Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rick Perry demands more flexibility from Obama.

From the Houston Chronicle:
“I’m almost positive we have said publicly that we would take 80 percent less of the money if they’d give us 100 percent flexibility. We could cover more people and do it cheaper, but the federal government refuses to allow states the flexibility. They just don’t want to cede control of that almighty free money that they have up there,” Perry said Tuesday after a speech to a National Federation of Independent Business/Texas conference.
I would like to remind the good people about the budget choices and prioritization of funds that Rick Perry and the Republican party made for Texas the last few years.

In Education:
5 Billion in funds cut to public schools.
This has led to the cutting of bus routes, school districts requiring payment for buses, the firing of custodians and asking teachers to do the work, the closing of schools, the congestion of classrooms and the loss of 10,000 teaching jobs among tens of thousands of other positions in the state. All while schools are being asked to perform at a higher level, and when the state is adding 80,000 new students per year.
But don't assume this only affects the lower grades. Higher education institutions, many tier one classed, are complaining as well as their budgets are reduced by 9%. This will force even higher tuition at a time when getting a college education is already at record highs. But hey, if you're a Republican, Mitt Romney's answer is to "shop around".
(This has, by the way,led to 600 school districts suing the state.)

In Health Care:

Thedefunding of Planned Parenthood leaving at least 50,000 impoverished women without reproductive services, while the current rejection of federal funds willleave the larger 130,000 women requiring services out in the cold.
And in a mixed topic, the budget also leads to the elimination of Texas' primary care residency program, reduces funding for family practice residency and eliminates 220 million from health science centers and their research. This during a time when researches in San Antonio, at the highly esteemed Biomedical Research Institue, are trying to fund a new breakthrough HIV vaccine patent. Not a cure, but an even more effective way of fighting the virus.

In.... Everything Else:
Well there's a lot. The Children's Health Insurance Program was cut, the Texas Historical Commission lost its ability to preserve landmarks (this drives me crazy considering how much Texas claims to love its past), 2 year colleges lost funds.
So hey great product Rick, only 22% of 8th graders go onto get a college degree within six years of high school graduation, we've got the fourth highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, we lead the country in minimum wage jobs and we don't have many college graduates.  Oh, and your elevated high school dropout rates? You probably lied about that.

But hey gub'ner. You sure know how to run a lean, mean, effective state. I trust you to put the money where it needs to go.

Oh wait. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

I Got 98% Of What I Wanted

John Boehner says he got 98% of what he wanted, and that he's happy with it. Will you be happy with it, Ohio?

John Boehner needs to take responsibility for what he did and said, instead of trying to pass the blame for the sequester onto Obama.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Jesus Christ would be crucified Today.

In 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Jesus Christ. In it, he describes Jesus as a carpenter, who helped the sick, poor, hungry and hurt. He describes him as a man who trumpeted the poor, who went to the law and preachers of his era and told them to sell their riches and give it to the poor, and was crucified for it.

I know it's trendy to talk about how Republican policies often contradict much of what Christ stood for, despite being cozy with the religious right, but this isn't a new criticism of politicians. It's important to understand that much of what we consider progressive, the first New Deal, was actually a huge bailout for big businesses. It had nothing to do with helping the little guy. It's the same criticism modern progressive level against the bank bailouts, and it's absolutely true. That first New Deal was all about saving the hides of businessmen. That's why FDR was so heavily criticized. He was criticized by Huey Long. He was criticized by Upton Sinclair. And he was criticized by artists like Woody Guthrie.

Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
Hard working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your goods to the poor."
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
Jesus was a man, a carpenter by hand
His followers true and brave
One dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in his grave
He went to the sick, he went to the poor,
And he went to the hungry and the lame;
Said that the poor would one day win this world,
And so they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

He went to the preacher, he went to the sheriff,
Told them all the same;
Sell all of your jewelry and give it to the Poor,
But they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
When Jesus came to town, the working folks around,
Believed what he did say;
The bankers and the preachers they nailed him on a cross,
And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
Poor working people, they follered him around,
Sung and shouted gay;
Cops and the soldiers, they nailed him in the air,
And they nailed Jesus Christ in his grave.

Well the people held their breath when they heard about his death,
And everybody wondered why;
It was the landlord and the soldiers that he hired.
That nailed Jesus Christ in the sky.
When the love of the poor shall one day turn to hate.
When the patience of the workers gives away
"Would be better for you rich if you never had been born"
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
This song was written in New York City
Of rich men, preachers and slaves
Yes, if Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galillee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.
The problems we have today aren't new and the hypocrisies of our politicians isn't novel. FDR was no saint. And most politicians would find Christ's demands unreasonable. Still, for much of what Woody was singing about, I'm a Christian.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

As a Hispanic Male, I don't care much about Immigration Reform

I was reading an article at Think Progress this morning detailing Republican Lamar Smith's comments about why Republicans shouldn't pursue immigration reform, essentially saying it would give millions of votes to Democrats. He said that, instead, Republicans should focus on better job security, more take home pay and a stronger economy. That those topics would be more successful with at least a part of the Hispanic population. Guess what representative Smith, you're absolutely right! 
Except that you're absolutely wrong about every way about how to go about achieving those goals.
Look, let's get one thing clear before I comes across like a selfish devil. I do care about immigration reform. If you were brought here at a young age and only know American culture, but you've worked hard, want to serve in the military or get a college education, you should stay. I believe the DREAM Act is only sensible. I believe for all the demonizing of the Mexican immigrant, they're working jobs at low level of pay that nobody else will, and that they're doing it as part of economic market manipulation to keep costs as low as possible. They deserve some consideration in the new era of immigration reform. I do care about this issue.

But me, personally? I'm six feet tall and white. I'm working on my PhD. You're more likely to find me discussing Proust, sustainable gardening methods and a lot of other nonsense some people would consider middle class problems. I'm not the labor worker, I'm not the recent immigrant, I'm distanced from some of my cultural background by adoption, appearance, and a host of other factors. I care about immigration because I care about people, it's just not my number one priority.

So when I hear Republicans talking about job creation, more pay and a stronger economy, my response is, "Sell me!" Except that the answers I get back from Republicans is nonsense. Deregulation that would risk another economic bubble collapse. Tax cuts for the wealthiest while poor and middle class people get shafted. Cuts in benefits, Social Security, Medicare, because these things are unsustainable but huge tax breaks for oil companies are okay. Wealthy 1% individuals that have a chance at paying lower taxes than me.

Look, I'm no slouch. I'm well aware that because of a number of my activities, my income is going to put me into a bracket many people would be envious of, at the same time that I'm looking upward and being envious of the wealthiest. But, I've got no problems paying my taxes. I've got no problem saying I'm willing to shoulder a little more. So why can't we ask the wealthiest to do the same? Why does 'tax break' mean cuts for the absolute wealthiest while increasing the sales tax and thus forcing middle and lower class individuals to shoulder even more? And guess what Republicans, these economic issues affect me, they effect immigrants, and that puts me into a boat with them. Your argument hits a wall, because you say ignore immigration for economic topics, but then your economic solutions are nonsense.

I mean, I don't even want to get into the horrible rhetoric Republicans use against Hispanic people. When Lamar Smith says stuff like "Does anyone really think Republicans are going to outbid Democrats on giving benefits to illegal immigrants?" I get incensed. Hey Lamar, these are human beings. They're working tough jobs. They don't want handouts, hell, they haven't been given any. They want fair opportunities, and guess what, so do I. Your economic policies, though, put me shoulder to shoulder with them. And guess what, I may not strongly identify with Mexican culture, but when Republicans insinuate that Mexicans are lazy, or takers or violent, you're talking about my family. You're talking about my mother and father, you're talking about my cousins and uncles. We may not be perfect, but we're not lazy, and we're not violent.

So yeah, Representative Smith, immigration's not my top issue. Too bad you've got no solutions for my economic ones, or any solution for my anger toward your racial hysteria. Honestly, if this is the best approach you want to take, your party better take a long look at the solutions you're offering, because I'm not buying them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Born Awkward - How "The New Girl" Fails At Its Premis

I would like to preface this by saying that I really enjoy The New Girl. It's not always the best comedy on television, but it makes me laugh consistently enough that I really can't fault it. Nick's recent "I stab and I stab" speech, read off the papers of one of Deschanel's students from creative writing, had me rolling. Where I feel the show has really dropped the ball, though, is in its presentation of awkwardness. In the show, Zooey is presented as this individual whose social awkwardness and lack of grace makes life for her more socially adjusted roommates a difficulty. This is paired against the individual awkward attributes of others like Winston, who finds it difficult to talk to women and strips naked when he panics. Still, it never feels genuine, and it's something that bothers me on just about every episode. 
Perhaps one of the problems I have with the show is the use of physical attributes to pen off certain individuals. For the record, these are her roommates on the show.

And while you may have individual opinions on each one of these characters' sexual and physical appeal, the fact is that from Zooey to Lamorne Morris, the African American character of the show, all have a certain height, weight and physical fitness level. Schmiedt, portrayed by Max Greenfield in the middle of the boys lineup, is often portrayed as the most physically fit. However none of them could be considered overweight. The men have jobs as bartenders, models and basketball players. Zooey herself, despite her awkwardness and role as a elementary school teacher at the beginning of the show, goes on to have a role in modeling, dates a handsome doctor, and is physically usually dressed cute and lovely. She's presented as awkward only in the most obvious fashion, made to be buffoonish in public situations in order for the scream to show "She's awkward!"
Meanwhile, this is Robby, a boyfriend of the a character on the show who comes across as truly different from the rest of the cast.

NEW GIRL:   Cece (Hannah Simone, R) and Robby (guest star Nelson Franklin, L) talk about their relationship in the
I want to draw a line right now and say that being physically distinct or heavier doesn't, by its nature, make a person overweight. However, when placed alongside a bartender, basketball player and model, Robby is not only physically distinct by occupationally as well. I'm willing to bet at least half of America's men look closer to Robby's body type than Schmidt's type. He's slightly oblivious to Schmidt's ongoing sexual desires for Cece, he's deaf in one ear, he's a really bad dancer. It's not just these traits that mark him aside, and it's not his physical differences that do, it's that combination set alongside his general nature and style of acting. He's not mean or bitter, the way Schmidt and Nick come across. And yet he's the one who gets underused, underplayed and cut out of the show three fourths of the way into season two, so that Cece can reunite with Schmidt, the other model.
It's almost a meta statement. So genuinely unappealing is Robby that the producers of the show couldn't use him. The prettier people deserved more camera time. Robby's generally good nature wasn't intriguing enough. He wasn't a social boor. It also reminds me of how Lamorne Morris is underplayed on the show. Of the three roommates, he's probably the most genuinely 'nice' individual. He's not bitter like Nick and not a jerk like Schmidt. He's more often soft spoken, and the ways in which he is awkward, although buffoonish like everything else in the show, are truly offputting. Who else strips their clothes off when panicking? Both have the commonality of being nice guys though, who have trouble with women.

In no element of New Girl's universe does Zooey, Nick or Schmidt have trouble with the opposite sex. It's verbally played that Zooey does, but she lands a successful doctor shortly into season two, has Nick secretly desiring her and even at her worst, when the writers are portraying her with clownish behavior, is dressed so enticingly the visual never matches the portrayal we're supposed to receive.

I guess I keep comparing her against what comes across as a truly awkward character, Liz Lemon.

I'm not saying Liz Lemon doesn't have buffoonish moments, that's obviously played for laughs many times. However, how Tina Fey acts, portrays the character, comes across distinctly different from Zooey. Fey really does seem genuinely awkward in most of her scenes. When she tries to dress sexy, it's often a failure, and when it's successful it's an ongoing problem for her throughout the night because she'd rather be wearing her sweatpants. Her failures with men range from dating her cousin, to dating a successful snob who lives in an impenetrable bubble of ignorance, in an ongoing process of failure. She doesn't reek of the indie pretty that Zooey has, even if I do think Tina Fey is gorgeous. She tries to prove she's not racist even when she doesn't have to, against African American characters that inadvertently come off as reverse racists themselves. There are so many socially awkward and difficult situations in which Lemon seems to barely survive that Zooey's character would emerge out of, somehow that much more beautiful and attractive. 
I just find it easier to identify with people like Robby and Liz. They don't look like the model people, not that there's anything wrong with looking like that, but I think the struggle with self appearance, weight, and conformity to a norm all play a role in why people find themselves awkward in social situations. In reality, Tina Fey has a scar over her eye that has dictated how she wears her hair and faces the camera. That's awkward. I remember quite well what it was to be the guy wearing a jacket in ninety degree weather because I wanted to cover up my weight. I remember wearing glasses and having a bad haircut, and thinking I had to overcompensate. It didn't come across as endearing, and had an ongoing effect on what people thought of me, only increasing my social anxiety and awkwardness. I didn't find inadvertent success in romance because of it. I ended up more like Robby and Liz, with relationships that went sour, that I had to battle through and that left ongoing impressions on me that affected future relationships.

At the beginning of The New Girl's first episode, Zooey finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her. The two girls basically stare each other down at near nude levels. Zooey was just as easily as pretty and styled as the other girl. There's no contrast. And none of Zooey's behaviors in the show genuinely mark her as being truly awkward. Being socially awkward isn't a matter of acting buffonish. It's a feeling of being located at the social periphery and having little to no chance of finding one's way to the interior. Zooey's character never seems to genuinely feel that. I think Liz, though, can better understand.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Killing Women in the name of Plot Device

As of late, I have been watching a television show you may or may not have heard of, called Supernatural. In watching it I became quite aware of a growing discomfort I felt toward one of the repeating plot devices used in order to usher the plot forward, a plot device I know is not uncommon to television shows and that is, frankly, lazy and unoriginal. What I speak of is the killing of women to motivate male protagonists, a sort of sacrificial alter at which writers worship and usher forward male avatars into the realm of fictional storytelling. There are a number of terms you could use to describe this plot device. Sexist, perhaps. Chauvinistic. But really, the greatest insult is that it's lazy, a trite practice that has infiltrated all levels of writing and story telling and that is rarely used well.
Don't get me wrong, the death of a woman to motivate a man to action does not have to, inherently, be lazy or drip with sexism. Important bonds can be established, deep relationships created in which the woman emerges as a genuine character, one with feelings and motivations all her own that, when robbed from the audience, evoke a similar sense of loss as the protagonist's. That ability to identify allows us to connect with the hero further, and without using women as mere plot devices.

What occurred to me as I watched Supernatural was that nearly every episode was initiated with the death of a female victim, often in ways that were implied to be quite gruesome. Of course, it's a half hour show and needs to kick off with a plot device that allows it quick entry into the main bulk of its story, which involves supernatural methods of dealing with the ethereal threat in question. I understand that, even if I don't entirely forgive the practice.

I'd be more inclined to let it pass, though, if it weren't symptomatic of a larger problem in narrative storytelling. Let's take a nerd fan favorite, Joss Whedon. Creator of fan favorites Buff, Angel, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Whedon has emerged as a man who likes to place female character front and center. He's a good, though not fantastic director whose idea of strong women involves one that puts stakes through the hearts of vampires. Fair enough, and good enough. Angel is particularly interesting as an analysis of women being killed off, often brutally, in order to advance the plot. In Buffy the women are only superficially strong, while internally weak characters that break when relationships don't work out. Still, this post deals with the killing of women to advance plot, and there's no greater offender than his Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. Spoilers ahead.

In Dr. Horrible, the love interest of both Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer is Penny, as played by internet-beloved Felicia Day. The arc of this love triangle culminates with her death, leading to Dr. Horrible assuming his full, super villain identity. Fair enough, it's an understandable plot motivation. However, the audience is never provided a Penny that comes across like a full human being, with complex motives and decisions all her own. She falls for Captain Hammer when he saves her from an oncoming truck, and the bulk of the following arc follows that relationship and Dr. Horrible's resentment toward it. I recently read an article in which women exclaimed how frustrated they were at men who, after doing a good deed, expected sex out of it; I saw this parallel in the story of Dr. Horrible. Because she is saved, she owes a relationship to Captain Hammer. Is this necessarily the case? How can we know? Penny is constantly put forth as a Mary Sue, an image of perfection in the eyes of Dr. Horrible, one whose only mistake was falling for Captain Hammer. As a character she lacks depth. She's only positive, in every way that counts. Selfless, willing to help the poor and starving, trying to make Captain Hammer a better hero. What about the days when she's selfish, or doubts that relationship, or considers a life of only singleness? We're given a one dimensional character, thrown up in order to be killed and to motivate Dr. Horrible.

There's a whole trope about this at TV Tropes called Disposable Women, describing how women are used almost solely as plot devices to drive forward the heroic tales of men. In Braveheart it's Wallace's wife, which starts his rebellion. In Gladiator it's to motivate Maximus' vengeance tale. In The Dark Knight it's Rachel Dawes, duly to push Harvey Dent into his role as Two Face and also to drive Bruce Wayne further into his identity as Batman. In video games widely marketed to young men, it's abundant. In Max Payne it's the loss of Payne's wife and daughter. In God of War it's Krato's wife and daughter. And so on, and so on.

The problem is not that this can't be a proper motivation for male stories. It's that with the expansion of media into a multitude of formats, it continues to be done so widely, and yet so poorly, that the females become little more than throw always to set a male down his path. With little to no characterization, repeated ad nauseum throughout our various medias, women become paper cutouts, meant to die in order to start a male's story.

I'm not pleading with writers to rid themselves of this as a plot device. I'm asking writers to use it a bit more sparingly, and that when they do it, to use it well. I myself have killed off an important female character in a recent fantasy novel I wrote, not as a way of motivating the male hero, but as a conclusion to a long arc whose narrative was the female's willingness to sacrifice her life, if necessary, for the good of her people. She becomes less of Wallace's wife, in other words, than Wallace herself. Please writers, don't be afraid of killing off your female characters, but find ways to do so that doesn't always come across as a way to make men the real heroes. Again, it's fine when done well, but as a plot device it's too abundant and too shallow in the current level of media.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Let's Play Snowdrift

Not all games have to be made by big gaming houses or producers in order to have quality. Snowdrift is an example of a game that has a good premise and a decent antagonist, a creepy vibe and actual gameplay mechanics worth indulging. It is, unfortunately, limited by its indie origins and lack of a budget, but Snowdrift has the core of being something interesting.

It stars Sam, the lone survivor in a world being overcome by a progressive darkness. Each day there's less and less sunlight, and Sam, being a survivalist, has to hunt the woods for berries and rabbit to eat, water to drink, and wood to keep his fire lit. Should the fire in his home ever go out over night, the darkness will set in entirely and insanity will take over, ending Sam's journey. However, if you can survive long enough, there's a chance you may be able to overcome this nightmare.

Time is your greatest enemy. You have to be back home before dark sets in. There's a lamp you can use to light your way in the forest, but it has a limited amount of fuel, and will eventually run out as the days and weeks roll by. However, you can't just stay locked up in your home. Sam has a thirst and hunger meter that he needs to fill. Bushes throughout the forest provide berries, but they only satisfy a little of his hunger. To really fill his stomach you'll need to hunt rabbit, but they usually only appear during the night, which means having to use the limited life of your lamp.

Each action requires stamina, and once it's used up you won't be able to take any actions and Sam will move slower. This really hampers him when darkness is approaching and you need to get back home. If you've forgotten to put wood on the fire when nighttime comes, you won't be able to chop wood for it if you're out of stamina, which is a guaranteed way to die overnight. In the same way, thirst will hamper you, but it's easier to fill your thirst bar. There's a pool not far from Sam's home and you have a bottle you can fill.

As the days roll by, Sam will experience auditory and visual hallucinations, hear strange knockings and even be visited by demonic entities. There's a way to survive all this, but I'd be spoiling the game if I told you how. It's got some good scares, though, so if you have an hour of time to invest, give an indie developer a try and let Snowdrift put the fear of the dark back in you.