Friday, July 31, 2009

Movie Review: "Moon"


Moon ROCKS.

You will remember the preview I wrote for director Duncan Jones’ new movie “Moon,” so we can jump right into the review. And, yes, I know I saw the sixth Harry Potter movie before I saw “Moon,” but the Harry review can wait. “Moon” is the sort of movie that gets into your head, and I can’t help myself. It’s as much psychological drama as pure science fiction: psy fi? This thing makes you think; it stays with you in the way that the best movies do. And it is without doubt a change of pace from the usual summer shoot-em-up blockbuster.

Short review: Sam Rockwell rules this movie. Go and see him do it!

For those of you who want a bit more, read on.

The Good:
This is one of the most evocative movies I’ve seen in a long time; it really does a great job creating a completely alien world that’s also – somehow – believable. I don’t only mean the special effects of the lunar surface, though those exterior shots are beautiful and create an otherworldly, merciless landscape of dust and craters where the sun is an unfamiliar white point in a black sky.


I’m really talking about Lunar Industries’ Sarang lunar base where mining engineer Sam Bell lives. There’s a distinct vibe to the place that recalls the space station interiors of sci fi flicks from the 70s and 80s, but it also looks lived-in. A detail: If you look, you can see how Bell’s scribbled with black marker on the control panels; he’s named the four mining machines displayed there. The place becomes an interesting exercise in personalizing the impersonal as Bell makes his human stamp on it.

In my preview, I predicted that the film would fly or flop based almost solely on Sam Rockwell’s performance as Sam Bell. “Moon” is in many ways a lunar version of “Cast Away,” and that movie had depended heavily on Tom Hanks (oh, all right, and Wilson). Here as the one-man crew of the lunar mining base, the reliably good Rockwell turns in a virtuoso performance that commands the screen, being everything from sympathetic to hostile and back – and beyond when he makes a startling discovery that turns his little world upside down.

Rockwell’s co-star in many ways is GERTY, the base computer voiced by Kevin Spacey. The set-up inevitably recalls the infamous HAL, and Spacey’s voice adds to the feeling: one is inclined to wonder about the actual benevolence of the computer that professes its purpose is to help Sam and watches him constantly (and there I was, expecting the worst since the computer sounds just like Keyser Soze, for goodness sake!). This computer, though, has an additional quirk that I loved: aside from using the unsettlingly calm Spacey voice, it communicates with cartoonish bright yellow emoticons that flash on its screen – a smiley face, a confused face, a frowning face. The effect is memorable. GERTY attempts some kind of emotional feedback, but the effort only underlines how great a gulf exists between Bell and the computer.


SPOILER ALERT for the next two paragraphs
Rockwell as Sam Bell is absolutely outstanding. In his scenes as the sole inhabitant of the lunar base, he’s good. As the film progresses, though, and he becomes his own co-star, he becomes stunning. The exchanges between the younger, angrier Sam and his older, ailing counterpart are excellent; the two copies become two distinct people, and their emerging relationship is one of the most unusually nuanced things put on screen this summer. Throughout, Rockwell’s ability to make Sam Bell a believable character is on display, and there are moments when a look, a tone, an expression turn credibility into something more. Bell becomes understandably, touchingly human, right down to the mundane verisimilitude of the little things he does – the unmade bed, the photos plastered willy-nilly on the wall, the Post-It note “Kick Me” sign he’s put on GERTY, the haphazard garden growing in Styrofoam takeout boxes, the fantasy dream about his wife Tess. But through it all is also the crushing loneliness of his isolated life and his desire to finish his contract and finally go home to a loving family. It’s so basic, profound, and universal a desire that it will take your breath away to see it rendered in such stark, extreme terms. We all want to go home too (even if it’s only metaphorical), but too often, we can’t have what we want. For Sam, “Two more weeks” becomes a desperate mantra. There is one scene when Sam says, “I want to go home,” and it will break your heart. It broke mine, and – as you all know – I am evil to the core and don’t even have a heart! It made me want to hug Bell and bake him cookies. In the cold vastness of space and the barrenness of the moon, Sam Bell is the single tiny flicker of warmth, and whether that one small fragile bit of humanity has value, value as an individual with a mind and heart and soul, is one of the great questions this movie asks.


By the end of the movie, you can easily pick out a common meme these days, the idea of The Evil Corporation. It’s a typical kind of left-leaning political canon: the Evil Corporation engaging in morally dubious practices and running roughshod over people in order to boost its bottom line. Fine. We’ve heard this too often enough already. But, the way I see it, this movie is at its core not so much a slam on The Evil Corporation as it is a robust argument for the sanctity of human life, for its value, for the individual. As Bell tells GERTY in a line that made me want to cheer, “We’re not programming. We’re people.” Absolutely. That’s a lesson for everybody to learn – not only the leftist bogeyman of the Evil Corporation, but also the leftists in their urge for utopian-minded social engineering projects. We’re all individuals with value as human beings. We are none of us disposable little automatons to be programmed and used for the greater good, by The Evil Corporation, or by anybody else or any other organization either. Of course, it does give you pause that the Evil Corporation here trumpets how it provides pollution-free, environmentally-safe clean energy to the people of Earth. Oh, and one last thing. You’ll never think of the term “scheduled obsolescence” in the same way again. Appliances and machinery these days are often manufactured with the intention and expectation that within a certain amount of time, they will stop working (and you will have to get a new one). The idea takes on a distinctly sinister turn here.

The Bad:
As a friend of mine emailed me when she got out of her theater halfway across the country, “The first part was a little slow, but overall it was great.” The first part is rather slow, but you have to be patient. The scenes of apparently mundane details from “a day in the (lonely, boring) life of Sam Bell” actually pay off later with huge dividends.

Unbelievably enough, I don’t recall any egregiously bad things about the movie. I’m sure it has its problems (and I mean in terms of being a movie – I’m not going to deal with the plausibility of the science itself, mmmmkay?), but I was too busy being entranced by it to recall.

The Verdict:
Anchored by Sam Rockwell, “Moon” is a reminder of what intelligent heights science fiction in film can reach. It is a showcase of ideas, emotions, character development, and storytelling where the special effects are the supporting cast, not the focus. The result is – and I do not apologize for the pun – stellar.

Mad Minerva gives this film an A.

Rotten Tomatoes gives “Moon” a fresh rating of 90%.

The official website is here.

“Moon” runs for 97 minutes and is rated R for language (with a brief bit of nudity and violence). In my book it barely counts as an R and feels more like a PG-13.

UPDATE: Some thoughts on mining the moon -- including Helium-3.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nerd Journal: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!" -- the new Prisoner!

Some of my friends and I are starting to get really excited about the upcoming reboot of the classic British TV series "The Prisoner."


I'm delighted that the new Number 2 will be Sir Ian McKellen and the new Number 6 Jim Caviezel -- both are fabulous actors. Still, there's only one Patrick McGoohan, and any attempt to duplicate the late, great actor's iconic performance is going to ring a little hollow.

The "Prisoner" reboot will have to reimagine the entire concept and give McKellen and Caviezel room to breathe and move on their own terms. Here is some fresh info (plus video!):

Needless to say, go watch the original "Prisoner" on DVD if you haven't yet. Great stuff. (In fact, I'm watching it right now as I organize bibliography!)

OK, now all together: "I am not a number! I am a free man!"

Sino-Australian Relations Growing Frosty?

Hmmmmm.

Megan McArdle on Opposing Socialized Health Care

She says a lot of things that I would say -- including her delightfully sarcastic opening salvo (a thing of beauty!):
I know, most of you have already figured out why I oppose national health care. In a nutshell, I hate the poor and want them to die so that all my rich friends can use their bodies as mulch for their diamond ranches. But y'all keep asking, so here goes the longer explanation.

Seriously, though, here's another bit of it:
Once the government gets into the business of providing our health care, the government gets into the business of deciding whose life matters, and how much. It gets into the business of deciding what we "really" want, where what we really want can never be a second chocolate eclair that might make us a size fourteen and raise the cost of treating us.

I realize that to most people, these are airy-fairy considerations that should be overridden by the many "practical" considerations of the awesomenes of central health care. Well, I'm actually pretty underwhelmed by that awesomeness, for reasons I'll happily elaborate elsewhere. But not here, because fundamentally, to me, the effect on the tax code and the relative efficiency of various sorts of bureaucracy are mostly beside the point. The real issue is the effect on future lives, and future freedom. And in my opinion, they way in overwhelmingly on the side of stopping further government encroachments into health care provision.
(Hey, Government! You can have my chocolate eclair when -- all together now-- YOU PRY IT OUT OF MY COLD DEAD HAND!)

Quote of the Day: Samizdata on Nanny-Statist Worrying About "Alcohol Education"

Here is the post (gist: some folks are worried about the use of alcohol in Harry Potter, so they want "alcohol educators" to harangue other folks about alcohol), and here is the quote from it:
There is only one kind of 'alcohol educator' worth listening to, and they are called sommeliers.
I'll raise a glass to that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quote of the Day: Dalrymple on Government-Run Health Care

The good doctor Theodore Dalrymple has a few observations based on his experience with the British health care system. Here's one of them:
. . . the U.K. is by far the most unpleasant country in which to be ill in the Western world. Even Greeks living in Britain return home for medical treatment if they are physically able to do so.

The government-run health-care system—which in the U.K. is believed to be the necessary institutional corollary to an inalienable right to health care—has pauperized the entire population. This is not to say that in every last case the treatment is bad: A pauper may be well or badly treated, according to the inclination, temperament and abilities of those providing the treatment. But a pauper must accept what he is given.
Oh, my! As usual, the best medical advice is "Don't get sick."

Quirky Euro Files: Britain's Colorful Pub Signs

So very quintessentially British. Take a look!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quote of the Day: The Insta-Prof on Academic Freedom

Law professor Glenn Reynolds, better known as the Instapundit, has this to say about "academic freedom":
Academic freedom is about freedom for the academy to irritate the outside world without consequences. It’s not freedom to depart from the conventional wisdom of the academy.
True dat!

Movie Preview: "Moon"

Summer movie madness continues here at MM Blog! I haven't even finished my "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" review and I'm already looking forward to the next movie. Soon some friends and I are going to see the new flick "Moon," and we're excited! I have heard great things about this little sci-fi movie. (90% on RottenTomatoes!)

It stars Sam Rockwell as a fellow on a 3-year contract to work alone on a lunar base. I'm thinking that the entire movie will rise or fall on the strength of Rockwell's performance. Kevin Spacey is also on the cast -- or I should say, the voice of Kevin Spacey, speaking as the voice of the lunar base computer.

Here's the website and the trailer. What do you think? It'll be a change from the usual summer "shoot-em-up" action-packed eye candy (which I do love, but, hey, variety is the spice of life, no?).



Also, here is a movie Public Service Announcement: if a movie has Sam Rockwell in the cast, go see it. Rockwell is always worth watching. (I used to say this about Christian Bale, but not after this summer's double flops of "Terminator Salvation" and "Public Enemies.")

Jeremy Clarkson on Conquering France

You'll get a smile out of this piece filled with British-flavored absurdist humor.

Nerd Notes: The Verb "Twittern" and Other New German Words

See the German language's new sanctioned words!

The HopeChange Chronicles: On Foreign Policy and Being Nibbled to Death by Ducks

I think I linked to this post just so I could say "nibbled to death by ducks."

Now I'm thinking that I'd rather be nibbling the ducks. Preferably roasted and found hanging in a Chinatown shop window. Served with a pile of jasmine rice and baby bok choy on the side. Oh, man! Forget "nibbling" -- DIG IN and don't bother being dainty about it, either!

Nerd Analysis: Mankiw on Government Power and Private Competition

Not all Harvard faculty are nuts! Econ prof Greg Mankiw is not nuts, andhere is more proof why not. Take a look, please:
I tend to distrust power unchecked by competition. This makes me particularly suspicious of federal policies that take a strong role in directing private decisions.

. . . This philosophical inclination most likely influences my views of the healthcare debate. The more power a centralized government authority asserts, the more worried I am that the power will be misused either purposefully or, more likely, because of some well-intentioned but mistaken social theory. I prefer reforms that set up rules of the game but end up with power over key decisions as decentralized as possible.
Read the whole thing. More of this, please.

Note what Professor Mankiw says about social engineering too!

Amusing British Sci Fi Novel: The Tea Must Flow!

I stumbled across this book description, and now I must have the book! Here it is:
The second instalment in the chronicles of Isambard Smith - Captain in the service of the British Space Empire - and of his android pilot Polly Carveth and loyal and noble friend the psychopathic alien headhunter, Suruk. Tea... a beverage brewed from the fermented dried leaves of the shrub Camellia sinensis and imbibed by all the great civilisations in the galaxy's history; a source of refreshment, stimulation and, above all else, of moral fibre - without which the British Space Empire must surely crumble to leave Earth at the mercy of its enemies. Sixty per cent of the Empire's tea is grown on one world: Urn, principal planet of the Didcot system. If Earth is to keep fighting, the tea must flow. When a crazed cult leader overthrows the government of Urn, Isambard Smith and his vaguely competent crew find themselves saddled with new allies: a legion of tea-obsessed nomads, an overly-civilised alien horde and a commando unit so elite that it only has five members. Only together can they defeat the self-proclaimed God Emperor of Didcot and confront the true power behind the coup: the sinister legions of the Ghast Empire and Smith's old enemy, Commander 462.
Hilarious! And I'm glad to see somebody (a) enjoy Frank Herbert, AND (b) not take Herbert too seriously.

Stupid-Gate Update: Cambridge Cops vs. Identity Politics -- Plus Quote of the Day and Iowahawk Satire Alert

Because good people of any race/gender/whatever will cross race and gender lines to do the right thing! Because truth and justice and decent behavior do not stop at those lines, no matter what the demands of cheap, judgmental, reductive, divisive, politically expedient, socially destructive, cynical identity politics. Look at this awesome video clip:



Check out Ms. King calling out various people for rushing to judgment without having all the facts. Heck, yeah.

As usual, the common man (and woman) ends up being far more decent than our intellectual-political-elite "betters." OK, I can't help myself -- is anybody else also remembering that increasingly applicable bon mot from William Buckley? Here it is:
I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.
Cambridge PD's Sgt. Leon Lashley and Kelly King, for instance, seem to have more common sense and integrity than any number of race-baiting politicians and academics. They and people like them are the ones who are post-racial, not the race baiters; they are the hope for defeating racism, not the race baiters.

SATIRE ALERT: Of course it would be the imitable Iowahawk who creates an appropriate satire. Here it is (some impolite language in the original): "Cambridge Police Profiling Still A Grim Reality for Harvard Faculty A**holes."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Nerd Journal: Post-Tour de France

Is there a rehab clinic for treating Tour de France addiction?

I'm serious! I need to detox or something, because I have Tour withdrawal! After 3 weeks of nonstop obsessing all day every day about the glorious Tour, I wake up this morning, and there is no Tour! What a horrible Monday when all Mondays are already horrible!

Oh, I'll obsess about the new Team Radio Shack from now until next year's Tour, but it's small potatoes.

I'll write a Tour retrospective post later when I'm over the cold-turkey withdrawal! All I can say is this: today I distracted myself as much as I could by running errands and going to see "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" this afternoon (movie review coming soon!). I love Harry too, but I hadn't bothered seeing the flick though it premiered 2 weeks ago because -- well, it'll be in theaters for a while, and I was busy with something that wouldn't wait!

Oh, here -- Have fun with this!

Taiwan: Ma's Empty Image

Here is a damning critique of Ma. If you read it, though, you might see a slight parallel to another good-looking leader who is, alas, more or less disastrous.

Blurb about Ma:
The unfortunate reality for all Taiwan citizens is that Ma's image as a superior leader has been built on the incompetence of others and the fact that his relatively high approval rates were derived from his personal image instead of appreciation for his actual (in)competence and the lackluster performance of his administrative team.

Indecisiveness and lack of transparency in decision-making, inability to impose internal discipline, excessive uses of double-standards in political manoeuvring and outright opportunism constitute Ma's political weaknesses.
Hmmmmmm.

Hello Kitty Monstrosity of the Day: the Hello Kitty Credit Card

In case you had any lingering doubt about the all-consuming evil of this cute cartoon kitty. She will drown you in credit card debt! And NO, debt is never, ever cute!


The annual fee is paid not with yen or euros or dollars,
but with YOUR SANITY.

Monday Therapy: Cat Versus Fly

Haven't you ever had a day like the one this cat is having? Sometimes you can't win for losing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cultural Commentary: Thoughts on Affirmative Action

Interesting op-ed. And in the Washington Post, even. Here's bit of it that might grab your attention:
We are headed now, it seems, into a legal thicket created by the incompatibility of two notions of equality: "disparate impact" and "equal protection under the law." The former is a legalism evolved from judicial interpretations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the latter is a constitutional guarantee.
That can' t be good. By the way, here's a useful rule of thumb: "When in doubt, go for the Constitution."

Apocalypse Now: Electricity Grid Armageddon Scenario

You say Armageddon, I say apocalypse . . . To-may-to, to-mah-to, po-tay-to, po-tah-to . . . Let's call the whole thing off.


Related Posts (complete with MM-grade sarcasm):

Taiwan: a Photo Tour of Lukang

Michael Turton of View from Taiwan recently had the good fortune of visiting the ancient little town of Lukang. Take a look at his photo gallery. By the way, that photo of Lukang's most famous bakery? I was there the last time I was in "the Old Country." (And, yes, the pastries were delicious.)

Japan Represents in the Tour de France

I -- and probably a lot of folks -- have spent the last three weeks obsessing over the Tour's leading riders (especially Lance in his fantastic comeback), but as the race turns toward Paris, it's time to pay homage to everybody who will finish!

Here is a little news for you. Among that glorious number of conquering heroes are two Japanese athletes. This is the first year that the same Tour has had two Japanese participants, and they will both ride triumphantly into Paris.

(In the history of the Tour, there have been 2 other Japanese cyclists, but neither one finished.)

So! For the 2009 Tour, congratulations and best wishes to Yukiya Arashiro of Bbox Bouygues Telecom and Fumiyuki Beppu of Skil-Shimano! (Just saw the two of them riding and chatting. Sweet.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

MM in the Kitchen: Lamb Meatballs a la Nigella

These tiny, yummy lamb meatballs are my latest experiment!

Mark Steyn on "Stupid-Gate" -- Plus, a PSA

Well, this saves me from having to write much on the topic! Thanks, Mark!

Um, Public Service Announcement for my gentle readers: If you say that you don't know all the details of a situation, then DON'T TAKE SIDES AND MAKE JUDGMENTAL COMMENTS. The correct response is "I can't comment until I have all the facts." I would have thought this was common sense, but again I am sadly mistaken.

Meanwhile, I cannot resist quoting: "Stupid is as stupid does." Well, ain't that the truth! I personally think that probably everybody involved (professor, police, president, press) has acted more or less stupidly in one way or another, but the Stupid Prize goes to the guy who made an idiotic, judgmental comment on national TV. The Cambridge PD is demanding an apology, and I don't blame them for that.

Anyway, here is Steyn's opening salvo:
By common consent, the most memorable moment of Barack Obama's otherwise listless press conference on "health care" were his robust remarks on the "racist" incident involving professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge police. The latter "acted stupidly," pronounced the chief of state. The president of the United States may be reluctant to condemn Ayatollah Khamenei or Hugo Chávez or that guy in Honduras without examining all the nuances and footnotes, but sometimes there are outrages so heinous that even the famously nuanced must step up to the plate and speak truth to power. And thank God the leader of the free world had the guts to stand up and speak truth to municipal police Sgt. James Crowley.

Nerd Journal, Tour de France Edition: Mont Ventoux

Only two more stages left! But SUCH excitement. Today it's the Giant of Provence!

Here is why it's a big deal as explained by Bobby Julich. Here it is on webcam. Look at this great panoramic photo.

Here's a little bonus: an English translation of Petrarch's climb of the mountain (not on a bicycle, though -- Petrarch can't claim being a Tour de France athlete among his many skills!).

UPDATE: The estimate is that there are nearly 500,000 fans out by the side of the road today. I love watching the fans!

Amazon Apologizes for Kindle Debacle

Update on the Kindle debacle: At least this is an actual apology, not the wishy-washy "non-apology apology" that we so often get. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos eats his humble pie, so I give him credit for that.

Here's some proper groveling for public relations:
This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO
Amazon.com

Friday, July 24, 2009

Kitchen Notes: So Disgusting That I Have to Share -- the Duchess of Windsor's Pork Cake

Yes, you read that right. PORK CAKE.

A braver cook than I actually made this cake. The verdict? I quote: "If not for the dirty, swinish note at the end of each bite, it would have utterly won me over."

Um . . . yeah. EWWWWWW!

Friday Fun Video: A Musical Complaint to United Airlines

Yes, I've flown on United Airlines. It was OK for me (I've had MUCH worse luck with US Airways and a really bad round with British Airways), but Dave Carroll and his band the Sons of Maxwell had reason to complain. When United displayed some miserable customer service and refused to listen, they took their complaint online, and the result is brilliant. Even better: It worked.



RELATED POSTS:

Nerd News: Harvard's Budget Apocalypse

Here's the story, and here's a blurb:
Only a year ago, Harvard had a $36.9 billion endowment, the largest in academia. Now that endowment has imploded, and the university faces the worst financial crisis in its 373-year history. Could the same lethal mix of uncurbed expansion, colossal debt, arrogance, and mismanagement that ravaged Wall Street bring down America’s most famous university?
I wouldn't be surprised.

Greenies Versus Personal Freedoms?

Here's an interesting little piece.

I like this piquant comparison between old Red and new Green (both want to control you, after all, in the name of "the Greater Good"):
Ideologies often credit man with either more nobility or more venality than he deserves. In reality he is a mundane creature. He wants a home for himself and those he loves, stocked with food. And he wants to have the right to control his own destiny, own his own stuff, and to acquire more if he can without interference or fear of imminent death. Such low-level acquisitive desires support high concepts: property rights and the rule of law, without which there would be no foundation for democracy.
Yes! That's me. My basic political position is "Leave Me Alone To Live My Little Life."

More:

My desire to live a free, mundane life is a fundamental cog in our messy, glorious, capitalist democracy. It is built on millions of such small entrenched positions. Red-filtered, my desires are despicable and bourgeois and must be beaten out of me with indoctrination or force. Green-filtered, my small desires are despicable acts of ecological vandalism. My house is a carbon factory. My desire to travel, to own stuff, to eat meat, to procreate, to heat my house, to shower for a really, really long time; all are evil.

The word evil is used advisedly. Both the green and red positions are infused with overpowering religiosity. Dissenters from the consensus are shunned apostates. Professor Ian Pilmer, the Australian geologist and climate change sceptic, could not find a publisher for his book Heaven and Earth, which questions the orthodoxy about global warming. He is the subject of hate mail and demonstrations. It is entirely immaterial whether he is right or wrong. An environment that stifles his right to a voice is worse than one that is overheating.
So . . . since I am on the record as being both anti-Red and anti-Green, does this make me doubly evil? Tee hee!

As for Far-Out Green as some kind of crazy pseudo-cult, I've said that many times before.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hello Kitty Monstrosity of the Day: the Hello Kitty Personalized Car

What's possibly the worst thing of all? This is from ITALY. The land of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael . . . reduced to THIS:



Mamma mia!

Requiescat in Pace, Leszek Kolakowski

Who was Leszek Kolakowski? Read this obituary. Here's something to get you started:

Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher who rejected Marxism and helped inspire the Solidarity movement in his native land while living in exile, died Friday in Oxford, England. He was 81.

In Warsaw, Parliament held a moment of silence in his honor, for his service to Poland's freedom.

In a long and wide-ranging career, Mr. Kolakowski most famously dissected the intellectual underpinnings of the Communist system he had supported as a young man, at the height of the cold war’s ideological and military arms race. He was an academic whose influence reached far beyond the academy’s gates and a scholar whose writings could be playful and satirical, but most of all, accessible.

. . . His most influential work, the three-volume “Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution,” published in the 1970s, was a history and critique that called the philosophy “the greatest fantasy of our century.” He argued that Stalinism was not a perversion of Marxist thought, but rather its natural conclusion.
Godspeed, sir.

Quote of the Day: Solzhenitsyn on "Free" Universal Health Care

A blog intriguingly named "Assistant Village Idiot" has noticed something from Solzhenitsyn's novel The Cancer Ward. Take a look.

Nerd News: Tolerating Bad Teaching at Big Universities

Here is the blurb:
For all the talk about how research universities place an increasing value on teaching, a survey on tenure standards in political science departments finds not only that research remains dominant, but that poor teaching may be tolerated at doctoral-granting universities.

A national survey of department chairs found that superior research compensates for "mediocre teaching" at 55 percent of Ph.D. granting institutions, compared to 34 percent of master's institutions and 17 percent of bachelor's institutions.
I would say "What Fresh Hell Is This," except that is very old hell.

To be fair, though, this news article is specifically about political science departments.

My personal opinion: Research all you please, but if you can't effectively communicate and pass on knowledge to students, then WHAT'S THE FREAKING POINT OF BEING A UNIVERSITY INSTRUCTOR?

Doctor Revolt Over Socialized Medicine

Oh, my!

The Rule of Mediocrity at Global Institutions

Pathetic? Then again, I can totally see why some people would want these "leaders" to be as toothless as possible. Personally, I don't think "global institutions" or "multinational organizations" should have a lot of clout.

Nerd Journal, Tour de France Edition: Individual Time Trials!

GLUED TO THE TV. THAT IS ALL I HAVE TO SAY. I *LOVE* WATCHING TIME TRIALS.

Go, Lance, go! He had a tough day yesterday, and I really want to see him on the podium in Paris. The man is nearly 38 years old and still a great athlete. Amazing.

Also, get-well wishes to crash victims Levi Leipheimer and Jens Voigt. We miss you guys!

Oh, I have nerd work scattered all around me. A least I'm only organizing bibliography, so I don't have to use much of my brain. GLUED TO THE TV. And the streaming video on my laptop. Sensory overload!

The greatest cycling race in the world is rocketing to a finish. I don't know what I'm going to DO once the race is over. I might actually have to (gasp!) do my research! Noooooooo!

UPDATE: Lake Annecy is ridiculously beautiful. I can only dream of visiting it someday. For now, though, I'll settle for the TV!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MM in the Kitchen: Fried Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

This is for Italophiles La Parisienne, Coffee Pot Dictator, and Thalia. I love these blossoms too!


Oh, and fry the little beauties in olive oil. No, I don't care if "cooking experts" tell you not to fry anything in olive oil. DO IT! Just be careful. The end result is fragrant glory fit for the gods.

Nerd News: Medieval Battle Records Go Online

Excellent! The Hundred Years War enters the digital age. You can take a look for yourself.

I feel the irresistible urge to run around screaming quotes from the Swan of Avon's Henry V.

Oh, all right. Here you go:

Health Care and Government Overreach

Here is an interesting perspective.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Satire Alert: "Health Plan Offers Therapy for Obama Fatigue Syndrome"

FINALLY, something to smile about that involves the words "Obama" and "health care reform"!

Ever-reliable satirist Scrappleface strikes again with this: "Health Plan Offers Therapy for Obama Fatigue Syndrome." (Because, hey, the president's about to give another night-time press conference cheerleading for his plan. No, I won't bother watching. Pretty rhetoric and polished delivery will NOT convince me.)

I'm glad that we have the expression "laughter is the best medicine," because if we socialize health care, that'll be the only treatment you can get quickly and reliably without bureaucrats, rationing, long waits, and a bankrupt country. (Heck, even the well-respected Mayo Clinic thinks the Obama health plan is terrible. Ditto the AMA.)

UPDATE: Gentle reader Quite Rightly says that the AMA is now supporting the plan.

Irony Overload: the Amazon Kindle Debacle -- Plus Commentary!

In a nutshell: Amazon recently deleted copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 from the Kindles of its customers. Seriously. 1984.

OK, now check out this analysis, which contains commentary on Amazon's "lawyerspeak" response from someone surnamed . . . OK, wait for it . . . KAFKA.

I can't make this stuff up!

Anyway, fabulous quote from the article:
Information-controlling companies want to avoid the label Orwellian, but it certainly doesn't help when the thing you're being Orwellian about is the work of George Orwell.
More here from an unhappy technophile.

Nerd Fun: Atlas Obscura and Fascinating Places

I just got this link from a friend of mine, and it's too good not to share.

Check out Atlas Obscura, a collection of weird, wild, and wonderful places around the world! Every day the website showcases several new locations.

A personal favorite: take a look at Brooklyn, New York's Green-Wood Cemetery, where Minerva is waving at the Statue of Liberty. I love everything about this. Here is the photo:


Buon giorno, principessa!

Here is the explanation:
In 1920, Charles M. Higgins, an Irish immigrant (and local history buff) decided to build an altar on Battle Hill to the long-slighted Revolutionary War Battle of Long Island, the first major battle after the Declaration of Independence. He chose to top the monument with a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Perhaps anticipating that Minerva might get lonely at the top, he made sure she had a friend nearby: Minerva’s waving hand is reciprocated directly 3.5 miles to the West by Lady Liberty’s upraised torch.
I repeat: I love everything about this.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Japan's Super-Advanced Cellphones Stay in Japan

Oh, my! My poor technophiliac Sibling -- he would probably give his left arm for one of Japan's cellphones.

This Day in History: Apollo 11 Lands on the Moon 40 Years Ago

Take a look at this lovely photo gallery!

See NASA's website for more on the moon landing (including video). Get your lunar overdose here!

Explore Earth's satellite with Google Moon. Neat!

DVD recommendation: 1995's "Apollo 13." (Yes, yes, I know it's not Apollo 11. But it gives you a sense of the risk, work, dedication, and human element involved in the space program. Plus Gary Sinise and Ed Harris turn in great performances.)

Book to consider: sci fi giant Robert A. Heinlein's complicated The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress about a lunar colony's revolt from its masters on Earth.

I've been mad about space ever since I was little. I wanted to be an astronomer when I was very small. And, yes, I've visited Space Camp!

Monday Therapy and Geek Fun: The Trailer for "Office 2010"

Who knew office software was like a blockbuster action movie? Enjoy the awesome fun:




Want more? Go to the website!

Nerd Analysis: Obama's Middle East Strategy Meets Harsh Reality

The score so far is Reality 1, Obama 0.

The nerds at Harvard take a look at the president's Middle East strategy and have some piquant things to say. Here's a piece of it:
The President’s advisers promised him that taking a principled stand on settlements would generate goodwill in the Arab world. There is no doubt that the Cairo speech struck a chord with many Arabs. But goodwill of that sort is not a strategic commodity. Even a popular honest broker cannot reshape the iron interests of the parties on the ground, none of whom see much benefit in taking risks to achieve a goal that they do not really believe in. Many Western diplomats tell themselves that peace is nearly at hand, but the parties on the ground—Arab and Jewish alike—are highly skeptical. And for good reason. The power of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria, supported by Iran, looms in the background. It is highly unlikely that, in the next four years, a major breakthrough will take place. In order to maintain good relations with Washington, the leaders in the region will certainly play along with the Obama administration. But the name of their game is not “Peacemaking” but, rather, “Shift the Blame.” Its object is to take positions that paint one’s rivals as the real obstructionists in the eyes of Washington.
Well, DUH. I add that the Cairo speech itself contained far too many instances of Obama playing fast and loose and disingenuously with HISTORY.

The analysis notes also that while Obama's got some (vague) plan for his action that is meant to trigger certain responses by Israel and the Arab states, "neither the Israelis nor the Arabs, however, have reacted according to his script." Precisely. Because it's not his happy shiny pie-eyed made-for-the-cameras script that they're interested in. Because the script doesn't account for the complexities and pathologies of reality on the ground.

And so we find yet another instance of people who refuse to see (much less understand) reality, who think they can have have what they want because they want it -- despite reality.

I should point out too, as the Harvard eggheads do, that amid all this, the Obama response toward THE major issue in the region for Israelis and Arabs alike (Iran's nuclear ambitions) has been utterly lacking in any true substance.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The 2009 Failed States Index

Foreign Policy has published its annual listing of the world's basket cases. If you have the stomach for it, you can take a look at the parade of failed states.

You know, it seems to me that people spend a lot of time fretting about why states fail. How about also spending some time on how states succeed -- and then following suit? On a related note, perhaps we can take a look at the cautionary tales of once-successful states that have become failed miseries and be honest enough to say how and why (*cough* Zimbabwe! *cough*).

One complaint already: on the interactive map that classifies states by their health (or lack of it), Taiwan isn't even included. It's simply a white blank dot, a non-entity, a non-factor. China, however, is colored orange, "in danger." I know we're better than THAT! (for now, anyway)

Also, take note! According to this new survey, the four most stable, successful states in Asia are . . . (drum roll, please) South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand -- all of which are vibrant democracies. (Indeed, Oz and the Land of the Kiwis rank as among the most stable states in the world.) Worst off in Asia -- the thugocracy of Burma/Myanmar.

Ronald Reagan on Socialized Medicine

From 1961 and still relevant:

Nerd Journal: Taking Fashion Hints From the Tour de France

I CANNOT GET ENOUGH OF THE TOUR THIS YEAR. There have been some amazing performances; I'm still reeling from George Hincapie from yesterday. Plus, we're in the mountains again -- the Alps, and that is always thrilling. And Alberto Contador in Stage 15! The new yellow jersey! Heck, everybody in Stage 15!

On a related note, my fixation with the polka dot jersey idea remains as strong as ever. So it's making me wonder, hmmm, how do you think I would look in a pretty white sundress with red polka dots? Add some cute red wedge sandals to match and maybe a big straw bag and a straw hat with a red, red ribbon. Summertime fun, no? Something like this:

Nerd Analysis: a Professor Ponders Book Culture

Worth a read!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Nerd News: British Museum and BBC to Present the History of the World in 100 Objects

This could be truly great! We'll have to wait and see the final product of this ambitious project.

Which artifacts would you include among the 100? Tough -- and delightful -- question! They have to be man-made artifacts.

Quote of the Day: Individuals and Government Expansion

Here's the first quote:
But the consequence of funding the metastasization of government through the confiscation of the fruits of the citizen's labor is the remorseless shriveling of liberty.
Now that's a lovely turn of phrase. The article in which it appears is also worth your time. (Mark Steyn always is, even when you don't agree with him.)

The second quote is also from the same source; Steyn quotes one history professor (Paul Rahe) who says this:
Human dignity is bound up with taking responsibility for conducting one's own affairs.
Yes! Citizens or subjects? Citizens or sheep?

Bonus: Lots of quotes from Tocqueville in the article. I do love me some Tocqueville.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Quote of the Day: China the Empire

Here is the quote:
The People's Republic of China is an empire desperately trying to make the world think it's a state.
Hmmmm. Remember this too.

WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS? Taiwan to Reduce Its Military

Here is the news story. Add Dignified Rant's commentary.

Ma Ying-jeou is a FREAKING DISASTER. He could go down in history as the guy who presided over Taiwan's destruction as an independent democratic state. I cannot BELIEVE the sort of news I hear coming out of Taiwan. Oh, plenty of people are furious as all get out, but Ma is calling the shots. Does he just not understand the dangers here? Is he that naive that he actually believes Beijing's protestations of good will? Or is he and the KMT perfectly happy to sell out the democrats in exchange for goodies and privileges as imperial satraps to Beijing?

Excuse me while I go beat my head against the wall.

Nerd News: Government Meddling in Student Loans

What fresh hell is this? This is going to end in tears.

Here is a piquant summation of government involvement in the world of student loans:
From a simple loan-guarantee program to a “public option” to a union-staffed, government-run monopoly in 44 years: “This is sort of a long progression that shows you how the federal government can take over an economy,” says Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom. “We’ve pushed out private lenders who had a legitimate interest in making sure someone has the ability to succeed in college, graduate, and pay back the loan, and we’ve made this just pure welfare.”
There's a case to be made against more college entitlements, and Reason has a fresh video on just this issue.

Look, Obama's education policy ideas are a disaster waiting to happen. They will make the cost of education even higher. I am dead serious about this.

Nerd Journal: More Tour de France

The Lance Armstrong Show -- I mean, the Tour de France -- rolls on, and there's plenty of good and plenty of bad. A few random thoughts:

~Following Lance on Twitter is FABULOUS!

~What was the deal with the radio ban a couple days ago? It seemed to be a collective fit of nostalgia for how cycling was done long ago. Trying to turn back the clock to a simpler era? (Here's a snarky British commentary.)

~Levi Leipheimer crashed and broke his wrist yesterday, and he's out of the Tour. Oh, no! That's horrible! (There's a fresh video update from him on his website -- cast and all.)

~Is this the rainiest Tour ever or what? Here in Nerdworld, the rain is never-ending, too.

~A thought: Actual racing and cyclists aside, commentator Bob Roll is one of my favorite things about the Tour. He's crazy, amusing, energetic, and completely unlike any other commentator. I found this article about him from 2007, and the basic ideas are still true. If you don't know who Bob "Bobke" Roll is, check out this little blurb from him:
"On Tour," says Roll, a former professional cyclist and member of the original 7-Eleven cycling team, "no matter how perfectly you spoke French, [French waiters] pretended like they didn't understand you. That got old real fast. To get revenge, I decided to mispronounce as many French words as I could. Then I got to doing it all the time."
That's simply hilarious . . . and sounds pretty much like the sort of stuff I would do.

Friday Fun Video: Live Action Pac-Man

French comic Rémi Gaillard and his friends play Pac-Man!



(Viewer warning: a bit of bad language.)


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Quote of the Day: Dignified Rant on Foreign Policy

Here is the quote:
"... reaching out to our enemies at the expense of our friends just leads to fewer friends and more enemies."
Too true. Why even BE a friend, if the enemies get all the goodies?

One thought, though: what do we do with "frenemies"?

Geek Fun: Romance in the Age of Technology

From Miss Cellania comes this hilarious little cartoon. Click to enlarge!

China: 3 Different Thoughts For the Day

No time to elaborate (too much nerd work -- AAACCKKK!), but these 3 very different pieces on China are rather interesting:
  • "China's False Monoculture" -- the myth of Chinese homogeneity; China's not nearly as uniform as people think. In fact, only about half the population speaks Mandarin, and China has dozens of (officially recognized) minority people groups and plenty of strange "autonomous regions." Recent riots by Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and last year's unrest in Tibet should be reminders of ethnic/tribal/social/religious/cultural chasms, exacerbated by China's use of force to absorb minority groups.
  • "When China Rules the World" -- Hey, we welcome our new insect overlords. Or not.
  • "China's 100 Years of Ineptitude" -- or why China's not going to rule the world, or even Asia. (Do you really think that the true Asian democracies will meekly roll over and accept the hegemony of China?)

Nerd News: Overselling Higher Education in the UK

Read this. British higher education is in a mess.

It has some sobering parallels and corollaries for us Yanks too, you know. The last thing education at any level needs is more government MEDDLING and pie-eyed utopian visions of classroom as social engineering laboratory for "social justice" and whatnot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Analysis: Big Business versus Big Government

Here is an interesting opinion piece. It has some piquant ideas, actually.

Is choosing between Big Business and Big Government really choosing the lesser of two evils? Or is this actually a false dichotomy (and one that's vastly reductive)?

Bonus: a quote from Ayn Rand.

Movie News: Vatican Gives New Harry Potter Flick Thumbs-Up Review

Hey, the Vatican gives the new Harry Potter flick the papal stamp of approval! Well, I guess everyone really is a critic.

I'll be seeing it in a few days, and I'll post a review when I do!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quirky Euro Files: Italy's Trash-Collecting Robot

Life imitates "Wall-E"! Be sure to look at the photo gallery. The little 'bot is kind of cute!

Household Income and Expenditures: Where Does the Money Go?

Some friends and I were having this discussion recently. We're all budgeting and counting pennies, and despite everything, we're always a little flummoxed: WHERE DOES ALL THE MONEY GO?

(Still, some things are just pricelessly precious.)

Anyway, here is an interesting link (filched from Neatorama) about how the average American family spends its income, according to a new survey by the US Department of Labor. Of course, when it comes to the actual percentages, YMMV. Check out the intriguing graphic (click to enlarge).



Going to the poorhouse? I'll meet you there!

Geek Fun: 100 Essential Skills for Geeks

I suppose you cannot properly identify yourself as a "geek" unless you've mastered most or all of these skills.

Number 3 made me laugh: "Leech wifi from your neighbor."
Number 4 made me laugh harder: "Screw with wifi leeches."

Number 96 is my favorite, though.

Technophiles, unite!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Come On, Are You Watching the Tour de France?

The Tour headed into the mountains today, and it was a stunning ride! I just have to say, watching Alberto Contador rocket up the mountainside was pretty amazing (check out that smile). And poor Fabian Cancellara, former owner of the yellow jersey, had two flat tires -- hard luck!

Anyway, there is something so elemental about the mountain stages. In the end, it's about a guy and his bike, taking on Nature itself. (Plus the whole thing is like a metaphor for grad school!) It's about endurance and grit, and I love how the fans cheer on everybody. All those guys are amazing athletes, and they're going to be doing punishing rides nearly everyday until July 26 when the Tour ends in Paris. This whole thing is an epic odyssey.

So! Are you gentler readers out there watching the Tour too?

Here's something else you might find interesting: a BUNCH of my friends are rabid Tour fans with me. Every summer we're utter addicts and junkies for the entire duration of the race. Are you surprised that the ladies love the Tour too? (And no, it's not only about Lance.)

Nerd Fun: Cartoons and Classical Music

The perfect combination of two of my favorite things (besides brown paper packages tied up with strings, crisp apple strudel, raindrops on roses, etc., natch!).

Take a look and listen to these 10 delightful musical cartoons. Classical music has never been so much fun. (Link via Miss Cellania.)

Friday Fun Video: A Marriage Proposal at Disneyland

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Satire Alert: Fans Flock to Mourn California, 1849-2009

Iowahawk strikes again, and it's brilliant. The double target this time? The recent Michael Jackson funeral circus and also California's (self-inflicted) financial apocalypse.

Oh, Iowahawk. We're not worthy, we're not worthy! Blurb:

LOS ANGELES - Millions of fans from around the globe gathered along Sunset Boulevard to pay final respects to California today, as a slow moving funeral procession transported the eccentric superstar state's remains to its final resting place in a Winchell's Donuts dumpster in Van Nuys. The self-proclaimed 'King of Pop Culture' died last week at 160, in what coroners ruled an accidental case of financial autoerotic asphyxiation. The death sent shock waves across the world and sparked an outpouring of grief by rabid fans.

"I don't care what the tabloids and the Wall Street Journal say," said a weeping Illinois. "I still love you, Cali!"

The 640-mile long funeral parade route was lined with flowers, candles, teddy bears, and IOUs from millions of mourners and debtors who made the somber journey to watch the passing of the state that had once ruled the box office and industrial charts.
READ THE WHOLE THING.

You know what? I'm going to make a new tag just for Iowahawk.

Nerd News: Oxford to Publish Historical Thesaurus of the English Language

Link via the lovely Ninme, who always has great links.

This news story makes me deliriously happy! Blurb:
Oxford University Press is publishing the world’s first historical thesaurus. This is a vast work, with about a million meanings organised into a quarter of a million categories. It has taken 50 years and millions of hours by scholars to produce. This is a gigantic Roget, but with the words dated chronologically. So it answers the question: “Which words were available to express concept X at period Y?”, from Beowulf to Beckett.
Awesome!

Quote of the Day: Reporters and Economic Numbers

Here is the quote: "The Associated Press has finally discovered math."

Here is the context. Made me laugh.

Political Humor of the Day: Jon Stewart Has Some Advice

And here is another example of why Stewart can make me smile.

Have even the liberal cheerleaders begun to lose patience with the Obama Show? Enough already mucking about making pretentious speeches and grand gestures. There's a lot of show-offery in the Obama Show, isn't there? Then again, his proposed economic and domestic policies are so catastrophically unwise and economically suicidal that maybe it's not SUCH a bad thing to have him cavorting around waxing eloquent about Pakistani cooking and Urdu poetry.


That's Great Now Fix the Economy
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

Tour de France -- a Question

Riddle me this, Batman -- if it's the Tour de France, why are we racing in Spain today?

Just askin', is all!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Mangled History: How Did the Cold War End, Exactly?

So, history fans, what fresh hell is this?

(Warning: Angry History Nerd Rant coming in 3... 2... 1...)

Did the Cold War end because one day everyone simply and magically woke up and decided, "Hey, let's just change our attitudes, hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and be friends?" Sure, one day the Soviets just decided, hey, let's all be friends. All of their own accord.

WELL, DID IT END THAT WAY?

I DON'T REMEMBER THAT BEING HOW THE END CAME, PEOPLE.

AND I DON'T REMEMBER THAT BEING HOW THE END CAME,
MR. PRESIDENT.

Here is a piece of Obama's speech in Moscow to the students of the New Economic School, and I am frankly angry about the disingenuous whitewashing and -- fine, let's say it -- willful distortion and mangling of history. I've been critical of Obama's tenuous grasp of history before, as you well know, but this time I'm aggravated enough to rant.

I really shouldn't rant because I have deadlines for papers and no time, but I will do the following. I shall quote you the bit of the speech that sent me into a fury, and you tell me if you can see what's wrong with it. I'll even highlight the bit I especially want you to read:
Like President Medvedev and myself, you're not old enough to have witnessed the darkest hours of the Cold War, when hydrogen bombs were tested in the atmosphere, and children drilled in fallout shelters, and we reached the brink of nuclear catastrophe. But you are the last generation born when the world was divided. At that time, the American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight. The ideological trenches of the last century were roughly in place. Competition in everything from astrophysics to athletics was treated as a zero-sum game. If one person won, then the other person had to lose.

And then, within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Now, make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful.
O RLY? O RLY? PFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFT. Tell me, do you notice anything missing from this account?

South Korea: Seoul Looks to Increase Military Capabilities Against Pyongyang

South Korea is exploring means of beefing up its security measures. I would too, if my neighbor were the Communist basket case run by trigger-happy loons, North Korea. Self-defense (and I don't mean via six-party talks, charm offensives, diplomats, or the UN) would be priority one on my mind. The ever-reliable Dignified Rant has the goods.

Quote of the Day: IBD on the Stimulus

This opinion piece from Investors' Business Daily does not hold back (nor should it). Blurb (my emphasis):

Of $157.8 billion "made available" under the stimulus, only $56.3 billion has been paid out — or 7% of the total $787 billion. And according to ex-Treasury Department economist Bruce Bartlett, "just 11% of the the discretionary spending on highways, mass transit, energy efficiency and other programs involving direct government purchases will have been spent by the end of this fiscal year."

Based on this, there are only two possible conclusions: One, the stimulus has been the most inept public waste of money in history. Or two, it was a cynical attempt by the Democrats to vastly expand the scope of government during a time of crisis. Or maybe it's both.

After all, how else could a government seize major parts of a once-private economy with nary a peep? How else could it boost spending to record levels, then blame earlier administrations for their fiscal incontinence? And how else could they add $10 trillion to the nation's debt in just 10 years and still claim fiscal prudence?

Read the whole thing.

This is just depressing. I'm going back to my research and the Tour de Lance.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Disgustingly Cute Ad for Evian Water

Check it out! Absolutely delightful special effects. FYI, here is the official website.

Unintended Problems at Starbucks

Here's an interesting little piece about Satan Coffee. Here's the linked news story.

(Il Barista and Noli Me Tangere!, this one's all yours.)

Nerd Journal: Busy -- But Not *Too* Busy to Watch the Tour de France

Blogging may be light for a little while because of work, but if you're wondering what I'm doing when I'm not working on writing projects, you can go to the Tour de France website and check out the excitement for yourself.

All I'm going to say is: after Stage 4's team time trials, the one and only Lance Armstrong is a fraction of a second away from the yellow jersey. OMG!

I'd been all excited when he announced that he was riding in this year's Tour, and all I can say right now is "Wow." Oh, and you can keep up with Armstrong and his ride for glory in the Tour de Lance at Livestrong or with his official Twitter and Facebook page.

The Tour -- a summertime tradition here at Nerdworld.

For your amusement, I give you this archived satire!

PS: Yes, I still love the polka dot jersey too.

Monday, July 06, 2009

China: 140 Dead and 800+ Injured in Riots

The number of casualties is 140 dead and 800+ wounded according to the Chinese government. Goodness only knows how many are actually dead or wounded.

News blurb:

SHANGHAI -- The official death toll in riots in China's northwestern Xinjiang region rose sharply Monday, with the government saying that 140 had been killed in what appears to be one of the deadliest episodes of unrest in China in decades.

Police said at least 828 other people were injured in violence that began Sunday in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. Witnesses said the conflicts pitted security forces against demonstrators, and members of the region's Turkic-speaking Uighur ethnic group against members of the country's Han Chinese majority. Many among the predominantly Muslim Uighurs have chafed at Chinese government rule.

The official tally of dead and injured increased Monday as more information came out of Urumqi through the state-run Xinhua news agency, although it appeared that most or all of the violence had ended by the early hours of Monday.

What is going on over there?

Meanwhile, none of this has appeared in the MSM because it's too busy frothing over Michael Jackson.

What Fresh Hell Is This? Bypassing ("Temporarily"!) Senate Ratification for Treaties

Can this report possibly be for REAL? Blurb:
With the clock running out on a new US-Russian arms treaty before the previous Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, expires on December 5, a senior White House official said Sunday said that the difficulty of the task might mean temporarily bypassing the Senate’s constitutional role in ratifying treaties by enforcing certain aspects of a new deal on an executive levels and a “provisional basis” until the Senate ratifies the treaty.
Dude, where's my Constitution? Senate ratification is specifically written into the Constitution as part of its system of checks-and-balances, and it's there to balance/counteract the executive branch.

(The requirement is 2/3 of the Senate. Would Obama really have such a hard time getting the 60 Dems in the Senate to ratify his treaty? Call me crazy, but I'm beginning to think this administration is much too much in love with the idea not only of an ever-expanding federal government, but also with the idea of an ever-expanding executive branch at the head of that ballooning government. People yelled and screamed about an overly powerful executive when Bush was in office; where's the howling now?)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Independence Day!



"We must, indeed, all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately!"
--Benjamin Franklin's quip on declaring independence


It all happened 233 years ago in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Let's celebrate by re-reading Jefferson's famous words:



Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

You may be delighted to see what John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776, about declaring independence from the British Crown:
"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp & parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore."
Yes, indeed! It was, though, only the beginning. Independence was declared in 1776, but it took many more years of hardship in the American Revolution to win freedom at last in 1781. Looking back now at history with 20/20 vision, things seem so certain -- but only because we know what would happen. We forget how difficult it was to bring forth a nation, now the oldest modern democracy in the world, but which in 1776 was a bold experiment. (And here is a great quote and a nice editorial.)

History aside, it's a HOLIDAY, so it is time to enjoy and have a good time! Bring on the fireworks, picnics, cookouts, parades, music, and festivities. Here are a few Fourth of July links to give your day a flourish of fun:
And since I am incorrigibly apt to inject some quirky humor into darn near everything, I give you two amusing videos for today:




Friday, July 03, 2009

Movie Review: "Public Enemies"



Lyrical gangsta.

Legendary 1930s bank robber John Dillinger the "Gentleman Bandit" holds up movie theaters as "Public Enemies" opens this week. I'd really been looking forward to this, and I was hoping that the film wouldn't rob me of two hours of my life and leave me disgusted and disappointed. It didn't. It's a solid, competent film that is beautifully shot and produced, front-loaded with immense acting talent, and well-timed to bring some class and polish to a summer season thus far greatly littered with some crashing disappointments.

Having said that, though, director Michael Mann's film has its fair share of problems. It is a good film but not a great one, when it had all the makings of being a truly great one. Unrealized potential is a very special kind of failure. Here, it left me with a restless sense of unfulfilment; it seemed as if the film were on a leash for 2 hours and never quite let go to run passionately riot as it should, and Mann never quite manages to get under Dillinger's and Purvis's skin to figure out what really, viscerally made them tick as human beings. In the end, there's more crime than drama in this crime drama -- and that in itself is a cinematic crime.

THE GOOD:

Production Value:
There is a visual lyricism in this film that is undeniable. It's a splendidly gorgeous film to see, and the attention to detail is remarkable. The movie manages to evoke and create an entire vanished world -- and, what's more difficult still -- to sustain that. Oh, and I absolutely love the vintage cars.

Action Sequences:
From jailbreaks to bank robberies to shootouts, who doesn't love a beautifully filmed action scene?

Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette
OK, I confess: part of me was hoping Cotillard's performance would be bad just so I could entitle this review "Moll Flounders, with apologies to Daniel Defoe." But Cotillard is very good indeed and she has no missteps at all (and I still got to use that bad literary pun, so all is well!). In fact, Cotillard's performance is one of the highlights of the film. Straight from her Oscar-winning turn in "La Vie en Rose," she brings a sense of fragile humanity to her role as Dillinger's lover, and she elevates the part of "gangster's moll"from mere obligatory guys' eye candy to a picture of desperate desire both for love and for a better life. She becomes a woman worth risking capture for. Her final scene is fantastic.



Johnny Depp as John Dillinger:
This film hinges entirely on Depp's performance. I knew this going into the theater. What I hadn't anticipated was that Depp single-handedly makes this movie worth watching -- and single-handedly saves it from its own flaws.

Depp has made an entire storied career from playing quirky, eccentric characters, and the role that finally catapulted him into superstardom (Captain Jack Sparrow) fit right into the pattern. Here he tackles the role of Dillinger with gusto, though I think the character's underwritten and underdeveloped -- the writers could have done more with him, so Depp in turn could do more with him. As things are, you get occasional flashes of brilliance -- and these actually become frustrating, because I kept wanting more. But Depp, even if constrained by the script, manages to work his own magic anyway with his sheer personal magnetism. His Dillinger is the single best thing about this movie, and he somehow conveys a world of character without having to say anything in several scenes. The scene in which he asks, "What's the score?" is excellent.

A note: Depp just keeps growing better-looking as the years go by. It's not fair, is it? He's come a long way since "21 Jump Street," and in this film, he wears his role as arrestingly as he wears his tailored outfits. The camera loves him, as it should, and Depp's charisma is as close as we ever really get to Mann's exploration of why and how Dillinger was such a sensation in his time.

Looks aside, the talent is obvious. When he is not on screen, his absence is acutely felt; the other actors (including Bale) simply cannot fill the void.



Unabashed "eye candy" photo for La Parisienne and Thalia:
robbing banks and stealing hearts . . . plus gorgeous vintage cars

The Scene Stealer Award:
Stephen Lang as lawman Charles Winstead turns in a few memorable moments. Unfortunately, they come far too late in the movie, and the best of them would have been much more compelling if the Winstead character had been better developed previously in the film.


THE BAD:

Lost Opportunities:
Mann throws in just enough hints to drive you mad with the thought that he had an inkling of what was possible but never fulfilled it -- that he walked up to the door but never stepped through. Two examples: Mann glances at (but, infuriatingly, never really examines) the nature and meaning of Dillinger's popularity -- Dillinger as folk hero, Dillinger as celebrity. This movie could have done something brilliant with these ideas, just as it should have done more to get under Dillinger's slick surface. That we ever get the sense of depth to Dillinger is basically due to the adept Depp.

Pacing (and Plodding):
This movie drags in places -- too many places. The script has problems of construction; the result is that it often seems episodic, hopping disjointedly from one setpiece to another. A sense of smooth, sustained development is missing, so there's little sense of building to a climax. The robberies and shootouts and jailbreaks are all very well done, but they have to serve a greater purpose of narrative -- and here Mann drops the ball. You never get a real sense of building urgency or the sense that the action has much effect on the characters involved (except for several redeeming scenes of Depp). The ending seems abrupt and unsatisfying.

The pacing error is compounded by the failure to develop supporting characters. There are too many minor figures, and they come and go so quickly that you never really figure out who they are or why they matter before they vanish. No sooner could I realize, "Hey, that's Giovanni Ribisi!" than he's gone as if he had never existed, and I never figured out what difference his appearance actually made. What a waste of Mr. Ribisi and every other actor who shared his plight in this film.

OK, this paragraph is spoiler-ish. This movie has a lot of deaths, predictably. But without character development, the deaths seem hollow and meaningless. On several occasions, both lawman Purvis and outlaw Dillinger are present when their companions die. But the emotional power is missing because we don't really have any feeling for the dying men, and their deaths ultimately don't drive the story either in terms of character development of their surviving friends or in terms of narrative action. OK, one exception: the opening sequence. (Why did I keep thinking -- obsessively -- about Sean Connery?) On other occasions, shootout deaths seem to matter little even when lawman Purvis is doing the shooting -- you'd think these scenes would do something to give Purvis a personality, but they don't seem to register even on Purvis, much less the audience.

My complaint about character development finds its best (or worst) example in . . .

Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis:
Purvis is the man tasked by J. Edgar Hoover (a rather cartoonishly rendered Billy Crudup) with apprehending Dillinger. OK, if Dillinger is a charismatic scoundrel who's captured the public's imagination and proceeded to elude all attempts at capture, then we ought to have Purvis as a nemesis worth having, right? Someone tough, smart, and as relentless and interesting in the pursuit as Dillinger is in the chase, right? RIGHT?? Ummmm . . . NO.

How the answer could possibly be "no" when (a) the character needs it and (b) the character is played by none other than CHRISTIAN BALE is one of the great sad mysteries of this movie. A little side note here:

ON MR. BALE, AKA "THE MAN WHO ISN'T THERE":

I am on the record as being a great fan of Christian Bale, whose undeniable talent has always brought both heat and light to the movie screen from "Empire of the Sun" to "American Psycho" to the Batman movies. Given that, I'm completely baffled at his appearances in this summer season. When I had first heard that Bale would star in both "Terminator Salvation"and "Public Enemies," I thought Summer 2009 would be the Summer of Bale just as Summer 2008 was the radiant, unforgettable Summer of Downey ("Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder"). Bale was supposed to take the cinema by storm; goodness knows we were all ready and eager for it after last summer's "The Dark Knight."

So what the heck happened? Bale was utterly flat, unsympathetic, and uncharismatic in "Terminator Salvation,"and in "Public Enemies," he is likewise so grim-faced and stoic that he seems a caricature of the character. There was not a single flicker of individuality or personality in Bale's Purvis. He was unable to capture the attention, much less the imagination, of the audience, and I felt no investment at all in his quest to capture Dillinger. The climax of the film became an anti-climax.

FROM MY CORRESPONDENCE FILE:
Dear Christian Bale's Charisma,

I hope you're enjoying your vacation, wherever it is that you've gone. You've worked very hard and done very well over the years, and I'm sure you deserve your holiday. BUT, vacation is over, and it's time to pack up the beach chairs, finish your mai tai, and come back to work. Christian Bale is doing the best he can, but he needs you back, and so do I -- and the rest of the movie fans. Please come back soon!

Love,
Mad Minerva

COMPLETELY (?) UNFAIR MOVIE COMPARISON:

Go watch Brian De Palma's splendid 1987 film "The Untouchables." Now that's a 1930s gangster film that knows how to develop both plot and the characters, big and small, and bring a real sense of urgency, drama, and action. In recent years I've made fun of Kevin Costner a lot (you can't possibly think I'd let him get away unscathed from the shipwreck of a flick known as "Waterworld"), but his turn as Eliot Ness in "The Untouchables" is flawless down to his final line, and he is everything that Christian Bale's Purvis could/should have been but wasn't. The supporting cast of that movie actually emerged as individual characters, and the deaths along the way actually mattered both in terms of character development and the plot. Sean Connery's turn rightfully won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Finally, De Palma's movie gave you a sense of the dangerous cat-and-mouse game between Ness and his nemesis Al Capone (the great Robert de Niro, commanding the screen); the taut, sustained drama and the action it brings is real and visceral.


VERDICT:

"Public Enemies" is a flawed but worthwhile and stylish, intelligent crime drama that is elevated (and indeed redeemed) by Depp's performance. Go see it. In the places that it is less than it could be, it's still passable and watchable; in the places that it is good, it is brilliant.

Mad Minerva gives this film a grade of B-. (I suppose it really is a solid B, but I'm so disappointed by Bale's second strikeout in a single season that I'm feeling really vicious. Besides, a taut crime drama should not PLOD as often as this one did.)

RottenTomatoes gives "Public Enemies" a "fresh" rating of 63%.

The official website is here.

"Public Enemies" runs for 140 minutes and is rated R for violence and a little language (but mostly violence with tommy guns and rifles in bank robberies and shootouts).