Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mamma Mia! Theatrical Trailer!

Sherman Oaks, California

ABBA is coming to a theater near you (in the United States) on July 18, 2008.

Is is too early to pitch a tent and line up?

Longer trailer here. Official website here.

(Pictured: Meryl Streep preparing her daughter, played by Amanda Seyfried, for her wedding.)


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Guest Post by Prof. Brian J. McFadden: That's One Sexed-Up Beowulf

Sherman Oaks, California

Our guest blogger today is Brian J. McFadden (pictured), who teaches Anglo-Saxon literature at Texas Tech University. Brian and I were high school classmates, and, in the twenty years since, Brian earned a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Notre Dame and learned French, German, Latin, Middle English and Old English. In other words, Brian is Really Effing Smart.

When Paramount Pictures released Beowulf last fall, I asked Brian for his comments since he can probably recite the poem backward while drinking a flagon of mead. He takes aim at the script, which was co-written by science fiction master Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction author Roger Avery. Beowulf (Unrated Director’s Cut) is released tomorrow on DVD.

* * * * *

Lubbock, Texas

Beowulf (2007). Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

The film, as do most adaptations, takes some liberties with the story; a lot of the nitty-gritty detail that goes into the poem just won’t work in coming up with a focused narrative (see what Peter Jackson had to do in a few places to keep LOTR moving, like deleting Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire).

The major liberty taken is that the writers focused on one aspect of the story, the importance of heredity, and ran with that to the exclusion of many other themes of the poem. Beowulf the poem opens up with the genealogy of the Danes; Scyld Scefing, his son Beowulf (not the title character), then his son Healfdene, then Healfdene’s four children (Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga, and an unnamed daughter who, despite some textual issues, appears to have been married off to Onela, the Swede).

Beowulf, on landing in Denmark, is not asked his name by the coast-guard; he is asked his lineage and identifies himself as a Geat and the thane of Hygelac, not even bothering to name himself until he presents himself to Hrothgar. Hrothgar does have an heir; in fact, he has two, Hrethric and Hrothmund, plus his nephew Hrothulf, who, in the analogues to the poem in Norse and Icelandic literature, actually fight fairly well together. (In the poem, Beowulf returns to the Geats; no spouse is mentioned, and he fights the dragon in his own land, not Denmark.)

It takes sex to get heirs, but there isn’t a lot of on-page sex in the poem; we hear of marriages being arranged, of Wealhtheow and Hrothgar going off to bed, and of Healfdene’s unnamed daughter being the “dear bed-companion” of Onela, but that’s about it.

In the movie, on the other hand, sex abounds and in ways that the poet would probably not appreciate. Apparently any king who has sex with Grendel’s mother, a lamia, just can’t have children with anyone else; both Hrothgar and Beowulf take Wealhtheow as a queen and then take other lovers, but they still don’t have any heirs.

The poem’s Beowulf, like the film’s character, doesn’t have an heir and names Wiglaf as his successor as he dies; this idea, however, is at the end of the film tied to Wiglaf’s attempted seduction by Grendel’s mother (the outcome of which, perhaps mercifully, we do not see).

Beowulf was not in the hall when Grendel’s mother attacks (in the poem or in the movie), having been in the “buru” (bed-chambers) at the time, which Zemeckis seems to assume always means someone is having sex (Beowulf’s warriors and the hero himself are always busy trying to get busy).

In the poem, the dragon is angered by the theft of a golden cup and ravages indiscriminately, but Beowulf believes he is being divinely punished because he avenged his lord Heardred’s death at the hands of Onela (Hrothgar’s brother-in-law); this fits into the motif of fratricide that begins with the scop’s singing of the story of Cain and Abel and continues throughout the poem. In the film, the dragon, when he is not flying and burning villages, is an incredibly handsome golden youth who is angered because a servant found and recovered the golden cup that is the token of peace between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf.

Rather than commenting on a social system of vengeance that continually pits kinsman against kinsman, as the poem does, the film keeps slipping into an Oedipal conflict of father against son (Hrothgar against Grendel, Beowulf against the dragon). Zemeckis seems to have taken the idea that violence breeds violence (which, granted, is a part of the poem) rather literally in these instances.

Another major issue that comes up is the absolute untrustworthiness of anything that is not seen by multiple people. The swimming match with Breca is not questioned in the poem (although Beowulf’s worthiness is); everyone agrees that he lost, but no one doubts him when he talks about defeating sea monsters. In the film, Beowulf does in fact defeat many sea monsters, but he takes a break to have sex with a mermaid, which he leaves out when recounting the story.

The idea of being seduced by Grendel’s mother is not a new one – there was a 2001 movie titled Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert (of Highlander fame) in which Grendel’s mother seduces Hrothgar to produce Grendel in a post-apocalyptic future scenario – but in this film it involves Beowulf actively lying to Hrothgar and the court (although Hrothgar, having been seduced himself by Grendel’s mother, sees through the ploy). In the poem, upon Beowulf’s return to Hygelac, he recounts his adventures, and while he does rearrange them for narrative power and includes the story of Freawaru for the first time, he does not change the essential truth of the narrative.

Being somewhat skeptical of the stories of ones’ leaders is a useful modern mindset, but, in an oral traditional culture, an exact match with the truth is unimportant as long as the major story points are kept, and the idea of a poem enacting a flat-out lie would not have made much sense in medieval England.

In short, Zemeckis has tried to make the story of Beowulf more up-to-date by adding deliberate misconduct to Beowulf’s character, but the idea that a hero’s actions may come back to haunt him is enacted much more subtly in the poem (Beowulf’s trust in a flawed system, his lack of foresight in having an heir, his pride – or perhaps, his extreme fidelity to his idea of duty - in taking on the dragon alone).

The film is visually wonderful – there were times I couldn’t tell the animation from live action – but it just isn’t the poem.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008


Tristana. Directed by Luis Bunuel. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey and Franco Nero (France 1970).

A foolish old man from a noble family agrees to serve as the guardian of an orphaned teenage girl. The young woman looks like (and is played by) Catherine Deneuve circa 1970, so the old man’s intentions may not be strictly eleemosynary.

Actually, who’s kidding whom? The old fox saw a way to bed some top-shelf tail, and he lunged at the opportunity. Again, we’re talking Catherine Deneuve circa1970, so any man who didn't score a 6 on the Kinsey Scale would have immediately adopted her and put her in the adjoining bedroom, preferably with a connecting door.

But Tristana is not the ingénue she seems. Although she allows the old man to, as he puts it, be both her father and her husband, Tristana despises him. But this is Toledo, Spain, in the early 20th century, and single young women have few options outside the household. She waits.

The old man falls on hard times. The family fortune was bequeathed to his sister, and he is reduced to selling the silver to maintain appearances. Worse, his combination of aristocratic and bohemian attitudes make him think he is above haggling and commercial reality, so he lets the heirlooms go for a song.

Slowly, through a sequence of events I will not reveal, the old man’s power fades, while Tristana’s grows, until she literally holds the power of life and death over him.

This was not the first time that director Luis Bunuel explored these themes with Deneuve. Three years earlier, they created Belle de jour, about a bored Parisian housewife who works in a brothel in the afternoons. The men who visit her are an odd lot, and there’s little question who holds the upper hand.

Screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival, Tristana is not the equal of Belle de jour, but, in being darker, it’s more interesting. Belle’s Severine is distant from her husband but holds him no ill will. Tristana is about a woman who hates her father/husband more with each day and, in a gruesome denouement, exacts her revenge.

The old man might have been better off sending her to an orphanage.

(Geographic Note: The film is set in Spain. The actors speak French. When the film ended, some audience members were speaking Italian, and the signs in the theater were in German. For a moment, I had no idea what country I was in.)

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Craig Ferguson Speaks From The Heart

Sherman Oaks, California

Craig Ferguson is a minor miracle. He's a Scot with a brough who hosts the American talker "The Late Late Show" on CBS. He's a 45-year-old fronting a program for collegiate stoners. Ferguson reconceptualized the opening monologue: the rat-a-tat of jokes and gags was dropped in favor of Craig telling a story about why today, like every day, is a great day for America.

One year ago today, Ferguson promised to hold his fire on Britney Spears and other celebrities with apparent substance abuse problems. A recovering alcoholic, Ferguson apologized that his comedic aim had been off and argued that comedy should be used against the powerful, the politicians, the Trumps and the blowhards of the world.

Watch the whole thing. You'll be glad you did.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Couldn't Resist: Clip from Tanz Der Vampire

Berlin, Germany

This clip will shatter any notions of German cultural superiority. Don't miss the Big Segue at about 3:00.

(Vampiresses bosomy but displaying insufficient undead cleavage.)

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Monday, February 18, 2008

The Casual Sadism of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Berlin, Germany

What sadist designed the main Berlin train station?

The station, called the Hauptbahnhof, has one purpose: to terrify me and everyone else who is afraid of heights. The Hauptbahnhof is a chamber of horrors promising death by defenestration to anyone who slips on spilled cola.

The national rail lines are in the basement. I know this because there’s no ceiling over the lines; you can see the tracks from any of the station’s four floors. More to the point, you can go careening over the "railings” at any point and smash into the basement floor at terminal velocity, your brain matter spraying in a semicircle of pink goo. At least that’s what those of us with acrophobia think when we see a railing that’s lower than our center of gravity.

Gott help anyone connecting to the local S-Bahn trains in that widow maker of a building. The S-Bahn tracks are on the top floor (pictured), requiring a passenger to ride up three sets of escalators with a sheer drop on the side. On the S-Bahn level, you find yourself suspended on a platform that feels like it’s a hundred feet in the air.

In actuality, the station is designed so that the lower floors are staggered and would prevent you from falling all the way to the bottom. This makes no difference when you’re convinced that a massive earthquake could hit at any second and hurl you half way across the station. (Yes, I know that, in the event of an apocalyptic quake, it might be safer to ride down on a top floor rather than be crushed on a bottom floor. Facts will not interfere with a good irrational fear.)

Heights have been a problem for me in several Berlin buildings. The stairs in the CinemaxX in Potsdamer Platz (where many of the Berlin Film Festival screenings occur) are designed in such a manner that, when ascending, you cannot avoid noticing how high you are. The Cubix in Alexanderplatz is worse, a storey higher with low railings, an open atrium and glass elevators, with the edgiest films screening in Kino 9 on the top floor. And I avoid the Gleisdreieck, an U-Bahn transfer station built in the lower troposphere.

So, on behalf of my fellow sufferers: Floors, Deutsche Architekten, put in some damn floors. Especially you lot at von Gerkan, Marg + Partners, the dungeon masters behind the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

Note To Copy Editor Types: In Berlin usage, Alexanderplatz is one word and Posdamer Platz is two. I assume it's an East-West thing.

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Loos Ornamental: The Internal Monologue

Berlin, Germany

-- I have five hours to kill between films. What should I see?

-- This looks interesting. A documentary called Loos Ornamental about an Austrian architect and designer named Adolf Loos. It’s near my hotel. Director Heinz Emigholz will be speaking afterward. And all tickets on the last day of the Berlin Film Festival are discounted to six euros. Maybe I can sell an article about the film to a design magazine.

-- There will probably be 17 people at the screening, and I will be the only one who does not date guys.

-- Eine Karte, bitte.

-- Whoa, there’s a lot of people here. In fact, it’s mostly married couples. I can guess who’s doing the dragging v. being dragged.

-- The film follows Loos’ career chronologically, starting with his first building. The doc is 72 minutes long, with each building accorded a two- to three-minute section.

-- The first section of the film consists of static shots of interiors without narration.

-- The second section of the film consists of static shots of interiors without narration.

-- Is this entire movie composed of static shots of buildings, with no explanation about the architect’s life and style?

-- The third section of the film consists of static shots of . . .

-- Oh.

-- My.

-- God.

-- OK, some of the shots are exteriors, so people and cars are moving around. And there’s ambient noise, so it’s not completely silent.

-- A slow murmur runs through the audience. It’s German for, “Is the entire movie going to be like this, honey?” and “I dunno, you’re the one who wanted to see it.”

-- The shots are not framed normally. Every shot is tilted or at a strange “arty” angle.

-- Much rustling and shifting of weight as the reality of the film experience dawns on everybody.

-- An audience member walks out.

-- I can make the best of it! Concentrate on the architect’s work, Paul.

-- This guy’s aesthetic is ponderous. The design elements may have looked strong at the beginning of the twentieth century, but now they look boring and overly concerned with masculinity.

-- That is one butt ugly house (pictured).

-- More audience members walk out.

-- That is the ugliest marble I have ever seen, dark green with stripes of dark yellow, orange, brown and black. And he uses a lot of it.

-- More audience members walk out.

-- I will not walk out. To the best of my recollection, the only movie I’ve walked out of because of its content (as opposed to the rude behavior of audience members) was Derek Jarman’s Edward II, which was a tedious narcissism project that purposefully made you feel like a homophobe if you didn’t endure it.

-- The same information about Loos' work could be better presented in an architecture book. There is no reason for this film to exist.

-- Concentrate, Paul. Think about what the film is trying to say. Something like, “The perception and experience of the interior spaces is heightened by—“

-- Kitty cats.

-- Knut the Polar Bear lives down the block at the Berlin Zoo.

-- The theater next door is staging Tanz Der Vampire: Das Musical. Maybe it has bosomy vampiresses in revealing evening gowns.

-- This is Europe! The vampiresses might be topless!

-- “The lack of ornamentation on the building exteriors was a challenge to the then-prevailing notions of bourgeoisie—“

-- zzzzzzz.

-- Some kid starts talking to his brother. Talk, kid, talk.

-- An usher asks the parents to remove the kids. This is the ONE time I want the jabbering kids to stay.

-- The film cuts to a shot of Adolf Loos’ grave. Could this mean the film's almost over?

-- End credits.

-- Do I stay for the director’s talk?

-- Is the Pope Polish?

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

One Day In Berlin

Berlin, Germany

 Woke up at 6:30 a.m. Central European Time. That’s bad, since it will be a long day.

 Ate muesli for breakfast. Filled a bowl with the cereal and topped it with dates, prunes and milk. Eating euro!

 Transport is expensive. A six-minute cab ride across central Berlin can cost €10 (US$14.67). A one-way trip on the subway system costs €2.10 (US$3.08). I bought an all-day ticket for €6.10 (US$8.95), wondering why the price ended in ten cents.

 Did some of the Greatest Hits in the morning: the Brandenburg Gate, the former East-West border, the Reichstag, the Chancery, Unter den Linden (Under the Limes Boulevard).

 The covers of the local gossip magazines feature photographs of Penelope Cruz, Katherine Heigl, Madonna, Katherine Heigl and more Katherine Heigl. Having a German surname must help promote your rom-com in these parts.

 Energy flagging by noon.

 Watched Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (Mexico 1962) at the German History Museum as part of the Berlin Film Festival. Since I did not major in film, I never had the opportunity to write my Exterminating Angel freshman term paper. Here’s what the thesis paragraph would have said:

“Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (Mexico 1962) is a meditation on the knowledge of mortality. The wealthy members of a Madrid dinner party can’t bring themselves to leave the parlor, although there is nothing physically stopping them. They amuse themselves and ignore the situation the way ordinary people avoid thinking about death: they talk, flirt, eat, complain, fight, make plans, have sex, drink. Some take a rational approach to the situation, some emotional, some mystical. No one on the outside can rescue them, although a child – only dimly aware of death – can walk half way to the mansion’s door. Only with a concerted effort to return to a state in which death is willfully ignored do the surviving guests break the cycle.”

Roger Ebert thinks it’s about collaborationist politics in Franco’s Spain.

 Energy low at 5 p.m. In no mood to experiment with unusual foods or new situations. Ordered a club sandwich at Tony Roma’s.

 Attended the premiere of Die Dinge Zwischen Uns (The Thing Between Us). The titular “thing” is a young husband’s proclivity for afternoon romps with prostitutes. The wife attempts to understand her husband’s infidelity by secretly working as a bartender in a local brothel.

The film, written and directed by a woman and told from the wife’s point of view, has a European attitude toward story. There are no loud confrontations or tearful speeches like you would see in American women’s entertainment. The issues are emotional not physical (in part because there is little risk of sexually transmitted disease in Germany’s licensed and regulated bordellos).

The film is shot in HD with a brightly lit palette, not unlike a cosmetics ad, with strong contrasting blacks and whites that make the flesh tones pop. The effect is heightened by the contemporary interiors in which most of the action occurs.

 Energy almost gone, and it’s only 9 p.m.

 Make command decision that Transsiberian, a railroad thriller starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley, will have to screen without me. It’s venued at a theater deep inside East Berlin, and I don’t know how long it will take me to travel back to the Kurfürstendamm (Berlin’s Fifth Avenue) when the film ends at half past midnight. Don’t know how much longer I can stay awake, jet lag always hitting me hardest the third day in country.

 It takes more than half an hour to travel by subway the short distance from the Berlin Film Festival headquarters in Potsdamer Platz (pictured) to my hotel. During the years of partition, the city’s subway system developed as two separate halves; many of the lines don’t cross the now-reunified city in a logical manner.

 Cute Egyptian woman who works the hotel counter at night will not give me a spare syllable. “Guten Abend, Fräulein. Wie geht’s?” I ask on my return. She looks up for half a second, deadpans “Abend” and looks back at her computer.

 Asleep by 11 p.m.

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Dem Deutschen Volke

Berlin, Germany

Am I the only person who finds manifestations of nationalism creepy coming from the people who, in the words of the old Spy magazine, screwed up the first half of the twentieth century?

No, I'm not, but there's an interesting side story to the inscription "To The German People" which appears above the entrance to the Reichstag.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Yes, She Can Direct

Filth and Wisdom. Directed by Madonna. Written by Madonna and Dan Cadan. Starring Eugene Hutz, Vickie McClure, Holly Weston and Richard E. Grant (2008).

Maybe Madonna’s been too rich too long to remember what normal life is like.

Madonna’s directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, isn’t the self-indulgent, incoherent train wreck you’d expect, but that doesn’t make it good.

The film, which follows the lives of about a dozen characters in present-day London, feels borrowed from Madonna’s life during the early 1980s, when she was a struggling dancer in New York City. The script, co-credited in the Berlin Film Festival print to the Material Girl, seems like it was written by a naïve 21-year-old single, not by a worldly 49-year-old mother of three.

The story revolves around a good-natured Ukranian immigrant (Eugene Hutz) working toward rock stardom while providing S&M sessions to a suburban clientele. His apparent neighbor (Vickie McClure) – the exact relationships are unclear – works for an Indian drug store owner, stealing medicine she intends to take to Africa on a relief mission. Another neighbor (Holly Weston) takes ballet lessons while working at a strip club.

Although the script seems to think it’s illustrating the heights and depths of these characters’ lives, there’s no filth in Filth and Wisdom. Scenes and scenarios that might have been shocking twenty years ago – a hen-pecked husband likes to dress as a schoolboy and be caned, a standoffish stripper turns out to be a good egg -- are now stale and uninvolving. The strip club scenes don’t even have nudity (an alarming movie trend that must stop this instant).

This is not the Madonna who published the pornographic Sex or the Madonna who released the racy “Justify My Love” video. This appears to be a mellow Madonna trying to remember the details of life without 24-hour security and private jets. She doesn’t succeed, so she falls back on stock characters and contrived sequences.

The script does not work. What does work is Madonna’s generally unobtrusive direction. She coaxes decent performances from many of her actors, and some of the humor is surprisingly effective. But the film felt long at 81 minutes, because there’s nothing new. It’s microwaved potatoes.

Maybe, in her next film, Madonna will have something original to say.

I’d see that film.

(The headline explained: When Madonna made her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, the New York Daily News review was headlined “No, She Can’t Act.”)

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First Impressions: Munich International Airport

Munich International Airport, Germany

 Terminal 2 of the Munich International Airport offers all travelers free coffee, tea and newspapers. Does any airport in the States do that?

 Terminal 2 of Munich International Airport is spotless. The gates, the transit areas, the restrooms – clean. No spills, no trash, no frayed surfaces.

Rows of Lufthansa planes in the carrier’s dramatic blue, white and gold livery.

 The terminal relies on modern lines to suggest its prosperousness. The new East Asian airports, by contrast, tend to rely on high ceilings enclosing massive spaces.

 An international airport is an ambassador, the first experience visitors have in a country. Munich airport communicates that Germany is a country of order and wealth with a taste for art and design. LAX tells visitors that the United States is dirty, understaffed and designed by a low bidder who knew someone on the City Council.

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Sign on the Great Firewall: No Information Businesses Please

Over the North Atlantic

James Fallows’ piece in the March 2008 Atlantic (to which I will link when it is posted online) provides a mercifully non-technical explanation of the workings of the Great Firewall of China, the country’s internet censorship regime.

As described by Fallows, “internet dissuasion regime” would more accurately describe the Chinese Communist Party’s policy. Anyone in China who truly wants to access a forbidden site can do so (through proxies and virtual private networks, or VPNs), but the government’s goal isn’t to keep educated citizens in the dark, it’s to keep them in line.

“What the government cares about is making the quest for information just enough of a nuisance that people generally won’t bother,” Fallows writes. “By making the search for external information a nuisance, they drive Chinese people back to an environment in which familiar tools of social control come into play.” Curious teenagers Googling “Panchen Lama succession controversy” for the first time will hit a series of technical roadblocks that remind them that the topic is off limits and that it’s easier to surf celebrity fan pages.

Fallows’ descriptions mesh with my own experience in China. The Great Firewall was, to toy with a suspect phrase in this context, inscrutable. There was no consistency. I could access foreign news sites on certain days but not on others. Blogger was off limits in Beijing (in the north), but I could post from Shenzhen (in the south), then I could post from Beijing several months later. Sometimes hotels had better access than internet cafes, sometimes vice versa.

I learned through trial and error that the “good” internet cafes in China were managed by teenagers, because the tech geeks ignored the rules requiring identification. Internet cafés run by adults tended to be strict, demanding that I fill out forms and allow my passport and visa to be photocopied before I could surf. Imagine the country-rending chaos which would ensue if people could read TMZ anonymously.

One of the conclusions I reached while traveling was that China would be a terrible place to locate an information business. Proxies are exasperatingly slow, and, as Fallows admits, the fact that the Chinese government is leaving VPNs alone today does not mean that it will do so tomorrow.

I’m not sure I could effectively practice law from China. Web searches for basic phrases like “due process” or “equal protection” could return blocked pages. A quick Wikipedia brush up on some facts isn’t allowed. There would be no guarantee from day to day, or city to city, that I could access the tools of my trade: facts and arguments.

If I were an entrepreneur deciding where to site my global information business (which, on the smallest scale, I am), the ubiquitous choice between China or India seems to be an easy one.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And Some Kraftwerk As Well

Sherman Oaks, California

They're from Dusseldorf, not Berlin, but close enough.

I prefer "Neon Lights," but "The Model" is the crowd pleaser.

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Oh Why Not

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Taking Wing

Sherman Oaks, California

Off to Berlin for the second half of the film festival, on one of Lufthansa's Airbus A340s.

The cost of a round-trip, economy, non-refundable ticket kept dropping until I bit at $380, which comes out to three cents per mile. The flight flies non-stop from Los Angeles to Munich, with a change of planes for the short hop to Berlin.

In addition to work at the film festival, I hope to have time to see the few remaining parts of the Wall and the Checkpoint Charlie museum. (Pictured: November 9, 1989 -- the most important day in the last 60 years of European history).

Until I can post again, below is a video which features the Berlin skyline of the early 1990s. The band is from Ireland.

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Rolf Potts And The Double Standard of Women's Travel Writing

Sherman Oaks, California

Rolf Potts is tired of it, too.

Potts, the author of Vagabonding, is a great guy (which I define as anyone more famous than me who answers my e-mails). His writing is optimistic and motivational, and he rarely has a bad word to say about anyone.

But even happy troubadour Potts appears to have reached his limit with the anti-male double standards of women’s travel literature.

In his WorldHum review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, Potts notes how the story – person travels to foreign countries and has love affairs with younger locals – is a popular and uncontroversial self-fulfillment fantasy because the protagonist is a woman while the identical story would be condemned as exploitative if the protagonist were a man.

“Since an enthusiastic female readership has driven the success of Eat, Pray, Love, it’s tempting to conclude that women have serious double standards when it comes to defining acceptable behavior,” Potts writes. “Of course, part of the reason Gilbert’s book is so popular is that she writes with charm and insight, even as she presents herself as an imbalanced and not entirely sympathetic narrator. What might be derided as a clichéd and blatantly male ‘mid-life crisis narrative’ seems honest and soulful when distilled through the sensibilities a woman.”

The double standard, which I’ve mentioned, is particularly odious with regard to sex. Middle-aged Western women travel to foreign countries and have sexual affairs with younger, less educated, less worldly men, and the journey is described by women as enlightening and empowering. A middle-aged Western man does the same thing, and he’s denounced by women as a pervert.

It’s another example of how women create and enforce societal rules which discredit male sexuality while treating their own sexual desires as sacrosanct and above suspicion. Bully for Potts, one of the biggest names in travel writing, to call Gilbert and, by implication, her millions of readers on their dishonesty.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Welcome New York Times Readers!

Sherman Oaks, California

David Carr's column was referring to this post about the Wall Street Journal, which I followed up here.

But stay a while! I write about travel, foreign affairs, politics and law. I try to be entertaining. I visit exotic countries like North Korea. I have issues with marriage.

That's worth being added to Favorites and visited now and then.

Isn't it?


Chuck Thompson on Public School Teachers

Sherman Oaks, California

I couldn't work this inspired diatribe about public school teachers into my review of Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, but it's an example of why Thompson's book is so readable:

"I suspect now that the Japanese in Kojima hated all of us, and with good reason. We were a self-centered, high-horse, crybaby lot who came in expecting the sweet deal American teachers get back home and never once thought about adjusting our expectations.

"And, yes, poor unappreciated teachers, I did say sweet deal. American public school teachers have the world's best PR operation going. Whining every chance they get about how demanding their jobs are, how many 'extra hours' they put in, how little they make, how much of their own money they have to spend just to do their jobs, how noble they are working this job that nobody ever asked them to do -- welcome to the fucking world.

"That's something else you figure out living overseas. You think you've got it tough? You don't got it tough. American teachers would crumble if they every had to work the real hours of a cabbie, doctor, bartender, fisherman, truck driver, small-business owner, hotel clerk, mechanic, architect, janitor, musician, surveyor, accountant, or the million other jobs that don't observe weekends, much less every city, county, state and federal holiday on the docket, almost three months' paid vacation a year, and pension programs funded out of the public trough. How is it we all go through school painfully aware that half our teachers are lazy or incompetent or pathological control freaks, then turn around and let them convince us what a bunch of saints they are as soon as we become taxpayers?"

Buy the book.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Web: The Only Place Where Heavy Traffic Is Invigorating

Sherman Oaks, California

A big thank you to the thousands of readers who dropped by this week – one of the most trafficked in the history of Knife Tricks – because of my post poking fun at the Wall Street Journal’s comprehensive coverage of attractive women.

A link on Romenesko brought an avalanche of hits. The media blog of The Boston Phoenix thought the issue was a fluke, while Radar used the post to chide Rupert Murdoch and, more importantly, print my name in bold in a gossip column (last item).

Pictured (because she's pretty): Mrs. Rupert Murdoch.

UPDATE: Mentioned in David Carr's New York Times column as well.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Why Men Delay Marriage: Because Men Are Smart

Sherman Oaks, California

Modern yuppie marriage resembles a contract with the following terms:

“The Party of the First Part (hereinafter, Woman) demands and requires of the Party of the Second Part (hereinafter, Man) a state of legal unity (hereinafter, Marriage) in which:

“1. Man is to provide for the economic wellbeing of Woman and all of her issue in a manner equal to or better than the manner in which Woman’s father raised her;

“2. If the Man is required to work 80 hours a week in order to satisfy Stipulation One, so be it;

“3. Working 80 hours a week in order to satisfy Stipulation One is no defense to a charge of not spending enough quality time with Woman and her issue;

“4. Woman’s pre-marital representations of potential financial assistance (Work) may be revoked at any time without penalty;

“5. Woman may, at any time, for any reason or lack thereof, cease providing physical manifestations of amorous companionship (Nookie); this does not, however, grant Man the right to take matters into his own hands;

“6. Woman may terminate the Marriage at any time, for any cause, at which point Woman is entitled to 50% of the net worth of Man, even if the Woman ended the Marriage by having a torrid affair with Man’s hated office rival (Hated Office Rival);

“7. Woman is entitled to support payments from Man for her issue even if it is ultimately proven by DNA evidence that Man is not the father of said issue, as if that weren’t obvious from the fact that said issue looks like Hated Office Rival;

“8. Woman is entitled to custody of all issue, even if Woman’s idea of being a good mother is to serve microwaved corndog treats for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and

“9. If Man seeks judicial relief from any of the Stipulations of this Agreement, exclusive jurisdiction is vested in a court system which will assume, at every point and at all times, that Man is guilty as charged.”

Many men rationally choose to avoid or delay marriage because of how unfair these social and legal conventions are to men. Marriage is an act whereby men transfer to women controlling authority over the man's wealth, possessions and children.

But that’s not how Kay S. Hymowitz sees it.

In her recent article in City Journal, Hymowitz blames young men’s deferral of marriage on affluence, the availability of pre-marital sex, video games, lad mags and “men’s long, uneasy relationship with bourgeois order.”

As far as Hymowitz is concerned, the problem with men is that they don’t do what women want them to do, specifically, give up their freedom and focus on the marriage and breeding.

“For the problem with child-men is that they’re not very promising husbands and fathers,” Hymowitz writes. “They suffer from a proverbial ‘fear of commitment,’ another way of saying that they can’t stand to think of themselves as permanently attached to one woman. Sure, they have girlfriends; many are even willing to move in with them. But cohabiting can be just another Peter Pan delaying tactic. Women tend to see cohabiting as a potential path to marriage; men view it as another place to hang out or, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead observes in Why There Are No Good Men Left, a way to ‘get the benefits of a wife without shouldering the reciprocal obligations of a husband.’”

Hymowitz avoids the question of what causes the “fear of commitment,” exactly what those “reciprocal obligations of a husband” truly are. Too often, the fear is caused by the knowledge that, if anything goes wrong with the marriage, the man will shoulder the vast majority of the burden and, if everything goes right, he’ll do the same.

Men are rational actors. When the cost of something becomes too high, they buy less of it. Women have made the cost of marriage so high that, to many men, delaying or avoiding it is the logical reaction. Women, characteristically, complain but do nothing to level the playing field.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the fact that Western expat women needed to radically change their dating behavior if they wanted to have social lives while living abroad. Western women’s standard dating dance was not tolerated by Western expat men, because the local women were so much more . . . accommodating. And thinner. And less demanding. And younger. And prettier. And more . . . accommodating.

Something similar appears to be happening in the States. The men have jobs which pay enough to buy an HDTV but not enough to cause real stress. They have friends and freedom and freetime, and hookups with no-pressure girls get them through the small hours. It's an idyllic island. If they want to live there forever, that's their right.

But a force of driven, humorless women are banging on the door yelling, "Your absorption with yourself threatens your absorption with us. Come back to living on our terms, where we make rules. If you're a very good boy, there might be a little Nookie in it for you after a while."

"No," says the men. "We know what's in the contract. It's a raw deal. I'm not signing it."

"I’ve read the fine print."

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Election Scorecard

Sherman Oaks, California

Eight out of nine ain’t bad.

Although the final results are not in, it appears that voters agreed with me on eight of nine issues, which is better than average for a libertarian Republican in true blue Los Angeles.

McCain for nominee, No on two spending propositions, No on the phony term limit reduction, Yes on the four Indian gaming initiatives. The Knife Tricks sensibility prevails!

The only difference is that the voters were fooled by the duplicitous titling and scaremongering rhetoric regarding Proposition S, an attempt by the City of Los Angeles to adopt a new telecommunications tax by (1) calling it a tax reduction (for reasons explained previously) and (2) raising the specter of police and service cuts if it did not pass.

With all precincts reporting, Prop. S passed with 65.63% (376,513 votes), so we Angelenos will be paying 9% more for telephone service in the future.

Still, I’ll take eight of nine any day.

Pictured: A ballot page from the famous California gubernatorial recall election of 2003.


Monday, February 04, 2008

India After Gandhi

India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha (HarperCollins 2007).

India is a successful democracy which was ruled for a time by the twentieth century’s only female dictator. Indian voters can choose among a kaleidoscopic array of political parties, yet a single family has dominated Indian government for the past ninety years. The current leader of India’s largest party owes her position to the fact that she married into the family business.

Ramachandra Guha’s remarkable India After Ghandi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy is misnamed. The 893-page epic is, above all, a history of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the clan of Kashmiri Brahmins that governed India for decades, and of the instrument through which they obtained and exercised power, the Indian National Congress political party.

Since at least 1930, when rising star Jawaharlal Nehru was selected as president of the Congress Party, Indian politics has been defined by Nehru and his kin. A parade of political actors – the British, the anti-imperialist Quit India Movement, the Hindu nationalists, Muslim refugees, Sikh separatists, Bengalis, Tamils, the list is lengthy – agreed with the Congress Party, or loudly opposed the Congress, or sought an alliance of convenience with the Congress, but no one ignored the Congress.

From that day in 1930 in Lahore (which was then part of British India) until his death on May 27, 1964, Nehru was the leader of the Congress. After independence, his titles included Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as well as the honorific “Pandit,” meaning “scholar.” Yet his role as dynastic patriarch was as important as the formal offices he held.

George Washington was, to crib from the title of a biography, the indispensable man in the formation of the United States, and Nehru’s comparable role in the creation of modern India cannot be overstated.

Nehru’s vision was of a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy with political parties that crossed linguistic, cultural and caste lines. Nehru’s India would be a mild market economy with pronounced central planning. Nehru’s India would have a “non-aligned” foreign policy that would keep the newly independent nation at arm’s length from the Cold War.

But, before Nehru’s India could become reality, British India suffered bloody, protracted and arguably unnecessary death throes.


In Guha’s telling, India was partitioned because Muslim League founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah prevailed upon a pliable British establishment, while many Hindus were frankly glad to see the backs of their Muslim neighbors.

The landmass of British India can be visualized as a pepper with two large leaves on each side. The population of the pepper was overwhelmingly Hindu, while the population of the two leaves was overwhelmingly Muslim. To complicate matters, large communities of Muslims lived in the Hindu areas, and vice versa.

Jinnah, described by Guha as a vain and ambitious politician, felt that Muslims (and, as their leader, he) would have little power within India against the numerically superior Hindus. Jinnah therefore lobbied the British to partition the land into a Hindu heartland of India and two Muslim “wings,” called West and East Pakistan. The British, who culturally and institutionally felt more comfortable with Muslims than with Hindus, agreed.

The result was the largest migration in human history, Guha writes. As many as 10 million people packed their belongings and moved to what would be “their” country.

Partition upset almost everybody, and the communal violence (we would say “sectarian” today) was unspeakable. Gangs of Sikhs in the Punjab – which was ripped in half by the new boundary – killed Muslims indiscriminately. A Muslim mob attacked a train, which limped into its station with “all but two bogies . . . bespattered with blood inside and out,” according to an eyewitness. The last year of the British Raj saw continuous rioting by Hindus and Muslims alike. On the ground, Guha divides the blame equally.

But, at the apex of power, Guha argues that Nehru and Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi – both of whom opposed partition – conducted themselves as statesmen, while Jinnah and other Muslim leaders did not. “Tragically, no Pakistani politician was willing to take on religious fanaticism. Whatever their private thoughts, they were reluctant to speak out in public,” Guha writes. “This timidity was in striking contrast to the brave defense of their minorities by the two pre-eminent Indian politicians.” You can dismiss Guha’s praise for Nehru and Gandhi as partisan historiography if you want, but the silence of so-called moderate Muslim leaders is easy to believe in light of current events.

The Indispensable Man

“It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities,” Guha writes.

Nehru’s achievements are arguably greater – his challenges were certainly more daunting – than that of the American Founding Fathers. Many of the princely states resisted becoming part of India, the local maharajas covetous of their titles and property. Relations with Pakistan were frosty when they were not heated. Tribes in the economically and strategically important northeast rebelled against the Centre, as the national government in New Delhi was called. Many Indians wanted to redraw state lines on the basis of language, with the Marathi speakers and Gujarati speakers squabbling over who would have jurisdiction over the financial capital Bombay. Meanwhile, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was happy with India’s non-aligned status, and the intentions of Chairman Mao were a conundrum.

Nehru had to grapple with all of these problems simultaneously. Guha portrays Nehru as a one in a billion man, a proponent of non-violence who was willing to use military force (to expel the Portuguese from Goa, for instance), an urbane and educated idealist who knew when it was time to be gritty and real.

Like Washington, Nehru could have been king. But he was a democrat, and he endured his many political setbacks with grace, waiting for the day when he could patch together support for his goals. Whatever his failings (and his ineffectiveness against government corruption was a significant failing), Guha writes, Nehru governed India as an elected leader, not as a Mughal emperor.

The Daughter

The democracy gene did not descend.

On January 16, 1966 – less than two years since Nehru’s death – his daughter Indira Gandhi was elected Prime Minister of India by a margin of 186 votes in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. She was the second woman to serve as the head of government of a democratic nation (after Sirimavo Bandarnaike of Sri Lanka).

(Neither Indira Gandhi nor anyone else in the Nehru-Gandhi family is related to Indian spiritual leader Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, although the two families worked together politically since Indira was a child. The name was established when Indira wed Parsee businessman Feroze Gandhy, who adopted the spelling “Gandhi.”)

Indira did not inherit her father’s patience for sluggish democratic process. Seven years earlier, while her father was attempting to negotiate a solution to unrest in the southern state of Kerala (in which the Congress Party was weak), Indira stated in a speech, “When Kerala is virtually on fire, it becomes the Centre’s duty to go to the aid of the people; the misrule of the Communist rulers of the State has created a situation which is unparalleled in the history of our country. Such a situation does not brook legal quibbling.”

Once she moved into the prime ministerial residence, Indira’s autocratic tendencies became pronounced. Her government invoked President’s Rule – direct control of a state by the Centre – when it suited her. She nationalized banks. She stripped the princely families of their remaining prerogatives. She invaded East Pakistan (one of the leaves on the pepper), creating the independent nation of Bangladesh. She ordered nuclear testing.

And, from June 25, 1975, to March 21, 1977, her word was law.

The Emergency

The Emergency, as the period is called, haunts India like the Vietnam War haunts the United States and the disappeared haunt Argentina. It’s the period of history which challenges the nation’s idea of itself, in India’s case by demonstrating how thin the line is between “the world’s largest democracy” and a Third World dictatorship.

The story began when socialist office seeker Raj Narain ran against Indira in her Allahabad constituency in the 1971 general election. He lost, but he filed suit against her for a list of picayune election law violations. The gears of justice moved slowly but, on June 12, 1975, the trial court found that Indira had received political support from government employees on at least two occasions. The judge declared her election void but stayed the ruling for 20 days to allow an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Eleven days later, the Supreme Court began to hear the case. As an interim remedy, the court held that Indira could attend Parliament but could not vote – a ruling which cast doubt on her ability to continue as Prime Minister. Guha describes what happened next:

“Once the decision was made, it was executed with remarkable swiftness. On 25 June, [barrister] S.S. Ray helped draft an ordinance declaring a state of internal emergency, which the pliant president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, signed as soon as it was put in front of him. That night, the power supply to all of Delhi’s newspaper offices was switched off, so there were no editions on 26 June. The police swooped down on the opposition leaders, taking JP [Narayan], Morarji Desai, and many others off to jail. The next day, the public in Delhi, and in India as a whole, heard on the state-controlled radio that an emergency had been declared, and that all civil liberties were suspended.”

Indira used a relatively new law, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, to detain thousands of political opponents without trial. News reports had to be “pre-censored.” Satirical humor was forbidden. Interestingly, the business community and the middle class generally welcomed the Emergency.

Notoriously, Indira’s younger son Sanjay, who was being groomed as a successor, began a campaign of forced sterilizations in an effort to control population growth. “Lower government officials had to submit to the surgeon’s knife before arrears of pay were cleared. Truck drivers would not have their licenses renewed if they did not produce a sterilization certificate. Slum dwellers would not be allotted a plot for resettlement unless they did likewise,” Guha writes. “Local officials prepared lists of ‘eligible men,’ those who already had three or more children. Police vans would come and take them off to the nearest health centre.”

In January 1977, Indira called for new elections. The reasons for her re-embrace of democracy are a mystery, in part because her private papers are still sealed. Perhaps she missed the public adulation of her earlier political triumphs. Perhaps she was stung by the criticisms of friends of India. Perhaps she simply believed that she and the Congress would handily win the election.

They didn’t. The opposition Janata Party took control of the government, and Indira and Sanjay lost their constituencies. For the first time since Independence in 1949, India was governed by a party other than the Congress.


It didn’t last, and Indira reclaimed the premiership after the general elections of 1980. This second act of the Nehru-Gandhi family, still unspooling, has a Godfather III quality to it. The names and faces look familiar, the rivalries and motivations are similar, but it’s watered down and lacks the excitement and draw of the original.

Five months after the general election, Sanjay died. He lost control of his small plane while practicing loops, crashing near his mother’s house.

In 1984, Indira ordered an assault on a Sikh holy site sheltering militant separatists. In retaliation, two Sikhs in her personal guard machinegunned her to death in the garden of the Prime Minister’s residence as she walked across the grounds to be interviewed by British actor Peter Ustinov.

Indira’s elder son, the commercial pilot Rajiv, was immediately installed as Prime Minister. In 1989, he lost his office, as Congress failed to win a majority in the Lok Sabha. In 1991, he lost his life at the hands of a Tamil suicide bomber.

Since 1989, the Congress has consistently won the most or second-most seats of any party in the Lok Sabha but has failed to win a majority. The Congress rules, or opposes, in coalition with other parties. Its leader, Sonia Gandhi, is Rajiv’s Italian widow who learned Hindi as a second language and who abjures the premiership because the average voter does not consider her to be “Indian.”

Little men and women run India now, Guha argues, men and women more interested in how they can benefit from public office than in how the public can benefit from their service. One-sixth or more of candidates for elective office have criminal records, he notes. The average parliamentarian owns assets worth several hundred thousand U.S. dollars – an enormous sum in India. Almost all political parties are now family affairs, with sons and daughters inheriting seats.

India After Gandhi is the story of the family which set that precedent.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Murdoch to Journal: More Hotties

Sherman Oaks, California

I almost confused this morning’s Wall Street Journal with an issue of Maxim.

The top of the front page contains a teaser for a story about the lack of diversity among runway models (illustrated with photo of, yes, models) and a teaser for an article about whether attending Super Bowl parties is trendier than attending the Super Bowl (illustrated with photo of singer and her cleavage).

A story about the French rogue trader jumps to Page A12, where it is illustrated by a photograph of a French con man, quoted in the piece for color, standing next to his girlfriend, a former Miss France whose thoughts on European index fund hedges were not recorded.

Page B1 offers up the teased story about how fashion models tend to be thin, young, white and blond. The color photo dominating the page shows six models, each virtually identical. The story jumps to Page B2, with a photo of Kate Moss and several black amateur models.

The Money & Investing section -- which you'd think might be free of the eye candy -- starts with a tease on the top of C1 that includes a photo of Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima. The photo’s reprinted larger on Page C12. Has something to do with Super Bowl advertising.

That’s all a warmup for the Weekend Journal section, which includes photos of actress Kyra Sedgwick, actress Eva Longoria Parker, actress Brooke Shields (in a review headlined “Sex and the Office”), Cleavage Singer Woman from Page A1, singer Ashlee Simpson, and a photo of random party girls at a Las Vegas nightclub. Even the black-and-white etching of Jane Fonda on Page W11 looks fetching.

I'm not complaining. I'm noticing.

Maybe Pinch Sulzberger will counter by filling the New York Times with photos of Dana Perino and Huma Abedin.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Polling Day

Sherman Oaks, California

I completed an absentee ballot today and mailed it from the Valley Village Post Office. (In order to be counted, absentee ballots must be received by Election Day, which is Tuesday.)

For those of you who curiously choose to live elsewhere in the States, this post will provide an example of how we Southern Californians exercise our sovereign duty of universal adult suffrage. Mostly, it’s by looking at the ballot propositions and shrugging.

Here’s how I voted:

Republican Party Nominee For President of the United States. No surprise here. I voted for next-door neighbor John McCain. Think he's too old? He can still kick your sorry suburban ass.

Proposition 91: Transportation Funds. As I’ve noted before, California ballot propositions tend to either (1) create a tax or bounty or (2) dedicate spending. I’m opposed to both. Taxes are too high, but, once the state government gets its mitts on my money, the governor and legislature need to be free to spend it as they deem appropriate. There’s no point in the average voter stipulating that Sacramento can’t suspend the transfer of gasoline sales tax revenues from the General Fund to the Transportation Investment Fund.

Yet that’s what Proposition 91 would do. I didn’t like being micromanaged when I worked in an office, so I shouldn’t be micromanaging how state officials balance the books. I voted No.

Proposition 92: Community College Funding. Another attempt to dedicate spending, this time to the community college system. Prop. 92 also seeks to amend the state constitution to expressly recognize the community college system, which has been a creature of statute since at least the Junior College Act of 1917. Since I don’t see a need to constitutionalize our two-year colleges (and tell the state how much to spend on them), I voted No.

Proposition 93: Term Limits. If a private business made the claims about Prop. 93 that its backers do, the business could be sued for false advertising. Although billed as a “term limits” law, Prop. 93 would actually extend the terms of more than 40 politicians who are about to be termed out of office.

Currently (and subject to exceptions), a California legislator can serve only 14 years, split between 6 years in the Assembly and 8 years in the Senate. Prop. 93 would reduce the total number of years to 12 – but all 12 could be served in the same house. Thus, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and dozens of other incumbents would be able to keep their jobs.

I’m not a big fan of term limits, but Prop. 93 is an arrogant insult that assumes the voters are morons. I voted No.

Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97: Indian Gaming Compacts. Why do I have to vote on these? The state negotiated new revenue-sharing agreements with four of the Indian tribes that operate casinos within California. These compacts are on the ballot. I voted Yes on all four, since they don’t seem to cost me anything and the Governator has asked that they be passed. But why do I have to vote on these?

Proposition S: Reduction of Telecommunications Tax. This one makes me mad. It’s more duplicitous than the term limit “reduction.”

In 2002, the City of Los Angeles began to collect a 10% tax on certain telecommunications, including cell phone calls. The City had no legal right to do so because, in California, tax increases by a local government must be approved by ballot proposition. (That’s an appropriate use of the ballot proposition mechanism. Guess which way I vote on those.)

The cell phone carriers challenged the tax, and the trial court threw it out. Last May, the Court of Appeal concurred.

But Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council members want that money. They rewrote the invalid ordinance, set the tax rate at 9% and have put it on the ballot as a “reduction” of the 10% rate, hoping enough gullible people will vote Yes and thereby approve the new tax.

I voted No because, after checking with my lawyer, I learned that it was not possible to vote No, No, No, No At The Top Of Lungs, Absolutely Not, How Stupid Do You Think I Am, You Mendacious Thieves, No.