Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How I Know Obama's Plan Will Work

I watched Obama's speech last night. I was impressed. Finally, someone with bold ideas and the brains to actually get them done. Oh, and the ability to speak in complete sentences.

Naturally, the media will dissect what Obama said, handicap the odds of it getting done and what it all may mean. And certainly, there will be things about what Obama and the Ds propose that probably won't work.

Fine. That's the media's job. However, I think it's actually very, very easy to figure out if what Obama is proposing will work.

You know how I know Obama's plan overall will work?

Republicans and conservatives are so uniformly against it.

That's it. It's that simple.

Why you may ask? To that I reply, know your history.

Conservatives and the Republican Party have been on the wrong side of virtually every attempt to bring the nation out of recession or depression.
Think about it. As evidence, you need not go further back than the 1990s.

Remember that when Clinton came into office, the nation was in a recession and for two years he had a D-controlled Congress. In that time they passed progressive legislation including the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act if 1993 to set us on the path to a balanced budget and more prosperous times. The bill contained a mix of tax increases and a reversal of the now-disproven "Reganomics" supply-side economic practices that had steered us into recession. As we now know, this bill and other progressive measures set the table for an impressive 1990s and creation of the nation's largest budget surplus ever. We also know that W and the Republicans went on to squander it all in a return to "feed the rich" policies, but that's another story.

But back to my main point...guess who unanimously voted against the 1993 bill? Guess who at the time called it a return to big government and moving us toward socialism? Guess who said that the bill would put us on the road to ruin? You got it. Republicans. Unanimously.

Sound familiar?

It's the same refrain that the Rs pull out any time their philosophy is challenged. You could look at what they said in the debates to address The Great Depression in the 1930s too and you'd see the same hollow claims.

In short, the Republicans (and conservatives generally) have a very poor track record of judging what will get the country out of economic hard times.

And therefore, I'm pleased that they are so unanimously against Obama's proposals today.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Spookiest Picture We've Ever Seen

Diane and I have traveled all over the world. We've been to Europe, Asia, India, Africa, etc. In each of these places we've experienced all kinds of art and cultural traditions we'd never seen before. And all of that was expected and enjoyable. We've been to the world's great museums such as the Louvre, d'Orsay, Pompidou, Prado, MoMa, Guggenheim, Chicago Art Institute and many others. 

However, none of that...none of what we saw or anticipated in those places and times could prepare us for perhaps the freakiest, weirdest and spooky piece of art we've ever seen.

No. For indeed, when Diane and I were on our REI Adventures tour of China last year, we encountered a picture so mind-warping that, well, see for yourself...

That's right. This disturbing image hung over our bed in the motel - more of a roadhouse - that our group stayed in near the Great Wall. Look at this thing. There's so much going on. What's with the grapes? How about the matching Snoopy outfits? How random is that?! What's with the Astro-Turf and the superimposed all-American Midwest house as the background? And most importantly, just what the "F" are those babies smiling about? What could this all mean?

Needless to say, we quickly took the picture down, turned it around and set it against the wall on the floor. There was absolutely no way we were going to let these little Chuckies jump down in the middle of the night and murder us in our sleep...for that was the only rational explanation either of us could come up with for the existence of this picture.

Safely locked in the picture frame up against the wall, these two never did give us any trouble and we returned them to their perch on the wall just before we left for our next destination.

OK, weird enough, right? Dodged that bloodfest. Well, flash forward to today. I get an e-mail from one of our friends from the REI trip who also saw this picture in our room (and who was freaked out by it too may I add). He says he just watched a TV program about Iraq the other day and lo-and-behold, in the background of some footage inside an Iraqi's home guessed it...evil baby art! 

Here it is...

See that calendar behind the guy. Look familiar? Could those be grapes the baby is holding? Is the baby not sitting on Astro-Turf grass? What. The. F. 

So now we know that this baby art is not just a China thing. At minimum it's a China/Iraq thing and probably more like an Asia/Mideast thing all together. But still...what does it mean? What does it symbolize?

I invite anyone to check into this and let us all know. Seriously. I want to know. Is it a fertility thing? A "happy home" thing? Something else? 

In the meantime, until we know more, I can still only conclude as I did in the back forty of China that there is evil intent in this...the spookiest picture we've ever seen.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Five Musical Nuggets from Strummerville

Recently I went on a "fishing expedition" on the Strummerville Web site to see if I could find some new and up-and-coming rock bands to check out. Strummerville is a non-profit organization founded in memory of the late-great Joe Strummer whose mission it is to provide opportunities for aspiring musicians. 

Below is a list of five really cool songs I found there that you may also like.

However, after looking over my selections, check out the site for yourself as there are a ton of artists there ranging from folk, electronic, rock, rap and everything in between. 

OK, here are my five "finds"...
  • Dylan James - Talking to Yourself. An energetic call of "Whoa-whoa!" over a three chord electric guitar progression starts this song out with great indie style. Dylan James then proceeds to rock right on along with a ripping basic melody. The lyrics seem to be the singer's advice to someone - a friend? a girlfriend? - about how they should do something and have some opinions rather than "just walking around talking to yourself and singing to yourself - whoa-whoa!" To me this song is what rock is about. A passionate tune, passionate delivery, no need for frilly instrumentation - all adding up to a song that makes you want to jump around and sing out loud. Preview and download it for free from Strummerville here or from iTunes. James also has a couple other songs on iTunes you can check out if you like what you hear from Talking to Yourself.
  • The V.C.s. - Barbarella. Kicking in with a song that's a cross between the score for the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and anything Quentin Tarantino might come up with for a street crime outlaw movie staring an early 1980s Mickey Rourke, The V.C.'s Barbarella is just plain cool. The western pistolero guitar and the singer's croon about his desire for a particular woman paint a picture of an outlaw roving the urban range looking for what he needs. Preview and download it for free from Strummerville here. 
  • Cuban Heels - Eleven Little Secrets. The Heels crank out a jaunty little song here with Eleven Little Secrets. Strumming guitars and an "" backing chorus layers over and around the song's lyrics about how secrets can change things and how the singer "just doesn't feel the same" after sharing some of his eleven secrets. Check it by previewing and downloading it for free from Strummerville here.
  • New World Record - Here Come the Arrows. Here Come the Arrows is mid-tempo rock tune about the avalanche of life and what you can and cannot do about it. "Look out, here come the arrows, so hold out your hands and hope they turn away" communicates the inevitability of a dangerous world and that all you can do is stand up brave and take what comes. Meanwhile the chorus  booms, "Don't kill yourself with trying to take control, because in the end it will steal your heart and soul."  I take that as a comment on the soul corroding obsession many people have over trying to control their world and the people around them. The music here is reminiscent of Matt Pond PA with a little Glasvegas thrown in. Pretty damn good stuff in my book. This song is available for free preview and download on Strummerville here.
  •  Sunny Day Sets Fire - Brainless. You like a strumming good song with a heavy trombone part? You like a quirky little 1980s synth solo in the middle? You like a song about how a guy doesn't want to be brainless? Well, look no further than checking out the neat-o, danceable, lets get stoned out in a field tune Brainless from Sunny Day Sets Fire. Do it now. Preview and download for free at Strummerville here
So there you go...five songs from bands you've probably never heard of, but whom deliver the goods! Check 'em then go find some of your own.


Pre-Oscar Movie Reviews

OK movie lovers, here are my reviews for a number of Oscar-nominated films, as well as a few others we recently watched. Get the knowledge and see one or more of these flicks before the awards Sunday. Enjoy...

Oscar Nominated Movies

Slumdog Millionaire - The word is out on this movie, so you probably already know all you need to about it.

All I'll say then's really clever in revealing the realities of India while also telling the tale of brotherly rivalry, aching love and what people are willing to do to rise above their own limitations as well as those of the society they live in. Oscar-nominated for best picture. That's a lot for one movie, but this crew pulls it off beautifully.

Recommendation: See this movie now!

The Wrestler - Two words for you - "Staple. Gun." More on that in a minute, but in the meantime, two more words for you - "Micky. Rourke."

That's right, Mickey f-ing Rourke is back! Sure, his once perfect face has been pummeled and scared from years of boxing, hard living and some botched surgery...but that works FOR him in his role as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler. It's the story of a once famous pro wrestler from the 1980s who in the 21st Century is eking out an end-of-career
existence in the bleak world of minor league pro wrestling in the nether regions of New Jersey.

What is he willing to do to get back on top of the wrestling world? How is he trying to repair years of neglect to his family? Does a guy with a lot of baggage have it in him to find someone to share his life with? Will he make rent? How bloody will he get during his match in which staple guns - among other implements - are used? And, will he live through all these trials? These are the questions of this movie. Some of them are answered, some not.

Make no mistake, this isn't a cheap wrestler movie. This is a real-deal, Oscar worthy picture with spectacular, gritty and (this is key) believable performances by everyone in the movie - especially Rourke who is Oscar nominated for best actor. Marisa Tomei is also excellent as The Ram's aging stripper/single mom love interest.

Recommendation: See this move now!

The Reader - An excellent movie because it entertains while also making you think.
As the story of a young boy and his dalliance with an older woman in 1950s Germany progresses, new layers of detail and controversy are revealed about both the boy (and later as he grows into a man), the woman, her history and their relationship...all leading to an unexpected mid-movie twist that sets the agenda for the rest of the picture. And yes, there's a reason the movie is title "The Reader." But, to say more about that or other details of the story might spoil it. I won't reveal the major plot twist for those of you who haven't seen this one, but suffice it say that the buzz around Kate Winslet's Oscar nominated performance in this one is warranted.

Recommendation: See it in the theater before the Oscars if you can. If not, rent it when it's out on DVD.

Milk - see my review of this movie here. Oscar-nominated for best picture.

Revolutionary Road - Hollywood REALLY wanted the re-pairing of Leo and Kate for this movie or any other. They got it, and while it's a pretty good movie with what I would describe as decent performances, this picture really pales in comparison to other movies you could spend your time and money on. L&K are a couple who want to see the world and soak up life moment by moment who get derailed into a 1950s suburban life of a house, kids, a 9-5 job and thinly veneered happiness.

At it's best, this movie makes you examine the myth of "the American dream," and ask yourself if you've settled into a comfortably numb, dead-end existence. More likely though, you'll conclude like I did...which is, uhhh, yeah! What do you think you're going to get if you settle for so little in life?! Finally, if you see the Reader first, you'll already know one thing that movie and Reservation Road have in common. Nominated for three minor Oscars.

Recommendation: See it, but for sure wait for DVD.

Doubt - Meryl Streep plays a head nun at a Catholic school in early 1960s Boston. Phillip

Seymore Hoffmann plays the head priest at the church and school who the nun believes may have molested one of the boys he is supposed to be teaching.

Did he do it? How far away from the tenets of Christianity will the nun go in trying to prove her suspicions? What impact will all this have on the boy in question? By the end of the movie, you have answers to most these questions, but perhaps not the one's you thought you'd get. Nominated for four acting and one screenplay Oscar. Despite all that, save a powerful scene in which actress Viola Davis delivers an unforgettable performance explaining her boy's predicament to Streep's nun, this movie is predictable and guess what? Organized religion ain't all it's cracked up to be. Surprise.

Recommendation: Despite the hype, not a must-see. Skip it.

Tropic of Thunder - A lot of people I have talked to who saw this movie liked it. Not me.

It's the story of a group of modern day prima donna movie actors sent out to Southeast Asia to film the epic Vietnam War movie. Predictably, they all hate each other and none of them are up to the task - especially when in a bit of desperation the director sends them out into the bush for real to get just the action shots he wants. While there are a couple funny parts - and the picture is filled with people you'd normally expect to deliver such as Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Nike Nolte - my main reaction to this one is that it's boring. Just boring. Downey Jr. (who I normally love) is Oscar-nominated for best supporting actor, but I do not see why. Oddly enough, Tom Cruise has a cameo that might be the best thing he's done in 15 years.

Recommendation: Skip it.

Other Movies

Che: Parts I and II. This is actually a five hour movie split into two two-and-a-half hour movies. Benicio Del Toro plays Guevara in very convincing fashion in both, and both movies are predominately in Spanish with sub-titles in English.

The first one is roughly about the "rise" of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and centers on his meeting up with Fidel Castro in Mexico City and their group's fight to overthrow the U.S.A.-backed Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and the immediate aftermath. Of the two movies, I liked this one best because it approached things from three time frames - meeting up with Fidel, the revolution and after the revolution as Che spoke to the U.N. in NYC - and slips artfully between them. The post-war U.N. scenes are in black-and-white and the rest in color. Beautifully shot, this movie gives you a sense of Che's motivations, his strengths and his weaknesses.

The second movie is roughly about the "fall" of Che and is more of a blow-by-blow account of Che's last revolutionary mission in Bolivia. Skipping over his work in Cuba following the revolution, as well has his adventures in the African Congo, this movie picks up as Che is sneaking into Bolivia to start a revolutionary army to overthrown the government of that impoverished nation. From there, historical events are re-enacted as Che's group grows in size, we learn about their motivations and mistakes, they battle the government and - ultimately - are tracked down and defeated with the help of the U.S. CIA advisers. The movie ends as it inevitably must, with the execution of Guevara by the Bolivian army.

I think a common element that ties these movies together is Che's life and actions force you to ask yourself, what would I literally go to war over? What ideals would I die for? To me, that's the appeal of Che...agree with his politics or not...he saw massive poverty, dictatorship, injustice, corruption, and he decided to do something about it RIGHT NOW. Gotta admire that in my book.

Recommendation: I'd say that this one is only for people interested in the myths and realities of Che, what he was fighting for and maybe those who like historical action/war movies. I liked it and learned new things, but to be honest, I suspect most people would not care for it. If you're in the former camp, wait for DVD or view it.

The Promotion - This movie proved to be a quiet surprise to me. It's the story of two assistant managers at a grocery store who are both vying for the same promotion to manager of a new store in their town.

One of the characters is the incumbent assistant manager, played by
Sean William Scott (of Role Models, Mr. Woodcock and American Pie fame). Recently married and looking to better he and his wife's new lives together, this honest man has toiled in obsurity long enough and wants to move up. The other main character is Richard Welner - played by the one and only John C. Riely. Richard Welner is a guy who has come on down from a sister store in Canada in hopes of scoring the new manager job to help support his wife and new baby. Through the movie, he listens to his self-help audio tape with his own named dubbed into it ("...Richard Welner...will touch the sky today!") as he plots his course of action while seeking affirmative motivation. After some friendly competition, things get pretty heated and hilarity ensues, relationships at home are challenged and who gets the promotion is up in the air.

Recommendation: Rent this movie. If you love John C. Riely in movies like Step Brothers or Walk Hard, you'll also like his more subtle but equally entertaining performance here.

Outsourced - This romantic comedy/drama is about a customer service VP at a Seattle-based company played by actor Josh Hamilton who is assigned to go to India to bring up to speed a customer service office that will replace his team back in the U.S. - literally going to India to train his and his team's replacements.

After some cute enough but expected fish-out-of-water stuff as Hamilton's character adjusts to Indian culture, the story settles in with the business of getting his group of Indian employees to become proficient enough to make the grade with the ball busting corporate big wigs and so he can himself secure his job for a while long...or at least a meaningful severance. There are a few side-story lines involving friendships Hamilton develops and in particular a romance with a girl he meets who he cannot pursue further due to the India tradition of pre-arranged marriage.

All of this ends up in a funny but bitter sweet ending. Along the way you learn a bit about Indian culture, learn to despise the practice of outsourcing by American companies and realize along with the main character that life is far, far more than a job.

Recommendation: Rent it!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Conversations from the Porch Blog

I came across a new blog - new to me at least - that some of you may be interseted in.

It's called Conversations from the Porch.

The author serves up healthy doses of political talk, but also personal finance info.

Check it out.

Opposing the Stimulus - It's About the Next Election

You wondering why Republicans are so against the proposed stimulus package to get our economy back on track?

You think it's some philosophical disagreement on the size of government? Perhaps "fiscal responsibility?" No. Those pretexts are just too non-credible to the point of laughing out loud coming from today's Republican party. They're the main culprits on those issues.

My growing opinion is that it's something much more shallow, much more self-centered and much more insidious. Simply put, I'm beginning to think the leadership of the opposition being put up by key leaders in the Republican party is significantly about the next election cycle (2010), how the economy will be doing by then and how that may favor or not favor them in those elections. If they can draw down the stimulus, perhaps it's not as effective. Perhaps the economy continues to flounder with high unemployment, job losses, etc. into 2010. And perhaps all that helps their cause because they could then say, "see, stimulus by Democrats didn't for us for an alternative."

Now that is more in-line with what we expect out of Republicans in the era of George W. Bush, Carl Rove, Michael Steele, John McCain, Limbaugh, and their ilk.

Former Secretary of Labor and current professor at Cal Berkley Robert Reich has an explanation on his blog here that outlines this situation clearly.

Food for thought.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hot, Fresh NYC Restaurant Reviews

I just returned from a business trip to New York City and while work was the main thing on the "menu," I was able to drink and dine at some places new to me. Necessity, proximity and how easy a place is to find are keys to eating well on the run in NYC on a business trip, and for sure this is a lot different than doing your homework in advance and planning your dining as you would on, say, a vacation. 

None the less, I think I ate at some good places you  might want to check out when you're in New York next.

Here goes:

Bar Americain. This is not a bar - although it has one. Rather, it's an hip white table cloth restaurant in mid-town by chef Bobby Flay. On the night we were there, it was quite crowded. The menu features a typical variety of fish, poultry, chops, steak and and vegetarian options. However, that's the only typical thing about it. For example, I started with the gala apple salad with walnuts, blue cheese and pomegranates. These elements combined for a very interesting tangy, sweet, crunchy and creamy combo. Next, I had a piece of flaky good skate (a white fish) with a chili butter sauce and capers that was probably the most unique fish dish I've ever had. My buddy Craig had a piece of grilled tuna with red and green chili sauce, avocado relish and crispy onions. I also spied that the guy at the table next to us had the plate of the day - buttermilk fried chicken and black pepper biscuits. Hmmm. Looked good too. At any rate, we downed our meals with a bottle of mellow Bordeaux red.

Recommendation: This is a well above average restaurant - especially for mid-town. Go there if you're staying in that area of the city. However, I would not go so far as to say that it's a place you must seek out compared to some other places you need to go. Such as...

Nobu. Yes, this is the place actor Robert De Niro co-owns that you may have heard about. My three man crew went to Nobu Fifty Seven at 40 West 57th Street between Ave. of the Americas and 5th Ave. This restaurant does not take reservations, and there appeared to be a pretty long lineup of people wanting to get a table at this super sheik, darkly lit space. Luckily one of my group knows one of the managers and we were quickly whisked upstairs and seated at the sushi bar for a front row seat on the raw fish action.

While Nobu does offer some more typical options for sushi lovers, more of it's menu is lined with innovative twists on sushi or sushimi. For example, we started with a plate of Kumamoto oysters with Maui onion salsa. Wow! Next up, Yellowtail sushimi with Jalapeno. Double wow! What could top that? Well, how about a bowl full of deep fried creamy, spicy crab balls over a thin bed of lettuce. People, this is food of the gods! From this pinnacle we cooled off and eased on down with a Spicy Big Eye tuna roll, vegetable tempura and a Cucumber roll. I would also throw in a shout-out for Nobu beer as a great beverage to complement and wash down all of these delights.

Recommedation: If you like sushi, you need to go here. Seek it out and enjoy!

John's Pizza of Bleeker Street. There are lots of pizza joints in New York, and a lot of them have names like Johnny's or Ray's or similar. So, don't get this one confused with a pretender. No, this great old pizza joint is on Bleeker Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Serving fresh, hot made-to-order thin crust NY pies, John's delivers a unique pizza with equally impressive trio of crust, sauce and toppings. You know a pizza place is good when even their simple "plain cheese pizza" is sublime - and that's the case here. The atmosphere of this long-time Bleeker Street resident rules with red wooden booths and tables with years worth of names, messages and symbols carved into them. As a bonus, the overhead sound system plays a great mix of oldies rock, jazz, soul, and country tunes as you eat. Note also that John's only takes cash and you cannot order pizza by the slice. 

Recommendation: You in the Village? You like pizza? You need to go here.

The Blind Tiger Bar. Right across the street from John's is The Blind Tiger. Featuring an eclectic mix of draught, cask and bottled beer from all over the nation, this homely little bar is an old-time favorite with locals. My friend Tammi who lived in NYC for a while tells me that the name of the bar dates back to prohibition. Apparently it wasn't illegal to consume alcohol at that time, but it was illegal to buy or sell it. So, some enterprising entrepreneurs got the idea to charge patrons a fee to see an attraction like "a blind tiger" to which also just so happened to include a beer. True? Who knows. Sounds good to me.

Anyway, today patrons belly up around slab-like wood tables or sit down near the side-wall fireplace to enjoy brews that - to me at least - seemed to be predominately ales, IPAs, stouts, ambers, and other darker varieties. I did see some lagers floating around so there must have been a least one tap with a lighter option. Anyway, the friendly bar tenders draw out whatever you like. The bar also has a food menu of sandwiches and "small plates." I didn't eat any of these, so no review on that. In the summer, the street side windows open up so the place would definitely feel like an indoor/outdoor spot. When I was there it was like 20 degrees outside, so no such luck.

Recommendation: In any season, if you want a good beer stop in the Village after a long day of shopping or sight seeing - this is it.

Victor's Cafe. This Cuban restaurant has been in business for more than forty years. Originally an uptown spot, it is now located near Times Square. Normally that locale would indicate sketchy food, bad service and high prices. And sure enough, not far away are places like the Olive Garden, Bubba Gump's and similar restaurants built to capture tourists and the theater crowd. But, this is not the case with Victor's. No. This is delicious real Cuban food in a nice setting. Featuring classic and "neuevo" Cuban dishes, the menu is full of things like chicken and rice, roast pig, adobo pork shops, skirt steak - all surrounded by interesting Cuban sauces, spices and preparations.

Coming off my John's Pizza lunch, I was already pretty full, so I opted for the shrimp sauteed in spicy creole sauce with tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs over a sweet potato mash and a side of white rice and black beans. Loved it. Also to note, the staff were very nice and this place has THE BEST sangria I've ever had. Dynamite all the way around.

Recommendation: New York is one place in the U.S. outside of Miami that you can get high quality, authentic, Cuban food. Break out of your normal pattern and try something new - like Victor's. If you're seeing a Broadway show, definitely check this place out.

The Brooklyn Diner. On the last evening of my business trip to NYC last week, I found myself flying solo. In those instances, I like to find a friendly place to sit at the bar or counter and eat - no hassles trying to get table and I avoid looking like to big a loser sitting alone. You'd be surprised how difficult this is to do actually as most places that the masses know about fill up by 6:30 or 7 p.m. and no bar stools are open. Anyway, a couple weeks ago my buddy Ken - who used to live in New York - said that I should go to The Brooklyn Diner. With this little nugget of info, I decided to give it a try.

Now, the first thing to know is that The Brooklyn Diner is not in Brooklyn. No, it has two locations, but they are in Manhattan. I went to the original up on 57th Street between 7th Ave. and Broadway.

Next, the theme here is upscale comfort food a la Brooklyn. So, hot pastrami sandwiches, burgers, chicken pot pie, pot roast, lasagna, mac & cheese...well, you get the shtick. In terms of decor, this place is modeled after what original diners really were - train diner cars turned into stationary restaurants. This is not to say that it's a narrow little space, but rather that the ambiance and decor echoes that look with a bit of 50s style thrown in. I especially liked the dual TVs above the bar playing the classic old movie, The Man in the Iron Mask.

And so it was that I found a stool at the counter and proceeded to order a salad, pot pie and a Brooklyn Ale from the friendly waiter from Brazil working the bar area. The service was quick, but not too quick. My pot pie came to me piping hot and I have to say was quite delicious. As I ate, a couple theater-goers drifted in to the counter for a pre-show drink and chatted. As they talked, I noticed the massive cheesecakes and other pasteries sitting there behind the bar. Unfortunately, I stuffed myself on my diner so had to pass.

Recommendation: Not a "must-eat-at place," but one to check out if you're craving comfort food or you want that pre-Broadway show bite, a casual place for an after show drink or desert - or if like me you're looking for a friendly, easy place to eat solo.