Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great

In this exquisitely written and often hilarious book, Hitchens provides comfort to those of us who have parted ways with the comforting lie of religion. To lose one's faith is a difficult thing, as Hitchens, who recalls in the book his former faith in an ideology he no longer espouses and the occasional pangs he feels having left it, knows. But it is, on balance, far better to face the truth.

In this case, that truth is that the religions of the West are based on rantings of desert dwellers thousands of years ago, in what Hitchens convincingly labels and explains as the childhood of our species. The major religions have twisted and turned to fit new discoveries into their antiquated prisms for viewing the world, but over the course of 280 pages Hitchens argues that we know enough today to know that we can view the world without such prisms. We can see it for what it is. Indeed, our survival may depend on being willing and able to apply reason, rather than faith, to our interactions with one another and with our planet.

Hitchens has shown himself to be capable of churning out a book a year and to write on almost any topic with wit and precision. But I, for one, hope that he takes up the topic of this book as his cause from now on. The U.S., especially, needs to have a debate about the role of religion in our political system. Hitchens provides those of us who would speak against mingling church and state with a stockpile of weapons to use in making our argument. But so much the better if he carries on making it himself!

In sum: An excellent, entertaining read. It may not convert the faithful, but those on the fence will find much to think about and those already with Hitchens will enjoy the way he makes his case.

This review also appears on

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Two

It's all over but the crying. Oh, wait--Jordin has not only already won the crown, she's also already cried at the end of the Idol song! Does this mean we can skip her coronation tonight and pretend this whole season never happened?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sunday Weekend Wind Down

Seinfeld Lists - The Puerto Rican Day

Amid a very pleasant weekend, I had a revelation unrelated to the trip I took to Augustana, the book I'm reading (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), or the shows I watched last night: There are a great many ways to classify people, but Sunday evening says a lot about a person.

In the Seinfeld episode linked above, Elaine flips out at the prospect of missing her Sunday wind-down period because she's trapped at the Puerto Rican Day parade. Though the episode was dropped from the syndication schedule (due to a line from Kramer about Puerto Rico being a land of constant mayhem), Elaine's plight always stuck with me.

I feel the same way as Elaine about my Sunday evening, but I don't think people who don't share this need to be home on Sunday after about 6 or 7 can understand it. The notion of driving home at 10 or 11 on Sunday night and having to go to work in the morning strikes me as more distasteful than almost anything I can imagine. I can stomach the occasional weekday late evening outing, and while I am a homebody by nature I don't really bat an eye at a late night on Saturday. But Sunday, sacred to others in the morning, becomes inviolate to me around the time the sun sets, maybe sooner.

My apologies to those who this confuses or irritates. Other people have religious dictates to follow; I don't gamble or go out on Sunday nights. Does anyone else share the latter penchant for end-of-weekend rest?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Suit Up!


After weeks of wondering, this morning an answer arrives: CBS has renewed How I Met Your Mother for a third season. The press release announcing the eye's fall schedule refers to the show's "young and loyal audience," an indication that despite middling ratings, the network is glad to have a chance to pitch the rest of its lineup to folks who might otherwise steer clear of the senior circuit. Whatever works for you, CBS! As long as it means another year of Ted and Robin, Marshall and Lily, and the endlessly hilarious Barney, you can give any reason you want. This news makes my day!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Three

Tonight I have to tip my hand. I expect one finale next week and desire another. I think Randy will probably be proven right, and next week we'll see Melinda and Jordin face off. But that will be a boring show! Blake, who I'm predicting will go home tomorrow night, would be much more fun to watch next week--and if he reprised his Bon Jovi week performance of "You Give Love a Bad Name" he might even win the whole thing. That would be an injustice--Melinda earned the crown weeks ago--but at least he'd have done something Melinda couldn't do to steal her prize. A Melinda-Jordin battle is a competition of similar styles and strengths, and Melinda simply owns Jordin. Sadly, that's the finale I think America will choose.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Look Ma — No Hands!

Trying to Keep the Viewers When the Ads Come On - New York Times

Oh no! The ad-supported world of TV is crashing down around itself! DVRs are to blame!

You all know about this by now. Armed with an HD DVR, you are the master of your own cinema. It's a beautiful thing. But not for the networks, who depend on you watching the very commercials that the DVR makes it so easy to skip. The only way to defeat this is to make the ads part of the program, a strategy American Idol has mastered and other programs are beginning to use.

As interesting as this problem is, though, how can malarkey like this make the Times? "...more viewers are watching shows delayed rather than live, using TiVo and other DVRs," the article linked above says. "Research indicates those viewers are more likely to fast-forward through spots than those who watch live TV."

Really? And here I thought people who were watching live TV couldn't fast-forward through commercials at all. What's that? They can't? Then how on earth could anything but what the NYT wrote be true? Tautologies are hardly news. "Viewers who can fast-forward through commercials are more likely to do so than viewers who can't." That's what the article basically says. People who have hands are more likely to give handjobs than people who don't, too, you know. I look forward to reading about that illuminating fact in the Times tomorrow...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Burn Off

NBC :: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Well, that didn't take long! After mere months of waiting, NBC has announced that the next episode of Studio 60 will air on Thursday, May 24 at 10/9c. Can you guess what May 24 is?

OK, time's up. It's the first day after sweeps month ends! NBC, which considers 7 million viewers a victory at this point, is burning off a show it spent megabucks on a night when most folks will be in recovery from a season finale binge. (May 23, for instance, is the two-hour American Idol finale--also known as the TV event that will put Fox over the top for the month.)

Maybe NBC has come up with a brilliant strategy, though: With nothing else on, maybe people will give the show a look. Or maybe they'll start their Memorial Day weekend festivities early and completely ignore it again. If this episode is anything like the ones that preceded this long gap, they won't be missing much.

[UPDATE, 5/14: Studio 60 has been canceled. Apparently six more episodes remain and will be aired. Farewell, Harriet Hayes!]

Last Lileks

Daily Quirk: See you in the funny papers ...

Even if you've never lived in Minnesota, as I did for two years earlier this decade, it seems like a lot of people have heard of or read James Lileks. I've been reading his column pretty faithfully for more than six years now, since before I decided to move to the Twin Cities, and I can remember quite distinctly the feeling of skipping to the Star-Tribune's metro section to see if it was one of his days. I also loved to read Kim Ode and Al Sicherman while eating my breakfast. And now all three of them are gone, one voluntarily moving to new things, another retiring from the game altogether, and the third, Lileks, unceremoniously bounced from column duty to straight news in what Dave Barry called the equivalent of the Miami Heat pulling Dwyane off the basketball court so he can keep stats on the sideline.

Those in the know may realize the irony in me being sad for Lileks, whose happy-talk column in the Strib was the friendly face of a man whose online work and Newhouse columns often stood for things to which I am opposed. And I suppose if this demotion of his makes the happy warrior's outlook a bit bleaker, and thus he becomes less funny, and thus his message is less appealing, well, that's one for "our side." But I'm sorry to see him go out like this.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Four

Tonight's show simply confirmed the order anyone who has watched the show for the last few months has, by now, probably accepted. Melinda is on top and on track to win the whole thing; any other result would be an upset. Jordin isn't pitch-perfect, but she's on a collision course with the chance to prove that she's more Clay Aiken than Justin Guarini. Blake mixes it up, but for every time he succeeds he has a weak moment. And LaKisha is the least adventurous of the remaining four, doesn't take good advice from experts, and misses notes.

And at this point, how it is and how the votes come out will probably be the same. Blake will smell danger--but LaKisha will taste it. Good luck, Miss Jones.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Here They Come

May 22 sounds like the day for cicadas :: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES :: Metro & Tri-State

I live less than a mile from two very large forest preserves. The trees in both of them, one would assume, are precisely the sort of old-growth woods that harbor cicadas. And so, I am not exactly relishing this "exciting" rare event, which one researcher claims to have timed down to the day.

In an odd coincidence, the city will be repaving our street sometime this month. This will mean that we can't park on our street or access our driveway for some unknown, but allegedly short, period of time. How much do you want to bet that they get the blacktop up, have the street all ready to pave--and then the cicadas swarm and they're forced to either delay or pave a road filled with beady red eyes?

This is an exciting month for a lot of reasons: school's out tomorrow, we have concert tickets next weekend, and we're taking a weekend trip a few weeks from now. But I have a sinking suspicion the month will end with my car a few blocks from my house, my street torn up, and cicadas swarming everywhere. This thought does not make me happy!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quite an Honor

White House may veto hate crimes law - Politics -

Just this week George Bush got around to vetoing only the second bill of his entire presidency. The tally so far: Refused to allow funding for stem-cell research and wouldn't accept a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. I disagree with both of these stances, but at least they are based on something resembling a principle. (I know, the principle behind opposition to stem-cell research is a lie and the one behind Iraq is a dream, but let's be charitable.)

Now he's threatening his third veto. What's so important as to warrant this reaction? A bill that would add gender and sexual orientation to the hate crimes law already on the books in this country. Now, I get that Bush doesn't believe there should be a hate crimes law at all--in fact, strictly as a matter of law, it's hard to argue with him--but we have one. Why should it apply to hate crimes against some groups in the line of fire but not others?

Let me put it this way. If you're straight, you may not want to vacation in Alabama--but you could if you wanted to. But for a gay couple, the wide world of domestic travel is actually quite narrow. We're confined to all the blue islands amid the sea of red that is the United States. Sadly, much of the beauty of this country is hidden in the middle of all that red. And even if we get past the hotel clerk who's suspicious of two men checking in together, even if we get a room with two beds, and even if we remain as non-demonstrative as possible in public, the entire time we're in red America we have to be on guard. What kind of vacation is that? I can bite my tongue for a week, yes--but you never know when a word will pop out that you don't intend. When we moved in together, for example, the sliding rear door of the moving truck caught his finger and he shouted in pain. Having been in the same state for all of 24 hours, I already couldn't stop myself from exclaiming, "Honey, are you OK?"

"Honey." That one word could have gotten us killed if spoken at the wrong moment--even in the suburbs, but especially in the Deep South. And it popped out of my mouth one day into living together. What do you think would happen today?

Bush could sign this legislation and send a message to his own band of supporters, as they are exactly the people who need it: Even if you don't like the idea of homosexuality, violence against gays and lesbians simply for being who they are is absolutely unacceptable.

This legislation is symbolic, and not signing it is a symbol, too. A fist in the face of gays and lesbians, to be exact. You may not recognize it on your hands--Iraq may already have dyed them red, and the folks who will die because their conditions were not cured because you would not allow the research that could have saved them may have deepened the rouge--but the blood of the gays and lesbians who will suffer because of this veto is on your hands, too, Mr. President.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Arctic ice may melt 30 years sooner - World -

The link above, as you can read, is from an Australian Web site. In fairness to America, it isn't a main story there, either; the site's front page is riddled with the same kind of crap you find on every American "news" portal. Yet what the article tells us--that scientists now believe that by 2020 there will be NO ice in the Arctic Ocean during the summer--is on a par with the recent bad news about vanishing bees in terms of portending the end of the world., meanwhile, leads with a story about Britney Spears returning to the stage. Which, come to think of it, may also be a sign of the apocalypse.

Look, I know this seems hypocritical appearing just above a prediction about who will go home on American Idol. But shouldn't this kind of NEWS--and that's what it is--make big headlines? Bigger than Britney? Scientists are suggesting that the problem of global warming, which we already knew was bad, may in fact be so bad that the earth will unrecognizable within our lifetime. Haven't a lot of Americans seen An Inconvenient Truth by now? Don't we understand what this kind of news means?

Last week, or maybe the week before, one of MSNBC's top headlines was that the Medicare and Social Security funds were scheduled to last one year longer than previously predicted (2019 and 2041, respectively). That is important, obviously, to the health of our country. But this news could make all of that moot, could mean that when those of you planning to have kids are bouncing grandkids on your knees, you'll be doing so in a world where Bangladesh and the Netherlands and Florida and half of New York City are underwater. And you can hardly find it anywhere!

We're doomed, folks. I know that doesn't sell ads, but you'd think ONE journalistic enterprise in the entire United States would have had the gumption to lead with this on an otherwise slow day.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Idol Predictions, Round of Six Again

Jordin Sparks should be thanking her lucky stars right now. Last week she was good--though not as good as the judges claimed--but this week she delivered an almost Sanjaya-bad performance of "Livin' on a Prayer." Were this week's votes the only determining factor, she'd be in serious danger.

But that's not the way it works. As it stands, I expect she'll be safe. Melinda's two weeks of solid performances should protect her as well. And if Blake's insanely creative rendition of "You Give Love a Bad Name" isn't enough to land him a spot in the final four, this competition has gone completely off the rails.

That leaves LaKisha, Phil, and Chris. After this week's powerhouse, I think LaKisha may have done enough to stave off elimination for one more week. That leaves Chris and Phil heading home. Seems about right, doesn't it?