Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SI's college football playoff

Long-time readers know I have been opposed to a college playoff system for a number of reasons, chief among them being that I think it cheapens what is, without question, the most exciting and meaningful regular season in sports.

Sports Illustrated, however, has proposed a playoff system that I find intriguing. First, it is a 16-team playoff, not an eight-team one, which most propose. Second, it would be seeded totally disregarding the BCS, which would be mandatory for me to support a playoff system.

If the college football season ended after last week's games, here's how SI's first round matchups would look (the number in parenthesis is the team's seed):

(1) Florida vs (16) Auburn
(8) Oklahoma vs (9) Houston
(5) Virginia Tech vs. (12) Ohio State
(4) LSU vs (13) Iowa

(3) Texas vs (14) Oregon
(6) Boise State vs (11) TCU
(7) Cincinnati vs (10) USC
(2) Alabama vs (15) Miami

You gotta admit, there's a lot of appeal to those eight games. I know I would pay the semi big bucks to see that first-round Houston/OU matchup.

Monday, September 28, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Away We Go (2009) ** Are we screw-ups? Verona wonders aloud. (I’m paraphrasing.) She and her boyfriend, Burt, expecting their first child, live in a ramshackle, poorly heated house and drive a boxy old Volvo. They are maybe a little scruffy, but they seem, objectively, to be doing all right, with jobs that don’t require them to go to work and a relationship that looks tender and durable. Verona’s question may or may not be disingenuous, but the answer provided by Away We Go, the slack little road comedy in which it arises, is unambiguous. Far from being screw-ups, Verona and Burt, played with passive-aggressive winsomeness by Maya Rudolph and Jon Krasinski, are manifestly superior to everyone else in the movie and, by implication, the world. And even though they express themselves with a measure of diffidence, it’s clear that they are acutely, at times painfully, aware of their special status as uniquely sensitive, caring, smart and cool beings on a planet full of cretins and failures. The smug self-regard of this movie, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, takes a while to register, partly because Ms. Rudolph and Mr. Krasinski are appealing and unaffected performers and partly because the writing has some humor and charm. Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don't be silly. But don't be fooled. This movie does not like you. Grade: C-

The Brothers Bloom (2009) **½ Rian Johnson’s globe-trotting caper comedy The Brothers Bloom is the movie equivalent of an elaborate juggling act whose performers keep dozens of pins wheeling in the air. As much as you admire the stagecraft and the technical skills on display, when all is said and done, that’s all it is: a fancy, not-quite-two-hour stunt. What you take away from this snazzy-looking fantasy about fraternal grifters embarking on a final con are its travel brochure-pretty pictures of colorful locales including Prague, St. Petersburg and Montenegro. Beyond that your response to the movie, which takes too conspicuous a delight in its own cleverness, is likely to be a shrug and a "so what?" Like those airborne pins, The Brothers Bloom never lands. Grade: C

Filth and Wisdom (2008) *½ Pop go the dialectics in Filth and Wisdom, a tale of bumping and grinding your way to happiness from the hardest-working hard body in show business, that precision sex-and-beat machine turned first-time movie director known as Madonna. Set in London, the loosely threaded 84-minute story written by the Big M and Dan Cadan (a former crew member for her ex, Guy Ritchie) involves three roomies who are peddling body and soul in order to follow their different dreams, all of which should sound familiar to the Madonna faithful: music, dance and ... saving impoverished African children. Not that Madonna has gone in for originality, which isn't really her thing: rather, instead of repurposing a genre, she has riffled through the art-house catalog for inspiration, as evidenced by the film's intentionally grubby visual texture, jumpy editing, direct-address commentary, freeze frames and other tricks. Grade: D+

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) ***½ Steven Soderbergh shot The Girlfriend Experience over a few weeks last fall, with a relatively low budget, a portable high-definition video camera and a mostly nonprofessional cast. The film’s means are modest, not unlike the guerrilla techniques Mr. Soderbergh used in Che, but nonetheless The Girlfriend Experience has a sleek, tailored look appropriate to its setting, which is the moneyed precincts of Manhattan at the height — and most likely the end — of the recent gilded age. Every frame swims with signs of dearly bought, casually enjoyed luxury as the camera makes its way from high-end boutiques to jewelbox hotels, exclusive restaurants and the cabin of a private plane. Chelsea (Sasha Grey), the main character — more case study than heroine — is not only a consumer of top-of-the line merchandise, keeping a careful ledger of the clothes and accessories she has purchased and worn. She is also a commodity in this rarified market, a prostitute whose specialty is alluded to in the title of the movie. She offers her rich clients more than sex with an obliging, pretty young woman. The Girlfriend Experience is about, and also traffics in, the intoxification of surfaces, and to say it objectifies Ms. Grey, who is very young (just 21) and very pretty, would be more plot summary than critique When the turmoil of the last 12 months has receded and the 10th-anniversary deluxe collectors edition comes around, this strange, numb cinematic experience may seem fresh, shocking and poignant rather than merely and depressingly true. Grade: B

Management (2009) *** If hell is a place of soul-crushing boredom, the Kingman Motor Inn, the Arizona hostelry in which Stephen Belber’s off-kilter romantic comedy Management sputters to a start, is a gateway to damnation. This anonymous, sunbaked depot is where 38-year-old Mike Cranshaw (Steve Zahn) works as the night manager, repairing backed-up toilets and discharging other odd jobs under the watchful eyes of his parents, Jerry (Fred Ward) and Trish (Margo Martindale), who own the place. Mike’s dead-end existence is unsettled by a sudden glimpse of heaven when an attractive guest, Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston), who sells the kind of sterile corporate art found on motel walls, checks in for a short stay. With stalkerlike persistence, the pesky Mike courts her with a bottle of wine, "compliments of management," which he insists they drink together, followed later by cheap champagne. Management aspires to be a hybrid of that great-granddaddy of modern romantic comedies about uncomfortable male initiation, The Graduate, and smart American road-trip comedies like Flirting With Disaster and Little Miss Sunshine. If it isn’t half as good — or as funny — as its forerunners, it maintains its integrity as a small, sweet-natured comedy that refuses to obey the commercial dictates of Hollywood by allowing its characters to determine their own zany destinies. Mike may be a bumbling sad sack, but Mr. Zahn gives him just enough spunky appeal to lend this unlikely fly-by-afternoon coupling and its consequences a shred of credibility. Grade: C+

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) **½ Monsters vs. Aliens cheerfully converts the two major sources of cinematic terror — invaders from outer space and inhuman, ungodly terrestrial creatures — into wacky, goofy, familiar figures. The movie, directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon from a many-authored script, comes out of DreamWorks Animation and offers the latest twist on the easygoing, parodic formula refined in the studio’s Shrek franchise and last year’s Kung Fu Panda. Just as Shrek and its successors pushed aside the sweet enchantment of traditional fairy tale movies in favor of belching and winking (with a saving spoonful of sugar at the end), so does Monsters vs. Aliens turn fright and apocalypse into strenuous, noisy, 3-D fun. The movie is curiously unmemorable, partly because nearly all of its humor depends on your having seen something like it before, even if you haven't. Grade: C

Shrink (2009) **½ Like smog settling over Los Angeles, a creeping sense of anomie haunts the Hollywood power players and parasites sidling nervously through Shrink, a portrait of a disenchanted therapist to the stars and his clientele. Directed by Jonas Pate from a screenplay by Thomas Moffett, based on a story by Henry Rearden, this dissection of a soul-sick community of self-medicating actors, writers and agents would like to think of itself as a contemporary Play It as It Lays, only kinder and gentler. Shrink doesn’t peer into the abyss as fixedly as Play It as It Lays, the 1970 Joan Didion novel or its screen adaptation by the director Frank Perry (for which Ms. Didion wrote the screenplay with John Gregory Dunne). Nor does it have the ruthless satiric thrust of Robert Altman’s Player, or the pungent gallows humor of a Bruce Wagner novel. But its central character, Dr. Henry Carter (Kevin Spacey), is afflicted with the same metaphysical malaise that engulfed Ms. Didion’s characters. The other characters are mostly too sketchy and their connections too contrived for Shrink to jell as an incisive ensemble piece. Grade: C

Friday, September 25, 2009

Thanks for (ruining) the memories, John

Back in the early 1960s, during my wanderlust days, I found myself living in St. Thomas and I remember my companion and I would often find ourselves on the beach on Friday and Saturday nights, passing around a guitar, a jug, some cannabis and generally being young, stupid, carefree, romantic and crazy. Several years later, I discovered four of our friends we met there joined together formally as a singing group that was originally called the Mugwumps and later became known as the Mamas and the Papas.

I would probably have mostly fond memories of that time anyway, but they were enhanced, possibly disproportionately, because I could say "I went skinny dipping in the Caribbean with the Mamas and the Papas."

Because of this revelation, however, all those fond memories have been erased, replaced by ugly thoughts. And I'm not happy about it.

This week's more intriguing college football games

The problem with football rankings is that they are based largely on expectations. At the beginning of the season Florida and Texas were ranked the two best teams in the country and, since both have won all their games so far this season, they are still ranked as the two best teams in the country.

But are they? Really? Based on their performances on the field so far this year I could make a strong argument that they are not. This is especially true after last weekend when both teams struggled against drastically inferior opponents. The week before that, Texas had its hands full with a Wyoming team that got thumped last week by a Colorado team that hadn't won all year.

So who deserves to be ranked No. 1? Based solely on their on-the-field performances so far this year, I would have to go with the Miami Hurricanes. To date this season, the Hurricanes have beaten a Florida State team that manhandled BYU on the road and then swamped what most consider a good Georgia Tech squad.

So exactly how good are the Hurricanes? This question could be answered tomorrow when the Canes venture to Blacksburg to play the Hokies of Virginia Tech in what I consider the Big Game of the Day. Miami has a new offensive coordinator this season in Mark Whipple and whether it's because of his systems or because of the outstanding play of quarterback Jacory Harris, the Canes are averaging 140 more yards and 8.4 more points a game than they did last year. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, opened the season with a 10-point loss to Alabama followed by a miracle win over Nebraska. Its usually strong defense seems suspect and so even though the Hokies are playing at home, I'm picking Miami to win this one.

California at Oregon: California, which may be the best team in the Pac-10, is a terrible road team. Last week it finally won at Minnesota, snapping a four-game road losing streak. This week the Bears travel to Auzten Stadium, widely regarded as the loudest stadium in college football. I don't know what to think about Oregon -- it lost both the game and its cool against Boise State, came back to whip a mediocre Purdue team, but then shocked the football world by ending Utah's 16-game winning streak. California is led by running back Jahvid Best, who has replaced Texas quarterback Colt McCoy as the current Heisman runnerup. One of the reasons Best has been so successful is because quarterback Kevin Riley has completed 70 percent of his passes so defenses can't cram the line to stop Best. California's road performance will keep the game close, but ultimately I think California wins by a field goal.

TCU at Clemson. Both Utah and BYU have lost this season, leaving TCU and Houston as the only probable BCS Busters for 2009. And to maintain that status, TCU must win this weekend in Death Valley. If you're looking for wide open spread the field football, this is not the game for you. But if you enjoy defense, the running game, playing for field position, this should be your cup of tea. TCU is the 15th ranked team in the country and Clemson is unranked so I guess a Clemson victory would be regarded as an upset. But what I said earlier about ratings being more about expectations than level of play is really true here. But if everyone considers it an upset, it's an upset: Clemson to win by two touchdowns.

Iowa at Penn State. The only reason this game is getting any attention is because Iowa dropped Penn State from the ranks of the unbeaten last year and because Penn State is ranked No. 5 in the country after playing a trio of patsies: Akron, Syracuse and Temple. Come to think of it, those are two good reasons. There's no way of knowing just how good this Nittany Lion team is and I'm not convinced they are good enough to knock off Iowa, even if the game is being played at Happy Valley. It may be regarded as another upset, but I'm going with Iowa by a TD.

Texas Tech at Houston. Not a game for the faint of heart. Both teams love to score. Both teams hate to play defense. I'm picking Houston 103-98.

Arkansas at Alabama. Does the name Ryan Mallett mean anything to anyone? In his last two years of high school ball, Matthew Stafford only lost one game and that was to a Texarkana team quarterbacked by Mallett, who then accepted a scholarship to Michigan and disappeared. Well, Mallett has re-emerged after transferring to Arkansas, infusing the Hogs with offensive power. Does Alabama have the defensive chops to stop Mallett and the Hogs? I'm saying a resounding yes: Alabama by three TDs.

Boise State by 18 over Bowling Green
Cincinnati by 16 over Fresno State
Florida by 4 over Kentucky
Florida State by 19 over South Florida
Georgia by 10 over Arizona State
Georgia Tech by 4 over North Carolina
Kansas by 7 over Southern Mississippi
LSU by two TDs over Mississippi State
Michigan by 12 over Indiana
Notre Dame by 3 over Purdue
Ohio State by 19 over Illinois
Oregon State by 2 over Arizona
Southern Cal by 31 over Washington State
Wisconsin by 18 over Michigan State

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tax is not a four-letter word

I'm still trying to get over the spectacle of watching the Dallas City Council, the worst collection of ward-heeling political hacks I've ever seen collected as a single political entity (and I spent a lot of time covering New York and New Orleans councils), pass the worst budget possible under current conditions and possibly the worst budget in the history of the city. And the disgrace of it all is that it wouldn't have happened if these hacks had simply listened to the electorate that put them in office in the first place.

All 15 members of this council are to blame. Even District 13's Ann Margolin, who voted against the budget, cannot be excused because she failed to come up with a legitimate reason for her vote, only an excuse. I got the feeling she was thinking "My predecessor, Mitchell Rasansky, never met a city budget he could vote for and I've got to follow in his footsteps and not think for myself. So I will find an excuse, regardless of how lame that excuse is." Her excuse was PILOT is a tax. Well, of course it's a tax. Everyone, with the possible exception of District 12's Ron Natinsky, who is to this city council what Dick Armey used to be to the U.S. House of Representatives and who may actually live in a Far North Dallas Fantasyland, knows PILOT is a tax. High ranking city officials admit to me on a regular basis it is a tax (all except Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez who is wise enough to always speak as though everything he says is on the record). I have stood beside groups of these city officials at budget townhall meetings and seen them barely conceal their laughter when someone tries to explain why it is not really a tax ... not really. But for Ms. Margolin to use this reason to vote against the budget perpetuated the existing problem with the current council -- the worst in the city's history -- and made as much sense as refusing to go to Disneyland because Mickey Mouse is a rodent. She came across as a petulant child.

When 14-1 went into effect nearly 20 years ago, the great fear was that those elected to the council would only promote the interests of their own district and not the city as a whole. No one, and I mean know one (and I was among the political consultants hired to convince voters to create a more representative council), ever thought we'd see the day when the 15 people elected to the council would not only not be interested in the city as a whole but would completely isolate themselves from the wishes of their own constituencies.

During the deliberations on this budget I attended a number of the council's townhall meetings and I attended them in all sections of the city. And the one message that came through loud and clear was "If it means keeping our rec centers and libraries open on their current schedules, if it means having a vibrant office of cultural affairs, if it means keeping our streets in acceptable conditions, if it means providing necessary services to our seniors, if it means keeping our city clean and safe, then, sure, go ahead and raise my taxes."

I attended one of District 10's Jerry Allen's townhall meetings he held at the Freshman Center of Lake Highlands High School. And I heard staunch anti-tax advocate, former city councilman Alan Walne, actually scold Allen and the rest of the council for not passing the tax increase the voters said they were willing to accept to pay for the 2006 bond program. "You're setting a dangerous precedent," Walne told Allen. "You are saying we can get all these things for free and you know and I know that's simply not true."

I attended another townhall jointly sponsored by District 14's Angela Hunt and District 9's Sheffie Kadane and I sat there and watched as Ms. Hunt asked for a show of hands of all those who favored a tax increase over the proposed cutbacks in city services. More than 60 percent of those attending raised their hands. All Ms. Hunt and Mr. Kadane have done since is to ignore the 60 percent.

Only District 8's Tennell Atkins seemed to be in tune. District 8 stretches across the bottom of the city from the western city limits to the eastern. It is a mess. Think of a California representative who must represent the concerns of a constituent living along the Mexican border with those of one living along the Oregon border. I attended three of Mr. Atkins townhall meetings, one in the far southwestern part of the city, one in the far southeastern part and one in the far southern part. In this instance, however, the attendees at all three of those townhalls knew what was needed to fix the problem, Mr. Atkins heard their cries for help but when he carried their message back to the center of political hackdom, he was scolded and told to stand in the corner until he saw things their way.

And what is their way? Essentially, it's that tax is a four-letter word, something never to be mentioned in polite mixed company. But really a tax is nothing more than the price we pay for government. Would we rather not have to pay for it? Like I would rather not have to pay for a root canal.

But what the the Ward-Heeling Hacks of Marilla don't understand is that not all taxes are equal. A tax becomes more onerous in direct proportion to the number of miles it has to travel before it is disbursed. So when it comes to taxes we hate, federal taxes top the list. Next come state taxes. Local taxes are at the bottom of the list.

Why is that? It has to do with pride of ownership. I will gladly pay to make sure my own house is safe and secure, freshly painted, spruced up, looks clean. That's where I live. That's my home. And, by gum, I'm going to do what I can to --spend what I need to spend -- make it the best in the hood. However, don't ask me to spend that same amount of money to do the same thing for that house in El Paso or Amarillo. And, whatever you do, don't even try to get me to contribute for a new foundation for a house in Miami, Des Moines or, heaven forbid, in Mumbai or South Africa.

People around here are still upset that Jonestown wound up in Arlington and not in Dallas. Why? Because of the economic benefits we lost? Hell, no. What was lost was far more important than economic benefits; it was the right to stick our index finger into the air and shout to the rest of the world "See, Dallas really is No. 1."

What the Ward-Heeling Hacks of Marilla fail to understand is that we, the people of Dallas, are proud of our city and we want to continue to be proud of it. We want to invite outsiders over, show them around and play "Can you top this?" And we're willing to pay for these bragging rights. If you don't believe me, just examine the results of the last bond election or attend a budget townhall meeting of your own sometime. Instead, the Hacks are going to let us slide into a slippery hole that will be terribly difficult to extricate ourselves from.

But it didn't have to be that way. The whole thing could have been salvaged as late as Wednesday's budget discussion. The door was opened when Mr. Natinsky responded to Ms. Margolin's silly objection to the budget. "PILOT is not a tax," Natinsky said simply and straightforwardly, almost as though he actually believed this Big Lie. Oh, I wish I had been on the council at that moment. I would have pushed my Request to Speak button and when Da Mayor called on me, I would have said:

"Colleagues, I want to present a motion that would serve as a substitute to the question now being debated. And I know this motion should receive unanimous approval from this body because I know how much you like to raise fees, but not taxes; and how you steadfastly maintain that PILOT is not a tax. The motion is Be it resolved that the city abandon its current tax structure, including all property taxes and the penny it collects from the sales tax, and, in place of those taxes, institute a series of fees based on the same parameters and formulas. Be it further resolved that, because property owners in the city, who are in the minority, subsidize the majority of the population who are renters, that a fee equal to 1 percent of each month's rent be assessed renters. Be it further resolved that the level of these fees address all the items of the city manager's proposed budget, both those below and above the line. And, finally, be it further resolved that these fee payments should now and forever more be known as Payments In Lieu of Taxes."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A look at Canadian and its high school football team

The New York Times has a spread today on the Panhandle town of Canadian and its unifying force, the high school football team, 2007 and 2008 state champions. Here's one paragraph I found particularly telling:

"After an energy boom tapped out in 1985, the downtown in Canadian, population 2,233, grew desolate. A dozen buildings were left empty or boarded up. But the town grew more savvy about the boom-and-bust cycle of oil and gas, remaking itself in the late 1990s as a regional center for ecotourism and refurbishing its downtown with restored brick storefronts, a popular steakhouse and a state-of-the-art movie theater (pictured)."

Later on, the author wrote:

"The current recession has gut-punched oil and gas drilling, costing 400 to 500 local jobs, city officials said. Yet Canadian remains one of Texas’ most prosperous school districts. It has an enrollment of only 798 from pre-K through 12th grade, but the school district’s property values were last assessed at $1.5 billion. Each student in grades 7 through 12 has been issued a laptop computer by the district. The tennis team has four courts on campus. The state champion track team has a new running surface. The football team has an artificial turf field, an 8,500-square-foot field house scheduled to open next month and a sophisticated computer scouting system that can track opponents’ plays for the last five years."

It's a good read. Check it out.

Shana Tovah

Happy 5770th. Let's celebrate!

Monday, September 21, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Battle for Terra (2009) **½ The movie’s messages are delivered with a heavy hand, but some of the scenes are eye-popping, especially — sorry, peace-loving Terrians — the battle sequences. Grade: C

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) ½* A junky-looking romantic comedy that’s neither remotely romantic nor passably comic. Grade: D-

Lymelife (2009) ***½ Despite some floundering, the film keeps you hooked, mostly through the performances by Timothy Hutton, Alec Baldwin and Kieran Culkin. Grade: B

O’Horten (2009) ***½ O’Horten is about frustration, patience, kindness and the wildness that lurks in even the calmest hearts. What’s odd about that? Grade: B+

Observe and Report (2009) ½* If you thought Abu Ghraib was a laugh riot then you might love this film, a potentially brilliant conceptual comedy that fizzles because its writer and director, Jody Hill, doesn’t have the guts to go with his spleen. Grade: D-

Friday, September 18, 2009

A look at a few competitive college football games this week

I put the word "competitive" in the headline for a reason. Many will argue that the two biggest games of this upcoming weekend are Tennessee at Florida and/or Texas Tech at Texas. The problem with those games are that neither is going to be competitive. Florida will spank Tennessee by at least four touchdowns, possibly by as many as six, and Texas is going to walk all over Tech, exacting revenge for last year's meltdown.

That leaves me with three games that have a chance to be interesting and competitive and the results of which could have lasting impact on the rest of this season.

Nebraska at Virginia Tech. The Cornhuskers are getting better, make no mistake about that, but they haven't arrived at the level where they can beat the Hokies in Blacksburg. If this game was being played in Lincoln, I would pick Nebraska, but this time around I'm going with Tech's defense to control Nebraska's high-octane offense.

Michigan State at Notre Dame. I picked the Irish to beat Michigan last week and maybe I just haven't learned my lesson because I'm going with them again this week. Notre Dame actually put themselves in a position to win that game last weekend and I don't think they'll squander those opportunities two weeks in a row. Besides, Notre Dame's offense is really, really good. And I still think the Big 10 is overrated.

Florida State at BYU. Some say this game will let the world know just how good the Cougars are and what their chances are of being this year's BCS busters. I, on the other hand, think Florida State has an awful football team this year -- awful as defined by losing to Jacksonville State at home. There's absolutely no way I can pick Bowden's Bunch to win in Lavell Edwards Stadium.

NY Times architecture critic doesn't much care for Jonestown

Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, writing in today's New York Times, has a few bones to pick with the Cowboys grand new stadium out in Arlington. For one thing, he writes:

"Cowboys Stadium suffers from its own form of nostalgia: its enormous retractable roof, acres of parking and cavernous interiors are straight out of Eisenhower’s America, with its embrace of car culture and a grandiose, bigger-is-better mentality. The result is a somewhat crude reworking of old ideas, one that looks especially unoriginal when compared with the sophisticated and often dazzling stadiums that have been built in Europe and the Far East over the last few years. Worse for fans, its lounges and concourses are so sprawling that I suspect more than a few spectators will get lost and miss the second-half kickoff."

For another: "Walk around to either side of the structure and you’re confronted with what looks like a conventional suburban office park. ... A few lonely trees only draw attention to the absolute joylessness of the scene."

He concluded: "As it turns out, the biggest controversy so far about the stadium has to do with its supersize scale. The four-sided video board over the field is so big, and hangs so low, that a Tennessee punter hit it during a preseason game. It’s a nice irony that for all the space, there may not be enough room at Cowboys Stadium to play a game."

So there's that.

My chief problem with the Baucus health care bill, besides the obvious one

The obvious one, of course, is that it contains no public option which makes it a bill that absolutely can not be supported. But even if it had contained that alternative, I could still not advocate the passage of the health care reform legislation proposed by Montana Sen. Max Baucus. Here's why:

In his recent impassioned speech on the subject to a joint session of Congress, President Obama clearly stated that any health care reform bill could not allow people to be denied health insurance based on pre-existing conditions. Baucus' bill disobeys that mandate, although he does so maliciously by substituting age for pre-existing conditions. His bill indexes the cost of health insurance to a person's age -- allowing insurers to charge up to five times as much for older citizens than younger ones -- and it just stands to reason that the older you are, the more likely you're going to have pre-existing conditions because you have simply existed longer.

It will also result in employers discriminating against older job seekers because the health care premiums of those workers would be more costly. It will also result in denying insurance coverage to a segment of the population that needs it most, destroy the concept of shared risk -- the foundation for health care reform in the first place -- and make insurance increasingly unaffordable the older you get.

Fortunately, far more sensible health care reform bills have been introduced in the House, so we don't lose anything by killing Baucus' Senate bill as soon as possible.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Good night, Mary

I first set eyes on Mary Travers in 1963. I was living in San Diego, Calif., at the time and Mary and her mates, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, were just about the biggest thing going in popular music at the time. They had recorded two albums, an eponymous first album and a second one called (Moving), and they had a string of hit singles, Lemon Tree, If I Had a Hammer and most notably Puff the Magic Dragon. They came to San Diego on a concert tour and I remember having seats pretty close to the stage, so close that I noticed a scar on the inside of Mary's left leg. I decided that the scar was there just to prevent her from being absolutely perfect.

But I did not get to know Mary Travers until almost 15 years later and that came about through my association with the Kerrville Folk Festival, of which Peter Yarrow was a founding member and one of the festival's directors. I got to spend a lot of time around Peter during the three weeks of the festival and, even more important, Peter got to spend a lot of time hanging out with my then wee son who always called him "Puff the Magic Dragon Man." During mornings and afternoons the two of them would play hide and seek and some friendly wrestling games around the festival grounds. One year, Peter talked Paul and Mary into coming to Kerrville with him and on that occasion I got to meet and know Mary Travers through an introduction from Peter. We took to each other immediately, staying up late into the nights on the weekend they were in Kerrville solving all the problems of the world and trading war stories around a campfire until the sun began peeking into the valleys of the Texas Hill Country.

We began a written correspondence right after that and then a couple of years later David Card booked Mary Travers as a solo act at his Poor David's Pub. I picked her up at the airport when she arrived for that show and she asked if I could take the time to be her chauffeur because she had a number of errands she wanted to complete while she was in town. She wound up spending three days in Dallas during that time and we spent just about every minute of it together.

A couple of years after that Mary called me to tell me that she, Peter and Paul were getting back together for a reunion tour, but, unfortunately, the tour did not include a stop in Dallas. I wrote a story about the reunion, because it had not been announced anywhere else. The story ran in the Dallas Morning News and was later picked up by wire services and other publications. About a month later, I was notified by a Houston concert promoter that a revised schedule had been worked out and that Peter, Paul and Mary's reunion tour now included a Dallas date. It was years later, when I read the thesis that a Texas A&M masters student had written about me that I learned the story I had written had created such a demand for a Dallas show that a show was added. I was touched and Mary often kidded me about it.

I learned she was sick about five years ago. Mary didn't tell me. Mary, the tower of strength that she was, didn't want to put anyone in a position where they might feel sorry for her. But Mary had a number of very close friends, mostly female, and many of them knew that Mary and I had a 20-year friendship. We continued to correspond and I often talked to her friends and was thrilled at the news that through a bone marrow and stem cell transplant, she had licked the leukemia that had threatened her.

Perhaps it was because I had convinced myself that she had overcome the leukemia that I was so shocked and saddened this evening when one of those close to her called me to let me know Mary had died. "But I thought she had survived the leukemia," I said, hoping to reverse what could not be reversed. "It wasn't the leukemia that killed her," the caller said. "She died from the side effects brought on by one of her chemotherapy treatments."

Mary, the world is not as good a place as it was when you were in it. I will miss your compassion, your commitment, your loyalty and, perhaps most of all, your honesty. But I will always have my pleasant memories and a vivid mental picture of the scar that kept you from being perfect.

Someone please explain to me what exactly the City Council did

According to this story from the Dallas Morning News' City Hall Blog, the Dallas City Council voted to eliminate some of its own expenses. Here is one paragraph from that story:

"The biggest savings comes from an 11-3 vote to eliminate the printing of paper agendas that will save $70,000."

But then later in the same story comes this paragraph:

"The council chose not to cut home delivery of paper agendas because the $6,000 savings could only be realized if the full council agreed to it."

Does anyone else think this doesn't make sense? How could the council not vote to eliminate the home delivery of paper agendas that had already been eliminated by a previous vote?

Will "Nine" be held for 10?

The Weinstein Company's acquisition of A Single Man during the Toronto International Film Festival presents the company with a dilemma. The Weinstein's market their films with Oscar in mind and it may just have too many contenders and not enough money to promote them properly.

A Single Man is a possible best picture nominee and Colin Firth (pictured) has emerged as the leading contender for the best actor Oscar. Julianne Moore is also in contention as a best actress nominee. The film is about the various stages of grief the Firth character experiences after the death of his lifetime partner.

Other Weinstein pictures eligible for the Oscar push are The Road and Inglourious Basterds. The Weinsteins have no choices on the latter film -- it has already gone into wide release -- and The Road has already been pushed back a year.

That leaves Nine, the musical re-invention of Fellini's 8½, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, and Marion Cotillard. This is the one film that was expected to give Clint Eastwood's Invictus a serious run for best picture. Now the depressing rumors circulating around Toronto involve the Weinstein's inability to promote all four films and the possibility that Nine will be pushed back to 2010.

I stress this is only a rumor, as is the story that Steven Spielberg has decided on Robert Downey Jr. to play Elwood P. Dowd in Spielberg's planned remake of Harvey.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TxDot's ulterior motive

I'm beginning to think the Texas Department of Transportation is taking all this secessionist talk by Gov. Hair and other Tea Party right-win nuts seriously. I mean, if Texas does secede, then there's no more federal highway funds--Austin becomes the federal government (which really is frightening when you think about it. Can anyone name another country of comparable size whose legislative body meets only 180 days every two years and still can't get anything done?)

But I digress. TxDot must be worried about a possible scarcity of funds should it secede (even though the state would probably get to keep a higher percentage of gasoline taxes, but what good is that with all these damn hybrids and alternative fuel cars on the road today?)

But I digress yet again. Somewhere in the bowels of TxDot's bureaucracy there's a brilliant mind who came up with a novel idea for getting the agency additional funds: "Let's design a license plate so hideous that drivers will pay extra to keep from having to put it on their cars."

I remember when the license plate was first proposed and, at the time, I thought it looked a tad garish. I can't remember all the details, but it was something like this: The state held a contest for 5th grade art students at an Austin elementary school and selected four-to-six finalists for the new plates. A graphic designer wasn't selected to do the plates because, remember, this is supposed to be a money-making, not a money-wasting proposition. The four-to-six finalists were then posted on the Internet and people went on-line to vote, exactly the same method used when the people of Dallas voted overwhelmingly to change the name of Industrial Boulevard to Cesar Chavez Boulevard. TxDot, unlike Dallas, didn't ignore the Internet vote even though it had more reason to ignore it than the city of Dallas did.

Like I said, I thought it was garish when I first saw it. And just sitting here on this page, it looks fairly benign. But lately I have seen it on cars and it looks downright hideous. I mean, it might be OK if you never plan to drive a vehicle with the new plates outside the state of Texas. If you do go beyond the state's borders with this plate, however, be sure to roll the windows up tight and have the stereo at full volume to drown out the laughter and the cat-calls.

However, there is an alternative. For an extra $30, you can order yourself a specialty license plate. I'm not talking about those vanity plates where you try to conceal something clever in as few letters as possible and no one but you can figure out what they mean. These are plates you can order and a small percentage of the proceeds from their sale can benefit the organization you choose to display on your plates. Texas has a whopping 188 choices of speciality plates available even as we speak and more are probably on the way. You can even order Dallas Cowboys specialty plates as though Jerry Jones needs more of your money than you have already given him. You can get a plate for just about any university in the state and a couple (LSU and Florida) that we wouldn't want here. You can get plates celebrating Big Bend National Park or Texas Music (but not Texas film), the Special Olympics, Boys and Girls Scouts, even Red Grapefruit.

I'm thinking TxDot fostered this new license plate on us to further the sales of these specialty plates. I know $30 may not sound like much, but you multiply that by the millions of Texas' registered vehicles and you're beginning to talk real money here. I know I will be ordering one so as not to have to dangle the new state plate from my car.

And I know which specialty plate Gov. Hair will be ordering. There's one that reads: "Texas -- It's Like a Whole Other Country."

The most underrated quarterback in college football

My nominee is Case Keenum of the University of Houston. Consider: Against an Oklahoma State defense that throttled Georgia the week before, Keenum connected on 32 of his 46 passes for 366 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed for one TD. For the season, he is 55 of 76 for 725 yards, seven touchdowns and an interception. He has run for two touchdowns.

To put that in perspective, that's an average of 150 yards a game better than the numbers currently being posted by leading Heisman candidate Tim Tebow of Florida and two more touchdowns passes against more formidable opponents.

If Keenum keeps this up, he won't be underrated for long. Expect to see his name mentioned in the same sentence with Heisman by others before too long. His next big test comes in two weeks when the Cougars host Texas Tech. UH also must play Mississippi State (which, admittedly, did not look all that strong against Auburn), UTEP, Tulsa and Central Florida on the road.

Monday, September 14, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Easy Virtue (2009) *** This may have been fertile grounds for satire in 1925, when Noel Coward’s drawing-room melodrama Easy Virtue debuted on the stage, but by now this film version feels rather done. Grade: C+

Grace (2009) **½ Grace doesn’t need a high body count to frighten, although its gore is stomach-turning. It’s a horrifying meditation on the unbreakable union of mother and child. Grade: C

Next Day Air (2009) **½ Can’t decide whether it’s a broad stoner comedy or a gritty Tarantino-esque action flick. The humor is there, but violence brings the laughter to an abrupt halt. Grade: C

Trumbo (2008) ***½ An unconventional film about an unconventional man. Part documentary, part expertly staged readings, it focuses on the unquiet life and unforgettable words of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, someone who, as his son puts it, never had to go looking for trouble because it always came to him. Grade: B

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) ** Wolverine purports to tell us more and yet gives us less: It’s so cluttered and action-packed that the action ceases to mean anything — virtually nothing the characters do or say results in consequences that stick. Grade: C-

Friday, September 11, 2009

This week's movie openings

I Can Do Bad All By Myself ***½ With this film, Tyler Perry is savvy enough to let riveting musical numbers by ringers like Gladys Knight and Mary J. Blige--along with Taraji P. Henson’s deeply empathetic performance--carry the film’s feverish emotions more than his characteristically ham-fisted screenplay.

9 *** Sobering stuff for an animated movie that pitches itself somewhere between cutesy children’s entertainment and hectoring Grimm’s fairy tale. The problem with it, though, is that it lacks a consistent tone.

Whiteout *½ Even a bad thriller can be entertaining, and this gory murder mystery set in Antarctica has a certain dumb fascination -- up to a point. Then it is defeated by its sheer idiocy.

Sorority Row *½ This film might be utterly lacking in suspense, surprises, and wit, but nobody can say it doesn’t have a hero.

I can rest easy now

Walt Disney studios announced today that Johnny Depp will once again star as you-know-who in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, scheduled for release in the summer of 2011.

Jeffrey Wells really likes "Up in the Air"

Left Coast blogger Jeffrey Wells has gone all gah-gah over Jason Reitman's film Up in the Air, calling it "the most eloquent, affecting and altogether best film of far. Yes, better than my beloved The Hurt Locker."

"This is one of the calmest and most unforced this-is-who-we-are, what-we-need and what-we're-all-afraid-of-in-the-workplace movies about adults that I've ever seen," Wells wrote today.

If you're not familiar with the film, it stars George Clooney as a business executive who absolutely loves his job: Flying around the country firing people whose bosses are too meek to do the dirty deed themselves. The story involves his relationship with two women, one (Vera Farmiga) who is a female duplicate of Clooney and another (Anna Kendrick) who thinks Clooney can be replaced by video teleconferencing.

Looking at this week's big college football games

No. 3 Southern California at No. 8 Ohio State: This is not only the biggest game of the weekend, it could be the biggest game of the entire non-conference year. And because it's that big means Ohio State is going to lose, even if the Buckeyes are playing at home. I mean, if OSU had that much trouble last week against Navy, imagine what the Trojan running game and defense is going to do. Plus, I think the Big 10 is the most overrated football conference in the FCS.

No. 18 Notre Dame at Michigan: I'm going against the home team here as well, even though I have sentimental personal reasons to pick the Wolverines. I just think the Notre Dame offense is too powerful for an inexperienced Michigan secondary. Also what I said in the last sentence in the previous prediction still goes.

South Carolina at No. 21 Georgia: No way the Bulldogs begin this season 0-2. No way.

Stanford at Wake Forest: This is the toughest call of the week for me. All the numbers point to a Stanford win but I'm going with Wake just because it does have the home court advantage and because I think the noon starting time is going to be tough on a West Coast team.

UCLA at Tennessee: I'm thinking the Vols will enjoy one more week of prosperity before they sink in the swamp next week.

Other Games:
Air Force over Minnesota
Alabama over Florida International
Arizona over Northern Arizona
Auburn over Mississippi State
Boston College over Kent State
California over Eastern Washington
Cincinnati over Southeast Missouri State
Clemson over Georgia Tech
Colorado over Toledo
Connecticut over North Carolina
Duke over Army
Florida over Troy
Florida State over Jacksonville State
Hawaii over Washington State
Illinois over Illinois State
Iowa over Iowa State
Kansas over UTEP
Kansas State over Louisiana Lafayette
LSU over Vanderbilt
Maryland over James Madison
Michigan State over Central Michigan
Middle Tennessee over Memphis
Missouri over Bowling Green
Navy over Louisiana Tech
Nebraska over Arkansas State
North Carolina State over Murray State
Northwestern over Eastern Michigan
Oklahoma over Idaho State
Oklahoma State over Houston
Oregon over Purdue
Oregon State over UNLV
Penn State over Syracuse
Pittsburgh over Buffalo
Rutgers over Howard
South Florida over Western Kentucky
Southern Miss over UCF
TCU over Virginia
Texas over Wyoming
Texas Tech over Rice
Virginia Tech over Marshall
Washington over Idaho
West Virginia over East Carolina
Western Michigan over Indiana
Wisconsin over Fresno State

One thing for sure: I'm not eating that chocolate muffin on the motel balcony

Up until today, there were two things I never considered that particularly dangerous. One was catching a breath of nighttime air on a motel balcony and the other was eating a chocolate muffin.

Lucy, you got some explanining to do

If there is anyone playing politics with school children it is the Arlington Independent School District which refused to allow President Obama's speech to school children be broadcast into any of its schools yet will bus school children to Jonestown on Sept. 21 (a school day) to hear a speech from George Bush.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The cost of doing nothing

There were a number of great moments during President Obama's health care speech last night before a joint session of Congress, but, to me, this was the most important words he spoke:

"Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true."

That is simply too high a price to pay and, for the life of me, I can't understand how anyone can look themselves in the mirror --can live with themselves -- and say they oppose any plan to make sure those things don't happen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Must Keep Smiling

From the Pundit Kitchen

I know there's a subversive political message in here someplace if I could just locate it (Cont.)

Jimmy Margulies, New Jersey Record

Tea Party involved in Dallas bus crash that killed 23 seniors

I'm guessing you're familiar with those right-wingnuts that call themselves members of something called the "Tea Party." They are the irresponsible idiots who want to keep a majority of our citizens unhealthy, are fanning the flames of Gov. Hair's secessionist talk and are spreading lies among the senior population to convince them to oppose meaningful health care reform. Well, according to some fine reporting Lindsay Bayerstein (pictured), this same Tea Party is responsible for hiring the irresponsible bus company that led to the deaths of 23 elderly nursing home residents fleeing Hurricane Rita in 2005. The bus, you might recall, burst into flames just outside of Dallas.

Call Missing Persons

The Sporting News polled 107 "football experts," including "27 Hall of Famers and past and present Pro Bowlers, executives and coaches," seeking to determine the Top 100 players in the NFL. Here is the list, along with a question: "Does anyone notice the omission of a local celebrity/quarterback?" (and I'm not referring to Matthew Stafford):

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts
2. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
4. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals
5. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers
6. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Redskins
7. Ed Reed, S, Ravens
8. Randy Moss, WR, Patriots
9. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers
10. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons
11. Ray Lewis, ILB, Ravens
12. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
13. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts
14. Steve Hutchinson, G, Vikings
15. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys
16. Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers
17. Brian Westbrook, RB, Eagles
18. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
19. James Harrison, OLB, Steelers
20. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Raiders
21. Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
22. Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles
23. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans
24. Steve Smith, WR, Panthers
25. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals
26. Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos
27. Shawne Merriman, OLB, Chargers
28. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
29. Walter Jones, OT, Seahawks
30. Kevin Williams, DT, Vikings
31. Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals
32. Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers
33. Terrell Owens, WR, Bills
34. Alan Faneca, G, Jets
35. Patrick Willis, ILB, 49ers
36. Mario Williams, DE, Texans
37. Jeff Saturday, C, Colts
38. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
39. Brian Dawkins, S, Broncos
40. Matt Birk, C, Ravens
41. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns
42. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons
43. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins
44. Bob Sanders, S, Colts
45. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Ravens
46. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
47. Pat Williams, DT, Vikings
48. Joey Porter, OLB, Dolphins
49. Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts
50. Eli Manning, QB, Giants
51. Brett Favre, QB, Vikings
52. Asante Samuel, CB, Eagles
53. Chris Snee, G, Giants
54. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
55. Jordan Gross, OT, Panthers
56. Charles Woodson, CB, Packers
57. Lance Briggs, OLB, Bears
58. Tommie Harris, DT, Bears
59. Antonio Cromartie, CB, Chargers
60. Jammal Brown, OT, Saints
61. Brian Urlacher, MLB, Bears
62. Matt Light, OT, Patriots
63. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
64. James Farrior, ILB, Steelers
65. Vince Wilfork, NT, Patriots
66. Adrian Wilson, S, Cardinals
67. Lofa Tatupu, MLB, Seahawks
68. Jay Cutler, QB, Bears
69. Kris Jenkins, NT, Jets
70. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
71. Shaun Rogers, NT, Browns
72. Julian Peterson, OLB, Lions
73. Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE, Titans
74. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
75. Darnell Dockett, DT, Cardinals
76. Antoine Winfield, CB, Vikings
77. Willie Parker, RB, Steelers
78. Brandon Marshall, WR, Broncos
79. Leonard Davis, G, Cowboys
80. Aaron Kampman, OLB, Packers
81. Jon Beason, MLB, Panthers
82. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
83. Kris Dielman, G, Chargers
84. Andre Gurode, C, Cowboys
85. Jay Ratliff, NT, Cowboys
86. DeMeco Ryans, MLB, Texans
87. Roddy White, WR, Falcons
88. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
89. Michael Roos, OT, Titans
90. Cortland Finnegan, CB, Titans
91. Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos
92. Haloti Ngata, NT, Ravens
93. John Abraham, DE, Falcons
94. Casey Hampton, NT, Steelers
95. Logan Mankins, G, Patriots
96. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams
97. Richard Seymour, DE, Raiders
98. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets
99. LaMarr Woodley, OLB, Steelers
100. Dallas Clark, TE, Colts

I found it interesting that the Dallas Texans were roundly criticized a couple of years ago for taking defensive end Mario Williams with the first pick in the draft instead of Heisman Trophy winning running back Reggie Bush and that Williams is No. 36 on this list and Bush's name is nowhere to be found.

I also found it disheartening that the only players on this list who are on my fantasy team this year are quarterback Kurt Warner (No. 25), running back Michael Turner (No. 42) and my backup quarterback (at least for now) Jay Cutler (N0. 68).

Hunt blames others for problems she helped create

Displaying the height of hypocrisy, Angela Hunt has a scare piece on her blog today about the city's debt and its ability to repay that debt. The issue is the 2006 bond program and how miserably Ms. Hunt and many other city council persons have handled the sale of those bonds. "But don't blame me," Ms. Hunt essentially writes today, "let's disregard the wishes of the voters even more than we already have."

Ms. Hunt's undemocratic suggestion is to curtail by as much as 50 percent some of the bond programs scheduled for next year.

Let's review, shall we. In 2006 voters passed the largest bond proposal in the city's history after being told exactly how much the these capital improvements would cost. The voters said "Hey, we want these projects and we're willing to pay this price for them."

Ms. Hunt and the the majority of her council colleagues then reneged on the entire deal, saying "Hey, we can get you all this stuff for free. You won't have to pay a cent for it. We'll just cut about $190 million in essential services, fire 800 city employees, close libraries and rec centers and pay for it that way."

Now Ms. Hunt has the unmitigated gall to criticize what she and the rest of the council brought on themselves by saying "Hey, we can't cut anymore so we just won't build what we promised we would build and you said you would pay to have us build."

Here's some advice for you, Ms. Hunt, and the rest of the City Council: Quit representing just the 43 percent of your constituents who are homeowners and start representing all of the people of your district, as you were elected to do. You failed to follow the wishes of the voters in order to protect this 43 percent minority and now your solution for your failure is to disregard their wishes even more by not giving them the improvements they voted for.

Super Bowl predictions

It's really a stupid thing to do: To predict the next Super Bowl matchup before the regular NFL season even begins. But Peter King of Sports Illustrated and Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News have leaped into the breach, so, naturally, I'm going to follow. Both King and Gosselin say the New England Patriots will be the AFC's representative in the big game. King has gone way out on a limb and said the Chicago Bears will represent the NFC and Gosselin believes it will be my beloved New York Giants. As for me, I'm going to take somewhat of a flier and predict the Minnesota Vikings will upset the Patriots in next February's big game.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Atkins won't support the Natinsky plan

The more I get to know Dallas city councilman Tennell Atkins, the more I like the guy. In fact, he may be my first council "hero" since Ed Oakley left. I know. I know. The fashionable thing is to be an ardent follower of Angela Hunt, absorbing every word that comes out of her mouth as the gospel when it comes to city policy. I hate to tell you this, but that empress has no clothes.

Mr. Atkins, on the other hand, is the real deal. I wouldn't call him a "leader," because that would assume he has followers. Unfortunately, most of the other council members are nothing more than sheets, billowing in whatever direction the political wind is blowing at the time. Mr. Atkins, on the other hand, sees the problems, knows why they were caused and comes up with a way to fix them, even if those ways are not the most popular approaches.

Tonight I attended my -- oh, gosh, I haven't even kept count -- budget townhall meeting and my third hosted by Mr. Atkins. After it was over, I approached the easily approachable Mr. Atkins and asked him if he planned on supporting the Natinsky amendment, a $2.4 million plan devised by North Dallas Councilman Ron Natinsky (left) that will rely mainly on fee increases to raise the money needed to solve the Recreation Center Problem that has dominated these town hall gatherings. Mr. Atkins placed his hands on my shoulders, looked at me as though I had either just landed from another galaxy or had escaped from some institution for the politically wah-wah and said "Are you kidding? Do you think it's fair just to make the people who use the rec centers pay for them. These centers are for all the people of Dallas and all of them should be paying for it."

Really, all I wanted was a "yes" or "no" answer and I did not want to engage in a political discourse right there in the cafeteria of McNair Elementary School in far Southwest Dallas so I just stood there as Mr. Atkins then went into a recitation on why it was also wrong to tax Atmos Energy, but, by this time, my head was swimming (I have not had much sleep lately and I had not eaten all day), so I wasn't really following his logic on this one. Not only that, I still couldn't wrap my hands around Mr. Atkins first argument that it was wrong to have the people who use the rec centers pay to keep them open. I actually thought that was perfectly fair. It was only after I was back in my car to begin the 24-mile drive back home that I realized how right he was.

Our democratic form of government is based on the premise that we taxpayers pay for things whether we use them or not if it is believed, by the majority, to be in society's best interest. Let me give you an example. The only time in the last 25 years I have set foot inside a Dallas Public Library was to vote. Now, I have nothing against libraries. But when I want to read a book, I will simply buy it or borrow from My Hero who is dead-solid perfect on making recommendations for books I should read. I'm not saying that's the right way to do things; only that's my way. I have yet to find any research I needed to conduct that I couldn't perform from my home computer, as slow and as outdated as that computer may be.

Be that as it may, a portion of the taxes I pay go to support the Dallas library system. I doubt I would get very far if I walked into City Manager Mary Suhm's office and said "Listen, I really don't ever use the library, so let's say we just reduce my taxes by the same percentage as libraries get from the General Fund."

Natinsky's plan, when you really look at it closely, is the same thing as charging library patrons a major fee for every book they check out or an hourly fee for use of library facilities. While we're at it, let's only charge code violators the money required to keep Code Compliance operating. I have lived in Dallas a little more than 40 years now and I have never -- not once -- run into a Code Compliance person performing his or her duties. So why should I pay for them?

I pay for them because that's the way government works. That's the way government is funded, a principle Mr. Atkins understands, but most of his colleagues don't. I say most of his colleagues don't because I'm afraid Mr. Natinsky's undemocratic plan, which, like most taxation plans you'll find in Texas, hits hardest on those who can least afford to pay them, will pass. But, then, when it comes to the never-ending class-race warfare in Dallas, we all know which class and which race will win. It's always been that way and I don't see it changing anytime soon.

I know there's a subversive political message in here someplace if I could just locate it

I am convinced that if a white President, of either major political party, had wanted to address school students, you would now have heard the uproar from fascists like Mark Davis and the rest of the right-wingnut stormtroopers.

Here is the text of what the President said. Warning, if you don't give a damn about the future of this country -- a future that will be decided by our schoolchildren of today -- I advise you stop reading now.

Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today.

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.

I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.
That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.

And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

Time picks the 50 best Web sites of 2009

Do you have a couple of hours, perhaps a week, a month or even a year to spare? Then this is the place for you. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, September 7, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Crank: High Voltage (2009) ** Laughably and knowingly preposterous, cheerfully un-PC, and violent in a way that makes the myriad slaphappy deaths of Wile E. Coyote seem downright dull in comparison. Grade: C-

Dance Flick (2009) ** This slapstick and scatological spoof settles for obvious punchlines, delivering just enough laughs to justify its existence without coming anywhere near the bar set by Scary Movie. Grade: C-

Local Color (2008) Unseen by me.

Sleep Dealer (2009) *** The film’s plot is a bit thin, and the performances are earnest and dutiful. But there is sufficient ingenuity in the film’s main ideas to hold your attention, and the political implications of the allegorical story are at once obvious and subtle. Grade: C+

Valentino: The Last Emperor (2009) ***½ Ultimately, the film feels as glitzy and superficial as the fashion industry itself, a bauble in full regalia, and it’s likely your interest in the documentary will depend largely on your prior interest in the subject matter. Grade: B

Friday, September 4, 2009

The best college football game of the weekend

I'm going with 13th-ranked Georgia at No. 9 Oklahoma State. If the Bulldogs manage to upset the Cowboys -- and I think there's an excellent chance of that happening because of OSU's weak defense -- then it will cement the Southeastern Conference's position as the No. 1 football conference in the nation and the talk will begin that the Big 12 is overrated.

I do think Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant is a better receiver than Michael Crabtree was last year for Texas Tech. Bryant also returned two punts for touchdowns last year and if OSU had a defense that could force more punts, Bryant would be a legitimate Heisman candidate this season. Quarterback Zac Robinson will either be throwing to Bryant or handing off to running back Kendall Hunter, a combination that guarantees the Cowboys will score a lot of points.

Georgia enters this season without quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshown Moreno, but it will have wide receiver A.J. Green, who's even better than Bryant, and a fifth-year senior, Joe Cox, at quarterback. I'm thinking Georgia coach Mark Richt, one of the best in the business, will play it conservatively on offense, hoping his top-notch offensive line will allow the Bulldogs to keep the ball away from the Cowboys.

A lot of folks will be interested in OU-BYU, but the only thing I find intriguing about this game is whether BYU will even manage to keep the score close. If you can only watch one college game this weekend, my choice would be Georgia-Oklahoma State.

New York Times predicts Texas will win national championship

And so we reach the Longhorns, my pick for this season’s national champs. This is a pick based on a trio of factors. The first is Texas’s combination of overwhelming talent and senior leadership. We all know about senior quarterback Colt McCoy, of course, but Texas is also very experienced on its offensive line, which was a major key during the program’s last national championship run. Texas can also tout a talented linebacker corps and, as always, a strong and deep secondary. The second factor is a very winnable schedule. Yes, Oklahoma will again be a major test, as will a road date with Oklahoma State. But Texas beat O.U. in 2008, and had fewer losses and faces fewer concerns than the Sooners do entering this season. If U.T. can escape both O.U. and the Cowboys, I don’t think it will be tested by another team on its schedule. My third factor is the least tangible: I believe U.T. will use last season’s disappointment as inspiration. It’s a very simple premise, actually: the best teams typically win, and when you add Texas’s desire to make up for how last season turned out, you have the makings of a national champion. Call it a hunch, one aided by an experienced coaching staff and a deep, talented and experienced roster. The best news? Whether I’m right or wrong, college football is mere hours away.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I understand how to vote for Best Picture Oscar; it's the counting that has me confused

For a minute there, I thought the Motion Picture Academy was going to make voting for the best picture Oscar identical to the manner in which the nominees are chosen.

The best picture nomination process works as follows: Each voter gets a ballot on which they are to select five best picture nominees (this year it will be 10) in order of preference. In figuring up the nominees, five points were awarded each picture ranked No. 1, four points for No. 2 and so on. This year I'm figuring it will be 10 points for the picture ranked No. 1, nine for No. 2 and so on. The five (this year 10) pictures with the most points (not the same as the most votes) are the nominees.

Simple enough.

Earlier this week came the announcement that on the final ballot this year, voters will be asked to rank the 10 nominees in order of preference on their ballots. That was OK, too, until I learned the manner of tabulating the winner is not going to be on the same point system by which the nominees are selected.

See if you can follow this twisted process: The best picture ballot will be detachable from the rest of the ballot. Once they are detached, they will be placed in up to 10 separate stacks depending on which picture was named No. 1. If one stack contains over 50 percent of the returned ballots, it will be declared the winner. Now I'm willing to bet that in the last 20 years, we have only had three films that would have surpassed that 50-percent threshold: Schindler's List in 1993, Titanic in 1996 and Slumdog Millionaire last year.

So, in the likely event that no film gets 50 percent, the stack with the smallest number of ballots will be redistributed according to which film is listed as No. 2 on each of the ballots in that stack. If none of the remaining nine stacks has one with at least 50 percent of the total ballots, the process will be repeated until finally there is one stack with at least 50 percent of the total ballots.

The reason behind this tabulation change is that the Academy didn't want people to think that the winner would have captured the Oscar with 10 percent plus one of all the votes cast. Why, I don't know. I have always said that the main problem with any award process like this is that, even with five nominees, it was possible that the winner could take home the award with just 21 percent of the vote. Translated that means that a whopping 79 percent did not think that winning nominee deserved the award. So why are we quibbling over 10 percent, just because the Academy decided to double the number of nominees for the top award?

Here's the other problem I have with this system. Every time, the Academy reduces the number of "stacks," it reduces the possibility that the picture named No. 1 on most of the ballots will win the Oscar and more likely that a film listed as No. 2 or No. 3 on most of the ballots will win, which nullifies the reason for handing out the award in the first place. I'm betting that if this system had been in place in 2006, Little Miss Sunshine would have undeservedly won the Oscar instead of The Departed and quite possibly Michael Clayton would have won the following year instead of No Country for Old Men. On the plus side, however, it would have meant Brokeback Mountain would have defeated Crash in 2005 and either the more deserving Traffic or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would have won over Gladiator in 2000.

An early look at likely Oscar nominees

This list of possible nominees in the eight top categories is not based on any polling data -- I will begin polling Academy members later this month. These are strictly educated guesses based on what I've seen, heard and read so far this year. It should be noted that the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off next week and prior to last year's TIFF there was no talk at all about Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler or the film Slumdog Millionaire. (All nominees listed alphabetically.)

Capitalism: A Love Story
An Education
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Rob Marshall, Nine
Lone Scherfig, An Education

George Clooney, Up in the Air
Matt Damon, The Informant!
Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Viggo Mortenson, The Road

Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Hilary Swank, Amelia

Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
Richard Gere, Amelia
Richard Kind, A Serious Man
Alfred Molina, An Education
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Judi Dench, Nine
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious
Rachel Weisz, The Lovely Bones

Adapted Screenplay
An Education
The Lovely Bones
Up in the Air

Original Screenplay
(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
The Tree of Life


New York Times' prediction for Oklahoma's 2009 football season

Oklahoma’s not going anywhere, despite facing issues up front and again dealing with Texas and an improved Oklahoma State team in conference play. The Sooners are simply too good, too talented on both sides of the ball, to take any major step back from last season. Looking at the schedule, I think Oklahoma will finish with an 11-1 record. Certainly, O.U. will do no worse than 10-2, with an additional loss perhaps coming at Nebraska or at home to Oklahoma State in the regular season finale. Now, I think it’s clear that I do believe Texas to be the better team in 2009. Not that Oklahoma won’t have something to prove, having lost in the national championship last fall, but I think Texas will have an enormous chip on its shoulder due to last season’s disappointment. So Oklahoma, in my mind, will come in second in the South; like with Texas last fall, that will result in Oklahoma being on the cusp of the national championship but settling – if you can call it settling – for a major B.C.S. bowl.

Why you should never trust Eric Celeste for shrewd political analysis

Eric Celeste (pictured here), writing today in D magazine's Frontburner blog about Kinky Friedman's decision to run for governor again, offered this interesting tidbit:

"His (Friedman's) candidacy will again help the Republican ticket by drawing a just-significant-enough percentage of votes from Democratic candidates to ensure another Rick Perry victory."

That might have been true if Mr. Friedman was running as an independent as he did four years ago. He's not, however. As this story (which was also Mr. Celeste's source) makes clear, Mr. Friedman is running this time around in the Democratic primary. That means he may take enough votes away from Hank Gilbert to hand the Democratic nomination to Tom Scheiffer. (Or, which is of utmost importance to Mr. Friedman, he might sell more copies of his upcoming book Heroes of a Texas Childhood. Expect him to mention it quite a lot during his campaign stops.)