Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The old precinct sports a new election day look

To avoid the lines, Kathy and I showed up about ten minutes before 7 a.m. at Austin's Precinct 126 to find about 12-15 people waiting ahead of us. After a moment of initial confusion (my ID was checked a total of three times, and there was an oddly large amount of redundant paperwork required, for whatever reason), we were able to quickly complete the task, and now it's just a matter of hoping the electronic voting machies record the darn thing accurately. ;)

In any event, predictions of a high turnout appear to be on target. Over the years, East Austin has experienced such low turnout rates that most political consultants, based purely on a (correct) cost-benefit analysis, advised against spending money on East Austin GOTV efforts since, more often than not, nobody voted anyway even if the campaign spent money there.

This spring, though, around 2,000 people voted in my precinct alone in the Democratic primary, then more than 600 of them came back that night to caucus at the precinct convention. By comparison, at the last Democratic precinct convention I attended before that, my wife and I made seven total participants. (I've lived in this neighborhood since 1990. Our precinct is historically black and at one time a serious crime center, but is now a rapidly gentrifying mixed neighborhood a mile due east of the capitol.)

Another interesting change, for good or ill: For years, our precinct (which was precinct 128 until the 2003 redistricting) was staffed on election day with the same, long-time cadre of septuagenarian or octogenarian black women, all wearing their Sunday finest. A couple of them would remember me as a frequent voter, always asking if my wife was coming in, exchanging guesses about turnout totals, etc..

But 2008 saw a generational shift Precinct 126's election workers, who today were mostly energetic young people, a couple of whom sheepishly admitted they were doing this for the first time as they fumbled through the seemingly over-complex paper work required to verify IDs. One of the new election workers was an old friend who Kathy and I've known for 20 years, so I'm happy to report this personnel transition didn't alter that sense of communal familiarity I think I'm somehow looking for when casting a ballot on election day. And there's little question there's a lot more excitement in the air - even at 7 a.m. - than there is for most elections.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Dinosaurs in Zilker botanical gardens good fun for kids

Kathy and I took our two-year old grandbaby to the "Dinoland" exhibit at the Zilker Botanical Gardens - featuring life-sized replicas of various dinosaurs set au natural - and the baby particularly enjoyed herself, though the long walk wore her down by the end and made everyone a little cranky.

We happened to go to the event on opening day, and though the botanical garden is a large place - around 30 acres - the crowd at 2 pm on Saturday was still rather oppressive, I must admit, though it made no difference to the baby.

Having visited the zoo recently, I think, primed her for the experience, and Ty issued oohs and aahs at nearly every stop. I particularly liked one depicting two long-beaked dinosaurs in a gigantic nest situated up in a tree, but Ty was most impressed with the traditional, large lizard creatures like the one featured above.

The animals were most notable for their impressive scale, but they didn't quite look real, more like oversized toy dinosaurs. Another minor complaint - while we know nothing about what color dinosaurs were, a little more diversity in the educated guesses exhibitors made would have been welcome. Like birds, to whom they're related, dinosaurs were likely multi-colored and more showy than depicted in this exhibit, which portrayed most of them as gray, brown, or some other neutral hue.

The level of supporting information provided was aimed at an audience of kids, for sure, not adults who might, say, frequent natural history museums. But for its audience it was quite well done. There was also quite a bit of kid oriented programming in addition to the nature walk, but it was a hot day and the baby was ready to bed down by the time we finished. Not only was this a good experience for kids, it gives a lot of Austinites who might not have been there before a chance to see Austin's impressive botanical garden that plays second fiddle on most weekends to Zilker Park and Barton Springs across the road.

UPDATE (Oct. 19): See a story on the exhibit from the Austin Statesman.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Baby Ty and the Rhinos

Among the many animals at the San Antonio Zoo that were new to her, my granddaughter saw a rhinoceros for the first time recently and the beast made quite an impression on the 23-month old. Even now, weeks later, if you mention the zoo she'll break in to a babbling description of either the rhino or the monkeys (who got into a fairly energetic and vicious fight while we watched, much to her amazement).

In any event, upon returning home she was so obsessed with rhinos that we got online looking for toddler-appropriate rhino references and quickly found "The Rhino Song," a brilliant little ditty with an accompanying cartoon that she now asks for virtually every time she sees the computer. This is clearly quite popular among toddlers and the adults who cater to them but I just ran across it. Be forewarned: It's addictive:

Depth Perception

I've always thought optical illusions are a pretty cool thing, but while it's one thing to manufacture them in drawings, it's another entirely, it seems to me, to enshrine them in sculpture. Here's a piece outside the McNay Museum in San Antonio that appears to have a great deal of depth when viewed from the vantage point of the museum:

Here's the view from the opposite side:

However, here's a side view that shows to what extent the depth you see from the front and back is mostly illusory:

I thought that was a pretty neat piece: the eye projects a lot more depth and complexity to the sculpture depending on your perspective. Here's another remarkable sculpture from the McNay - this one, if I'm not mistaken, from the late Austin sculptor Charles Umlauf set in the museum's fabulous courtyard:

Friday, August 15, 2008

If Green Bay can buy the Packers, why can't Austin purchase the Statesman?

When Green Bay, Wisconsin's beloved historic professional football team was about to be sold and moved to another locale, the local community decided they'd rather buy the team than see it auctioned off to the highest bidder. It was a smart move that's benefited the town tremendously, both economically and in terms of prestige and public satisfaction.

So upon hearing news this week that the Austin-American Statesman will be put up for sale, my first reaction, posted as a comment on The Good Life blog, was that:
I think the City of Austin should purchase it and put it in trust with professioal management the way Green Bay, Wisconsin did with their football team. Nobody else who can afford to buy it will do anything but slash it to pieces.
To me, daily newspapers are a national treasure as important to sustaining democracy and public life as water and air are to keeping us all upright and breathing. Certainly blogging would not exist as it does today if bloggers didn't have daily journalists' work to build upon. So-called "citizen journalism" is a good thing, but some projects only get done if you have a pro on the job. Despite the rise of disparate additional media that cut into ad revenues and shrunk the newshole drastically, the Statesman remains the central information source for the largest number of engaged citizens and opinion leaders in Central Texas and a critical spearpoint for public conversation .

I'd personally support a bond issue to purchase the paper and establish an independent trust with its own, dedicated board to manage the project. Public ownership would give the paper many options for distribution and synergy that are closed to a private entity. And a charter for the paper could be crafted that dedicated it to reporting in the public service, bucking the trend of treating news items as entertainment and giving the public better coverage all the way around. If the paper is sold, odds are both staff and the newshole will be further slashed and diminish overall reportage.

The main reason newspapers like the Statesman are losing money is people are accessing their content for free online. So by providing taxpayer support for journalism, purchasing the paper would overcome the "free rider problem" created for papers by web technology.

Besides convincing taxpayers it's a worthy investment, the hardest part of such a deal might be structuring the entity so it's editorially independent - boardmembers couldn't be appointed by the City Council, for example, and remain credibly separate from the city power structure. I don't have a clear idea how that might work, but I'll bet it could be done. The Green Bay City Council, after all, doesn't interfere with the Packers game plans or hiring decisions, and I'll bet there's a way a newspaper could be similarly distanced from outside interference.

Who knows how much Cox News wants for the Statesman or whether it might be possible for the city to purchase the paper? In any event it seems worth considering whether public ownership might be a viable option.

RELATED: See also "Who will buy the Statesman?" from Jeff Beckham, and the Lone Star Times has identified a prospective buyer.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Food notes: An Irish blue cheese adds zing to a salad, Italian ricotta dreams, and perhaps the best steak dinner I've ever had

A few disparate food notes:

First, on the home cooking front, I made a spectacular salad two nights ago using fresh spinach greens, a splash of seed-heavy trail mix with raisins and dried cranberries, a spectacular (if expensive) blue cheese from Ireland made from sheep's milk called "Crozier Blue" (see their website for a lot more detail about this cheese and its makers).

The Crozier Blue cheese really made the salad special, though it'd better given the dear price - a whopping $30 per pound at the Central Market, though I just bought a smidgen (at $3 worth), enough to liven up a couple of 2-3 person salads. It would be wrong to call the flavor "mild," though it's not as pungent as some blue cheeses (or as I imagine it might become if allowed to sit and ripen a bit). Indeed, arguably the slightly less brash initial reception the Crozier Blue engenders with the palette creates space for enjoying more fully its rich and complex textures. A good find. I can't afford much of it but it's a good choice for a style of cheese that frequently I pass by as too overwhelming.

Speaking of cheese, I was interested to see an article in a recent issue of Saveur about traditional methods of making ricotta cheese used by shepherds in rural Italy - nearly a dying art form now practiced by septuagenarians whose kids for the most part haven't picked up the family shepherd biz. Turns out Ricotta cheese (ricotta means re-cooked, said the article), is produced from the whey or liquid byproduct from making pecorino cheese, a more expensive and exportable commodity. That whey is used for all sorts of different products by industrial manufacturers, but for shepherds in the mountains its main purpose in the past was to generate a wonderful fresh ricotta that still dominates the region's recipes.

Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the ridiculously fabulous (and equally expensive steakhouse Kathy picked for her birthday dinner last night - a place called Three Forks at Lavaca and Cesar Chavez catty corner from City Hall.

The meat was as fabulous as any I've been served, clearly of the highest possible quality. My filet mignon came as a three-inch high tower of melt in your mouth tenderloin goodness, perfectly cooked medium rare, while Kathy ordered a rib-eye twice the size of my cut of meet which she entirely devoured. Kathy was so happy with hers she essentially giggled all through the meal.

The side dishes are the same for everyone, so all you pick are the entree', drinks and appetizers, though given the size of the main dish portions there's really no need for the latter. The bread that came before the meal, too, was clearly made on-site and really quite special. With entree's at $35-50, this is a place for special occasions only on our budget, for sure - Kathy just wanted a "good steak" for her birthday so we got her one. It may not be P.C. to say so given the global economics of beef production, but that might have been the best meal I've had in 2008.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Religion and Science meet for coffee

Religion and Science meet for coffee over at Real Live Preacher, and part of the discussion included this wonderful observation:
Dark matter makes up about 96% of all that is, which is a little sobering, considering we make a lot of broad statements about reality for creatures that can only perceive about 4% of it.
They say perception is reality, and this data puts a metric on it: The reality we perceive, at best, captures about 4% of what's there.

Read the whole piece, which was as delightful as it was insightful - a rumination on science and "trust," in which RLP concludes wisely that "trusting people is its own kind of spiritual exercise."

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Never been horse that can't be rode, never been a cowboy can't be throwed

Wow, what a Superbowl game, huh?

When Kathy asked who won, I told her that light prevailed over darkness and the Evil Empire had fallen. I think she was a little non-plussed at the hyperbole. Still, I was glad to see New England go down.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Who gets to write the first draft of history?

How the "first draft of history" gets written has changed a lot in my adult lifetime.

It used to be said when I was a lad that journalism was the "first draft of history," and that conceit helped draw me into writing for The Daily Texan in college. There I learned, in fact, that the press release was the first draft of history, but even that has changed. After a while the "first draft" began to show up on blogs, and today, more often than not, it comes in a blog comment.

I'm not sure whether I think that's good or bad, but I think it's true.

It's also been said that winners write the history, but to a large extent, that has changed, too. If there's one thing you can say for the blogosphere, it's that it's definitely given losers a voice!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Note to Wall Street Journal: It's not "historic" when you predict wrong

Here's an example, to me, of the utter failure of the modern media: They've become so reliant on polling and so confident in their own predictions, they now believe it "historic" when THEY are wrong! What hubris! From Justin Wolfers at the Wall Street Journal:

Judging by the pre-vote polls and prediction markets, the Democratic primary in New Hampshire created one of the most surprising upsets in U.S. political history.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was favored in the final pre-election poll of all 12 pollsters who surveyed voters since his surprise victory in Iowa, and was the unanimous favorite among television pundits. The only real question to be resolved appeared to be the size of Mr. Obama's majority.

His loss to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was equally embarrassing for prediction markets, such as the WSJ Political Market. Election-eve trading had suggested that Sen. Obama had a 92% chance to win in New Hampshire, while Sen. Clinton rated only a 7% chance.

Against this background, it is no exaggeration to term the result truly historic. Not that there haven't been more dramatic upsets or come-from-behind wins that carried more significance -- this was just an early primary, albeit a pivotal one. But in terms of unpredictability, or at least the failure of everyone to predict it, it may have no modern match.

The fact that he and his egghead buddies were wrong in their predictions doesn't make this primary result any more "historic" than it would otherwise have been. (It is, after all, the presidential campaign, so in some sense calling it "historic" is definitionally redundant.)

Managing expectations has officially become more important than reality. We've reached a stage when many in the media believe their own pre-election assumptions are actually more important, apparently, than the actual voters themselves. Otherwise, when the voters disagree with the media's and the pollsters' predictions, why is it such a big deal?

That's definitely a bias in media coverage, but it's not a bias toward left or right, it's an expression of narcissism and group think. Results, not expectations, are what matter, but you wouldn't know it from reading most political coverage.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Random Assortment of Movie Reviews

Lately Kathy and I have been on a movie-going spree, seeing five movies since Christmas Day. They were:

Charlie Wilson's War
The acting and script were so good in this movie it was almost possible to forget the frequently glaring historical inaccuracies. Among my beefs, when you say the covert ops received matching funds from the Saudis, how hard would it have been to have added, "from the Bin Laden family"! Another: Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson was a buffoon and a tool, not the compassionate, forward thinking Congressman portrayed in the movie by Tom Hanks.

The movie (as well as, I understand, the eponymous book) downplayed the fairly predictable consequences of climbing into bed with fundamentalist jihadists (a decision which arguably led directly to the creation of Al Qaeda and ultimately 9/11), and it gave Wilson way too much credit. After all, the Reagan administration itself was simultaneously selling arms to fundamentalists in neighboring Iran - do we really think arms sales to Afghanistan weren't part of a broader Reagan administration policy against the Soviets? Was it really this one Democratic Congressman who wanted those weapons? That's certainly not how I remember it.

No Country for Old Men
An iconic drug war tale set in an imaginary Terrell county in southwest Texas, No Country for Old Men also was a tremendously well-acted movie, plus its fictional subject it didn't suffer from comparisons with history that plague Charlie Wilson's War. On the other hand, the movie was also tremendously violent, perhaps unnecessarily so, coupling the already grotesque routine violence associated with the drug war with the actions of a true psychopath whose murders weren't always business related.

The movie opens portraying the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad out in the middle of the desert, both buyers and suppliers gunned down, when a hunter stumbles upon the scene and leaves with the money, launching a blood-drenched chase by a hit man hired by the drug purveyors to get the money back.

Two overarching message from the movie: First, the border region has always been a violent, semi-lawless place, where rational minds struggle to impose reason on the occasionally inhuman actions of its worst inhabitants. In a brilliant scene near the end, a beleaguered and overwhelmed Tommy Lee Jones learns from a relative how his great uncle, a Sheriff, like Jones' character, died in the line of service in 1909, gunned down in a hail of bullets at his home by seven armed riders. The message: Never think what you're seeing is new, it's how humans have always behaved. And it overwhelmed your predecessors, too.

The other theme that arose was how far away law enforcement was from comprehending the scope of the problem from any given incident. Jones' character spent most of his time in a diner reading the newspaper, as though he might find a clue to the murder there! He never really got close to understanding the characters and organized crime infrastructure that confronted him, perhaps typified in his conversation with the El Paso County Sheriff, who blamed the rise in murders as stemming from a degenerate culture that tolerated disrespectful teenagers with purple hair. Jones' character nodded sagely, but of course, none of the killing in the movie - neither the capitalist driven drug cartels nor the psychopathic hit man with a strict if twisted moral code - had a darn thing to do with the high Terrell County body count. As if to drive home the point, Jones at one point found himself knocking at a door where the killer was hiding on the other side, but by the time he entered his foe had vanished. Their paths never crossed, everyone went on about their business, and life goes on, for some of the characters, anyway.

Though it was quite a different movie, the ending reminded me of the denouement of Traffic, with its nonconclusory and anticlamictic result. Nothing will change, the film seems to tell us, this is just how things are, how they always have been.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
This movie had me laughing out loud throughout, which is about the best thing I can say about a comedy. From the opening scene when it's made clear the director would stoop to any level for a laugh ("Where's Cox?," a young man with a clipboard yells while muscling through a crowd, "I need Cox!"), the movie was a joyous musical and historical romp. John C. Reilly created a bigger than life character whose goofy ego and legitimate musical skills (he's got a great tenor voice) rose above the anything goes humor to create a flawed but memorable and lovable persona.

The movie is 100% satire, so to my mind that lets them off the hook for most pedantic complaints, but Kathy perhaps rightly thought that, at times, the movie was too directly satirical of Walk the Line, the recent Johnny Cash biopic, paralleling Cash's story, if indirectly at most of the major plot points. To me, Johnny Cash is bigger than any movie, either this one or his biopic, and not satirization can harm his legacy. But it's certainly true that just drawing story lines from one or two other iconic rock and roll figures into the mix might have made a couple of the jabs seem less mean-spiritedly directed at the Man in Black. That said, the movie overall was smart and funny, well worth the cost of admission and probably better viewed on the big screen.

The Golden Compass
I've not read the books this movie was based on, which I've been told contain an anti-Christian bent. But I couldn't detect such theological undertones from this movie any more than I could see any pro-Christian overtones in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Hollywood apparently must pound those theological elements out of our cultural products before they're deemed safe for viewing by the public.

In any event, the movie itself was visually stunning, the script smartly written, and the plot compelling. The story takes place in a universe parallel to ours, but astonishingly different, where people's souls (their "daemons") take animal form, follow them around, and communicate. A variety of other differences take a great deal of the movie to flesh out so that the plot becomes understandable, but by about 1/3 of the way through they'd sufficiently established their fantasy lexicon to die into a fairly complex plot line.

The acting in this movie wasn't as good as in the others reviewed so far, but let me tell you: Nicole Kidman can play the hell out of the part of an ice princess! And the talking armored "Ice Bears" were terrific animated characters, perhaps the most impressive part of a truly visually stunning movie.

One complaint: The movie's close left many plot threads hanging, nearly insisting that moviegoers return for an inevitable sequel. I understand the financial reasons for doing that, but artistically it just left the movie with a quite abrupt ending, leaving feeling of incompletion in its wake. OTOH, it left you entwined enough with the plot to anticipate the sequel, which I guess was the goal.

National Treasure II
I actually saw this movie way back on Christmas Day with my brother's family, including my niece and nephew, and for a pure comic romp it has a little something for everyone. Like a bizarre, Americanized Da Vinci Code, National Treasure has envisioned a spectacular alternative vision of US history dominated by secret societies and cabals that still secretly haunt the modern political landscape. Nicholas Cage plays a cartoon-character version of Indiana Jones with admirable enthusiasm, and the ensemble cast around him came together with more cohesion, I thought, than in the first rendition. The movie was a fun diversion, and left a pretty wide age range in our party (9-60+) more or less equally satisfied.

That's the most frequent batch of big-screen movie going in which Kathy and I have indulged in quite some time. With the writers strike spurring TV's nightly, hellish descent into reality and game show pablum, there are probably a few more big-screen titles out there I could still go see.

What movies have you seen lately that you'd recommend?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Way of the Fallen is Hard

These lyrics, for whatever reason, have been rattling in my head all day:
Down in Corpus Christi
Always around midnight
You'll find the devil limping along 'cause his shoes are too tight.

His hair's up in pig tails
His whiskers are in braids
He's talking 'bout the promises he said God forgot He made.

The way of the fallen is hard.

-Ray Wylie Hubbard, Brewed in Texas, Vol 2
Truer words were never spoken. Like God, in whose image we're created (or vice versa), we despise no one more than those with whom we're disillusioned, those whom we once put on a pedestal who for whatever reason fall off and no longer seem worthy of the imaginary shrine built to them in our mind's eye. Whether it's a friend who betrayed us or prideful Lucifer, God's Shining Star ... when we're profoundly disappointed, it's easy, isn't it, to succumb to our pain, to demonize our betrayer (and who's more demonized than Lucifer?). But the object of our scorn has a story to tell too, even if he's doomed to tell it sitting by the railroad tracks in Corpus Christi wearing tight shoes.

The way of the fallen is hard.