Friday, February 28, 2014

Do the Oscars mean much anymore?

'12 Years a Slave' 
With awards shows more frequent than actual new shows or movies, it's easy to be jaded at this time of year when the Oscars roll around.

And yet, the Oscars do shine a worthy light on films that are not box office champs.

I'm looking forward to Ellen DeGeneres as host of the Oscar show. Her humor isn't mean-spirited. She just enjoys what she's doing and she's good at it.

This Sunday, nine films will vie for Best Picture in a category that was expanded to 10 a few years ago.

Why nine instead of 10? Who knows. There were apparently other noteworthy films out there, like "Frozen," but the Academy chose just nine.

With so many nominees, it's easier than ever to not have seen most of them by the Oscar show comes around, which was moved up about a month to avoid award-season fatigue.

But, I did see "Gravity," and "American Hustle" at the multiplex and they were good.

The other nominees for Best Picture are: "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Philomena," "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "12 Years a Slave, "her" and "Nebraska."

Judging by what happened at other awards shows, "12 Years a Slave," has a good shot to win.

Even though I applaud the filmmakers for bringing this harsh story to the big screen, I wasn't in the mood to watch cruelty inflicted on fellow Americans. An Oscar win would be worthwhile since we live during a time of irrational hatred, based mostly on race, of President Obama.

The only other nominee that has a "big screen" wow factor is Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." But, a film celebrating the excesses of the folks who destroyed our economy seems a bit excessive. Another Netflix rental.

"Captain Phillips" was made by the great director Paul Greengrass, but I had read about the ship hijacking off Somalia and the dramatic rescue in such complete detail that I didn't feel I needed to see the film.

"Philomena" stars the great Dame Judi Dench and the story of teen pregnancy/adoption in Ireland many years ago has great potential. I'll definitely catch it on DVD.

"Dallas Buyers Club"  about the AIDS epidemic in Texas 30 years ago seems like a film out of time that would have been groundbreaking years ago when the script was written. Still, just seeing clips of Jared Leto as a transvestite makes the film worth watching on DVD.

"Her," the tale of a man who falls for the voice on his computer operating system, by the quirky Spike Jonze is definitely first on my list to catch on Netflix. His work is always worth checking out.

I definitely want to catch "Nebraska" on DVD because the director, Alexander Payne, and Best Actor nominee Bruce Dern, seem like an unbeatable combination.

The pick: "12 Years a Slave."

Best Actress: Nominees include Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine," Sandra Bullock for"Gravity," Judi Dench for "Philomena," Meryl Streep for "August: Osage County" and Amy Adams for "American Hustle."

An incredibly tough category as it is in most years. There are usually better performances, in any given year, by women than men. They're just better at the craft.

The pick: Blanchett. I did see "Blue Jasmine" and she was brilliant. Of course, the award should be called the Meryl Streep Best Actress award since this is her 18th overall nomination. I liked Adams' performance, but she seems playing against type. She could win, though, since Blanchett won Best Supporting Actress for "The Aviator."

Best Actor: Nominees are Christian Bale for "American Hustle," Bruce Dern for "Nebraska," Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Wolf of Wall Street," and Chiwetel Ejiofor for "12 Years a Slave," and Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club."

The pick: While AIDS is always popular for Academy voters, McConaughey is just too good-looking to win. Same with DiCaprio. Bale is a favorite among his fellow actors but he's already won a Best Supporting Actor for "The Fighter." Ejiofor has an outside chance for "12 Years a Slave," but I'll have to go with Bale.

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins for "Blue Jasmine," Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle," Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave," Julia Roberts for "August: Osage County," and June Squibb for "Nebraska."

The pick: While Lawrence is quickly becoming the Streep of her generation and she was great in "American Hustle," she won last year for "Silver Linings Playbook." I'll go with Nyong'o.

Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi for "Captain Phillips," Bradley Cooper for "American Hustle," Michael Fassbender for "12 Years a Slave," Jonah Hill for "The Wolf of Wall Street," and Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club."

The pick: Leto.

Original screenplay: "American Hustle," "Blue Jasmine," "Dallas Buyers Club," "her," and "Nebraska."

The pick: Another strong category. Jonze's script for "her" would have been the favorite before a recent lawsuit. I don't think "American Hustle" should be in the this category since it's based on actual events. So, "Nebraska" by Bob Nelson could steal the statuette.

Best Director: David O. Russell for "American Hustle," Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity," Payne for "Nebraska," Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave," and Scorsese for "The Wolf of Wall Street."

The pick: Gotta go with Cuaron since "Gravity" is such an astonishing visual achievement.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

In the arena: Gays vs. Christians

It just seems like we can't get enough of gay news recently.

And, if you listen to extreme right-wingnuts, this is like ancient Rome where Christians were fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Only this time, it's allegedly the pro-gay leftists devouring the Christians in the media.


First, we had Russia's ban on "gay propaganda," which the vast majority in that country seem to support.

If Russia has issues with gays, then its real problems run deep and wide.

Last week, the Republican-dominated legislature in Arizona passed a bill that protects "Christian" businesses from lawsuits should they discriminate against gays. (Other Republican states are considering similar legislation.) The Republican Gov. Jan Brewer wisely vetoed the bill since she was told by the NFL that Arizona would lose hosting next year's Super Bowl.

She also said, "I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner's religious liberty has been violated."

You would think that with a jobless rate of 7.6 percent, the Grand Canyon State would have more pressing issues to attend to.

Of course, this veto didn't sit well with extremists in our midst.

Meanwhile, in Texas, a federal judge deemed the Lone Star State's ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional. Like similar rulings recently, the judge cited the Supreme Court's overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in that decision is often cited as reason enough to overturn anti-gay marriage laws in the states.

Of course, Texas Gov. Rick Perry won't take this lying down. Don't think the slogan "Remember, we hate the Homo," carries the same weight as "Remember The Alamo."

Last week, the Oregon attorney general, citing the Supreme Court's DOMA decision, announced should would not enforce Oregon's ban on gay marriage.

Then, Uganda passed a law that criminalizes homosexuality, which includes harsh prison sentences. Somehow, that doesn't sound like a Christian thing to do.

Coincidentally, Christian conservatives from the American Bible Belt helped fund the anti-gay crusade in Uganda. 

So, extreme Christians aren't doing that badly. They still have friends in Russia and Uganda.

Someday, God knows when, human rights will trump religious rights around the globe.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Another tabloid way to read online news

While listening to Q with Jian Ghomeshi on KOPB, I was stunned to learn that the website for The Daily Mail out of the U.K. is the most visited news website in the English language.

Of course, The Daily Mail is heavy on tabloid news stories, which attract the most clicks.

Not to be outdone, the Swiss/British philosopher Alain de Botton started a counter news website called The Philosophers' Mail.

It, too, runs tabloid news, but with a philosophical twist. Or, to figure out why the most important stories of our time are no match for the most trivial stories.

In a piece titled, "Important news: Anne Hathaway takes her chocolate labrador Esmerelda for a walk," The Philosophers' Mail ruminates on why such stories on a normal news website like The Daily Mail would attract more eyeballs than the top story, say, the uprising in Ukraine.

The reasons are intriguing: 

 "We are liable to look down on an activity which, if it were presented to us in a museum, we might take very seriously. And yet what we're doing here - looking at a pleasant person taking a walk - is not fundamentally different from the pleasures available in an art gallery. If we went on a special trip to Giverny to see Monet's paintings we'd hardly think we were doing something a bit low-brow or pointless."

And, The Philosophers' Daily, amazingly, doesn't allow comments on stories.

Now, I admit, I love looking at the comments people make, especially on the websites for the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

The comments on Fox News get so toxic and so racist so quickly that the moderators have to cut all comments off.

On the WSJ website, the comments sound more erudite, but they, too, quickly degenerate into racist and ignorant rants. It's more galling because the stock market has rebounded to unprecedented highs under President Obama.

But, The Philosophers' Daily has good reasons to reject comments because they can reveal that in the anonymity of the internet, commenters can reveal that they are "jealous, furious, vindictive, heartless, obsessive, unforgiving -- in a word, a little short of insane."

On Q, de Botton had a simple reason to forgo comments after their stories by saying "it's very hard to love your fellow man or woman after you've read them."

So true. 

He also says they really don't advance enlightenment. 

On occasion, though, I've read some amazing comments that expand and deepen the original story.

Of course, such comments are few and far between.

The Philosophers' Mail may do well, but, like most things on the internet, it may get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of a web surfer's wake.

Monday, February 24, 2014

With no attack in Sochi, Russia wins Olympics

The Sochi Olympics ring-wink
Considering that Russia kept its many internal enemies from staging a terrorist attack in Sochi, the Winter Olympics were a tremendous success.

And no, the members of Pussy Riot are not terrorists.

During the games, though, Ukrainians staged a coup of their Moscow-backed government and the world now awaits the real Russian response.

In the meantime, it's worth assessing these Winter Olympics at which the Russian team, which included an American (two gold medals in snowboarding) and South Korean (three golds and one silver in short-track speed skating), won the most medals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin committed $51 billion to transforming the Sochi region and, by most accounts, succeeded in pleasing athletes and spectators alike.

But, all was not golden.

The Olympic Village was constructed on wetlands below sea level and could easily be underwater in a few years. Also, the brand new ski resorts attracted few snow-riders.

Also, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, suffering from pink eye, delivered a stunning rebuke of Russia's dismal civil rights record, particularly gay rights, and Putin's support for the murderous Syrian regime. (Those comments, though, would've carried more weight before America's unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003 that cost this country significant chunks of the moral high ground.)

Still, Costas scored some solid points.

The best reporting of the Sochi Games, though, came from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

The Daily Show's Jason Jones, who was actually in Russia and not in front of a green screen in the New York studio, nailed it.

In this report, Jones longs for the Cold War in "Commie Dearest."

In a report titled, "Behind the Iron Closet," Jones finds widespread support for laws against gay rights.

And, most brilliantly, Jones compares Russia today with deep-red state views in America in a segment titled, "Better off Red."

Not to be outdone, Stephen Colbert sent his flamboyantly gay producer Buddy Cole to Sochi in search of the "gay threat" to the games titled "From Russia With Love (But No Gay Stuff)."

All hilarious stuff for an American audience. It was amazing they didn't get shot or at least horse-whipped by Cossacks like some members of Pussy Riot did.

Russia's security for the Sochi Games was effective and the Olympics came off without a hitch except for warm temperatures and melting ski slopes.

Yet, if Russia feels threatened by Pussy Riot or homosexuals, then it must be terribly insecure as a nation.

And, such a troubled nation can pose dangerous threats to its neighbors and the world at large.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Yes! Enact a local gas tax in Bend

For the first time in five years, Bend is considering a modest gas tax to help pay for our deteriorating roads.

It's long overdue in a tourist town with no sales tax and no current local gas tax.

Maybe, just maybe, city staff and the tourism industry can see that unsafe roads don't make Bend more attractive to those driving here for a visit.

Due to Bend's harsh weather and heavy trucks, potholes dominate the major roadways and make driving treacherous at times.

Whenever a pothole forms, the city lets it age awhile, six months on the westside and up to a year or longer on the eastside. No need to rush, the alignment shops need the business.

Consistently dangerous intersections receive no makeovers to make them less dangerous. Hey, the auto body shops need clients, too. The hospital, as well.

In 2008, the city wimped out and failed to adopt a gas tax after pressure from the "oiligarchs," who then got a atate amendment passed banning any city from even considering a gas tax for five years.

In the meantime, the roads are worse than ever.

The same can be said for roads all over the country, thanks in large measure to the federal gas tax, which has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

Oregon, which levied the first gas tax in the nation in 1919,  has an average gas tax of 31.1 cents per gallon, the lowest on the west coast. Two counties and 14 cities in the state currently have a local gas tax on top of the state rate of 30 cents per gallon.

In Washington state, the average gas tax is 37.5 cents per gallon. In California, it's 53.2 cents per gallon. The 18.4-cent federal tax is added to these numbers.

And some people think that mass transit is expensive.

Meanwhile, ODOT is working on a different way to raise road funds by charging drivers by their mileage. It's a volunteer program to be enacted next year. A full-scale, compulsory per-mile tax scheme is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to verify.

The state is concerned that electric and hybrid vehicle owners are paying either nothing or significantly less than gas and diesel vehicle owners.

The electric vehicle argument is bogus since there are so few electric vehicles on the road and won't be for at least a decade to make a difference.

As for hybrid owners, they are paying gas taxes and the use of those vehicles should be encourage, not discouraged by a tax targeted at them.

Plus, about 90 percent of the damage to roads is done by heavy trucks, like a triple-trailer Freightliner, and not by lightweight hybrids, like a Prius. The two vehicles are not equal in their effect on the road surface.

And no, studded tire usage doesn't cause all of that last 10 percent of damage to the roads since less than 10 percent of vehicles even use studded tires in Oregon.

Anyway, back in Bend, the city desperately needs more money to maintain the current road network, let alone make improvements to dangerous intersections.

Public safety in a relatively low-crime place like Bend, begins with safe roads.

If the roads aren't safe to drive on, it means that that even the police or firemen can't do their jobs properly.

If the city fails once again to do the right thing and institute a local gas tax, the burden to fix the potholes will shift once more on property taxpayers, even those like the elderly, who rarely, if ever, drive a car.

Impose a local gas tax of at least 3 cents per gallon and fix the roads.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What about the gun

In light of the tragic suicide at Bend High last week, there's been little discussion about the weapon the student used to shoot himself during class in a modular building.

Perhaps, with nearly 300 million guns in private hands in America, no one gives it a second thought.

Handguns are as ubiquitous as backpacks used by students to carry their stuff to and from school.

Does it matter whose gun it was? Did his parents own it? Was it a gift to the student? Did it belong to a friend? Was it stolen?

I guess none of this matters in a culture where guns are worshiped almost as much as money.

Since guns are so easily bought and sold in private sales, there is no oversight of the transaction.

Another gun-control bill requiring universal background checks will be defeated once again in Salem.

But, consider these sobering statistics:

In 2010, nearly 20,000 people in America killed themselves with a firearm, which is nearly double the number of homicides by firearm.

With this many violent deaths each year, you would think it would be considered a national health hazard.

Not so in America.

In fact, the roughly 30,000 deaths annually from firearms are considered the price of freedom, according to the NRA and gun fetishists.

The mainstream media doesn't want to champion the fight against this national health crisis because gun violence, much as Hollywood has learned, draws ratings and readers.

In other developed countries like Australia, the rate of suicide by firearm plummeted after the country passed strict gun control measures following a massacre in Tasmania in 1996.

That same year in America, Congress banned the Centers for Disease Control from funding any research to "advocate or promote gun control."

From an article in Slate:

"That’s not a ban on gun research, technically, but after Congress extended the wording and expanded the ban to other agencies, it had enough of a chilling effect to reduce CDC funding for gun violence research from $2.5 million per year in the early 1990s to just $100,000 in recent years."

Now, stricter gun laws in this country might not have prevented the suicide at Bend High that was witnessed by some students, but it could have.

But, that's not something of much concern to gun-toting Americans.

Central Oregon was lucky, this time, in that only one person died. It may not be so lucky in the future.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Snowjob in Bend

Snow is beautiful. A snowjob is not.
As snow returns to the High Desert after a season of relative dryness, it's time to note how the good citizens of Bend are getting a snowjob.

Or two.

This week, the sale closed on one of the smaller parcels for OSU-Pumice Pit. The larger, unstable pumice pit property won't close until next month, but close it will.

All this for about $13 million, plus another $8 million or so to prep the sites.

Of course, these millions fly in the face of the spirit in which Oregon State University was first created in Covallis.

OSU is one of 73 land-grant universities in the nation that were created to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 paved the way for the spread of higher education across the land when the federal government gave land to the states to create these schools to further knowledge of agriculture, engineering and science.

In 2014, the spirit of the times is this: Take from the many to give to the few. A handful of property owners, who couldn't sell this land to anyone else, will reap millions at taxpayers' expense as a result of these flawed deals.

This spirit expanded this week when the city council okayed an "enterprise zone" for Deschutes Brewery, which means that the tremendously successful craft-brewery won't have to pay taxes for five years.

Yes, Deschutes Brewery is planning a $46 million expansion, which it needs to make even more money.

So, typical of large companies these days, the brewery demanded a huge tax break in exchange for creating 15 jobs that pay, with benefits included, $55,000 a year. As we know from previous experiences, these jobs rarely, if ever, materialize.

Plus, Oregon has one of the lowest beer taxes in the nation at 8 cents per gallon. The national median is 20 cents per gallon. Washington, which has its fair share of successful breweries, has a tax of 76 cents per gallon. Clearly, a high beer tax hasn't stifled the beer industry at all in Washington.

It seems counter-intuitive to give more money to the well-off when there are so many in need.

I wonder if all the other micro-breweries in Bend will demand a similar tax break from the city.

Why not?

Well, they won't get another sweetheart deal because they don't have enough money to buy that deal.

I also wonder if the city will be so generous when marijuana becomes legal and a local pot grower becomes so successful he wants to "grow" the business even more.

Sadly, the brewery tax giveaway means that the property tax burden will shift even more onto homeowners.

Meanwhile, the city wants more money from taxpayers to pay retirement benefits for police and firefighters.

If it didn't give such a tax break to Deschutes Brewery, the city might have had enough money for these benefits.

The snow is still falling here, as are the snowjobs.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Water, water everywhere, but not many drops to drink

Kern River in Bakersfield                                                        NYT
For a good chuckle, check out the story in the San Jose Mercury News about how 17 cities in northern California could run out of water this spring.

As in most stories these days, the comments provide a clue to the thinking, or non-thinking, of the populace.

Some want to blame Gov. Jerry Brown, some blame the farmers, some blame the environmentalists, some blame illegal immigrants and some blame Nancy Pelosi and the Delta smelt.

It's all pretty laughable from here in the Great Northwest, even as we have far less water than average.

Some folks in California say that desalination of ocean water is the cure to everything, as if it can be accomplished by just flipping a switch. Isn't there an app for that?

Few folks there have any idea of the enormous costs of desalination. And they certainly do not want to pay the price of turning ocean water into something you can water golf courses with or fill pools with.

Californians have yet to realize that too many people there want what little water is left there.

Housing tracts upon housing tracts have been approved over the decades with little thought to the strain on the water system.

Farmers, who consume most of the water in California for crops, believe, like most true conservatives, that conservation is a communist plot perpetuated by Pelosi.

Well, the fact is, everyone shares the blame and they'll all have to suffer the consequences.

Check out the long-range forecast for the Sierra Nevada range on It doesn't look like the all-important snowpack will deepen that much through at least the first half of February.

This all coming after the driest year in California history.

Of course, California could get hit by huge storms in late February and March, but, as winter wanes, the chance for a deepening snowpack diminishes day by day.

And, it's too late to close the borders or stop population growth.

No, Californians will have to face the fact that letting the water flow until the cows come home is no longer an option.

Yes, water is about to get a tad more scarce and expensive in the Golden State.

In fact, it could be worth more than gold or an iPhone 6, heaven forbid.