Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Yesterday was the first hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee under the new Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA). The topic of the hearing was political interference in the work of government climate change scientists -- the exact subject of the scientist survey and report we've been frantically working on for the past several months. Since my boss was called as one of the four witnesses, we took the opportunity to release our report and call for an end to interference in the work government scientists.

We only found out about the hearing last Monday, so basically my life for the past 9 days has been completely consumed by the tasks of (1) finishing the report, (2) getting it designed and printed, (3) taking care of the 637 billion other things needed for a successful hearing and report release. So after all those long hours, it's nice that the hearing was a success. The Democrats on the committee were all strong supporters of our position on this issue, and most of the handful of Republicans who showed up were fairly moderate.

I say 'most' because Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) led off with an ad hominem attack on UCS and followed that up with a weak attempt to discredit the methodology of our survey. The National Review decided to repeat this critique in a blog post labeling us the "Union of Junk Scientists." Heh. I would rebut this argument, but Chris Mooney has already hit the nail on the head as to why this attack entirely misses the point (see here and here). So goes the political theater.

Anyway, the report and the hearing got a ton of media coverage -- most of it pretty positive. Apparently my face appeared on CNN for a few seconds, wahoo! The story got picked up by AP, Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, US News and World Report, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune among others. Michael, Francesca and Tarek also did interviews for several local TV affiliates.

You can see the video of the entire hearing by clicking here. That's me sitting behind Francesca and occassionally passing her notes - you have to scroll ahead for a long time to see me since there were over 70 minutes of opening statements. And beware: it goes on for almost 4 hours. There's also a few snippets up on You Tube. A few interesting blog reactions about hurricanes and cherry-picking can be found from Roger Pielke Jr. (the 4th witness suggested by the Republican side) and Real Climate. If you're interested in reading the report (titled Atmosphere of Pressure and co-authored by the Government Accountability Project) it can be downloaded here along with more information of the investigation and other incidents of political interference in science.

I'll post more about the actual content of the hearing at some point, but for starters it's a huge step in the right direction that it happened at all. Waxman appears to be a great ally on the issue of scientific integrity. The next step is definitely to push for actual reforms at federal agencies that protect scientists basic rights and let them get back to the job we're paying them to do.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

cinema vs. celebrity

We went to the movies the other night and the price for a regular ticket was $10! No attempt to paper over the fact that you're being totally screwed: $10 straight up. Unsurprisingly the enormous theatre was almost empty. Totally ridiculous -- and it's too bad because I really love seeing good movies on the big screen. Chicago had an awesome student-run film series and we would buy passes and go almost weekly to see second-run blockbusters, art films, foreign films, cult classics, you name it. Cut the price of a movie ticket in half and I for one would go to the movies more than twice as often.

What's more, there are definitely certain movies that you really do want to see on the big screen, and others that you might as well wait for on Netflix. This most recent shakedown reminded me that not only should a movie be pretty good to warrant ten bucks, it should also have a certain cinematic quality that's lost when seeing it on your 12" TV. I've talked before about how I have a soft spot in my heart for intrinsically cinematic movies -- films with that rush of moving image excitement you just can't get from the printed word or even a stage play. By this I don't specifically mean action movies with explosions, or even 'tasteful' costume design or 'lush' cinematography. It's more intangible than that: Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, even the original Star Wars ... stuff like that.

Can I also gripe for a minute about the ascendancy of the biopic? By this I mean a movie primarily about the life of a celebrity. Over the last few years Hollywood has provided us with impressive documentation of the lives of the famous and name-worthy. To mention a few (Oscar contenders all): Ray, Walk The Line (which is the exact same movie as Ray), Capote, the Aviator, Finding Neverland, Kinsey, the Motorcycle Diaries, the Hours, Frida, A Beautiful Mind, Ali, Iris, Before Night Falls, Pollock, Quills, the Hurricane, Malcolm X, Nixon, Gandhi to name just a few. This year brings us several more biopics (The Queen and The Last King of Scotland) that are at the top of everyone's Oscar lists. Apparently the highest accolades accrue to movie stars playing yet another famous person.

My gripe with these movies is not that they're bad: some are certainly tedious, but others I would rank among my faves. Rather, the problem is that they're a bit lazy. Your typical biopic often has (1) an eye-catching performance in the titular role, and (2) a lousy story. This is a simple consequence of the fact that the lives of famous people (even someone as nutty as Howard Hughes) are simply not interesting enough to warrant a full-length motion picture about their year-to-year existence.

The best of the bunch succeed in spite of the genre's limitations. Gandhi is really the story of the founding of modern India, Ray succeeds on the considerable strength of the music, and the Motorcycle Diaries is a story about personal awakening to injustice. But, even when watching your better biographies I often wonder whether these interesting themes could just as easily be the basis for telling a new story, rather than draping them across the mundane biographical outline of a real person's life.

For example, one of the most interesting movies I've seen recently was actually a fake biography: Velvet Goldmine (I've raved about the sweet soundtrack elsewhere). The movie takes the 70's glam-rock milieu of Roxy Music, Brian Eno and David Bowie and crafts a fictional story about a very Bowie-esque rock star. You gotta love any film the ties together Oscar Wilde, space aliens, talking Ken dolls and several tons of glitter make-up. Unlike the fictional John Slade, Bowie never faked his own death on stage, but it sorta seems like something he might have tried. And the stunt doubles as a great metaphor for glam-rock's death at the hands of 80s-pop, for Bowie's perpetual reinventions and for the end of a certain sexual idealism in our popular culture. VG isn't tied down by the tyrannies of fact and history, and that freedom seems to allow it to say something far more true and interesting.

To return to my earlier point, when you strip away the remakes of TV shows, biopics, adaptations of books, comics and extended SNL skits, is there anyone in Hollywood actually telling original stories in films? Or, put it another way, which movies need to be seen as films in order to truly capture their spirit. A few come to mind that you couldn't even begin to reproduce
as a book, a TV show, a stage play, a comic book, a newscast: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, City of God, Mulholland Drive, 2046, Pulp Fiction, animation from Pixar, Miyazaki or Aardman. These types of films won't win Best Picture, but might garner an Original Screenplay nomination. These types of films I would pay $10 to see again and again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Baby's First Protest

Here's Laura Jean holding our 2-year-old niece Grace, who was attending her first protest yesterday. In honor of Martin Luther King we came to the Save Darfur rally outside the Sudanese Embassy.

As I've said before, the Save Darfur movement sometimes strikes me as a little odd because its organizers and supporters are clearly passionate but often don't provide a deeper analysis as to why genocide occurs or what systematic things we can do to stop future atrocities. Which is not to say it's not a timely and deeply important cause to take up -- clearly, it's better to act than endlessly ponder political theories, especially when quick action can save lives. But it will be interesting to see where the energy goes once confronted with either victory or continued apathy.

And really, this particular rally was far better than others at drawing the important connections between war and racism and genocide. Several of the excellent speakers drew connections to Dr. King's radical rejection of the Vietnam war and Rep. Tom Lantos (the only living Holocaust survivor in Congress) announced plans to hold hearings on the issue. May they be heard.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Civil Liberties In Wartime

Hey- I wrote this:

As part of my brief internship with Student Pugwash, I put together this summation of the state of civil liberties in our nation -- one of a series of science and society articles on their website. It was an fascinating (if distressing) exercise to pull together in one place the various ways civil liberties have been degraded since 9/11 -- secret surveillance, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, racial profiling and more. The plan was to provide at least a little balance in representing 'both sides' of the issue - although I suspect my views might shine through at bit. Anyway, hope you enjoy.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Nostrils of Satan

More interesting (non) developments on the creationism front.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) just put out a press release noting that the National Park Service has for the past 3 years carried in the Grand Canyon bookstores a book by Tom Vail that advocates the Canyon was carved by Noah's flood in the past few thousand years. The controversy started in 2003 when the park superintendent tried to stop the sale of the book at park stores and was overruled by NPS headquarters. After public outcry, NPS promised there would be a high-level policy review of the matter.

Turns out that was a lie. No review has been completed and the book is still on sale despite vigorous protest from NPS geologists and others.

As Steve Benen points out, having 'balance' in the NPS bookstores on this issue is probably seen by many people as 'fair' and raises interesting questions about what should and shouldn't be allowed in public spaces like parks. Of course, we don't allow creationism in the public schools and PEER correctly notes that the NPS bookstores are actually very selective (most proposed books are not approved for sale) and that park educational programs must be based upon science and not appear to endorse a particular religious perspective. Which would seem to put the kibosh on Vail's book, except that this is the Bush administration we're talking about. Sigh.

Anyway PEER has a reputation for writing hilariously quotable press-releases, and this one is no exception. Read down to the bottom and please please tell me where I can buy a book titled Geysers of Old Faithful: Nostrils of Satan. Awesome.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sign of the Coming Apocalypse #1637

Can I just say that the temperature here in DC was 73 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday? On January 6th. Not that I'm complaining (actually I went for a very nice run), but still... t'aint natural.

The Top 6 in '06

Happy New Year 007! To commemorate the passing of aught-six here is my annual list of favorite books, movies and albums of the past year.

  • 6: Konono No. 1, Congotronics
  • 5: Vienna Teng, Dreaming Through the Noise -- As a long-time fan I have to confess I was a little perplexed by this album at first listen. It seemed a little too ... tasteful? Restrained? Light-jazzy? But never fear: the beautiful vocal melodies and piano hooks we've come to expect from Vienna are still here, now wrapped in a sophisticated new production. A personal fave: "City Hall" is a sweet country-soul ode to San Francisco's gay marriage ceremonies.
  • 4: The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America -- Craig Finn has done a lot of drugs (and seemingly can't write songs about much else), but at least he has given us some awesome music as a result. This album is cynical and sad about love and self-destruction, but it's also true and damn funny. Plus, the band rocks like an angry Bruce Springsteen.
  • 3: Soundtrack to the movie Velvet Goldmine -- A terrific fake soundtrack for Todd Haynes' terrific fake David Bowie biopic. Since they couldn't get Bowie himself onboard or use his name or any of his music, the producers lined up a few friends (Thom Yorke, Sonic Youth, etc.) to cover some old 70's glam rock tunes and drafted some modern bands (Pulp, Shudder To Think, Grant Lee Buffalo) to write originals that channel the decadent spirit of the era. Somehow this mash-up works a million times better than almost any other movie soundtrack you can think of.
  • 2: Common, Be -- When I moved to Chicago in 2000 everyone was lamenting the fact that the "capital of Black America" had yet to produce a bona fide hip-hop star. Six years later we have a least two, Kanye West and Common, and they've teamed up for this highly enjoyable album. Not as groundbreaking as Like Water For Chocolate, but Common's positive lyrics and Kanye's soulful productions make a powerful combination.
  • 1: Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood -- Neko's first few albums showcased her gorgeous voice and her skillful, if traditionalist, country song-writing. Her last few outings have taken a darker turn, chaneling Patsy Cline and Nick Cave in equal proportion. For Fox Confessor it all comes together as something original: Case sings murder ballads and love songs, gospel rockers and midnight confessions. The shimmery music draws you close and her lyrics twist the knife.
Other stuff I've been spinning: the White Stripes, Gillian Welch, The Smiths, Uncle Tupelo, Kanye West, Blur, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Gorillaz

[Top 6 Books and Movies can be found on the full post page. Click below.]

  • 6: To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis -- Time-travelling Sci-Fi would seem to be a dry well by this point, but this book manages to find a clever new twist on the old hyperspace continuum. In this case the quantum physics and chaos theorizing come via a charming sojourn in Victorian-era Oxford. What what?
  • 5: Field Notes From A Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert -- Real Climate named this the year's best popular science book on climate change. While I can't say I've read enough books to make that claim, this is definitely a quality introduction to the issue. Kolbert apparently gets the science right and she's an undeniably superb writer.
  • 4: Trinity, by Leon Uris -- Ripping good historical fiction about the early days of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and their revolt against British occupation. Admittedly, Uris isn't the fanciest writer of the century -- his love scenes are pretty dorky, his female characters are entirely superfluous and he has a hard time writing anyone who's not a villain or hero. But there's something genuinely exciting about the hero Uris does create -- Conor Larkin, the peasant farmer who rises to become a leader and martyr for Irish independence.
  • 3: Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, by Jeff Chang -- OK, so I'm only halfway through this one, but it would be higher on the list if I'd finished already. This is the history of hip-hop neither as dry musicology nor uncritical fan adoration, instead Chang makes a passionate case for the political and cultural importance of hip-hop. His thumbnail histories of the rise and fall of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Jamaican reggae, white flight, urban neglect, Third World liberation, gang warfare in the Bronx and the economics of throwing a kickin' party all come together to make the emergence of hip-hop in late 1970's NYC seem inevitable, important and liberating. Like any great history you come away amazed that you could not have known this stuff before.
  • 2: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
  • 1: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson -- A book so good it's hard to say anything about it without sounding slightly over the top. The story of three generations of preachers in a small Iowa town takes the reader from the Civil War to the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. But rather than the sprawling epic such a narrative would seem to indicate, Gilead is a spare and focused tale about fathers and sons, with as much to say about facing death after a long life as it does about war and abolition.
Recommended Reading: Paladin of Souls, The Sandman, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff

  • 6: Serenity -- see here.
  • 5: 2046 -- In a movie-world full of literary adaptations and TV-show spinoffs, I'm always impressed by films that are somehow intrinsically cinematic -- films that live or die on the strength of the moving images they create and that couldn't conceivably exist as books or stage plays. This gorgeous, romantic film from Wong Kar-Wai fits this bill perfectly. It doesn't always make sense, and WKW certainly doesn't spell out what he means by anything (particularly the sci-fi subplot) but it's easy to lose yourself in the atmosphere. And coherence is over-rated anyway.
  • 4: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story -- Partly a clever film adaptation of the world's first post-modern novel, partly a documentary on the making of said film which manages to skewer both modern celebrity culture and high art, partly a long series of dick jokes. Take from that what you will.
  • 3: The Constant Gardener
  • 2: The Departed -- Damn. Scorcese comes through with the best gangster movie since, well, Goodfellas. The cat-and-mouse game between two dueling under-cover moles makes this one of the most exciting movies I've ever seen. The buildup of tension and the sudden release of violence gives the film an intensity that every single action director is shooting for. Hope they were taking notes. I still need to see the original, though.
  • 1: The Prestige -- Once again, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale team up for my favorite movie of the year. The movie is about dueling magicians and is structured like a magic trick with several 'surprise' twists. Of course, these days the audience is already expecting a big 'Sixth Sense moment' so the fact that Nolan pulls off the misdirection like a seasoned three-card monte dealer is already pretty cool. Bonus points are earned for casting a very amused David Bowie as Nikolai Tesla. But here's the high praise: I was still thinking about this movie a week later and having revelations about what it all means.
Honorable Mention: Cache, Munich, United 93, Tsotsi, Paradise Now, The New World, The Decalogue, V for Vendetta, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Miller's Crossing, the Squid and the Whale, Whisky Galore