Waiting for the hammer to fall.
kitten   May 29, 2004

For some reason, my mother forwarded me an email -- one of those politically-charged, patriotic, drum-beating, flag-waving emails we've all seen ten thousand times before about how great America is and how loathesome our enemies are. This one was a "history quiz", designed to demonstrate that all terrorist activities in recent history (the past fifty years or so) have been perpetrated by Muslim males, aged 17 to 41. The email then concluded that racial profiling is a good thing, given this information.

Naturally, no mention was made of all the terrorist activities that have been committed by non-Muslims, or even Americans. I can't be the only one who remembers the names Tim McVeigh or the Unabomber.

At any rate, I hit "reply all" and dashed off my own version of the history quiz:

That's pretty interesting. It would seem racial profiling is definitely in order. To further the point, I have devised a quiz of my own. Break out your number two pencils and clear your desks, boys and girls! The questions get more interesting as the quiz nears the end.

Keep your eyes on your own paper!

1. In 1953, this entity overthrew the elected Prime Minister Mossedeq of Iran, and installed the Shah as dictator.
a. Starfleet Command
b. Tibetian monks
c. The United States of America

2. In 1954, this nation was responsible for the overthrow of democratically elected President Arbenz of Guatemala, resulting in the deaths of two hundred thousand civilians.
a. Luxembourg
b. Vatican
c. The United States of America

3. In 1963, which of these entites backed the assassination of South Vietnamese president Diem?
a. Captain Kirk
b. Microsoft
c. The United States of America

4. This nation killed four million people in Southeast Asia in order to annoy the Russians.
a. Canada
b. Swaziland
c. The United States of America

5. In September of 1973, which of the following staged a coup in Chile, and backed the assassination of democratically-elected president Allendo, and then installed dictator Augusto Pinochet, resulting in the deaths of five thousand Chilean civilians?
a. The Union of Circus Clowns
b. The Dukes of Hazzard
c. The United States of America

6. Which of these entites backed the military rulers of El Savador in 1977,
during which some seventy thousand Salvadorans and four American nuns were
killed?
a. Dell Computers
b. The geeks over at Slashdot
c. The United States of America

7. In the 1980s, this organization hired and trained Osama bin Laden and his "crew" to kill Soviets.
a. The Justice League of Superheroes
b. A ragtag group of Elvis impersonators
c. The United States of America

8. The intelligence agency of the following entity then gave bin Laden's team three billion dollars in funding.
a. Coca Cola
b. Mothers Against Drunk Driving
c. The United States of America

9. Which of the following trained and funded "contras" resulting in the deaths of thirty thousand Nicaraguans?
a. Jean-Luc Picard
b. Ernest Hemmingway
c. The United States of America

10. In 1982, the following entity provides billions in funding and weaponry to Saddam Hussein to kill Iranians.
a. Maxwell House
b. Luke Skywalker
c. The United States of America

11. In reference to the question above, the following nation, in 1983, then secretly gave weapons to Iran in order to kill Iraqis.
a. The Roman Empire
b. Mesopetamia
c. The United States of America

12. In 1989, an agent from this organization was serving as president of
Panama. The organization invaded Panama and removed him, killing 3,000
Panamanian civilians in the process.
a. Phillip-Morris tobacco company
b. Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band
c. The United States of America

13. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saddam Hussein sought permission from the following entity beforehand, and the entity responded that it did not care, and in fact provided weapons to Saddam and Iraqi forces. The entity in question then invaded Iraq and re-installed the dictator of Kuwait.
a. Yoda
b. "Weird Al" Yankovic
c. The United States of America

14. In 1998, this nation destroyed an aspirin factory in Sudan, claiming it was a weapons development lab.
a. The Ottoman Empire
b. Sealand
c. The United States of America

15. This organization has been bombing the crap out of Iraq on an almost-weekly basis since 1991 and into the present. The UN estimates some five hundred thousand children die during this time from the bombs and the sanctions that the following imposed:
a. The Trenchcoat Mafia
b. Studio 54
c. The United States of America

16. April 2001, this entity provides the Taliban with over 245 million dollars in funding.
a. Jerry Seinfeld
b. Jerry Lewis
c. The United States of America

He ruled the Russian land, and nevermind the Czar.
kitten   May 15, 2004

The backlash against large corporations seems especially prevalent among the twentysomething liberal crowd, who harken back to so-called "mom and pop" stores, a quaint euphamism for privately-owned establishments. While I am very liberal in my thinking and of the above-mentioned age group, I for one do not understand the vitriol unleashed against chain stores and corporate restaurants.

We've all heard the arguments trotted out ad infinitum, but it usually comes down to this: Large retail stores drive out smaller businesses, and the listener is supposed to take it as a given that this is a bad thing, though no explanation is ever offered as to why "smaller businesses" should be so revered, or exempt from competition.

But virtually no thought is given nor attention paid to the fallacies of privately-run businesses. (A quick caveat: I am speaking of privately run shops or restaurants, not "enterprises" or "startups" or businesses that are actually incorporated or LLCs, etc, but owned by a local businessperson, which I have actually worked for.)

The notion of a "mom and pop" store is a hopelessly antiquated one. Today's private businesses, at least in urban and suburban areas, are rarely actually run by the cheerful couple who knows your dog's name and has close personal bonds with the surrounding community, which is the image conjured by most upon hearing the phrase. Private establishments are generally run by people who are, above all else, businesspeople. They understand how to crunch numbers and worry about profit margins, but they have little understanding of how the business operates on a day-to-day level, nor do they particularly care. As long as the money flows in accordance with their expectations, most choose not to even be present at their place of business, choosing instead of offload the bulk of daily oversight to managers they hire. In short, they are almost completely detached from the business itself -- it functions for them as a milchcow, and how it does so is of little concern to them.

In a corporate-controlled restaurant, for example, almost everyone on the chain of command was a waiter or cook at some point, and while they may today be managers, they understand the intracacies of being on the front lines, and adjust their expectations accordingly. There are specific guidelines laid out for all employees, tuned from a large sample size (all the branches and franchises) so that the guidelines, while never perfect, do have tried-and-true rationales behind them.

But in a privately-owned restaurant, the owner is likely someone who has never actually waited tables, knows little to nothing about employee-customer interactions beyond what they've read in textbooks, and drafts policies and procedures that conform to their personal tastes and expectations rather than what actually works for all. While they may have the ability to work the books, they do not have the experience necessary to create a positive environment for either customer or employee, nor do they feel they should have to solicit recommendations from their underlings ("I'll run things my way!" is the unspoken thought).

This has a great potential to spell doom for employees of this establishment, who are at the whim of a person who understands almost nothing about the restaurant industry, but had the capital at their disposal to purchase one. This is not always a bad thing, but it is far from being a universally good thing either. Some are naturally predisposed to give the employees the authority to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and this is to be lauded, but by and large, owners of private restaurants do not fall into this mindset. They prefer to lord over their establishment with no understanding of how their decisions affect customers or employees, often with detrimental effects.

A personal anecdote: I was recently dismissed from my server position at a privately-run restaurant (you've probably guessed this already), which was basically just an evening-and-weekend job for me to bring in some extra money while I attend classes. I worked there for three or four days with no problems with the customers, employees, or managers. On the final day, the owner finally made an appearance, and before I could even introduce myself by name, dismissed me on the spot because my shirt collar was the standard dress-shirt style rather than the Oxford style. In other words, the owner fired me -- having never met me, having no idea of my performance -- because my shirt collar did not have buttons. (To stave off the inevitable objection: No, I was not told about this before my dismissal -- only that my shirt had to be solid white, which it was.)

This is the folly of many private establishments: Decisions are made that have no rational basis and, more importantly, no bearing on the function of the business; they are arbitrarily handed down based only on the owner's personal vision, an owner who, as noted, usually has no idea of how their business operates on a day-to-day level. In my short time at this restaurant I observed a number of problems which could be handled to increase efficiency, decrease costs at least to some extent, and generally make it a more pleasant environment to work in, which is important, as a satisfied staff leads to satisfied customers. Yet the owner was more concerned with irrelevencies that had nothing to do with customer satisfaction or the smooth function of the restaurant, unless one wishes to contend that a customer would even notice, much less care about, his waiter's collar style. The owner was happy so far as her capricious preferences were met, while the rest of the staff quite literally operated in abject fear of her arrivals.

And so we come back to the issue: Are privately owned establishments really better for the community? The customer may, for whatever reason, feel good about supporting locals, but the customer may also suffer from a lower quality of service due to a command structure inexperienced in actual customer service and wholly ignorant of how their business operates beyond the raw numbers of cost and income. Meanwhile, the employees, who are also part of the community, are subject entirley to the owner's mood and discretion rather than having a preplanned, tested set of guidelines for their performance. Is it better for the community to have a business that constantly turns employees over, resulting in unemployment?

It is all too easy to snub Wal Mart, to use another example, for being a corporate behemoth that crushes local shops underfoot, but a Wal Mart has the financial wherewithal to employee dozens more people than a local shop could reasonably hope to support. It comes down to a corporate-owned store than can provide jobs for many in the community, versus a locally-run store than can provide jobs for only a few (assuming they don't get axed because their shoes have too many eyelets or something). Which is better for the community, in the long run -- one local business owner making a living plus a few more that they can afford to pay, or a few dozen doing so by working at Wal Mart?

Like bickering about computer operating systems, it is eventually understood that all the choices suck, just in different ways. A corporate-controlled chain store may be cold and infeeling to the local community, but when it comes time to buy laundry detergent and light bulbs, no one really cares about such abstractations. And a locally-owned business might induce a sense of community bond, but when others in the community can't find a job or are fired without reason, one wonders what difference such a bond makes, especially when it really only exists as a 1950s ideal of "mom and pop" that has no relationship to how things are done today.

Each has advantages and drawbacks, but the notion that privately-owned businesses are inherently better in some unqualified way is a ludicrous one, and it's time to stop making such sweeping statements which amount to little more than slogan-chanting.

Shaking up hearts around the world.
kitten   May 13, 2004

"How do I look?" she asks, a typical female question, without turning. I sit on the bed, legs crossed, smoke curling from my lips and from a cigarette that rests in the ashtray on the nightstand.

Sometimes I like to watch her do the mundane day-to-day preparatory stuff -- the washing and brushing of hair being the highlight, to me, as she runs a black comb through blonde hair and secures it in the back. It's elegant in her own way, a ritual, and being able to witness it helps attenuate my proclivity for thinking of her as somehow superhuman.

Walk into a mall on any given day and observe the multitudes of style that women fashion for themselves in an effort to be more attractive, an inclination that starts somewhere in high school and becomes more cemented as they get older, more experienced. It seems the pretty ones can look good no matter how they dress -- sundresses, sweaters, overalls, tank tops, jeans, designer clothes, generic vintage, all somehow integrated and woven together into a genre that each considers their own vogue, and somehow, it works. But once they've solidifed their place in the fashion strata, they often remain there, and it isn't often you can find a girl who can oscillate between styles at will. The hip-hugging, platform-wearing type will suddenly seem bizarrely out of place if she deviates too much from her cosmopolitcan chic.

But once in a while you find the girl who can complete the utterly bohemian look or the evening-wear mood, a rarity. She was one of these -- as much at ease in an urban environment as on a fashion runway, with no special contrivances or accessories needed. When I met her, she was peering through a quarter-operated telescope on San Fransisco Bay, looking at Alcatraz in the distance, with off-the-shelf jeans and a black tanktop, and combat boots suitable for clomping around the wharf.

"Well?" she queries again, turning now to address me. In a simple white fleece pullover and dark blue jeans, bare feet and blonde hair, she's maybe the most versatile girl I've ever seen. A quick selection of footgear would make her ready for just about any situation, able to glide into a room with her high cheekbones and casual flaire.

"You've got the moves to rule the world," I tell her. Satisfied, she turns off the lights, and we head out the door, her shoes forgotten, but somehow, I doubt that will make a difference.

They only want you when you're seventeen.
kitten   May 12, 2004

There's surely a reason I'm sitting in this chair facing the outside world, the open balcony door, chainsmoking cheap cigarettes that leave a bitter aftertaste, watching the streetlight play across the trees and the shadows they cast on the asphalt, tipping coffee down at two in the morning, but for my part, I'm unable to say what that reason is.

It's no way for you to play the second half match.
kitten   May 3, 2004

By semi-popular request, this is the infamous "Bush Is A Plank Of Wood" essay I turned in to my composition 1101H class earlier this semester. Enjoy.

. . . . .

2004 is upon us, and in addition to being a leap year, it is also the year in which American citizens are called upon to excercise their right to determine who will administrate the federal government for the next four years. The issues are complex and many people in the workaday world, burdened with their own concerns of day-to-day life, find themselves overwhelmed with the vast amount of information available. Paradoxically, few can find time in their schedules to analyze news reports and other sources of current events in order to synthesize their own opinion come election day. George Bush is the incumbant seeking re-election on the Republican ticket, but in recent weeks, he has come under an enormous amount of scrutiny from the Democrats regarding his competency. Some pundits decry this as mere mud-slinging, while others demand rigourous investigations into the allegations made against him. The average bystander, watching the interplay, becomes confused: How is he to know which side is telling the truth, and to what extent? In order to determine President Bush's fitness for administration, it may be helpful to consider his abilities against the context of an ordinary inanimate object that everyone can understand, such as a plank of wood.

To say that President Bush is not known for his linguistic ability would be an understatement. Many volumes have been compiled devoted exclusively to recanting humorous mistakes made by the president while delivering a speech or engaged in dialogue. The body of evidence is clear: Bush's grasp of the English language is tenuous at best, comparable to the speaking ability of an ordinary plank of wood. Neither Bush nor a plank of wood are very adept at sentence construction, and a plank of wood is completely incapable of obeying simple grammatical standards or vocalizing a coherent thought, which is also true of the president. Furthermore, given Bush's history of making poorly-chosen comments or speaking at inopportune times, often offending people in the process, the silence from a plank of wood seems profound and admirable.

Bush's fiscal policy has been criticized as extremely inefficient and wasteful. A plank of wood is highly unlikely to veto even one federal spending bill, and neither has Bush. Given that a plank of wood is incapable of spending money, it could be argued that the wood is actually much more conservative, financially speaking, than Bush is.

This is not to suggest that the president and a plank of wood are equals -- far from it. There are in fact a number of things the president does which a plank of wood would be incapable of. A plank of wood is not likely to waste money on unconstitutional faith-based initiatives fuelled by theocratic fervor and fundamentalism, whereas Bush does exactly that. A plank of wood will not create the largest government beaurocracy in living memory, unlike the president's Homeland Security Department. Wooden planks are incapable of providing billions in tax credit to the wealthiest one percent of Americans during a time of economic recession and a multi-hundred-billion dollar war effort, and for that matter, a plank of wood would not have plunged an already economically strapped country into a meaningless war. Furthermore, a plank of wood, being just a bit of processed material from a dead tree, is marginally more aware of the concept of civil liberties than is President Bush.

For democracy to work, the voting populace must be informed and knowledgable of the candidates vying for office. Too often, the complexity of the issues, combined with the multitude of accusations, committees, subcomittees, bill riders, gerrymandering, carpetbagging, filibustering, scalawagging, and lollygagging, bewilder the citizens, and this confusion breeds mindless voting along party lines, instead of objective and rational decisions. By comparing President Bush's attributes against those of a plank of wood, the ambiguity dissipates, allowing each citizen to make the logical choice on election day.

Kick some grass.
kitten   May 2, 2004

Shaolin Soccer, the top-grossing film of all time in Hong Kong, has had a very limited and erratic release here in the States, which is a shame, for it is one of the finest cinematic endeavours I have ever born witness to.

Written by, directed by, and starring Stephen Chow, China's answer to Mel Brooks or Jim Carrey. The Fifth Brother of a small group of Shaolin kung fu masters, Sing's solitary goal in life is to develop the Shaolin art by packaging it in a modern form so that the public can understand its usefulness to everyday life, rather than having an impression of it as a brutal and destructive force. His efforts thus far have been met with nothing but failure and embarrassment, including an amusing attempt to combine Shaolin kung fu with singing and dancing.

Sing eventually encounters "Golden Leg" Fung, a former soccer star who fell into disgrace when he accepted a payoff from Hung to throw a championship game in his glory days, wherepon an enraged crowd broke his leg. Twenty years later, Hung owns the most fearsome soccer team ever assembled in China, Evil Team (yes, that's actually their name) and the now-crippled Fung works as a meager lapdog for Hung. When Fung witnesses a fight between Sing and a group of amateur soccer players, during which Sing uses his kung fu skills to kick a soccer ball like a missile, the inevitable meshing of objectives occurs. Fung will teach Sing and his friends how to play soccer, and their Shaolin style will win the million-dollar championship against Evil Team, letting Fung have his revenge against Hung.

Unfortunately, Sing's "brothers" have fallen into disarray and lost their faith in the teachings of Shaolin; each of them now scratches out a meager existence doing menial jobs. Sing has a difficult time convincing them to join his team, and Fung has an even more difficult time teaching them anything about soccer. When they engage in their first soccer game, they are not merely defeated, but utterly humiliated, as the game turns into an all-out fight and the Shaolin team declares surrender. But when they awaken, under Sing's insistance, they each unleash their own unique powers vested upon them by their kung fu training. Iron Head can head-butt the ball with tremendous force; Iron Shirt is capable of holding the ball in his abdominal muscles and discharging it at the goal or other players; the obese Weight Vest sheds his earthly mass and can leap thirty feet; Hooking Leg controls the ball at ground-level using a kicking technique that resembles breakdancing; and the Shaolin goalie, Empty Hand, is a wall through which no opponent has a hope of scoring, and who looks, dresses, and acts like Bruce Lee. "Steel Leg" Sing, for his part, kicks with such accuracy and force that the ball dents concrete at incredible distance.

The Shaolin Team works their way up through the tournament ranks while Sing befriends Mui, a beautiful girl rendered ugly by her lack of self-confidence, who uses Tai Chi kung fu to make steamed bread and other delicacies at a local shop run by a totalitarian boss. Mui is cool and distant with Sing at first, despite his admiration for her Tai Chi skill, but slowly warms up to his sincerity, repairing his broken shoes for his first game and playing a critical role at the end. Will the Shaolins beat the nearly robotic Evil Team, or be crushed under the onslaught?

In many ways, this is the typical underdog story of all sports movies - the pathetic rabble of a team overcomes the odds to victory. But the personal motives behind the game, along with the clever comic aspects and expertly choreographed fight/game scenes, in the style of Hong Kong action movies complete with plenty of wirework, puts it several orders of magnitude above the usual Hollywood fodder served up each spring about a loser baseball team and winning coach. Shaolin Soccer manages to be highly entertaining and uplifting without being preachy in the slightest, and though some of the cultural humor completely misses American audiences (such as a completely bizarre homoerotic joke involving eggs, and several occurances of women with beards), it still delivers a great deal of laughs, from clever dialogue and highbrow visual jokes to a few instances of lowbrow antics. The special effects are stunning, and though the movie makes heavy use of computer graphics -- most notably the ball itself -- they are almost impossible to notice, are used correctly, and do not detract from the storytelling in the slightest. All in all, an incredibly creative movie that serves as a sharp parody to most every martial arts and sports movie cliche. I really cannot say enough good things about this movie.

I discovered this movie last summer when a friend showed me a brief clip of soccer players using Matrix-style special effects and martial arts prowess against an indominatable goalie. Fascinated, I promptly downloaded the entire film. Yes, I'm a pirate. Avast! I've since watched it numerous times and have found myself humming the theme song before and during important exams.

During a recent trip to an obscure theatre to see Kill Bill, I noticed a poster advertising Shaolin Soccer off in the corner, and immediately planned a gathering of a number of friends to go view it (and partake in alcoholic camraderie afterwards, of course). Naturally, only two other people besides myself showed up, the rest having this excuse or that.

Unfortunately, the US importer of this movie is Miramax. I am far from a purist in these matters -- my only usual requirement of a foreign film is that it not be dubbed into English, because I like listening to the original language while reading subtitles. Miramax has a long and sordid history of destroying all foreign films they get their hands on, and Shaolin Soccer was no exception.

Apparently when it was first released in the US -- again, at only a few theatres -- it was dubbed into English. This provoked such a hostile reaction that they eventually re-released it in the original Cantonese, but they updated the subtitles to actually make sense, which is a shame, for the horrible translations are really part of the charm of the movie. So while the translations were now grammatically correct, it just wasn't the same.

They also changed half the music, which annoyed me no end. At the finale, instead of the triumphant Chinese-styled theme music, we get a techno version of Kool & the Gang's "Celebration", which made the scene seem somewhat cheesy instead of victorious. This was followed by a rastafarian remake of Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" during the wrap-up, which also completely eradicated the original ending theme song. A number of other audio edits were made, including the addition of several pointless sound effects such as dropping bombs and the 1950s sparkle-ding when Sing first demonstrates his almighty kick on a beer can (the original sound was similar to a jet fighter roaring by). Any Chinese lettering in the movie (on a business card, writing on a wall, signs over shops, the scoreboard, etc) were digitally altered into English, but not very well. The Cantonese version of "bullshit" was uttered twice in the movie, but the Miramax translation subtitled it as something else. Petty details? Perhaps, but the details are sometimes important. These things all added to the overall experience and Miramax took them away for no readily discernable reason.

But the most serious transgression is that of cutting the original runtime of somewhere around 120 minutes to a quick 80. Because I take everything way too damned seriously, or so I've been accused, allow me to (non-comprehensively) list the things Miramax eliminated from the US release:

  • The initial scene where Fung gets paid off to throw the game, and a later scene where Hung again tries to bribe him, which only makes sense in the context of the first scene.
  • All the first meetings with the brothers were shortened, which lessened the impact of their eventual return.
  • The dance scene outside Mui's bread shop remained, but the explanation as to why everyone was inspired to dance was omitted, which made it seem just plain silly instead of funny (a fine distinction). If you're interested, the point was that they were all caught up by the power of Shaolin, and dragged out of their mundane lives, just for a moment, to enjoy themselves. While Miramax was busy butchering this scene, they also cut out the electric rock song the gang danced to, and replaced it with another stylized version of Kool & the Gang.
  • When Sing first comes to Iron Head to propose combining kung fu with singing and dancing, Iron Head makes a speech about how downtrodden and defeated his life is, and advises Sing to give up his dreams. This was entirely cut out of their encounter.
  • Iron Head's boss hits him with bottles throughout the first part of the movie. Miramax slashed about half of the bottle strikes.
  • The bar scene where Sing and Iron Head perform was cut down slightly, and "cooler" background music was added, presumably to make it seem more American.
  • The audience didn't much appreciate Sing's performance, and in the original, basically kicked the crap out of him right there in the bar. Sing, being the enlightened kung fu master, refuses to fight back and just takes his licks. Miramax sliced this out, probably under the rationale that it was "too violent", and replaced it with an audience member hitting him once and saying "You want to take this outside?"
  • After the team throws away their old shoes, the Miramax release cuts right to Sing and Mui talking about their relationship, dropping the scene where Sing introduces Mui to the rest of the team, and then stands up to her boss.
  • Minor bits cut out from the showdown against Evil Team -- the goalie's bleeding hand, Hung's aside about how the Soccer Federation and the referees are all on his side.
  • Members of the Evil Team kicking Sing in the leg to injure him. The Miramax version has him getting hurt trying to shake one of the players off.

Regardless, it is definitely worth seeing if you can find it playing in your town. Even the edited version is highly watchable for all ages -- a quick-paced, action-packed, well-directed film with excellent acting and outstanding special effects. Do yourself and your friends a favor and support the magic.

Better yet, buy the DVD.