Monday, December 11, 2017

Enjoying Kayla Briet's Smoke That Travels (2016)

I was looking for a TED talk to use in a speech final and stumbled upon this--a very touching, short film made by an 18-year-old young woman about her Native American heritage. She is the same age as my students, which is pretty mind blowing. The film doesn't have that many views and her YouTube channel does not have that many subscribers, but I think it bears watching.


Click to watch her TED talk. Then search her on YouTube--I enjoyed one of her songs, but particularly her short film about her father.


See what you think of her film:



Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Notes from Cedar Rapids Mayor Candidate Forum

Photo from thegazette.com, CR mayoral candidates Brad Hart and Monica Vernon.

When it really didn’t matter, Monica Vernon, candidate for mayor of Cedar Rapids, could not come up with an answer.

The question came during the rather lengthy introductory phase of a “Mayoral Forum” sponsored by The Gazette and CBS-2/Fox-28. Matt Hammill of 2/28 asked 20-minutes worth of rather fluffly personal questions, such as “What was your first job?” or “How did you meet your spouse?” I suppose I didn’t hate the one-on-one interviews, but honestly I was not a fan either.

After questioning Brad Hart, Hammill asked Vernon what Disney song she would most like to sing. She didn’t come up with an answer until she mentioned some old song from Snow White. Me, I think the appropriate Disney song for the evening would be this:


“I Wan’na Be Like You” because it was amazing how similar Brad Hart and Monica Vernon were and how much they both want to follow closely the path established by the current mayor. They had mostly identical answers—their placards almost completely agreeing during a Gazette-asked “lighting round” where they held up “yes” or “no” answers. The biggest disagreement was whether 2nd Avenue should have been closed—Hart was a yes, Vernon a no.

Me, I’m thinking it’s like a cow’s opinion. It’s pretty much a Moo point (extra credit if you get the “Friends” joke).

They both love, love, love outgoing Mayor Ron Corbett, which seems like another reference to the Disney song. If he were in the race for re-election, neither would challenge him.

On balance, I had several reactions to the forum. First and foremost, way to go, Todd Dormann and Lynda Waddington. The two Gazette opinion writers asked substantial and interesting questions. Score: Newspaper journalists 10, TV journalists 0.

I’m not even bummed that the question I submitted—how the candidates react to the sexual harassment issued and #metoo movement—wasn’t asked. The questions that were posed were more local and more relevant. Maybe my question will be part of the follow-up The Gazette hinted it might do with unused query.

My second reaction is that I’m not too worried about the outcome of this election. Both Vernon and Hart are establishment candidates. In choosing these two as the top vote getters, it seems to me that the body politic in Cedar Rapids wasn’t too upset with local leadership. That’s kind of where I stand, too.

I went into the night leaning towards Monica Vernon, but open-minded. Brad Hart did impress me as intelligent and capable, but, even if she didn’t name the Tessa Violet rendition of a Disney classic as her favorite song—as well she should—I would say my plan to vote for Vernon was strengthened by the candidates’ demeanor and answers at tonight’s forum. Although, to be fair, I also think if the chips fall the other way, Hart is not a poor choice for mayor.

My view of debate. Sadly, a friend from MMU said there were empty seats in the auditorium. Wish I could have been in one.
Finally, being the attendee who worked hardest to get there didn’t do me any good. Despite riding a bicycle in the cold dark, I was put in the overflow room, which was a bit irritating as the audio didn’t work at first, and there were some rude “stage whisperers” in behind me helpfully making it harder to hear. As it turned out, the audio was improved shortly after the forum began, and all I missed was Zach Kucharski’s introduction of the forum and Matt Hammill.

So, on balance, thanks Gazette  and 2/28 for putting this event on, and  CR Library for hosting. Also thanks to Tessa Violet for being Tessa Violet.

About 9:30 p.m., I pass the Rockwell-Collins pond on C Avenue. Both candidates would go to Connecticut to make the case to new Rockwell-Collins owners to keep jobs in Cedar Rapids.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Two Interesting War Fables

Like River in "Firefly," this is one lady not to trifle with. Warner Brothers publicity photo.

Recently, in the past two weeks, my wife and I have attended two movies at the local second-run theater: “Dunkirk” and “Wonder Woman.”

I think we both enjoyed them both, and it was a bit more of a stretch for her, given she is not a fan of war movies. I don’t like all war movies—I am squeamish and don’t care too much for graphic violence, and I prefer movies that at least seem to attempt to be consistent with history as well as telling a compelling story—but I do like a lot of them.

So, for example, one of my favorite movies is “Eye of the Needle,” which is clearly fanciful, but nonetheless captures the spirit of intrigue during WWII and is a good, tense thriller. Other favorites include “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO series (not really a movie, but cinematic) “Band of Brothers.”

I don’t insist on accuracy down to the rivets, just, please, nothing wild and impossible. Like “Pearl Harbor.” Sure, they did great filming the attack itself, but the whole Doolittle Raid ending felt false and silly. They didn’t use fighter pilots to fly bombers on that raid, and the idea that the Army Air Corps would seek “pilots who can fly bombers like fighters” is ridiculous on the face of it—“we’re seeking long-haul truckers who can ride bicycles like trucks.” It makes as much sense.

Anyway, there is a whole genre of movies around World War II, which ranks as the great mythic good and evil struggle of the movie era. World War I, while a smaller war, was arguably more important as a historic event, but it’s not seen as often in the movies.

Back to the two recent movies—one set in World War I, the other in World War II. One had the feel of reality even if parts of the story were compressed and reshaped for cinematic purposes—still, I found “Dunkirk” compelling partly because there was so little artifice in the story telling. The other movie featured an incredibly sexy actress in a miniskirt and armored corset battling in a mythical World War I. And yet, I forgive “Wonder Woman” if it plays havoc with the actual historic event—because, after all, it’s a movie that features Zeus and immortal Amazons and a hidden magic island and a shield that can stop machine gun bullets—it’s pretty clear we’re not watching a documentary. Still, even as fanciful as it is, “Wonder Woman” does capture something of the feeling of the hopeless, violent carnage that was World War I, so it has some value in showing a modern audience what trench warfare meant.

On the beach, looking for home. Another Warner Bros. photo--as are the rest in this post.

One film, “Dunkirk,” is almost exclusively male. The other, “Wonder Woman,” has a largely male supporting cast, but does include the aforementioned Amazons, an evil female scientist named Dr. Poison, and an entertaining secretary character.

Despite their clear differences, I did find some similarities between the two movies. One is that both are aided by compelling sound work—musical scores, for instance, that do well in setting the mood.

Both are slightly “dark” in a literal sense—the day scenes are often washed out and foggy, and, especially in “Wonder Woman,” the second half portrays both the front and London as rather dingy places. Some key scenes in “Dunkirk” are below deck in ships, and this movie more than most I’ve seen makes those dark, claustrophobic places seem dark and claustrophobic. Although the mythical Amazon island in “Wonder Woman” is a sun-bathed paradise, I appreciated the sparing use of light in the later part of the movie, and the whole muted look of “Dunkirk.”

Both have implicit anti-war themes. When Wonder Woman stabs who she thinks is the evil god she is chasing—and it turns out not to be—she is shocked that men still wage war. In part, this female-driven movie is rumination on the violence of mankind, in a literal sense. You can’t trust the boys. They make war. And I hasten to add that I consider that not very sexist. In mammals, much pointless aggression is fueled by testosterone, and we all know which human gender that impacts most.

Amazon warrior and stock Hollywood bad person--German solider.
“Dunkirk” is a heroic tale of the British living on to fight another day, but I can’t help seeing the random senselessness of the violence—which I think is fair to the reality of actual war—as carrying an anti-war message.

In both, one of Hollywood’s stock stereotypes of villains is used—Germans don’t exactly get a good name in either film. “Dunkirk” is told exclusively from an allied point of view, so Germans are distant and dangerous and shooting at us—and that doesn’t treat them unfairly according that movie’s premise, even if it’s not great PR. “Wonder Woman’s” use of proto-Nazis is a bit more troubling. It’s one of the weaknesses of the whole Indiana Jones set of movies that Nazis are almost cartoonish bad guys, and “Wonder Woman” comes close to that portrayal. German soldiers exist to be speared, stabbed, knocked out of buildings, etc. They aren’t exactly seen as three-dimensional humans.

Neither movie is anti-German—“Wonder Woman” doesn’t suggest Germans are more evil than any other set of humans, but the evil characters in that film are mostly German (except, of course, for the main bad guy).

Well, I don’t think “Wonder Woman” will fuel any anti-German hysteria—no travel ban is being suggested for October beer drinkers. I just thought the portrayal of evil doers was a bit disappointingly shallow in that tale. Beyond importing Indiana Jones Nazis in a world several decades before they existed, the movie has some other odd mojo going on—what the heck was the deal with the gas that the German general was snorting? An implied anti-drug message?—don’t snort drugs, kids, or an Amazon goddess will pin you to the roof with her sharp thingie?

Meh, I’ve lapsed into complaining about “Wonder Woman.” I really liked the movie despite its flaws.

On the dock. Was that a plane I heard? God, I hope it was not a plane ...
I did find “Dunkirk” to be the superior movie, more underplayed. “Wonder Woman” was a bit uneven to me—the early part where our hero grows up and is trained was a bit slow. But the movie picked up when the Germans landed on the beach. And I did appreciate the playfulness of Wonder Woman trying to make sense of 1918 Europe—the customs, the clothes, the odd meaning of it all. She was, in many ways, the “alien” who comments on life—sort of like Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” only less evil and more lively.

And, despite some flaws, I think I liked “Wonder Woman” on a sort of Buffy level—Buffy was so entertaining because it turned so many horror movie conventions on their heads. The blonde headed down the alley where there were monsters, and the monsters ended up dead. In “Wonder Woman,” the pretty exotic curvy woman in the teeny skirt and tight armor ended up in the trenches, and the Germans all died.

“Frozen” took the movie world by storm, partly because it’s portrayal of a strong female lead character was off the beaten track and resonated with girls (and male feminists like me). “Wonder Woman” has become a feminist icon, too.

More strong women characters in movies, please. And if a story must be male centric (Dunkirk made sense as a boy movie due to its time and place) then at least have it be thoughtful and relatively accurate in its portrayal of history. The anomalies in “Dunkirk,” having the German plane painted wrong, for instance, are mostly minor details and useful from the story telling point of view without really misrepresenting the events.

So thumbs up for both recent movies, different and similar as they are.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The President of Fake News

MMU series logo
During a press conference this week, the embattled president answered a query from a CNN reporter by asserting: “You’re fake news.”

Fake news—it’s not a term The Donald invented. According to a dictionary reference cited by the Huffington Post, the term fake news became popular late in the 19th century—which is not exactly a shock. That was a time of yellow journalism, of sensationalism in the news media, and some writers  then decried the trend and hoped the public would grow weary of the hype—of the false narratives, of the fake news.

The Telegraph, a national newspaper in Great Britain, posted an interesting analysis of the roots of the term fake news and its use by Donald Trump. I’m exploring the term “fake news,” its modern use and origins, as part of a presentation I’ll do in early September at Mount Mercy University. This year’s Fall Faculty Series is about our current era of divided politics. Entitled “Divided We Fall: Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Age,” the whole series seems suddenly more relevant.

The idea of a fall series itself is relatively young—the first one took place in fall 2014 and covered the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Since then, each fall the faculty at MMU has presented a series of public lectures by MMU professors and guest speakers on various big topics. We covered the legacy of the Vietnam War in 2015 and the debate over immigration in 2016.

I coordinated those first three series. Now, the series is under the leadership of Dr. Joy Ochs, professor of English and immediate past chair of the faculty. So this year, I get to watch rather than getting caught up in all of the details of putting on the series. That’s good news, not fake news, to me

On Sept. 7, I am taking on the topic “Fake News and the Free Press,” a rumination that will cover the president’s use of that pejorative term vs the traditional role of the press as a vital part of our democracy.

I am looking forward to this fall’s faculty series. I hope you’ll come hear me try to illuminate and explore the idea of fake news and what it means, and that you’ll also come to our many other speakers. We’re covering important topics that need to be talked about in our country now.

No faking.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Make Me A Robot—Amelia 2.0 is Compelling Movie

Art used on movie poster, from Facebook page for the movie.

“Make me a robot, take, take my soul.” Tessa Violet.

I had hoped to go to the premiere of the movie “Amelia 2.0” at Collins Road Theater, but did not make it. But I did see the film Aug. 10, when my wife and I attended the 4:50 p.m. show.

At the showing, there was a fairly small audience, and that seems a bit of a shame. “Amelia 2.0” is a well done, compelling movie the raises life and death questions. From a play produced in Cedar Rapids called “The Summerland Project,” “Amelia 2.0” tells the story of Amelia Summerland, a woman who dies of a brain aneurysm. But as she slips away in a coma, a high tech corporation, with HQ in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, makes Amelia’s husband an offer.

Sign a nondisclosure form and medical release, and we’ll scan your wife’s brain into a robot.

That’s the vehicle for the movie to explore basic questions. What does it mean to be human? If thoughts of a human brain could be mechanically reproduced, would the machine have a soul? If you could preserve the consciousness of a loved one in a robot, would you?

The answers are neither simple nor straightforward, and different characters in the movie are allowed to react in different ways. For example, there is a conservative senator from Iowa who leads a crusade against the project—but he’s not an evil character at all. He has decent motivations, and his own mortality is an important plot point. One of the scientists working on the project basically falls in love with Amelia, even though he helped create her as a robot. Her husband ends up not being to accept that she’s human, while one of her creators develops feelings for her as if she were.

And maybe she is. The movie steers away from presenting a final answer. It’s the same question posed by Robert Heinlein in what I think of as his best book, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” If a machine can think and feel emotions, is there a point where it’s no longer a machine?

Given the nature of the “Amelia 2.0” story, it seemed inevitable to me that the project would go wrong. Frankenstein didn’t exactly have a happy ending. This movie is a tragedy in a classic Shakespearean sense.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. And I hope the popularity of the movie will spread. I hope future showings at Collins Road will be packed. You’ll see some familiar faces—the movie stars some actors that have been in major films—and it’s nice that local actor Angela Billman moved from the play “The Sutherland Project” to play Amelia is “Amelia 2.0.” The Gazette reviewer enjoyed this film, too.

It was also fun to Cedar Rapids on the big screen. There was a movie of that title (“Cedar Rapids”) several years ago that was cringe worthy, and seeing the city in a movie of more depth was nice. The cameo by Mercy Medical Center and the Cedar Rapids Public Library as key locations was fun to watch. And I did like the embedded plug for TCR.

But I would have liked the movie, I think, if it had been filmed in Madison, Wisconsin, or Austin, Texas. As a narrative, it holds together well and provokes many reactions. Don’t go thinking that you’ll see a light comedy. Do go, expecting to see a compelling story.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Thanks for the family memories, Harry Potter

Image from Wikipedia.
I am a little late to the party, but here’s to 20 years of Harry Potter.

We were living in a tiny town in western Iowa when the novels started coming out. I am not sure how or why we heard of the series, and my wife says she bought the first and second books at the same time, but the novels quickly became a family affair. My wife and I and our kids all read them—indeed, the first few were read aloud to children too young to read them for themselves (or, perhaps, just wanting to hear them read even if they had already read them).

And we bought into the whole hoopla that started to spring up when new installments were published. While we never stayed up overnight in a book line, it always was a bit of a saga to locate the latest installment as soon as possible.

For one of the books, my wife was working second shift as a hospital nurse, and stopped at an all-night grocery store after work. The store was already stocking for the next day—release day—and put out a display of the new Harry Potter book, which my wife purchased two copies of.

The next morning, the kids were very excited that we already had the book.

There developed a bit of a family system for Harry Potter. My oldest daughter and son were “first readers” because they read relatively quickly. My son sometimes would stay up all night and devour a HP book in one massive read fest.

I was always at the back of the line—I am a writer and a reader, but I read like I ride a bicycle. I enjoy it and do it a lot, but I do it slowly.

The series was to our family what baseball was to the father and son in “Field of Dreams.” It was something that united us across generations, a shared cultural experience that was exciting to all of us.

I respect the series on several levels. For one thing, an enduring theme of the Harry Potter universe is that it’s not usually your nature that makes you good or evil, but rather it’s the choices that you make.

The series is responsible for many happy memories for me and my family. Cuddling up together in the evening as a family to hear JK Rowling’s stories is one. There was also the sharing and discussion of the latest book—and the thrill of secret conversations that have to be carefully gauged until, finally, dad read the darn thing.

During one Freedom Fest in Cedar Rapids, my youngest son and I (we must have been at the end of the line) were photographed by “The Gazette” as we awaited a fireworks display at Kirkwood Community College. We were reclining together on a blanket, reading one of later installments of the series.

Harry Potter! To me, you are always first and foremost a book series. It would be sad to know you only via the movies, and I’m glad you were there as I was raising a family of readers. For almost a decade, the hoopla around your books helped make reading cool. That wasn’t so important to my bookish brood, who enjoyed many other books, too—but still.

You were the boy who lived in our imaginations, on the pages we read and as part of our family experience.

So thank you, JK. This muggle is glad that you shared your imaginary world with us. Twenty years—hard to imagine it has been that long.

July 4 addition: After I posted this, my youngest daughter found a copy of the photo from the Gazette. I was (based on the book I was reading) published in 2003:

The son in the foreground is now in his mid-20s and getting a PhD at ISU. Three of my other children are also in the image. The son in the picture looks like an older version of his youngest nephew (and also his oldest nephew). Come to think of it, a bit like older versions of his other nephews, too.

Friday, May 26, 2017

And Another Reporter "Badgers" A Politician

I don’t know what will happen to assault charges against Greg Gianforte, who was elected to the U.S. House in a special vote Thursday despite body slamming reporter Ben Jacobs of “The Guardian” on Wednesday, but the case is yet another sign of the sorry state of democracy in America today.

We like to think we’re a free people in a free country. Sadly, today, we’re wrong.

Violent thugs are attacking journalists merely for being journalists. A conservative Republican in Montana body slams a reporter for asking about the impact of a Republican health care plan This week, I wrote my media column for The Corridor Business Journal on a related topic—taking my House Rep., Rod Blum, to task for walking out on a TV reporter, after claiming that the reporter was “just going to sit there and badger me.”

And the badger language came back in Montana. If a reporter asks a question, then they “badger,” and, apparently, it’s OK to physically attack badgers.

This is not a reporter. And reporters are not this.
From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Badger(UO).jpg

This new violent ugliness is dangerous to democracy in its basic sense. It represents a particular and troubling attempt by the right wing of American politics to strong arm the news media.

Now, I don’t think all Republicans are ready to resort to the kind of thuggish behavior exhibited by Greg Gianforte. Frankly, even Greg Gianforte doesn’t want that behavior. While his campaign regrettably tried to attack the reporter’s version of the story, even though it had been supported by others who were there, Gianforte himself at least had the class to apologize directly to the reporter in his victory speech.

His victory speech—that’s right, in America today you can attack a journalists and win an election in Montana.

Watch the video of Gianforte’s apology. The scary part is that even as Gianforte apologizes, his supporters are riled up and seem ready for a rematch. There’s a real “go punch another reporter” spirit in the air.

The reporter, Ben Jacobs, doesn’t go along with those who blame President Trump for this climate—he notes in a video posted by the Guardian that he covered the Trump campaign for 18 months and was never threatened by the candidate. But Trump’s clear labeling of journalists as “enemies of the people” has real consequences that we are seeing unfold.

Now, if you’re on the right, you might note that conservatives haven’t always had it easy, either. University thugs have refused to allow conservative speakers on some campuses—mostly notable, Ann Coulter recently at UC Berkeley. And I would agree that what happened at UC Berkeley should not have happened. Ann Coulter is a pretty loathsome human being and has said some pretty near fascist things—but her voice should not be silenced.

There are some key differences between these cases, however. It’s one thing for a conservative pundit to be prevented from speaking by unruly college students or community activists. It’s quite another for a middle-aged adult who is just about to be elected to Congress to body slam a reporter.

I don’t like the threats that keep Coulter away from UC Berkley, and I do see them as part of the thread of cultural intolerance that bedevils both the political left and political right in this country.

Loud and clear: I want the freedom to say what I want to say. You should be able to, too, even if you’re in visceral and total disagreement with what I say. But we should agree together that we should both be free to disagree.

I say enough of the shoving and shouting. Let us each have our say.

But most of all, Mr. President and others on the right: No more rhetorical or physical threats of violence on reporters, please. That’s authoritarian thuggery. That’s getting to Brown Shirt levels of discourse.

If you run for public office—at any level—in this democracy, you should expect, and respond to, questions from all kinds of reporters. It’s a basic obligation you have to talk with people and with the media. Communicating without violence is the least we can expect from our public servants.

The First Amendment exists not to protect politicians from questions, it exists more to protect the questioners. The scary crowd at Greg Gianforte’s victory party is deeply anti-American.

Not a Republican flag. Nor a Democratic one. It's for us all, as is First Amendment freedoms.
Image I shot on my front porch. Someone flies a flag there.
The new slogan of “The Washington Post” is “democracy dies in darkness.” Sadly, in America today, it’s us, our people, who are throwing shade by threatening, and going beyond threats, to attack journalists.

Mr. Trump, it wasn’t a “great victory” in Montana. Not for democracy.

It feels more like the start of a whimpering end to the American democratic experiment.

Sad.