Saturday, June 28, 2008

Leaden Man: A movie review

Also known as "Iron Man", this is a little-boy flick disguised as a guy flick that pours the prodigious acting talents of Robert Downey, Jr. into a metal suit, where it hides them so well that they're mostly invisible even when he's not wearing the suit. Actually, when he's not wearing the suit, Downey seems more interested in showing off his brand-new muscles than in acting. The movie wastes Gwyneth Paltrow in a role she should have been ashamed to accept; could she possibly need the money that badly? The only actor whose reputation might be enhanced by this is Jeff Bridges, who spends the movie chewing a cigar and the scenery with equal gusto.

Downey plays absurdly brilliant weapons inventor Tony Stark. Kidnapped by bad guys in Afghanistan, he escapes by building himself a heavily armed metal flying suit from those high-tech scraps that apparently fill the mountain caves in that part of the world. After getting back home and undergoing what must be the most fuzzily defined moral crisis in movie history, he builds himself a much more advanced version of the same metal suit and sets off to save the part of the world that the weapons made by his company have heretofore been used to destroy.

Along the way, we see astonishingly advanced robots and Artificial Intelligence software, created by Stark but used mostly for plot convenience and comic relief. But these are inventions that would have transformed the world far more than any of Stark's weapons could, and would have made him far richer, too. Or, if he really did want to destroy things, then instead of a suit for a man, Stark could have used the robot and AI technology to create very small robots that could have infiltrated any enemy position or country undetected and done all the damage required. The scriptwriters don't seem to have realized this. That shows you how focused they were on blowing things up instead of thinking about the story.

The politics of the movie are very strange. Stark realizes how much damage his weapons have done to civilians, but no blame is attached to the U.S. government, which has murdered thousands of innocent Afghan civilians - in the movie, by using Stark's weapons. Nor do the moviemakers seem to want to blame the vile Taliban, who are mysteriously absent from the story. Instead, they invent a third group of unnamed terrorists who are killing civilians and Americans and anyone else available, who seem to have no connection to any of the real factions in Afghanistan, and whose goal apparently is to use Stark's weapons to conquer the world. They're led by a sinister figure who speaks English perfectly and thinks deeply and should be a great villain except that, when the plot requires it, he turns out to be absurdly easy to eliminate.

That scene must be one of the worst anticlimactic letdowns in action-movie history, just as the scene in which we learn the identity of the bad guy who is behind everything, and which should be a stunning revelation, instead elicits a no-shit-Sherlock response from anyone in the audience with an IQ above 60.

But this movie isn't aimed at them.

Two stars for the CGI, which are undeniably cool

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Armed Society

There have been a few shootings in Denver lately. In one incident, two cars were firing at each other, and a bullet hit an eight-year-old girl playing nearby. She'll live, fortunately. The police caught the shooter, and a local TV station interviewed him in jail, where he's all weepy and remorseful, explaining to us that it wasn't intentional, that he would never have shot at a little girl. He, his girlfriend, and their eight-month-old daughter had been in a nearby park when he got into an argument with some men, one of whom is his cousin. He, his girlfriend, and their daughter left, but as they were getting ready to drive away, his cousin pulled up beside them.

"And he pulled out a gun," the weepy perp told the camera, mimicking putting his hand in his pocket and pulling out a gun. "Like this! So what was I supposed to do? I had to protect my family. I had my little girl in the back seat. I couldn't just pull over and let him shoot at me. So I pulled out my gun." Mimicks pulling gun from pocket, pointing it. "I put it out the window and went bam, bam, bam, just like that." Bursts into tears again. "I didn't mean to hurt the little girl! It wasn't intentional! I'd never do that!" He was just trying to kill a grownup, which would have been okay.

Libertarians like to say that an armed society is a polite society, quoting one of their heroes, Robert H. Heinlein. Noooo. An armed society is a society splashed with blood, littered with corpses, and filled with broken hearts.

In my ideal society, neither of those men would have had a gun. And each of them would have had a vasectomy.

Update: On the way to work this morning (Thursday, 6/26), I saw a local paper in a vending box with a headline reading that the shooter in the above story has a felony (conviction?) and therefore should not have been able to get a gun. This illustrates a whole separate problem. We need to agree on what laws to have, but they also have to be enforced; gun control laws seem to be particularly susceptible to not being enforced.

Update 2: This evening (also Thursday), there was a story about a local one-car accident. The car rolled multiple times, for some reason. The driver was thrown out and severely injured. But the car then rolled into the path of a freight train and was smooshed. So if he had been wearing his seatbelt, he'd have been smooshed too! From which we conclude that drivers shouldn't wear seatbelts, right? No. We conclude that that driver was a very, very lucky idiot. The relevance is that whenever someone does defend himself against bad guys with a handgun, certain types say that that shows that handguns are the best defense for the individual, and never mind the far greater number of innocents who get killed by idiots or bad guys with guns. I call that the Adolescent Red Dawn Fantasy Bullshit argument.

Monday, June 23, 2008

David's Definitions for August 2008


(Will appear in the August 2008 issue of Community News)

Nowadays, this generally refers to a person who doesn't do his part, a loafer, someone who shirks his work. In earlier days, especially during the World Wars, it usually referred to a soldier who didn't do his part of the work. It can also refer to an investment that looks good but turns out to be worthless. Supposedly, the word originated in late 19th-century America, when people were fooled into buying bricks of gold that were only gold on the outside. In World War One, new recruits were sometimes promoted to lieutenant before they knew what they were doing, earning the scorn of their men and being called goldbricks because of the color and shape of their insignia. From there, the term became general, first for lazy soldiers and then for lazy civilians. Personally, I think this story smacks of folk etymology and we'd know the real origin of this word if the etymologists would just stop goldbricking.

I'm collecting all of these at:

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bread and Circuses, without the Bread

It's my impression (subjective, so it could be wrong, but of course I don't think it is) that sports coverage has been increasing on national and local radio and TV news broadcasts. Increasing, I mean, both in saliva-spraying intensity and in the percentage of the average news broadcast consumed by sports nonsense.

I hate sports, and I'll admit right away that, despite my general commitment to a philosophy of living and letting live, if I were king of the world (if only!), watching or discussing sports would be outlawed for anyone old enough to drive. If they wanted to discuss the latest exploits of people who kick or hit or throw balls of various sizes and shapes, adults would be forced to gather in dark, dank, garbage-strewn alleys and talk in murmurs - until the Royal Vice Police swooped in to brutally arrest the perverts and ship them off to reeducation camps.

Be that as it may, sports exist, as they always have and - sigh - probably always will. But why is an ever greater chunk of what is supposed to be broadcast news being devoted to them? Why is it displacing real news, even the fluffy, local stuff? Why are sports statistics referred to as history and the outcomes of games given more weight than major political events?

Ask a Roman emperor. Sports news is our bread and circuses, but without the bread. The aim is to fire the viewers up about something they can feel involved in, to delude them that they can win, albeit vicariously, or if they lose, they can feel hope for next year. That idea isn't new, but the increase in the emphasis on sports is. The news media seem to feel that ever more misdirection is needed. It makes me wonder what they think may be coming, in this empire of ours. Or perhaps they fear that reality is seeping through, as in a Philip K. Dick story, so they have to shout louder and longer to mask it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

An open letter to the un-American coward who stole our Obama sign

Some time during the night of June 10, you stole the Obama sign from our front yard. It's a small matter, and we'll replace it easily enough. But your action signifies something much larger.

I have no idea what your politics are, although it's reasonable to assume that you oppose Barack Obama becoming president. What's important, though, is that I imagine you consider yourself a patriot and that when you stole our sign, you thought you were acting in the interests of our country.

I invite you to think about that.

Dictatorships of both the left and the right commonly have in place almost all the machinery of democracy -- parliaments, congresses, prime ministers, presidents, elections, vote counting, inaugurations. The crucial item that is always missing is a political opposition with the freedom to campaign. You have just declared that that's what you want for America.

Is that the act of a patriotic American, of a believer in democracy? If you want to suppress those who differ from you politically, then at least be honest with yourself: never stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, never salute the flag, never celebrate the Fourth of July, never call yourself a patriot, never praise the Founding Fathers. Above all, never claim to support democracy or to believe in the idea of America that inspired so many before you.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I'll see your Arnold and raise you a Jennifer

I keep getting in strange arguments, on liberal Web sites, with liberals, about the absurd Constitutional provision prohibiting naturalized citizens' becoming president or vice president. I expect xenophobia on the right, but I'm always surprised when I encounter it on the left.

Not that I want to run for president. A short, fat, bald atheist who hates suits and ties and would tell reporters that his personal life is none of their fucking business wouldn't have a chance, no matter where he was born. And if I somehow won, I wouldn't want to live in Washington - although Little Georgie has shown that that's not necessary. I certainly wouldn't want to answer that damned telephone at 3 a.m. "Mr. President! Mr. President! India and China are lobbing nuclear missiles at each other! Millions of people have already been incinerated! Radioactive clouds are drifting all over Asia! Non-combatant nations are putting all their forces on high alert! Your commanders are clamoring for instructions! Do you want to order the End of the World?" "Go awaaaaaay! Ten minutes' snoooooooze!"

The point is, I want to be able to run for pres or veep, if madness suddenly overcomes me. I don't want to be told that I'm not the equal of other citizens. I don't want to be told that a walking anal sphincter such as Little Georgie or Reagan the Abominable is legally qualified to run for president but that the Constitution says I'm not allowed to do so. Yes, that would mean that Arnold Schwarzenegger could run for president. And why not? It would also mean that Jennifer Granholm could do so. Or do liberals fear that Granholm, who was born in Vancouver, BC but moved to the U.S. when she was four years old, has divided loyalties? When no real Americans are within hearing, does she end her sentences with "eh"? If she became president, would she set in motion the secret plan to deliver us into the hellish hands of Canuckistan? (And why would that be bad?)

Suppose the Constitution required that, to be president or v.p., you had to be male. I hope that would have been amended away long ago. The natural-born requirement is no different. Whether or not it was justified in the 1780s (it wasn't), it certainly stopped being justified by, say, the 1840s.

Ah, well. Xenophobia and nativism have always been popular in this nation of immigrants.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Blogger's New Template

It's an improvement, and I need to switch to it and update my blog links. But it's going to be messy and painful, so I keep putting it off.

If vast numbers of people read this blog, maybe I'd feel obligated to make such changes. Or not.

Update: I updated. Now I'm wondering what I missed. Or screwed up.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Clueless about George III and 1776

On the political blog Dailykos, a poster quoted the famous entry for July 4, 1776 from George III's diary: "Nothing important happened today." As is so often the case, this was described by the poster as evidence of King George's cluelessness. The American colonists' declaration of independence! Nothing important!? Ho, ho, ho! Silly old king!

The really clueless ones are those who think that news traveled across the Atlantic instantly in 1776. It didn't even travel all that quickly across the colonies or across England, let alone across 3,000 miles of water.

Also, it's usually not clear at the time how important an event is. Sure, contemporaries can see the significance of major military victories or defeats, or major assassinations. Pompous declarations are another matter. Those happen all the time during unsettled times, and most of them come to nothing.

There's also an irony here. Suppose news had traveled instantaneously in 1776. If George III had heard right away about the gathering of those treasonous colonists for the purpose of announcing their renunciation of George's rule, he would have instantaneously sent orders to the appropriate commanders in the colonies, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence would have been rounded up and hanged. Later, the British would have known about the desperate situation of Washington at Valley Forge. Cornwallis would not have been trapped while waiting for a naval evacuation that wasn't going to happen. The very slowness of communication was a major reason that the American Revolution got started and succeeded.