Brandon Starr's blog. Updated daily since March 2003. Welcome. Make yourself comfortable. Have a hot chocolate.

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Some fun/useful/useless links:

The Internet Movie Database

My cousin back from Iraq, and how it changed me (my current favorite entry on this blog)

My product page

Fun blogs:

infinitus opinio

Siren's Song

the mechanical jive

The Strange World

Thunderstorms in the Imajica


Elven Sarah

Random Musings (Catcher)

Certifiable Princess (Sarah 2)

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Monday, April 12, 2004
My cousin, back from Iraq--and how it changed me

I spoke with my cousin a few days ago.  He's just back from Iraq.  He was stationed in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

I guess he was lucky in a way.  He got out just before things started really going nutty in Iraq again.

But it's a lot worse there than the media has been letting on.  This is yet another reason my mind has been changing about Iraq, and it's time I wrote about it.

My cousin (I won't give his name here, because he says he may have to go back in six months for another six-month hitch--after being there more than a year) drove trucks.

Big trucks.

Trucks so big they are designed to carry an M1 tank.  Or an 80-ton halftrack.  Or two hummers.  Enclosed.  It has forty tires.  It weighs 80 tons--just the tractor.  Tractor, trailer, and cargo can add up to 200 tons.  If you are sitting in the driver's seat, you look down on the roofs of 18-wheeler trucks.  Trucks which stopped like a train, needing hundreds of yards of safety distance between itself and the next truck in the convoy.

Like I said, big trucks.

Anyway, things aren't so nice and neat as the media lets on.  The camp he was in was mortared regularly.  Sometimes, they'd get intelligence that an attack was coming.  This just meant less sleep than usual.

The heat in the cab of the trucks is intense.  He saw it get to more than 150 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it's that hot, you sip water all the time.  150 degree water, you sip like tea.  One time, he made the mistake of pouring his water over his head--it gave him first-degree burns.  But they don't often open the windows.  Why?

At first, the Iraqis thought the big trucks were bulletproof.  Then they found out they weren't.  That's when they started attacking the trucks big-time.  And that's why he didn't keep the window down.  In fact, if a tire blew, he never stopped to fix it.  He just kept a count in his head, starting with forty and working down.  He could easily go four, five, or more blowouts and not stop.

If a stop had to happen--and the trucks are notoriously hard-to-maintain, especially in Iraq--the whole convoy of trucks would stop, and everyone would get out to do security.  You hoped.

Trouble is, they don't do truck driving like a long-haul trucker in the U.S.  The sleep rules rigorously enforced on private citizens is ignored by an army in combat.  He'd often go eight hours, nap two or four, then do another eight hours.  Over twenty-four hours, he'd often do twenty hours driving.  There are two guys in the cab, but the rider has to keep a lookout on the passenger side--they don't dare fall asleep, in case of attack.  So when a convoy stopped, you hoped everyone was alert enough to stay awake.  It often didn't happen, especially out of the city.  Even my cousin, who was a leader of his group, sometimes couldn't stay awake when stopped.  Once the convoy left without him.  He woke up all alone.

That is bad.  He got the truck moving, and just hooked up with the next convoy he could find.  Better safe than alone, even if you don't end up where you're supposed to be.

The insurgents would try to stop the trucks--the truck's best defense was its immense momentum.  When stopped, they became more vulnerable.  As the year ground on, and things became more tense, they would stop under fewer and fewer situtations.

At first, the idea was to keep your face among the Iraqis.  So folks were allowed to come close when the trucks were stopped.  Then some attacks came.  So kids only were allowed near the trucks.  They'd give them the candy from their MREs.  Then some kids--"really little kids" as he put it--were putting magnetic bombs under their trucks.  So, no one was allowed close.  The soldiers were now separate from the Iraqi citizens.

My cousin was given a slingshot.  The candy once given to the kids became a very effective deterrent.  When someone came too close, but he didn't feel it was time to lock a round in the chamber of his rifle, he'd fire a hard candy from the surgical-rubber sling.

Once someone stepped up and reached through the triangular window by my cousin's feet.  He didn't know what the guy was after, but he was in danger.  He kicked the guy's arm with his steel-toed boots so hard he heard a snap, and the guy yanked his arm out.

Sometimes a car or truck would try to force him off the road.  My cousin would have to make a decision--and he always decided for the safety of himself and his unit.  He sideswiped many cars into ditches after they tried something funny.  Similarly, he didn't stop in a town for something as prosaic as a red light.  He hit the horn a bunch of times, looked around as best he could, but mostly, he just kept right on through the intersection.

It seems a fair metaphor for the entirety of Bush policy in Iraq.  Don't stop, don't follow the usual traffic laws, just keep going, and hope everything will end up okay.

I hope this helps you understand part of why my views on Iraq have been so much in flux lately.  Of course I still love and support the brave soldiers of my beloved country.  Of course I will support my cousin however I can if he indeed has to go back into the chaos of Tikrit, or anywhere else.  But things aren't as cozy as the media has made it seem.  Remember, all this is from before the recent insurrection in the three cities.  This is all just business-as-usual stuff going on on a constant basis.  Constant danger.  Constant strain.  Constant attacks.  From a minority of the populace?  Possibly.  Even probably.  But the soldiers are now separated from the citizens, and I don't see how you can grow friendly with someone with guns with whom you never talk.  And I fail to see how Bush is going to get us out of this mess.

I need to stop writing now.  I can't see the screen.

Posted at 07:09 pm by brandonstarr
Comments (4)  

Sorry, "Weird Al"

"Weird Al" Yankovic's parents both found dead

As a lover of comedy, I grew up listening to Al's early work.  I still consider myself a fan, even though I've hardly heard anything since "Polka Party."

I was sorry to hear about his loss.  If anything I've read about him is true, and I've read a fair amount over the years, he was quite close to his folks.  It must be a terrible blow, doubly so that both were lost in the same fireplace accident.

When I left college and stopped listening to popular music, I also pretty much stopped listening to Al.  They go hand in hand.  I'm sure there are a lot of kids listening to Al nowadays who aren't interested in the least in his early Michael Jackson parodies or his first hit, "Another One Rides the Bus."  But just because I stopped keeping up with his music doesn't mean I stopped liking him as an entertainer.

Al has never been able to break out of his parody mode.  Even though every album is about 50% parodies, 50% original humor songs, it's always the parodies that get the airplay, the videos, and the attention.  However, there are a couple of very good originals in his repertoire.  I like "Dare to be Stupid" (a minor non-parody hit) plus "You Don't Love Me Any More" and "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota."  Plus, I love his reverse parodies--where the lyrics are the same, but put to a frenetic, accordion-driven polka beat.  His "Hot Rocks Polka" is especially good, because it is all classic Rolling Stones songs.

If you haven't seen Al's movie, "UHF," you might check it out.  The comedy is extremely broad, and not every joke strikes gold, but watch for Michael Richards in an early, Kramer-esque role.  (Some people claim the role is NOT like Kramer, but sorry, it's basically Kramer with about 30 fewer IQ points.  The role is especially similar to the early "Seinfeld" episodes, when Richards and the writers were still finding the character.)  There are some good parodies, and a few genuine belly-laughs to be had.

Feel better soon, Al.  And while I'm at it, thanks for the laughs over the years.

Posted at 12:16 pm by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Did you know this about Condoleezza Rice?

Bush isn't the only member of his Administration with strong oil ties.  Condoleezza Rice served on the board of Chevron for nine years and had a Chevron oil tanker named after her.

The tanker doesn't fly under a U.S. flag, though.  It's registered in the Bahamas, one of several countries which offer low tax rates and extremely minimal inspections to all comers.  Not that that was Rice's personal decision, though, I'm sure.

Chevron had the ship renamed in April 2001.  Was it to stop the perception of a too-cozy connection to the W. Bush White House?  Who knows, but that's what it sure seems like.

I didn't know that until I heard it somewhere on the radio.  I looked it up, and sure enough, there it is.

Posted at 07:18 am by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Sunday, April 11, 2004
Movie pics for my sis, part three and final

OK, this hasn't raised a single comment in my first two parts.  But I've only got one part to go, and I've been busy today, so it makes a quick entry.  Here goes part three of my suggestions to my sister, in the broad-based "classic" genre and biopics.  Also, since this was a list for my sister, who was thinking that she didn't have a great background on movies made before her teen years, as a completion move I included a list of films that I enjoyed in the last ten years, plus a list of nearly-there films that almost made my full write-up.

So, here goes:

"Classic"--usually dramas, but also any other major, iconic film that didn't fit in easily elsewhere.

THE GODFATHER:  Considered by many the best film of all time, often tied with GODFATHER II.  Amazing acting, powerfully scripted and directed.  It's a film about a family and the family business of crime.

CITIZEN KANE:  This is the reason not everyone thinks THE GODFATHER is the best movie ever.  Orson Welles writes, directs, produces, and stars in the lead role in this ground-breaking movie.  Many film techniques are pioneered right in this very film.  Follow the story of Kane, a man richer and more powerful than any other of his time--yet somehow his own life slips through his fingers.  Pacing somewhat slow by today's standards, but driven by the immortal question, "Who is Rosebud?"

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?:  Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton draw a young couple into their world of emotional pain.  Sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing barbed comments to each other during the increasingly uncomfortable dinner party lead to the revelation of their deepest, darkest secrets.

Biopics--films about actual people.  May be partly mythologized or fictionalized.

PATTON:  George C. Scott in the title role.  Oscar-winning performance by Scott makes the story of the complex, egotistical World War II general sizzle.  Several iconic moments, including the speech in front of the immense flag, Patton firing back at an incoming, strafing German fighter plane with only his pistol, and his joyous moment when he realizes how he can beat his counterpart:  "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR BOOK!"

GANDHI:  Ben Kingsley in the title role.  An amazing film about the struggle for India's independence from British rule.  Even more powerful in today's environment of terrorism, since Gandhi insisted on using only nonviolent tactics--successfully.

ED WOOD:  Johnny Depp in the title role.  Fun, quirky film directed by Tim Burton ("Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," "Batman").  The story of the "worst director ever," told with humor and affection.  Great acting by Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Bill Murray.



TOY STORY 2 (I cry during one song, every time, I swear)
THE MATRIX (pretend the two sequels were never made)


FULL METAL JACKET (especially the first forty minutes, during training)
DIE HARD (this is the movie so good it made a million "Die Hard on a" movies--for example, SPEED is "Die Hard on a bus;" UNDER SIEGE is "Die Hard on a ship;" even PHONE BOOTH is "Die Hard in a phone booth!")




Posted at 06:10 pm by brandonstarr
Comments (6)  

Saturday, April 10, 2004
What bothers me about Rice's testimony

Ms. Rice presented the picture of a government utterly useless in preventing the 9/11 attacks.

I understand perfectly that the attacks are the responsibility of the criminals who planned and carried them out.  But Rice says,

Yet, as your hearings have shown, there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States, something made difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
So the attacks came.
(end quote)

No magic bullet?  So the attacks came?  That's it?  That's all there is to it?

In a better administration, there would be a lot more feeling for those who were killed in the crimes of 9/11.  Instead, Rice here is playing duck-and-weave.  She's hoping her boss keeps his job in November, and nothing else.  No apologies, no offers of resignation, no assignment of blame in the failure to tear down the "structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information."  Note that the "structural and legal impediments" are the subjects of the clause; they are the ones who "prevented the collection and sharing of information," not some person, such as herself, or the President.  Just nice, anonymous impediments doing what impediments do.

Note the use of the phrase "no magic bullet."  This is just magical thinking, of the kind often used by the religious.  It's along the lines of "God's will."  Ah well, there was no magic bullet; it was inevitable; it was fate.

Bull.  There was nothing inevitable about the destruction of two of the world's most famous buildings.  There is no fate except that which we make.  Hell, even the fourth plane wasn't able to execute its terror mission, due to the speedy flow of information via cell phone.  Those passengers took things into their own hands to try to save themselves, and at the very least saved hundreds of lives who would have been lost on the ground had they done nothing.

No silver bullet?  "So the attacks came?"  These are the words of people who don't want to face up to their own failure.

At least Mr. Clark had the decency to apologize.

Posted at 05:36 pm by brandonstarr
Comments (7)  

Movie suggestions for my sister, part two

Here's the second part of my email on classic movies my sis should see.  Check out yesterday's blog entry for the first part.

Today:  Action/Western, Musicals, Comedy

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY:  Eastwood in his famous Western role.  Famous directorial stylizing by Sergio Leone.  Reasons to watch:  The music, the look, the famous three-way tension and climax all make this a great film.  A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE were similar and also good, but this is the one everyone remembers.
HIGH NOON:  Gary Cooper, an aging lawman who has just taken a wife, has to face four criminals arriving on the noon train.  No one in town will help him.  The clock relentlessly takes us toward the climax.  Edited in something approximating real-time.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC:  You've probably seen this one.  But if you haven't, you really must.  Moving tale of an Austrian family as their country falls under the sway of Nazism.  Great music, strong acting, even from the kids.
MY FAIR LADY:  Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, who is taken in by a professor of speech on the bet that he can make a lady out of the gutter-accented flower girl simply by improving her way of speaking.  Fun music, great acting, funny--and Hepburn is never better.  ROMAN HOLIDAY and CHARADE are my two other favorite Hepburn movies.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN:  Great writing, directing, and acting make this spoof of the classic monster story fun throughout.  Some would argue and say that Mel Brooks's other early film BLAZING SADDLES is better.  If you like both, check out THE PRODUCERS.
MONTY PYTHON'S THE LIFE OF BRIAN:  All three of the main Monty Python movies are funny (M.P. AND THE HOLY GRAIL and M.P.'S THE MEANING OF LIFE being the ones not based on the TV show), but this one manages to be funny throughout and also to say something about blindly following authority.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE:  Not so much a ha-ha comedy as a good-ending comedy, it's Jimmy Stewart in the movie that shows how much any one person can affect the people around him for the better, without him even knowing.  This movie and everything in it have become part of our culture because the movie has been shown every Christmas season since the copyright was accidentally allowed to expire decades ago.  The best movie to ever fall into public ownership.

Posted at 01:22 pm by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Friday, April 09, 2004
Movie suggestions for my sister (part one)

I've been bummed out by all the negative stuff I've been writing about lately.  Here's something more upbeat.   The following is part one of an email sent to my sister.  While well-educated, she realized over Christmas break that she really hasn't seen many films from before her teen years.  While not intended to be complete, it does represent my very favorite films by genre. 

This is the first part of the email.  More to follow.  Please comment with anything you feel very strongly about for each genre.

Genres covered in part one:  mystery/suspense, and horror

Dear Sis,

Here is a list of older or sometimes-overlooked films I think you should check out; I am forwarding this to Mom and Dad so they can add ones they feel I missed.  With each one, I'll put a couple of reasons I think it's a great or enjoyable film.

Most or all of these movies have scenes, characters, lines, or themes that are referenced constantly by later movies, TV shows, and so on.

By broad genre:


REAR WINDOW:  Jimmy Stewart is a wheelchair-bound photographer who, bored, starts to spy on his neighbors.  But is that a murder he just witnessed across the common area?  And if so, will the murderer find out he's being watched?  Other great Hitchcock suspense films:  STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, DIAL M FOR MURDER, ROPE.

PULP FICTION:  Quentin Tarantino's best film.  It is very much a pulp-fiction story, full of thugs, criminals, and lowlifes, brought to life by amazing dialogue and direction.  The way the storylines are cut together takes it out of chronological order, but puts new meaning into the movie as a whole.  This technique has since often been imitated, but never improved upon.  If you like it, then check out Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS:  Movie about something that should never happen--a lineup made up entirely of criminals.  Who is throwing them together, and why?  And what does it have to do with a semi-mythological crimelord, Keyser Soze?  Kevin Spacey is great in it.  Other great Kevin Spacey films:  AMERICAN BEAUTY, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, SE7EN.


PSYCHO:  Hitchcock's classic of horror.  Reason:  Hitchcock's masterful playing with film conventions.  In every movie you see, the main character is introduced within the first few minutes.  So, you expect that the person you're meeting in that time will be the one whose story you follow throughout the movie.  What happens if that psychological rug is pulled out from under you?

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD:  What could have been another B-grade horror film made on a shoestring budget is lifted up by good writing and direction, and the interesting (and then-rare) idea of having a black man in the hero role.*  Lots of undercurrents from the times (Vietnam, civil rights movement, racism) come out in subtle and interesting ways.  Oh yeah, and it's creepy too.

JAWS:  Spielberg's masterpiece.  The movie that made summer movies.  Fortunately, Spielberg had trouble with the special-effects shark.  Instead, the movie becomes about what he DOESN'T show you on-screen.  Also, watch for the powerful speech about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS:  The only horror film to win Best Picture Oscar.  Gripping performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.  Well-plotted and -directed film makes this the complete package.

* This is the email as written.  I realize now it's unclear.  The way I see it, Romero found a good actor who happened to be black, rather than writing the part for a black actor.  This really is rare even, or especially, in today's racialist environment.


Posted at 11:51 am by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Thursday, April 08, 2004
Church group whips Easter Bunny in front of kids

"There is no Easter Bunny" performers cry, as they whip Easter Bunny, break Easter eggs for audience of children and their parents

Wow.  And folks wonder why kids grow up Christian.  "Or else it's the whip for you, kiddo!"

Really?  No Easter Bunny?  No magical rabbit who can cover the world with hard-boiled eggs and cheap hollow chocolates?

Ah, but there IS a magical man in the sky who sees all and knows all, and has been everywhere for all time, yet has only been seen by people in a highly unreliable book from the ages of superstition?


Posted at 02:20 pm by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Wednesday, April 07, 2004
Using capitalism to clean the sky

Wired:  using capitalism to clean the sky

Now this is the sort of environmental action I can get behind.  Forget using the legislative and judicial branches of government as a bully, or worse, using terrorist Earth Liberation Front tactics.  Instead, give environmental damage an economic face--by commodotizing it.  Then it becomes something which must be bought by polluters.

The twist is that ANYONE can buy the pollution rights.  So if you're an environmentalist with a few hundred dollars, you can bid on the rights to a few tons of sulfur dioxide emissions.  If you then win them, you simply tuck them away so no one can use them.  This drives up the price of useable emissions permits--and if enough of them go off the market, the polluters can't buy enough permits, and either must stop production totally or pay hefty EPA fines.

And if you're a major environmental group with a few million dollars available?

Well, it hasn't happened yet.  But the system is set up so it can.

This is like my other favorite environmental movement--the purchase programs.  Environmental groups buy property, and simply don't do anything with the land.  The purchased land is protected--without the heavy hand of government or other threats--and the cost of other, still-useable land goes up as well.  It's fair, because it uses property rights instead of abusing them.

Anyway, the emissions auction article is interesting.  Check it out.

Posted at 12:08 pm by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Murder suspect plucks out own eye

Murder suspect yanks out own eye with his bare hands

The murder suspect quoted a Bible verse, Mark 9:47:  "And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell."

Great.  Another Christian psycho.

All right.  Let's go through this once more.

1)  First of all, quoting this particular verse after plucking out your own eye while in jail on suspicion of murder is tantamount to a confession.  He's currently being evaluated psychologically, so it may not be an issue.  This is a minor point.

2)  This sort of verse is why the self-psychotics known as Christians do nutty things, like refuse to donate their organs.  They think they're going to need them later.  They're not.

3)  This particularly nutty Bible verse implies that any damage you do to your body remains after death in your "soul."  So, if your body is slowly torn to shreds by some torturer, and you survive a few hours, you'll end up in heaven all cut up, with parts missing?  If you're born blind, you'll also be blind in heaven?  Or does it only count if it's self-inflicted?  Ah, but who can make sense of the senseless?

4)  The true damage done to the human psyche by religion, and particularly by Christianity, is hinted at here:  "if your eye causes you to sin."  This is, of course, a moral cop-out.  Eyes don't cause you to do anything, good or bad.  YOU do.  If you murder someone, it wasn't your trigger-finger or your clutching, choking hands that caused you to do it.  YOU did.  Similarly, you are not born guilty.  "Original sin" is a crime against humanity.  You are responsible for your life, the good and the bad--but only in the things you do yourself.  The thought that babies are born with crime on their hands, whether you call it sin or whatever, is sickening to the rational.  Similarly, no one can "die for your sins."  If you commit a crime against someone else, you're the only one who can possibly make it right.  And it can only be made right by actions which undo the damage.  Anyone who thinks that they can cause damage to others, and it'll be okay once they repent,* because "Jesus died for my sins," is a moral pervert.

Obviously, this blog entry isn't going to convert anyone from Christianity or any other religion to rationality.  I'm being way too confrontational.  But at least I'm being clear.

* Repenting for sins by prayer is a moral perversion in two ways--both because it assumes that someone else, this dead "Jesus," will take care of the sin, and because it is a mere thought, and not an action designed to make things right with the person wronged.  Corollary:  actions which do no harm to others are not morally wrong.  "Thinking bad thoughts" is not morally wrong; only doing actions which do harm to others.  The "thought sin" is another perversion of morality by religion.  This is also why atheists and agnostics tend to gravitate towards civil libertarianism.

Posted at 07:00 am by brandonstarr
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