Silicon Cowboys

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Silicon Cowboys

****

 

Ten thousand years ago, man developed written language. Written language allowed for the advancement of technology, the growth of cities, and the creation of lasting civilizations.

Five hundred years ago, a German invented the printing press. Suddenly, Western Europeans became the most educated and the most intellectually rebellious people in world history. Within a generation, another German guy permanently destroyed the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.

Forty years ago, nobody had a computer in their home, on their desk at work, or in their pocket. Now we all do. The universal availability of personal computers is as revolutionary to human communication as the invention of the printing press and the written word itself.

“Silicon Cowboys” tells the scintillating story of some American underdogs who spearheaded the computer revolution.

In 1982, three nerdy friends quit their jobs at Texas Instruments and in order to start a company of their own. They almost opened a Mexican restaurant (seriously), but they ultimately decided to build a factory in Houston and produce computers. They called the company Compaq.

At the dawn of the PC era, there were several companies selling home computers. The problem was, the companies were all separate from each other and it was hard for a new user to decide which PC universe to dive into.

Compaq’s brilliant innovation was to make its computers completely compatible with IBM. Now, if a consumer already owned a bunch of IBM software and had learned how to use it, he could buy a Compaq for his next device and feel right at home.

It sounds simple, but this nifty little change started a chain reaction, transforming PCs from a niche product into the machines that run our lives.

Compaq also made its first computer portable. Granted, the Compaq Portable weighed 28 pounds. But it had a durable plastic shell and a leather strap so that business people could take it to and from the office.

Those three Texas pals – who almost opened a Mexican restaurant – had started a chain reaction that would end with half the human race carrying little computers in their pocket at all times.

The most entertaining part of this thoroughly entertaining documentary is when we see how savvy Compaq was at marketing.

So, it’s 1983. You’re selling a $3000 luxury product aimed at the 30- something nerds who can afford it. Who is the perfect pitchman?

Two words: John. Cleese.

The 70-minute film does not skimp on the footage of John Cleese’s charmingly irreverent ad campaign that transformed Compaq from underdog outsider to Wall Street mega-titan.

“Silicon Valley” is a joyous little film that celebrates an American company that made a billion dollars, gave hundreds of Texans solid factory jobs, and changed the world forever.

For the record, I am not saying that the computer revolution was a good thing. I saw “Terminator.” And I don’t like how addicted I am to my iPhone. But the revolution is here, it’s irreversible, and it’s as important to human history as the Printing Press. “Silicon Cowboys” is an interesting story about the guys who did it.

New York Doll

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 New York Doll

                                               ***1/2

     When I was a young man, I decided that my life would be easier if I didn’t have children. So I never did.

     Now, twenty years later, I have learned the truth: my decision to abstain from reproduction was even more wise than I had even imagined.

     People without children have more freedom, more money, more options, more time, and more sleep.

     People without children have less stress and less worry.

     Seemingly, the only advantage that people with kids have is that their lives have built-in meaning. Childless adults have far less responsibility, but we have one big challenge: find meaning to our lives.

     “New York Doll” is an open-minded documentary about one man’s search for meaning during his last days.

     The story begins back in 1973. In the early 70s, American rock and roll was at its lowest point. Boring Prog rock and heavy metal ruled the airwaves.

     Into this artistic void stormed The New York Dolls. Musically, they were an amalgamation of the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones that had just passed and the punk rock that was to come. But it was their public persona that made them infamous and influential.

     The New York Dolls dressed in women’s clothing.

     They dressed in women’s clothing, but they weren’t drag queens. And they weren’t cross-dressers in any conventional sense. They dressed like drugged-up, poorly made-up prostitutes.

Their look was too weird for the American top-40. But they inspired a generation of punks, hair metal bands, and brave weirdos. Mick Jones of the Clash sings their praises. Morrissey was the President of the New York Dolls UK fan club.

       You’d think that being part of a legendary rock band would be enough to give a man meaning to his life. Well: yes and no.

     Arthur “Killer” Kane was the bassist for the New York Dolls and the subject of this documentary.

     The memory of the New York Dolls is always fighting a war inside Arthur Kane’s head, with pride in constant battle with regret. As Kane succumbed to obscurity and poverty, he saw his old friend David Johansen (the Dolls’ lead singer) become rich and famous.

                      While watching “Scrooged” (in which Johansen plays the Ghost of Christmas Past), the former rocker hit rock bottom. He drank so much that his wife left him for good and he jumped out his third story window.

                  During his long hospital stay, Killer Kane turned to Mormonism. Yes, Mormonism. “New York Doll” wasn’t produced by VH-1. It was directed by Kane’s Mormon friend Greg Whiteley.

                  The Mormon Church saved Kane’s life and gave him a much-needed job away from the music industry. It is funny to see how well the former hedonist Kane got along with the innocent old ladies at the Family Research Library where he worked.

                  It would have been easy for Greg Whiteley to say that the Mormon Church saved Arthur Kane and leave it at that. But, to the filmmaker’s credit, “New York Doll” shows that the Church gave Kane stability – but not meaning.

                  Jesus is going to save his soul, Whiteley concludes. But for peace in this life, Kane needed rock and roll redemption. “New York Doll” goes from mundane to magical when Kane gets a call from Morrissey.

                 55 year old Killer Kane was invited to reunite with The Dolls for Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in London. The final act of “New York Doll” is bittersweet and life-affirming.

                 “New York Doll” shows that it is possible for a childless man to find meaning in this crazy world. But it definitely isn’t easy. I’m not sure I’ve found meaning just yet. But getting to write for this wonderful newspaper is good start. Plus I’ve never changed a baby’s diaper. Not once.

The Most Hated Woman in America

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Netflix Original Movie

The Most Hated Woman in America

***1/2

 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

-The Bill of Rights

 

That phrase. That phrase you keep using. I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.

Somewhere in our history, the meaning of the First Amendment got flipped around.

The Founding Fathers were looking to differentiate their new country from Great Britain. In the United States, there would be no state religion. Back in Britain, the state religion was the Church of England the King was its leader. The founders wanted to make it clear that there would be no Church of America with the President as the national holy man.

That was a darn good idea. Can you imagine if the religious leader of our country was the President? Head of Church Calvin Coolidge? Okay, I’ll buy that. Head of Church Bill Clinton? Uh oh.

The Founders were trying to keep the State’s grubby paws out of religion. They were not trying to completely remove God from public life.

Oaths in courtrooms have invoked God from the beginning. Several Chaplains were on the very first Federal payroll. George Washington mentioned God in his Inaugural Address. So has every President since.

Thomas Jefferson was the most religiously progressive of our Founding Fathers. But even Jefferson, a Deist, cited God four times in the Declaration of Independence. The notion that the Founders wanted to protect Americans from ever hearing a prayer in public is comically absurd.

Where the heck did people get the idea that church and state must be completely separate?

Apparently, it was Baltimore, 1963. And Madalyn Murray O’Hair was to thank. Or blame.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a great hero and a great villain of atheist history.

On one hand, she bravely went on talk shows and wrote articles in the 60s that educated people about what atheism is and demonstrated that atheists are regular Americans as opposed to Communist infiltrators.

On the other hand, O’Hair made atheists look like jerks with her obnoxious crusades to try to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” from the currency.

In my ideal world, atheists would be seen as normal folks who just happen to know that there is nothing supernatural in the universe. Due to O’Hair, atheists have an unfortunate reputation as malcontents who want to be a thorn in the side of Christians.

O’Hair founded an activist organization called American Atheists in 1963. The Netflix original film “The Most Hated Woman in America” shows how O’Hair (played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo) quietly transformed American Atheists into her own personal cash machine, taking the donated estates of like-minded atheists and squirreling away the money in overseas accounts.

In the 60s, O’Hair ticked off a whole lot of Christians. But her real mistake was that she trusted one shady co-worker with her financial secrets. The film’s drama comes from the 1995 incident where a former office manager of American Atheists kidnapped O’Hair and held the feisty old lady hostage until she paid him $1 million.

“The Most Hated Woman in America” is educational, gripping, and sad.

In the end, Madalyn Murray O’Hair learned the truth the hard way. The truth is that people who believe in God are mistaken – nothing more, nothing less. Christians aren’t robbing anyone of their civil rights. And they aren’t defying the Constitution when they worship in public.

It is telling that Ms. O’Hair was done in not by the worship of God, but by the worship of money.

Peter and the Farm

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Peter and the Farm

***

A Montpelier lobbyist once told me that if you want to convince a Vermonter of your side, hire a farmer to present your argument. Vermonters trust farmers above all others.

There’s something weird about that. Seemingly, the only thing separating a farmer from you or me is that he has a terrible, terrible job.

200 years ago, 72% of American workers were farmers. Today, it is 2%. It’s a proven fact of history that most people eagerly leave the farm when given the chance.

Farming is the most dangerous, time-consuming, and emotionally taxing way to earn a living. Just ask poor Peter Dunning.

Peter is a profane old drunken philosopher. He lives alone on a farm off a dirt road near Springfield. Either you will hate him or you will pity him. Or both.

When you picture a family farmer, you imagine that he has a fatherly kinship with his animals. Like James Cromwell in “Babe.” Not Peter Dunning.

He treats his animals like commodities and pains in the butt. There is a graphic scene where he shoots one of his sheep to death and then skins and disembowels the corpse. The sad thing is, that is the nicest thing he does to a sheep the entire movie. Peter really hates sheep.

I’m not judging the guy. It is possible that 35 years of farming makes a man indifferent to death and suffering. However, if the government enacted a prohibitive sin tax on every item of meat sold in Vermont, I would heartily support the measure.

These days, being a farmer might actually be more dangerous than going to war. The few people I know who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan came home in one piece. Peter Dunning, on the other hand, has a three-fingered claw for a right hand as the result of a gruesome farm accident.

Another shocking fact about being a farmer: zero paid vacation days. In fact, zero vacations period because you are always needed on the farm. For decades, Peter hasn’t traveled any further than the Brattleboro Farmers Market.

Not that he has anyone to visit. Apparently, sheep aren’t the only mammals that Peter has mistreated over the years. Peter Dunning has two ex-wives and several children. He is estranged from all of them.

“Peter and the Farm” is a horror movie. Peter’s daily life is a living nightmare of loneliness, regret, and pain. He talks openly of suicide. He describes the deepest depths of alcoholism, where he has to get up in the middle of the night and guzzle rum in order to stave off Delirium Tremens.

As a Vermonter, apparently, you suffer from the strange mental affliction of romanticizing the family farmer. “Peter and the Farm” is your detox. There is nothing romantic about the life of a farmer. Just ask poor Peter Dunning.

 

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, and America

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Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, and America

***

 

We are living in a time of shocking hatred and intolerance.

I am talking about college campuses, of course.

I imagine that you know what happened at Middlebury College last month. It made the national news. Charles Murray – a semi-famous, blandly mainstream political social philosopher – was invited to give a talk.

In Charles Murray’s 1994 best seller “The Bell Curve,” there were a few chapters that suggested that different races have different average IQs.

My first thought is that his conclusion is unverifiable and stupid. Middlebury’s first thought was that Mr. Murray has forfeited his right to speak and to even step foot on a college campus.

Never mind the fact that “The Bell Curve” was published before any of the students were born. Never mind the fact that Mr. Murray was there to talk about his new book “Coming Apart.” The Middlebury Thought Police concluded that students needed to be protected from the scourge of alternative ideas and free debate.

The anti-debate fanatics threatened Murray with physical harm if he didn’t leave and one of the professors was injured by the mob as he helped usher the speaker to safety.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to get my education during the easygoing 20th Century. Times have changed in a bad way. Is there any group of people more hateful and intolerant than a mob of brainwashed college students? Maybe the KKK?

Apparently not.

In this strange new world where progressive children aren’t allowed to talk to their ideological enemies, Daryl Davis stands out. He is either an angel among devils or an unforgivable apostate, depending on your perspective.

He makes his living as a rock’n’roll piano player, but Daryl Davis’s claim to fame is his unique circle of friends. Mr. Davis is a black guy who likes to befriend White Supremacists.

If you recently received a liberal arts degree, then “Accidental Courtesy” is guaranteed to offend you. Not only is it a film about people with differences having civilized conversations with each other, it dares to present Klansmen as…people.

In fact, it is the non-Klansmen who give Mr. Davis the hardest time. A trio of #blacklivesmatter activists brutally lay into him for being an Uncle Tom turncoat. Davis gets treated a little more respectfully when he visits the Southern Poverty Law Center. But when Davis suggests to them that they try to engage White Supremacists in dialogue, a civil rights worker laughs in his face. “All those people do is hate,” Davis is told.

But that isn’t true. No one just sits around and hates all day, obviously. It shouldn’t need to be proven, but Daryl Davis has proven it. In his thirty years of befriending White Supremacists, he has inspired dozens of Klansmen to rethink their values and leave the KKK. Mr. Davis proudly keeps the robes and hoods of the friends that he inspired to change.

Even the active White Supremacists who Daryl Davis sits down with act like respectable gentlemen in front of the camera (with one exception. Pastor Thomas Robb, who should probably be banished to South Sudan immediately).

The White Power kooks don’t seem all that angry. They are driven by one bad, outdated idea: the desire to be separate from other people. The Klansmen and Neo-Nazis agree that white people should live apart from non-white people and that they should not reproduce together.

This worldview is 100% wrong. But it’s not that different than the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. And it’s almost exactly the same as the racial separation theories of Marcus Garvey and Abraham Lincoln.

Daryl Davis’s life’s work is to demonstrate that a man can be wrong but not be a monster. And Davis continues to prove that it is more productive to talk with your ideological enemies than to demonize them.

I doubt it was Jewish director Matthew Ornstein’s intention to present Neo-Nazis as well-behaved conversationalists and progressive activists as mind-numbed fascists. But that is what happens in “Accidental Courtesy.”

Which is better? To be dead wrong and act like a peaceful gentleman? Or to be potentially right but demonstrate insufferable arrogance and intolerance? Young campus rioters need to look in the mirror and ask themselves that question.

 

 

Fences

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Fences

***1/2

 

It seems like the polite thing to say to a young man is: “you’d make a great father.”

I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me.

And they are right. I can definitely see myself being a horrible father. Some men just aren’t built to be great parents.

I could see myself resenting my child because I am wasting my money and the last decent years of my life on him without getting enough gratitude in return.

I could see myself resenting my child because my years of opportunity have come and gone while his have just begun.

Worst of all, I could see myself not liking my child. I don’t like everyone I’m related to. What happens if I stop liking my kid? Do I ruin his life and my own?

I would never walk out on my child. No chance. I am above that. But I am not above being miserable and angry. And I am not above drinking myself to death.

Am I a bad person? Yeah, maybe. Am I alone? Heck no. “Fences” is a raw, honest drama that explores what happens when a guy like me has some children. Spoiler alert: it’s bad for everybody involved.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson: former Negro League baseball slugger and current jerk.

On paper, Troy has a sweet life. He has a solid career, a loyal wife, and two healthy sons who yearn for his approval. But Troy can’t stop obsessing over what he used to be, what he should have been, and what he wants but can’t have.

Denzel Washington has a special talent for playing foolish, self-destructive alpha-males. Troy is one of Denzel’s most memorable characters. Troy passionately rages against time, fate, reality, and sobriety even though we all know he is destined to lose.

The tragedy of Troy is that all he ever needed to do was learn to be content with his humble life.

The film contrasts Troy with his brother Gabriel. On paper, Gabriel has a terrible life. He was severely wounded in WWII and has a metal plate in his head. Gabriel will never be able to land a job or a wife, and he has the mental capacity of a seven year old.

But Gabriel is happy. He is obsessed with the afterlife and he believes that he will play a part in convincing St. Peter to open the gates of heaven to himself and the people he loves.

If only Troy had been able to learn something from his little brother. Or if only Troy had had the good sense to understand how selfish he is and just never have any children.

Don’t worry, World readers: I do understand how selfish I am. I don’t have any kids.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

****

 

Have you ever looked at a black and white photo of a man from 150 years ago and thought about his perspective?

He lived in a world that is wildly different than ours. He left only a tiny trace of himself for people to remember. Yet, despite the beard, despite the decades, despite his death, the man in the photo is just like me – with hopes and dreams and passions just like mine.

Sometimes I look at old photos and think. Legendary documentarian Werner Herzog just one-upped me in a big way.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is little more than a philosophical old man musing about old pictures for a few hours. But in this case, the pictures are 32,000 year old cave paintings. And, somehow, it is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen.

In 1994, a Frenchman named Jean Marie Chauvet was out for a hike. He stumbled upon a hidden cave. Thanks to a freak rockslide eons ago, the paintings inside were uniquely preserved. Werner Herzog informs us that the Chauvet Cave paintings are twice as old as any that were previously discovered.

We now know for sure what preoccupied the mind of Stone Age man. It was animals. The cave has dozens of beautiful, vivid paintings and they are all animals.

Why animals? We can only speculate. Were the caves temples and the animals gods? Did Stone Age man dream of a future where he could domesticate wild animals and keep them as pets? Was the cave an ancient restaurant and the paintings were the menu? Did the paintings plan out the strategy of tomorrow’s hunt and the wall was a chalkboard where Og Belichick showed Urg Brady where to throw his spear?

 

We will never know. That’s what distinguishes “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” from just another Discovery Channel science show. Werner Herzog doesn’t talk about facts and DNA evidence. He just shares his feelings about the cave and inspires us to imagine ourselves living in their world.

The only thing we know for sure is that 32,000 years ago, Europe had horses, bison, cave bears, cave lions, and wooly mammoths. It is awe-inspiring to imagine that people just like us lived in the Ice Age, in the shadow of glaciers, surrounded by majestic mammals that have been extinct since the dawn of civilization.

What would a cave man think of our world? “You have global warming AND carnivorous lions and bears are going extinct,” he’d say. “Man, you guys have it good. Wait? You are against those things? That makes no sense.”

These are just the thoughts that came to my head. You’ll have different ones. It is to Herzog’s credit as a filmmaker that he doesn’t draw any conclusions; he just turns his camera on the paintings and lets the artists speak for themselves. You can almost hear their voices whispering through the cold cave walls.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is a beautiful film. See it with someone you love.

 

 

Targeted: Exposing the Gun Control Agenda

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Targeted: Exposing the Gun Control Agenda

**

 

The NRA is right about gun control for the wrong reasons. And gun control advocates are wrong about gun control for all the right reasons.

Love them or loathe them, you have to hand it to them: the NRA is winning. If Tom Brady and Charlie Sheen had a baby and that baby grew up to be a lobbying group, that group would be the NRA.

The true extent of their victory was demonstrated every time President Obama made a speech about gun control. After every mass shooting – like clockwork – the President would implore America to finally crack down on legal weapons sales. Every impassioned speech had the same result: people rushed out to buy more guns.

In other words, the NRA reduced the most powerful man on earth into a mere gun-selling patsy.

How did the NRA become the Harlem Globetrotters and how did gun control advocates become the Washington Generals?

Cynical people will say that the NRA did it by paying off politicians. But that’s only half the story. The NRA needed to convince the public that gun control is bad and/or useless. And they did it using a brilliant combination of truth and lies.

“Targeted” is a big budget propaganda documentary written and directed by 22 year old Jesse Winton. He presents the topic with the wide-eyed earnestness of a college kid who just discovered politics.

I’m not saying that young Mr. Winton was paid by the NRA. But it is clear that he is a recent convert to their religion and his faith is unquestionable.

Gun control advocates have one message: restricting gun sales will save lives. Impressively, the NRA has even found a way to fight back on that seemingly unarguable point.

Jesse Winton tries to convince himself and the audience that fewer guns won’t lead to fewer shootings based on statistics from Chicago and Australia. I’m basically pro-NRA, but – good grief – this argument is absurd.

If you close every ski slope, America will have fewer broken legs. If you close every McDonald’s, America will have fewer Big Macs. And if you close every gun store, America will have fewer gun deaths and mass shootings. It IS that simple. I am sincerely impressed that the NRA has found a way to convince half of our country that 2 minus 1 equals 5.

Everyone is against mass shootings. But I came across an interesting statistic recently: 100% of people who were killed by guns were going to die of something else eventually.

Every person in human history died. Only a tiny percentage of them ever lived in freedom.

“Targeted” does a slightly better job of showing how essential gun rights are to our identity as a free people.

If you think we are such a free people that we have liberties to spare, you view the United States differently than I do. We are certainly freer than slaves, Soviets, and Saudis. But we are not as free as we should be.

The government in Washington has the power to draft a boy right out of high school, train him to kill, send him to Vietnam, and then force him to murder people based on nothing more than a Domino Theory. That is a proven fact. And gun control advocates want to give these maniacs more power over us? I do not.

I’d say that it is the feds – not the people – who have proven that they can’t be trusted with firearms. The day after the government voluntarily throws away all of its tanks and bombs and drones is the day that they have any place asking us to lay down our arms.

The NRA is full of it when it says that banning all guns wouldn’t make us a little safer.

However, I’m still on the NRA’s side.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

-Benjamin Franklin.