Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recent Films We've Seen [Bryan]

Notice that the sidebar dealing with recent films we've seen has been updated. Here are some films I would recommend, if you haven't seen them.

Not One Less. A Chinese film by Zhang Yimou, one of my favorite directors (he did Hero, and House of Flying Daggers). It is about a young, thirteen-year-old girl who is called to substitute teach in a poor, country school. It has interesting things to say about money, the difficulty of social change, the murky nature of our motivations, and the value of dogged persistence. While not as visually interesting as Yimou's other work, the pseudo-documentary style is interesting, too. Some moments, such as when the young teacher meticulously makes by hand sign and after sign in a desperate attempt to find her lost student, are really touching in their powerful simplicity.

Doubt. A film adaptation of a play by John Patrick Shanley. Meryl Streep's performance is absolutely breathtaking. Most interesting, though, is that the theme of doubt is taken up in an interesting way. Does doubt push us apart or pull us together? Is doubt better or worse than absolute certainty? Can we ever be sure we are doing the right thing? The film explores the nature of doubt by immersing the audience in doubt. Who is telling the truth? Who is the bad guy and who is the good guy? How are we supposed to feel about what happened? And what even happened? What did she really mean at the end?

Thirteen Conversations about One Thing. This is one of my old favorites that we just watched again. The "one thing" the film deals with is happiness. The visuals are stunning and the dialogue thoughtful and penetrating, and Alan Arkin plays a very believable scrooge type character. Philosophically rich observations on the machinations in our lives that determine our happiness and on how people respond to such machinations.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fall pictures [Bryan]

Some pictures from the Fall. Thanks to Heather W. for some of these pictures (the good ones).

Nora's soccer team..

Our 2009 Family Picture.

Andrew the spider (Halloween)

My two crazy boys.

Nora the vampire princess.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For Dan Brown readers -- Some Pics [Bryan]

Apotheosis of Washington

Durer's Magic Square

Durer's Melencolia

Smithsonian Support Center

Darth Vader on the National Cathedral

Horned Moses -- Library of Congress

National Statuary Hall

Library of Congress reading room

Kryptos -- CIA Headquarters

Who is the spendthrift? [Bryan]

Some people think that I can see no fault is President Obama. Not true. In fact, there are many things I would criticize. I don't think he has been strong enough on civil liberties and has continued many troubling Bush-era policies in this regard. I suspect he is on the wrong track in Afghanistan, where I think we should probably deescalate. I also worry that he lacks the will and ability to reform the troubled banking industry.

Having said that, I still think we are very lucky to have him. The reason I spend so much time defending him is the amount of completely unfair criticism he receives. It seems he can do nothing, from speaking to students about hard work, to bowing (gasp!) to Chinese leaders, that won't provoke outrage. He even gets criticized for things he has absolutely nothing to do with (school kids singing about him after the inauguration). Some people, frankly, seem completely out to destroy him at any cost.

One example of this unwarranted criticism is the federal budget. Two things. First of all, where is the deficit coming from? Here is a helpful chart from the NYT, constructed from data from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, much of the deficit comes from 2000 and 2009 recessions and the lack of revenue that comes in during those times. The other big expenditure comes from Republican-era policies (two wars, the prescription drug program, tax cuts for the wealthy, and so forth, that were financed entirely on credit). The bailout (a Bush-era program) and the stimulus (an Obama-era program) amount to about 20% of the deficit. Recent new Obama spending programs and proposals amount to a tiny fraction of the new debt (5%). So, who should we blame for the deficit? Well, it seems that Bush is the culprit here, not Obama.

(If you can't read it, click here.)

But what about the health care proposals? So far, the CBO has found the Democratic proposals to be deficit neutral, that is, completely paid for through some cuts to wasteful programs (like Medicare Advantage) and selected tax hikes. You may or may not like the health care reform proposals, but claiming that they add to the deficit is untrue.

Second, now is not the time to worry about deficits. Believe it or not, deficit spending during times of recession and high unemployment is a good thing. I know that when times are tight at your own house, you need to cut back on expenses. This is the correct thing to do, and it is certainly what we do at my house. On the level of "macroeconomics," though, things are different. A recession happens when people stop spending and loaning money. During such times, the only entity that can fill the resulting economic hole is the federal government -- remember, what eventually ended the Great Depression was the massive government deficit spending during WWII. If we cut or freeze spending during this recession, as the Republicans in congress are proposing, the results would be pretty bad. Our state of Ohio, I know, would have been absolutely devastated without the Federal stimulus money. The key will be when we return to low levels of employment and strong, sustained economic growth: If Obama does not address deficit spending at that time, then he deserves criticism. Not now.

Update: The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office just released the deficit projections of the Senate health care reform legislation. It would reduce the deficit by $127 billion over the first 10 years and by a considerable $650 billion over the next ten years. Clearly, it seems if you want to reduce the deficit, you need this sort of health care reform.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Interesting Development [Bryan]

Interesting story developing in Salt Lake City. Andrew Sullivan comments:
It is possible to be cynical or begrudging in reacting to the LDS Church's unprecedented public decision to support civic protections against discrimination in employment and housing with respect to homosexuals in Salt Lake City. I think that is a temptation to be resisted.

What the LDS church has done in Utah is an immensely important and positive step and places the Mormon church in a far more positive and pro-gay position than any other religious group broadly allied with the Christianist right. They have made a distinction - and it is an admirable, intellectually honest distinction - between respecting the equal rights of other citizens in core civil respects, while insisting - with total justification - on the integrity of one's own religious doctrines, and on a religious institution's right to discriminate in any way with respect to its own rites and traditions.

I believe that there are forces of discrimination and bigotry within the Mormon church - and they have recently been ascendant. But that is true of most churches and most institutions. And what I have long observed among Mormons - unlike some other denominations - is also an American decency that tends to win out in the end. I've never met a nasty Mormon. They put many Christians to shame in their practice of their faith and the civility and sincerity with which they live their lives. And this decision in Salt Lake City - not an easy or inevitable one - to make a clear distinction between civil marriage and other civil protections is one worthy of respect.

I do not agree with it. I see no reason why civil marriage for non-Mormons should be banned because Mormons find it anathema to their doctrines - just as I see no reason why civil divorce should be banned because it violates the Catholic church's doctrines. But I can respect that position because I can respect the sincerity of that religious belief and see in this stance a genuine attempt to reach out and respect the rights of gay citizens in certain basic respects. Gays should and must reciprocate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Giving happiness from an empty vessel [Bryan]

Some profound reflections from Robbins Milbank on faith, doubt, and belief:
I believe it is very easy to build God in your own image and very hard to rebuild Him when you crumble. I was born to see and experience the love of God. I saw Him in my father, whose kindness and wisdom led me through a thousand anguishes of youth. I saw Him in my wife–especially in her. I told my father about her when I was nine years old. “We’re going to marry,” I said.

He smiled. “I’m glad you feel like telling me. I hope you’ll always want to tell me things like this.”

For many years I was rich, seeing and loving and touching these children of God. I knew what I believed, because I believed in them and they in me.

They died. First my father. Then my wife. Why do I still arrange my desk-work in neat piles? Why do I straighten a piece of furniture? Why do I try to arrive at appointments a minute early? Why do I lie down to sleep or get up in the morning? Have you ever wandered through an empty house looking for a purpose? You do a lot of little things automatically.

I’d like to talk about my house. It talks to me quietly in the night of the love it still shares, of the garden that still surrounds it, of the laughter of our children and grandchildren and our pride in them. I lie on my bed pulling words around, trying to understand their meaning. Words like “I believe.”

This is know: I believe in the Lord’s Prayer, all of it, but particularly where it says, “Thy will be done.” For me, that’s one clear channel to God. That one belief, “Thy will be done,” carries me through each act of each day. It teaches me to live with all that is given me and to live without what is taken away. It rescues me from the idea that happiness for myself is either important or desirable. But it doesn’t at all destroy happiness as a gift I can give, miraculously, from an empty vessel....