. In a country with a strong democratic spirit, perhaps it seems like an artifact of antiquated aristocratic habits. Quote a poem at a social event and you are sure to sound like a snob.

But this decline in popularity is not entirely the public’s fault. I think poetry, like other arts influenced by academia, has evolved to be too cerebral for the public’s taste. And what a shame!

Well-crafted verse, like no other art, has the power to preserve for posterity emotions, the spirit of an age, and even morals. I heard a contemporary scholar criticize Walt Whitman for writing some of his poems in rhyme. But how well Whitman captured the spirit of a historical moment – the national mood upon the assassination of President Lincoln soon after the end of the Civil War – in his rhyming poem “O Captain! My Captain!”! It is rightly so that this poem is remembered above others in the compilation, Memories of President Lincoln, because it not only delivers a powerful message but also does it so pleasurably (one need not overstrain his brain to understand it).

My hope is that poetry does experience a revival. Words beautifully prepared and powerfully spoken are one of life’s greatest joys.

Stephen Colbert is greater than Achilles

Posted in American, Greek, Just for Fun, Television by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

Stephen Colbert portrait

A while ago, I was reading Stephen Colbert’s biography on Wikipedia and was impressed by why he decided to become an actor. The article states, “After two years [at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia], he transferred to Northwestern University’s School of Communication to study performance, emboldened by the realization that he loved performing even when no one was coming to shows.” What a way to live and work! Although Stephen Colbert’s career as a comedian and social commentator is presently monumental, it did not seem to be heading that way when he first started acting. But, choosing to pursue work whose excellent completion was its own reward (detached from other incentives such as money or praise), Colbert truly has lived the good life.

Thoreau, in Walden, writes, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” Most people work not to perfect their chosen art but rather to fulfill other desires – for money, women or reputation. The classic example of living in this sort of way is the hero Achilles from the Iliad. His greatness is completely a function of the honor ascribed to him by others. He kills to acquire others’ wealth. He possesses women for the same reason. He amasses this plunder to build his reputation, exhibiting his power before others. He is not self-sufficient in his greatness; he requires others to perceive him as great. To be fair, many people labor for personal motives, such as supporting their family, even though they may not care for the work they do itself. That, too, is noble. But in so much as Stephen Colbert’s work is self-sufficient and done for the love of its own perfection, he is greater than Achilles.

Irony is served with Jon Stewart’s interview of Jim Cramer

Posted in Culture, Finance, Television by Alex L. on March 13, 2009

After a week-long television feud, yesterday Jim Cramer appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to explain why CNBC had failed in their mission to intelligently report financial news as the financial crisis was beginning to unravel. I admire Jim Cramer for going on the Daily Show (and several times on the Colbert Report) and his willingness to have an honest debate with commentators that challenge him.

Nevertheless, there was a tinge of irony in Cramer’s response to Stewart as the comedy show host was probing his guest to try to understand why Jim Cramer was so buffoonish and irrational about serious financial matters on his show. Jim Cramer responded by saying, “I’m a guy trying to do an entertainment show about business for people to watch, but it’s difficult to have a reporter say, ‘I just came back from an interview with Hank Paulson and he lied his darn full head off.’ It’s difficult; I think it challenges the boundaries.” Ironically, though, this is what Jon Stewart does every day on his show. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is primarily an entertainment show, but it also interweaves smart social criticism into its comedy. And Jon Stewart is famous for giving colleagues and guests (many of them powerful and high-profile) tough cross-examinations. He does this so well that his parody news show often delivers better journalism than the established media. Stewart said to Cramer in reply, “Yeah, I mean, I’m under the assumption – and maybe this is purely ridiculous – but I’m under the assumption that you don’t just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out.” I commend (for what it’s worth) Jim Cramer for having the guts to confront Jon Stewart on his home turf, but perhaps the financial news commentator has a thing or two to learn from Jon Stewart about successfully marrying smarts and entertainment on television.