Sunday, July 27, 2008

BOOKS: Shakespeare: The World As Stage

Of course I'm biased, since I'm a great fan of the Bard, but I found Bill Bryson's book on Shakespeare fascinating. Bryson applies his investigative journalistic instincts to the conundrum of how little we actually know about the most influential writer in the English language. Along the way of plumbing the precious few scraps of real information about the man, Bryson illuminates much about the place and time that Shakespeare lived -- the layout of the growing city of London, the business of the theater, the popularity of poetry, the mechanics of printing, the politics of the court -- all of it related in a style as dryly amusing as it is informative. Underlying all of this is the fascinating detective work of the historian, trying to reconstruct accurate knowledge of Shakespeare's life from the few fragmentary artifacts, and assessing how to fill in the cracks based on our best knowledge of historical context. Much of this interested me especially as a genealogist, where I am often doing similar work, trying to understand a historical life from a few artifacts -- a church record of birth and marriage, a deed, a court record here and a tax record there -- and then trying to get a deeper understanding of the milieu. Bryson does a great job of explaining how little we know, what we can reasonably extrapolate from it, and in many amusing passages, the history of Shakespeare scholarship, and why we think we know what we think we know about him. He sets the tone for the book by beginning with an account of why we think we all know what Shakespeare looks like, and why the well-known image is of surprisingly tenuous reliability. He ends the book with an amusing survey of the unfounded but surprisingly persistent idea that Shakespeare didn't actually write the works attributed to him. I left not only with an enhanced appreciation for this great writer, but also an enhanced appreciation for the historian's job. A most enjoyable and worthwhile history lesson.

Small City

I continue to be surprised at how often we unexpectedly run into people we know at various places around the city. Los Angeles is a city of some 4 million people (and 10 million in the county), and our "domain of presence" within it, while nowhere near the entirety, seems reasonably large. We enjoy a broad and varied set of venues for dining, shopping, entertainment, and socializing. And yet we bump into people, at venues, or even on the street. (How "un-LA" is that?) This morning, on two different occasions, I bumped into friends during a half-hour visit to the Hollywood farmer's market. And last night at the Hollywood Bowl (a venue that seats upwards of 17,000), a friend of ours had a seat directly behind us. What are the odds?

I know that the odds of things are often different than the unschooled intuition would expect (for example, the likelihood of finding a common birthday among a group of ten surprises most people), but I wonder how our experience of "connectedness" compares with the average. Is it like this for most people and in most big cities? Or is there something about Los Angeles (or about George and me) that is distinctive? I know that with cars, the perception of size on the inside doesn't always correspond with actual size on the outside, and you can find cars that feel large inside while being actually small. I wonder if there is an analog for cities, if Los Angeles somehow feels smaller on the "inside" than it actually is on the outside? In any case, I love living here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

FILM: Mamma Mia!

Even several days after seeing Mamma Mia, the infectious Abba tunes are still playing in my head. That's not a complaint. It makes me smile, and sometimes I have to repress the urge to jump up on the table and start dancing. The film was great fun. Of course, you need to like Abba (there's probably more music than dialog), and the film, like the play, is an excuse for one production number after another. You also need to like musicals, and be able to accept the fact that characters burst into song at every opportunity, and that a charming chorus of Greek villagers pop out of the windows and blue doors of their white-washed houses to fill out appropriately over-the-top song-and-dance numbers. There's also the initial strangeness of hearing actors sing whom we haven't known as singers before (remember Moulin Rouge?), but you get over it. Of course nobody is surprised that a respectable singing voice is yet another talent of the uber-talented Meryl Streep. Seeing/hearing Pierce Brosnan sing, on the other hand, does induce a double-take or more. But it's all in good fun, and the film is a rollicking good time. It was well-cast all around. Amanda Seyfried was a terrific fresh face and talent as Meryl Streep's daughter Sophie, who's getting married and wants her father to walk her down the aisle, if only she could figure out who he is. Dominic Cooper did a great job as her fiancé, and they generated some heat in their number together on the beach. Meryl Streep was excellent as expected, singing, dancing, physical comedy, she brings it all. Brosnan, along with Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård, did great jobs in their roles as the possible fathers. And both Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, as Meryl Streep's old gal pals, were quite funny, and each had a great number of their own. The story was elliptical at times, and if one overthinks it, one might be disappointed that the comic possibilities inherent in the creative plot weren't fully mined (think what Shakespeare might have done with three putative fathers on a collision course with an ex-lover and a wedding processional). But this isn't Shakespeare, it's a jukebox musical, and the plot does a surprisingly good job of propelling forward the sequence of songs not written to tell this story. Director Phyllida Lloyd (who also piloted the stage production) understands that it's all about the numbers, and she's done a nice job translating a stage production into a cinematic musical spectacle. The visuals and foot-tapping songs will keep you smiling. (Though caution: the gorgeous Greek scenery might have you lunging for Travelocity to figure out how one gets to the islands of Skopelos and Skiathos, where this was filmed.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

For Us, 7th Anniversary is the Paper Anniversary

According to tradition, the seventh anniversary is the copper anniversary, but for George and me, our seventh anniversary was the paper anniversary. We celebrated today by going down to the County Clerk (inside the Beverly Hills Municipal Courthouse) and obtaining a legal marriage license. Our friends Bill and Leo, who have been together twelve years, went with us, and they got a license too. When we got there, we saw a couple of dapper elderly gentlemen at the marriage license window, which made us smile to see. And I have to say, everybody there -- the clerks, the guards, other courthouse visitors -- were full of smiles, congratulations, and well-wishes for us. The forms had been revised so they no longer say "bride" and "groom", instead they now say "party A" and "party B". It took the clerk a moment to find our application, as I didn't remember which of us I had put down for "party A", but we got that sorted. (Just for the record, George is "party A".) After that, it was just verifying all the personal info on the document, providing identification, and writing a check for the fee. Simple as that. Next month, we'll have a very small private courtroom ceremony, and then we'll be legally married.

From the State of California's legal point of view, we'll be getting married for the first time next month. From our point of view, next month we'll be simply renewing our vows for the benefit of the State, who wasn't able to attend our wedding seven years ago. Since then, our relationship has undergone various legal evolutions in status. When we got married in July 2001, we executed mutual healthcare directives and financial powers of attorney, which were later recorded. And we registered as LA County Domestic Partners. Most people aren't aware that both LA County and the State of California maintain domestic partner registries, which are separate and independent statuses, each with their own benefits. When we married in 2001, the state registry was mostly just symbolic, whereas the county registry had a few actual benefits associated with it (e.g., hospital visitation rights). In 2003, the state registry made a major advance from symbolic to substantial, and so on Valentine's Day 2003, we became registered domestic partners with the state. In 2005, the state domestic partner status was made to be substantially equivalent to marriage (including responsibility for one another's debts, required court dissolution, etc), and there was a grace period when those who had registered under the previous definition could "opt out" of the new definition. So we have a number of dates on which our relationship marked an "upgrade" in legal status, and we will have one more next month, but we will always celebrate our anniversary as the day seven years ago today when we stood before God, family and friends, and exchanged mutual vows of lifelong loving commitment.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Are Oil Companies Making Obscene Profits?

Last weekend, I got into a debate with my brother about whether the oil companies' profits were excessive. He argued that Exxon's profits were $40B last year, and that their profits had increased twentyfold in five years, while the price of gas had only doubled. I didn't think that was true, and thought that their profits had only increased in proportion to their revenues, that their margin was fairly constant (and not particularly egregious), and that they were only setting record total profits because their revenues were huge and the price had risen. So I decided to take a look at Exxon's annual reports, and though I'm not sure I fully understand all of the trends, I was pretty close to right, I'd say. As I suspected, Exxon's profits in the last five years have been fairly steady around 10%, as gas prices doubled (from $1.50/gal in 2003 to $3.00 in 2007) and crude oil prices more than doubled (from $28/barrel in 2003 to $64 in 2007). In 2006, Exxon derived about 2/3 of their profits from their "upstream" business (oil production) versus their "downstream" business (refineries and gas stations). Their volume of oil produced has been fairly steady around 2.5 million barrels/day since 1999, though there was a slight (4%) increase between 2005 and 2006. There has been some small growth in margin, which is to say profits growing slightly faster than revenues. I didn't look into why, which would take more time to get to the bottom of. (One thing I did note was that capital expenditures, which includes exploration costs, have not kept pace with revenues. Not sure if that means increased efficiency, or just downscaled investment in the future. Intuitively, I'd expect a time lag of some years between capital investment and its resulting revenue in this industry, and I'd also expect that new barrels of oil are generally more costly to obtain than in the past.) Anyway, here is data that I mined from Exxon annual reports, plus a couple industry sources for background history on crude and pump prices.

YearRevenueProfitProfit marginCap CostsCap/RevMbarrels/day$/barrel$/gallon
1999$184.8$ 7.94.3%$13.37.2%2.51$17

Thus, of the three factors that account for a record profit -- volume, price, and margin -- it is price that accounts for the lion's share. (And if you want to understand why prices are so high, Jim Manzi recently provided an excellent synopsis -- look to supply-and-demand, inflation, already-high efficiency, and uncertainty compounded by speculation.) Bottom line: while 10% is certainly a nice profit to be making these days, it's not extraordinary or usurous in my opinion, and not what I would call a "windfall".

Saturday, July 19, 2008

FOOD: Darren's

The occasion of my friend Mark's birthday brought us down to Manhattan Beach to check out a new restaurant called Darren's. (It turns out the restaurant had opened on Dec 18, so is the exact same age as Mark and Heather's new son Alex.) The menu is probably best described as contemporary LA cuisine, meaning market-fresh ingredients combined in creative ways drawing eclectic inspiration from the Pacific rim and the Mediterranean. Although the market-fresh ingredients are not trumpeted (in the way they are on some contemporary menus that elaborate the provenance of each ingredient), their freshness speaks for itself in the seasonal changes on the menu, and in the flavor of the food itself. Contemplating the menu had me torn in several directions. A buffalo goulash with cippolini and pearl onions sounded quite savory, and the duck duo of pan-seared breast and leg confit with a parsnip-celeriac puree (I love those roots!) both sounded good, but I was finally leaning toward the sea scallops with saffron risotto, English peas and apple compote. On the appetizers, a sweet and spicy lobster chowder was quite appealing, but then the Caesar salad, with white anchovies (no apologies!), brioche croutons, and shaved Asiago spoke to my heart as one who takes Caesar salad seriously. But then I decided to split the tie by going for the beet carpaccio with Humboldt Fog goat blue cheese and watercress in a pomegranite vinaigrette. But then, we heard about the specials, and a sudden instinct urged me to trust the chef and run with the specials. So I started with wild boar ravioli, accented with toasted corn kernels and fried sage leaf in a light savory sauce. The boar meat was light and fall-apart succulent from a slow-braise, encased in fresh pasta pillows, and the delectable morsels were passed around the table for all to appreciatively put a fork in (including Brian and Nancy, whose only previous impressions of wild boar were having been accosted by them at a campsite up the coast). George took the beets, and Heather gave me a bite of her lobster bisque which was truly exquisite. The bisque had a coconut milk base and some Thai spices, including a touch of potent pepper, but I think there was also cream in addition to the coconut milk, and the flavors developed in the most remarkable way: a hot flash of pepper quickly dissolving into a bit of vinegar sour, and then other flavors coming clear as the cream calmed the finish with the rich mouth feel of a great bisque. My main was a half-lobster lying on its side draped in wilted arugula and tiny heirloom cherry tomatoes, atop a risotto with bits of rabbit loin. By slicing the lobster in half lengthwise, the succulent tail meat was easily accessible, while maintaining the dramatic presentation of the lobster shell. George tried the bison goulash, which was slow-cooked to ultimate tenderness with great beefy flavor. For dessert we went light, sharing a beautifully presented plate of fresh fruit and berries, including blueberries, raspberries, mango, grapefruit, and more. I did note sounds of delight coming from Heather, who tried the nectarine crumble. It was an excellent meal. The bar and cellar were also fine. We had started the evening sampling creative offerings on the cocktail menu (George had a candied ginger cosmo, while I tried a "gin delicious", with fresh mint and lime, essentially a mojito but with gin instead of rum). They offered two wine lists, a regular wine list and a reserve wine list (essentially the two-digit and the three-digit wine list). While there were some impressive offerings if you really wanted to splurge, there were also a nice range of wines starting from the 30's. We had a Trefethen Chardonnay and a Justin Cab with dinner. Our table on the front porch, open to the street, was lovely for a summer evening.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

FILM: Chris & Don. A Love Story

This afternoon, George and I enjoyed the film "Chris and Don. A Love Story". The film is the touching and intimate biography of Christopher Isherwood, a British writer most famous for his "Berlin Stories" which formed the basis of the musical play and film "Cabaret", and Don Bachardy, an American portrait artist. Their relationship lasted from when they met on a Santa Monica beach in 1952 until Isherwood died in 1986. Their relationship was glamorous, extraordinary, and profound. Glamorous in that Isherwood moved in literary and Hollywood circles, with friends from W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Paul Bowles to Igor Stravinsky, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. Extraordinary, in that they were thirty years apart in age, and lived an open and unflinching life together through decades when open gay couples were unheard of. And profound, in that the two nurtured one another creatively as artists and emotionally as lovers, from the start, when Chris helped Don discover his self-confidence as a portrait artist, to the end, when Don cared for Chris as he died of prostate cancer. The film is touchingly intimate, much of it told by the present-day Bachardy, with shots of him and the home they lived in together, and parts narrated by him, creating the effect of being invited into his home, being shown around, and hearing him share memories as they are inspired by objects and mementos in his home. It is an interview without any interviewer, creating a very intimate space into which we the viewers insert ourselves, and Bachardy is talking directly to us. This effect is enhanced by contrast with all the other people interviewed for the film, both academic biographers and personal friends of Chris and Don, all of whom are presented in a more detached documentary style, with name captions (though still without the interposition of an onscreen interviewer). This present-day interview footage is skillfully woven together with archival photographs, home movies and other period film footage, readings from Isherwood's diaries, shots of Bachardy's portraits, and some fanciful animation extending a horse-and-cat conceit that Chris and Don used in pet names for each other. The usual drama of "coming out" doesn't figure at all in this film, as these two men seem just to have been out from the start in a very matter-of-fact way. The tensions of their relationship were much more around their large age and experience difference, and how they worked through that. The early establishment of personal meaning behind the animation sequences, together with the personal "tour" of their house, come back in the end to make a tender and touching coda to the film. The blend of media, along with a lovely musical score that enhanced the film without calling attention to itself, successfully combined to convey the depth and complexity of their relationship. Like a great portrait, this film isn't completely photo-realistic, but rather, with subjective brush strokes captures the essence of these men -- of this couple -- in a way that is vivid, true, and deeply personal.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

FILM: 54

This month is Outfest, the Los Angeles gay and lesbian film festival, and we caught one of the screenings on Friday night. It was a "secret screening" which turned out to be a special director's cut of the 1998 film "54", about the wild heyday of the New York disco Studio 54. Unlike many director's cuts, where there are just a few extra minutes of footage here and there (the seriously overblown re-release of Close Encounters comes to mind), this director's cut had nearly 45 minutes of previously-unseen footage, and by the accounts of those who had seen the original release (we hadn't), it was a substantially different film. (Apparently, Ryan Philippe's character Shane was much more straight-laced in the released version. In the director's cut, he gets quite immersed in the sex and drugs scene.) The real Studio 54 was before my time, but now I feel as though I got a taste of it from this film. The glamour, the decadence, the music, the lights, the drugs, and the sex. Mike Meyers gives a great performance as Steve Rubell, the club owner, choosing his crowd, both rewarding and exploiting his employees, and passing a ton of cash through the operation in garbage bags out the back door to evade the IRS, and high as a kite through it all. Ryan Philippe is good as the young Jersey boy who gets chosen to be a bartender, rises high on his good looks, and loses most of his innocence before the party comes crashing to a harsh end between a drug overdose and an IRS bust. The party was sure fabulous before the drugs wore off, and seeing this film was the second-best thing to having been there (and certainly a healthier way to experience it). This was definitely a rough cut, but thanks to director Mark Christopher for sharing his original vision with us.

Friday, July 11, 2008

BOOKS: Infidel

The last few weeks, I have been enjoying my commute in the company of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as I've listened to her fascinating book Infidel. I love books that transport me to a foreign place or time, and immerse me in a culture that I didn't know about before. And I love books that provoke thought about important ideas. Infidel does both of things exceedingly well. It is the autobiographical account of an independent-minded woman who was raised in a traditional Somali Muslim family and grew up to be a Member of Dutch Parliament advocating for women's rights. The first half of the book is a vivid account of her childhood in Somalia, and later in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya as her family escaped the turbulence of their war-torn homeland. Her description of life in places like Mogadishu, Mecca, and Nairobi is rich in detail about their houses and neighborhoods, their food, their culture and traditions. Her portraits of her parents, her siblings, her grandmother, and other family members are richly complex, infused with the emotional perspective of her childhood at the same time balanced by an unflinching retrospective assessment of their good qualities and their weaknesses. The genealogist in me was fascinated learning about the Somali tribal culture that puts such a premium on one's ancestry that children at an early age can recite their ancestry for nine generations, and when two Somalis meet, they can readily ascertain their kinship even to tenth cousins. And her description of the variations of Muslim practice between countries, and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, was illuminating and especially relevant today. She does a remarkable job of making comprehensible such alien traditions as polygamy, arranged marriages, and female genital mutilation. What is especially remarkable is how, even though she would later come to condemn some parts of the traditions she was raised with as being completely barbaric, she describes them in the context of her early life subjectively and dispassionately, neither concealing the barbarity nor revealing anger, judgment, and condemnation. The account is all the more powerful for that, allowing the reader to understand how such barbarity could be accepted and tolerated because of how it is embedded in traditional ways of life and in how sons and daughters are raised. And it allows us to understand this amazing woman on all the parts of her journey, from childhood, to adolescence when she was drawn to fundamentalism, to adulthood when she escaped to discover liberal ideas. The latter half of the book describes her life in the Netherlands, where she becomes not only a parliamentarian but a political lightning rod after making a controversial film with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh which lead to his murder and death threats for her. The book then becomes more about politics, ideology, and her intellectual autobiography, though embedded in personal experiences of immigration, learning Dutch culture, and ultimately life as a figure in hiding from death threats. She raises significant questions about whether a liberal society can survive being tolerant of a growing immigrant community within its midst that remains insular and perpetuates an illiberal way of life. (These questions have reverberations here in America, not only regarding Islamism, but in issues like the recent Texas FLDS raids, and in the fault lines of conflict between religious liberty and civil rights protections -- issues I hope to explore in future blog posts.) And she makes a compelling argument that Islam needs to undergo its own Reformation if it is to be reconciled to modernity. Her ideas and the amazing life experience that formed them make for vital and fascinating reading.

Monday, July 07, 2008

End the HIV Travel Ban

I just sent a letter to my Senators, and I hope you will consider doing the same. My letter urges them to support the PEPFAR bill, which makes an international investment in fighting HIV, and also to support the Kerry-Smith amendment to the bill, which would lift the HIV travel ban. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that prohibits HIV-positive people from immigrating or even visiting here. Other countries with the same policy include the likes of Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Russia, and a handful of Arabian peninsula principalities. Even China and Iran are more enlightened in this regard. Nearly all of the important medical and scientific research conferences dealing with HIV are held outside of the United States, because of this ridiculous policy that would prevent relevant participants from even making a business trip to the US. This is a total embarrassment. Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) made the bipartisan case in a recent editorial in the Washington Times. You can find contact info for your senators here, and it just takes a couple of minutes to send them an email. This legislation is pending in the Senate now.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

FILM: Get Smart

On Saturday night, continuing a string of "summer lite" films, we saw Get Smart, and quite enjoyed it. Although I don't recall any ROFLMAO moments, I was grinning often, and pleasantly surprised at how the laughs and the goofiness were nicely woven into a quite decent spy thriller action story. Rather than take it in a completely silly Naked Gun direction, the writers created a nice cocktail of Pink Panther mixed with James Bond, and a dash of Dr. Strangelove. Steve Carrell was an excellent Maxwell Smart, here portrayed as a detail-oriented analyst who wants to move up to being a field agent. And the humorous sparks between him and Anne Hathaway's Agent 99 are every bit as good as our fond memories of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Alan Arkin is a great "Chief", having to deal with the diminished prestige and lower budget of his organization since the end of the Cold War, and his scene in the war room confronting the Vice President (a thinly-veiled Dick Cheney character) is hilarious (the dash of Dr. Strangelove -- "gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is a war room!"). Really good performances all around from the rest of the cast, including wrestler-actor Dwayne Johnson as Control's top agent, David Koechner as Larrabee, and many others. Many of the gags and lines from the classic TV series are worked in to the script, but they're not overworked, this would still be a very fun film even if you'd never seen the TV show. And the film even enjoys some self-conscious poking fun at the TV show -- early on we see the relics of the supposedly-defunct secret organization Control have been put on display in the Smithsonian, including the shoephone and the red Sunbeam convertible. Good summer fun.

Friday, July 04, 2008

He's Hussein, She's Hussein, and I'm Hussein Too

The NY Times had an article on the spreading phenomenon of people adopting Hussein as their middle name. The practice began with a call to action entitled "We Are All Hussein" from blogger Jeff Strabone in February, who was fed up with the right wing noise machine's puerile repetition of Barack Hussein Obama's middle name, with the insinuations that he is some crypto-Muslim and not a true American. In rejection of this baseless and offensive innuendo campaign, Strabone changed his own middle name to Hussein for the duration of the campaign, and encouraged others to do the same. Now it seems that Jeff Hussein Strabone is being joined in husseinhood by fair-minded Americans of many ethnicities, such as Jaime Hussein Alvarez, Sarah Beth Hussein Frumkin, and Ashley Hussein Holmes. This spontaneous solidarity is a wonderful response. Commenters called to mind the scene in the 1960 film Spartacus, where a bunch of slaves all claimed "I am Spartacus" to protect their friend, or the film "In and Out", where an outed teachers students and supporters all claimed to be gay too. The NY Times mentioned an incident in Billings, Montana where many citizens put menorahs in their windows to protest a spate of ugly anti-Jewish incidents. Me, I thought of the story of the King of Denmark being the first to put on a yellow star when the Nazis came for the Jews (which I just now learned is a legend). In any case, count me in. I'll be Tom Hussein Chatt. (Or Thomas Rodrick Hussein Chatt in full. I'm not going to diss my Dad.)

And, and by the way, if anyone wants to know what a real American patriot looks like, they should check out this video of Barack Hussein Obama's speech given in Independence, Missouri, a few days ago in anticipation of Independence Day.

Barack Obama: Speech on Patriotism.
June 30, 2008. Independence, MO. (Full text here.)