banning immigrants is un-American. it’s also bad policy.
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  • January 31, 2017

I attended Saturday’s protest at SFO against Trump’s anti-Muslim exec­u­tiver order, which is where I shot the photo above.

Labeeb Ali worked as an inter­preter for Americans in Iraq. That means he is a tar­get for anti-American groups.

For that rea­son, law­mak­ers in the US made it pos­si­ble for him to move here, pro­vid­ing the visa which allows him to leave the dan­ger of Iraq, a dan­ger mag­ni­fied immensely by his asso­ci­a­tion with Americans. So he has passed months of back­ground checks, acquired that visa, has a cur­rent pass­port (not always easy in his part of the world), and he had a plane ticket on a flight from Qatar to Dallas. Once his visa appli­ca­tion cleared and his plans solid­i­fied, he tied up loose ends in Iraq and sold vir­tu­ally all of his prop­erty.

Thanks to the president’s indis­crim­i­nate, irra­tional, and quite pos­si­bly ille­gal exec­u­tive order, Labeeb Ali was not allowed to board his flight.

Because the pres­i­dent couldn’t be both­ered to con­sult with gov­ern­ment agen­cies who know some­thing about these issues or to take the time to develop immi­gra­tion pol­icy that has a chance to achieve his pur­ported goals, his exec­u­tive order blocks any­one — regard­less of cir­cum­stance — from seven Muslim coun­tries from enter­ing the US. And that includes peo­ple like Labeeb Ali.

Never mind that if this man actu­ally were a ter­ror­ist, he has already had ample oppor­tu­nity to com­mit heinous attacks on large groups of Americans. And never mind that he faces a very real threat of vio­lence from ter­ror­ists, trag­i­cally ironic con­sid­er­ing he’s being pre­vented from enter­ing the US because Trump and his sup­port­ers claim ban­ning him is nec­es­sary to pre­vent acts of ter­ror­ism. Trump doesn’t care that this man is about as far from a ter­ror­ist as some­one can be. Because he can’t be both­ered to tell the dif­fer­ence between ter­ror­ists and all Muslims. They all look alike to him.

Trump picked seven Muslim coun­tries where he doesn’t have busi­ness inter­ests, and where we don’t have par­tic­u­larly deep diplo­matic ties that could gum up the sim­ple black-and-white of his plan. He banned immi­gra­tion because his sup­port­ers are scared of “Islamic extrem­ism,” though they aren’t con­cerned with how it might be a threat, nor do they want to be both­ered with real­is­tic solu­tions for pre­vent­ing an attack on our soil. No… Trump just needed to show them that he’s keep­ing the Muslims out, as promised.

But here’s the thing: Our coun­try made promises and com­mit­ments to folks like Labeeb Ali. It’s dis­gust­ing and dis­hon­or­able to leave them hang­ing — per­haps lit­er­ally, it’s sad to say — because they’re in the way of Trump’s steam-roller of exec­u­tive orders.

But it’s going to get worse. The word’s going to get around that America turned its back on com­mit­ments to peo­ple like Labeeb Ali. When Trump decides to send troops to fight ISIS, they’re going to have a hard time find­ing peo­ple will­ing to put their lives on the line to help Americans for a promise that they can reset­tle stateside. And that’s a real­ity that could very well cost American lives.

In the mean­time, it’s a real­ity that is hurt­ing peo­ple who deserve much bet­ter than the closed doors with which we’re greet­ing them.

They have killed my dream,” Labeeb Ali told The Washington Post. “They took it all away from me, in the last min­utes.”

getting by with a little help.
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  • January 29, 2017

Sometimes the pres­i­dent needs help sign­ing his name, so he’s hired the ghost of George Harrison to help.

(I know. You didn’t think it was George Harrison at first. It’s con­fus­ing because at first glance it does look a lot like Eric Clapton in the pic­ture. Common mis­take. It’s def­i­nitely Harrison.)

[h/t Phil]

my (totally unoriginal) <em>rogue one</em> reaction.
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  • December 23, 2016

I used to go to a lot of movies, mostly because I really like movie the­atre pop­corn. Since kids, I get to two or three movies each year, at least in the the­atre. I’m not sure what the last movie I saw in the the­atre was, but it might have been Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Though I loved that movie, I also felt like they spread on the just-for-nostalgia pieces a lit­tle too thick, and that there were entire sce­nes, and char­ac­ters, and even aspects of the nar­ra­tive that seemed to serve no larger pur­pose other than to evoke fond mem­o­ries of a time when Star Wars existed but Jar Jar Binks did not.

And in that case, I didn’t mind the nos­tal­gia that much for three rea­sons: First, it had been awhile since we had seen the Millenium Falcon, Han, Leia, Chewy, and Luke. We wanted to see them and feel reas­sured that the fran­chise was back on track after the dis­as­ter of eps. 1–3. Second, The Force Awakens was the first of a tril­ogy, and as such I’m ok that it gave in to that nos­tal­gic indul­gence because it felt like it was estab­lish­ing itself — a new tril­ogy from a new direc­tor telling a new story — lay­ing the ground­work so that the next films don’t have to be so overtly referential/deferential. Third, the Star Wars films (by which I mean, eps. 4–6) were never par­tic­u­larly sub­tle or mys­te­ri­ous in their allu­sions to each other, ref­er­ences to clas­si­cal motifs, and will­ing­ness to use cheese and even camp. So I felt like Abrams’ over-indulgence in nos­tal­gia was for­giv­able from a film that was so much about estab­lish­ing the con­nec­tion to the ear­lier series.

I almost felt the same way about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In fact, I felt even bet­ter about it — that the nar­ra­tive and the film­mak­ing were ref­er­en­tial and def­er­en­tial while at the same time mak­ing much of the oppor­tu­nity pre­sented by being just a lit­tle out­side of the main, (dare-I-say) sacred core sto­ry­line.

And then the last shot hap­pened.

(If you haven’t seen it and you don’t want me to ruin the worst, most crap­tac­u­lar sur­prise ever… stop read­ing now.)

My prob­lem is the car­toon­ish CGI/live-action mashup of a cer­tain beloved char­ac­ter, and the fact it was visu­ally dis­so­nant (not to men­tion creepy-looking).

But my prob­lem is also that it ruined the tone of an oth­er­wise solid third act. The nar­ra­tive arc had done its job: hav­ing sat on the edge of their seats for the entirety of the final bat­tle, the audi­ence watches in delight and hor­ror as a cav­al­cade of heroes over­come an almost-impossible series of cir­cum­stances in order to set in motion the well-established hero­ism of Episode 4 (and beyond), only to face the inevitably of death with the cer­tainty that the sac­ri­fice was worth it. That final act — right up to and includ­ing the anony­mous hero­ism of Vader’s light saber vic­tims pass­ing the thumb drive (that’s what it was, right?) along to its obvi­ous even­tual recip­i­ent — draws on the oper­atic essence of Lucas’ orig­i­nals, while at the same time inhab­it­ing a darker, more real­ist sen­si­bil­ity in which even hon­or­able death is hor­ri­ble and sad. The film was suc­ceed­ing. We were there. I hadn’t closed my mouth or sat back in my chair in 20 or 30 or how­ever many min­utes it was.

And here’s the thing: we all know what’s going to hap­pen with those Death Star plans. We don’t need remind­ing. And in case we do (even though we don’t), Jimmy Smits announces that he’ll send some­one he trusts on a mis­sion to find a cer­tain desert-dwelling Jedi in hid­ing — a female some­one based on his pro­noun choice — and since pretty much the only thing (rel­e­vant) we know about his char­ac­ter is that he’s Leia’s adopted father, we know exactly who some­one is.

At that point, with the Death Star plans on a ship that we’ve seen before, about to be in the hands of the per­son we know will put them into a cer­tain short and beepy droid, the film could have ended. We’d seen what we needed to see. Of course, over­stat­ing the obvi­ous is a hall­mark of this fran­chise, so the story had to go one scene fur­ther.

They still could have pulled this off with­out ruin­ing the movie. They could have shown the back of a female char­ac­ter garbed in white, and we could have even heard her voice. The cam­era didn’t need to show her face. We didn’t even need entirely orig­i­nal dia­logue — our about-to-be hero­ine could have been prepar­ing (or even begin­ning to record) her mes­sage to Obi Wan, tak­ing us right up to the scene where we met her in 1977 (or when­ever we were old enough to meet her for the first time).

But the scene we got instead was trou­bling on mul­ti­ple lev­els.

Most obvi­ously, the visual effect didn’t work. No mat­ter how well Disney’s dig­i­tal artists can  pull off their CGI magic — and they deserve credit for all the ways they suc­ceeded in this movie — there was no way we were going to feel good about an ani­mated ver­sion of a char­ac­ter who we first meet moments later (timeline-wise) as a flesh-and-blood actress ren­dered on actual film. I won’t belabor this point as it has been well-trodden by review­ers, and because I sup­pose the degree to which the (semi-)animated char­ac­ter was (not) effec­tive could be a mat­ter of opin­ion. I mean, I sup­posed some­one could have felt like it didn’t look hor­ren­dous.1

Second, I take issue with Leia being played by any­one other than Carrie Fisher. Sure… if they ever want to show her at an ear­lier stage in life then I’m ok with a young actress play­ing the part — peo­ple change over time and I could live with the idea that a well-cast young Leia grows up to become Carrie Fisher’s por­trayal. But Rogue One’s Leia is not a younger Leia. This is the Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan we know, trav­el­ing on the very ship and wear­ing the very dress she was wear­ing when we first met her, and on the very mis­sion where she hides the Death Star plans on R2 and stands up to (our first encoun­ter with) Darth Vader. That Leia will always be played by Carrie Fisher, and I can­not accept any other por­trayal of her, even one ani­mated to bear an uncanny resem­blance to Her Highness, daugh­ter of Anakin Skywalker and future gen­eral of the Resistance (and future wearer of metal­lic swimwear).

Third, car­toon Leia’s dia­logue is unfor­giv­able. The film is, up to that point, about sac­ri­fice. And in forc­ing us to watch its pro­tag­o­nists’ deaths one after another, it puts a fine point on it. Truly tyran­ni­cal evil can­not be defeated by self-interested indi­vid­u­als (like the cow­ardly rebel lead­ers who ini­tially balk at the idea of going after the Death Star plans). Rather, the Dark Side’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity is only exposed — lit­er­ally in this case — when peo­ple come together, set­ting aside their indi­vid­ual needs (up to and includ­ing their indi­vidial need for sur­vival) in the inter­est of the greater good. Those heroes, we come to under­stand, may die as mar­tyrs, but despite their demise as indi­vid­u­als, they col­lec­tively live forever in the legacy they share. This film, then, jus­ti­fies its own exis­tence as a doc­u­men­ta­tion of that hero­ism, bear­ing wit­ness to the actions of the previously-nameless souls who per­ished so that Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewy can save the day and get the credit.

So when car­toon Leia shows up and announces that the point of the whole thing is “hope,” it does a dis­ser­vice to the imme­di­ately pre­ced­ing nar­ra­tive. I sup­pose one could say that hope is  the point, and that Jyn’s pre-battle pep talk on that topic is a state­ment of the movie’s cen­tral mes­sage. But other than those two men­tions, this film isn’t hope­ful — though they suc­cess­fully get the Death Star blue­prints to the Rebels, our heroes all die  — because this is the story of Rogue One’s ill-fated mar­tyrs, not the story of Princess Leia, her secret twin, and their estranged bio­log­i­cal father.

Indeed, Leia’s story (or, the one in which she is a prin­ci­ple char­ac­ter) is very much about “a new hope.” And its fine to con­nect the final moments of Rogue One to the open­ing sce­nes of Episode 4. But we didn’t need her pithy line (or her car­toon face) to draw the con­nec­tion — it had been drawn already when we saw the guys in the famil­iar hel­mets on the famil­iar ship, and again when we saw her dress from behind.

Leia’s face and her stu­pid line ruin an oth­er­wise great Star Wars film. It’s fun to watch, well-paced, well-enough acted. It is com­posed in vir­tu­ally every way as wor­thy of the Star Wars fran­chise. That’s most evi­dent in the atten­tion paid to the oper­atic score, the artistry of the sets and estab­lish­ing shots of plan­e­tart land­scapes, the sound effects of the bat­tle sce­nes, and all those tiny details George Lucas trained us to notice (blue milk, pilot call signs, par­tic­u­lars of Rebel and Imperial ships, etc.). I even didn’t mind the CGI ver­sion of a char­ac­ter pre­vi­ously played by a now-deceased actor, or the unnec­es­sary (and maybe poorly-timed) comic-relief cameo from a cer­tain pair of famil­iar droids. Neither diverted from the narrative’s estab­lished direc­tion, and the for­mer exam­ple was less visu­ally prob­lem­atic than car­toon Leia because that char­ac­ter always had a cer­tain dark car­toon­ish qual­ity to him.2 So his now-computerized pres­ence felt less arrest­ing in com­par­ison to Leia, whose famil­iar soft­ness and “real­ness” felt miss­ing from the abom­i­na­tion we found in her place.

Point is: great movie until the last 10 sec­onds. And maybe a great movie despite them. I con­tinue to be excited for what’s in store next, both from the films that will open with scrolling text and from this series of tan­gen­tial “sto­ries.”

  1. Of course, no one sane would think that. But I imag­ine it’s pos­si­ble that some aes­thet­i­cally mis­guided and/or very mentally-ill per­son could. (back to foot­note in text)

  2. The “uncanny val­ley” hypoth­e­sis — pointed out in Kelly Lawler’s cri­tique in USA Today and Noah Berlatsky’s on qz​.com — is right on with its sug­ges­tion that “human repli­cas that appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feel­ings of eeri­ness and revul­sion.” It works for the Grand Moff Tarkin char­ac­ter because he is eery and revolt­ing. (back to foot­note in text)

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  • December 20, 2016

Nice piece in Haaretz on Trump’s choice for ambas­sador to Israel. The author is a pro­lific and tal­ented writer, capa­ble of deftly wield­ing fact-based argu­ment as an anti­dote to igno­rance and extrem­ism.

But in this case, he didn’t need much of his trade­mark intel­li­gence or rhetor­i­cal flour­ish. Rather, he only needed his computer’s “copy” and “paste” com­mands. Because that’s all it takes to show that David Friedman is poorly qual­i­fied for the job to which he has been appointed and dan­ger­ous to the US and Israel due to his propen­sity to use both half-truths and slan­der­ous lies as means to his par­ti­san, extrem­ist objec­tives.

(Friedman’s read­ers’ appar­ent inabil­ity to tell the dif­fer­ence between his false­hoods and the actual truth is trou­bling as well, though per­haps unsur­pris­ing.)

Gruber posted on Monday about how the non-traditional TV “net­works” are whoop­ing the likes of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, at least when it comes to broad­cast­ing high-quality, award-worthy con­tent.

One can rea­son­ably argue that the broad­cast net­works have always pro­duced mostly garbage, but the real change is that the broad­cast net­works have com­pletely missed the boat on the meg­amovie rev­o­lu­tion — shows that “take tele­vi­sion seri­ously as a medium”. That’s obvi­ously true for dra­mas like Game of Thrones and Westworld, but I think it’s true for come­dies, too. Consider the elim­i­na­tion of the laugh track.

He’s not wrong, except with the impli­ca­tion that the broad­cast net­works ever had a chance not to “miss the boat.” I’m not a TV-industry guy, and my under­stand­ing of that eco­nomic world is lim­ited to hav­ing lived in Los Angeles for 30+ years, but it seems to me like the big three/four can’t be expected to com­pete with “net­works” that play by dif­fer­ent rules.

The broad­cast­ing par­a­digm is based on a sin­gle foun­da­tion: rev­enue is depen­dent on rat­ings. That’s because rev­enue comes from ad rev­enue, and broad­cast­ers’ ad rates are depen­dent on their rat­ings. The trick of the broad­cast network’s eco­nomic model is to charge adver­tis­ers more for ad time than they spent to gen­er­ate the rat­ings required to charge the adver­tis­ers those rates.

That model results in decision-makers who are risk-averse. Why take a chance on a new pro­duct that has a decent chance of fail­ure — even when it’s a new kind of con­tent, or even a lit­tle change like laugh track elim­i­na­tion, that you  actu­ally believe in — when you have a sure-thing that’ll be good enough?

Furthermore, the broad­cast net­works’ rev­enue model tends to reward pop­u­lar taste (and its cousin, low-brow pro­cliv­ity) over crit­i­cal qual­ity. How many episodes of CSI and its sev­en­teen spin­offs did CBS air? (I’ll tell you: way too many.) Were any of the CSI fran­chises ever con­sid­ered by any­one to be high-quality drama wor­thy of crit­i­cal acclaim? Nope. But they kicked ass in the rat­ings for a long time, so they made CBS a huge amount of money.

And that’s why net­works only care about Golden Globes and Emmies if win­ning them gen­er­ates buzz, higher rat­ings, and (there­fore) higher ad rev­enue. (And maybe because actors/directors/producers like win­ning awards, and happy actors/director/producers are the­o­ret­i­cally good for net­works, at least to a point.)

But that for­mula isn’t a guar­an­tee. Plenty of crit­i­cally acclaimed shows have been rat­ings duds. If NBC or ABC or CBS has a choice between an extra point-and-a-half in a key demo­graphic and ten Golden Globe nom­i­na­tions, they’ll always pick the for­mer. And that’s why they air the con­tent they air, and they’ve con­ceded the tro­phies to Netflix, Amazon, and the cable net­works that can (or at least hope they can) make money on high-brow.

None of this is news. This was the case back when HBO was rak­ing in award hard­ware for The Sopranos. At the time, plenty of peo­ple let them­selves believe that HBO was at an advan­tage because con­tent cre­ators could depict vio­lence, nip­ples, and curse words. But their real advan­tage was always that they could afford to take a risk on seri­ous episodic drama, which had the poten­tial for a mas­sively lucra­tive pay-off for them in the long term (in the form of sub­scribers who were hooked). The net­works play a short game in which last night’s rat­ings mat­ter right now. While this isn’t uni­ver­sal, and (I’ve been told by friends in the indus­try) it often isn’t quite so sim­ple, this par­a­digm is still at the core of how the broad­cast net­works oper­ate.

Gruber might be able to relate. He loves to tease the Android mak­ers (and more so igno­rant Wall Street folks) who go on and on about mar­ket share, and who bash Apple’s low per­for­mance in that par­tic­u­lar met­ric. He’s observed all along (before any­one else really noticed) that Apple’s eyes aren’t on how many hand­sets or lap­tops they ship, but on how much money they make on the ones they do. (Because you can sell lots of phones if you don’t charge much for them. But that also means you won’t make much money.) So Apple is happy not to race to the bot­tom of the profit bar­rel in search of mar­ket share, because that mar­ket share doesn’t make them enough — or any — money.

Jon, here’s the thing: the net­works may have missed the boat on the lat­est and great­est trends in TV. But their execs don’t care, because their eyes aren’t on Golden Globe stat­uettes, but on how much money they’re mak­ing for their net­works. And spend­ing a ton of money to make a show that isn’t a def­i­nite weekly rat­ings win­ner isn’t a smart play for them.

(For the record: I hate this eco­nomic model because I like qual­ity pro­gram­ming. And most of my favorite shows right now are on Netflix or Amazon. I’m just say­ing that it the net­work broad­cast­ers “missed the boat,” they did so because they made a con­scious deci­sion to stay on dry land. Is that cow­ardly of them? Sure. Does it result in bland, bor­ing net­work tele­vi­sion? Generally, yes.)

the democrats need to do something drastic. joe biden has a shot to make it happen.
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  • December 7, 2016

On Daily Kos, David Waldman sug­gests an out­landish way of get­ting Garland onto the Supreme Court in the brief period when out­go­ing Senators are gone and incom­ing Senators haven’t been sworn in. I ini­tially blew it off as a silly fan­tasy. But…

Maybe the Vice-President and Senate minor­ity lead­er­ship should be con­sid­er­ing it. Why? Well. It’s been awhile since Dems didn’t at least have the pres­i­dency, but let’s do our best to try and remem­ber the dif­fer­ence between the way Democrats and Republicans have behaved in recent mem­ory when in the minor­ity:

Under W, Democrats basi­cally moped around, com­plained a lot, penned thought­ful and ana­lyt­i­cal op-eds, and in Congress they tried to be a thorn in the president’s side.

Under Obama, the GOP didn’t set­tle for being a thorn. They uti­lized every option, and stopped at absolutely noth­ing, to block the pres­i­dent and his agenda. Thorns? More like giant tire-popping spike-strips across the high­way. They played the short game by block­ing bud­gets when­ever pos­si­ble, and they played the long game by focus­ing on local and state elec­tions, which allowed them to ger­ry­man­der them­selves into a last­ing major­ity in the House. (Indeed, as has been pointed out in a num­ber of places1, the Republicans are numer­i­cally in the minor­ity, with an ide­ol­ogy that’s less pop­u­lar than ever, yet they have man­aged to win both houses and the pres­i­dency and they’re walk­ing around say­ing they have a “man­date.”) They have played the game — short, long, and every­thing in between — bet­ter.

They uti­lized a strate­gic and dis­ci­plined approach, and it’s paid off. Nowhere is that clearer than with the Garland appoint­ment. And that’s why I think that Dems in the Senate should con­sider not dis­miss­ing the sug­ges­tion that they use some com­pli­cated pro­ce­du­ral maneu­ver­ing to get Garland onto the bench.

Some Qualifiers

  1. Trying to move any other agenda item using this tech­nique ruins the purity and genius of it. Only the Garland appoint­ment allows the Democratic lead­er­ship to shrug across the aisle and say, “Well, you failed to do your Constitutional duty so you left us no choice. We tried to play fair.” And let’s also not for­get: Obama appointed an older, fairly mod­er­ate jurist because he was indeed try­ing to play fair, and to appeal to mod­er­ate Republicans to buck their party’s lead­er­ship in the inter­est of the greater good. (Turns out “mod­er­ate Republicans” are an extinct species inside the Beltway.) So the Garland appoint­ment has the addi­tional virtue of being less purely par­ti­san.2 Dem law­mak­ers would be throw­ing a Hail Mary to get a mod­er­ate on the bench, not a hyper lib­eral.

    And they can also say: “We just wanted to give Justice Ginsburg the oppor­tu­nity to retire on her own terms with­out hav­ing to worry quite as much about the influ­ence of the fas­cist bible-thumper who will replace her.”

  2. GOP law­mak­ers’ actions in the past cou­ple years cer­tainly opens them to the accu­sa­tion that they put party before coun­try.3 Maybe Dems might not want to emu­late that behav­ior. But here’s the thing: that stuff didn’t hurt Republicans at the polls. And more impor­tantly: They now have both houses and the pres­i­dency, which places on them the bur­den of lead­er­ship. That bur­den, as the GOP proved when in the major­ity, is not incum­bent on the minor­ity, whose lack of power leaves them with no choice but to resort to extremes. (Unless the major­ity actu­ally cares about part­ner­ship. Ha.)

  3. Nonetheless, this won’t hap­pen. Even after the Republicans had the chutz­pah to sit on a Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion for the bet­ter part of a year, Senate Dems won’t have the chutz­pah4 to beat them at their own game.

Anyway, I’ll stop pon­tif­i­cat­ing and get to the point:

I can think of no bet­ter way for Biden to kick off his 2020 run — and to set the tone for stand­ing up to Trump/Ryan/McConnel for the next four years — than to go out hav­ing had more influ­ence as vice-president in his last few days than any who has ever held the office did in their entire terms.

If there’s any­one who can pull it off, it’s Joe.

  1. My favorite. (back to foot­note in text)

  2. While also being totally, com­pletely, unam­bigu­ously par­ti­san. It’s a Supreme Court jus­tice who’d be a tie-breaking vote for chris­sakes. This is about abor­tion, Citizens United, mar­riage equal­ity, and tons more. Of course it’s par­ti­san. (back to foot­note in text)

  3. See: the bud­get maneu­ver­ing that put the country’s credit rat­ing at risk. (back to foot­note in text)

  4. Or the extrem­ists. The Tea Party did the GOP a big favor by doing the dirty work and let­ting the main party estab­lish­ment stay insu­lated. See: Ted Cruz. (back to foot­note in text)

I’m very proud to announce that one of my pho­tos is being shown as part of the 2016 PJCC Community Art Show at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City, CA 94404.

To cel­e­brate, I printed and framed three extra copies of the selected photo (below). It’s avail­able for pur­chase for $80 (flat rate USPS ship­ping, if you’re not in the Bay Area). It’s an 8″ x 12″ matte-finish Lustre print on archival paper with an archival white linen matte and a black wood frame, 17″ x 13″ total. Each piece is num­bered and signed. Email me if you’re inter­ested.

The photo was taken on August 23, 2015 at Wavecrest Open Space in Half Moon Bay, California. (Coordinates are 37°26′57″ N 122°26′27″ W.)

tunnel - framed
Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 24–70mm ƒ/2.8L II USM. Focal Length: 41mm, ISO 100, 15.0 sec at ƒ/16.

tablet on drumpf at aipac: something’s rotten?
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  • March 21, 2016

Tablet’s edi­to­rial board says AIPAC fails to rep­re­sent both the left and the right when it comes to advo­cat­ing for Israel on American Jews’ behalf.

The invi­ta­tion to Trump is a sym­bol of what AIPAC has become — an orga­ni­za­tion staffed by mid-level incom­pe­tents who dis­grace our com­mu­nity with their evi­dent lack of both polit­i­cal savvy and moral sense. Let’s be frank: Some of us would be com­fort­able with a bunch of back-alley polit­i­cal knife-fighters whose only cause is the active defense of the Jewish peo­ple, while oth­ers want lead­ers devoted to mak­ing sure that our com­mu­nal goals embody uni­ver­sal morals and social-justice values—regardless of how this might play on the geopo­lit­i­cal chess­board. Whichever camp you find your­self in, one thing is clear: What we have now in AIPAC is an orga­ni­za­tion with the fail­ings of both, and the virtues of nei­ther.
Headless Community in Bottomless Spiral

This is a fas­ci­nat­ing piece of polit­i­cal rhetoric. The Tablet edi­tors are say­ing that both sides can agree AIPAC is a poor rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the American Jewish com­mu­nity, and then make their case from each side.

If they are able to step away from the par­ti­san­ship and actu­ally offer cogent ana­lyt­i­cal insight into AIPAC’s fail­ings on both the left and the right, then that’s admirable and use­ful. But the prob­lem is that vir­tu­ally no one (at least no one who is actively engaged in/with the Jewish com­mu­nity) is able to actu­ally back away from the fra­cas and say any­thing that isn’t seen by one side or both as an unfair attack. In other words, I’m won­der­ing if Tablet’s edi­to­rial team falls into the very trap into which they accuse AIPAC of falling: try­ing to be a voice for all sides and end­ing up being a voice for none.

Nonetheless, as an attempt to be ana­lyt­i­cal of AIPAC with­out stak­ing ground (or, being trans­par­ent about your ide­ol­ogy but attempt to tran­scend it for the pur­pose of analy­sis), I think it’s a good try, and a thought­ful, intel­lec­tu­ally deft, and inter­est­ing one at that.


At the same time, despite some strong lan­guage attack­ing AIPAC lead­er­ship (which we’ll get to in a sec­ond), the authors seem to be danc­ing around the point they really want to make: this is entirely about the organization’s lead­er­ship, or lack thereof. I think that’s a fair point to make, espe­cially if you can sup­port it with a well-reasoned argu­ment. But a prob­lem with the Tablet edi­to­rial is that its authors hint at hav­ing a well-reasoned argu­ment to back up their claims, but it’s hard to believe them when (a) they don’t present much evi­dence of orga­ni­za­tional chaos to sup­port their claims1, and when (b) they take numer­ous cheap shots and engage in petty ad hominem attacks2 on AIPAC lead­ers.

It should be fair game to claim that speci­fic peo­ple lack polit­i­cal savvy or that they have exhib­ited behav­ior that calls their moral sense into ques­tion, espe­cially if you sup­port those claims in a man­ner that’s con­vinc­ing or at least intel­lec­tu­ally hon­est. But call­ing unnamed AIPAC employ­ees “mid-level incom­pe­tents who dis­grace” the com­mu­nity that they’ve ded­i­cated them­selves (with pre­sum­ably best inten­tions) to serv­ing? That state­ment Trump-esque diss, a petty and rhetor­i­cally lazy turn of phrase that must have felt cathar­tic and won­der­fully naughty to type into the essay’s first draft, says more about its author than its sub­ject. It under­mi­nes the edi­to­rial board’s entire point (as do the other cheap shots sprin­kled through­out), and it should have been excised before an edi­tor clicked “Publish.”

And also, it’s mean. I believe in the impor­tant prac­tice of a publication’s edi­to­rial board writ­ing with one voice, espe­cially on impor­tant issues like this. But it comes off look­ing like cow­ardly bul­ly­ing when an unnamed writer (writ­ing on behalf of a seem­ingly face­less edi­to­rial team) attacks a group of indi­vid­u­als with­out nam­ing names but with a nod and a wink that says, “We’re way too classy to name names but you know who we’re talk­ing about, right?”

With all due def­er­ence to the folks behind the pub­li­ca­tion (for whom I hold an immense amount of respect and awe-filled admi­ra­tion), Tablet’s typ­i­cally eru­dite edi­tors should be above that kind of shoddy writ­ing, and as a pub­li­ca­tion that endeav­ors to ele­vate pub­lic dis­course (instead of con­tribut­ing to the absence of dis­course down in the gut­ter on social media), it should be Tablet’s pol­icy to steer clear of lashon hara.

Moreover, if the point is that the root of the prob­lem AIPAC’s staff, then the nat­u­ral solu­tion is that the mem­ber­ship (who the edi­to­rial claims to stand with/for/behind) should act to replace said “incom­pe­tent” staff, since it’s incum­bent on a non-profit’s employ­ees to advance the mis­sion artic­u­lated by the organization’s mem­ber­ship. Of course, the editorial’s stance seems to be that the prob­lem is with AIPAC on the whole, so the sug­ges­tion that the orga­ni­za­tion is fun­da­men­tally bro­ken makes sense. But in that case the shots at staff are both irrel­e­vant and mis­placed, since it’s the mem­ber­ship who made/let it hap­pen (and if AIPAC is bro­ken on a fun­da­men­tal level, the prob­lems surely run deeper than some “mid-level incom­pe­tents”).

If, how­ever, the organization’s mem­bers and mis­sion are still wor­thy of sup­port, then the solu­tion is an easy one: Get rid of the staff who don’t get it and hire peo­ple who do. Otherwise, Tablet ought to be blam­ing the thou­sands of peo­ple who donate to AIPAC, show up at AIPAC events, and part­ner with AIPAC in their own com­mu­ni­ties.

main photo credit: Photo Cindy (Flickr)

  1. By “evi­dence,” I mean thoughtfully-presented fac­tual infor­ma­tion that sup­ports their claims, not, “AIPAC failed to stop the Iran deal… Can’t those screwups do any­thing right?” (back to foot­note in text)

  2. Exhibit A: “…an orga­ni­za­tion staffed by mid-level incom­pe­tents who dis­grace our com­mu­nity with their evi­dent lack of both polit­i­cal savvy and moral sense.” (back to foot­note in text)

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  • March 16, 2016

Louis Brandeis

Brandeis, c. 1916

Merrick Garland

Garland, c. 2016

One hundred years ago (Jan. 28, 1916), President Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis to the US Supreme Court. What followed was one of the most contentious confirmation hearings in history, due to Brandeis' religious heritage and his unabashed liberalism (especially his record of fighting big Wall Street bankers).

One hundred years later, Merrick Garland is unlikely to face anti-Semitism on the Senate floor, and he's a far less polarizing pick than Brandeis was. Nonetheless, his confirmation hearings — if they even happen — are likely to be even more contentious.

Funny how much has changed. And how little.

The Women Take Over” by Dahlia Lithwick (Slate​.com):

… it’s hard to imag­ine President Obama con­jur­ing up, from even the dark­est, most devi­ous under­ground lab, a new jus­tice who would be half as fierce as the four-car train of whoop ass we saw today.

It’s hard to imag­ine any­one con­jur­ing up a bet­ter com­men­ta­tor on the Supreme Court than Dahlia Lithwick.

Her writ­ing on yesterday’s oral argu­ments in Whole Woman’s HealthHellerstedt is a beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tion of why I’d rather read her than pretty much any other jour­nal­ist work­ing today.

benedictine chili.
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  • February 26, 2016

Toasted English muffin topped with chili con carné, sour cream, shred­ded cheese, fried egg (one for each side) with the yolk still runny, and a lit­tle more cheese.

(I dare you to come up with a bet­ter use for left­over chili.)

Douglas Rushkoff is cred­ited as the ide­o­logue behind the “dig­i­tal Sabbath.” He’s a smart guy: Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY; media com­men­ta­tor; author; first coined the terms “dig­i­tal natives,” “social cur­rency,” and “viral media”… yada yada… his whole bio is on Wikipedia if you want it.

Several years ago, he argued that peo­ple needed to take time away from dig­i­tal media. And because he was into the Jewish thing at the time, that idea mor­phed into the notion of a “dig­i­tal Sabbath.” And then some­thing called The National Day of Unplugging was estab­lished by ReBoot. (ReBoot is an orga­ni­za­tion built on an annual gath­er­ing which Rushkoff helped to con­vene, ini­tially. But he now calls it elit­ist.) The National Day of Unplugging exists to encour­age peo­ple to take their own dig­i­tal Sabbaths, all on the same day.

Now, Rushkoff says he doesn’t like the idea any­more. From the Guardian, Douglas Rushkoff: ‘I’m think­ing it may be good to be off social media alto­gether’:

I came up with this thing which I now don’t like: the dig­i­tal sab­bath. It feels a lit­tle forced and arbi­trary, and it frames dig­i­tal detox as a depri­va­tion. I would much rather help peo­ple learn to value look­ing into other people’s eyes. To sit in a room talk­ing to peo­ple – I want peo­ple to value that, not because they aren’t being inter­rupted by dig­i­tal media but because it’s valu­able in its own right.

That’s novel, I sup­pose. (Though I’m pretty sure Ari Kelman wouldn’t think so.)



Today was the GOP pri­mary in South Carolina. Jeb Bush just dropped out of the race because he failed to receive the sup­port of pri­mary vot­ers in three states whose del­e­gates — com­bined! — make up 3.5% (19/538) of the elec­toral col­lege.

(In other words, these states are basi­cally irrel­e­vant in the national elec­tion, yet some­how some­one gave their most extreme vot­ers — the ones who show up for the pri­maries — the power to sink a viable candidate’s chances of get­ting the nom­i­na­tion in favor of a guy who is demon­stra­bly loony toons.)

I’m by no means a fan of Jeb Bush, and a part of me won­ders if it helps Dems’ chances in November if the Republicans end up let­ting extrem­ist vot­ers in small states nom­i­nate an openly racist can­di­date to the party’s ticket. But seri­ously… if this isn’t enough to give some legs to efforts to change the pri­mary sys­tem, I don’t know what will.

Also, won­der­ing: After the way Trump took every oppor­tu­nity to pub­licly bad­mouth, embar­rass, shame, and vil­ify him and his fam­ily, if Trump ends up being the can­di­date will Jeb even cast a bal­lot in November?

for our daughter.

On the occasion of your naming. February 27, 2015.
Peninsula Temple Beth El, San Mateo, California

Sara's baby naming.

October 1981.

Sela Penina Mason-Barkin, or Penina Selah in Hebrew.

A big name for a very, very little girl. But we know that no matter how small you are now, you will grow into this name — this name that was so carefully chosen for you.

Sela Penina, you are named for two very strong, intelligent, loving, and beautiful women.

Your first name, Sela, is for your GG – your Great- Grandma Selma. Sela, you are your GG’s sixteenth great-grandchild, so we know exactly how much she would have loved to meet you. Just like she loved meeting your cousins and your big brother, watching you play would have made her blue eyes twinkle and when we placed you on her lap, I know she would have chuckled deeply.

In her absence, we have given you a name that not only sounds like hers but that we also hope will inspire you live up to some of her most special qualities.

Your GG possessed a quiet strength and a grace that allowed her live an incredible and full life, even after the death of your great grandpa, Carl. At her funeral, many spoke about the ways that she contributed to her husband’s business success – and how in another day and age she would have been running the store herself. Well my little Sela, here you are – in another day and age. I know that it wouldn’t matter to your GG what your passion comes to be – whether you find yourself loving writing or music or math: but it would matter to her that you put your whole self into it. This is our wish for your, too.

Another enduring lesson from your GG that we hope you will always take to heart is the importance of family. Your GG made it a priority to make sure that family always got together, and really got to know one another. You have already begun to live this without even knowing it, when you welcomed two of your big cousins to come visit you when you were still in the hospital. Your brother Charlie and all your big cousins Zachy, Eliza, Aviva and Caleb already love you so much – and you have so much to learn from them. Your GG would have loved to know how important they already are to you, and our hope for you is that family will always come first – and that you will always make this a priority.

Your middle name, Penina, is for your Great Grandmother, Ina. We find the letters of her name at the end of yours. Your Great Grandmother was also a source of strength for her family and force in her community. She was a Dean at Clark University and valued education and learning for herself and for her family. If your Great Grandmother was still here, she would want to play scrabble with you, teach you three syllable words, and talk with you about current events. As you strive to reach your big dreams, we hope you do so with a thirst for knowledge and love of learning that would make your great-grandmother so proud.

Your great-grandmother was very cerebral, but also appreciated beauty and detail. One of her most wonderful qualities that I, unfortunately, did not inherit, was to set a beautiful table and host a gorgeous holiday meal. She always hosted with pleasure and beauty. Whether or not you love to cook, we hope that you will always strive for balance between the intellectual and the aesthetic. We want you to find beauty everywhere you look, just as we see beauty when we look at you.

Sela Penina, or Penina Selah in Hebrew:

Penina in Hebrew means Pearl. Your great-grandmother Ina had terrific taste in jewelry, and a few years ago she gave me a beautiful pearl necklace of hers, which will someday be yours. When I wear it, I think about not only the beauty of the pearls, but about the pearls of wisdom that your great grandmother would share as she tried her best to help me in the kitchen, as she set a beautiful table, or as she quizzed me on the meaning of a new word.

Selah in Hebrew means Rock. Just a few months ago, at your GG’s funeral, we remembered her lovingly as ‘the rock’ of our family. She kept us all, and continues to keep us all together as she heads the family with her loving strength. In the book of Deuteronomy, God is described as nursing Israel with dvash miselah, honey from a rock. Like your GG, a rock is strong. It is steadfast and withstands much. But like you, and like your GG, this imagery shows us a rock filled with honey: a rock that is sweet, a rock performing an act of love. This describes your GG to a tee, and so too may you be as strong as you are sweet.

Our little Sela Penina, Penina Selah, we realize these names are a lot to live up to for a little tiny baby. But there are no two women more deserving of a namesake as precious as you. Welcome to the world, we are so proud to be your parents.


Mom and Dad

From “Synagogue-based Religious Schools: A Community Responsibility,” by Lisa Harris Glass and Stephanie Hausner

We have spent a gen­er­a­tion dis­pro­por­tion­ately focused on day schools, thereby rel­e­gat­ing sup­ple­men­tal reli­gious schools to second-class sta­tus. Our efforts have done noth­ing to increase day school choice in the major­ity of the Jewish com­mu­nity; but have served to suc­cess­fully demor­al­ize sup­ple­men­tal school edu­ca­tion direc­tors and dec­i­mate the bench of qual­ity, qual­i­fied, inspir­ing reli­gious school teach­ers. We have con­signed our num­ber one oppor­tu­nity to inspire/ignite a life­long love of Judaism and pos­i­tive Jewish iden­tity to “less than,” “wannabe” sta­tus.

Whoa. Because truth.