Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: The Year In Review (Part 3)

Here we are in the strange, surreal, no-man's-land between Christmas and the start of the New Year, and 2013 is on death row.  There will be no last-minute reprieve from our 400-year-old, hatchet-faced governor, nor a last-minute phone call from Amnesty International.  2013 sits in its dank little prison cell, marinating in melancholy, and dejectedly gnawing on its bitter last meal of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises.  So, when the prison chaplain shows up at the door with his Big Black Book of Contradictory Nonsense to make one last-ditch effort to redeem the soul of this year before it gets marched off to the electric chair and be plugged into eternity, 2013 will spit in his face with cheerful defiance and blurt out, "Stuff it, Padre!  I apologize for NOTHING!"  There were some good things in this year, some bright spots of greenery in a desert of bland mediocrity, and we're going to remember some of them:

The WELL, BUTTER MY BISCUITS AND CALL ME SCREWED Award goes to the redoutable Paula Deen.  Paula was the nation's Buddha of Bad Eating, the Princess of Pork Belly, the First Lady of Fricasseed Funk, and a Southern-Fried Cracker Queen whose toothy, perfect smile graced dozens of magazines every time I stood in a grocery store checkout line.  She was like a lowbrow Martha Stewart, but without all the murderous psychopathic qualities and barely-concealed hatred for the people who buy into her house-of-mirrors media empire.  In Paula Deen's world, there was no problem that could not be fixed with a couple of pounds of butter and a big ole mess of possum skracklings, or a hundred other things I would never consider putting in my mouth.  Well, maybe except for the problems that will arise from injudiciously dropping the N-word at a court deposition, seemingly tolerating an atmosphere of sexual harrassment at the restaurant she co-owns with her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers, or letting plans slip out about a "plantation-style" wedding with black waiters in white jackets.  Fancy white jackets are apparently one of the many wonderful perks slaves enjoyed during their working vacation, I mean, servitude to white people, if that old Duck Dynasty scumbag is to be believed.  For the national media, it was Thanksgiving Day and Paula was the biggest, fattest turkey they had ever layed eyes on, and they went after her with a vengeance usually reserved for mass murderers or child molesters.  Paula immediately went on an I-so-sorry tour of morning talk shows and seemed genuinely repenitent for her gaffes.  But Our Lady of Perfect Gravy is nothing but resilient, and as recently as this month was spotted cheerfully visiting a bunch of backyard chickens in Savannah.  Hang in there, Paula!  Redemption is yours for the asking, just don't say the N-word out loud anymore. And yes, I don't mind if I have another one of your delicious crescent dinner rolls.

The CRAP HIT THE FAN, THEN HIT IT AGAIN 90 MINUTES LATER award goes to the movie "Gravity."  According to - the Careless Whispers preferred resource for movie statistics - the highest grossing film of 2013 was "Iron Man 3," which earned over $400 million in its US release.  Pretty impressive, when you consider that the third installment of a film franchise featuring a second-tier Marvel Comics character can pull down nearly a half-billion dollars worth of scratch.  I'm not sure why that is, but I'm thinking it has something to do with the appeal of its star, Robert Downey Jr., who seems to be very talented and a good person, and not as grubby and unkempt as Johnny Depp.  But this item truly moves into WTF? territory when you consider that "Iron Man 3" made TWICE as much in foreign release, bringing its total worldwide gross to nearly $1.25 BILLION!  Well played, Buena Vista Pictures, for a $200 million investment.  It's been a very nice Christmas for you, indeed.  I haven't seen 95% of the major movies of 2013, but one I did see and enjoyed very much was "Gravity."  This movie had EVERYTHING!  Sandra Bullock in her underwear!  Authentic looking space hardware!  Mind-twisting special effects!  George Clooney's GHOST!  A cloud of hypersonic satellite debris ripping the crap out of a space station, and then doing it AGAIN ninety minutes later as it circled the earth!  Oh, my inner science nerd was having a field day with this movie!  A number of other people agreed, because "Gravity" made $254,592,000 domestically and $653,292,000 worldwide, on a production budget of $100 million.  Not as much as Robert Downey Jr. in an aluminum jump suit, but still nothing to sneeze at.  Contrast, if you will, the number 54 movie of the year, "Ender's Game," based on the novel by homophobic garden gnome Orson Scott Card.  That resounding flop of a movie had a worldwide gross of $88 million on a production budget of $110 million, costing Lionsgate Pictures over $20 million, more if you factor in the advertising and promotion money the studio had to spend publicizing that stinker.

The IT'S COMING!  IT'S COMING!  IT'S... NOT COMING! award for 2013 goes to Comet ISON. We astronomers are a prickly lot.  Some might even consider us dour; spending endless nights when normal people are sleeping, freezing to death while peering morosely into tiny glass eyepieces attached to big metal tubes, hoping to spot a dim smear of gray light from an object impossibly far away.  People just don't grasp the awe and excitement we feel when we do see that tiny bit of fuzzy light, knowing that it took 50 million years or more to travel to our earthbound retinas and register in our tiny mammalian brains, and that it, in fact, represents an entire galaxy composed of hundreds of billions - if not trillions - of stars, with many billions of planets circling them, and many millions of intelligent civilizations with sentient beings very different from humans, who may be looking right back at us with the exact same sense of astonishment.  We get really excited about stuff that happens up in the sky, and a whole lot of stuff does happen.  But, ironically, we are bound by our gravitational attachment to Earth, and being able to see many astronomical events depends on exactly where we are on Earth and what time zone we're in.

For instance, by all accounts the most amazing, mind-blowing astro-event you can witness is a total eclipse of the sun, but the path of totality - which is the only place to be, really - is a tiny little strip of land often 50 miles in width or less, and almost always in the most remote, desolate, god-forsaken location possible, such as the Antarctica, sub-Saharan Africa or the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Even if, through the greatest of luck or the most expensive of efforts, you find yourself in the VIP seating section for a solar eclipse, you are still at the mercy of a passing weather front, which can most surely obscure your much-sought-after vantage point and basically ruin your life.  I lucked out majorly in May 2012 when I was able to see a very rare annular eclipse of the sun, and I only had to drive 5 hours to northern Arizona, which was totally worth it.

Other celestial events are more widely observable, such as the aurora borealis (or the southern hemisphere counterpart, the aurora australis), but they are best viewed in high latitudes, above 50-60 degrees.  Here in Phoenix, at 32 degrees north latitude, we never see the northern lights, and if we did, it would probably mean big trouble, since the earth would have to be blasted with an epic, historic radiation storm to see them down here.  Other astronomical sights are very widely viewable, such as meteor storms, or total lunar eclipses, which are visible over entire hemispheres with clear skies.  Another such event is a comet.  The appearance by Comet Hale-Bopp, a number of years ago, was a world-wide event which sparked huge excitement and interest in these dirty snowballs which cross our path every so often.

When Comet ISON was discovered, immediately the hype started.  Portrayed as the incipient "Comet of the Century," lots of people painted vivid word pictures about the "Christmas Comet," which would grace the skies in December, make a close encounter with our sun, and (remember these words ==>) if it survived, would continue on a path which would take it even closer to our planet.  It would then put on a spectacular show in January, with some people saying (be still, my heart) that it could be as bright as the full moon.  Many astronomers (myself included) dreamed many, many dreams of a brilliant comet hanging suspended in a clear winter twilight sky, gossamer tail extending almost to the horizon, and being there for weeks if not months on end.

Astronomers tracked ISON with pain-staking precision, and the expectations grew faster than the comet did in telescopic photographs.  Things started to unravel a bit in September when some Debbie-Downer-type astronomers said ISON wasn't brightening quite fast enough as it plunged through the outer solar system toward the sun.  But we didn't care because comets are notorious non-conformists and will do whatever they please, light-curve predictions be damned.  We watched in breathless anticipation as satellite-based solar observatories saw ISON cruise in past Mercury, getting bigger and brighter as it approached our central star, finally disappearing in the harsh glare of the sun, an Icarus with white wings soaring into the light and heat.

Now, those three words I asked you earlier to remember: "if it survived"?  This is where they come in.  ISON swung around our Sun, barely a million miles above its searing surface and then.... broke into a bunch of pieces.  Scientists the world over expected to see a big, brilliant cometary body with a long, bright tail sweeping in front of it, but instead saw a small, indistrict bright patch with a tiny tail, which eventually got smaller and smaller until there was nothing but small pieces left.  It was officially declared dead a couple of weeks later.  Thus, Comet ISON, the "Comet of the Century" became Comet ISON - the DUD of the century, leaving us astronomers severely disappointed and demoralized.  But we went right back to scanning the skies in hopes of being the first person to spot the next incoming Great Comet Hope, which would again be granted the mantle of Comet of the Century, and this time maybe will actually fulfill that promise, instead of breaking all our astronomical hearts.

The ALL THINGS MUST END... SOMETIMES BADLY award goes to the series finale of Dexter.  The Showtime series finished up its eight-season run earlier this year, not in a blaze of glory, but a resounding THUD, reminiscent of the sound your head makes when it hits the side of the toilet as you rush to puke into it.  When it was firing on all cylinders, Dexter was a stylish, intelligent, and well-written tour de force through the labyrinthine mind of a serial killer.  His "dark passenger," as he called his murderous alter-ego, alternately surfaced and retreated in the ever-changing facade that Dexter presented to his family, friends and the outside world.  But things really derailed for the last season, and in the climatic episode, Dex was shown carrying the dead body of his sister Deborah Morgan out of the hospital in the midst of massive hurricane evacuation through crowds of police and public-safety officers onto his boat, and NO ONE STOPPED HIM.  After dumping Deb into the ocean, the last we saw of Dexter was him driving his power boat directly into the swirling maelstrom of the approaching storm.  Well, "the last" until he surfaced inexplicably somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where he labored as the Unhappiest Lumberjack Ever (or stunt double for a post-apocalyptic Bounty paper towel commercial), living in numbing isolation in a dreary, decrepit boarding house, with only his memories of his previous life in Miami.  I can't remember another series finale that was so thoroughly and universally condemned and reviled by fans and critics alike, with levels of hateful derision and virulent contempt normally reserved for Republican presidential debates.  Sorry things ended so badly for you, Dex, but it could have been worse.  You could have been one of your fans. 


TV Shows I Like:  Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, True Blood, Breaking Bad, Live From Daryl's House, Later with Jools Holland, Real Time with Bill Maher, Sons of Anarchy, The Rachel Maddow Show, Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, Nurse Jackie, House of Cards (on Netflix).

Things I Love:  Rabbits, animals in general, my dear friends (both local and Facebook), Brambley Hedge Rabbit Rescue, hiking, secret crushes, sunsets and sunrises, astronomy, sushi, my friend Meme's homemade Chinese Seafood soup, chocolate, writing, photography, artwork, dinners with friends.

Here's hoping 2014 is a turning point for our country, and we can get back to being the great nation we truly are.  Sometimes it's very hard to see that potential.  I wish there were no unwanted and unloved children and animals, everyone had a decent standard of living and health care, and a decent place to live.  I wish people in power weren't so evil and hypocritical and dishonest and deliberately ignorant.  I wish people would mind their own damn business and stay out of the lives of others with whom they have no reason to meddle.  I hope people continue to turn away from religion and other stifling, suffocating poisons of the human spirit.  Most of all, I wish for peace, love and continued health for my friends.  I hope I never lose the sense of child-like wonder I feel when I look up into the night sky, or into the eyes of a beloved rabbit.  I also hope I never lose my belief in angels and miracles.  If I die tomorrow, it will be with the knowledge and satisfaction that I have lived my life exactly as I wanted to live it, and I have no regrets.

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013: The Year in Review (Part 2)

Hey, we're on a roll here. Not really, but cut me a giant slackburger with cheese, okay?  It's Christmas.  Here are some more highly desirable and coveted awards for the Year That Almost Was - 2013!

The ONE-TRACK MIND/NO-TRACK BRAIN Award goes to the Republican Scandal Industry:  "Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  OH LOOK! A SQUIRREL!  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi."

The WINTER OLYMPICS AWARD FOR SPECTACULAR WASTE TIME AND MONEY goes to the government shutdown last October.  This was when the Republican party completely lost their minds and got hijacked by a bunch of noisy, obnoxious douchebags in their own caucus and brought the entire US government to a complete halt.  The Tea Baggers, ostensibly led by pasty-faced bed-wetter with questionable citizenship Ted Cruz (aided by his completely demented, Alzheimers-ridden father), threw a hissy fit and turned what should have been a routine budgetary procedure - raising the federal debt ceiling, something that Republican false idol Ronald Reagan did 18 times during his reign of error in the 80s - and tried to use it to cripple the Affordable Care Act which also debuted in October.  Because that's the way one of the oldest representative democracies in the world changes legitimately-passed laws that run afoul of a bunch of dimwitted loose cannons in the House of Representatives - by shutting down the government.  Millions of federal employees furloughed, national parks closed, airport security compromised, for what reason?  Less than three weeks later the Tea Baggers capitulated in a hugely embarrassing loss, gaining ABSOLUTELY NOTHING other than a monstrous amount of bad publicity, the Republican party rightfully buried under the condemnation and derision of the public, and the Office of Budget and Management estimating that over $64 BILLION dollars of taxpayers money were completely squandered by this useless exercise in constipated government.  And the target of their misplaced ire, the Affordable Care Act, was completely and utterly unscathed by all this (although it definitely had problems of its own making, more about that later).  Hope you enjoyed your little 64-billion-dollar tantrum, Tea Baggers, because the result was that most people in this country had their pre-existing opinion reaffirmed - that you are a bunch of selfish, useless, idiotic dicks.

The WHY ARE YOU STILL ALIVE? Award goes to Miley Cyrus and her delightful twerking episode on her appearance at the MTV Video Awards (or something, I can't tell any of those award shows apart anymore).  Stretching the definition of "entertainer" to nearly the breaking point, Ms. Cyrus and her grotesquely large tongue made their entrance from the inside of a gigantic teddy bear complete with Battlestar-Galactica-Cylon scanning red eye.  And things went downhill from there.  Floundering and gyrating around on stage like a zombie scarecrow with a severe neurological disorder, she made her way through a bunch of confused dancers dressed up like plush animals.  Then singer Robin Thicke sashayed out of nowhere, decked out in the latest football referee formal wear and warbled out his current song "Blurred Lines" (which, I'm embarrassed to say, I find irresistibly catchy and have on my MP3 player).

But, cultural critical mass and nuclear detonation was achieved when Cyrus bent over, backed into Thicke's crotch and did some half-hearted spasmodic twitching which the kids nowadays call "twerking."  500 years ago folks would have called it "St. Vitus' Dance" and burned her at the stake.  Well, the next day the American public went completely batshit crazy, just like they did when Janet Jackson had her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Superbowl halftime show with Justin Timberlake, and kiddies all over the world were treated to the unexpected sight of her boobie and nipple shield (and I'll bet THAT made for some interesting post-Superbowl parent-child conversations).  Every single pundit went into overdrive and were unanimous in their conclusion that this is America, not some godless wicked society which would allow such a wanton display of abysmal taste and moral dissolution.  Ironically, this really IS America, and the only bad publicity is no publicity.  Instead of being banished to the outer reaches of cultural Siberia, Cyrus received an unprecedented avalanche of publicity which she funneled right into the release of her latest music album, resulting in spectacular sales and well over 35 MILLION likes on Facebook.  Jesus Christ's Facebook page, by comparison, has fewer than 6 million likes.

So what are we to make of this, when a very marginally-talented, utterly forgettable celebrity behaves in an overwhelmingly crass and tasteless fashion, and immediately reaps an enormous, priceless bonanza of attention and publicity?  In our culture, sensationalism trumps quality any day of the week, and people delight in watching others degrade themselves, the more publicly, the better.  What we can expect in the future is more of the same, because nothing succeeds like success, and Ms. Cyrus has very clearly shown us that the reward for bad behavior is infinitely more lucrative than the reward for good behavior.

The "PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF THERE'S SOME OTHER WAY WE CAN SCREW UP" Award.  The name of this award comes from a scene in the classic movie "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."  After a particularly awkward and uncomfortable dinner with a delegation of Klingons, Capt. Kirk says, "I'm going to bed now.  Please let me know if there's some other way we can screw up tonight!"  This award is given to the most monumental screw-up of the year, something that was so horrifically misconceived and so dismallly executed that the inevitable carnage was spread far and wide, from sea to shining sea.

Everyone knows that the staff here at the Careless Whispers blog (me and 17 rabbits) is nothing but even-handed and impartial (I would have said "fair and balanced" but those dirtbags at Fox News have ruined that phrase for the rest of eternity), and we assign blame wherever appropriate, regardless of political affiliation.  Thus, this award goes to the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA had been in the works for a long time, and is the signature legislative achievement of the Obama administration.  Central to the idea of health care reform is a national website which would allow people to shop for health insurance and sign up online.  The website is widely reported to have cost over $400 million dollars when it went live on October 1st.  For nearly HALF A BILLION dollars you'd think you'd get the Lamborghini of websites, a platinum-standard of efficiency and user-friendliness.  What we got instead was a clunky, poorly-designed mess which was well nigh impossible to navigate.  I got on the site about two weeks after launch and it was incredibly slow and tediously frustrating.  There were many things wrong with it, too many to list here, but suffice to say it was a big pain in the ass to use.  I stopped using it whenever it took 20 minutes to get some information back after you hit ENTER, and the questionnaire part that gathered personal information was a complete mess, asking ridiculous questions and taking an unacceptably long time to do anything.  I went and did something else for a month and came back to the site, and it had improved considerably.  I found a health care plan which I liked and the rest of the process was really pretty easy.

But the damage was done and the entire country went crazy.  The Republicans jumped on it like a pack of ravenous hyenas on a geriatric antelope and took every single opportunity to inflame and misinform the public regarding the entire concept of health care reform.  At this writing, the Obama administration has just barely begun to drag itself out of the mammoth crater it dug for itself and hopefully by this time next year, the extreme screw-up that greeted the launch of the ACA will be a distant, unpleasant memory.  But not before the Republicans squeeze every single drop of political advantage out of it.

Next up:  Part 3, in which we tie up the loose ends and send 2013 to the Promised Land.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013: The Year In Review (Part 1)

Like the rheumy old geezer you're forced to sit next to in a theater or on a three-hour plane flight, 2013 is coughing, hacking and wheezing its way into the outhouse of history.  While not as bizarrely awful as 2012 (and that was due in large part to the presidential election), this year will go down as having more than its share of weird, unsettling and just plain annoying happenings.  So, let's take a look back at the crazy quilt of human folly that was 2013 and present some well-deserved awards for galaxy-class stupidity, starting with our premiere award:

The MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Award:  We thought we were going to get through this year without millions of right-wing dimwits getting all whipped up into a frenzied lather over some faux-controversy, like they did with the Chick-Fil-A idiocy last year.  You might remember that the COO of C-F-A made some ill-advised comments to religious publications that he was proud of financially supporting some groups that advocated a "traditional definition of marriage" (a.k.a. homophobia and bigotry disguised as piety).  When some people suggested we may want to direct our discretionary spending to a restaurant chain that wasn't quite as intolerant and hateful, the conservative sheeple were summoned into action by the right-wing garbage-mongers on Fox News and other pseudo-journalistic bastions of stupidity.  What better way to show your innate homophobia than by running down to your local Chick-Fil-A outlet and ordering up a big mess of their nasty fried chicken?  Yeah, that'll show those queer-loving liberals - go out and buy a shitload of artery-clogging, greasy animal parts.  A lot of people really had no intention of eating what they bought; many of them threw the food away immediately.  But gol darn it, they were going to make a STATEMENT and stand up for the First Amendment rights of some idiot who insists on sticking his nose into the lives and business of fellow Americans.

Back to 2013:  Fox News tried to get the ball rolling by kicking off their annual "War Against Christmas" pseudo-controversy.  When it appeared it wasn't getting enough traction with their easily-distracted-by-shiny-objects viewers, they decided to let slutty Botox abuser Megyn Kelly spew some incomprehensible drivel about Santa Claus only being white or... something? I don't even know.  But the shitstorm really spooled up to high gear when the patriarch of a clutch of barnyard animal-human hybrids that appear in some ridiculous reality show called "Duck Dynasty" cut loose with a rambling diatribe in GQ magazine that was pretty stunning and extreme in its stupidity, racism and homophobia.  Now I've never seen "Duck Dynasty," nor would I ever consider soiling my brain with whatever genetic-cesspool nonsense those hairy snake-oil salesmen are perpetrating on a dimwitted, gullible American public.  I spend my entire life avoiding those kind of people and trying hard to convince myself they don't really exist.  But you would really have to be living on some other planet these past couple of weeks to not have heard about this crapfest on nearly every news outlet.  The A&E network almost immediately tried to distance itself from the one program on their schedule that was an absolute cash cow, and "suspended" the noxious old fart from his own show.  Always eager to show its clout, the right-wing stupidity machine went into overdrive and cast this suspension as a heinous, unwarranted violation of someone's First Amendment Free Speech rights.  There's that pesky First Amendment again.  It's almost as misused, misquoted and misinterpreted as the Second Amendment.

The right wing loves to shriek like a stuck pig whenever they imagine someone violating their own rights, but gleefully and willingly will try to curtail the rights of any group of people they don't agree with, such as gay people seeking marriage equality or adults seeking to maintain access to a legal birth control procedure.  Then you get irrelevant, obsolescent gasbags like the scrawny, brittle, trailer-trash queen Sarah Palin dragging herself out from under some rock and shoving her pinched, ravaged face in front of any camera she can find, forcefully broadcasting her opinions like anyone gives a screaming shit about what she thinks.  The ignorant conservative hordes jumped up at their leaders' command and goose-stepped their way down to their local Walmart or Cracker Barrel restaurant and willingly blew their (irony alert) welfare checks on useless crap they really didn't need, just because some media hack told them they were defending some pseudo-celebrity's right to free speech, and snapped up every bit of Duck Dynasty schlocky merchandise they could get their fat, stubby fingers on.  It's astonishing to me that those idiots will do whatever their right-wing puppet-masters tell them to do, without a smidgen of critical thought.  As long as they see other people like them doing the same thing, they think they are on the right side of things.  Adolf Hitler would be so proud.

It's really difficult to understand how this country has changed so much that some repulsive, grubby old scumbag can spout a load of vile, disgusting hatespeech to a national magazine and then have millions of idiots defend his right to call gay people "terrorists" and make astonishingly ignorant statements about how black people were better off under slavery.  Twenty years ago someone saying that would be roundly criticized and condemned from every part of the political spectrum.  Nowadays, you could come out in favor of child molesters and as long as you managed to sneak in some Bible quotes, you will get people defending you and your right to be an asshole in public.

How did that happen?  I think it's the result of a number of things; one of them being the death of civil political discourse and intellectual thinking in this country.  The internet and social media have given everyone a global, anonymous platform to expel any and all kinds of hateful, disoriented thinking, with little or no consequence or accountability.  The gun lobby has set an example of scorched-earth policy by vehemently opposing even the smallest, most innocuous and toothless tightening of gun laws in this country.  Even the slaughter of 20 innocent children in December 2012 meant nothing to them.  The only thing they cared about is the fictional "slippery slope" which would surely lead to the government forcibly confiscating everyone's firearms if they banned one assault rifle or extra-capacity ammo clip.  Throw in an ignorant, uneducated population that accepts claptrap like that as gospel, and the spineless, cowardly stooges in Congress who are firmly in the back pocket of the gun manufacturers, and you have a great example of neo-fascism knocking at your door disguised as "patriotism."

But I digress.  Thankfully, Christmas is providing a welcome (albeit short) relief and distraction from all this small-minded stupidity, but I fear the argument will only be resurrected next month as the new season of that Duck Dynasty trashfest starts up.  It seems the conservative parts of the population will put up with absolutely any kind of horrible stupidity and intolerance as long as it's painted with the varnish of "religious expression," which has become the dog whistle to automatically incite the vast unwashed hordes to jump up and do whatever they are told.  After all, Jesus is on their side.  Or so they think.

Therefore, I give the Much Ado About Nothing Award to Duck Dynasty and their mindless followers for all their spectacular bigotry and ignorance.  They have taken the entire country one giant step closer to hell.