Steve Alten's The Shell Game

The Shell Game by Steve Alten If you read political thrillers or action novels for their ability to transport you away from the concerns of current events into a fantasy that seems realistic but is purely fictional, then Steve Alten's book The Shell Game is probably not for you. And I wouldn't blame you; most folks probably don't want anxieties about their real lives and the future of our society to be a central part of the escapist action and adventure reading that we do on the beach. But after I heard that the book takes on the realities of peak oil, government corruption, American foreign policy and the political futures of today's Presidential candidates, and weaves them all into a 466 page novel, I couldn't help but be intrigued by it. Here's my review, some spoilers if you read on.
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Security strategy improvement lessons from 28 Weeks Later

As you're coming out of the movie 28 Weeks Later, you might be tempted to discuss the horrors of the events in the movie, the acting, the overwhelmingly and unnecessarily bloody gore, or the architecture in the London skyline. But I think we can all agree that the movie was, above all, a lesson in military and security strategy and a warning to future operations planners (especially those dealing with infectious viral outbreaks that turn people into flesh-eating zombies).

I know it will seem pretty far fetched and hard to picture in real life, but here are some of the salient events in the plot (spoiler alert!):
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The Pursuit of Happyness, a movie review

In a near coma from a holiday meal today, we ventured out to see The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. My resulting notes below contain some mentions of specific plot details, so if you haven't seen it yet and don't want anything spoiled for you, come back to this post later.

As a cinematic experience overall, the movie was quite well done. Smith and Jaden Smith (his son both in the film and offscreen) filled their roles as Chris Gardner and Christopher Gardner with a glow and depth that is uncommon. The story moved at a constant and engaging pace, always with just enough information to make the plot real, and never too much to make it feel like it was being told to a movie audience. The camera angles were mostly plain and obvious in a way that complements the content of the film just fine, but there were a number of really excellent shots that brought out the layers of emotion and determination so well - Chris and Christopher sitting a ways apart on a bench in the subway, exasperated, desperate, staring off and wondering what's next; the shots of Chris running through the streets of San Francisco with action-movie style camera-work but very believable results; the walks through the floor of a brokerage in chaos, and so on.
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The Persuaders: a nice look at advertising

This is an ad for a really great Frontline episode called "The Persauders" - a thoughtful and thorough journalistic look at the world of advertising and how it affects us at all levels. It covered a wide variety of perspectives, from advertising executives to media experts to sociologists to counter-cultural ad-busters. Quote from interviewee Mark Crispin Miller: "Once a culture becomes entirely advertising friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all." There's an interesting segment about how one firm interviewed cult-like groups of people (including Linux users and WWF Wresting fans) to craft the campaigns for brands like Nike and Apple. I guess if you can figure out what makes people loyal to a cult, you can get them engaged in your products and services.

The downside of the piece is that the reporter seems to let himself be convinced in conclusion (with snappy upbeat music in the background to reinforce) it's a good thing that "once the market becomes the lens through which we see the world, there's no us and them any more. We're all persuaders." I would probably disagree that this is a good trend.

You can watch it online on the PBS website, and the site includes a teacher's guide and related discussion area. Enjoy.

Everything you need to know about Cops

For the last several weeks I have been participating in a broad stroke study of law enforcement practices on city streets across America. I have done ride-alongs with police officers from coast to coast - Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas to Cincinnati, Ohio to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These ride-alongs are usually in the form of 22 minute segments during which I am transported to the ride-along locations using a technology called "Court Television." As the ride-alongs start to blur together and the study comes to a close, I thought I would share some of the conclusions that have come out of the experience, in no particular order:
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The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener is surely one of the best films I've seen in a while. It's easy to forget that such a thoroughly high standard of moviemaking is being observed out there somewhere, so it's always refreshing when beautiful and touching exceptions like this one come along. It's even better when you're not expecting it - I went into the theater with only a vague notion of what it was about and a recommendation from a friend who had been to Africa, and was just swept away.

The story is epic but one you can easily bite into - it takes us through the politics and personal pain of the AIDS crisis in Africa, and the people, companies, and governments that play a part in hurting or helping that issue. It's absolutely relevant up to the present day situation, but it doesn't come at you with Michael-Moore-like swings to your head with blunt declarations of shocking facts (though the end result may be the same). Instead, it wraps you up in the personal journeys of two people who are there to do what's right, and encounter all manner of vice and confusion along the way. "Doing the right thing" is nothing near a black-and-white consideration here - by the end of the movie we see the perspectives of the people of Africa, local police and civic leaders, the aid workers, the diplomats, the drug companies, the Western governments, all of the people caught up in every part of the process - and though we may have gut feelings about who are the good guys and bad guys for those two hours, no clear solutions even begin to emerge for the larger problems at hand.

Through all of this, the main characters - brought to life so stunningly and with such heart by Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz - are determined to find the truth, seek answers, and remain true to their passions and their values and their love, no matter the risk. Watching them do so is a moving experience in itself, and seeing it set against the very real and visceral backdrop of the modern struggles of today's Africa is just amazing.