Wednesday, January 28, 2009

2008 Media Review: Top TV

[Breaking down the media I know the least about: television. My #1 and #5 shows are the only ones I watch with any sort of regularity--everything else is more based on a few episodes I've seen and reputation alone.]

1) "Lost" [The jury's out, because there are still two seasons to go and it could suddenly suck, but this will likely go down as my favorite TV show ever. Episode 5, "The Constant," was the finest hour of scripted television in 2008.]
2) "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"/"The Colbert Report" [All the news you need to know. Insightful, intelligent, and featuring guests who actually know what they're talking about.]
3) "30 Rock" [Manages to strike the fine balance between smart and dumb like no other show. Watch the episode where Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin go to her high school reunion and see what I mean.]
4) 2008 Summer Olympics [Loved the actual events; hated all the talk of Michael Phelps's crazy diet and the underage Chinese gymnasts.]
5) "Lost" [I don't have cable, and network TV is a cesspool of bad. It was either list "Lost" again or go with my other standby, "Seinfeld" reruns.]

The "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals" sketch on Saturday Night Live. This is even funnier if you mentally insert, say, "Hey, chicken. A lot of people wanna eat you, but I just wanna talk to you!" into the dialogue as you watch The Happening.

2008 Election coverage. The 24-hour cable news cycle is killing America, as evidenced by the dumber-than-dumb "stories" that came out of this election [many of which were brilliantly eviscerated by Stewart, Colbert, and their collective writing staffs].

"American Idol." [I have no words, only disdain. I lasted an entire season of this show without watching even a nanosecond of it, and I still can't stand it.]

2008 Media Review: Top Music

[The media review rambles on into the all-digital musical fray.]

5) Between Here & There, Brad Kahler [He took the old hymn "I Need Thee" and rearranged it perfectly. This is good singer/songwriter stuff, along the lines of Damien Rice, Vigilantes of Love/Bill Mallonee, or Elliott Smith.]
4) Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, Sigur Ros [They managed to take the elfin mumble in a new direction. Way to go, you crazy Icelanders. Not so crazy about the cover.]
3) All I Intended to Be, Emmylou Harris [Contains the song of the year for me, "Gold," featuring, of all people, Dolly Parton. I hate country, but I love this. Emmylou's fragile voice is medicinal.]
2) Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes [The best music ever created by homeless loggers. Okay, maybe "Blue Ridge Mountains" is my song of the year.]
1) Revep, Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto [I should admit: I'm incredibly tired of regular ol' music. I'm seeing everyone else's top picks, and none of them excite me. Instead, I'm inexplicably hitting 'repeat' on my iTunes over this three-song EP by a couple of Japanese guys. One's a classical minimal pianist; one's an electronic genius. Sounds like a '50s sitcom setup, but instead, they create the most spacious, delicious music. It's only three bucks on iTunes. Buy it and thank me later.]

Snow Angels, Over the Rhine [Typically great. I discovered it the day after Christmas, and, though it's a Christmas album, it's been in heavy rotation ever since. I can't wait to play it next Christmas.]
Volume One, She & Him [Zooey Deschanel's voice gets annoying after prolonged exposure, but it's fun for an occasional listen.]
'There Will Be Blood' Soundtrack, Jonny Greenwood [Some of the best orchestral stuff I've heard in years. Hands down. The movie is great already, but the soundtrack stands on its own strength as great music.]
'Slumdog Millionaire' Soundtrack, A.R. Rahman and a crapload of other people [I think I might like music from India. It's blatantly cheesy at times, but there's something about it that draws me in.]

"Wild International," One Day As A Lion [This band is best enjoyed in single form. I loved this song, but the novelty wears thin on the other songs.]

"Pork & Beans," Weezer [Great video, great message in the song, great melody, and Rivers hugging the "leave Britney alone" guy. Hilarity.]

I have no time to discover terrible music. I heard plenty of it, but have no idea who it was. Didn't Britney Spears put out some crummy single this year?

Monday, January 26, 2009

2008 Media Review: Top Movies

[The Media Review continues with the celluloid arts. If you haven't seen the movie mentioned, the link will take you to a trailer for it. How fun!]

5) The Dark Knight [The script has far too many problems to make this a great, great movie, but it was still a fine and entertaining motion picture nonetheless. It certainly lived up to my expectations.]
4) Slumdog Millionaire [The coincidences tilted it into the realm of fable, but this movie has so many wonderful moments. I cannot stop imitating the host. "Who Wants to Be... a Millunaire."]
3) WALL-E [There's something about act three that gets on my nerves. I can't put my finger on it, but it's too small a thing to make me forget the sheer poetry of the first two acts. I can't believe Disney and Pixar put this much money behind an art film.]
2) Doubt [An incredible script, actors who know when to be subtle and when to chew scenery, and a director who didn't get in the way of his genius DP. Michelle and I are still arguing over what really happened. I love that type of ambiguity.]
1) The Fall [Visually stunning, complex and heartbreaking characters, cleverly and imaginatively written, and I'm the only person I know who's seen it, thanks to the studio's complete inability to market this movie. Someone please see this movie so I can discuss it!]

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Gran Torino

The Band's Visit [A marvelous fable from Israel. I wish I understood the simmering conflict between Israelis and Egyptians better, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the picture.]
Chop Shop [Kids like Alejandro are the reason Michelle and I are adopting. This may have the best opening sequence from any film in 2008.]
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days [Heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking. Though this movie's subject matter would suggest otherwise, I find it to be strongly pro-life. But it is a difficult, difficult film to watch.]
Cloverfield [No, really. It's really good.]
Transsiberian [Hitchcock is alive and well, and casting Woody Harrelson in roles where he doesn't get on my nerves.]

5) Young at Heart [Old people singing rock songs. What's not to love? Will make you rethink the way you listen to "Fix You." I dare you to watch the trailer and not immediately want to see this.]
4) Standard Operating Procedure [It's not about the Abu-Ghraib scandal--it's about the photographs of the Abu-Ghraib scandal. Errol Morris knows what he's doing, people. Can't believe this didn't get nominated for an Oscar. Not for kids.]
3) Encounters at the End of the World [Werner Herzog's documentary about the personalities that inhabit Antarctica is like a jazz musician riffing. Kind of pointless, kind of hard to follow, but still genius.]
2) War|Dance [Very much not the typical pity-the-poor-African-orphan documentary.]
1) Man on Wire [Exhilarating storytelling, even though you know how it's all going to pan out.]

Citizen Kane (1941) [Finally watched this for the first time, and now I understand what all the hype is about.]

In Bruges [I watched this on a plane flying from London to Chicago, and it blew my socks off. Completely profane and entirely too bloody, but smack-you-on-the-head good in the plot/character department.]

Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
City of Ember

I thought about leaving Transformers on here, because it was bad enough to cover two years (certainly worse than Speed Racer or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but then I remembered I watched The Happening, which really is as bad as they say. Especially when they get to that farmhouse with the old lady. "Why you eyein' my lemon drink?" will go down as one of the greatest bad lines ever written, spoken, or to have a spooky music cue afterward.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

2008 Media Review: Top Books

[As you may have remembered from last year, some friends and I run down our personal favorites in media every year around this time. Last year's favorites can be found here, here, here, and here. And now, on to 2008's best, starting with my dearest love, the printed word:]

5) Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, Steven Waldman [Finally, an objective look at what the "founding fathers" really believed. Their religious beliefs often get tossed around as this unanimous thing, but, as you may have expected, it isn't quite that easy. For some reason, this book is now reissued as a paperback with a different subtitle: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty.]
4) Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion, Lucas Conley [Fascinating and easy-to-digest treatise on the long and sticky fingers of modern advertising. Those in marketing would do well to check it out.]
3) Maps & Legends, Michael Chabon [Our generation's most lyrical writer tackles the non-fiction essay. The first paragraph of the first essay, "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" should be required reading for all aspiring authors.]
2) More Information Than You Require, John Hodgman [The delightfully bizarre follow-up to The Areas of My Expertise, a book which I also read in 2008. I will forever be indebted to Hodgman (aka "PC" on the Get A Mac commercials) for his extensive histories on hoboes, molemen, and the short essay, "When Writing, Avoid These Failed Palindromes."]
1) Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N.T. Wright [This book completely changed the way I look at my faith. Probably the most influential thing I've read since The Ragamuffin Gospel. I cannot recommend this book enough--it is by far my #1 book of the year; maybe this decade.]

Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield (1998) [Forget the slick crapfest that was 300 (both the book and movie versions) and read this instead for a more visceral, more accurate account of the Battle of Thermopylae.]

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris [He's still funny, but since he's famous, he's just not as insightful as he used to be. Still, there are some very interesting thoughts in here on mortality.]
Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, Steve Martin [The rise and planned fall of Steve Martin's innovative stand-up routine. Hard to believe the star of the forthcoming The Pink Panther 2 is this good of a writer.]
Half-Life/Die Already: How I Died and Lived to Tell About It, Mark Steele [I'm not just saying this because he's my friend--it really is a good book.]
Secrets of the 2008 Campaign, The editors of Newsweek magazine [Not technically a book, but their extensive behind-the-scenes breakdown of the campaigns after-the-fact was exponentially more insightful than any of the "news" stories we saw during the actual campaign.]

Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne
Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, Philip Pan
The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat, Eric Roston
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, Hooman Majd
The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell

The High School Survival Guide: Making the Most of the Best Time of Your Life (So Far), Adam Palmer [Unless something crazy happens, I won't have a book to put in this category next year. Sniffle.]

Me of Little Faith, Lewis Black and Why We Suck, Denis Leary [Both of these chaps purport to be "funny" and "observant," but neither of their books is either. Shallow, trite, and stupid, both of these guys beat comedic horses that died long, long ago. I swear I heard some of these jokes around the time Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson. I gladly put both of these books down the library's return chute very early on, but at the rate the authors were going, I knew it would only be a matter of time before they cracked wise about John Wayne Bobbitt.]

The Shack, William P. Young [Throw aside the theological controversy: this thing is terribly written and is in major need of an editor. I read the third edition and caught typographical errors. In the third printing. But beyond that, the story is thin, manipulative, narcissistic, and indicative of the modern church's focus on self-help and utter disregard for historical perspective on faith.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


"Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

Full text here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Words Have Actual Meanings.

I found a piece in my favorite weekly column that addresses two of my big button-pushing cultural issues: excessive hyperbole and general government buffoonery. We all know the gummint do take a bite, but when we talk about it, can we please use perspective and context? Otherwise, we run the risk of running useful words into the ground, and then there will be no more words to take their places.

Barack Obama... said last week the recession may last "years and years" unless Congress votes him fantastic new spending power. The recession is unlikely to last "years and years" even if Congress does nothing: The late-1970s and early-1990s recessions ended on their own without dramatic legislation. But presidents love crises -- famously, Bill Clinton lamented that he never got to preside over a war. The economic situation is "a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime," Obama declared at George Mason University. Really! Unlike Sept. 11, unlike the 1980s crime wave, unlike the 1960s civil-rights riots and murders? To me the current recession resembles the early 1990s recession, which was also triggered partly by mortgage-based financial fraud (in that case the S&L meltdown), which also caused credit and investment markets across the United States and European Union to seize up, which also was accompanied by a stock swoon (about 30 percent, only somewhat worse than the current swoon) and which also brought about deflation in the housing market. But who remembers 1991? That's ancient history. Wasn't Augustus the Emperor in 1991?

Presidents love to proclaim things are worse than they seem, because this can be used to justify the awarding of extra presidential power. Just after George W. Bush took office, in the winter of 2001, he proclaimed an "energy crisis" and demanded sweeping new powers from Congress. Petroleum and electricity-generating capacity should have run out by now based on Dick Cheney's 2001 statements. In the spring of 2001, a U.S. military plane collided with a Chinese jet and crash-landed in China; this was declared a crisis and said to justify new White House powers. Sadly, on 9/11, an actual crisis occurred. Next, Bush declared a crisis of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and asked Congress for extraordinary powers to invade a nation that did not appear to pose any threat to the United States. Then terrorists within the country were said to be a crisis, said to justify board expansion of presidential powers including warrantless wiretapping of American citizens and the holding of prisoners without charges. When gas pump prices hit $4 a gallon in the winter of 2008, Bush called that a crisis and asked for additional powers. When financial markets froze in the autumn of 2008, Bush immediately asked for $700 billion to spend without congressional oversight. Presidents love to cry crisis and then ask for extra power and extra money outside normal channels of accountability.

Obama hasn't even been sworn in, and already seems susceptible to the desire to proclaim a crisis. "A bad situation could become dramatically worse," the president-elect said of the economy last week. This seems exactly what a president-elect should not be saying -- there's a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy in business. But such comments sync with the practice of presidents describing situations as much worse than they actually are, in order to justify more presidential authority. The moment the economy resumes ticking upward, expect President Obama to tell us there is a shocking super-ultra global warming crisis that justifies expanded presidential powers and extraordinary spending programs. (Climate change is a genuine problem, but no crisis.)

The news media like the sense of crisis, because it keeps viewers glued to TV news and nervously scanning newspapers. Part of the downward psychology of the recession is that journalists are using the most negative language possible -- "SALES PLUMMETED 2.2%" is an actual headline from last week's New York Times economic coverage -- while demonstrating no sense of history or proportion. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show 7.2 percent unemployment. That is a serious concern, yet was presented by the media as an unprecedented calamity -- in 1991, unemployment was 11 percent. Even with 2.6 million jobs lost in 2008, obviously a disturbing number, there are more people employed right now than five years ago, since overall, employment grew in that period. The civilian labor force did not even decline in December -- read the fine print. Unemployment rose because jobs did not keep pace with population growth. This kind of perspective is utterly missing from media coverage, since news organizations perceive a self-interest in making the situation sound worse.

Members of Congress of both parties like the sense of crisis, whether real or imagined: it gives them excuses to take money away from average people and hand bags of gold to favorites and interest groups, who repay the representatives and senators with campaign donations. The extent to which members of Congress have a financial incentive to tax the average and confer money on political favorites would I think shock the Framers, who did not anticipate the corrupting impact of campaign donations, because campaigning in their time entailed giving speeches in town halls.

You might think: Washington is full of somber experts and urbane talking heads, why don't they warn presidents not to declare crises? Institutional Washington loves the sense of crisis, because this makes institutional Washington feel important. Lobbyists, think tank fellows, news-channel figures, government officials and Washington pundits all become more significant when there is a sense of national peril -- plus, they get to strut around projecting gravitas. If things are basically fine, why give extra attention, to say nothing of extra money, to institutional Washington?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Look Up.

One of the many, many side benefits that comes from moving your entire family to Uganda to adopt a child (which I'm doing, if you didn't already know), is that Jinja's lack of light pollution (the entire town pretty much goes dark when the sun goes down) means I will be able to be free to pursue one of my favorite pastimes: stargazing.

I love space. In fact, I'm such a dork, I have NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" website bookmarked, and I check it every day (Yes, my gmail account,, and the APOD are my three daily stops on the internet). I don't understand a lot of the technical stuff about space, and I'm having difficulty reconciling scientific estimates of the age of the universe with my evangelical Christian upbringing, but there's just something about looking upward that causes me to look inward.

It's comforting, oddly enough, to think that all this crazy stuff is going on out there, far away from my travails and triumphs, and simultaneously realize that I'm both very, very small and very, very loved.

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. Take some time over the next 365 nights to look up and wonder.