Saturday, June 30, 2007

CHINA BLUE

My local PBS station (KQED) pairs FRONTLINE with INDEPENDENT LENS. It makes for a very stimulating, thought provoking evening of tv. IL basically showcases amazing indie film and video from around the globe. As the website mentions, an episode can feature a variety of programs from documentaries to dramas to comic shorts to animation. While one may not know what exactly to expect in each episode, rest assured you will be viewing some of the finest independent film and video around.

Which brings me to one particular independent documentary I viewed on IL a few months back, CHINA BLUE. CHINA BLUE follows the story of Jasmine, a 17 year-old Chinese girl who (like many of her compatriots) leaves her rural family to look for work in the booming Chinese cities. She, like many others, finds work in a export oriented factory. In this case, a jeans factory. Made surreptitiously and without the approval of China's one party, totalitarian government, CHINA BLUE details just how harsh and repressive the environment is in which Chinese factory workers work. They work 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, sometimes in unsafe conditions, with very little (if any) labor rights and protections. In Jasmine's case, she and her fellow workers are placed on a 8am to 2am shift (16 hours) in order to complete an upcoming deadline. This in addition to a recent cut in pay. They work so hard, for such long hours, and without enough sleep that Jasmine and some of her coworkers use clothespins to clip their eyelids open.



And if you think you have a terrible boss, imagine working for the factory owner in CHINA BLUE. Not only does he overwork and underpay his employees but he nonchalantly calls them inferior criminals (murderers and thieves) from the countryside. It is the type of social prejudice that makes one shudder. For those curious, his previous occupation was as the city's Police Chief.

And yet the factory owner makes an insightful point when he states he doesn't make the big profits (he, however, does quite well driving a Mercedes) because the big profits are made by the multinational corporations which buy his jeans. As the CHINA BLUE website details, companies like Levi Strauss, Guess?, The Limited, Wal-Mart, etc get their jeans from these sweatshop factories. The website has some startling information, I highly recommend it for those curious. Yes, these multinational corporations state they have a "code of labor ethics" they demand their contractors to enforce and utilize inspectors. Yet, the repercussions are only for gross, repeat offenders and, more importantly, factories obtain advanced warning of an inspection allowing them to manipulate the working environment and coach the employees.

So what's the solution? Well, for me, there seems to be only one main solution. We must pressure the multinational corporations to do more to prevent sweatshop environments. If the companies actually do more, they will most likely get some added help from the US and Chinese governments. Unfortunately I really have no clue how to help apply this pressure. But the CHINA BLUE website does have some very valuable resources. One of the websites is Behind the Label, a great place for labor related news and currently spotlighting two campaigns (one of which is directed toward American Eagle Outfitters which allegedly harassed some of its Canadian employees when they wanted to form a union). There are also links to companies that produce sweatshop free jeans.

And equally as important in combating sweatshop labor practices is to simply get the word out. Piercing documentaries like CHINA BLUE do just that. I'm not sure when IL will rebroadcast CHINA BLUE, but it is a film I could not recommend more highly. For those interested, DVDs are available from the non-profit production company Teddy Bear Films.

It's a documentary that will stay with you for a long time. It has been months since I saw it, but I still remember the opening scene vividly. A group of representatives from some US company is taking a tour of the factory. One of the reps, an older, well-dressed woman, comments in an eerily faux-genuine manner at how "nice and convenient" it is that the workers live in dorms adjacent to the factory and eat at a cafeteria right in the factory building (the dorms are, of course, extremely crowded and both rent and food are taken out of each worker's paycheck). Strangely, the tour guide (a yes-man employee, most likely payed a bit better than the workers) repeatedly asks the older woman rep if she would like to try a dish at the cafeteria (no doubt the food is better than what is normally served in order to impress the representatives or in case they brought along an inspector). The older woman rep finds the offer beneath her and her condescendingly polite "no" soon turns into a slightly grimaced face trying hard not to shout "NO!" as the tour guide repeatedly offers to stop by the cafeteria. Of course this purported "slight" doesn't hinder the business deal. How big of her.

It is this type of ignorance, venality, and prejudice (the same type displayed by the factory owner, though quite a bit uglier) that needs to be combated. It's a view that gives a wink and a nudge (if not more) to inequality. And it is a view that is completely un-American.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

SO MUCH SO FAST

This post and the next are about two wonderful documentaries I viewed in early 2007.

The first, SO MUCH SO FAST, is a documentary I saw thanks to FRONTLINE. I've lauded FRONTLINE in the past and I'll be doing so in the future. For me, it is perhaps the best television has to offer. FRONTLINE broadcasts incisive, riveting, and thought provoking documentaries each week on PBS. Each episode (post 1995 or something) also has a companion website filled with insightful information and analysis. They're all organized at the main FRONTLINE website, which also has a section listing the episodes of FRONTLINE you can view online (currently 64).

Most of FRONTLINE's documentaries are piercing investigative journalism dealing with political, social, economic, and cultural issues. But frequently, FRONTLINE showcases probing, personal documentaries. These docs still deal with the same issues, but do so through intimate, full portraits of there very human subjects. A great example of this type of doc is COUNTRY BOYS which FRONTLINE aired in 2006. The doc displayed the complex struggles and joys of living in Appalachia through the lives of two young boys. It is an exceptional film and I highly recommend checking out the website and the film itself (which can be viewed online).

SO MUCH SO FAST is a doc in the same vein. The film follows a young man, Stephen Heywood, and his family, as they discover Stephen has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease), take care of him, and even try to find a cure. It is a tour-de-force filled with profound insights into how a young man deals with a horrendous disease, and how a family deals with such a tragedy. Not lying down.

If you're at all curious about SO MUCH SO FAST I highly recommend checking out the website. Unfortuantely, you cannot view the documentary online. But FRONTLINE does rotate which docs are available for online viewing. So I'd suggest bookmarking the website and regularly checking it; I'm not certain, but my guess is that the doc will be available online in the coming months (either that or it will be released on DVD and available for rent and purchase). And in the meantime there are clips. Plus the website has a wealth of information.

All I can say is that it is a tremendous film and something you're probably not expecting. A truly remarkable documentary.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I can sees Lolcats

The internet is really a wonderful tool. From its birth, it has helped blossom numerous communities. People who share a common passion, interest, or activity can join together and communicate with each other, no matter where they are located geographically. And, of course, these communities are interconnected as some members join more than one community. In any case, what I am ineloquently trying to say is that it is no surprise word-of-mouth is quite effective across the internet. This of course has led to many internet trends or memes. I am no expert on this subject matter, not even close. Frankly, I'm a bit amazed how quickly these things spread and how strange some of them are. But I must admit there's a recent (well, recent to me) internet meme that I, a bit embarrassedly, find difficult to resist. They're called Lolcats. I'm guessing most of you reading this already know about them, but for those of you who are Lolcat newbies (as I was, a short while ago), there is no better way to learn about Lolcats then to check out this wonderful, informative slide-show essay on Lolcats in Slate.

More Links:
Lolcat Wikipedia Entry
ICHC?
Loldogs@ICHC?

PS - Who will be the first to admit that they have actually created a Lolcat (or Loldog)?

*Lolcat image from ICHC?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Um,

David Hasselhoff, Sharon Osbourne, Piers Morgan.

Why does a show with the words "Got Talent" in the title have some of the most untalented individuals as it's judges?


FIN.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Good Read (continued)

This is simply an update and addendum to my previous post. In it I was to recommend three great articles I've recently come across. Unfortunately, I only got around to posting about two of them. In any case, here's the third.

"Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo."

-Mitt Romney (Republican Candidate for President)



The problem with this asinine statement is that there is no current process to reliably, legitimately (in my opinion) filter out the innocent prisoners in Gitmo. The Bush Administration knew this and simply wanted to hold them all indefinitely. Fortunately the US Supreme Court found this a wee bit unconstitutional and allowed the prisoners to challenge their incarceration. Next, the Bush Administration created special military tribunals to (haphazardly) try the prisoners. The US Supreme Court found these tribunals unconstitutional because they lacked protections required by the Geneva Conventions and the US Uniform Code of Military Justice. So Bush urged Congress to basically bypass the Supreme Court and get the tribunals back. Which happened with the passing of the MCA. The passing of the MCA illustrates the Bush Admin's intent to strip away the few legal rights the Gitmo prisoners have. The fundamental problem with this is that legal rights (i.e. some semblance of a fair trial) are the only way to reliably filter out the innocent from the guilty.

And for those, like Romney, who think there are no innocents in Gitmo, a brief investigation into who is being held at Gitmo and how they got there will change your mind. Now, I'm not saying that every prisoner in Gitmo is innocent. Yet, from what I've read, I am pretty confident that many are innocent. One reason is because many of the Gitmo prisoners were simply kidnapped by tribes people in Afghanistan for the bounty the US supplied. Afghanistan is filled with ethnic tribes (Pashtun, Tajik, Turkmen, etc) who aren't the best of friends. Prior to Taliban rule, Afghanistan was in the midst of a power grab between these ethnic tribes. That these tribes would simply kidnap and turn in their enemies in order to gain US bounties is clearly not far fetched. Another reason it is fair to say some (perhaps many) Gitmo prisoners are innocent is because they have been able to tell their stories of innocence, with collaboration (thanks to legal counsel, something the Bush Admin wants to restrict). Take for instance the story of Adel Hamad. Project Hamad, the deeply informative website dedicated to Hamad's release, details how weak the case against Hamad is. Hamad was a teacher and hospital worker who was arrested in the middle of night by the ISI (Pakistan's Intelligence Agency). For those not familiar with the ISI, it is a suspicious, notorious agency which knowingly supported the Taliban in the past (and still has some ties). The ISI really needs its own post, but the point I want to make is the ISI is hardly a trustworthy agency. Anyway, take a good look through Project Hamad. It is a great resource, like this page full of US government quotes acknowledging that many Gitmo prisoners are likely innocent.

And even the Bush Admin knows that Gitmo is holding many innocents. Therefore they have, quietly, released around 300 to 400 prisoners (I do not know the peak number of prisoners, but it might be around 700 to 800 according to wikipedia and/or Slate).

Unfortunately, even after release the hellish nightmare does not end for innocent Gitmo prisoners. Take for example the heartbreaking, kafkaesque story of Chinese Uighurs who were imprisoned in Gitmo. The Uighurs, who are muslim, are an ethnic minority in China who, not surprisingly, have had their fair share of oppression from China's Communist government. Before they found themselves in Gitmo, the Uighurs traveled to Afghanistan to find work and escape Chinese government harassment. When we (the US) bombed Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the Uighur village was simply collateral damage and the Uighurs fled to Pakistan. The Pakistani villagers initially fed and sheltered them, but then turned them over to US Military (in exchange for a bounty no doubt). After their ordeal in Gitmo, they were released to Albania. The Chinese government considers them terrorists due to a Uighur separatist movement, therefore sending them back to China would end very badly for the Uighurs. The crackerjack solution seems to be to hand them over to Albania, a staunch US ally. Unfortunately this is only the start of the Uighurs kafkaesque episode: they're unable to find work, or even leave their refugee center. Most of these men have families; families they are desperate to return to. It is truly a sad and grave episode that illustrates the tragic symbol Gitmo has become in the eyes of the international community.

PS - I'd just like to add that I have not mentioned anything about the alleged torture and humiliation many Gitmo prisoners endured. It is a post in its own right. For more information, wikipedia isn't a bad place to start here and here.

The NY Times article on the tragic plight of the Uighurs is a solid, sobering read. Please also swing by Project Hamad which is a deeply informative website. And check out this excellent Slate piece by the outstanding Dahlia Lithwick, a great article on Gitmo that I've linked to earlier in the post.

And, for those wondering what others have to say about Romney's quote, check out this the Onion "American Voices" piece.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Good Reads

Here are three great articles on important issues I am rather passionate about and find very interesting. Enjoy!

People are dying in the Darfur. We all know this. And yet it has turned out to be quite difficult for the violence, genocide, ethnic cleansing to be stopped. The issue of Darfur illustrates how complex the realpolitik of geopolitics (or international relations) truly is. And at the same time it showcases how difficult it is to deny the clich├ęd statement: Money rules the world. The violence in Darfur is supported by the Sudanese government. So the question naturally arises, How do we pressure the Sudanese government to change its behavior? One way would be economically. We can prohibit US and European companies from doing business with the Sudanese government. And for the most part, this already occurs. But Sudan is oil rich and getting the vast majority of its foreign investment from the oil sector. And one of the nations doing business with Sudan is China, which needs a lot of oil for its booming economy. And China, ever the bastion of human rights, doesn't want to pressure Sudan (and perhaps lose a lucrative, steady oil deal). So the next step is to pressure China. This, of course, is quite a bit more difficult. Yet, we could try to simply focus on the China-Sudan oil business. And here is where it gets a little more interesting. Because one of the biggest companies in the world is, indirectly, invested in the China-Sudan oil business. The company is based in Omaha, Nebraska and trades in many mutual funds. The company is Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) and is run by Warren Buffett, considered one of the greatest investors of our day. BRK is considered a great investment and has an outstanding track record. And BRK shareholders aren't your average investors. So much so, that a group of them organized a shareholder petition calling on company management to divest its controversial (and lucrative, turning $500 million into $3 billion) investment (PetroChina). Unfortunately, Buffett and most shareholders voted against this divestment. Now I don't want to call Buffett venal and callous, but from what I've read it is hard to view Buffett in a decent (if not good) light. But I'll let people read this informative piece by the Motley Fool and do their own google and lexis searches. But the point I'm trying to make is that it is hard to believe that money isn't an issue and an obstacle in getting pressure where it needs to be to improve the crisis in Darfur. For a good read about how shareholder activism and/or organized divestment can help the Darfur crisis, check out this piece from Domini Social Investments.

PS - Also check out sudandivestment.org for more info and a handy mutual fund screener which will let you know if a particular fund has ties to the Sudanese government.

Clearly I have to mention a Slate piece. I've posted before how I find it beyond absurd that AG Alberto Gonzales is still in office. My post was before all the Senate testimony. That Gonzales is still in office, after the enormous evidence showcasing his amazing ability to lie and fire people for political reasons (the latter, an ability which he shared with counterparts in the White House), is devastating to those of us who believe in accountability and a government of the people. While it is a bit difficult to admit, it seems to be true: Gonzales has outlasted this scandal. W is probably doing this to protect White House officials, and is able to do this because how can his approval rating go any lower (though if anything could lower that rating, I really wouldn't be surprised if it was US Attorney-gate). The great reporters at Slate seem to agree and have ended their "Gonzo-meter" (a regularly updated column counting down to Gonzales' departure). For those interested, they have an incisive "ending" column which states their "giving up" and details some of the major points of the scandal.

I'll post about the third article over the weekend.

Friday, June 08, 2007

It's just not the same.

TheIdleReceptionist writes a great blog. She doesn't post as much as she used to, back when she was an actual idle receptionist. But she'll still churn out an entertaining gem like this recent post on the straight girl's favorite place: the gay bar.

As Idle mentions, hetero women really enjoy gay bars. Unfortunately, I don't hear so much about straight dudes hitting up the lesbian bar circuit. It's just not the same. Though I kind of wonder what it might be like ....

I'm a skinny guy; I have a thin frame. And while I do work out, my arms are still going to be rather slim. I think it would be kind of cool to walk into a lesbian bar with a sleeveless t-shirt and have some of the buffest arms in the room. Maybe Bernice* will walk up to me, playfully punch me in the arm, and say, "Hey! Check out the guns!" And I'll be all, "Oh, stop it Bernie! I barely work out." And then we'll talk about the NBA and WNBA. And it would be cool to hear the ladies ask me about my facial hair and call my shaved head 'cool' --- instead of asking why I have a lot of hair on my face and not much on top of my head, like the straight gals do.

Or maybe one day my car will blow a gasket near the bar. And not only will the lesbians at the bar be kind enough to fix my car, but they'll soup it up and add some rims. And then we'll all pile in and head to a STAR TREK:TNG marathon viewing.

Yeah, I gotta admit, that would be pretty rad.

But yeah, that's probably not what happens when a hetero guy walks into a lesbian bar, but a boy can dream. Hah.



*My apologies to lesbians and people named Bernice everywhere. I know it is a bad stereotype to think women named Bernice are lesbians. And I don't. I'm just using it for humor, and duly noting it.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The NBA Finals

I know for many blog neighbors, basketball isn't exactly your thing. So check out this stellar anti-Hummer H2 website that was recommended by the fabulous Princess in Galoshes (and check out her blog as well, it's a bundle of wit, fun, and, um, sinister high maintenance cats).

The NBA season is coming to a close. The San Antonio Spurs will battle the Cleveland Cavaliers for the NBA Championship. To show my basketball acumen, I picked neither team to make the finals. Hooray. Basically I underestimated LeBron James (something I will not do again) and I picked the underdog Utah Jazz because the Spurs have a tainted season after suspension-gate. So, clearly, I'm going to pick the Cavs in 6. Yeah, the Spurs are the smart pick, they have the experience, the dominant big man, the star supporting players, and they play great defense. But the Cavs have LeBron James which means the Spurs are definitely going to have their hands full. The Cavs are also a bit underrated. They play decent defense themselves, and are an excellent rebounding team. And in the rise of rookie Daniel Gibson they seem to have filled out a solid cast of supporting players as well. How well Larry Hughes (and Gibson to an extent) guard Tony Parker will be a major factor. I think Hughes (if healthy) is up to the task. I'm not sure who will guard Manu Ginobli, but if need be, I think LeBron will slow him down. This is definitely going to be a long series in my opinion. I think (and hope) the Cavs have just enough to win this battle. In any case, it looks to be a very exciting series and with LeBron making his finals debut, a lot of people are going to watch.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Showmercial

I dislike advertising. I admit we do need advertising. Many companies make wonderful products and they need to advertise their wares. The problem is that mainstream advertising treats us (the public) with such disregard and callousness that print ads and tv commercials are not only annoying, but ultimately insulting.

I recently viewed an H2 Hummer commercial in which the vehicle's highway mileage ("20 MPG Highway") was flashed on screen. At a time when gas prices are near record highs and many of us are going to great lengths to curb CO2 emissions, it's a little insulting to flash the H2's MPG. As if we're dumb enough to think 20 MPG Highway suddenly turns the H2 into a Prius.

I must admit I do enjoy a few commercials. For example, the GEICO Cavemen ads. What can I say, I find them funny. The self-referential nature of the ads, the quirky humor, and the lightweight satire (of tv pundits, for instance) all add up to a pretty entertaining 30 seconds. But what about 30 minutes? As you may have heard, ABC will be debuting a half-hour sitcom called "CAVEMEN" in the fall. The sitcom is completely based on the GEICO ads. I doubt this is going to work, but the notion of the sitcom stemming from the tv commercial doesn't bother me so much. At least in this instance. From what I've read, GEICO seems to have nothing to do with the sitcom. So it won't be one long commercial for GEICO. In any case, whether it succeeds as a sitcom will not depend on its provenance but will depend on the talent associated with the show. Because a sitcom isn't funny and smart due to a clever idea for a sitcom, it's funny and smart because of the people who create it. So, if the people behind "CAVEMEN" are talented enough, it'll be funny. ABC has posted a 30 second clip from one of the shows. It's really not that funny, for me at least. But I'll withhold judgement until I see a complete episode. There is a bit of irony about the clip though. In the clip, as in the GEICO ads, the discussion the Cavemen have lightly touches on race/ethnicity* relations. Now I understand it is very difficult to talk about race/ethnicity* relations in general, doubly hard on a broadcast network. But it is a bit ironic that a network sitcom is broaching the subject by not actually talking about it since "Caveman" isn't a real ethnicity.*

I remember thinking tv was in major trouble several years ago when Dick Wolf (creator-producer of the "Law&Order" franchises) went into a multi-million product placement contract with Coke. Product placement has steadily crept into much of television and I think it is especially dangerous and egregious because it insidiously blurs the line between the artistic and the commercial. Though it would seem even product placement has its limits, the sponsor/advertiser doesn't get to shape the story and characters. Well they do now. The USA network recently debuted a 6-hour miniseries called "The Starter Wife" starring Debra Messing. The miniseries is "presented by Ponds" which actually turns out to mean Ponds had a lot of say into how the story and character would progress and how best to place their product into the miniseries. The Slate piece is rather fascinating and a good read. I understand that there is some relief in knowing this type of undue corporate influence is only finding its way into a third-rate mini-series that Lifetime probably rejected. But the problem is that people are watching "The Starter Wife" and they have no idea that Ponds went to great lengths to shape the entertainment with its products. It's something they deserve to be told.

* I must note that I do not believe in "race" as a term with any scientific merit. There's only the human race and the overlapping ethnicities that inhabit humanity. The term "race", as we use it in mainstream language is a social construct that is overly simplistic (therefore its wide use) and ancient. For more info please check out this wiki entry on race as social construction, and this excellent book by Dr. Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey and it's wonderful companion PBS documentary.

King Humility

I'm not sure if anyone remembers my NBA Playoff posts. Even though I injected some humor in them, I was a bit serious with my predictions. You see, I actually think I know a thing or two about basketball. Therefore I should make some reliable predictions. Unfortunately that hasn't really been the case, especially after the first round of the playoffs. For example, let's take the Conference Finals:

In the West we had the San Antonio Spurs vs the Utah Jazz. I thought this would be close, at least 6 games. I also had the Utah Jazz winning. And while emotion played a factor in picking the Jazz (I still claim the Spurs' win over the Suns is a bit tainted thanks to the suspension incident), I actually thought the Jazz would win 3 games rather reasonably. They ended up winning 1. They did suffer a major setback when their star point guard Deron Williams had to play while ill and, later, with a bum ankle. Still, they were resoundingly beaten by the Spurs in 5 games. So, I was wrong.

In the East we, still, have the Detroit Pistons vs the Cleveland LeBrons Cavs. I thought this would go easily in favor of the Pistons. Tonight will be game 6 in Cleveland with the Cavs up 3 games to 2. Yes, the Cavs were in a similar position last year only to lose the last 2 games and go home. But this year seems to be different for one major reason. The Cavs won game 5 in Detroit thanks to an amazingly spectacular performance by LeBron James. I'm not sure how many people saw the game or highlights, but it was a performance for the ages. LeBron simply willed his team to victory by scoring the last 25 points for his team, and the last 29 out of 30. King James came to play in game 5. I highly doubt BronBron will drop 48 tonight. But his previous performance should inspire his teammates to outperform, giving LeBron a chance (at the least) in the 4th to seal victory. Of course, his teammates could simply expect another incredible performance and stand around watching him all game long, which would result in defeat. But I doubt that will happen, mainly because LeBron is an amazingly unselfish player who will make sure to get his teammates involved early in game 6. And that's why I think the Cavs will win tonight and beat the Pistons in 6 games. Which, once again, would prove my prediction to be strikingly wrong.

So the question clearly arises, why am I so wrong. I believe one of the reasons has to be that basketball, as any professional sport, is a very complex activity filled with nuance and information that the dedicated, but casual viewer will find difficult to thoroughly account for. There's also the possibility that maybe I don't know as much basketball as I like to think I do. Now, let's not jump to any rash conclusions.