Stephmo in Columbus is doing 28 things including…

watch more documentaries

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Stephmo has written 26 entries about this goal

Blue Gold: World Water Wars

I think a lot more about water nowadays – I had my first bout with a kidney stone last year and while I rather enjoyed certain pharmacological aspects to my adventure, the subsequent laser surgery and other downsides have put me in the, “what can I do to avoid this in the future?” camp. In a nutshell, this involves drinking a lot more water than I used to.

So I watch this thinking this might be an interesting documentary on bottled water (which I only drink once in a while). Was I wrong. Watch this and complaining about “having” to drink water will seem like you’re the same level as a whiny Bravo housewife who complains about having to get Botox.

Some of the information is a bit off when it comes to private ownership rights, but mostly when it comes to which cities in the US have given over their watershed rights from municipality ownership to private companies. It does highlight the exportation of water all over the world which becomes confusing as you start to think through depleting an aquifer here only to fill up bladder containers to ship our water overseas is a viable export. And we’ve never been short sighted enough to export for short-term gain assuming that things will somehow take care of themselves in the future, right?

The politics of water become even darker. In countries where water has become a hot commodity for corrupt governments, things are terrible. Stories of neighbors who can’t afford to pour water on a burning neighbors home or stories of a teenager getting shot in Bolivia for gathering rainwater (before you think that could only be illegal in Boliva, several states in the US now require you to have permits to gather rainwater in your own rain barrels!).

There are some bright spots to the documentary – particularly under the “what you can do” section, but it almost seems insurmountable. I do want to keep avoiding future kidney stones, but it almost seems like a luxury!



How to Cook Your Life

You know that Netflix thought I wouldn’t like this documentary? I guess I forgot to tell Netflix that I like to bake bread. If I had, that would have really helped matters.

This is a small little story that follows a zen cooking class and the instructor, Edward Brown. He wrote the Tassajara Cookbook – which includes their bread cookbook. If Netflix understood this, they’d know that I’ve checked his book out of the library and read through his book.

He’s a funny Zen Buddhist who makes it clear that enlightenment is a process and one that does not even remotely guarantee that you’re calm all the time (a scene where he battles a cheese packet is practically a “see, Zen practitioners are just like us!” in a raw frustration moment). This is more than made up for the nuggets of cooking wisdom that are woven throughout the documentary.

Edward talks about the lack of raw cooking today. It was odd, I had done some bread earlier that week, but depended on my KitchenAid for the kneading, so it was like he knew. Edward would point out that the mixer removed me from my food – I’m way ahead of just buying the package of bread, but I’m still not touching and getting to know my food on that level that ways I know the changes that the environment made to my dough that day. It did make me realize that there had been days during the summer that I’d given up on loaves when they weren’t rising right or they’d not done their oven lift. Am I ready to completely pack up the KitchenAid? Nah, I just avoid more humid days. ;)

Of course, watching how seriously a zen kitchen operates is something else. Rules are changed and discussed, but they do start to make sense. My favorite? The basic advice, “if you’re stirring the soup, stir the soup” and all the similar variations. As Edward explains it, you need to be present for cooking. You shouldn’t be doing 3 other things while you’re stirring your soup (or other things) – you should be concentrating on your food while you cook it. It sounds basic, but in these days of multi-tasking and “set it and forget it” time-savers, it is easy to assume that we can easily fit in one or two other things while we stir the soup, isn’t it?



Stupidity

This documentary starts out by trying to get people on the street to offer a concrete definition of stupidity and then acts as if some great sin has been committed because no one can offer a concrete definition for stupid. From the ivory towers come the cries of, “no one has ever done a serious study of stupidity!”

At no point does anyone ask these individuals on the street to offer a concrete definition for another descriptive word like funny either. Go ahead – think about a concrete definition for “funny” and see how far you get. You’ll end up with a good number of synonyms and eventually, “you know, funny!”

The “documentary” actually gets worse from this point. There’s the entomology of the words idiot and moron which do get tied into IQ tests but later get used to make fun of individuals the documentarians clearly feel are intellectually inferior. I’m making this sound interesting when I should stress that it simply comes across like some sort of individual who must explain obscure trivia in ways that are just being boorish and soul-sucking rather than remotely interesting

Then there’s the blaming of television and film. Nary a SINGLE mention of Marshall McLuhan or any contemporary media communication theorists. Look, if you want to sit there and bash television and how individuals ‘veg out’ in front of the TV from your little corner where you clearly want a grant to study stupidity, you’re going to get knocked on your ass week one when you think no one is going to ask you to explain if the old theory that television is a cool media still holds and that is the driving force behind the “veg” state and not the “stupidity” of a medium. (At which point, they’ll be forced to re-evaluate the nature of hi-def’s hot influence over a cool medium and determine if there’s been a tipping point, but I digress.)

Oh – another point that I found intellectually dishonest? The argument that too many films are based on “kiddie” comic-books followed up not 2 minutes later by the complaint that best-selling books become blockbuster movies that mean that people won’t have to read the books.

Seriously, these were just a bunch of individuals that clearly are looking for grant money to support studies that show individuals are being willfully stupid. I don’t think it’s to improve a damn thing other than to convince those that feel intellectually superior to others that they will have quantifiable data in the future that proves what they already know (duh).

I know one thing about this documentary: I am stupider for watching it.



Maxed Out

I’m torn a bit on this documentary. I’ve worked with the financial sector for a large bit of my life. No, I’m not a bill collector, I’m not in predatory lending, and I’m not pulling down million dollar bonuses.

Credit in this world is a necessary thing – few people will afford a home or a car without it. You’ll also be hard pressed to do some activities without credit cards – it’s not impossible, but travel without a credit card today is very difficult. Living without a checking account isn’t impossible, but it’s not easy.

See, I’m already into emotional territory, aren’t I? Homes and transportation – a little break for the family or an emergency car rental – just being able to pay bills…

The documentary shows the emotionally-crippling side of debt. And what was happening when credit was a lot easier to come by before the economy’s implosion in ‘08 (the documentary was done in 2006). Parts of it were absolutely dead-on and other parts of it were a bit manipulative and very misleading.

The dead-on: giving credit too young and too early. I’m a huge fan of the CARD Act making it so you can’t get a credit card without a co-signer until you’re 21. The lack of clear understanding on how revolving, unsecured debt works in this country (“it takes a while to pay it off” isn’t even close to understanding the true cost of a $20 T-shirt on a 20% APR card that you’re carrying a balance on and making minimum payments on) and the default rates were ridiculous on those cards.

The mis-represented: That debt collectors can really act like that (there were some borderline federal violations shown – depending on how they were contacting relatives/neighbors and what they were saying). The ones they showed were 2nd party debt collectors – these are agencies that buy bad debt from all the major lenders in the country. Basically, if you manage to ignore calls from a bank or lender for about 3-4 months, they give up on you and sell your debt for 10-30 cents on the dollar depending on a ton of factors. This is sold to a 2nd party debt collector who gets to keep anything they can get – they know that a good portion of people are long-gone and will take time to be found, but some folks have just been ignoring their primary lender hoping things will go away. These folks will be aggressive as all get-out whenever they have a live body – because they’ll likely be settling for 50 cents on the dollar.

The bad: A huge “blame the lenders” attitude – and hoping that trotting out a lot of personal tragedy would make any such discussion seem distasteful. They had no less than 3 individuals who committed suicide over their debt and one woman who openly discussed her chosen method (car accident) as if she were on the verge. The suicides were heartbreaking enough, but this sort of got me thinking about the problem in point #2 – and even in #1 to a degree…

We don’t discuss debt or money in any real way in this country. Even when we do get money people – they love to tell everyone how you should have zero credit card debt, how easy it is to get out of debt, how you always should have a lawyer (nevermind the cost!) look over this or that contract, how you never get this kind of loan, how you always do this or that type of buy, how this never happens in housing no matter what your real estate agent says, how your friend knows this guy who can do this for you and save 3 points booking, and don’t you know that the government shouldn’t be regulating it because it’s so easy to figure out, and just check this or that website

Seriously, are they on crack? Finances aren’t easy. How many people even do the most basic thing anymore – keeping a daily checkbook register and a monthly household budget? Or do you say you do it and rely instead on your ATM receipt balances and online banking because those are “really accurate” not knowing there are all sorts of processing exceptions.

Getting into debt is easy. Out is very hard – “snowball” method or whatever cute thing you got from a radio host or tv personality. You know how you can complain about your lawn or your sex life and people will immediately launch into their own tales of woe and fix-it solutions – with tremendous detail? You’ll never get that same level of detail with debt! In fact, it’s almost like talking about sex in front of your grandmother – you’ll likely only admit to the most necessary information and you’ll want to move on as quickly as possible.

Why? Because we’ve made it a shameful thing NOT to know. We’ve made it really emotional. Everyone pretends they have it 100% together and the only person that must not have it together is you. So we absolutely don’t talk about it – ever. So much so, we’ve made not being able to pay a very shameful and punitive thing – no matter who wants to talk to you about your debt. That people go behind on payments with their primary lender and never talk to them is heartbreaking. Trust me – they don’t want to sell you off to a 2nd party collector, but if no one picks up the phone or returns a call, no one can work with you. And trust me, they will work with you whenever possible.

Is there more the industry needs to do? Absolutely! Responsible lending with proof of income, proof of employment and all that sort of responsible banking craziness of old – because it does no one any favors to stretch into something they can’t afford with the hope that things might get a little bit easier in a few months/years.

Sorry for the large wall ‘o text – but I really want to see things that are geared toward having everyone learn as much as possible about finances. The more informed everyone is, the better. Heck, I’d love it if financial literacy were taught just like basic literacy – so you started with things like piggy banks in first grade to learn the concept of saving money and worked your way through personal accounting all the way up through high school where you learned about various forms of interest, reading financial contracts and even got introductions to the various financial markets (seriously, how many people even know the basic difference between a stock and a bond?).



Religulous

/sigh

Really? I’ve actually grown a little tired of Bill Mahr over the years, but I never could quite put my finger on it. We watched Politically Incorrect back in the day and I enjoyed Real Time up until a few years ago…but it seemed to me like he’d spend more parts of his show putting down certain panel members or guests. Not all the time, just once in a while. Now I know I wasn’t imagining it.

Religulous was just an entire documentary where he put down everyone. Don’t get me wrong – some interviews do this in a clever way, but it’s clear that the interviewer knows their stuff and can rebut with something more than the same 4 talking points they started with. Not only that, but the good ones actually converse in an open-minded fashion even if they’re pushing an agenda. After all, you never know when you might actually learn something.

But no, Bill just bulldozes, makes fun of and openly mocks those who have faith of any kind and expects them to be able to defend any ridiculous assumption he’s made – all so he can lecture them at the end and shame them into leaving their beliefs behind for the good of humanity.

I don’t have all the answers and I’m not a particularly religious person, but I’m ashamed when I see anyone claiming those who find comfort in faith are afraid, stupid, simple, ignorant, crazy or somehow responsible for the evils done in the name of religion. I find it laughable that for all the problems religion causes, we conveniently forget that the same problems can be attributed to just about anything we come into contact with in this world. It would be a great if we could say, “this is 100% right all the time” and “this is 100% bad all the time,” but things don’t work that way.

Maybe I’m just getting tired as I get older, but I’m losing patience with this kind of discourse. No one’s going to change their mind and it simply encourages people to shout down those they disagree with instead of trying to understand. They grab a few sensational facts (right or wrong, doesn’t matter), make up their minds and decide the loudest and snarkiest wins.

Bleh.

If you want some folks that don’t believe, but have more interesting and funny insight, I did enjoy A.J. Jacob’s book, The Year of Living Biblically where a man attempted to live all the rules in the Bible (you get to learn a bit about the whys on some of them – and some more obscure ones like tithing fruit) and his “slave’s” (intern) book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roos – a very interesting look at Liberty University as he attends for a semester and learns that there are a lot of layers to what he’ll learn.



Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism

Gary Trudeau summed up the concern of the documentary in a nutshell:

Now, with less hyperbole, if your sole source of news was Fox, you were more likely to be misinformed when it came to major news events.

Either way, the documentary is entirely focused on Fox being pro-Bush. It claims pure political agenda, but am I wrong to think that it was to also gain favor with an administration that was even more favorable towards easing the rules on owning multiple news outlets in a single market? 10 years later, and they’re what they are.

It does go through a lot of the techniques and explains how one is able to report items that appear as news but are, in fact, commentary. This is one of the more interesting parts of the documentary when items are strung together and is something to keep a watch out for when reading or listening to any news story in the 24-hour news cycle. Key phrases – “some people say,” or “I’ve heard” or “I believe” followed by a statement that sounds like fact.

Example, “I believe the administration will have no choice but to raise the ages for social security and medicare” said when reporting on a story about budget for healthcare. If you’re in the middle of a story and your “expert” comes on and says something like this, it could sound like the expert has some insider knowledge on how the administration is actively seeking to raise ages even though no one has even mentioned or proposed any such thing. But it’s inflammatory and it makes people nervous and upset and forces the other side to prove things not in existence.

They also got into the rise of the special graphic. Especially the breaking news graphic – which was first developed at Fox for the Columbine shooting. You could tell the guy wanted to crawl into a hole when he had to admit that he’d seen it used on the Bennifer breakup. But using a Breaking News! graphic and music can make the most mundane thing seem really important. Especially if you’ve promised to draw attention to a story on behalf of an administration, a friend or a sponsor.

Where this did fall down was in what to do to get fair news today – as news organizations get bigger and bigger and struggle to fill 24 hour news cycles and grab audiences, this will continue not just with Fox, but with everyone (you already see bits and pieces of it now).

Bonus? More Bill O’Reily insanity. Seriously, I want to know how the guy manages to believe himself day in and day out – is it practice or some sort of special super Ninja commentator trick? Double bonus? Learn a way to make yourself nearly immune to being sued for defamation!



The Atomic Cafe

Ah, our walk down memory lane when the bomb was this vague idea of quick destruction that could bring about world peace. Until, of course, we became deathly afraid of everything for the wrong reasons. This is the world of the Atomic Cafe. Duck and cover, the cold war and realizing that the genie might not be so cute once out of the bottle and in the hands of our enemies.

For me, it was a reminder of growing up at the very tail end of the cold war. We were way past duck and cover and well into the understanding of what a nuclear warhead could do (we were The Day After generation). The Atomic Cafe shows the planting of the seeds that would become this knowledge and how little people understood, care to understand or even had the capability to know at the beginning of our atomic age.

Of course, the temptation is to look at all of this and go, “how quaint!” and simply move along and feel very superior because we know everything know. Between the Google and Wikipedia, how could anything get past us?

Aren’t we cute when we know what we know and we don’t know what we don’t know? Adorable. Lethally so. I enjoyed the film, but it does make me wonder when we’re going to learn the lesson on of the need for constant intellectual curiosity. It appears that the only lessons we learn from history is the illusion that learning has an end. I’m just saying…



Aileen Wuornos - The Selling Of A Serial Killer

This one is also on the list of the 2nd edition of the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die. In watching this, it’s evident that Nick Broomfield fully expected to make a very different film than the one he ended up making. But such is the way of life and sometimes it just so happens that the new road leads you to stories that should have been told.

We are all programmed to hate the killer. We are all about the punitive in this country. So how does one form a sympathetic picture of Aileen in this environment?

Simple. One simply lets the cameras roll and lets you see what such an environment breeds. I’m still trying to understand the people he caught on film, but I think that they came up with their brilliant plan and then thought this, “After all, if the criminal has victimized, who are you NOT to extract your pound of flesh?”

I’m talking about Aileen’s “lawyer” and her adoptive mother. Both of whom kept on the documentary maker for the money that was needed to secure the interview with Aileen. The lovely “Christian” adoptive mother that may have been younger than Aileen that gladly took money for her own interviews and helped talk Aileen into pleading “No Contest” so she could die and go to heaven. Did I mention she decided to adopt her after seeing her on TV when she was arrested for the killings? Yeah…

And the lawyer…who sings! And notes that the drive to Aileen’s prison is a “7-joint” drive. That’s not some sort of fancy slang for 50 miles, folks. That’s the lawyer that’s getting higher than a kite to visit his DEATH ROW client. FOR REAL. And take 10% for interviews for both the adoptive mother and Aileen.

This, my friends, is what your free council is when you get to face a capital crime.

This is a quiet documentary where you only see Broomfield’s frustration in trying to get what was promised to him. For the most part, he lets his subjects do their own talking. It’s quite enough. He does get his interview for Aileen which doesn’t leave one warm and fuzzy, but acutely aware that she understands being victimized even if it just involves someone making a fast buck off of your notoriety.



The U.S. vs. John Lennon

There are occasionally these random footnotes about celebrities that come out after they die in the United States that go like this, the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that the FBI kept a brief file on so-and-so. Don’t believe me? Because watching this documentary reminded me of one last year:

Michael Jackson FBI Files

Other notables include Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Andy Warhol.

So what of it, right? They’re famous, they may have unsavory individuals after them, or may have been caught up in criminal activities where they could have potentially been exploited, right? This is generally the excuse that’s offered.

In the US vs. John Lennon, the excuse vs. reality are two different things. And that Yoko has really taken it on the chin all these years. Don’t get me wrong, she’s kooky, but clearly they were a couple of kooks in love (to sort of quote David Bowie) who were really trying to make a difference. Not many people get that much in life. To say she broke up the Beatles is really a bit like trying to blame the stars in the sky for the lack of sunlight at night. That is to say, they’re there and they may be rather happy with the situation (and they’ll even encourage it), but they don’t have the power to force it.

The documentary highlights Nixon’s paranoia – his ultimate undoing (who else takes the risk of committing a high crime by bugging the opposing side’s headquarters when they’re clearly winning?) – and his ultimate blind side. I go back and forth on days as to whether this was purely paranoia, individuals exploiting his paranoia or a bit of a power grab on his part (“because I can”), but the truth is that it probably wasn’t any one thing at any one time. But here was the short version: Threats to the country had to be monitored.

And just how was Lennon a threat? Simple, he was a popular celebrity with influence who was against the Vietnam War. He spoke out against it at concerts and on television and he and Yoko used their celebrity to highlight non-violent protest options – the most famous being the Bed-In.

Yes, there’s freedom of speech and due process and all that promised to individuals, but when you want to go after someone, things can get technical. Lennon actually lived with the threat of deportation for years (it was an ongoing game of appeals and refilings).

My favorite protest? One I’d never heard of and one that freaked out the administration to no end…The War Is Over (if you want it) posters and billboards that were plastered all over the world. Awesome. And angering, but very cool. And ballsy.

Of course, the story does end with Nixon leaving office and the war ending…so what good was the investigation and trying to silence the dissenters? It’s a lesson leaders will never really learn. Eventually, the message does get through.



Grass

Oh boy. How not to sound like some nerd.

Let me put it this way – if I didn’t know things, I’d have liked this documentary a lot more. But knowing things, it’s hard to take a lot of it seriously. It’s clearly aimed at a crowd of people that would like to take pot legalization as an Issue (note capital i) instead of a personal preference of sorts. That still sounds nerdy, but here were just a sampling of the issues I had with the documentary:

- The glossing over of hard-drug problems from the 40s and 50s. It was all but implied that this was merely a fringe issue and that the fight against drugs was an exclusive battle about marijuana.
- Lying about the availability of treatment centers. Rehab wasn’t really invented until the 50s, as it wasn’t considered a disease until then, but treatment for addiction has existed since the 1800s in asylums where you could dry out. Reading something like Burrough’s Junkie even has depictions of these places. It wasn’t the automatic prison described in the documentary.
- Trying to make this a race issue. That was just insulting. This issue is multi-layered and not just one thing. But picking the incendiary one is fun, isn’t it?
- Ending on the cost of the war against MARIJUANA in the 1980s. You know, because by then the DEA wasn’t fighting anything else. Like the rapid rise of crack. But it’s fun to pretend that’s where all the money was going, wasn’t it?
- Trying to say that all the ridiculous drug propaganda stuffs (i.e. “If you try pot, you’ll end up on heroin!”) were bad because they were never ever true and nothing was ever bad about pot – ever! It felt a lot like watching old huckster hard-liquor salesmen tell me that a few shots a day would make me a better driver because it calmed my nerves. There’s a middle ground to be had…and I wouldn’t have wanted their high lawyer arguing cases for me anymore than I’d want a drunk one.

I have no issues with trying to make arguments for legalization or where money can be better spent. But this documentary doesn’t do anyone any favors by inflating their portion of the drug war and then by trying to pretend that they’re just some amazing nice thing that was made illegal everywhere because the world hates Mexico and Mexicans (seriously…this is the argument).

It just felt like the stoners in the back lot read one USA Today graphic on the war on drugs and noticed that “Marijuana introduced in US as Mexican immigration increases” and they said, “we gotta make a movie on this!” and this is what we got. It could have been so much better

Seriously – there wasn’t even 30 seconds on the very real medical benefits. That’s how missed of an opportunity this was.



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