Thursday, December 31, 2009
Went and saw this with my son the other day. He seems to get me out to new movies a lot. I really wasn't sure what to expect on this because the previews were a bit confusing in that they seemed to want to portray it as a comedy with occasional bursts of drama. The reviews I read, on the other hand, tried to compare it to the Sherlock Holmes books and seemed disappointed that the movie didn't live up to the books in terms of dramatic content. The previews seemed promising, however, so off we went.
The first thing I would have to say is that this is not the classic Holmes you've seen in the past. Robert Downey, Jr. does a fine job of being this interpretation of the great detective. He has the right blend of OCD, slackerdom and frenetic energy to make the character work.
Jude Law as Dr. Watson seems to come across more often as petulant than profound. The portrayal of the character somehow doesn't quite match the role Dr. Watson has in the film. But that is really a minor nit, the general feel between the two characters works most of the time. The female leads don't really have much point to them, but they do add a bit of eye-candy.
The plot itself is well-crafted, with that traditional Holmesian sense that you are dealing with the supernatural. Strange things happen and strange people do them. Mark Strong does a great job as the evil Lord Blackwood. I felt a bit like his character was not quite entirely developed, but he did a superb job of showing his contempt for Holmes and all ordinary mortals.
Finally, the cinematography was better than most recent films I've seen, without too much of the rapid cuts and scene changes that make it hard to watch so many films today. In addition the sets are very richly developed - even if a lot of the backgrounds are so clearly paintings.
Overall it was a film that I enjoyed thoroughly, not too heavy, not too deep, not too trivial (although without any particular moral), fun to watch and with enough twists and turns to the plot to keep me interested all the way through. I give it a slightly conditional B+ and recommend it with no real reservations.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Fallen Angels is a collaboration by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn. Sometimes collaborations come off very well and sometimes they seem to miss a bit. In this case there is more of a feeling of missing a bit. The basic premise is interesting: The earth is pretty much taken over by environmentalist government that opposes technology. A new ice age is developing because of climate change and the governments are blaming it on the few humans living in a space habitat who regularly come down to scoop up a bit of air for the nitrogen in it. One of the scoop ships gets shot down and a bunch of pro-technology science fiction fans decide to rescue the pilots and then try to return them to space.
There's a lot of interesting thoughts in the book about government control and about those who use junk science for their own ends, but I got rather tired of the continual anti-environmentalist tone. The Sci-Fi fans also get a bit wearisome as they just don't have any real depth to them. In fact, if I had to make a single criticism of this book it would be that the character development is very poor. Niven and Pournelle have both written a lot of very good stuff, both individually and collaboratively, but this book is not one to put with their other works. It is trite, strident and ultimately unsatisfying. I can't give it more than a "B" grade and at least part of that is on the author's reputation alone. More realistic is a "C" grade and the suggestion that there is a lot of stuff out there that is more fun to read.
Monday, October 26, 2009
I read this primarily because it appeared on a list of "100 must-read books". I'm a sucker for those lists, since I read voraciously and with little discrimination. In this case we have a book that is supposed to have been world-shaking and life-changing. The blurb on the back says "The book the shook straight America", but in my opinion, the only shaking was the tremors that came from readers thudding to the floor unconscious from boredom. Now I realize that the world of 1955 may have been a bit different from today, but there is still nothing about this to make it stand out. I felt not one whit of sympathy for the characters (or even interest in their fate) and the events are just a series of typical young-man-on-the-loose vignettes. Maybe you have to be stoned to get anything out of it, or maybe it just isn't a very well written book. My money's on the latter.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
The Eastern Front was a pretty grim place for any German soldier at any time during the Second World War. Even when things were going well it was a hard-fought battle and when things started to go badly they quickly became very, very bad. I've long been interested in that Eastern Front experience and this is another of my books that covers it. Günter Koschorrek actually kept a diary during the war, even though that was forbidden by army rules, and that diary is the basis of his account. He did not fight in the actual Stalingrad battle, but basically fought throughout the long retreat. He was wounded several times and saw most of his friends die, so he basically writes this as a memorial to all those who died on both sides and to honor their memories.
Overall I can't rate this as the best WWII Eastern Front narrative I've ever read, although it is very personal in feeling. The major drawback for me is that there is very little explanatory material to put the local events into the context of the entire battle. The viewpoint is definitely solely that of the individual soldier in the trench, crouched behind his machine gun. Because of this and the diary format of the narrative (it is almost just a transcription of his diary in many places) the account seems rather disjointed to me and often left me trying to figure out just what was going on. Despite this I found it an overall good read with plenty of detail about both the daily lives of the soldiers and what they were thinking at the time.
I give this book a moderate recommendation with the caveat that if you have a particular interest in the Eastern Front or first-person WWII narratives in general then it is a worthwhile read if not addition to your library.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Subtitled "Hearts, Minds, and Sergeants in the U.S. Army" this is a fictional account of one sergeant's experiences in the Gulf War (Desert Storm). Mixed in with it is a fair bit of military history, also told through the viewpoint of the sergeants at the time. The real story, however, is the classic tale of a man growing older and confronting the limitations and changes imposed by the calendar. Sergeant Dee Crane has fought in Vietnam and served faithfully in the so-called "peacetime Army", but now finds himself getting ready to go to war again, but this time his comrades in arms aren't his contemporaries, but a bunch of volunteer men and women who are young enough to be his children. The gap between them grows more evident as combat looms nearer, but Crane's respect and even affection for the young soldiers under his authority grows as they face that test together.
I can't speak to the accuracy of the military parts of the book, but the emotions of a middle-aged man looking both ways at his life are all too real. It is a good solid read, but I caution you that you may never look at pencils the same way again.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
I notice right away that the dateline on this article is September 28th, a day which is still 5 days in my future. Odd, but not particularly significant.
I admit that I love Wikipedia. I read every article that I see that mentions it and have been known to spend hours just clicking from article to article as my attention wanders. Of course I used to take the encyclopedia off the shelf as I was growing up and just read an entire volume cover to cover, so this isn't really new behavior, but it is a lot easier to do on Wikipedia. Most of the article (which you probably need to read before my comments make sense) is pretty obvious to me. When a community gets big it needs more structure to make it work. No surprise then that Wikipedia keeps adding layers. Likewise, as the cost of failure rises the investment in preventing failure will rise as well. In the wiki-world cost of failure is the loss of trust in the information you are presenting. When Wikipedia became the most frequently referenced site for finding information they stopped being the Wild-Wiki-West and had to become Boston downtown. Stuff has to be right when millions of people are looking at it.
The thing that did catch my attention was the last couple of paragraphs where the entire future of Wikipedia was being called into question. Quite simply, I can't see Wikipedia going away. There is too much there. Someone will make the effort to keep it alive one way or another, maybe not in quite the same environment, but it will be there and will still be accepting information because too many people around the world are hooked on quick access to reasonably accurate data about virtually everything. I'm hooked to the point that I'd even pay for access if that is what it took to keep it there (and especially to keep it growing and accurate). The web is full of information, Wikipedia currently provides the best way to actually distill facts from the cloud. Unless someone finds a revolutionary new way to do that I see Wikipedia continuing as long as the web exists.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
All I can say is that I hope the guy writing the headline has a sense of humor! The article should read something like:
"Traffic was halted for several hours today across San Francisco's Bay Bridge while two drug dealers tried to collect all the lost rocks from their stash. What started as a minor fender-bender ended as a day-long traffic jam when one of the drivers accidentally spilled a large bag of crack cocaine when he got out of his car to swear at the other driver who had clipped him. As bystanders realized that there was crack all over the bridge deck they tried to grab as much as they could, prompting the original dealer's partner to leap from the car brandishing a 9mm handgun to try to reclaim the drugs. Confusion and chaos ensued. Film at eleven..."
Or maybe there are structural problems with the bridge...
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
TweakGuides is a web site devoted to making things better - or at least making your computer system run better. I haven't read most of the gaming stuff, since I don't do computer games, but the bits on optimizing Firefox and dealing with some of the Vista annoyances are good. If you are into trying to squeeze the most performance out of your system that you can then I'd say give it a spin.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
OK, so Wikipedia, the anyone, anywhere encyclopedia is adding a layer of oversight to (some) postings. Why does this make any kind of news? Anyone who has given it even a minute of thought knows that the ability of virtually anyone with an anonymous e-mail to change entries makes the site weaker, not stronger. This whole idea is long past due and shouldn't raise any eyebrows.
What does raise my eyebrows is the attempt to draw any sort of parallel between Wikipedia and YouTube. That's definitely a logical disconnect. The only things that make the two cases even remotely similar is that they are both on the web, and they both allow users to post content. It somehow seems to have escaped the attention of the writer that one purports to disseminate knowledge and facts while the other purports to show, well, videos. And a fine job of showing videos it does too! But really, who's using YouTube to determine what that rash on their leg is? Or where their elected officials stand on something? Or even assumes that anything they see on YouTube is remotely accurate?
Given all of this it is ludicrous to try to draw any comparisons between the two and how they moderate what is posted. The Wikimedia Foundation is doing what is necessary to help preserve the concept of Wikipedia. It's not about censorship, it's about the purpose of the site. When I look something up on Wikipedia it's nice to know that there is at least one small layer of accountability in place.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Worth seeing, but not so much if you are an original series geek (not that I am or anything...)
Check it out on IMDB.com
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
By Sherman Alexie
Art by Ellen Forney
I just finished reading this - it was lying around at my mother’s house and she said it was pretty good. The book is classified as “juvenile fiction”, but I, at least, found it pretty good reading even for a middle-aged guy. It is the fictional and humorous diary of Junior Spirit, who is growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. After an incident at the start of his freshman year which begins with him discovering that his geometry book is the same one that his mother had used in school and ends with his teacher, with a newly broken nose, recommending that he leave the reservation school and go to Reardon High School (a distinctly *not* Indian school) Junior finds himself as the only Indian in school except for the mascot. Things do not go smoothly for him that first year, but he persists through personal struggles, tribal hostility and family tragedies to emerge at the end somewhat wiser and with a renewed hope.
It’s a fun book, but you really can’t read it without thinking about the challenges faced by many of the Indian kids who are stuck in sub-standard school on reservations where the only future they see is to become a drunk like all the rest of their family. One of the more profound statements in the book is this:
Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.
But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps.
Check it out. It sure beats re-reading “War and Peace”.
Find it on Amazon.com
Monday, August 3, 2009
Saturday, July 25, 2009
This blog came to my attention a while back - no longer sure exactly how - and I've been following it along over time. The writer was posting letters that his grandfather had written during his time in the British army during WW I. What made it especially interesting to follow was that he was posting each letter exactly 90 years after it had originally been written. At this point it is something of a static artifact, since the events it chronicled have come to an end, but it is still fascinating reading. There is also a lot of additional material that has been added along with the letters to help them make sense to us in this day. If you like history, and particularly the history of the Great War, then this is something you really shouldn't miss.
On a related note: Last British Army WWI veteran dead at 111
This topic has been floating around for the last 40 years or so and isn't going away any time soon. A CNN poll that accompanied the article above shows that about 65% of the roughly 150,000 people responding believe that marijuana should be "decriminalized" - a percentage that should get the attention of lawmakers pretty easily.
The unfortunate challenge is that those lawmakers are unwilling to take that step because of the remaining part of the voters who just might vote them out of office for it. The article, and most like it, focuses on medical marijuana use, but that isn't what most of those 65% are thinking of. For them it is about the freedom to smoke a doob after work without worries. It is that demographic that should really be considered. I have a proposal, but I want to dispose of at least one other political position first, because politicians want to treat pot (I'm tired of trying to spell marij...) as a potential revenue stream. They have this idea that there are x billion dollars worth of illegal pot flowing through the country and they ought to be able to grab off a nice little tax on all of it. Unfortunately they miss at least two significant points.
First of all, if pot were "decriminalized" (whatever that means exactly) the price would drop dramatically. If there is no criminal risk then there is no reason to keep the price so high. As the price drops the tax revenue would as well. For any large-scale grower it would be far easier and cheaper to jump through whatever government hoops are set up to pay the taxes and legally distribute than to do what they do now or even to try to circumvent those taxes. So the price drops, the tax revenue disappears and the politicians get voted out.
Second, pot is easy to grow. If it were decriminalized you can bet that there will be a zillion and two (nearly a plethora) small-scale growers who would undercut the market, further depressing the price. The net result is the same as above.
Currently we spend a disproportionate amount of criminal justice money on locating, arresting, trying and incarcerating people for drug crimes. We have created the same criminal structure that sprang up during prohibition and there doesn't seem to be an end to it. The first part of my proposal is that we need to stop trying find a new revenue stream in licensing pot and recognize that decriminalizing it will release a huge amount of money from existing programs. That should be enough revenue boosting to get most politicians at least partly on the pro side.
The second part of the proposal is that we need to break the grip of the big drug importers. These gangs not only bring in pot and other drugs, they also bring in a lot of extra violence and surround themselves with violence in Mexico and other parts of Central and South America. Decriminalizing pot will only break their distribution network if it includes the freedom for anybody, anywhere, to grow pot. I am of two slightly different minds here, but what I think I favor is that anyone can grow any amount of pot as long as they either use it themselves or give it away without cost. Couple that with a license and tax approach for anyone who wants to actually sell for a profit and you will take a huge bite out of the drug cartels. We can make that bite even bigger by allowing domestic growing but banning imports - no drug dealer would want to have to deal with an illegal supply when he could get just as much legally. We'll talk about some of the other products the cartels deal with later.
Now that anyone who wants to smoke a bit can just grow it on their window-ledge or in the garden, we need to look at some of the potential problems. Just about anyone will agree that drugs and driving don't mix. So part three of the proposal has to involve major penalties for driving under the influence. We really need to ramp up the penalties for drunk driving as well, so we can throw the two in together. A small problem with enforcing a driving while stoned law is that there is no quick and easy test for being stoned like there is for booze. Most blood tests not only take a couple days to get results back, they will show pot use over days or weeks, not just at the time of arrest. It would be absolutely imperative to have some way of determining impairment at the time of arrest. That might even extend to something like a skill & coordination test rather than a test for a specific drug.
Basically what this boils down to is this: Grow and possess all you want, give it away wherever you want. If you want to sell it, register and pay taxes on it. If you drive while under the influence be prepared to take a serious hit (no pun intended).
Another objection is that we would just turn into a nation of total stoner slackers if pot were legal. Hey, that pretty well described my High School and most of them have grown up and learned self-control. The simple truth is that those who don't want to be stoned won't get stoned. Legal pot won't make everyone a stoner any more than legal beer makes everyone an alcoholic.
The biggest remaining issue is the belief that pot is a gateway drug to harder stuff. This is a claim that has been floating around for years, but without any real substantiation. The problem, as I see it, is that the fact that you are doing something illegal forces you to deal with people who are doing things that are illegal and also puts you into a mindset that the laws are unfair and can be ignored. Those social factors are possibly more significant in drug escalation than anything else. If pot is legal you don't have to find some guy on a sleazy street corner to score some. You just pluck a few buds off the plant on back porch. It changes the entire mentality of the normal pot smoker. They don't have to be a rebel. They aren't breaking any laws, so why would they want to? The sociological perspective can be seen in the fact that beer is a gateway to pot and other drugs when it is consumed by minors in an environment where it is illegal. It stops being a gateway when it is legal and without penalty. There are always likely to be those who will go on to harder drugs, but I suspect that legalizing pot would actually reduce those numbers rather than increase them.
Which leads us back to that whole cartel thing and the other stuff they are importing. First, legal pot will produce lower demand. Second, not spending money on eradicating pot frees up money to go after harder stuff. And third, taking a bite out of their profits will reduce their power.
I really don't see any reason not to legalize marijuana under this sort of plan. I think it would actually benefit the nation and reduce crime and serious drug problems. To make it more interesting, I support legalizing pot, but would probably not use it myself at all, even if it were legal.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
President Obama has repeatedly argued that he isn't about the politics of race, but this little incident with a friend of his seems to say differently. He is repeating all of the standard, old-school civil rights lines, only this time from the Bully Pulpit. But I really don't care about that. He is black, his friend is black and there are real issues between races (not just in this country and not just between black and white - but that's another story, for another time). What really gets me is that the President is willing to jump right in and make an accusation here without allowing all the facts to come out first. Strange that he didn't feel that way when there was a ship captain being held by pirates. That time he carefully waited until he could either take credit for what happened or safely deny responsibility. A less cynical reading would be that he refrained from making comment until the situation was more clear. In either case it is becoming obvious that Obama doesn't want to lead on the hard issues but has no problem stirring up the people if he thinks it will make points for him.
The unfortunate side effect of what the President is doing is that he is deepening the racial divide and increasing hostility. If he were really interested in dealing with the situation in a presidential manner he would have simply said he was aware of the situation and was waiting to see how it worked out before commenting. There is no urgency to the situation, Mr. Gates is back home and all charges have been dropped. Whether or not there was a racial component to the original arrest may never be known, but, thanks to President Obama, the aftermath is going to be all about race.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Once things got rolling there was sufficient action along with the actual plot to keep things both interesting and at least moderately coherent. Dillinger came across as perhaps a bit too sympathetic a character, although history does seem to show that he was perhaps a bit more loyal to his fellow thugs than they were to him and each other. It is wise not to forget that Dillinger and his cronies were murderers and thieves with little regard for the lives or rights of anyone who opposed them.
Public Enemies is rated "R" for language and violence - although I didn't feel that either was excessive or egregious. Overall it was a pretty good way to spend an evening with my son, but it probably not a movie I would see twice.
Public Enemies on IMDB