Saturday, January 31, 2009

This ain't no disco

Among the awesome things you can find on youtube are almost all the songs from the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. Here's Life During Wartime:

You can also find Burning Down the House, Once In A Lifetime, Psycho Killer, etc. etc. Not sure why this hasn't fallen afoul of the lawyers; the whole film is very definitely worth watching since the band is completely on fire.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Top 8 in 08: Movies

Since Quinn was born we've gone to an actual movie theater maybe 3 or 4 times. These days we catch all the hip new movies about a year late via Netflix. By the time she is a teenager I imagine we'll have decoupled entirely from pop culture. Anyway, here are my faves:
  1. Dark Knight -- Christopher Nolan's movies keep getting awesomer. In addition to Heath Ledger's trippy performance, I enjoyed the movie's intellectual take on terrorism and how (not) to fight it - plus its literal reenactment of the Prisoner's Dilemma. I prefer it when my supervillains have done some advanced reading in game theory.

  2. The Simpson's Movie -- See here.

  3. Sweeney Todd -- I'm a big Sondheim fan so I was naturally worried that Hollywood might screw this one up somehow. In the end it skips merrily along the fine line between broadway kitsch and horror film dread - grisly, anti-social and highly entertaining. It's nice to have Tim Burton firing on all cylinders again, and hey, Johnny Depp can sing! Someone should file that away for future use.

  4. No Country for Old Men -- It doesn't really need repeating at this point, but the Coen Brothers sure do know how to make them some movies. Javier Bardem's character is so creepy and iconic that he's destined to be a sitcom punchline for decades to come.

  5. Eastern Promises -- David Cronenberg is often obsessed with the messy, fleshy biology of his characters and this movie is no exception: full-body tattoos, corpse disposal, enough slit throats to make Sweeney proud, and some hand-to-hand combat that makes those Bourne movie fight scenes look about as dangerous as beginning judo. Still despite the grimness, the movie has a beating heart and a sharp plot about human trafficking and the London underworld. Viggo Mortensen is terrific in this.

  6. Michael Clayton
  7. Persepolis
  8. There Will Be Blood
Honorable Mention: Gone Baby Gone, Hellboy, Superbad, Iron Man, Into the Wild, Chung King Express, I'm Not There

Oldies/Goodies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The French Connection

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Python would be proud

I am not too mature to pretend that I didn't laugh my ass bottom off while reading this NYT article about English town names - particularly the accompanying map. (via Scalzi.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Original photo: NYT
This was our view of Obama's inauguration

We were standing in the freezing cold about 1.5 miles away from the actual swearing-in, watching a jumbotron with a smaller angular diameter than your average iPod - and still it was awesome! From the video you can tell that Obama and Roberts flubbed the actual oath, but at the time I didn't notice, mostly because we couldn't hear all that well.

We bundled up the baby and left the house a little before 10 am. Metro was (of course) having a complete meltdown and train stoppage when we got to the station, but miraculously they cleared it up with not too long a delay (apparently someone fell onto the tracks at Gallery Place, but was uninjured). The train cars were ridiculously crowded.

Our first thought was just to get off at Union Station (which is right by the Capitol), but the Post text bulletins warned us not to try to enter the Mall anywhere east of 14th street because the crowd was already backed up. So we took the train all the way to Farragut and walked down 18th street (i.e. on the other side of the White House) and got pretty close to the Washington Monument with really no trouble at all. People as far as the eye could see.

You could tell the crowd was excited but too freezing cold to relax. Thank god the sun was shining. Everyone had that 'waiting for the bus' look to them - happy, but restless. There were boos and cheers as various politicians filed in. The sound was iffy from where we were standing, which is too bad because I wanted to hear Aretha and the piano quartet.

And then the big moment and the crowd went wild. Very cool.

Quinn was getting cold and cranky so we decided to skip out in the middle of Obama's address, and miss the crowds on the train back home. All in all, pretty painless compared to some of the crazy stories we heard later. One other thought: the Obama memorabilia sector of the economy is pretty strong. Here's the picasa album with some more photos.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration liveblog 1

Cold but sunny. Standing at the wash mon. Can see a jumbotron, and can sorta hear. Big cheer for Hillary! Quinn is being very good, all things considered. Crowd is backed up this far already.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Long Goodbye, Almost Gone

Well there's less than 24 hours left in President Bush's term. Seems like a good time for one last peek at the good ole Bush approval rating chart, doncha think?
Data compiled by Prof. Pollkatz

A long slow slide with a few punctuation marks here and there. Man, doesn't it seem like Bush has been a lame duck forever? At least since the 2006 elections (and maybe since Katrina) it seems like the country's just been waiting around for someone - anyone! - else to take over. Even Bush himself seems to have a massive case of senioritis.

At any rate: good riddance. Torture, wiretapping, lies about WMD, the Iraq war, Guantanamo, politicizing the Justice Department, the war on science, gutting the Clean Air Act, eight years of nothing on climate change, tax cuts for the rich, and the worst recession since the Great Depression. I hope he enjoys his retirement.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Our second full day in Ecuador we took a short flight to the town of Coca (known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana on maps) to see firsthand the contamination caused by oil exploration. Before oil was discovered in the 1960s, Ecuador's eastern rain forest was home to indigenous people, a handful of Christian missionaries and not much else. In the northern oriente, oil companies cut down the forest to build roads and towns, and settlers flooded into the area. From what we saw of Coca, oil wealth hasn't brought much prosperity to the people, but has resulted in shocking pollution.

Our guide in Coca was an organizer with the Amazon Defense Front - a community group that has brought a lawsuit against Texaco (now owned by Chevron) to force them to pay for a clean-up. We drove around the area and saw stuff like this:
This is a pit where waste oil and produced water were dumped by Texaco in the early '70s. We found this pit about 50 feet behind this family's house. The family relied on a well for water and livestock and fruit trees for food -- it was hard to imagine that all were not horribly contaminated. Apparently they had complained for stomach aches for years (anecdotally we heard a lot about elevated rates of cancer and miscarriage). The Correa government is now paying to clean-up this site.

Starting in the '60s Texaco (in a consortium with Petroecuador) drilled more than 300 oil wells and created more than 1,000 pools like this one. Standard practice in the U.S. at the time was to re-inject the waste products into the well after pumping; in Ecuador (because no one was watching) they just dumped it in the jungle. In 1990 Texaco sold their stake in the oil field to Petroecuador and left the country. A few years later they paid to remediate some of the waste pools and the government of Ecuador agreed to absolve them of all future liability.

Except that the locals didn't think Texaco had done a very good clean-up job and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. courts alleging that Texaco dumped nearly 17 million gallons of oil into the rivers and forests (more than the Exxon Valdez), and left behind hundreds of unlined open waste pits. If you read their website (or their defenders in the WSJ) Chevron's defense seems to be something along these lines:
  • the jungle really isn't contaminated at all, we cleaned it up in the 90s
  • if it seems like the jungle is contaminated, it totally isn't our fault, we blame Petroecuador
  • and if it is our fault, the waste oil and produced water aren't even bad for you (trust us!)
After years of delay and stupid lawyer tricks the case was moved to the Ecuadorean courts, and now it kind of looks like Chevron might actually lose and have to pay the community upwards of $16 *billion* in damages.

We visited 3 other waste pools. The first was in the process of being cleaned up by the government, the second had an outlet pipe that flowed into a nearby stream (!) and the final one was one of the pools that had been "remediated" Texaco in the '90s. A family home had been built on top of the site in the meantime, but our guide took a post-hole digger and a mere six inches below the surface dug up contaminated soil.
He mentioned that Texaco had simply bulldozed earth on top of many of the waste pits - and that this shoddy work was one of the reasons they might lose the case. Anyway, here are the pictures. They don't really do justice to the visceral sense of outrage I think we all felt while we were there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quito and Yunguilla

Happy New Year! We're back from an amazing 10 day trip to Ecuador. It was the first significant amount of time away from Quinn for both of us (she stayed with my parents and picked up several new words!) And while it didn't kill us, the last few days were tough. At any rate we are all happily reunited and have pictures! This post is the first of three -- the next two will have much more about the Amazon rain forest.

We went on a trip organized by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based group that does socially responsible tourism among other activisty things. The goal was to learn about social and environmental justice issues in Ecuador, particularly around the issues of fair trade, oil extraction and indigenous rights.

We flew into Quito, perched at 9,300 feet above sea level (you definitely feel the altitude). The city is hilly and sprawled across a long narrow valley (in the shadow of an active volcano) and reminds me at least a little of San Francisco. Quito used to be one of the Incan capitals, although they burned it to the ground to prevent the Spaniards from taking it. As a result it doesn't have the astounding architectural history that you see in Mexico City or Rome, but the people, the descendants of the Incas and others, are still there and still holding tightly to their culture.

Our first morning in Quito we had breakfast at a coffee shop run by the Kallari cooperative. In addition to handicrafts and coffee, the Quichua-run cooperative makes particularly delicious chocolate bars which they have begun directly marketing to Whole Foods in the U.S. The filtered coffee they served was also a rarity -- in Ecuador the good coffee typically leaves on boats and the locals mostly drink instant.

That afternoon we visited Yunguilla, a rural community north of Quito overlooking a dramatically beautiful valley, that decided in the 90s to move toward ecotourism and away from logging as a means of making a living. Gallindo, a young community leader, gave us the story of their project, as well as a tour of their community projects and the lush cloud forest that draws in visitors. Ecotourism seems to have brought the community some level of self-sufficiency, although from Gallindo's story it was apparent that the path was not always easy. On the ride back to Quito we stopped to take photos at the Mitad del Mundo - the monument marking the (approximate) location of the equator.

After many adventures (stay tuned), we returned to Quito for one last day before our flight out. In the morning we visited the Capilla del Hombre, a museum featuring the work of Oswaldo Guayasamin, one of Ecuador's most famous and influential modern artists, and spent the afternoon wandering around the Old Town.

Anyway, here are the pictures: