Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Interests and Values

Heard a pretty balanced story yesterday on NPR that got me to thinking.

The story’s focus was on those who praise and criticize Obama for his handling of the Libyan situation and on a broader scope our general foreign policy related to interventions.

They included this quote from a March 28 speech:

“For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake (emphasis mine), we have a responsibility to act.”

I’d like to focus on the words interests and values. And before I begin, how do we, how should we handle things when these two things conflict? Just think about that possibility as you (hopefully) read on. And does he mean the literal “and”? We should intervene when BOTH those things apply?

Interests. In the early 1800s it was in our interest to expand our borders from “sea to shining sea.” It later became in our interest to stop piracy on the northern Mediterranean coast (“to the shores of Tripoli” – are you sensing a trend toward something musical here? I didn’t intend to but if I can keep this up, it might be clever!)

More history – I’m a little too young to decide exactly what our interests were in 1898 when Teddy and his rough riders helped us win our war with Spain. Sugar maybe? Certainly in our interest.

It took years before we entered WWI and I can’t tell you now what interests we had at that time and as for values; well I can’t there either.

WWII – I doubt anyone could argue with this intervention even though some would say we were late to the party and were it not for Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbor, we might not have entered the war and Hawaii would not be our 50th State. Values – not sure anybody values Facism anymore and genocide was hopefully never valued by anyone (Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and others of their ilk excepted)

I could keep going with this history lesson but I really should get to my points.

Afghanistan. I guess our offended values were/are still, we don’t condone terrorism (or allowing you to be a home to those who do.) But if we are there to foster the value of democracy, well I guess I’d like to have the word “values” defined. If we are there for that and can’t stomach the idea of the Taliban telling people how to live – there are plenty of other places that are equal to or worse than this.

Why has it taken so long to decide what we need to do in Darfur? And even with their independence, South Sudan – I’m not aware of much intervention – I should clarify – we’ve had plenty of citizen, celebrity and NGO intervention in these and many, MANY other places but not much overt U.S. govt. action that I am aware of.

If we are really after world-wide acceptance of democracy – our core and most cherished value, then what’s up with China? We all know the answer. This is where our values conflict with our interest. We owe (heck sold!) them our financial and economic souls and we can’t survive anymore without them being our primary lender and buyer of our own exported goods. So we tolerate that they don’t share our values because it’s out-weighed by our economic interests.

Why didn’t we intervene or get involved in Libya before now? Ghaddafy (spell it however you want!) has been a well-known tyrant for years. Remember Lockerbie & Pan Am flight 103? But I guess it took world-wide pressure for us to get involved this year. He’s been offending our values for decades. But since Libya only provides maybe 3% of our oil, our interests weren’t high enough on that Richter scale to support our offended values. If we were to use this same logic – we’d have been in Iraq and gone well before 9-11!

As with history I could keep going. But if Obama is going to fashion his Foreign Policy around these key terms, I could use a semantics and vocabulary lesson to go along with history to help me understand where we’ve been and where we might go.
I close with no answers or solutions but with this excerpt from the transcript of the story (which can be found at npr.org)

“Ben Rhodes is the White House's deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. He says the administration is focused on how best to achieve American interests on a case by case basis.

BEN RHODES: I don't think you want to have a doctrine that is so broad that it would lead you to intervene in country after country, and send you down a slippery slope of military interventions that we don't want to pursue.

SHAPIRO (Ari – NPR reporter): He says the U.S. does apply universal principles to every country.

RHODES: We oppose violence by governments against their citizens. We support the universal rights of people around the world - the right to choose their own leaders and have basic fundamental freedoms. And we are supporting across the Middle East and North Africa a process of political and economic change that's responsive to the people of the region.

SHAPIRO: That support sometimes comes in the form of sanctions or simply words. But that wasn't enough in Libya, where military power came into play. And it may not be enough for people seeking revolution in other countries, either.

Michele Dunne directs the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Dr. MICHELE DUNNE: Certainly the question of U.S. involvement is going to be raised increasingly now in places like Syria, Yemen, and, who knows, perhaps Iran in the future, because of Libya. Libya has now created a different model. “


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Johnson’s Shut Ins

We took a 3-day/2 night camping trip to this unusual place last weekend.

Patti decided she wanted to go there so she planned it all out. Including picking a campsite that was ½ mile uphill from where we could park our car. We got plenty of exercise just moving things to and from the car and campsite.

The Shut Ins is in the middle of nowhere! It took us about 4 hours – ½ of which were spent on windy little country roads in – did I mention this? In the middle of nowhere? We had to stop a few times for me to double-check my maps and directions.

First off – the Shut Ins are where in Dec. 2005, a Taum Sauk reservoir wall was breached sending perhaps a billion (that’s a B!) gallons of water rushing down the hillside into and around the Shut Ins. Miraculously, no one died but the park was pretty much destroyed.

The camping areas we used have all been rebuilt and relocated away from the reservoir. Everything looked new and now I know why. A lady from St. Louis told us it looks very different now with so much damage being caused to the rocks. I guess they were much taller, rounder and the water much deeper in places.

Secondly - The term "shut-in" refers to a place where the river's breadth is limited by hard rock that is resistant to erosion.

We arrived mid-day on a Friday and proceeded to haul all our gear the ½ mile or so to our campsite. Did I mention this was all uphill from the parking area? A couple of sweaty hours later, we were set-up and ready to go.

We made a quick visit to the Shut Ins to scope out our plans for Saturday.

Saturday morning – quick breakfast and rain. Light rain, heavy rain, lighting and thunder. This wasn’t part of the brochure I read online!

Everyone said the weather should break by noon so we decided to take a drive. Ended up in Farmington (maybe an hour from StL?) and poked around a Walmart. Thought about bowling and a movie but the skies looked less threatening so we headed back.

I’m glad we did. Had a quick lunch and then headed out to the Shut Ins. Spent the next 5 or 6 hours in the water, climbing rocks, rescuing children!, and just enjoying the views.

Even with lower water levels and shorter rocks, there are still small pools more than 10 ft. deep and some larger areas that one guy estimated at 15 ft. deep! People were diving and jumping off the rocks. Anna and Annie even tried it.

I wouldn’t call it rock climbing, maybe scrambling? But you can climb 10 – 15 feet up various sizes of rocks and boulders. I enjoyed this but a couple of times found myself at the top of a rock with nowhere to go but down! Going back down the way you came up is not always possible or practical. I can’t imagine the people who do this on vertical walls hundreds of feet or more higher! I also have some sore muscles in my shoulders and legs – guess climbing stairs uses different muscle groups!

Sleeping was a challenge. The newer location has few (if any) flat or level spots. So they built these wooden platforms big enough for a tent, picnic table and your gear. At first I thought this would be good (and it has its benefits) since I’ve pitched plenty a tent on uneven and hard ground with stray rocks popping up all over. But wood is hard. I sleep on my sides and my rib cages felt like I had been smacked! One night I had to get up and go outside to walk around and even tried sleeping in a chair until I got cold and went back in the tent. I guess the cold pain was worse than the wood pain so I fell back asleep. Made my own bed at home feel so much better!

All in all a fun weekend; with some challenges. Would do it again but maybe in cooler weather, earlier in the summer with a higher water level.





Monday, August 8, 2011

3,500 miles or more

Fortunate enough to go see my daughter, her husband, Caleb and her new baby in Montana this summer.

Of course we had a great time, got to hold, feed and change little baby Vesper a lot – crying, happy, wet, hungry – you get and take it all with babies and grandbabies!
This is not so much about the visit though as the journey, which involved driving more than 3,500 miles in a rental car (Kia Forte – not too bad) with a 10 and an 11 year-old.

So with TWO (they don’t always share or play nicely!) portable DVD players and a pile of DVDs, a cooler of somewhat healthy snacks and drinks we set out early one morning.

Our first wake-up call came in northern Missouri with a detour. Did you know big chunks of I-29 are closed, still, due to the flooding earlier this year? The water from the Missouri River is over the road in many places in Missouri and Iowa.

Looking out over cornfields and such, one image stands out: a blacktop road just ends at the waters edge. Parked at the end was a car. A couple of hundred yards away stood a farm-house surrounded by water. I’ve been to Joplin and seen the devastation there – homes that aren’t houses anymore. But this one – what do you do? Your house/home is there but you can’t live in it. Can’t get to it unless you use a boat. I’m sure there must be hundreds of these.

I saw acres and acres of farmland underwater. Struck by the harsh irony of farms in Texas that are going under financially because of the drought. Here the problem was too much water. Too bad there isn’t some way to balance that out.

I saw a picture on-line of a young man standing in a field with water up almost to his knees and the caption said these fields would be under water until late fall or beyond. I heard that in Joplin, the debris clean-up is almost done. Not that folks have homes or lives rebuilt yet, but they can see a starting point out there soon.

A 2nd image of Iowa was not the usual corn (although we did see plenty of that) nor water but wind turbines. When we got off of I29 for the detour, we ended up going through several small towns I’ve never heard of but for a few miles I saw dozens of those humongously tall wind-turbines.

Water seemed to play a prominent role in this trip.

Upon arrival in Montana, I found my son-in-law already in irrigation season. I tend to associate irrigation with row crops. But there they use it to water pastures that ultimately feed their cattle – either as grass or baled up as hay for later.

I helped once with what are called wheel lines (long sections of pipe with large metal wheels and sprinklers) that are moved across fields 20 or so feet at a time and then left to water for 12+ hours. You get to one side of the field and head back the other way. The process is simple yet complicated. Turn off water (or else you get sprayed big time!) – disconnect pipes – let water drain out – crank up engine and engage to move pipes – sometimes the very long pipes don’t all move in sync so you have to go and move some by hand to line them back up – reconnect pipe – turn on the water a little – wait for the pipes to re-fill – turn water on 16 & ½ turns (Caleb’s very specific instructions to me!) and watch and wait to see if all the heads eventually start spraying water again. Caleb performed one little trick to keep from getting soaked. Near the shut-off and connection point is a sprinkler head. He would put a small piece of straw in it so it wouldn’t keep circulating and spray him (us!) while working on the lines.

I also helped with what are called hand-lines. Similar concept to wheel-lines except these lines lay on the ground and – you guessed it – you move them by hand. Each morning and each night, Caleb goes out and disconnects a section from the main line, moves it 20 feet or so, gets another section, disconnects, moves – you get the picture. This involves a lot of bending and lifting and walking. I spent about 2 hours doing this one evening and it is a workout. While I was helping I may have also been slowing him down. There are little tricks and techniques that to him are 2nd nature whereas I had to stop and think and then hope I got it right. My daughter Sarah helps with this too when she can but of course with a newborn – times are limited.

They also have a couple of “center pivots.” These are those long and tall things that go in a circle around big fields and spray water too but we didn’t go to any of those while I was helping.

Their system of water is based on mostly snowmelt. The reservation (they live in the middle of the Flathead Indian reservation – which is odd since the tribes are Salish, Kootenai and one other I can’t spell) has reservoirs that holds most of the water which is then pumped all over the Flathead or parts of the Mission Valley area. I learned a little about this complex system but of course know only enough to be dangerous. But I’ll share some anyway.

Each rancher/farmer has to tell the tribe(s) how much water they want each year. Then they pay a water tax. At a certain point in the summer the water becomes available. There are a series of canals or ditches running all over. Scattered are pumps, diverters etc. that allow the water to move where it needs to go.

Water seemed to always flow in these ditches but they couldn’t always be used. I guess you have to order your water and on some days if another ranch up or down-stream was using a certain amount, then you might not be able to get your water on that day and have to wait. In one case Caleb had to wait almost three days for water for one pasture.

Ditch-riders move about and monitor the water and I guess make sure nobody is using more than they pay for.

Earlier in the week before travelling, I sat through a seminar on water for our City Council. One lady shared that while we can go without power (not happily of course) for a week or two, we last about two days without water.

When you have hundreds of
animals or fields of grass, alfalfa etc., you can’t wait on this water for too long.
And as noted, water is a lot of work. I’d guess Caleb spends 4-5 hours every day, 7-days a week during the prime season from July - September, doing his water chores.

Water figured once more in our recreation. We made it to Flathead Lake at least three times – once for boating and a picnic and a couple of other times for a swim. Did I mention that this lake also is mostly snowmelt? And that the average water temp is about 58 degrees in mid-June warming to a balmy 68 by mid-August?

I managed to make it into the water twice. Kids of course don’t seem to care. Never bothered them.

So these are my water memories from Montana 2011.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pyramid and my (brief) foray into Hollywood

Working in the heat this morning I was thinking about other times I worked I the heat and remembered the summer of 1975.

I had just graduated from SMU in Dallas, film degree in my hot little hands and looking for work.

Remember the movie Logan’s Run? Not many people do but much of it was shot in Dallas that summer. A call was put out for extras and I thought this might be a way to get on a movie set and meet some people that could help me get work in the future.

I went to the audition – which wasn’t much other than telling you to shave any exposed body hair and stay out of the sun since this movie was set in a place/time where everyone was indoors and no one was tan.

I wasn’t too thrilled about shaving my chest hair but it was a job.

It may have been that same day I got a phone call from my film prof, Tom Herod who was working as a location manager for another movie being shot in Dallas – working title Pyramid. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in working on the crew as a grip. This was much more up my alley than being a clean-body-shaven extra in a sci-fi movie so I said yes. Later that day I was with a similarly unemployed friend and explained what happened. He asked if he could take my place on Logan’s Run. I figured it wouldn’t matter – a body is a body and nobody knew who I was anyway so he planned on going down for the wardrobe fitting in a day or so. Honestly don’t remember how things worked out for him but seem to recall he worked a few days, had fun, met some people; the usual.

Back to Pyramid. This was a low budget movie (in today’s parlance it would likely be one of those straight-to-video flix.) But we did have a “name” director whose claim to fame was directing the TV series Man From Uncle.

My job? Electrical or lighting grip. That essentially means carrying around and setting up a bunch of heavy lights, running long heavy cables, plugging things into electrical sources (not your typical wall outlets) and then spending a lot of time standing around waiting for one scene to end so we could re-set etc. for the next one.

Prior to the shoot we took a long Ryder truck and built shelves, racks, hanging racks etc. to keep all the grip gear and this became our grip truck. I got to do a lot of shopping for stuff that was called “expendables” – meaning we buy them, use them and then we’re done; and “practicals” – stuff that is used in the scene like real light bulbs in real lamps but with special color-correct bulbs.

Did I mention the pay? A whopping $200/week, which in 1975 wasn’t bad but one caveat: $100 of that was deferred. I had taken a film finance workshop where the benefits of such deferments were explained from a producer’s POV but for a crew person? This means my NET was $100/week. If/when the movie finished AND actually made money, then, and only then, would the deferred money be paid.

I was happy enough to collect my $100/week for now.

The next 10-12 weeks were spent mostly outside shooting in one of the hottest summers ever in Dallas. I think in June/July we had something like 17 or 19 straight days of 100+.

As a grip you are somewhat removed from the politics of the movie but eventually we began to realize this movie was not going to be good. Crewmembers began to jump ship as our shoot dragged on. The most notable of these was Tak Fujimoto – our DP. Since then he has gone on to have a pretty decent Hollywood career. Another crewmember who was also a classmate of mine at SMU, Ron Judkins also went on to get two or maybe three Oscars for his sound work on Spielberg movies such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. I got together with him in LA a few years back to do an interview for a magazine article. He’s had quite a career.

Late in the production schedule Tak left and the Asst. DP moved up to that slot. The 2nd assist camera op moved into the 1st slot and someone asked me if I had ever worked with a film camera before. I said yes and they said “Here. You are now 2nd asst. camera operator. Go unload these magazines and start keeping camera logs.” I had no idea about either of these but figured it was better to shut up and go do the work. I thought maybe this would mean I could get paid more (it didn’t.)

Unloading magazines meant taking the shot or exposed film magazine off the camera, putting it in a black heavy bag, opening it up, removing the exposed 35 mm film, taping the ends down, putting the reel in a metal can and then sealing the can with more tape so no light could get in and ruin the film. Hard to imagine they’d let someone with so little experience do something that really could jeopardize the whole thing but they did and to my knowledge I never messed up any film. I also loaded magazines with unexposed film - less risky but also important to be done right. I had to write stuff on the labels from the camera logs and from that point on I also had to keep those logs which meant writing down scene #s, how much film was exposed for each take – all sorts of stuff that would be used later to determine which parts of the film to actually process and print to a work-print or “dailies” that everyone would watch at the end of the day. I also worked with the AD to put information on the slate and would hand it to him for the actual “clapping” that you see people do. I never got to do that. I also helped on some bigger scenes with setting up dolly track and other related stuff for the camera.

I never got to watch any dailies because of my other job – Winnebago driver. We rented a 26 ft. RV, which served as our “honey wagon”, make up room, dressing room and place for the talent to hang out before and after takes. I had to be at our location hotel early, get it started and cooled down and then drive it to our locations with talent on board.

At the end of the day, the reason I could never stay and watch dailies is because I had to drive the RV to a place and pump out the bathroom and get rid of all the trash so it would be clean for the next day.

My most exciting moment was on our bus crash scene. One scene called for a busload of kids to careen off the road down an embankment into a creek; where of course most of them were going to die.

We blocked off a suitable street and because this was more complicated than our usual scenes, we had 6 or 7 cameras to capture the action from every conceivable angle since no one knew how many takes we might get. We had ONE school bus.

Our driver wasn’t much of a stunt driver and while he was supposed to cut the wheels hard and make the bus roll over so it could of course roll down the hill, he never got it to roll. The plus here was we got to shoot several takes because somehow the bus survived the drive down the hill to be towed back up and done all over again.

How did I have an exciting moment on this shot? I got to operate a 16mm camera down in the creek at the bottom of the hill. I set my tripod up in the water to catch the action of the bus “rolling” down the hill. On one of the later – probably last takes, someone told him to go faster, I guess thinking the speed might finally get him to actually get it to roll.

Cameras all roll, AD calls action, bus starts heading down the street. Stunt driver cuts the wheel but I guess even though he sped up, it didn’t roll over but headed back down the embankment again; just with more speed. Headed right at me.

There were 2 or 3 of us with the camera and as the bus came right at us, all I remember is someone yelling and we all ran away as fast as we could. The bus did come to a stop but not before hitting the camera just hard enough to knock it over backwards into the water. I also do not recall if that film was ruined or what actually happened after that. I think this scene was saved to be one of the last ones shot since it was so much harder.

After about 14 weeks or so, we wrapped up the picture, dismantled everything and most of the crew and talent that came from CA, went home. A few of us stayed on a week or so to shut down the office etc. and get rid of the stuff we’d bought. I still have a hammer from the grip truck on that shoot.

That summer was hot, a lot of hard work and also fun but it gave me a brief taste of a life I would never experience again for another 10 years or so and even then only for a few weeks on another big shoot in LA.

That deferred salary? I never got it. A few years later I heard rumors that the film finally got finished and I thought maybe if it made some money, I’d get paid. I wrote lots of letters but after a few months just gave up. I don’t think the editing was ever finished.

Just as well.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Security

This has been an interesting week related to security (or lack there of) on the web.

I got home from vacation to find my phone bill. Looked it over and noticed an extra $25 or so. Took some closer scrutiny but found a $19.95 charge for a Payment One, Inc. for web hosting provided by Online Entrepreneur.

Right below the charge it says: “Do not call (phone company name) about this charge. Please call Payment One. This is a 3rd party charge.”

I’ve never heard of either of the two names mentioned but I called. An automated system started asking for information. Bells began to go off and I hung up. I called my phone company and while waiting Googled the two names. I got a long listing about these companies and their “slamming” or “cramming” or simply charging people for services they had not ordered.

Got a real live person at the phone co. and while working out to block 3rd party charges (suggest you talk to YOUR phone company about this) he mentioned that “Yes, companies like these take millions of dollars of your money every year.” Wait. Did he said “My money”? I began to connect a few dots. My phone company knows that these companies “steal” from customers. Yet they allow them to use their services.

Why? I’ll take a stab at it – they get a small cut for handling each transaction. A legal consensual transaction or an illegal one – it all pays the same.

He put a block on my phone and said they would “dispute” the first $19.95 charge.
He still suggested I try to get a real live person with Payment One so they could have some verification for their files.

So I tried again and got a real live lady! She started asking me questions and I said “Wait, why should I have to give you more information about me?” At which she said OK and proceeded to read back to me an email address and our phone #. Bottom line, she said she would cancel the service we had ordered. Note the semantics – “we had ordered.”

Seems when you fill out contests or coupon requests or other such seemingly innocent things on the web, Facebook etc. you may – note MAY be giving them approval to do all sorts of things; not the least of which is charge you for some sort of service.

I’m guessing they figure most people won’t notice or fight a small charge buried deep in their phone (or other) bill and/or by the time the poor customer figures it out and spends (as I did) 30 minutes on the phone to sort it all out, they still might give up. Meanwhile those $19.95s start piling up.

Shame on them for doing this. But also shame on the phone companies who allow it to happen in the first place.

And a caution – don’t fill out forms, contests etc. on the web unless you know exactly who you are dealing with and even then provide as little information as possible and nothing personal if you can help it.

Hopefully my little lesson won’t cost me more than my time.

UPDATE: Today I started getting notices from Google that my gmail account had been “accessed” from exotic places like Turkey and Serbia. Did a little digging into what I hope was really Google’s help area and ended up changing my password. Now one more to remember!